Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy ([Night, 1958], [Dawn, 1961], [Day, 1962]; New York: Hill and Wang, 2008)
Martin Amis, House of Meetings (2006; London: Vintage, 2007)
I recently read Elie Wiesel's The Night Trilogy. Each book in the trilogy took me an hour and three quarters to read. Roughly the time it takes the train from Canterbury to arrive in Charing Cross. (And I happened to be on this train when I read the first two books.) For those who have not read the three books Night, Dawn and Day - the latter of which was formerly called The Accident - the first of the books (newly translated by Wiesel's wife, Marion) is a memoir based on Wiesel's time in Nazi concentration camps, the second is the story of a young and recently conscripted terrorist in post-war Palestine having to take the life of an English soldier, and the final book is about a Jewish man who having survived the concentration camps and seen his family members die, is 'willingly' knocked down by a taxi in New York.
The reason Wiesel’s books are of interest to me is two-fold. The first of which is that they are not written in an overtly literary style, and yet I would argue they are literary. Second, the power of the books does not lie in the record of the events alone, or the fact that Wiesel lived through the Nazi concentration camps and lost his family to them. It lies in his ability to render psychological and philosophical states through a record of history, and also imagined scenarios. This is a talent. Especially when the content is so personal.
Wiesel's books demonstrate that a high level of success can be achieved without entering into what is traditionally regarded as literary (in English and European literature at least) - i.e. dense, multi-layered and ambiguous narratives. But this is not to deride the dense, multi-layered and ambiguous. And what I would like to begin to demonstrate here is the way in which the two writing styles comfortably co-exist, through a comparison of the work of Wiesel and Amis. In order to do this, however, some points must be made first of all.
Martin Amis's House of Meetings is most definitely a text along the lines of ‘dense, multi-layered and ambiguous’ and is very good indeed. But the Amis book is about post-war Russian gulags (slave camps) not Nazi concentration camps. And it is therefore by no means possible to write that the two texts are about the same thing (this would be reductive). Even the observation that Wiesel’s and Amis’s texts contain imprisonment, torture, execution and subjugation in their themes is inadequate given the specifics of their histories.
I therefore wish to apologize in advance for any areas in this posting that might be thought to ride roughshod over important facts through the comparison performed here. For, while I am writing about writing, I realize this is no excuse for not showing due respect and sensitivity.
To begin then, my argument is that Wiesel and Amis - despite writing about histories that would seem ostensibly to give them the opportunity to adopt similar approaches to the challenge of describing them - start from the very beginning in two different positions.
If there is a distance existing between Wiesel and the Nazi concentration camps, it is one imposed by the flaws of memory over time, and by the need to narrate (and story) in a meaningful way the things he has been exposed to. Wiesel’s challenge then is to convert experience into text. He tries all the time to find language that will convey as clearly as possible his experiences (and in fact describes this process in his foreword to Night). Amis, meanwhile, is faced with a different challenge, which is to translate history (passed down through [mostly written] accounts) and to write a text that then conveys experience.
Amis's book begins as a letter written to a young lady incongruously named Venus. The narration is consciously about the past, and about the act of narration. The letter/novel is impossibly long (and here echoes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; no doubt consciously since the narrator uses Conrad’s name several times).
As a soldier in the Second World War, the confessor/narrator of Amis’s novel raped multiple women across Germany and also killed. We don’t know exactly why Amis's narrator risks disgusting his reader’s ‘Western’ eyes with brutal truths, because we imagine it may lead to the female recipient of the ‘letter’ aborting her reading and never understanding the story in full. But it is reflective of all the things in Amis’s world that have dark corners and things that cannot at first be explained or known.
When reading House of Meetings we do not always know clearly where we are, and the poetic nature of the language can make this even less clear. But isn't this after all the condition of life? And don't wars (and post-war situations) and all that goes on during them hold much that is inexplicable (and often inexplicable in the extreme)? I would argue an emphatic yes. The thing that I would like to note here, however, is the way in which Amis’s book differs from the aforementioned texts by Wiesel.
In House of Meetings the history appears larger than the individual. This is in no small part due to the background history provided to the reader along the way, which is entangled with the rich writing style. The protagonist raped because the rest of the army raped, for example. While the whole story of the slave camp is set 'descriptively' in its context of post-war Russia, which makes the human aspects, for example the love entanglements of its central characters, more trivial than they would otherwise be if we weren't supplied with the outside detail. Whereas, in Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy, and I am not talking about simply the memoir here but also the two novels, the psychological state of the individual actually appears bigger than the history surrounding it.
Wiesel writes in Night about how stories of the wider happenings during the Holocaust are disbelieved by the members of his hometown, and a woman is beaten for scaremongering about there being fires when the Jews are being transported on the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. History is not allowed to touch the individual in Wiesel’s writing until he is a part of it. In Dawn, for example, the reader is far less exposed to the politics and history of the post-war situation in Palestine than with the narrator’s coming to terms with his responsibility for killing an English soldier in return for the life of one of his group’s leaders, David ben Moshe. The reader thinks, therefore, about the situation in Palestine through the individual character's psychological state.
Finally, to conclude this brief reflection: while I believe that language's failure to explain often says as much as its ability to explain, reading work by Wiesel and Amis so close together was a reaffirmation for me that there is no single way of writing which is 'right'. The author's choices are contextual, difficult and ultimately a compromise between history (experienced or researched) and text. As a consequence, the style of writing that has come to be thought of as having greater literary weight and density in the tradition of English literature is not always necessarily the most appropriate mode for recording experience/lived history, as is demonstrated by the success of The Night Trilogy.
I would to thank Rebecca Woodhead for providing this opportunity of complete freedom to post whatever I wished under the banner of the Word Nerd Army.
Anthony Levings (@anthonylevings) is Managing Editor at Gylphi Limited (http://www.gylphi.co.uk), an academic publisher focused on the arts and humanities of the twentieth century and beyond. He was awarded a PhD by the School of English at the University of Kent in 2007, and has published chapters based on his research in Considering Evil and Human Wickedness (Interdisciplinary Press, 2004), Anthony Burgess, Autobiographer (Presses de l’Université d’Angers, 2006), Anthony Burgess and Modernity (Manchester University Press, 2008), and Anthony Burgess: Music in Literature and Literature in Music (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).