Paying for the paper

Robert Alter

  • Life with a Star by Jiri Weil, translated by Rita Klimova and Roslyn Schloss
    Flamingo, 247 pp, £4.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 00 654329 4
  • Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiri Weil, translated by Marie Winn
    HarperCollins, 228 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 00 223863 2

It is a critical commonplace, often intoned with pathos, to insist on the absolute discontinuity between what occurred in the Nazi genocide and the realm of ordinary experience. Because of that discontinuity, it is sometimes claimed, the mechanised mass murders are an unimaginable and hence indescribable subject: any representation of them is bound to be a misrepresentation, or, to follow the logic of Adorno’s famous dictum about no poetry after Auschwitz, a misconceived and wrongly consoling aestheticisation. Perhaps there is a laudable motive of respect for the awful fates of the victims in this impulse to draw a categorical cordon around the death camps, but common sense suggests that if there were no strong continuities with the moral patterns of existence before the Holocaust, it could not have happened.

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