Days after Oprah Winfrey’s last Book Club selection was unmasked as fraud, triggering a national conversation among literati and lay readers alike about the definition and significance of memoir, the talk show host and cultural arbiter announced her next choice: “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s seminal autobiographical account of his experience during the Holocaust.
Wiesel is, of course, a Nobel Prize winner, canonized as an international voice of conscience. Still, Winfrey’s imprimatur assures the book and its writer a fresh financial success, not to mention millions of likely new readers — the kind of jump in stature that might make even the venerable Nobel committee blush.
Then again, Wiesel clearly had something to offer the television hostess in return. As public relations strategy, the move is near genius. Winfrey is acknowledged as a demigoddess in publishing. Her Book Club, an offshoot of her wildly popular television talk-show, is credited with almost single-handedly reviving American book sales. Right now, however, she seems to be smarting from the shrapnel of last week’s debate over “A Million Little Pieces,” James Frey’s 2003 account of his descent into drug addiction and violence — and Oprah’s most recent Book Club selection. As disclosed by a Web site called The Smoking Gun, the memoir contained a host of inconsistencies. Frey has since been subjected to numerous attacks in op-ed pages and the blogosphere, an uncomfortable session with Larry King and a class-action lawsuit.
Given all this, it stands to reason that Oprah might have been in need of a little credibility. The rehabilitation of truth requires a trusted voice — a true survivor. There is no one more closely identified with the term survivor than Elie Wiesel.
There is no doubt that Wiesel survived the Nazi genocide with which his name is nearly synonymous. Born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, he was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. “Night,” his first book, was published in French in 1958, and came to prominence as an enormously popular and influential accounts of a young man’s experience in the Holocaust.
But there is a problem. As E.J. Kessler reported in these pages, even “Night” has raised red flags. In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a Jewish Studies professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., compared the original 1956 Yiddish version of the book, then titled “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Kept Silent”), with the later 158-page French version (“La Nuit”), which is the text that was translated and constitutes the Oprah-book as we now know it. According to Seidman’s account, published in the scholarly journal Jewish Social Studies, Wiesel substantially rewrote the work between editions — suggesting that the strident and vengeful tone of the Yiddish original was converted into a continental, angst-ridden existentialism more fitting to Wiesel’s emerging role as an ambassador of culture and conscience. Most important, Seidman wrote that Wiesel altered several facts in the later edition, in some cases offering accounts of pivotal moments that conflicted with the earlier version. (For example, in the French, the young Wiesel, having been liberated from Buchenwald, is recuperating in a hospital; he looks into a mirror and writes that he saw a corpse staring back at him. In the earlier Yiddish, Wiesel holds that upon seeing his reflection he smashed the mirror and then passed out, after which “my health began to improve.”)
Wiesel is no Bernard Holstein (Brougham), who claimed to be a survivor, with a “fake” tattoo and all, and forged a life for his memoir, “Stolen Soul.” Neither is Wiesel anything like Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of the debunked “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood,” which caused a scandal when it was proved fiction — only after its author won every award under the sun offered for Holocaust writing. Unlike the others, Wiesel unquestionably lived through the events he chronicled. If he altered some facts and the tone in which they were told, it was for reasons that have nothing to do with those of the likes of Frey. Wiesel’s “Night” went from the shtetl-declamatory of his native Yiddish to the Camus-like despair of his adopted French because the two languages (and their audiences) are markedly different. If Oprah’s choice encourages us to understand the difference, it will have served a higher purpose, after all.
Wiesel’s books differ from those frauds in one more essential: the insoluble morass known as intent.
Frey, for one, seems to have falsified the facts of his life in order to satisfy ego and the demands of the market. Wiesel’s liberties seem more like reconsiderations, his process less revision than interpretation. Reading “Night,” one encounters the birth of thought about the Holocaust — the future of history, concomitant with its study. In both versions, the book’s intent is to engage not the undeniability of the Holocaust, but the man who has undeniably emerged from its horror.
Intent, in fact, is one excuse offered by Winfrey in her public defense of Frey. She issued a statement essentially arguing that it doesn’t matter if every fact in a memoir is true; it’s enough if the memoir in question was written in the spirit of truth — if its heart is true.
As we are about to enter a world in which no survivor of the Holocaust will be left alive to give testimony firsthand, the record of witnesses becomes all the more critical.