Night is a work by Elie Wiesel, based on his experience, as a young Orthodox Jew, of being sent with his family to the German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Second World War.
Wiesel was 16 years old when Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945. Having lost his faith in God and humanity, he vowed not to speak of his experiences for ten years, at the end of which he wrote his story in Yiddish, which was published in Buenos Aires in 1955. In May that year, the French novelist François Mauriac persuaded him to write the story for a wider audience. Fifty years later, the 109-page volume, described as devastating in its simplicity, ranks alongside Primo Levi's If This Is a Man and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature.
Wiesel deploys a sparse and fragmented narrative style, with frequent shifts in point of view. It is "the style of the chroniclers of the ghettos," he writes, "where everything had to be said swiftly, with one breath. You never knew when the enemy might kick in the door ..." The recurring themes are Wiesel's increasing disgust with mankind and his loss of faith in God, reflected in the inversion of the father-child relationship as his father declines to a helpless state and the teenager becomes his resentful caregiver. "If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival ... Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever." In Night, everything is inverted, every value destroyed. "Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends," a Kapo tells him. "Everyone lives and dies for himself alone."
Night is the first book in a trilogy — Night, Dawn, and Day — reflecting Wiesel's state of mind during and after the Holocaust. The titles mark his transition from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of counting the beginning of a new day from nightfall, from Genesis (1:5): "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day."In Night," Wiesel said, "I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end — man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.
Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928 in Sighet, a village in the Carpathian mountains in northern Transylvania, which was annexed by Hungary in 1940. With his father Shlomo, his mother Sarah, and his three sisters — Hilda, Beatrice, and seven-year-old Tzipora — he lived as part of a close-knit community of between 10,000 and 20,000 mostly Orthodox Jews.
When Germany invaded Hungary at midnight on March 18, 1944, few believed they were in danger, and Night opens with Moshe the Beadle, the caretaker in Wiesel's synagogue and the town's humblest resident — "awkward as a clown" but much loved — warning his neighbors in vain to save themselves.
As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe in May and June that year, Wiesel and his family, along with 15,000 other Jews from Sighet, and 18,000 from neighboring villages, were being deported by the Germans to Auschwitz. His mother and his youngest sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Hilda and Beatrice survived, separated from the rest of the family. Wiesel and his father managed to stay together, surviving hard labor and a long march in the snow to Buchenwald, where Wiesel watched his father die, just weeks before the Allies liberated the camp.
Night's narrator is Eliezer, a studious and deeply pious Orthodox Jewish teenager, who studies the Talmud by day, and at night runs to the synagogue to "weep over the destruction of the Temple." In the synagogue, Moshe the Beadle and Eliezer talk about the Kabbalah and the mysteries of the universe, Moshe teaching him that "man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him," and that "every question possess[es] a power that [does] not lie in the answer."Night returns repeatedly to this theme of a spiritual faith sustained, not by answers, but by questions.
When the Hungarian government rules that Jews unable to prove their citizenship will be expelled, Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken to Poland. Somehow he manages to escape, miraculously saved by God, he believes, in order that he in turn might save the Jews of Sighet. He hurries back to the village to tell what he calls "the story of my own death."
There was no longer any joy in his eyes. He no longer sang. He no longer talked to me of God or the Kabbalah, but only of what he had seen. People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to him.
Moshe runs from one Jewish household to the next. "Jews, listen to me! It's all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!" The cattle train crossed the border into Poland, he tells them, where it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were transferred to lorries and driven to the forest in Galicia, near Kolomaye, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished, each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. Moshe tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet would not listen.
He's just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has! they said. Or even: Poor fellow. He's gone mad.
And as for Moshe, he wept.
Over the next 18 months, restrictions on Jews gradually increase. No valuables are to be kept in Jewish homes. They are not allowed to visit restaurants, attend the synagogue, or leave home after six in the evening. They must wear the yellow star at all times. Eliezer's father makes light of it:
"The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it ..."
(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)
The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic ... We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery. Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers ...
It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion.
In May 1944, the Judenrat is informed that the ghetto will be closed with immediate effect, and its residents deported. They are not told their destination; only that they may each take a few personal belongings. The next day, Eliezer watches as his friends and neighbors are rounded up by the Hungarian police wielding truncheons and rifle butts, then marched through the streets. "It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today." Slowly, the procession makes it way out of the ghetto.
And there was I, on the pavement, unable to make a move. Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved ... His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book ... One by one they passed in front of me, teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I once could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs.
Eliezer arrives with his parents and sisters in Poland at Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as Auschwitz II, the death camp (Todeslager), one of three main camps and 40 subcamps in the Konzentrationslager Auschwitz, erected by the Germans on the grounds of an abandoned Polish army barracks. Men and women are separated on arrival; Eliezer and his father to the left; his mother, Hilda, Beatrice, and Tzipora to the right. He learned years later that his mother and Tzipora had been sent straight to the gas chamber.
For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother's hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair ... and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.
The remainder of Night describes Eliezer's initial, desperate efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father's decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man's caregiver, his resentment and guilt, because he fears that his father's existence threatens his own. The stronger Eliezer's instinct for physical survival becomes, the weaker grow the bonds that tie him to other people.
His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God, who remains silent. During the first night in Auschwitz, he and his father wait in line to be thrown into a firepit. He watches a lorry draw up beside the pit and deliver its load of children into the fire. While his father recites the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead — "I do not know whether it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves"— Wiesel considers throwing himself against the electric fence. At just that moment, he and his father are ordered instead to go to their barracks. But "the student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me."
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Ellen Fine writes that this passage summarizes all the themes of Night: the death of God, children, innocence, self. With the loss of his sense of self, Eliezer also loses his sense of time. This défaite du moi, dissolution of the self, is a recurring theme in Holocaust literature, writes Fine.
I glanced at my father. How he had changed! ... The night was gone. So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night — one single night?
God is not lost to Eliezer entirely. Later, during the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone in the crowd ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly and in agony, "struggling between life and death." Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes still clear, and weeps.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?
And I heard a voice within me answer him: ... Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.
Fine writes that this is the central event in Night, evoking the imagery of a religious sacrifice, Isaac bound to the altar or Jesus on the cross. Alfred Kazin wrote of the scene that it has "made this book famous ... It is the literal death of God ... Shortly after the hanging, the other inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, but Eliezer cannot take part.
Blessed be God's name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? ... But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.
In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee the camp, taking around 60,000 inmates, mostly Jews, to camps in Germany, on what becomes known as the death marches, shooting anyone too weak to continue. Eliezer and Shlomo march to Gleiwitz to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, near Weimar.
An icy wind blew in violent gusts. But we marched without faltering.Taking rest in a shed after marching 50 miles, Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, "always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer," but the rabbi lost sight of him in the crowd and is now scratching through the snow looking for his son's corpse. "I hadn't any strength left for running. And my son didn't notice. That's all I know." Wiesel doesn't tell Rabbi Eliahou that the son had noticed the rabbi limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow.
Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.
Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots.
A terrible thought loomed up in my mind: he had wanted to get rid of his weak father! ... [He] had sought this separation in order to get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance ... And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done.
The inmates march as far as Gleiwitz, where they spend two days and nights locked inside cramped barracks without food, water, or heat, literally sleeping on top of one another, so that every morning the living wake up on top of corpses. Then there is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof, and no room to sit or lie down until the other inmates make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks. They travel for ten days and nights, still with no food, and with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 Jews in Wiesel's wagon, 12 survive the journey.
I woke from my apathy just at the moment when two men came up to my father. I threw myself on top of his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hand, crying:
Father! Father! Wake up. They're trying to throw you out of the carriage ...
His body remained inert ...
I set to work to slap him as hard as I could. After a moment, my father's eyelids moved slightly over his glazed eyes. He was breathing weakly.
You see, I cried.
The two men moved away.
I could have wept with rage. Having lived through so much, suffered so much, could I leave my father to die now? Now, when we could have a good hot bath and lie down? ... He had become like a child, weak, timid, vulnerable ... I showed him the corpses all around him; they too had wanted to rest here ... I yelled against the wind ... I felt I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death he had already chosen.
An alert sounds, the camp lights goes out, and Eliezer, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind. He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him.
But at that same moment this thought came into my mind. Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.
His father is in another block, sick with dysentery. The other men in the bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack Shlomo because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself. Eliezer is unable to protect him. "Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost." Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, Shlomo is beaten by an SS officer on the head with a truncheon for making too much noise. Eliezer lies in the bunk above and does nothing.
I did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow. Then my father made a rattling noise and it was my name: Eliezer.
His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond.
I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like — free at last!
Eliezer's father missed his freedom by only a few weeks. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days before he died, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. After Shlomo's death, Eliezer is transferred to the children's block where he stays with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On April 5, 1945, the inmates are called together to be told the camp is to be liquidated, and they are all to be moved — another death march — then the camp is to be blown up as part of the Germans' effort to hide what had happened there.
On April 11, with 20,000 inmates still in the camp, a Jewish resistance movement of inmates attacks the remaining SS officers and takes control. At six o'clock that evening, the first American tank arrives, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army. Eliezer is free.
I wanted to see myself in the mirror ... I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
From 1947–50, he studied the Talmud, and later philosophy and literature, at the Sorbonne, attending lectures by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber. To supplement his $16 a week stipend, he taught Hebrew, and worked as a translator for the militant Yiddish weekly Zion in Kamf, which eased him into a career in journalism. In 1948, at the age of 19, he was sent to Israel as a war correspondent by the French newspaper L'arche, and after the Sorbonne, he became chief foreign correspondent of the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
He writes that, for ten years, he kept his story to himself, refusing even to discuss it. In 1979, he wrote: "So heavy was my anguish that I made a vow: not to speak, not to touch upon the essential for at least ten years. Long enough to see clearly. Long enough to learn to listen to the voices crying inside my own. Long enough to regain possession of my memory. Long enough to unite the language of man with the silence of the dead.
It was in 1954, on board a ship to Brazil, where he had an assignment to cover Christian missionary activity in poor Jewish communities, that he said he started to write. "I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without rereading. I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival ... My vow of silence would soon be fulfilled; next year would mark the tenth anniversary of my liberation ... The pages piled up on my bed. I slept fitfully, never participating in the ship's activities, constantly pounding away on my little portable, oblivious of my fellow passengers ..."
By the end of the journey, Wiesel had an 862-page manuscript that he called Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). On the ship, he was introduced by friends to Mark Turkov, a publisher of Yiddish texts, and he writes in his memoir that he gave Turkov the only copy of his precious manuscript. It was published as a 245-page volume the same year in Buenos Aires, the 117th book in a series of Yiddish memoirs of Europe and the war, called Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry). Whereas the other books in the series were testimonials to the victims, Ruth Wisse writes in The Modern Jewish Canon that Night stood out as a "highly selective and isolating literary narrative" influenced by Wiesel's reading of the French existentialists.
The book attracted no literary interest and Wiesel continued with his journalism. In May 1955, he decided to interview the French prime minister, Pierre Mendes-France, and approached the novelist and Nobel laureate François Mauriac, a friend of the prime minister, for an introduction.
The problem was that [Mauriac] was in love with Jesus. He was the most decent person I ever met in that field — as a writer, as a Catholic writer. Honest, sense of integrity, and he was in love with Jesus. He spoke only of Jesus. Whatever I would ask — Jesus. Finally, I said, "What about Mendès-France?" He said that Mendès-France, like Jesus, was suffering ...
When he said Jesus again I couldn't take it, and for the only time in my life I was discourteous, which I regret to this day. I said, "Mr. Mauriac," we called him Maître, "ten years or so ago, I have seen children, hundreds of Jewish children, who suffered more than Jesus did on his cross and we do not speak about it." I felt all of a sudden so embarrassed. I closed my notebook and went to the elevator. He ran after me. He pulled me back; he sat down in his chair, and I in mine, and he began weeping. I have rarely seen an old man weep like that, and I felt like such an idiot ... And then, at the end, without saying anything, he simply said, "You know, maybe you should talk about it."
Wiesel writes in his memoir that he translated Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, and sent Mauriac the new manuscript within a year. Even with Mauriac's connections, no publisher could be found at first. They said it was too morbid, that no one would read it. "Nobody wants to hear these stories," they told Wiesel.
In 1958, Jerome Linden of Les Editions de Minuit, agreed to release a 178-page French translation retitled La Nuit, dedicated to Shlomo, Sarah, and Tzipora, with a preface by Mauriac, and then the same difficulty was encountered again finding an American publisher. According to Wiesel: "Some thought the book too slender (American readers seemed to prefer fatter volumes), others too depressing (American readers seemed to prefer optimistic books). Some felt that its subject was too little known, others that it was too well known.
In 1960, Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang — who "believed in literature as others believe in God— agreed to pay a $100 pro-forma advance, and published it in the U.S. in September that year as Night. It sold just 1,046 copies over the next 18 months, but attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews with Wiesel and meetings with literary figures like Saul Bellow. "The English translation came out in 1960, and the first printing was 3,000 copies," Wiesel said in an interview. "And it took three years to sell them. Now, I get 100 letters a month from children about the book. And there are many, many million copies in print."
By 1997, Night was selling 300,000 copies annually in the United States; by March 2006, it had sold six million copies there, and had been translated into 30 languages. On January 16, 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose the novel for her book club. One million extra paperback and 150,000 hardcover copies were printed carrying the "Oprah's Book Club" logo, with a new translation by Wiesel's wife, Marion, and a new preface by Wiesel. By February 13, 2006, Night was no. 1 in The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction.
Nevertheless, reviewers have had difficulty approaching Night as a historical work or eyewitness account. Gary Weissman of East Carolina University writes in Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust that Night has been called a "novel/autobiography," an "autobiographical novel," a "non-fictional novel," a "semi-fictional memoir," a "fictional-autobiographical novel," a "fictionalized autobiographical memoir," and a "memoir-novel." Weissman argues that Night is regarded as defying all categories, and notes Irving Abrahamson's introduction to the latter's collection of Wiesel's work: "Night is an unprecedented book, the beginning of something new in literature, if not in religion."
François Mauriac wrote in the foreword to the first French edition that Night is "different, distinct, unique ... a book to which no other could be compared." When the first American edition was published, A. Alverez wrote in Commentary that it was "almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism.
Ruth Franklin argues that the book's impact stems from its construction, which she calls "exquisite." Its language is plain, but "every sentence feels weighted and deliberate, every episode carefully chosen and delineated. It is also shockingly brief; it can be read in an hour, and carried in a pocket. One has the sense of merciless experience mercilessly distilled to its essence ... To read it is to lose one's own innocence about the Holocaust all over again."
The simplicity and power of the narrative has come at the cost of literal truth, writes Franklin. The Yiddish version was more of a historical work than a literary one, and it was political and angry. Wiesel blamed the Jewish concept of chosenness as the source of the Jews' troubles, and complained bitterly about how quickly the world had forgotten the Holocaust. "Today, Germany is a sovereign state. The German army has been resuscitated ... War criminals stroll through the streets of Hamburg and Munich ... [T]here are anti-Semites in Germany, France, and even the United States who tell the world that the 'story' of six million assassinated Jews is nothing but a hoax ...
In preparation for publication in France, Wiesel and his publisher pruned everything that was not entirely necessary, and Franklin writes that it was a work of art that emerged, rather than a faithful narrative.
Naomi Seidman, professor of Jewish Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, wrote a comparative analysis of the Yiddish and French texts for a 1996 article in Jewish Social Studies. She documented the transition from a historical account of events to what she sees as an autobiographical novel, concluding that Night transforms the Holocaust into a "religious theological" event. She writes that "[i]n the aftermath of God's abdication, the site and occasion of this abdication — "the Holocaust" — takes on theological significance, and the witness becomes both priest and prophet of this new religion," quoting Wiesel, who has said that "Auschwitz is as important as Sinai."
Seidman concludes that there was not one Holocaust survivor in Night, but two, "a Yiddish and a French," a view that Holocaust deniers have exploited to imply that Wiesel has not been truthful about some of the scenes, and which led to Seidman herself being accused of Holocaust revisionism in letters to the editor. Seidman told the Jewish Daily Forward that, in re-writing, rather than simply translating Un di Velt Hot Geshvign for publication in France, Wiesel had replaced an "angry survivor" who regards "testimony as a refutation of what the Nazis did to the Jews," with one who is "haunted by death, whose primary complaint is directed against God, not the world, [or] the Nazis."
Seidman supports her thesis that the Yiddish and French versions are two books written for different audiences by comparing the parts of the text that survived the editing process, and pointing out what she sees as significant differences. For example, in the Yiddish, Wiesel writes that, after liberation, some of the camp survivors, the "Jewish boys," run off to "fargvaldikn daytshe shikses" ("rape German shiksas"), whereas in the French, they are just "young men" who go "coucher aves les filles" ("to sleep with girls"). Seidman argues that the Yiddish version is for the Jewish readers, who want to hear about Jewish boys taking revenge by raping German non-Jews. For the rest of the world — the largely Christian readership — the anger is removed, and they are simply young men sleeping with girls. Seidman writes that Wiesel, perhaps taking advice from François Mauriac, a Roman Catholic, deliberately suppressed what his Jewish readership wanted to read about: the need for vengeance. She asks: "Was it worth translating the Holocaust out of the language of the largest portion of its victims and into the language of those who were, at best, absent, and at worst, complicitous in the genocide?"
Wiesel has implied in interviews that it was his May 1955 meeting with Mauriac that first propelled him to break his vow of silence. In an interview published by the American Academy of Achievement, he said: "[Mauriac] took me to the elevator and embraced me. And that year, the tenth year, I began writing my narrative. After it was translated from Yiddish into French, I sent it to him. We were very, very close friends until his death. That made me not publish, but write."
However, as Naomi Seidman notes, and as Wiesel himself writes in All Rivers Run to the Sea, Mark Turkov, the publisher in Argentina, had been given the Yiddish manuscript in 1954 — one year before Wiesel's meeting with Mauriac. In Rivers, Wiesel writes that the first version of Night was written on a boat en route to Brazil in 1954, and that he handed the original 862-page manuscript to Turkov. Although Turkov promised he would return the original manuscript, Wiesel writes that he didn't see it again, but later in Rivers, he explains that he "cut down the original manuscript from 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition." Seidman writes that "[t]hese confusing and possibly contradictory reports on the various versions of Night have generated a chain of similarly confusing critical comments."
Ruth Franklin writes that Night's "resuscitation" by Oprah Winfrey came at a difficult time for the genre of memoir, after a previous Oprah's Book Club author, James Frey, was found to have fabricated parts of his autobiography, A Million Little Pieces. She argues that Winfrey's endorsement of Wiesel's work was a "canny move," perhaps designed to restore the book club's credibility with a book regarded as "beyond criticism."
Night has a useful lesson to teach, writes Franklin, about the "complexities of memoir and memory." The story of how it came to be written "reveals just how many factors come into play in the creation of a memoir — the obligation to remember and to testify, certainly, but also the artistic and even moral obligation to construct a credible persona and to craft a beautiful work. Fact, we know, can be stranger than fiction; but truth in prose, it turns out, is not always the same thing as truth in life."
Wiesel tells a story about a visit to a Rebbe, or Hasidic rabbi, he hadn't seen for 20 years. The Rebbe is upset to learn that Wiesel has become a writer, and wants to know what kind of material he writes. "Stories," Wiesel replies, "... true stories."
"About people you knew?" Yes, about people I might have known. "About things that happened?" Yes, about things that happened or could have happened. "But they did not?" No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end. The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: "That means you are writing lies!" I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: "Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are, although they never occurred.
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