Mr. Sammler’s Planet


“It is perfectly true that ‘Jewish Writers in America’ (a repulsive category) missed what should have been for them the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry,” Saul Bellow wrote to Cynthia Ozick in 1987. “I can’t say how our responsibility can be assessed. We (I speak of Jews now and not merely of writers) should have reckoned more fully, more deeply with it.” Bellow’s quasi-confession suggests something of the perplexity that has always faced American Jewish novelists dealing with the Holocaust. (Though it is telling that Bellow prefers the formulation “Jewish Writers in America,” a way of gesturing to the fact that he himself is Canadian-born, and remained in some productive sense at an angle to the country that became his home and subject.) In earlier installments of Scripture, I have discussed novels that used a range of strategies for approaching this most necessary and impossible of subjects—from the epic realism of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate to the existential spareness of Elie Wiesel’s Night to the oblique character study of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. What these Jewish writers had in common, however, is that they were to one degree or another directly touched by the Holocaust: It was the story of their own lives and communities.

more from Adam Kirsch at Tablet here.