I write about not getting stuck with your academic assignments.Trusted Academic Service
Elie Wiesel grants few interviews. This conversation took place in 1978, during two sessions at his apartment a few months before his fiftieth birthday. Through the open windows of his book-filled study, breezes carried the sounds of Manhattan spring afternoons. It was a rare privilege to converse with him. His dark, deep-set eyes were like the eyes of one of his characters in which “joy and despair wage a silent, implacable, eternal battle.”
I would like to begin by asking about the subject matter of your books. You have written about the Holocaust, about the Bible, about Hasidism. Why haven’t you written about your years here in New York?
I have lived here for some twenty years, more than anywhere in the world, and yet I have devoted only a few pages to New York in The Accident and one chapter in The Gates of the Forest. Why? Because I have not yet exhausted my childhood. Words grow, age, die, and I am still interested in that metamorphosis. And the words that I use are still those that relate to my childhood.
Yet in Messengers of God and Souls on Fire you have departed from the earlier themes of childhood.
I have, but, again, not entirely. In Souls on Fire. my childhood is present through my grandfather, the Hasid, and the stories I tell. The tone may be different, the treatment may be different because now it’s no longer a child speaking. In Messengers of God. again, it’s the Bible. When did I learn the Bible? When I was four or five years old. It’s still the pull of my childhood, a fascination with the vanished world, and I can find everything except that world.
Many things. First, what we all find in childhood: innocence, trust. Children are trusting. And in my case, order. There was a certain order in creation. I once believed that children are young and old men are old. Now I know that some children are very old. Also, I know that the secret to all the other enigmas is rooted in that childhood. If ever I find an answer to my questions, it will be there, in that period, in that place.
Sighet, my little town, all the characters that I am inventing or reinventing, all the tunes that I have heard. It is always, whatever its name, that little town Sighet. The very existence of that town in the midst of so much hostility was a miracle then and is a miracle now.
For ten years you waited until you were ready to write about the Holocaust in your first book, Night .
I didn’t want to use the wrong words. I was afraid that words might betray it. I waited. I’m still not sure that it was the wrong move, or the right move, that is, whether to choose language or silence.
Maybe if we had kept quiet then—this is what I try to say in The Oath —maybe we wouldn’t have this fashionable phenomenon. The Holocaust would not have become a fashionable subject which I find as offensive, if not more so, than what we had before: ignorance of the subject.
But then you no longer would have been a messenger.
Sometimes you don’t have to speak in order to be heard, not when the message is so powerful. It used to be said that when the Baal Shem Tov came into a town his impact was so strong, he didn’t have to speak. His disciples had to dance or to sing or to preach to have the same effect. I think a real messenger, myself or anyone, by the very fact that he is there as a person, as a symbol, could have the same impact.
But often by remaining silent we lose communication.
That’s a danger. That’s why I did not keep silent. If I had thought that by my silence, or rather by our silence, we could have achieved something, I think I would have kept silent. I didn’t want to write those books. I wrote them against myself. But I realize that if we do not use words, the whole period will be forgotten. Therefore, we had to use them, faute de mieux.
What do you mean you didn’t want to write those books?
I didn’t want to write a book on the Holocaust. To write such a book, to be responsible for such experiences, for such words—I didn’t want that. I wanted to write a commentary on the Bible, to write about the Talmud, about celebration, about the great eternal subjects: love and happiness.
Exactly. I had to. It wasn’t voluntary. None of us wanted to write. Therefore when you read a book on the Holocaust, written by a survivor, you always feel this ambivalence. On one hand, he feels he must. On the other hand, he feels. if only I didn’t have to.
What happens when this conflict occurs inside of you? Does it change the nature of the work?
No, because the work itself then reflects the conflict. I incorporate it. Take The Oath. a novel set at the beginning of the century, about a village and ritual murder, nothing about the Holocaust. But then on another level, it is the Holocaust—not of the Jews but of the world. That’s why I called the village Kolvillàg. Villàg in Hungarian means world, and kol in Hebrew means all—the entire world.
On one hand there is the almost elemental force to write about something you don’t want to write about; on the other, there are the celebrations, which you enjoy writing about.
What about the process of each? Is it a struggle, for instance, to get up each morning to write about something you would prefer not to write about?
It depends. I don’t have many examples of writing about the Holocaust because I haven’t written that much about it. But there is never a struggle in the morning. It’s a pleasant agony. I am myself only when I work. I work for four hours without interruption. Then I stop for my studies. But these four hours are really mine. It is a struggle when I have to cut. I reduce nine hundred pages to one hundred sixty pages. I also enjoy cutting. I do it with a masochistic pleasure although even when you cut, you don’t. Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.
Have you destroyed the original nine hundred pages of Night ?
No, I have them. Others I destroy; Night is not a novel, it’s an autobiography. It’s a memoir. It’s testimony. Therefore I believe it should be kept and one day I may publish it because I have no right not to. It’s not mine.
After Night. why did you move away from the Holocaust?
If I moved away from the theme of the Holocaust it was to protect it. I didn’t want to abuse words; I didn’t want to repeat words. I want to surround the subject with a fence of kedushah. of sacredness. To me the sanctuary of Jewish history is there; therefore I wrote other things in order not to write about that. I wrote all kinds of novels and books on all kinds of subjects in order not to write about the Holocaust. I wrote about the Bible, Hasidism, Russian Jews. Somehow it was almost a conscious effort to go as far away as possible from the subject, to keep it as a block of silence.
You wrote on the subject of asceticism in your doctoral dissertation. Why has that never been published?
It wasn’t that urgent. I write under pressure. Every book that I have written corresponds to a certain immediacy. The Accident is about suicide; Dawn is urgent, political action; The Jews of Silence. Russian Jewry; Beggar in Jerusalem. war, isolation, survival. The dissertation on asceticism—Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism—can wait. Also, I never finished the degree. I didn’t really want to become a teacher. I become a journalist. In order to go on with my studies I needed an income from somewhere to pay my tuition. So I continued writing for newspapers. Later on, when I did become a teacher, whether I had a Ph.D. or not was superfluous. I received Ph.D.’s without asking for them.
I have always been attracted to mysticism, cabala. Of course I didn’t know any aspect but the Jewish one. I had a teacher who was a mystic. We tried all kinds of things together in mysticism. Later, I discovered that what all the religions had in common was suffering. Suffering is a basic problem in history or antihistory—how we deal with suffering. After I began exploring the subject, all kinds of avenues opened. I realized that Christianity is almost solely based on suffering. Then I wondered about the oriental religions.
During this period when you were studying in Paris, I know that you were greatly influenced by the existentialists. Was your exposure to them through books or in more personal ways?
First through books and then personally. I had never read novels before. The Talmud, but not novels. I discovered novels in Paris. And the novels then were existential ones. Kafka on one hand, Dostoyevsky on the other. And Malraux, Camus, Sartre. In those times a new Camus was an event in your life. People were waiting. I was waiting for the new Camus, the new Malraux, the new Mauriac, the new Montherlant. But I also met some of them. I was a student and they came to the university. Camus at that time was an editor of Combat. I was already, so to speak, a journalist. He was accessible; I saw him. Mauriac became a friend of mine; Gabriel Marcel, a Christian version of Buber, I knew. But the influence was really books.
In books such as Souls on Fire you describe Hasidism in an almost existential way. Hasidism was existential, you seem to be saying.
More or less. Born in the eighteenth century in eastern Europe, Hasidism gave hope to hopeless Jews while emphasizing the notion that the way to God is through one’s fellowman. Hasidism then was an existential experience. And that’s why it was so great and so sudden. It wasn’t philosophically clear to the Hasidim: the Hasid of Pshiskhe didn’t know that he was living a philosophical event, or engaged in a philosophical debate, yet we know that he was.
But there are differences. You imply in your writings that there is more joy, more mystical involvement in Hasidism than in existentialism.
Not in Hasidism but in my own work. I couldn’t add to Hasidism. It doesn’t need me to be enriched, but in my work—certainly. My characters are Hasidim who are unwittingly influenced by existentialism; or the other way around, existentialists, young people, often not knowing what they are, who are influenced by Hasidism.
Your characters seem a step beyond the existential characters.
Because they are Hasidim. My characters express themselves that way even if they aren’t Jewish. In The Town Beyond the Wall. Pedro, who is not Jewish, is an existentialist Hasid. Or Gregor in The Gates of the Forest. Most of my characters have this mixture of both.
In my novels, but not in my nonfiction. I don’t want to mislead. If I say it’s a memoir, it’s a memoir. If it’s a novel, it’s a novel. If I write about Rav Mordechai Shushani, I must make it clear he existed. That’s why I added another chapter about him in One Generation After .
Not in my novels. I am too personal, too private. I don’t talk about things that really happened to me. I like to be discreet about others, about myself.
No, Pedro is the ideal friend or the friend idealized. You write only about people you don’t have, people you want to have.
What about Moshe the Madman who reappears in your novels?
He represents the ultimate mystical madness of man. He is an archetypal character in my books. I have very few types in my novels. I build a world and people it with strange characters and they are always the same. Sometimes I take a projector, a flashlight, and illuminate one, and then the others are secondary characters. Other times I do the opposite.
Your characters frequently assist other people when they need help. But in The Oath Moshe didn’t help at the very time he could have. Why?
We are impotent; we are helpless. There is not much we can do. So we speak and we get mad. But madness can be anger, or madness can be clinical insanity, in which case it is destructive, or mystical madness, which is helpful. Moshe in my books is always mystical. Mystical madness is by nature a redemptive madness. It becomes a vehicle for redemption, while clinical madness is destructive.
Doesn’t mystical madness contain the possibility of man isolating himself?
It means solitude and isolation. But instead of becoming less sensitive to others, the person becomes more sensitive.
If a man withdraws for twenty years, and sees only a few disciples, is that becoming more or less sensitive?
That’s an exception. The Kotzker rebbe was an exception. Most Hasidic rebbes moved together with their disciples. They became saintlier and more mystical too, profoundly mystical, together with the community, not outside of it.
Do you try to approach the state of mystical madness when you write?
No, it would be presumptuous to say that. Of course, I try to enter my characters; they enter me. When I write about Moshe the Madman, I try to see him. Very often I do. But he was a real man. I move him around. I hear his voice, and I see his eyes. I am burned by his madness.
What do you think about the question of the madness of the artist?
What is good for me is not necessarily good for someone else. Writing is so personal, so profoundly and terribly personal. Your entire personality goes into every word. The hesitation between one word and another is filled with many centuries, much space. And you deal with it one way, because of what you are, and somebody else deals with it another way. There are no rules. Even technically, some writers need all kinds of idiosyncrasies. One took a wet cloth to his forehead; another had to get drunk; a third had to take drugs; Hemingway stood, another was sitting, another was lying. Would you say there are precepts that you have to sit or lie?
I am disciplined, hardworking. I have no superstitions. I conjure the perils.
When you begin a book, is there a particular approach you use?
Literature is a tone. It is a melody. If I find the melody of the book, the book is written. I remember The Town Beyond the Wall. I wrote one page—I remember exactly what time it was—I wrote one page and I knew the book was finished. I didn’t know what I was going to say—I never do—but I knew the book was done, or waiting to be done.
Every book has its own. It’s more than simple rhythm. It’s like a musical key, major or minor, but more so. If you have that key, you know you can go on—the book is there. It’s a matter of time. Before I begin to know more or less what I want to say: the ideas, the characters, the opinions. But the profound meaning of the book is within me; I still don’t know what it is. And then, suddenly, at the corner of a sentence, an astonishing discovery: this is where I was trying to go.
Do you choose the epigraphs before you begin or after?
Sometimes before, but usually after. At one point I understand what I am doing. Sometimes I stop in the middle of a book, sometimes at the end when I see something that strikes me, and that becomes the epigraph.
I remember the epigraph from The Gates of the Forest :
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.
It troubled me that when you repeated this epigraph in Souls on Fire. you added that it was no longer enough: “The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors? Especially the survivors?” What accounts for this revision?
In The Gates of the Forest I tried to transmit a story. In Souls on Fire I changed the story. The context was different. In other words, I tried to do something more and it wasn’t enough.
You have said elsewhere that you write only when “the pillow is on fire.” Does that mean that every time you write you feel obsessed?
Not always. I force myself to write. And often what I write is not good. I destroy it. Very, very often. But sometimes in the middle of writing, suddenly I feel it is there. Words are burning. Then I know it’s good. But at times I can rewrite a page ten times without changing a word. I feel I have to do something. And I write and write and write.
It must be very frustrating to rewrite a page ten times and not make any changes.
No, I did not come into this world in order to write a thousand pages. If I write one good page, it’s enough. If I write the same page ten times in order to find in the eleventh time the real page, I’m more than happy.
Usually the block occurs after the first book. In my case it didn’t. But if it had I would not have been unhappy. I have never felt blocked.
I imagine that your experience as a journalist helped.
Yes, the craft helped me to write anywhere—on a plane, in a café, while waiting.
Unlike a Hemingway, your tools weren’t so much the craft, as much as.
Knowledge. I needed knowledge. I knew that I needed ten years to start writing, and I was collecting all kinds of materials. That’s why I studied mysticism, that’s why I went to India, that’s why I studied languages and literature—all these were tools. Psychology too. In France in those times if you studied philosophy, one of the components was psychology. So I took a course in psychopathology for two years, and the courses were given at the St. Anne Psychiatric Hospital. It was a mental institution.
I am intrigued by the fact that you still write in French.
It’s my best medium. At this age—I don’t think it’s worthwhile to acquire another language or to perfect my English or abandon French which, after all, I mastered. It became my language. My constant challenge. The French language is Cartesian; it must be clear and concise. And yet I try to communicate something which is not precise or clear. I like that challenge. I also acquired French at a certain time of my life, after the war. If I had gone then, let us say, to England, I probably would have acquired English.
Before the war, I didn’t even know that French existed. I knew simply that there were foreign words. After the war, I had a psychological need to acquire a new vehicle, a new tool—everything new, as though now I would start living again. And that’s why French became so important. I can write an article in Yiddish but not a book. I have written one book in Yiddish, out of sentimental duty. I have written hundreds of articles in Hebrew. But I would not be able to write a book in Hebrew. I may feel inhibited. Isaiah wrote in Hebrew. and I write in Hebrew? In French I don’t have such inhibitions. True, Racine wrote French and I write French, but I am not saying what Racine is saying. While as a Jew of my generation, I am probably trying to say what Jeremiah tried to say. And yet, if I had gone to Israel in 1945 instead of France, I would probably have written in Hebrew.
Not really, though I like to experiment in literature. That’s why I wrote Ani Maamin as a poem. First I wrote the poem, then I gave it to Darius Milhaud. I wrote the words and he wrote the music. I went to Geneva once to see him. He was an old man and couldn’t move. I sang the Hasidic Ani Maamin. I wanted him to hear it. He comes from a Sephardic family where they never sang this kind of Ani Maamin. That was the only contact. He worked alone; I worked alone. In One Generation After. I develop another genre: the dialogue. I bring the dialogue back in A Jew Today. What are these dialogues? They are dialogues with the dead. Nobody else listens, nobody else hears.
I want to pursue the subject of the dialogues, but for the moment I want to discuss other experiments you have made in literature. For instance, why did you write a play about Russian Jews instead of a novel?
Desperation. I had written the book, The Jews of Silence. It appeared in some ten languages and had no impact. The Jewish establishment didn’t move. I went from one convention to another trying to alert people, in vain. I became desperate. I wanted to try something that no one else had tried. A report did not help Russian Jewry, a nonfiction book did not help, so I wrote a play—same results.
I know you had some problems with the play in Israel.
The Habima Theatre produced it. They shortened it and added material from other books I have written. They changed the name to The Jews of Silence —they didn’t know that I had written a book with the same title. They had promised a certain actor, a certain director, and suddenly they put before me a fait accompli. They wrote me a letter which said, “Except for a few parts which we omitted and a few parts which we added, and except for a different director, and a different name, the play is the same.” I wanted to stop it. It wasn’t easy because I cannot hurt Israel. The play became a great commercial success in Israel. But it wasn’t my play. I went on television and appealed to the public not to see it.
As a result of the experience, have you decided not to write any more plays?
I just finished one! It’s a kind of Purimschpiel, a play that was customarily performed on Purim, the annual day of fools, children, and beggars. Its title is The Trial of God. and it takes place somewhere in Russia in the year 1649. When I had written Zalmen. which deals with the plight of contemporary Russian Jewry, I thought it would be my only play. But you don’t really decide. At one point, the subject comes and seizes you and imposes upon you its own rhythm, its own mode. I hinted in some of my books at a scene I had witnessed in the camp: God being judged by three rabbis. One day I decided that since I was the one who had witnessed it, I had to do justice to the theme. I wrote almost a full novel. It didn’t work. I wrote a poem. It didn’t work. I wrote a kind of dialogue, not a play, but a dialogue. It didn’t work. Then I decided I would move the same theme back to the sixteenth century. And it worked. It’s no longer in a camp, it’s somewhere else. And it’s no longer a tragedy but a comedy. It’s a Purimschpiel. And the only way to do such a Purimschpiel, as a Purimschpiel, is a play. You can indict God on Yom Kippur; it’s a tragedy. But indict God on Purim, it’s not even a tragedy. It’s much more. It goes one step beyond. It’s laughter, philosophical laughter, metaphysical farce.
You said that you tried different forms before you were satisfied with the Purimschpiel. I wonder why you have never written a film based on one of your novels and why they have never been made into films.
I have always resisted. I don’t think it can be done. In one way I have no rights over my books. They all belong to my French publisher, Le Seuil. It’s the general practice in France. Therefore options were often bought, even for Night. I didn’t want that. I tried to sabotage the process. Usually it ends when the producer asks, “Would you like to write a script? Or would you like to advise?” Then I start explaining it’s impossible.
It is very difficult to express mysticism on film.
It’s not only mysticism. My books are either mystical books or, in the beginning, they were about the Holocaust. I don’t believe either can be done on film. I don’t believe they should be.
Yet you participated in making the film Sighet , Sighet .
That was a documentary. The producer went to my town and took stills. I simply narrated it in New York. This is a story I had written for Legends of Our Time. I simply took the text that had been published in Commentary and read it in a studio. The story describes my return to my hometown, which I did not recognize. Not because it had changed so much, but quite the opposite: because it had not changed. Everything remained the same: the streets, gardens, houses, schools, shops. Only—the Jews were no longer there. They had all been driven out twenty years earlier, in 1944. And yet, the town seemed to get along without them.
I would, but I wouldn’t be involved in any other type of film.
I have always thought The Gates of the Forest would make a superb movie—the descriptions of the “clouds which weighed upon the night.”
It was just bought again. But I don’t think they will make it.
If you were giving advice to a young writer, what would you tell him?
First, to read. I never taught creative-writing courses. I believe in creative reading. That’s what I am trying to teach—creative reading. I’d assign the Scripture and Midrash, Ovid and Kafka, Thomas Mann and Camus, Plato and André Schwarz-Bart. A writer must first know how to read. You can see whether a person is a writer by the way he reads a text, by the way he deciphers a text. I’d also say to a young writer, if you can choose not to write, don’t. Nothing is as painful. From the outside, people think it’s good; it’s easy; it’s romantic. Not at all. It’s much easier not to write than to write. Except if you are a writer. Then you have no choice.
What is your present routine? Do you spend most of your time in New York?
We live in New York. I teach in Boston. Once a week I go to Boston for a whole day. I teach and see my students. The rest of the time I work here, except when I go out of town to lecture, which I am doing less and less. Once a year I go to France. I used to go more often. I also go to Jerusalem once a year.
We almost moved to Boston. But the few friends we have live in New York, and friends are important. Otherwise, I don’t participate in a social life.
What about your activities besides teaching and writing? For instance, are you still involved in helping Russian Jewry?
In the beginning my activities were more visible because no one else did anything. I published The Jews of Silence in 1966. And I returned to Moscow in 1966. As I said earlier, in those years it was impossible to make the Jewish organizations do anything. Until 1971, they refused even to establish an American conference on Soviet Jewry. Now it’s a cause célèbre. What do I do? I speak with senators and people who have power; I send friends to Russia to create contacts. Whatever can be done, I try to do.
Why after the war did you not go on to Palestine from France?
I had no certificate. In 1946 when the Irgun blew up the King David Hotel, I decided I would like to join the underground. Very naively I went to the Jewish Agency in Paris. I got no further than the janitor who asked: “What do you want?” I said, “I would like to join the underground.” He threw me out. About 1948 I was a journalist and helped one of the Yiddish underground papers with articles, but I was never a member of the underground.
I am surprised to hear you say you wanted to join since the notion of killing is so foreign to you.
Still, at that point, I felt I had to do something. I could only hope that if I had become a member I would not have had to kill. In 1946 I wanted to do something. The Jewish people were awakening, and my place was with the Jewish people. Whatever the Jews were doing, I had to be with them. Everything about the underground was alien to me. I was against killing, against violence.
A Christian friend of mine recently told me that by being in Israel in the wars of 1967 and 1973, I was indirectly helping to kill.
I was there in 1967 and in 1973 too. But I didn’t have a gun. I came to help the Israelis. To say that they were killers is not true. They were being killed as well. They were fighting. It’s a paradox. I don’t pretend to be able to solve the paradoxes in me. There are many paradoxes which are part of my life. I am absolutely a pacifist, against violence, surely against killing, and yet I am totally for Israel. Maybe because I believe that they really don’t want to fight. And whenever they do, they don’t fight as others do. They never celebrate their military heroes. In 1967, when they won, and it was a just war, they were sad. All the generals were sad. In 1973, they were so sad they didn’t talk. I remember that when I came back from a one-day visit to the Golan Heights, I couldn’t talk.
Several people who have known you for a long time said that you have changed since your marriage and the birth of your son.
Of course. My son changed me. Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world. There was more anger in me before. There still is, but now it’s a different kind of anger. It’s more positive.
Everything. At history, at the world, at God, at myself, at whatever surrounded me.
I didn’t, I contained it. All my writing was born out of anger. In order to contain it, I had to write. If I had not written, I would have exploded.
The anger didn’t have a particular focus? You weren’t angry at the Germans or the past?
There was accumulated anger but not personal anger at Germans, or Poles, or Hungarians, or at the silent witnesses, at the silent onlookers. During those years, all that happened day after day and minute after minute intensified my anger. But I didn’t show it. I didn’t express it. I sublimated it by writing about something else, by writing about the glory of Jewish life, by writing about the joy of Hasidism, by writing about the Bible.
Then you were aware that the anger disappeared once your son was born?
It didn’t disappear. It is still present. Except now it’s on a different level. Today I occasionally let it burst out. I speak up and fight for Israel, for Russian Jews and so forth. I’m angrier now than then.
Has your son enabled you to see a joyous side of life?
Both joyous and not. When I see my son, I am full of joy, full of fear. I realize how vulnerable life is, how vulnerable Jewish life is. The past has never disappeared. I imagine other fathers look at their children the way I look at mine. I feel real fear. Whenever he is not at home, I am afraid. I am sure this fear is rooted in a deeper fear. At the same time, nothing gives me as much joy as my son.
You have said that you wrote The Accident with a sense of urgency because of the question of suicide. Did you ever contemplate suicide?
I did, but not that way. After the war, there was a point when I felt I could have slid into death. I was sick. It was a strange moment. I haven’t written about it yet. I felt on the edge. I was seeing the land of the dead, and I was no longer alive. It was strong, dark, powerful. I knew I was dying, and if I had not resisted, I would have died. The resistance itself was a conscious decision.
First, in Germany. I was sick for some ten days. I was in a coma. I had blood poisoning. Out of twenty thousand people who were liberated, at least five thousand died in those days. We all had blood poisoning. After five or six days of total starvation, we were given the wrong food by Americans who liberated the camp. In my case, it was even worse. They distributed ham or some kind of pork. If anyone had given me pork during the war, I would have eaten it. After, when I was already free, I brought the pork, or ham, or Spam, whatever it was, to my lips, and I got blood poisoning. But other people who didn’t have these problems or these inhibitions, or the psychosomatic reactions that I had, also died of blood poisoning, stomach trouble, and so forth.
Yes. When I was hit by a taxi in New York, I was brought to Roosevelt Hospital, which didn’t want to accept me. I was in a coma. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have anything. They sent me away in an ambulance, and we went to New York Hospital. A surgeon named Paul Braunstein saved my life. The Accident is dedicated to him.
Do you still have difficulty walking for more than five minutes?
Yes. That’s why I sit when I lecture, instead of standing. I can walk a maximum of ten minutes. After ten minutes, I am tired.
I want to return to an earlier subject. You spoke of your dialogues with the dead and of being on the edge of life. Are you still near the abyss?
I haven’t left it. I don’t think anyone can, once you have been there. There isn’t a day, there simply isn’t a day without my thinking of death or of looking into death, darkness, or seeing that fire or trying to understand what happened. There isn’t a day. I don’t write about it. I don’t speak about it. I try not to touch the subject at all, but it is present.
I believe that all the survivors are mad. One time or another their madness will explode. You cannot absorb that much madness and not be influenced by it. That is why the children of survivors are so tragic. I see them in school. They don’t know how to handle their parents. They see that their parents are traumatized: they scream and don’t react normally.
At Stanford, a boy came up to me crying and sobbing. He took me aside and told me his father was a survivor. “Will he ever stop being a survivor?” he asked me. The children are now more tragic than their parents.
I wonder if your struggle also involves melancholy, as in the title of your book: Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy .
That’s mainly the Hasidic struggle. I identify with the Hasidic experience. When I lecture, I don’t speak about subjects that make people cry. I don’t want people to cry; I want them to laugh. I want them to sing. They cried enough. Also, it’s too easy to cry—instant catharsis. Nothing is easier than that. I want them to laugh.
That seems outside your character. I don’t see you expressing laughter.
You don’t express laughter, you communicate it. You cannot express it because once you do, it is no longer laughter. Bergson said the joke you explain is no longer a joke. Philosophical laughter may be a response.
Do you try to communicate philosophical laughter when you appear before audiences?
No, I try to teach. I am a teacher. My main objective in lecturing is to teach. I like to teach. I don’t like to give one lecture and go away. At the YM-YWHA in New York the same people come year after year. Part of my knowledge is invested in them. If you ask what I want to achieve, it’s to create an awareness, which is already the beginning of teaching.
What is the connection between your teaching and your writing?
Teaching helps me. If it were to entertain, I would stop because my first commitment is to writing. Teaching forces me to prepare. I prepare a lot. Fortunately, I always use my lectures later in my books. I can’t afford to waste research, so I use it.
Earlier you spoke of the Hasid in you. What is your relationship today with the Hasidic community?
Obviously not what it was when I was very young. Then it was simple. I had a rebbe, which, of course, is Hasidic for “rabbi,” and he was my teacher, my master, my guide. That rebbe died, his son died, and his children I no longer know. But still, in my memory, I am faithful to the first rebbe I knew as a child. Now I feel at home within every Hasidic community. Not all accept me. The Satmarer, very fanatic, were close to me when I was a child. The Satmar rebbe comes from my town. His assistants are childhood friends. Still they don’t accept me. They don’t accept any Jew who is not part of their sect. For them, the Jewish people number maybe ten or twenty thousand souls. I feel at home with the others. I feel more at home among Hasidim than among secular Jews because of my childhood experiences.
Do you spend much time with the Hasidic community?
I stay in close touch with Hasidim, but I go less to their synagogues. I go to the Lubavitch “evenings” because they are so colorful. The Lubavitch community is in Brooklyn; its head is Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Thousands of followers gather there on those festive occasions to listen to their Master—and sing with him. I used to go more often. Now I’m more involved in books, Hasidic books.
There seems to be an irreconcilable split between Hasidic Jews and secular Jews.
There always was. The opponents of the Hasidic movement were strong. Hasidism won because of its fervor. Also its sense of history: Hasidism came at a certain time in a certain place. Today, Hasidism is gaining, especially among young people. I dislike the extremists of either side though. I dislike all fanatics. They exist within the Hasidic community but at least they are a small minority. The majority is tolerant, and its attitude toward secular Jews is kinder than it was in the beginning.
Now, being almost fifty years old and without the innocence I had when I was really a Hasid, I would make the tradition stricter. I would like the Hasid to start by learning. Learning is more important to Judaism than anything I know. To learn and to learn and to learn; then to find himself or herself in the Hasidic framework. It should not be at the expense of learning. In other words, what I don’t like today is, to put it coarsely, the phony Hasidism, the phony mysticism. Many students say, “Teach me mysticism.” It’s a joke. If you want to study mysticism, start by studying the Bible, then the prophets, then Midrash, and then the Talmud, and then and then and then, and finally at a certain age, you enter mysticism. Today they don’t even know how to read Hebrew. And they come and say, teach me mysticism. Some of them think it’s easy to be a Hasid because they don’t know what it means; to them it’s a mystical movement. Of course, not all. Some are enlightened and learned.
No, and yet there is no other way. By that I mean if you don’t learn, you cannot. That doesn’t mean if you learn you are a mystic. But if you don’t, you are not.
Aren’t there people like Kazantzakis who have been spontaneous mystics?
Kazantzakis was a great scholar. You can have a mystical temperament, an inclination. If, on the strength of that, you go on studying, fine. But if you don’t study, you never will. Mysticism without study is impossible.
I suppose I was thinking of some of the simpler forms of mysticism, the peasants of Europe, for instance, who have a mystical experience and the Church declares it a miracle.
That’s a passing thing. Mysticism is more serious than that. Miracles in mysticism don’t occupy such an important place. It’s a metaphor, for the peasants, for the crowds, to impress people. What does mysticism really mean? It means the way to attain knowledge. It’s close to philosophy, except in philosophy you go horizontally while in mysticism you go vertically. You plunge into it. Philosophy is a slow process of logic and logical discourse: A bringing B bringing C and so forth. In mysticism you can jump from A to Z. But the ultimate objective is the same. It’s knowledge. It’s truth.
Yes, but even there it’s study. They study the Gitas and the Upanishads and we study our texts, the Zohar and other mystical works. Their relationship between student and teacher is more strenuous and also more intense than ours. In our case, one teacher may have many students, many disciples. There it’s one-to-one. The real guru has one student. And their secret is one secret. The ritual is different.
You once said you don’t write about God. What do you mean?
God comes in here and there in my books. I oppose Him. I fight Him. I quarrel with Him. Some of my characters pray to Him. But when I say I don’t speak about God, it means theologically, the whole theological art, which is a way of reaching the attributes of God: What is He doing? Who is He?
Are these questions often unsaid, unwritten in your books?
Yes. I am very concerned, even obsessed, with God.
So by implication you are doing what you don’t want to be doing?
Again yes, but not with words. I rarely speak about God. To God, yes. I protest against Him. I shout at Him. But to open a discourse about the qualities of God, about the problems that God imposes, theodicy, no. And yet He is there, in silence, in filigree.
In Night. you wrote, “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my Faith forever.” Yet faith permeates your work.
This may sound like a contradiction but it is not. I had to include those words in Night and I had to write the later books. If it were the other way around, it would be a contradiction. But Night was a beginning and an end. Furthermore, the problem of faith is never solved. In Night. only those who did not believe in God did not deny Him. I could say now too—only those who do not believe in God have easy faith in Him.
If each character in Messengersof God were compared with God, each character would come out ahead.
Of course. If I have to choose between God and man, I will choose man because God wins. So what’s the point? To help God win? He will win anyway. We are all His victims. But before being His victims, we are His associates.
I have great difficulties praying, even the simple prayers. To read a prayer book, especially today, in English translation, makes me feel uneasy. I have great difficulties.
No, I think a real rebbe would say the same thing. But then he would pray. The Pshiskhe rebbe used to say that he was angry at God all the time. But afterwards, he would pray. I am angry too, and I say that I have difficulties praying, but I go to the synagogue with Hasidim, and I stay with them and occasionally pray with them.
Kierkegaard stresses God. I stress the Hasidim, the Jews with whom I pray. Sometimes I go to the synagogue not to be with God, but to be with the Jews.
What is there in Judaism that has enabled so many to accept on blind faith the continual record of God’s “inhumanity” to man?
At the very beginning of our history we suffered. We began in suffering, and the suffering continued into our history. Second, as a challenge, a strange defiance, a mutual defiance. God and the people of Israel somehow try to see who will tire the other out first.
Not always. God does not always win because God says in the Talmud I want to lose; I want to be defeated by my own children. In all kinds of legends He loses. But in history He wins because we all die. Malraux said something beautiful: At the end, death is the victor, but as long as I live, with every breath I take, death is defeated. In our tradition, I would phrase it differently: Man, as long as he lives, is immortal. One minute before his death he shall be immortal. But one minute later, God wins.
Doesn’t God also win if man is alive, but barely alive; if he is suffering?
No. If man suffers he can still speak up. Job did. Jeremiah did. However, when God’s unfair practices enter, God may always say that He wanted them. There is no superiority in any independent rebellion against God.
Here we come to the existential rebellion. I lose and still I rebel—for my own dignity. Although I know I will never defeat God, I still fight Him. Suddenly the role of man is greatly enhanced. Therefore his defeat is not really a defeat.
Absolutely. Not only against God. Art means rebellion. Art means to say no.
A painter would say, That’s not the way I see nature. I will show you how I see nature. Furthermore, your Nature, God, dies. Mine will stay. If it’s Picasso, he will say, man doesn’t have two eyes but three; if it’s Braque, he will say, man doesn’t have these kinds of lines, he has different kinds of lines; Goya will say man is cruel, but not the way you think he is; if it’s in poetry, the poet will say no to prose, life is poetry. I say to God, you want me to do this, I will not. You want me to forget my village, I will not. Art means for man to say no to death, too.
So the artist is able to defeat God through the immortality of his art?
Yes, if you confound God and death, which is quite plausible. The Malach Ha Mavet. the Angel of Death, and God together because both, so to say, are immortal. Except in “Had Ga Ya” on Pesach [Passover], when we say that God killed the Angel of Death. Still, I have doubts. Let me give an example. I write books because there was a tragedy. I try to bring some characters back and defeat death, defeat the killer, defeat God. But one day of one child weighs more than all the books that I could ever write. So what kind of a victory is it? Beckett once told me he found a manuscript of Quand Malone meurt. On the manuscript he found an epigraph, which is not printed in the book: “En désespoir de cause ,” which means that’s the only thing I can do—write.
Do you mean to say that because God sets the parameters we have no choice? The only way we can defeat Him is through something beyond the self—art?
If there were a domain then it would be art. But why defeat Him in that case?
Not for its own sake, certainly not for His sake, but for our sake.
Perhaps to show that we can create in life something that can live beyond us.
But why against God? Why not life-centered? Man-centered?
Must we take on God to elevate man? Why don’t we take on man to elevate man? Unless you accept a religious exigency in man, God is much less important in art. God is important in the Bible, in life, but not in art. Unless you admit that there is some religious aspect to art, which is possible. Or unless you yourself are religiously motivated.
My writing may be a response to a religious need, not a religion.
I have thought that you and Joyce have many parallels. Even your words are often similar. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist. he writes of silence and cunning. Would you say that in some ways his transposition of Catholicism to art is similar to your transposition of Judaism to art?
Not entirely. My preoccupations are not his preoccupations. My preoccupation—it depends whether in the novels, the memoirs, or the nonfiction—is memory. God being the source of memory, I’m preoccupied with God. Why the good are punished and the wicked rewarded is the second question. The first question is, How can I achieve a situation in which the victims, all the victims, can enter memory? That is my major preoccupation—memory, the kingdom of memory. I want to protect and enrich that kingdom, glorify that kingdom and serve it. God from the religious point of view is part of that kingdom. But my concerns go far beyond it.
Memory is really the uncreated memory of the race?
Of the species. If I could remember, what would I remember? What would I dare to remember? The fact that we have selective memories may be bad or may be good. I would lose my mind if I remembered everything. Every child, every old man, every sick man, every victim. I would go insane. Here again we have a dichotomy, the ambivalent attitude. On one hand, I want to preserve every single aspect, every gesture, every look, every word; and on the other hand, I would fail.
For them and for me. If I am here and they are not, they must be in me.
If it’s the memory of the species, how do you know where to begin?
In the beginning, in my own mind, in my memory—that’s why I go back to childhood. Strangely enough, I have always been attracted to beginnings: the beginning of the world, the beginning of the Hasidic movement, the beginning of the cabalistic movement, the beginning of the war, the beginning of my life in my shtetl.
Oh, I love Proust. We all learned from him how to go back in time. The difference is that Proust stayed in his room, and he observed himself. He was Proust lying in his bed looking at Proust at the window who was looking at Proust in bed. In our generation’s case, we are always in the middle. We are never on the outside. Whatever happens, happens to us.
I don’t. To be a chronicler would be a great honor.
Similar to the character of your father, in The Oath ?
It’s a different kind of recording. Journalism is too immediate, too monotonous and superficial. A chronicler is alone in his room and writes. A journalist is rarely alone. He writes about other people, and the essential is always missed. I was a journalist long enough to know. You write only of the fleeting moment—the most dramatic, the most visible, not the underlying reasons.
Do you think in some way you will be able to recapture the past?
I am trying, like Sisyphus. He knows he will not succeed, but he is trying. I know I will never recapture the past in its entirety because no matter what, the past is richer than the future.
It has been said that you write in an eternal present, but it seems that you are really writing in an eternal past.
An eternal past expressed in the present. To me time, as an element of art, is the most challenging concept, and therefore I play with it. I run from the present to the past, especially in French where there are so many pasts—passé défini , passé composé. and so forth. I run from tense to tense to show this vertical approach to the past.
Not for a personal one. But I am waiting for something. It may be forever, but I would not want to stop waiting.
Life would be empty. If everything were concentrated in the present, there would be no possibility of transcending the present. We are suspended between the absolute past and the absolute future over which we have no control. It’s a creeping flame. Sometimes it bends one way, sometimes the other way. Sometimes it brings light and sometimes fire—life or destruction. Take away the waiting, what remains? I think the Messianic concept, which is the Jewish offering to mankind, is a great victory. What does it mean? It means that history has a sense, a meaning, a direction; it goes somewhere, and necessarily in a good direction—the Messiah. At least we would like to think that history is going in that direction. But I think it’s going in the wrong direction. We are heading towards catastrophe. I think the world is going to pieces. I am very pessimistic. Why? Because the world hasn’t been punished yet, and the only punishment that could be adequate is the nuclear destruction of the world.
The Jews, but not the world. And if the world were punished now we would be punished as well. I don’t want the world to be punished, anything but that. Yet logically there must be punishment, the signs point to a terrible catastrophe. Cambodia can happen today. A million people liquidated there, and nobody cares, nobody shouts. The Cambodians stopped all telephone communications with the outside world. They uprooted everybody from the cities. People died of starvation and hunger. They broke up families. They broke up communities. It was genocide, and nobody paid any attention. It doesn’t stand to reason. It cannot go without punishment. If you think of the Holocaust, of course there must be punishment. And think of all the other things that happen—pollution. In two villages of New Jersey, people suddenly develop cancer. Why there? A friend of mine in New York told me he has hundreds of people working for him and in the last seven months, five families were struck with cancer. We create and produce many nuclear weapons. Can we continue with impunity? Tomorrow a man may push a button in the Kremlin or Washington; or worse, Idi Amin, for five hundred million dollars, may buy an atomic bomb. And he would push the button. He is crazy. Or Qaddafi, who is a fanatic and crazy. Imagine Ahmad Shukairy, Yasir Arafat’s predecessor and the chief of a group that was a forerunner of the PLO, having the bomb in 1967. Don’t you think he would have used it? Nobody thinks of these possibilities. There is an apathy born out of fear. People don’t want to face these things. People prefer not to think.
Is the punishment going to come from God or from man?
From man. Ourselves. I don’t think that God will intervene. It will be mankind. It’s almost the logical outgrowth of the situation. Strangely enough, the only thing that can save mankind would be a real awareness of the Holocaust. I don’t believe anything else has the moral power. That’s why I reacted so strongly towards the television dramatization of the Holocaust. You don’t take such an event and reduce it. The Holocaust was a shield. We were protected. The Jewish people were shielded, as was the world, because of that event, for forty years. Demystify it or banalize it, it loses its power. If it’s something you can’t imagine, something that you can’t reproduce, it has power.
Even if we cannot, we must. That’s why I am teaching; that’s why I am writing. It’s not only because I am near the abyss and I see the dead. It is also because I see the living.
Is there anyone who is doing what should be done and saying what should be said?
Nobody possesses the total truth. We all have fragments, sparks. The problem is that truth has become something that doesn’t interest people. I come from a tradition where truth mattered more than anything in the world. Today truth is not a commodity. What matters is image, efficiency, rapidity. truth has disappeared. After my review of the television program about the Holocaust appeared in The New York Times. I received a very moving letter from one of the most important judges in the country. He said that he agreed with everything I wrote, but also understood that the program did some good. But what about truth? Truth becomes something we can do without. Let me push it to the limits: If truth were bad for the Jews but half-truth good for the Jews, these people would say better half-truth than truth. I can’t accept that. People don’t have convictions anymore. I don’t know what kind of a generation this is. maybe it is still the result of my generation. Policy is being made in Washington in response to polls. The same thing is true of our Jewish leadership—no convictions. It’s only what’s favorable or favorably received that influences policy decisions. Yet here and there are people—Sartre in France, for instance. When he was old and blind, I had respect for the man. I don’t agree with everything he said, but he had convictions. He knew what he was saying. Camus was another. Absolute convictions. I respected him throughout. There are people in this category. Some are less known, writers and scholars. Yet the sum of their fragments is still not the truth. And that is tragic.
That’s why life is not a happy event in the absolute sense of the word. It’s always a tragedy, by definition. It’s short. We come from nowhere; we go nowhere. And in the eyes of the pyramids, as Napoleon would say, what are we? Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav once saw a man running. His name was Haim. He called him and said: “Haim, look outside, what do you see?” He said, “I see the clouds in the sky.” “What else do you see?” “I see horses and wagons and people running.” “Haim, Haim, a hundred years from now there will be clouds and people will run and horses will run and I will not be here and you will not be here, then why are you running?”
I think that people allow themselves to be fooled because if they accepted the truth, in some cases, they wouldn’t be able to go on living.
Truth is a tremendous passion. It can become a positive passion. I can understand why people fight in the name of truth and do anything in the name of truth—even things I wouldn’t do. But when they act in the name of something that is not truth, that is the problem.
Why would somebody passionately seek out such a horror as the truth of Cambodia?
Because it happens, because it’s true, because I am a contemporary of the victims and of the killers. It’s a small planet. How can I not know? The same thing happened during the Holocaust. An Israeli army major wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Holocaust; he went through the newspapers, and he lost his mind—literally. He had to be institutionalized. He had read the American Jewish papers, the Forward. and other publications. On the front pages he read reports of the ghettos being liquidated, communities being massacred, and on the inside pages he found ads—Go and enjoy your summer in the Catskills. See the comedian Mr. So-and-So. A student at City College went through all the bulletins of one particular synagogue, one of the most famous in New York. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising began on April 19th, it was the eve of Pesach; two days later on the 21st, The New York Times had a full story.* Not one mention was made in the bulletin in subsequent weeks of the Warsaw Ghetto. The sermon a week later did not include the Warsaw Ghetto. I don’t understand it. How could they go on? The same thing I don’t understand today. How can we go on knowing of Cambodia?
Somewhere people listen and in their own ways will try to do something.
I wish. I ask Moynihan, Kissinger, others. It’s become my obsession, whomever I meet. No matter what we talk about, at one point I must come back to Cambodia. The United Nations didn’t even take up the subject. It’s like a sealed wagon in the time of the Holocaust, and I don’t like to use images, just like that, from the Holocaust. The country has become a sealed wagon and nobody cares. But then why should they? If the world was indifferent a generation ago, why should it care now?
Maybe that’s why we are going to be punished.
It’s already the beginning of the punishment.
You have written that every generation has its own prophet. Who is our prophet?
He is a dead prophet and a living prophet. As a Jew I would say that our prophets are in the past. Jeremiah is my prophet. To me he is still alive. And my prophet is also someone whom I knew during the war. He was a child. I never knew his name. I never knew where he came from, but we were together in the camp. I can see him walking. I can hear him talking. He uses simple words. He says, “Are we going to have soup tonight? Are we going to have potatoes? Are we going to have bread tonight? Are we going to live tomorrow?” He is the prophet of my generation.
The same. Except the problems that I have to face in regard to this boy are not the same as the ones they have to face in regard to him. When I think of him, I feel compassion and love but no remorse. When they think of him, they feel remorse as well. It’s not because of me that he was there but because of them.
Unless we accept small measures of victory. There is Israel, for us at least. What no other generation had, we have. We have Israel in spite of all the dangers, the threats and the wars, we have Israel. We can go to Jerusalem. Generations and generations could not and we can. In my time, anyone could beat up a Jew with impunity. We were beaten up twice a year. If a Jew was killed in a pogrom, who cared? Today it’s not that easy. Again the paradox. We never had better conditions, not even two thousand years ago in the time of the Temple. At the same time, we have the weight of memories—visions of horror.
My favorite expression, the most Jewish of all Jewish expressions is “and yet, and yet.” It’s bad, and yet; it’s good, and yet. I choose for myself the role of teacher, storyteller, witness, sometimes they overlap. And you hope that the abyss will not grow. You don’t try to reduce it; it would be unfair to the dead. But at least you hope that the abyss will not grow larger.
Walking close to the abyss, your dialogues with the dead, what price have you paid for what you once referred to as “messianic experiments”?
I as a person? That is irrelevant. For some of us, survivors, death is a constant measurement. I am trying to look for simplicity, for simple joys and small miracles. I am looking for them but once they are there, I discard them. If you are a survivor, you are in a way invulnerable. At the same time, you are more vulnerable because you are more fragile, more sensitive. Wounds hurt more. That is the price. It is high. There is a paradox: nobody is stronger, nobody is weaker than someone who came back. There is nothing you can do to such a person because whatever you could do is less than what has already been done to him. We have already paid the price.
You can’t know. That is the danger. The rate of suicides among survivors is very high, especially those who wrote. Terrible things happened to these people. For them every moment is a victory. At the same time despair is a temptation. And it is powerful. In French there is a word for it: le vertige. dizziness. You are strong and at the same time open to pain. The slightest wound opens a thousand others.
It provides a vision but not a normal vision. You know the truth, but as I said through one of my characters, it’s the truth of a madman. What else is there beyond that knowledge?
That is why I am seeking mystical experiences. In mysticism there is always a beyond. It’s infinite. In philosophy you stop with a wall, not in mysticism. I know, we know, that knowledge is there. When you see the abyss, and we have looked into it, then what? There isn’t much room at the edge—one person, another, not many. If you are there, others cannot be there. If you are there, you become a protective wall. What happens? You become part of the abyss. But the word may be misleading. It means many things. Fear. Fear of forgetting. And of remembering. Fear of madness.
You become a wall protecting others from the abyss?
Certainly. Then you become, in the best sense, part of the abyss. You push them away. They don’t come too close for the danger is in being immunized. I have some immunity. The madness in me is immunity. It’s bad and good. Whatever I could say, the opposite is as true a statement.
In a beautiful way, my son. I can’t afford tumbling. If things go badly, I think of my son. Strange, if things go badly or well, I think of two people—my father and my son. Sometimes I see the same gestures in my son. I have protection—my son, my wife, my close friends. I could count them on five fingers.
What about Rav Mordechai Shushani? Where did you and he meet?
We met in Paris and I stayed with him for several years. He was a strange man. A genius who looked like a bum, or a clown. He pushed me to the abyss. But he believed in that. One day I am going to write a monograph about him. His concept was to shock, to shake you up, to push you further and further. If you don’t succeed, too bad. But you must risk it. If I had stayed with him longer, I don’t know what would have happened.
He did. I heard stories later when I began picking up pieces looking for him. He did it with the best of intentions. Few people have had such an influence on my life as he did.
Here and there a teacher, a friend. But he is probably the strongest. He’s the opposite of Professor Saul Lieberman, who is no longer alive, but whom I considered to be the greatest Jewish scholar of his day. One cannot study the Talmud without the help of his commentaries. He was my friend and my teacher. Shushani, on the other hand, was not my friend. Surely he possessed a certain strength and power; so did Professor Lieberman—but his was not frightening.
I don’t know. I know two things. One, I am going in a concentric circle. That I set out to do. I came from the outside and I am going deeper and deeper. I don’t know what I will find there. I know the moment I find the last point, I will stop. Maybe I will never find it. I also know that I haven’t begun. It’s a strange feeling. I say to myself, you have written this and this and this, and you haven’t even begun. That doesn’t mean that I deny my work. On the contrary, I stand behind every word I have written. There isn’t a book I would not write the same way today. There isn’t a story I would disown, not a word. My entire life and entire work are behind every line. At the same time, on the edge you see so much. I haven’t even begun to communicate what I have seen.
* Six days before the uprising, on April 13, 1943, The New York Times published an article on the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. On April 22, 1943, and April 23, 1943, The New York Times published articles on the uprising.
How did you feel about being classed as a minimalist?
None of us have ever known what that means. Carver was incensed by it! If you look at what the term originally referred to, in painting and sculpture of the seventies, there is no analogy to what was going on in certain new writers of the time. Are my sentences like Raymond Carver’s? They simply are not, sentence by sentence, and I can’t see that any work is built except word by word, sentence by sentence. I love Raymond Carver’s work. I love it more than my own work, but I’m not interchangeable with Raymond Carver, and he’s not interchangeable with Frederick Barthelme.
That said, in the seventies a lot of us stopped tracking characters in a conventional way. In Carver’s story “Fat,” you don’t see what the floor of the restaurant looks like. You could see it, but you don’t. You don’t know what the street traffic is like outside. It’s set up more like a play, in which the scenery can’t change unless it’s during intermission. And in a very brief story, there often is no intermission.
The interplay between character and external world is something that realist writers always dealt with conscientiously, and it started to drop out with minimalism. Hemingway dropped it out, too, but even in his stories there tends to be a volley going on between the environment and the character. Carver won’t say what the volley is. None of us will.
I guess you might say that minimalism resides in certain omissions, in trusting, à la Beckett, that if you give the sparest sort of context—two people in a trash can, a road at night—it will be like a dreamscape for people’s projections. If you look at “Are These Actual Miles,” in spite of the fact that the wife is off somewhere, and we increasingly understand what she’s doing, Carver nevertheless keeps the reader in the house. Then there’s the neighbor out the window, watering the lawn. What could be more extraneous? I can make a lot of the neighbor symbolically; I can make many assertions about him. The point is, Carver lets us see so little outside. What’s on camera is the main character, separated from the action elsewhere, getting increasingly anxious. Tension builds for the character and for the reader because the reader can’t do anything about his limited environment. In Madame Bovary. hypothetically, Emma could run off across the fields! (Which I guess is what she did, and look at all the trouble it caused.)