Monday, December 12, 2011
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“THE LAST OF THE JUST” Andre Schwartz-Bart (first published in French in 1959; Stephen Becker’s English translation first published in 1961)
To read a French novel written by a woman who died in Auschwitz inevitably reminds me of what is still the best French-language literary response to the Shoah (Holocaust).
Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just (Le Dernier des Justes) won France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1959 and is sometimes cited as the best Prix Goncourt-winner ever (in much the same way that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is often called the “Booker of Bookers”). It is really the only novel by Andre Schwartz-Bart (1928-2006) that made any impact. After its publication, he basically retired from literary life, having said everything he wanted to say. He produced a few minor things but took a back seat to his novelist wife.
The Last of the Just took him many years to write. In making the Shoah his theme, he knew what he was writing about. Schwartz-Bart’s Polish-Jewish family settled in France. The young teenager Andre was the only one to survive when, during the German Occupation, his parents and brothers and sisters were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Though only a kid, Andre was already active in the Resistance at the time of the round-up and he saw the war through. But, as I deduce from the novel itself, with his survival came what has often been designated “survivor guilt”. Among groups who were targeted by Nazis, those who survived often suffered extremes of guilt at the thought that they still lived while people they loved had been murdered. For some, a sense of shame was coupled with a sense of responsibility and questions such as “Why did God choose me to survive?” or “Why did God allow this to happen at all?”
These sorts of questions seem to me to inform The Last of the Just. The novel has as its central character a Polish Jew, Ernie Levy. But in telling Ernie’s story, it takes on the whole history of anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and uses the framework of an ancient Jewish legend. In every age, says the legend, there exist the “Lamed-Waf” or the “Just”, those righteous Jews whose business it is to take the sufferings of the Jewish people upon themselves and to remind God of this suffering.
Through many generations of the Levy family, the early part of the novel takes us from a pogrom in medieval York to a ghettoised village in Poland in the 1920s, where Benjamin Levy finally decides to go to one of the more civilised Western European countries where pogroms never happen – Germany.
The inevitable happens when the Nazis come to power. Benjamin’s elder son Moritz tries to fight the Nazis with head-on violence, and fails. Benjamin’s younger son Ernie gradually comes to realize that he is one of the “Lamed-Waf” for his generation. The family manage to flee to France after the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938.
Many of the scenes set in Nazi Germany are vivid and horrible – the rising tone of hysteria as neighbouring families, who had not previously shown any anti-Semitism, accept the government’s propaganda. The pitiful account of a German schoolteacher who attempts to look after his Jewish pupils and gets dismissed from his post as a result.
In a way, though, all this is prelude to what must have been the most personal sections of the novel for Andre Schwartz-Bart. These are the scenes set in France – first with Ernie Levy in the French army as it suffers its collapse on the Ardennes front; then Ernie on the run in the Unoccupied (Vichy) Zone, where he encounters various degrees of sympathy, prejudice and exploitation before the big round-up. Much of this would have hit post-war 1950s France with guilt, as the novel explores levels of French complicity in the round-up.
When I first read this novel, I twitched with impatience as the best part of one hundred pages went by on generational history before the focus fell on Ernie. Then I realized that this was necessary for Ernie to be able to bear the weight and significance of Jewish history.
In its denouement Ernie, as one of the “Just”, willingly accepts his own extermination by turning himself in and comforting children on the cattle truck in which they are being taken to be gassed. The idea, as I read it, is that God’s goodness can only be shown by the good that people do in extreme situations.
But there are a whole lot of problems with this reading, as there are with the novel itself for many readers.
Can such a religious concept really explain massive suffering on the scale the novel acknowledges? Doesn’t God Himself fail the test when He is once again asked (as Job asked) “Why is there suffering in the world?” In the great scheme of things, does one considerate and loving man on a cattle truck really balance six million horrible deaths? Ernie may fulfil his destiny as one of the “Just” and become most authentically himself by completely identifying with the suffering of the Jewish people, even unto death. But could this just be an existential affirmation of self? Or could it be a mystique of suffering pointlessly accepted? And isn’t Schwarz-Bart himself aware of these awkward questions? After all, Ernie Levy is the LAST of the Just, and maybe that means the whole concept of atonement by personal suffering is rendered defunct by Auschwitz. As for the “survivor guilt” element, the Kaddish of the very last page has the omniscient narrator saying “I cannot help thinking Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still alive, somewhere, I don’t know where.”
Oh if only, if only….
How acceptable would it have been for a non-Jewish writer to suggest that, for a conscientious man, a proper moral response to the Holocaust would be to submit to it?
Yet you cannot shake off the religious element in this novel. It is firmly rooted in the whole Isaiah tradition of the “suffering servant” which, paradoxically, was developed by Christians as the image of Christ dying for our sins. Paradoxically, because the burdensome weight of Christian anti-Semitism is felt throughout this novel.
When I read this novel, my pen was kept busy copying pungent passages into my notebook.
Consider Ernie’s words as he explains Christian anti-Semitism to a woman he loves: - “They don’t exactly know why themselves. I’ve been to their churches and I’ve read their gospels. Do you know who Christ was? A simple Jew like your father. A kind of Hasid…. He was a really good Jew, you know, sort of like the Baal Shem Tov; a merciful man and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it; so they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it , and strike us with it.”
Then there’s Ernie’s riposte to the impatient Parisian concierge when all her Jewish tenants are forcibly kicked out of her building and she is therefore losing income: “Don’t worry about it, madame, all your Jews will be back. All of them… and if they don’t come back, you’ll still have the Negroes or the Algerians… or the hunchbacks.”
And for philosophy, there are the words of the doctor, a Christian-convert Jew, who speaks to Ernie en route to extermination; “Do I still believe?... it depends on the times. When I was a gentleman, as you put it, one of my friends used to tease me by asking if God, in his omnipotence, could create a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it. Which is more or less my position: I believe in God, and I believe in the stone.”
Believing in God but believing in the stone could be the epigraph of The Last of the Just. It is still a great novel.