The Morning After: Some Thoughts on Elie Wiesel's Lesser-Known Works

on Sunday, July 3, 2016
A stark reminder this morning that we are hurtling towards a post-survivor world: Elie Wiesel has died. Like most Jews of my generation, Wiesel's work was my first true engagement with the Holocaust, especially given that my own grandparents couldn't talk about it. I remember reading Night, arguably his masterpiece (I say arguably only because there are three or so other contenders), and being struck not only by the horrors Weisel depicted, the philosophical depth with which he did so or the beautiful simplicity of his language but also by the fact that he was not much older than me when he experienced them. For a twelve or thirteen year old kid it was a revelation; the moment humanity was unmasked and its ugliest face revealed.

Much will be written about Wiesel in the coming days. Eulogies will abound highlighting his Nobel Prize, his ongoing political and social justice activism, his wisdom and his generosity. I look at the famous picture of him in the Buchenwald concentration camp bunk, a sickly, emaciated teen and wonder whether he could have imagined at that moment the intellectual and moral giant he would become on a world scale. Beyond that, there is little I can add.

I did want to spare a thought, though, for his other books, the ones that weren't Night, Dawn or Day (aka The Night Trilogy). For years I've dipped in and out of his work, feeling the need to hear his voice even when it wasn't at its most eloquent or powerful. Wiesel was by no means a perfect writer. I'm not sure he was even a great writer which is not in any way intended to take away from the fact that he was very much an exemplary human being. It is easy to forget that his Nobel was for Peace not Literature. And so there were a fair few misfires: The Sonderberg Case and The Judges stand out as poorly executed, rather far-fetched attempts to revisit familiar themes while The Hostage suffered as a second rate Death And The Maiden (though kind of inverted). Then there was A Mad Desire To Dance... sigh. Read them only for the sake of completeness. I'll personally come and pin your Wiesel Wizard badge to your chest. If, however, you want to read some quite extraordinary works, grab yourself a copy of his play The Trial of God or the not-too-dissimilarly-themed novel The Gates of the Forest. Also quite brilliant were Wiesel's interpretive works, particularly his takes on classic Hassidic tales (Souls On Fire) and biblical stories (Messengers of God). Should you want something slight but rather lovely, I'd also recommend his short meditation on his heart surgery, Open Heart

I doubt we will know another force of goodness and morality like Elie Wiesel for a very long time. His death is a great loss to humanity, to justice and, yes, to literature. There will be, I'm sure, many ways to remember and honour him. For me, though, the best will always be to read him. He might now have fallen silent but his voice will live on.


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