The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Ruth Franklin

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

So far this week:

  • Abigail Green brought our attention to an early twentieth century history book for British children: Our Island Story
  • Jonathan B. Krasner revealed that one of his new projects focuses on the evolution of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II 
  • James Loeffler listens to pulsing electronic dance music while he writes

Today we hear from Ruth Franklin, a former Network author and Visiting Scribe blogger (read her posts here). Ruth Franklin's work, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, was deemed "an important, insightful, and perceptive book about Holocaust memoirs" by the Rohr Judges. 

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

I love to do research—I could bury myself in the library for weeks on end, following tangents and chasing down obscure footnotes. But all too often I wind up with gargantuan notes files that can make it hard to see the bigger picture. The greatest challenge for me is knowing when to stop researching and start writing.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

Many contemporary literary journalists and critics inspire me: my editor, Leon Wieseltier, as well as James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Janet Malcolm, Cynthia Ozick … the list is long. Looking back, Alfred Kazin is one of my models: he goes deeply into the books he writes about, but also draws out their connections to the real world we live in—and always with great clarity of style.

Who is your intended audience?

I hope my book reaches not only people who are interested in Holocaust literature, but anyone who is concerned about how catastrophe can be represented in art—and how faithful such representations must be to the facts of history. The false-memoir boom over the last decade, from Binjamin Wilkomirski to James Frey, brought this peculiar form of literary crime to the front pages. But the question of how to draw the contours of truth in fiction, from an artistic standpoint as well as an ethical one, has been around since the novel form was invented, and it is far from clear-cut. My book is addressed to anyone who has ever read a novel and wondered how much was based in reality—and whether it matters.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m writing a biography of Shirley Jackson, the author of the short story “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House, among many other works. Jackson, one of the defining writers of the midcentury, was also a housewife and mother, and much of her fiction explores the tensions of this dual role. My book is centered around Jackson’s marriage to the seminal Jewish literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and the personal and social complexities of their union. Many scholars believe that “The Lottery” was inspired by the anti-Semitism that the couple experienced after moving to an insular New England town. Jackson devoted much of her work to the crueler aspects of human nature, particularly religious and racial prejudice.

What are you reading now?

I’ve been immersing myself in books about Gertrude Stein for an event I just did with the scholar Barbara Will at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Will’s new book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, tells the story of a little-known moment in Stein’s career when she actively promoted the Vichy regime and even translated some of Pétain’s speeches into English. It raises some very interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a collaborator and why some of the twentieth century’s greatest writers also happened to be fascists.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, when I would bang out stories on my grandfather’s electric typewriter. But for a long time I thought I would be an editor instead. It wasn’t until I arrived at The New Republic and was first asked to write book reviews that it seriously occurred to me that I could do this for a living.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

When I’ve written something that is personally meaningful and it inspires other people to think about the subject in a new way, I feel successful.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I feel superstitious about admitting this, but I have a lucky sweater that I wear on particularly challenging days. It’s a big, ratty, unraveling, supremely comfortable gray cardigan that I’ve owned for years. I never wear it out of the house.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope readers will come away from my book with a new appreciation for the value of fiction—all forms of art, really—as a way of representing catastrophe. As far back as humans can remember, we have always used art to make sense of the world around us. But when it comes to the Holocaust, art has been stigmatized as detrimental to collective memory. My book seeks to restore literature to its proper place, arguing that to get at the truth, sometimes you have to use your imagination.

Ruth Franklin, a literary critic and a senior editor at The New Republic, is nominated for her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Her writing also appears in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by Curtis Martin

Not a Historical Record

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ruth Franklin wrote about sharing a stage with Yann Martel and discussed whether anything new can be said about the Holocaust. She is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.

One of the demoralizing things about writing a book about Holocaust literature is how much of it there is out there. Over the past few years, when I’ve told people about my book, they invariably respond with: “Oh, have you read _____? It’s the most devastating testimonial/most essential work of history/most beautifully written novel I’ve ever read about the Holocaust.” And then I have to admit that no, not only have I not read _____, I’ve never even heard of it, and shamefacedly add yet another item to my list.

In some cases, I’ve been able to rectify these deficits. After Stanley Kauffmann alerted me to Piotr Rawicz’s amazing Blood from the Sky, a surrealist novel about a young man who goes into hiding in Ukraine, I devoted a chapter of my book to it—the first sustained criticism of this novel to appear in English. I’m hoping it will inspire readers to become more familiar with Rawicz’s work, which is brilliant, experimental, and in some places searingly funny. In my favorite scene, the main character undergoes a “citizenship test” in prison to prove that he is Ukrainian. After a hot debate on the minutiae of politics, literature, and cultural pride, he emerges the winner. “That’s no Jew,” his interlocutor declares. “Take my word for it. He couldn’t be. He’s trash, of course…. But he isn’t a Jew.”

But other writers didn’t come to my attention until my book had already gone to press. This is the case with H.G. Adler, whose 1962 novel The Journey was published in English by Random House last year. I noticed the book, put it aside, and promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when the galley of another newly translated Adler novel appeared in my mailbox. Strikingly modernist, Panorama, which originally appeared in 1968, is structured as a series of ten snapshots from the life of Josef Kramer, a Jew in Prague. I found it immediately haunting and affecting.

Adler, I learned from the book’s introduction by Peter Filkins (who is also the translator), was born Prague in 1910 and spent two and a half years in Theresienstadt before being deported to Auschwitz, where his wife and parents died. After being liberated from a labor camp near Buchenwald, he lived as an exile in London for the rest of his life. What makes his intellectual project unique is that he adopted what Filkins calls a “bifurcated strategy” towards the Holocaust, approaching it through both fact and fiction in a way that no other writer has done. His notes on life in Theresienstadt, which he left with Leo Baeck for safekeeping before his deportation to Auschwitz, were published as the extraordinary 900-plus-page monograph Theresienstadt, 1941-45, a definitive documentary history of the camp. But Adler was also the author of five novels about his experiences during the war, which he wrote in a burst of creativity in the ten years after liberation. Panorama is the first of these; The Journey is the last.

Adler’s obscurity—his work is mentioned in no standard encyclopedias or guides to Holocaust literature—can be blamed partly on his publication difficulties: Peter Suhrkamp, then the head of the major German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, went so far as to say that The Journey would never appear in print as long as he was alive. (The book was written in 1950-51 but remained unpublished till 1962, three years after Suhrkamp’s death, at which point it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece.) Filkins writes that “neither Germany nor the world was ready for novels about the Holocaust in the 1950s”—an opinion with which Rawicz, writing in France only a few years later, would certainly have concurred. Part of the opposition to Adler’s work undoubtedly had to do with the fact that, like Rawicz’s, its project is explicitly aesthetic rather than testimonial. (“This book is not a historical record,” Rawicz wrote in the epilogue to his novel. “If the notion of chance … did not strike the author as absurd, he would gladly say that any reference to a particular period, territory, or race is purely coincidental. The events that he describes could crop up in any place, at any time, in the mind of any man….”) Then as now, critics and readers of Holocaust literature tend to feel most comfortable with works that are thoroughly grounded in fact: fiction is destabilizing and disorienting. But the life and work of H.G. Adler demonstrates how thoroughly imagination and memory can support and enrich each other.

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Everything We Need to Know

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Ruth Franklin wrote about sharing a stage with Yann Martel. She is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.

I’m occasionally asked whether I really think that at this late date, sixty years on, anything new can be said about the Holocaust. But people have been asking this question virtually since the end of the war.

When François Mauriac famously encountered the young Elie Wiesel in Paris in the early 1950s, he was amazed, as he would write in the introduction to Night, that Wiesel’s book, “coming as it does after so many others and describing an abomination such as we might have thought no longer had any secrets for us, is different, distinct, and unique nevertheless.” Reviewing Piotr Rawicz’s surrealist Holocaust novel Blood from the Sky in 1964, Theodore Solotaroff wrote that “by now there has been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary histories and objective analyses that tell us everything we need to know about life in the ghettoes and prisons and death camps.” And yet those who write about the Holocaust continued to surprise then, as they still do now.

A few weeks ago I attended an informal talk by Yale historian Timothy Snyder about his new book, Bloodlands, which has already been hailed as a breakthrough work despite the well-plowed ground of its subject. What’s unique about Snyder’s book is that he approaches World War II from a geographical perspective rather than focusing, as most historians have done, on specific nations or political figures. Looking at the map of Europe, Snyder realized that the vast majority of the slaughter in World War II took place in a fairly small area: Poland, the Baltic states, and parts of the western Soviet Union. In this region, which he calls the “bloodlands,” fourteen million civilians died, as well as one-half of all the soldiers killed in the war. His book investigates what happened there.

Snyder argues that Auschwitz, which has come to be understood as a symbol of the Holocaust, “is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.” To focus on the victims of that camp “excludes those who were at the center of the historical event.” His version of the story establishes an entirely different framework, focusing first on the destruction of the vast majority of Poland’s Jewish community — about 1.5 million in all — at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor in 1942, and then on the “mass murder by bullets” carried out by the Einsatzgruppen in eastern Poland and the western Soviet Union during the preceding year, in which about 1.7 million Jews perished. Astonishingly, by the end of 1942, when Auschwitz had become fully operational, the Holocaust was “mostly over” — two-thirds of its victims already killed.

The question that lingers after reading Snyder’s remarkable book is why Auschwitz has come so powerfully to symbolize the Holocaust if it was actually an exception to the general rules of slaughter. Snyder points out that “we know about Auschwitz because there were survivors, and there were survivors because Auschwitz was a labor camp as well as a death factory.” In contrast, from the camps that were established solely for the purposes of extermination there remain almost no survivors: 67 from Treblinka, around 50 from Sobibor, less than a handful from Chelmno and Belzec. Snyder also comments that the Auschwitz survivors were largely Western European Jews who tended to return to their home countries after the war, where they were free to write and publish and their memoirs could enter the public consciousness. The Eastern European Jews, who were much less likely to survive, “continue to be marginalized from the memory of the Holocaust.”

But the reason might be simply, as he said when I posed the question to him, that “Auschwitz is enough.” Faced with what so many have described as the prime embodiment of hell on earth, how many of us have the courage to search for other, greater hells?

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. Check back all week for her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.


Monday, November 22, 2010 | Permalink

Ruth Franklin is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Ah, fall – the season of hot apple cider, leaves crunching underfoot, and … Jewish book fairs. As I write this, bleary and jet-lagged, I’ve just returned from San Francisco’s terrific Jewish Bookfest, where I did an event with Yann Martel. As much of the world’s reading population knows, Martel is the author of Life of Pi, a saga about a boy stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger, which won the Booker a few years ago and promptly became a runaway international hit. I, on the other hand, just published my first book, a collection of essays about Holocaust literature focused on the tension between imagination and memory in works by writers such as Primo LeviElie WieselJerzy Kosinski, and a number of others. Heavy stuff, and not always what people want to be entertained with on a Sunday afternoon.

Martel’s new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, deals with the Holocaust, so our pairing wasn’t quite as bizarre as it might seem. Still, I was more than a little anxious about the prospect of sharing the stage with such a prominent author. To his great credit, Martel put me at ease immediately. I don’t know what I was expecting an international superstar to look like, but certainly not this slight, unassuming man dressed in blue jeans and leather jacket who immediately started chatting away about Holocaust literature when we met at the airport. Each of us had been reading the other’s book on the plane, it turned out, and we both emerged full of ideas and questions.

The opening of Martel’s novel describes the genesis of the book in a lightly fictionalized way, so I knew that he had spent much of the last half-decade or so obsessed with the very same subject as I had: the difficult question of how a catastrophe like the Holocaust can be represented in art. Ever since the first years after the war, when Theodor Adorno famously proclaimed that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, there has been a deep-seated uncertainty about the legitimacy of such representations, which many scholars and critics have seen as a distortion of the grim historical truth: “Art takes the sting out of suffering,” as one theologian put it. However, as I argue in my book, there’s really no avoiding art. It’s simply not possible to say, as Elie Wiesel and others have done, that the only acceptable way to represent the Holocaust is through testimonies or memoirs, because even these works—if they are effectively written—are profoundly shaped by creative imagination. Every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality. And many of them, including Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, have been identified, at different points in their publishing histories, as both memoirs and novels.

Martel’s book opens with an account of a writer who has created a different kind of book about the Holocaust: a work of fiction paired with an essay, to be published back-to-back within one binding in flip-book style. In a scene that is at once hilarious and excruciating, various bigwigs at the writer’s publishing house take him out to an elegant lunch over which they savage both his manuscript and the flip-book concept. (It won’t work, one of them tells him, because in a book with two front covers there would be no place to put the bar code.) He leaves demoralized, abandons writing for some time, and moves to an unnamed city abroad. There he meets a taxidermist who requests his help with a play he is writing: a dialogue between two characters, Beatrice and Virgil, who, we soon discover, are taxidermied animals—a donkey and a howler monkey. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that what we are reading is an allegory—perhaps even an allegory within an allegory—that has certain resonances with the destruction of the Jews.

Martel’s protagonist, early on, says that he wrote his previous novel “because there was a hole in him that needed filling.” If novels can fill holes in people, can they also help to fill holes in history? I didn’t get a chance to ask Martel this question, but I imagine that he would have said yes.

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.