Dalton Trumbo

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Laurie Stone

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

[In Dalton Trumbo's fascinating novel fragment Night of the Aurochs] the subject of Jews and Nazis is mixed with the themes of sex, power, and guilt….

Near the end of his life, former Auschwitz commandant Grieben, the narrator of Trumbo's novel, begins to believe that he knew Anne Frank, that he was kind to her before she died, and that she appreciated his kindness….

It is perfectly logical for Trumbo to have made Anne Frank's unfinished life pivotal to the action of his unfinishable novel. After 16 years of work—interrupted by several screenplay assignments—Trumbo had completed only 10 chapters (100 printed pages), less than a third of the projected whole. Thanks however to Robert Kirsch's excellent editing and his inclusion of Trumbo's detailed synopses, letters, and notes, Night of the Aurochs (primitive, bison like creatures allegedly kept by Goering), tells two very interesting stories: the private history of a committed Nazi, and a writer's struggle to get that story told.

To Trumbo, making Grieben real meant becoming a man who willingly exchanges sanity for power…. Trumbo believed that even the most despicable evil was fathomable, was, in fact, a consequence of rigid allegiance to moral laws; for Nazis, Nazism, and anti-Semitism. In creating Grieben, he sought to put a human face on Nazism, to locate its potential recrudescence in anyone's corruptibility by power and in the almost universal mingling of eroticism with the drive to control—or to be controlled. He meant to show that Nazism was not some seizure that had gripped alien beings and was now gone, but rather that it was powered by energies still universally latent or active. (p. 42)

Much of the writing is remarkable, a mixture of shocking realism and lyricism, something akin to Kosinski's Painted Bird told from the tormentor's perspective. The chapters and fragments are marked by Trumbo's ambitious and learned fusing of history with characterization.

But Trumbo couldn't or wouldn't write as the Grieben who performs the sketched-out murders, full-blown sexual perversions, and concentration camp atrocities. Something kept him from testing whether he could summon and then render the requisite inhumanity to complete his project. Although he might never have succeeded in making either Grieben or his own view of evil entirely credible, Trumbo had the materials for a splendid novel in his head, and it would have been a gift even to have seen him miss. What Kirsch gives us is half the novel, and half what it might have been. (p. 43)

Laurie Stone, "Trumbo's Nazi" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 46, November 12, 1979, pp. 42-3.

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