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Higher Truth

In her new book, critic Ruth Franklin argues for why the Holocaust is best understood through fiction

Marc Tracy
December 02, 2010
Ruth Franklin.(Curtis Martin)
Ruth Franklin.(Curtis Martin)

A mini-controversy happened a couple months ago when the New York Daily News reported that The New Republic planned to “pan” Jonathan Franzen’s blockbuster novel Freedom. This news was actually news because Freedom had been accorded near-universal critical acclaim and, as importantly, had reached a level on the buzz-meter and sales charts almost always denied novels of real literary merit. Franzen’s publisher, Jeff Seroy, criticized the magazine for publishing “consistently negative reviews;” New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier responded by endorsing what he called, with humor but not in jest, “the higher spleen.”

Seroy no doubt had in mind some of TNR’s more legendary hatchet jobs, including former lead critic James Wood’s influential takedown of “hysterical realism” in novels by Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Salman Rushdie, and the notorious Dale Peck drive-by that began, “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” But the practitioner who has best and most responsibly defended the high principles behind TNR’s house style has been Ruth Franklin, a younger critic who is a senior editor at the magazine and, as it happens, the author of the Franzen review.

Although it made the tabloids, Franklin’s take on Freedom is dog-bites-man: It is entirely coherent with the broader values she has stood for in her decade-plus of reviewing contemporary fiction. To begin with, there is the trademark TNR stubbornness. “We damn not with faint praise, but with hyperbole,” Franklin once wrote. As an antidote, she errs on the side of negativity, in part so that when she says she likes something—the novels of David Mitchell, for example—we know she likes it. Too many critics, she worries, are like the teenager who is friends with everyone and thereby ensures that no one knows exactly where one stands with him. In this thinking, the most popular kid in class is Dave Eggers and his “why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along approach to literary criticism,” as she put it, which he has enshrined in his journals, McSweeney’s and The Believer. These, according to Franklin, celebrate books rather than critique them, and thereby do writers and readers a disservice.

If Franklin was generally less likely to get caught up in Franzen-frenzy, Freedom specifically embodies literary priorities that she rates lower than most. It is, Franklin accurately observed, a “Way We Live Now novel, consummately of its moment,” intricately immersed in the details of current American life. For many critics, this was a selling point. For Franklin, the novel’s faithful rendering of superficial contemporary truths crowded out the deeper, more human truths that she most urgently seeks. Franzen’s realism is “just a transcription of reality,” she complained. “He substitutes the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight.” By contrast, she can love David Mitchell’s novels despite what may seem like their unharnessed gimmickry—his Cloud Atlas consists of six obliquely related stories that span from medieval times to the future—because, as she sees it, “on their most fundamental level all his books are concerned with the connections between human beings.”

Now, Franklin has published her first book, A Thousand Darknesses. It’s about Holocaust literature, which might at first seem odd; indeed, her extensive writings on Holocaust literature, out of which this book grew, might themselves have seemed odd over the past several years. For someone who picks fights with Franzen, Eggers, Nicole Krauss, Zadie Smith, Gary Shteyngart, and more of the most prominent contemporary literary novelists, publishing criticism and then a book about survivor memoirs and secondary works seems beside the point at best. But her Holocaust criticism has in fact been totally in sync with her other criticism, and A Thousand Darknesses is precisely Franklin’s attempt to advance her larger, hedgehog-like argument about what art and criticism should do. What seems on its cover almost a niche, scholarly work actually confirms Franklin’s status as one of our most important critics under 40.

* * *

Tim O’Brien, himself a witness-author (he is a novelist who served in Vietnam), once wrote, “That’s a true war story that never happened.” Franklin has the same sort of higher “true” in mind when she considers Holocaust literature. Against Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” she lays out why creating imaginative art—the sort of art that shows you why it shares its root with “artifice”—is exactly the response Auschwitz demands. And against A. Alvarez’s assertion in Commentary that Night is “certainly beyond criticism,” she demonstrates that respectful but honest criticism is our duty to Night and other books like it. (It turns out that Commentary’s unquestioning appreciation of Shoah lit shares much with The Believer’s unquestioning appreciation of hip lit.)

Franklin begins by proving that most of what we think of as objective, plainspoken, and truthful documentation of the Holocaust was actually consciously and artistically crafted by talented, imaginative authors to depict transcendent human truths at the expense of literal ones. This even goes for the two giants of the genre, Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man.

Levi’s first tome (frequently translated as Survival in Auschwitz) is, Franklin argues, “a fundamentally literary book, with a highly stylized use of language;” the Italian chemist’s very real experience in Auschwitz underwent a “process of fictionalization” on its way from real-life to the page. And why not? “Why should he not exploit his creative freedom to do with his characters what he will,” she asks, “to alter them intentionally—not unconsciously—in ways that will make his narrative more effective?” Late in life, Levi confirmed that he was aware that, even as he was living his extreme life, he hoped to turn that life into something more: “The idea of having to survive in order to tell what I had seen,” she quotes him, “obsessed me night and day.”

In contrast to Levi, in his later years Wiesel has appointed himself the High Arbiter of truth in Holocaust memoirs, “guarding the Temple against those who would desecrate it.” Yet Franklin shows that Wiesel’s first and most influential work certainly wouldn’t pass his own authenticity test. There is its style: “Every sentence feels weighted and deliberate, every episode carefully chosen and delineated,” she writes. “It is also disarmingly brief: It can be carried in a pocket and read in an hour. One has the sense of merciless experience mercilessly distilled to its essence.” There is its careful, learned, artistic construction: Franklin cites the critic Lawrence Langer’s ingenious insight that Night functions as a reverse Bildungsroman, in which “the youthful protagonist becomes an initiate into death rather than in life.” And then there are the details: According to Franklin, “Night balances unsteadily between fidelity to the events it portrays and the making of literature. The book’s poetic austerity comes at a cost to the literal truth.” Franklin documents that the narrator’s mentor, Moishe the Beadle, is a fabricated composite character, and that the narrator’s central interior struggle—his loss of faith in God—is made-up (Wiesel has attested that he believed in God even after the war); in short, Franklin proves that the narrator of Night is not Wiesel. Wiesel might take this as an accusation. Franklin intends it as a compliment.

The heart of A Thousand Darknesses is the chapter on Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1992 book Jakob Littner’s Notes From a Hole in the Ground. Here’s the story: Jakob Littner, a Polish Jew, had been a stamp dealer in Munich until being expelled in 1938; continually kicked eastward, he eventually had to hide for nine months in the titular hole in the ground in eastern Poland, from which he was rescued by Soviet troops in 1944. After the war, he submitted a memoir of his experience to a German publisher, but it was deemed of insufficient literary quality, and the job of adapting it was given to an exceedingly minor German novelist named Wolfgang Koeppen. Koeppen rewrote the manuscript, keeping its first-person voice, and the publisher brought the result out in 1948 as Notes From a Hole in the Ground, by Jakob Littner—Koeppen’s name appeared nowhere. The work was assumed to be a nonfiction memoir, a piece of testimony authored by the person who underwent the experiences depicted (much as Night is received). However, nearly a half-century later, in 1992, the book was published in a new edition, this time as a novel called Jakob Littner’s Notes From a Hole in the Ground, by Wolfgang Koeppen. “The reading public was being asked to accept,” Franklin explains, “that the novelist Wolfgang Koeppen”—by this time, he was a novelist of some notoriety—“was the true author of a book that had been believed to be an authentic Holocaust memoir and was now reclassified as a novel.” Most readers came to believe Littner’s story was fictional! It wasn’t until 1995, when an American professor pointed to Littner’s original manuscript (which had been published in 1985), that people understood what was going on. Koeppen’s 1992 work, Franklin concludes, “appears to be the first time that a text believed to be fiction turned out to be based on fact.”

This remarkable story is an immaculate microcosm of Franklin’s point. First, you have the uproar over whether Koeppen’s text is a novel or a memoir—a fictional or factual account—when the reality reveals how useless that dichotomy is. And then you have the question of who had his priorities right: Littner’s champions, committed to getting every last fact about Littner’s experience correct, or Koeppen and his champions, committed to best conveying what “happened,” in a broader sense? “His purpose,” Franklin writes in defense of Koeppen, “was to write an artistically coherent text, not a news report.” And here is the crux: Koeppen’s work, nearly all agree, is artistically superior to Littner’s. Some would say that doesn’t matter—that Littner’s fealty to what literally happened to him counts the most. But Franklin is persuasive that Koeppen’s more moving and beautiful work—his true war story that didn’t quite happen that way—is more valuable.

In 2006, in Slate magazine, Franklin considered Daniel Mendelsohn’s best-selling The Lost. This journalistic memoir found the author, a premier American literary and theater critic, retracing the steps and discovering the stories of his great-uncle, great-aunt, and four cousins, all of whom perished. Mendelsohn, Franklin wrote, was obsessed with uncovering all the facts and fetishized those facts, as if knowing the stories meant understanding the lives. The Lost was therefore an exact antithesis of Franklin’s program: “Mendelsohn goes too far,” she opined, “in his insistence on the primacy of factual evidence over all other ways of conjuring the past—particularly art.” Of Mendelsohn’s relations, she asks, “What is more important: That we know what happened during the Holocaust (whether Shmiel and his family were shot or gassed, for instance), or that we try, in whatever hopelessly limited way, to understand what occurred?”

If Mendelsohn is Franklin’s foil, Paul Celan is her prototype. In a 2000 New Republic essay, Franklin examined the work of the Jewish poet—who spent time in labor camps and whose parents were murdered by the Nazis—and argued that his verse teaches us no more nor less about suffering than that of a poet he translated, Emily Dickinson. It seems a remarkable claim: Dickinson famously rarely left her house; Celan’s knowledge of suffering came from some of the worst suffering of all. Yet “the recluse in genteel Amherst could teach the survivor of l’univers concentrationnaire something about death,” Franklin says. She adds, in what would have been a good epigraph for A Thousand Darknesses, “Art really is that strong.”

* * *

For Franklin, there is no frigate like a book, so long, like in Dickinson, as it “Bears a Human soul.” And like Dickinson’s stylized, unnatural verse, the hardiest frigates are artistic, because art, more than history or journalism or science or any other means of conveying information, invites what Franklin has called “imaginative empathy”—the ability to feel the human situations depicted rather than just know their basic information. So, Franklin thinks Piotr Rawicz’s unlikely, almost Roth-ian novel Blood from the Sky is valuable because of its insistence that its content is the opposite of unique: “The events that he describes,” Rawicz says of his narrator, who is only implicitly a survivor, “could crop up in any place, at any time, in the mind of any man, planet, mineral.” That insistence, according to Franklin, allows the reader “to empathize imaginatively, to engage with and accept the story on a deeper psychic level than is experienced by the reader of history.” On the other hand from Rawicz is the “totalitarian” (her word) insistence of Wiesel and others on total fealty to the facts and on the Holocaust’s uniqueness and universal centrality; on the other hand also is Mendelsohn’s factual overload; and on the other hand also is Franzen, who chronicles the facts of who we are without adding to our knowledge of who we are, and is therefore, in Franklin’s formulation, “all mirror and no lamp.”

You could argue that Franklin’s self-conscious focus on the Holocaust canon actually undercuts her central argument, which is that these books are like any other books, if perhaps more so. As she wrote of Celan, “The Holocaust did not make great artists out of ordinary Jews; it provided the impetus for those who were already great souls to express themselves in art” (one thinks here of Anne Frank). Franklin’s meditations on how “every act of memory is also an act of narrative,” and that “the very act of telling the story must falsify it because to tell it implies that it has some kind of internal logic” feel irrelevant, even trite. But Franklin’s focus on the Holocaust is nonetheless useful. She has traveled there to trumpet her argument about art for the same reason that Dante traveled to Hell and Heaven to trumpet his argument about human nature: It is the loudest, most extreme, and therefore most obvious stage.

Which is why it is good to know that Franklin will fight for the same values on more mundane stages, too. Earlier this year, she wondered why disagreements between critics over works of art are treated by everyone—the critics included—as polite and unimportant differences, rather than as seismic, bloody quarrels that result from a clash of vital first principles. “Few of us,” she pointed out, “when encountering an opinion of a work of art diametrically opposed to our own, are magnanimous enough to declare the merits of both positions and call it a draw. No: We believe that our position is right.” In the age of The Believer’s celebratory criticism and the Internet’s dominant “new niceness,” it felt quenching to read, “A taste judgment, after all, is a kind of value judgment, even if we can’t always articulate those values exactly.” Franklin was not discussing Holocaust literature, or even Jonathan Franzen. The “work of art” under examination was Come Fly Away, the new Frank Sinatra jukebox musical.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.