Dalton Trumbo

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Bruce Cook

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

[Night of the Aurochs] is a hodgepodge of a book, incorporating 10 consecutive, completed chapters, an outline of the rest of the plot, together with random scenes, notes, and oddments of every description, including several letters pertaining to the project. (pp. 45-6)

Here was a novel that, if completed, would be different not only from anything Trumbo had ever done, but also (as far as I knew) different from anything any writer, European or American, had ever attempted—the Holocaust from the point of view of a Nazi….

Had Trumbo ever gotten to the Auschwitz chapters of the book, Grieben's powers of rhetorical rationalization would have been sorely taxed—particularly since they would have contained the episode that brought him the greatest sense of personal pain and shame: the story of his programmatic violation and degradation of Liesel, an inmate whom he had loved in his fashion. Night of the Aurochs was, in fact, to have ended with Grieben making a dramatic pilgrimage to Auschwitz many years after the war, not exactly repentant but overcome with awe at his role as an instrument of God's awful power in this "holy" place.

Well, perhaps. Perhaps Trumbo could have pulled it off, but we shall never know because all this, the very heart of the book, exists only in outline. The 10 consecutive chapters that are in fairly finished form … deal with Grieben's childhood and youth. And, if in some ways disturbing, they are, taken together, quite impressive…. The first 15 years of life described here are precisely the sort that Grieben, the Nazi, would have had. No fool, but willful and egocentric, he is a child half-intoxicated by life, drunk on the heady wine of youthful idealism, filled with the importance of himself and his own experience. It is a tone and attitude frequently found in the early novels of Hermann Hesse, and it reminds us that the Nazis themselves simply exploited the same dark myths and romantic fervor that had vivified German culture for centuries. The stream from which Hesse and Stefan George drank watered the Hitler Youth Movement as well. (p. 46)

And if Trumbo had finished Night of the Aurochs? Then I believe he would be accepted today as a novelist, just as he always wanted to be. After he wrote Johnny Got His Gun, he tried time and time again to get back to the writing of prose fiction. Yet somehow something—a congressional subpoena, a jail term, the blacklist, the next big movie assignment—always seemed to get in the way. Even the partial manuscript we have here suggests that the loss was ours—and it was a considerable one. (p. 47)

Bruce Cook, "What He Left Undone," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1980 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 7, No. 2, January 19, 1980, pp. 45-7.

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