Elie Wiesel

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Wiesel, Elie (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wiesel, Elie 1928–

A Romanian-born French Jew now living in America, Wiesel is a novelist and man of letters and is considered an eloquent spokesman for contemporary Judaism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The novels of Elie Wiesel strike me as a singularly impressive instance of how the creative imagination can surprise our expectations of what its limits should be. It is natural enough to wonder whether it is really possible to write about the Holocaust, to use the written word, which by its very nature is committed to order, as a means of representing and assessing absolute moral chaos….

The achievement, however, of Elie Wiesel's five published books reminds us of the danger in issuing prescriptions about things of the spirit. He has managed to realize the terrible past imaginatively with growing artistic strength in a narrative form that is consecutive, coherent, and, at least on the surface, realistic, in a taut prose that is a model of lucidity and precision. Yet by the very nature of his subject, what we might want to describe as the "realism" of his technique constantly transcends itself, as we are made to feel the pitiful inadequacy of all our commonsense categories of reality…. Before the fact of the Holocaust, perhaps only a great visionary poet like Dante could thoroughly imagine such a gruesome reality; after the fact, it still requires a peculiar imaginative courage to abandon all the defenses of common sense in order to remember and reconstitute in language such a reality. It is ultimately this imaginative courage that endows Wiesel's factually precise writing with a hallucinated more-than-realism: he is able to confront the horror with a nakedly self-exposed honesty rare even among writers who went through the same ordeal.

Wiesel's relation both to his subject and to his craft required that, before he could invent fiction, he should starkly record fact, and so his first book, Night, is a terse and terrifying account of the concentration-camp experiences that made him an agonized witness to the death of his innocence, his human self-respect, his father, his God….

The closest literary analogy I can think of for Wiesel's imaginative landscapes is the kind of lyric love poetry where all existence is focused in the presence of the lover and the beloved (as in Donne's famous lines, "She's all states, and all princes, I,/Nothing else is."). In Wiesel's case, the world seems to contain only three classes of people, each with its own kind of guilt of complicity: executioners, victims, and spectators at the execution.

If this drastic selectivity in some ways foreshortens the view of reality in his novels, it also generates an extraordinary degree of intensity, at once dramatic and moral. The imponderable keys of life and death are placed in the hands of each of Wiesel's protagonists with the imperative to decide how they should be used….

Wiesel's novels, for all the vividness with which they render certain contemporary situations, are more theological parable than realistic fiction: they are written for and about Abrahams on the mountain, Isaacs under the slaughtering knife, and a God who watches but no longer sends His messenger to stay the descending blade. In this kind of parabolic novel our expectations of what people will say, do, or even think are very different from what they would normally be…. It is a strange truth we are made to feel almost everywhere in Wiesel's fiction of ultimate confrontations.

Since most of the action and thought in Wiesel's novels take place on the broadest level of philosophical or theological generalization, it is entirely appropriate that the argument of the books should repeatedly crystallize in wisdom-statements, whether by one of the characters or by the narrator himself….

The wisdom taught by the Teacher in his books is, of course, always "existential," never academic, because the figure for Wiesel always derives from the Hasidic spiritual guide—more...

(The entire section is 4,771 words.)