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...
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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 particularly, from a kabbalistic master of his own childhood whose message was one of redemption, involving the secret knowledge through which man could learn to loose the chains in which the Messiah is bound….
What the Teachers attempt to do is to exorcise these paralyzing visions without committing the spiritual folly of suggesting that they be forgotten, and this act has general, not merely personal, significance because all of us, to the extent that we have courage to think about the recent past, must be haunted in some way, however intermittently, by these same specters….
This striking summary of ultimate contradictions, which expresses so much of Wiesel's spiritual world, is reminiscent of a teaching of the Hasidic master, Simha Bunam of Pzhysha, who used to say that every man should have two pockets, one in which to put a slip of paper with the rabbinic dictum, "For my sake the world was created," and the other to carry Abraham's confession of humility before God, "I am dust and ashes." The transmutation that occurs in Wiesel's restatement of the paradox is instructive. In the Hasidic teaching, both man's awesome importance and his nothingness are conceived in terms of his stance before the Creator. In Wiesel, on the other hand, the theological center has shifted to the human spirit: it is pathetically finite man who is the source of miraculous aspiration, of regeneration, in a world where all life is inevitably transient. We may tend to be suspicious of affirmations, for it is often in their affirmative moments that even writers of considerable integrity yield to the temptation of offering a facile and superficial counterfeit of wisdom. In Wiesel, however, one senses that the affirmations are hard-earned, and, indeed, by incorporating as they do their own threatened negations, they may even be hard to assimilate. What is true of the affirmations is true of Wiesel's books in general, which are easy to read but difficult to assimilate. For they are the stages of his own way both from and toward faith, and, at this point in history, that way could not be easy, either to walk or to imagine.
Robert Alter, "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," in his After the Tradition (copyright © 1962 by Robert Alter; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1962.
[Wiesel's] Night is … personal and very … painful, less an allegory than a scantily fictionalized autobiography. A young boy and his father are transported from a Hungarian ghetto to Auschwitz, where they endure months of degradation, brutality and hunger. Finally, as the Red Army closes in, they are evacuated through the frozen countryside to Buchenwald. There the father dies slowly of dysentery, while his son nurses him fearfully, guiltily, resentfully. It is here, not in the cruelty, that the sense of shock which vibrates so continuously through the book is located….
Wiesel's pain lies in the discovery that neither love, filial piety, nor his intense Talmudic training can stand up against extremes of starvation and fear. On the road to survival everything goes, leaving only the most primitive terrors and desires. As a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism.
A. Alvarez, "The Literature of the Holocaust" (originally published in Commentary, 1964), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 22-3.
Wiesel has been considered the chief novelist of the holocaust. But it was only in Night that he disclosed the horrors of Auschwitz as he had personally experienced them. In other novels, the hero, a former inmate, is mercilessly pursued by past memories. They shape his attitudes toward all later experience. But Wiesel's novels of horror are more searching and penetrating than other writings on the subject. He has approached the holocaust mainly from a moral standpoint, leaving legalistic and political debates to others. He has dealt with Auschwitz, not only on the level of Man, but also that of God.
Wiesel's … books … have marked him as the messenger of the Jewish dead to the living. The mystic Wiesel appears to have interpreted his survival as imposing two obligations: first, to tell the ugly and unvarnished story of the dead, and to plead for understanding of the unheroic manner in which they perished; second, to attempt to fathom the unfathomable reasons for which they died, to comprehend the human and divine madness behind the deed. Finally, he has unwittingly assumed the role of prophet, cautioning against another Auschwitz, linking the burning ovens to burning Hiroshima, recognizing the infectiousness of evil and destruction, and the callousness of the witnesses, the comfortably uninvolved. But Wiesel is not only the representative of the dead to the living. He is also their ambassador to God. In this capacity, Wiesel has ceaselessly interrogated the Divinity, now begging Him for enlightenment, now castigating Him for his silence, now in despair turning away from Him, or seeking Him out more than ever….
In the tradition of exile and flight, his characters roam the earth's surface…. Wiesel [himself] has been an impassioned traveler, and has significantly been drawn to the myth of the Wandering Jew. But wherever his heroes are, they are tormented by the ugly memories of the past, the inability to cope with them, the realization that this past—in new and vile forms—is ever-present and that the negative in various shapes—Hiroshima, Communist prisons, etc.—has demonstrated a virulent capacity to renew itself….
More than any other writer Wiesel is entirely wrapped up in Jewish tradition. The outside world, he confesses, barely existed for him in his Hungarian youth. It appears to occupy even now an insignificant role. He may feel that enough writers are feeding on the Western Christian tradition without a Jewish writer interpreting the same experience. Little surprise, therefore, that in his ceaseless investigation into the holocaust, Wiesel has been singularly unconcerned with the executioners and all the more with their victims. To be sure, he has displayed a lively interest in the moral apathy of the witnesses to the executions, whom he seems to condemn more than the executioners themselves. But again it is not the practical, temporal dissociation of the witnesses which prompts his remarks, but his own growing realization of the responsibility of one human to another….
Wiesel's Jewish sources have … suffered the influence of some Western sophisticated philosophical ideas. Slightly detectable are the influences of Camus and Sartre and perhaps that of Dostoyevski. Jewishly he has been under the wing of Abraham J. Heschel more than any other contemporary thinker. Add the personal experience of the holocaust and two of Wiesel's primary themes, madness as lucidity and silence as true communication, which are the slightly expectable compounds of this rather odd concoction….
Wiesel has succeeded in blending Jewish philosophy, mythology and historical experience. In this respect he must be placed alongside two other practitioners of Jewish fiction in the front ranks of the art. One of these is André Schwarz-Bart whom Wiesel overshadows as a weaver of ideas, but whom he cannot match in warmth and humanity; the other, the much older Isaac Bashevis Singer, who employs many ingredients similar to Wiesel's, but whose mixture appears less varied even as his narrative skill is superior. Among the top American Jewish writers, Wiesel bears a greater resemblance to Malamud than to either Bellow or Roth.
There are flaws in Wiesel's novels. Often the action of the story does not directly lead to the philosophical conclusions of the end…. His work also bears the heavy introspective stamp of many twentieth-century French novels which unquestionably have greatly influenced him. If Wiesel's work has caught on in America only with select few, it is because the intellectual novel is still rare in this country and the intellectual hero trying to solve religious-spiritual problems is even less common. In Elie Wiesel we may well have the brightest young hope on the Jewish literary horizon.
Lothar Kahn, "Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism," in his Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, A. S. Barnes, 1968, pp. 176-93.
Elie Wiesel has best described [A Beggar in Jerusalem, saying that it] "… is neither novel nor anti-novel, neither fiction nor autobiography; neither poem nor prose—it is all this together. It is an adventure of one madman, who one night saw not the end of all things, but their beginning." A Beggar in Jerusalem is also dream and political action, enchanted story and hard cold argument. It is transfigured by a mystical ecstasy that never loses hold on Jerusalem's hard yellow stones.
Finally, Wiesel's book is proof of how inadequate are our forms and our "experiments" with form. Only a prosperous, safe and bourgeois community has the leisure for experimenting with form. When the issue is not only the life of a people but the meaning of that life, forms are shaped by the pressure of human passion. Moral thought is not academic theory but something that happens in act and place. Indeed the form of this book is not described adequately by either traditional or innovative categories. It is what any fine work of art ought to be—a material shaped to humane purpose by human commitment….
Most of the book is poem and parable, word aching under the pain of modern Jewish experience in Europe—the experience that can never be used to prove anything, for to use such pain is to demean it. Pain like that exceeds comprehension, and use requires comprehension. Author Wiesel is reverent toward pain; he offers only a few episodes, supplies no peephole into the incomprehensible but a lens that focuses the dread light of the incomprehensible on our souls. He who has eyes to see, let him see.
The narrative celebrates the Six-Day War—not the generality of it but the part that gave it meaning: the capture of Jerusalem. Here the visionary quality of the reflective passages gives way to a tough ecstatic prose which reminds one of those incredible young Israeli soldiers moving (when I saw them after the war) with the tigerish grace of perfected human organisms—Jews no longer passive victims but exulting victors….
For Wiesel, the Arabs are only "the enemy," "the other side," an undefined and unspecified cloud of enmity—never men with their own hopes and fears and beliefs. But Christians—or Christendom—are seen in their remorseless cruelty with no problem of definition. Wiesel's range and humanity are shown by the fact that the most terrible revelation of the Terror is the killing of an aristocratic gentile woman by her own people because they feared the Germans would discover she had sheltered a fleeing Jew. Wiesel's book ought to be, for the Christian, a confessional. The sin of Christendom with its holy places and its sacred history from which a whole race is outcast—that sin drove the Israelis to this act. And the sin is compounded because the punishment for Christendom's sin falls on the Moslems, who have themselves so recently been released from centuries of bondage. So the suffering of Semites pays for the sin of Christians….
The birth of Israel was cruel and sordid; man's richest humanity is fertilized with dung. Out of that comes such a book as this, one of the most beautiful I have ever read, matching the glory of the city it celebrates. Only the Jews in our day speak with such a voice, the voice of ecstasy in the will of God….
This book is the testimony of a man—zealous, Hasidic, infinitely tender, sensitive to moral nuance. If such voices are lost, the loss will not be simply to the Jews but to all of us. Wiesel himself will not necessarily be lost; he is a naturalized American, although he went to Israel during the war and is, at least in part, the beggar who is observer, non-acting participant and commentator.
John W. Dixon, Jr., "Voice of Ecstacy," in Christian Century, June 17, 1970, pp. 761-62.
Parables are true or false rather than good or bad. Certainly, then, the most accurate judgment of Elie Wiesel's novel [The Oath] would be that it is true. Of the purely technical skill involved in the narrative one may observe that there are two relatively small mistakes: the opening section, the conversation between the old and the young man which serves as a framing device, is far too long and, in its effort to be incantatory, succeeds only in fatiguing with repetition. Also, the final sentence in which Wiesel associates himself with his young interlocutor is either peremptory or else altogether unnecessary. At all events the effect makes for a sudden and rather awkward assertiveness.
Wiesel's novel stands precariously on the brink of literature, and in the end we can hardly fault it for caring about truth more than beauty: the truth, that is, not of the prophet Moshe but of the old survivor. A danger in books with this peculiar status is that they can easily be praised in the name of life-against-art. "After we have listened to what Wiesel has to say," the publisher quotes one reviewer as writing, "other literature seems meaningless." But cultural extremism of this variety is its own curse and receives no encouragement from the author. He, at any rate, and much to his honor, has chosen an eloquence that has nothing to do with silence. His tact and restraint are evident in countless passages about the violence of the flesh and the violence of the spirit….
Wiesel has learned what he could from Babel, Camus, Hemingway and perhaps also from Mauriac, who wrote the foreword to Night. Nevertheless, his art is wholly individual. Here, as always, the absence of a conscious style is a sign of the most conscientious scrutiny and selection.
David Bromwich, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 11, 1973, p. 12.
At his best Elie Wiesel is a remarkable fabulist whose vision can transform slaughter into farce and back again….
When he is in [his] prophetic storytelling mood, Wiesel is so very, very good that when he is mod he is horrid. In "The Oath," unhappily, we do also have Elie Wiesel at his most self-consciously modern….
"The Oath" will impress those for whom a serious subject and seriousness of purpose are sufficient guarantees of literary merit. But while Wiesel's material is dramatic, very little in the telling is so distinguished as his purpose in telling us at all. Events that should seem inevitable seem merely obligatory.
The story is peopled by stock characters who remain stick figures, who are less persons than they are notations of action and thought, rigid and transparent. The words they speak, Jew and Gentile alike, are neither natural nor even provocatively unnatural, but merely appropriate, wooden and determined by the necessities of telling the story….
And yet, and yet. Wiesel is capable of the most entrancing touches…. and he has given us at least one arresting characterization. His chief character Moshe is a traditional figure too, the wise man as madman, but the author has done wonderful things with the tradition and tender things with Moshe. Moshe is unpredictable but coherent, understandable but finally quite mysterious, so that he is, all by himself, a person, an achievement, the great achievement of this book.
Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1973, pp. 5-6.
Elie Wiesel has been working at his fiction of suffering for a quarter of a century. His personal project has been to keep the wounds of Auschwitz open by repeatedly pouring the salt of new literary reconstructions upon them, and thus to prevent the collective Jewish memory—and his own—from quietly letting the wounds heal. His latest novel, The Oath, is significant not for its originality or power—twenty-five years is a long time, and Wiesel is now repeating his own clichés—but rather because it is an attempt to bring his project to self-consciousness. Though it includes an episodic recounting of persecution and pogrom, The Oath is actually about the telling of the story itself….
This is a book, then, about the predicament of its author. Azriel is Wiesel, who feels responsible for the perpetuation of the memory of the Holocaust, for whom that memory has become coterminous with existence itself. His story, he believes, can somehow reach the sources of other people's pain—beyond the cathartic, the telling of the story has an almost redemptive power. He writes out of an allegiance to both the dead and the living. The author is very ambitious: he casts himself in a dramatic role which is for him of great significance and force. But it is a role which he cannot convincingly fill, which, sadly, very quickly becomes no more than a posture.
The Oath is not a very good novel. Though the account of Kolvillag is at places absorbing, it is generally trite. The prose is pedestrian, punctuated in times of stress by purple flourishes of mystical jargon. The book abounds in oracular pronouncements about life which rank with the most indulgent excesses of existentialism….
Wiesel's major literary technique is mood, the setting of an atmosphere of mystery, of pain, of spiritual and emotional extremes. But the setting then becomes the substance, and we are offered really nothing more than the lingering mood. Wiesel confuses style with substance, mistaking dizziness for heights, and obscurity for depths. He is so fascinated by mystery that it has itself become evidence of truth. And so he never tires of telling us about this kabbalist or that rebbe, this wise madman or that hunchbacked seer. For all his recollecting, there is little trace in Wiesel's work of life as we live it.
All this happens because Wiesel insists, in The Oath as well as in other works, upon turning history into legend. The searing facts of the Holocaust, facts which no fiction will ever render more harrowing, become myths of the combat of good and evil, destiny and human will, man and God. Wiesel's characters are not people captured convincingly in the particularity of their precarious existences; they are rather archetypes of the varieties of Jewish pain, nominal props for a spectrum of spiritual states….
Wiesel is certainly right in claiming the ineffability of the experience he is trying to describe. Perhaps, finally, that is the whole point. Yet he himself continues to weave his own mythologies into his tales, while the facts—truths which thwart not only the mind but the imagination as well—explode all such pretensions, including his own. Night, Wiesel's first work, was a powerful book precisely because his memory itself was fresh, unencumbered by mythology. But mythology is rife in The Oath; it is, in fact, its very content, whereas memory is frightfully dim. At this point Wiesel's art is no match for the truth, and it may be time for him to reconsider Moshe the madman's oath. Perhaps silence is after all the most eloquent witness to all that death.
Leon Wieseltier, "History as Myth" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1974 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, January, 1974, pp. 66-7.
It is fifteen years since a slim volume by a Hungarian refugee living in Paris was published by Editions de Minuit. It was called La Nuit and … is undoubtedly the single most powerful literary relic of the holocaust. There followed a series of books that may be, collectively, the most sustained artistic embodiment of the act of bearing witness in modern times. Novels such as The Town Beyond the Wall and The Gates of the Forest directly treated of the holocaust and its immediate aftermath: the reproach of the dead, the indifference of the outside world, the guilt of the survivors. Legends of Our Times, not as well known as other books of Elie Wiesel but one of his best, presented the same theme in shorter forms…. In this book, the quintessential Wiesel protagonist wanders restlessly, pursued by demons, the voices of the dead always in his ears. But more particularly, he is the final witness of the time, because the time has done its worst to him and he has, almost against his will, survived it. His response to sympathy is often laughter; his response to indifference is a silence that masks reproach so weighty that it would be wasted on men. It must make its way to heaven, and demand an answer—and it rejects that answer.
The Accident, an early book, carried the first introduction of a theme that was to sound often thereafter, the question of hope after the holocaust….
This theme is developed in one of the most lyrical of Wiesel's books, The Gates of the Forest…. Then, in his sixth book, The Jews of Silence, published in 1966, the author brought to a still indifferent world the news of the anguish of Soviet Jewry. As always, it was news that everyone knew, but that everyone had managed to keep below the level of consciousness. One can forget today's victims almost as easily as yesterday's.
In A Beggar in Jerusalem, the book that brought Wiesel the enormous audience he now has, the Six Day War was treated as the latest stanza in a poem of history being written in collaboration—by Jew and Gentile, by God and man, and by man and woman. The novel shows Wiesel's strength in merging the historical sense with a sense of the mystery behind historical events. No mere theory could explain the long destruction of the Jews, of which the concentration camp was only the latest instrument. An author such as Graham Greene who, like Wiesel, sustains a bitter, strangely affectionate dialogue with God and also writes political novels infused with the sadness of political failures, reserves his mystical insights for his "personal" books. The success of Wiesel's enterprise seems to be his ability to deal with the tragedy of history while remaining aware of the possibilities and limitations of personal life—in love, happiness and religious hope—in the wake of that tragedy. The scope of that vision, I believe, accounts not only for the existence of Wiesel's worldwide audience but for the intensely personal nature of that following. It's as if, by wresting hope from the bottom of the pit, he brings renewed vitality to an emotion that has long been a debased currency.
The Oath, Elie Wiesel's eleventh book and eighth work of fiction, though in the case of this writer the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is often tenuous, is both a culmination and a forward step. In the past he has always taken a historical subject—life in Auschwitz, being a fugitive from the Germans in the forests of Hungary, the Six Day War in Israel or, in The Dawn, an early novel, the terrorist resistance to British rule in Palestine—and imagined a mythic and mystical context for it. This book, however, presents an imagined event, the destruction of a fictional town in Central Europe, and endows it with the density, pain and irony of historical reality….
The artistic journey from Night to The Oath is the journey from autobiography to myth; from experience to metaphor. Thematically, Kolvillag is the once and future town. The burning of the temple in Jerusalem … the community of Blois, destroyed in 1171, Vitebsk in 1823 … the narrowly averted destruction of Tel Aviv in recent weeks…. The list is long and stretches from the distant past perhaps to the distant future. Of all those catastrophes The Oath creates an imagined emblem, Kolvillag.
Daniel Stern, "The Word Testifies for the Dead," in The Nation, January 5, 1974, pp. 24-6.
Wiesel is not just a teller of tales; as a Jewish storyteller he is also thinker, visionary, propounder of an ethical structure. The Oath displays Wiesel's mastery of the Jewish tradition. He knows every nuance of Yiddishkayt. Although he writes in French (and Marion Wiesel has translated the novel so admirably it sounds as though it had been written in English) Wiesel "thinks" Jewish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and he encapsulates the entire life pulse of the Ashkenazic tradition.
To speculate on history and destiny and also tell a moving story is no simple task. But Elie Wiesel has never taken the easy path. His path is strewn with thorns, and it hurts passing through; but the roses, though ash-petaled, are worth the journey. Wiesel's choice of becoming a witness to civilization's greatest upheaval, European Jewry's tragedy, attests to the challenge he has set for himself….
Wiesel has taken his own anguish and imaginatively metamorphosed it into art.
Curt Leviant, "Wrestling With Demons," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 12, 1974, pp. 49-50.