Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Elie Wiesel’s Night as her next Book Club title may have already been in the works, but, following the devastating fact-check of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Oprah’s shrug about its dubious contents, the news comes off as a canny bit of spin control. But by playing along, Wiesel is making a Faustian bargain.
As every publisher knows, joining Oprah’s Book Club means hundreds of thousands of additional copies in print, millions in royalties. I’m not so cynical to think that Wiesel is simply in this for the money; most likely he believes that, by getting his story out to another enormous pool of readers, he is preserving the memory of the Holocaust for future generations. There may be no better way to reach a mass audience of American readers than by sitting next to Oprah for an hour, but it comes at a terrible price.
Wiesel began his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech with a Hasidic tale about the Baal Shem Tov, who tries “to hasten the coming of the Messiah,” then loses his memory, a divine punishment “for having tried to meddle with history.” Reflecting on this parable, Wiesel said:
Remembering is a noble and necessary act. The call of memory, the call to memory, reaches us from the very dawn of history. No commandment figures so frequently, so insistently, in the Bible. It is incumbent upon us to remember the good we have received, and the evil we have suffered. New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashana, is also called Yom Hazikaron, the day of memory. On that day, the day of universal judgment, man appeals to God to remember: our salvation depends on it. If God wishes to remember our suffering, all will be well; if He refuses, all will be lost. Thus, the rejection of memory becomes a divine curse, one that would doom us to repeat past disasters, past wars.
Authenticity may seem especially fraught when it comes to memories of the Holocaust—hence the rush by Amazon and Barnes & Noble to reclassify Night, which was published as an autobiographical novel, as nonfiction—but Wiesel does not confine his concern with memory to the Holocaust. By accepting the embrace of Oprah, who told Larry King about James Frey, “Although some of the facts have been questioned, the underlying message of redemption still resonates for me,” Wiesel is also accepting her dangerously low threshold for how memoirs correspond to historical truth, and reducing himself to being another amazing storyteller on the talk-show circuit. Some may think he’s already reduced himself; the celebrated Holocaust survivor in Francine Prose’s 2005 farce A Changed Man bears some resemblance to Wiesel.
Before Wiesel entered the picture, I was watching the Frey fray with great interest, noting the similarities between this scandal and the debunking of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Fragments. As with A Million Little Pieces, the publishers of Fragments and supporters of the man calling himself Wilkomirski at first brushed aside any disclosures based on documentary evidence. They said his vivid memories were more valid than any piece of paper identifying him as a Swiss-born gentile who had never been in a concentration camp, that the book rang true no matter what his actual experience was, that you could just as well call it a novel. But a sustained campaign forced the true story about the author of Fragments to come to light, and his “memoir” was eventually withdrawn.
Fragments and A Million Little Pieces are representative of a wave of memoirs—real-life miracles, redemption stories, lives that fall apart and are heroically repaired through the act of writing—that have replaced stories about prophets and martyrs in our nominally secular culture. Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors have inadvertently stirred up this wave by telling their improbable tales of survival, but it doesn’t mean they have to be swept up in it. Wiesel is unlikely to spurn Oprah, but perhaps could use some of his authority to persuade her and Random House to distance themselves from A Million Little Pieces, and teach Oprah’s viewers a valuable lesson. “If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity,” Wiesel said in Oslo. But, like the Baal Shem Tov, anyone who tries to meddle with history risks punishment.