Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Yesterday I got a small education in Elie Wiesel. Over the course of a morning, I read Night for the first time, which I likely would have put off forever were it not for the fact that I also had tickets for Katie and I to see him at the Koger Center.

I cannot say a lot about Night that has not been said. It's a very effective account of the author's wretched imprisonment at Auschwitz, and it's riveting, tremendously sad -- particularly the part about Wiesel doing everything possible to keep his ailing father alive in that hellhole -- and extremely sobering; it has the effect of making everything you think, read, watch and do seem totally meaningless and superfluous.

On the cover A. Alvarez says the book is "beyond criticism," which I suppose it is, and that blurb made me think of other books that could be described the same way -- usually books of great noble and serious purpose written under the stress of war: The Diary of Anne Frank, perhaps, and Suite Francaise, both written while the authors were awaiting storm-troopers to pounce at any moment. It's hard to quibble with those books without feeling like a heel.

I almost want to put The Year of Magical Thinking -- Joan Didion's story of husband John Gregory Dunne's sudden death and her daughter's lingering illness -- in the beyond criticism category; can you tell someone in that position how she should have presented her memories, and is there any value in any having negative feelings toward it? Personally I thought it was a fine book, but I wondered then how I would put it into words if I didn't. I was rather impressed that someone at The New Republic managed to do a rather subtle demolition job on it last year, and managed not to seem unneccessarily mean.

Seeing Wiesel brought all this to mind, too, because the guy's a living saint. He went through the Holocaust, he suffered horribly, his parents and at least one sister wiped out by Hitler; his eyes have witnessed things none of us hope ever to see, and he stills keeps a gentle touched-by-God spirit about him. You've seen him before: a small, handsome, gracefully aging man with a great tuft of grey hair and a slightly stooped way of walking that comes from carrying the whole world on your shoulders.

He didn't say a thing any sane person could have disagreed with, although I got the impression that if they came from anyone else they might have just seemed over-obvious to the point of being cliches: the Holocaust really happened, the killing in Darfur must be stopped, etc. By virtue of who he was, what he knew, etc., everything he said seemed instead thoughtful and wise. He's probably used to being thought of that way, and I suppose he feels the responsibility of it.

I noticed with some amusement a 2001 article by Christopher Hitchens where he called Wiesel a "windbag." It sounded so horrible mean, but I could kinda see it, maybe, a little bit, sorta. God forgive me.

I had hoped to get to ask Wiesel a question and had drafted it in advance. I wanted to know what he thought of that hypocritical bastard Gunter Grass; even fantasized that it would crack Wiesel's facade, force him to curse, and make headlines worldwide.

I thought I'd have a chance when USC president Andrew Sorenson said ushers would be handing 3x5 cards for people to write out questions. No such luck -- there was neither an usher nor a 3x5 card in the entire joint, and I made a point of looking. So in the end what happened is that Wiesel only took a few questions, and those were from USC students, mostly; lame, softball, typically Wieselian questions involving God and mercy and the Middle East he's answered a bazillion times.

Which means I'll just have to get my Gunter Grass Controversy fix from Ian Buruma.

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