Elie Wiesel

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wiesel, Elie(zer) 1928–

Wiesel is a Rumanian-born American novelist, journalist, short story writer, and essayist who writes chiefly in French. A survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, he draws his themes from many areas of Judaic concern. He writes of the Holocaust, of the Soviet Jewry, and of the Six Day War, often incorporating elements of history and of Hasidic legend into his fiction. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Kenneth Turan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

To a great many of his readers, Elie Wiesel is much more than just a writer. He is a symbol, a banner, and a beacon, perhaps the survivor of the Holocaust. More than outliving Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel, starting with a slim, terrifying volume called Night in 1958, has written about that experience and its aftershock with an anguished power that no living writer has matched. Reading his books—there have been more than a dozen—one feels the inexpressible nausea and revulsion that a simple recitation of statistics never manages to arouse. He seems to own the horror of the death camps, or rather, the horror owns him.

Yet even a writer as single-minded as Wiesel must eventually branch out, and this he has done. In 1972, he published Souls on Fire, a masterful, joyous retelling of the legends surrounding the Hasidic masters of Eastern Europe, and now comes Messengers of God, described as the successor to Souls and the result of ten years work, in which Wiesel recreates the stories of some of the Bible heroes, from Adam through Job.

As a reteller of tales, Wiesel has few flaws. His is a deliberate, elegant style, consciously elevated and poetic, and if he occasionally tries to pack too much into a sentence, to jam it too full of significance and meaning, it is an error easy to forgive.

Wiesel's primary purpose in writing Messengers, he tells us, is to at once humanize and contemporize the heroes of the Old Testament, to remind us that "they are human beings: people not gods."…

There is much intriguing, perceptive reasoning here, many captivating reinterpretations of legends, as when Wiesel concludes of Cain and Abel that the former killed the latter "to push immanent injustice to its ultimate absurd conclusion, as if to shout to God: Is that what You wanted?" Yet the impression remains that Wiesel tends to push the contemporaneity too hard.

One of the most striking things about Messengers of God is the way Wiesel takes the stories and legends and the very existence of Biblical figures like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the literal truth. Wiesel is the direct descendent of the pious sages he wrote of in Souls on Fire—he believes….

Having done extensive research in … Midrashic literature, Wiesel deftly guides us among the boggling tidbits that the rabbis in their zeal extracted from the Holy Word. No point, it seemed, was too minor to elaborate on endlessly….

Fascinating, simply fascinating, and it is no wonder that Wiesel could not resist adding his own modern words to this great tapestry. Even if he has not completely succeeded, the attempt has a special grace of its own.

Kenneth Turan, "An Elegant Teller of Tales," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 8, 1976, p. F7.

Bernard Mandelbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The seven short stories in Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends ] are gems of mystery and suspense that draw upon material from the Bible and the vast ocean of rabbinic legend and commentary. God plays a central role in each episode, yet the characters Wiesel vividly portrays are the biblical Adam, Jacob, Moses, Job, who pulsate with complexities and paradoxes, strengths and weaknesses known to everyman. The author is not one to idealize biblical heroes. Jacob's deceptiveness and fear of real challenge are shown to be the consequence of experiences that are so poignantly rendered they throw light on the reader's own struggle for self-discovery. At the same time, Wiesel relates these characters' own experiences to his traditional concerns: the nature and destiny of the...

(The entire section is 1,206 words.)