From the beginning, the literature generated by the Holocaust assumed hybrid forms. The first diaries and eyewitness accounts of survivors, composed under duress, were written by people who had no time to observe the niceties of genre. The current memoirs, fiction, and poetry of these survivors are still difficult to classify. Even the literature produced by the next generation, children of Holocaust victims and others, blurs distinctions among genre, blending autobiography, fiction, diary, eyewitness account, and historical monograph.

Writing that ignores the conventions of genre is, of course, familiar to any reader of contemporary literature, but the generic instability to which I refer has not been dictated by fashion, and is not in the least imposed. People writing about the Holocaust face two problems: how to keep up interest at a time when the past is of decreasing importance and how to make the Holocaust “real” when even the most awful realities are swiftly domesticated by television.

The combining of forms develops out of the anxiety that individual genres are inadequate to convey extreme experience, each telling only a partial truth. “Pure” fiction, for example, creates an aura that corrupts the subjects it treats–a matter of particular concern in relation to the Holocaust where the urge to deny the facts keeps manifesting itself in ugly ways in various parts of the world.

Given the dangers of fiction, the genre of choice for most Holocaust writers should be, and indeed is, non-fiction, like history and memoir. There are some two thousand extant Holocaust memoirs written in twenty languages. But here too authors who try too hard to capture the reader’s imagination fall prey to hazards of narrative. Stories of fleeing the Nazis, hiding in forests, and trekking across Europe are so close to adventure tales that they can carry us away from reality. Writers have found that combining forms solves some of these problems, alternating chapters of fiction with chapters of fact as Georges Perec does in W or the Memory of Childhood, or chapters of political commentary with chapters of memoir, as Saul Friedlander does in When Memory Comes. Techniques like these distract readers, in the manner of Brechtian caesuras, and remind them of a reality that might otherwise be lost in the pleasures of narrative.

These conflations of genre also work at another, powerful, metaphorical level. Texts that break boundaries or “cross borders” may reflect the states of mind of their producers and enact the fantasies of writers for whom a literal border crossing was the largely unrealized hope of their lives under Hitler.

Innovative techniques also have the ability to grab the reader’s attention and keep alive subject matter in danger of becoming deadened through repetition. As the offhanded persona in of Dan Pagis’ Holocaust poems chillingly remarks, “At first the details horrify / though finally they’re a bore.”

There is a clear hierarchy in Holocaust writing–eyewitness accounts at the top, fiction at the bottom. This system manifests itself in the consistency with which writers of fiction introduce excerpts from eyewitness accounts to establish an authoritative link between their stories and the Holocaust experience. But these writers are also responding to what is perhaps the question of Holocaust literature as we move toward the second millennium: how to continue to make it real?

Primo Levi is one author who uses genre to subvert genre, presenting us with the powerful and instructive “appropriateness” of hybrid texts. Like other Holocaust memoirists, Levi shows the Nazis as strong dialecticians who created on what one survivor called “the planet Auschwitz” a world corresponding to their vision of hell on earth. Auschwitz, precisely antithetical to the Nazi heaven of excessive cleanliness, obsessive order, and “life,” was a world of excrement, chaos, and death. Neither of these worlds was “human” in any normative sense. As the anthropologist Mary Douglas has made clear, “dirt” is a relative term that signifies disorder, and distinctions between cleanliness and dirt are usually less about hygiene than about a culture’s need to mark its borders, to separate self from other, to delineate transgression, to demarcate sacred and profane or pure and impure realms, or even, as we can see quite clearly in the case of the Nazis, to separate life from death.

In the first book about his Auschwitz experience, Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi unflinchingly detailed the Nazis’ attempt to envelop their Jewish prisoners in a world of excrement. Excremental attack was, in fact, the principal weapon in the Nazis’ relentless assault on the camp inmates’ sense of purity and worth. Thirty years later, Levi again turned his attention to the Holocaust in The Periodic Table, a memoir that focuses on his life before and immediately after Auschwitz, and centers on his interrupted career as a chemist. Here, Levi offers a fascinating corrective to the Nazi idea of defilement. His narrative stresses the ways in which the celebration of “impurity” became central to his rebellion against Nazi theory and practice, the ways in which his chemistry studies confirm the value and beauty of “impurity.”

Moreover, The Periodic Table, an exercise in what Levi calls “autobiographism,” is rendered as an “impure text,” incorporating straight autobiography, autobiographical fiction, essays, and short stories. Primo Levi’s experiments with impure substances become an assertion that to be human is to be both mingled and mortal.

In “Zinc,” for example, one of the chapters in The Periodic Table that uses chemistry as a metaphor, we find Levi, a young student performing his first experiments, attracted to broader speculating on the resistance of pure zinc to chemical breakdown.


One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protect from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words to life. I discarded the first, disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered to consider the second, which I found to be more congenial. In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed and the impurities of impurities in the soil too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them… it wants everybody to be the same.


Eventually Levi arrives at a point of identification.


I am Jewish…I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard. Impurity, certainly, since just during those months the publication of the magazine Defense of the Race had begun, and there was much talk about purity and I had begun to be proud of being impure.


Levi points to the impurities of fertile soil as a way of championing a life lived humanistically over one guided by “pure,” clean ideology. But mud is not excrement, or not excrement alone, and to wade or work in it, to have your boots covered in it, or to mold it with your hands bears no relation to the humiliations imposed by the Nazis on their Jewish prisoners. To be muddied or in Levi’s terms “impure” is an expression of human creativity, potential, and necessary interactiveness. You cannot, as Nazi ideology prescribed, scorn the earth.

Levi’s concern both to identify with and to honor “impurity” extends to the text itself. In The Periodic Table, Levi points to this generic uncertainty at the beginning of his final chapter, “Carbon”:


The reader will have realized for some time now that this is not a chemical treatise…nor is it an autobiography…but it is in some fashion a history…a microhistroy, the history of a trade and its defeats, victories, and miseries, such as everyone wants to tell when he feels close to concluding the arc of his career.


But even this definition seems inadequate since it appears that, wittingly or not, Levi has allowed his dominant theme to dictate the formal environment of his text. Levi’s different modes of writing–autobiographical, fictional, essayistic–”react” with one another. They suggest, among other things, the “before and after” selves familiar from the other survivors’ texts. This distinction extends into the modes of narrative as well. Of the four stories in The Periodic Table, Levi wrote two shortly before his capture and two others, “Sulfur” and “Titanium,” later–and it is only in the stories set in the postwar period, a time in his own life when Levi was feeling empowered and rejuvenated by his writing, that he allows himself to shift from first to third person narrative and from autobiography to fiction. In The Periodic Table it is almost as if Levi were reacting against a self-imposed order–the formal matrix of “the periodic table,” against which his chapters are so neatly set and which lends the narrative an air of tabular containment.

For the second generation of writers, in particular children of Holocaust victims, there is an even more difficult problem making the Holocaust experience real. Georges Perec, Saul Friedlander, and Art Spiegelman juxtapose fact and fiction, memoir and essay, or as in Spiegelman’s Maus, merge cartoon with autobiography. In their generic indeterminacy, these texts accurately reflect their authors’ ambiguous relation to the past; both their proximity to and distance from the terrible facts. Moreover, merging genres seems to be a way for these writers to mediate between past and present, between worlds and selves that have been lost and found. Lost selves, in the metaphoric sense, lost childhoods, and most noticeable, lost texts, are themes that weave and interweave in almost all contemporary Holocaust novels and memoirs, like Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, David Grossman’s See Under: Love, or Marguerite Duras’ The War, and they do so with an obsessional persistence appropriate to the intolerable loss of life that they represent.

In the last twenty years it has become commonplace for writers to approach cataclysmic subject matter with schizophrenic forms that reproduce something of the massive disorder and confusion inherent in the experiences. In works like Michael Herr’s Dispatches the hip nonchalance of the writing style takes its cues from the fades and cuts of the movies, and the conversational register of the new journalism is attuned to the “rock and roll war ” in Vietnam, where whole platoons went into battle in Batman outfits.

To tell Vietnam slant is to tell it straight: the army was stoned, there was rock music in the helicopters, acts of derring-do were performed for the benefits of news cameras, and in almost all cases the efforts of language , both the gracefully diabolic phrasing of the grunts and the official euphemisms of the military hierarchy, were designed to move the experience as far as possible from reality. Herr’s endeavor is to restore reality–and in particular the reality of death–by recording, and to some extent, incorporating, the irreality of Vietnam in an appropriately off-center form.

The approach is less suited to the Holocaust, a catastrophic event that calls for the find of formal eclecticism that can encompass both reality and a sense of abiding unreality while creating problems of decorum and profanity. We have, for example, no trouble imagining a comic book about the Vietnam War. After all, many of the American participants had their consciousness shaped by comic books. But the idea of a comic book about the Holocaust appears distasteful. The Holocaust does not seem connected to the pop or “alternative” aspects of contemporary culture with which, no matter how sophisticated their execution, we associate comic books.

Techniques that incorporate pop-culture can be applied to any radically chaotic situation in which fact and fiction appear to merge. In Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, Thomas Pynchon draws on a bewildering variety of genres including pantomime, burlesque, cinema, cabaret, spy stories, popular song, and comic strips, as he fuses his apocalyptic visions with his wildly imaginative renderings of Europe in chaos at the end of the Second World War. But even Pynchon, who is quite happy to create two-dimensional “cartoon” Germans working on their devilish rocketry, significantly, given his obsession with apocalypse, lays off the Holocaust.

Perhaps there should be no writing on the Holocaust that isn’t by survivors or historians. Some people certainly think so, but the survivors will not be around forever and endless silence from everyone except those engaged in historiography looks dangerously like participation in a collusion to forget. This is particularly dangerous in our society, where disposal and forgetting are cultural virtues and where anything that is not kept in the forefront of consciousness by the production of “new material” is speeded toward the garbage heap of oblivion.

New writing about the Holocaust faces major challenges: time dictates that it cannot have the immediacy, concreteness, and authority of eyewitness testimony: yet our attention must be kept up. One way to do this is with striking and original texts: D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel with its erotic overlay, or Perec’s allegoric dystopic fantasy W, or Art Spiegelman’s comic book Maus. These books subvert or undermine the “rules of decorum” that govern writing about the Holocaust, rules that seem to keep a check on such forms of distortion as are likely to arise.

Moreover, once we have overcome our prejudice against inappropriate genres we discover that an artist like Art Spiegelman has succeeded, astonishingly, both in sustaining the tradition of high seriousness with which the Holocaust has thus far been approached and in compelling us, once again, to pay attention. In part, Speigelman succeeds because he does not use the comic book form to suggest the “comic book” aspects of the experiences that he is describing. Unlike Herr or Pynchon–and they are not, of course, even drawing–Spiegelman is not interested in revealing the shape of consciousness as it has been molded by pop culture or in finding the right form to embody cardboard characters with a radically uncertain ontological status. To the contrary, Spiegelman’s Jewish mice are characters, with a quiddity and salience reminiscent of the characters in a realistic novel or the personalities in an evocative memoir.

If the Holocaust is to continue to engage the contemporary imagination, risks like these must be taken. Art Spiegelman tells the story of his father’s journey to Auschwitz and of his own relationship with his father, in a biographical/autobiographical cat and mouse fable. For the most part the illustrative premise works brilliantly, both waking us into surprised attention and engaging us at the deepest level with Jewish fate at the hands of the Nazis. But there are also times when the stylized techniques of cartoon, the “BANG BANG” of guns or “NOK NOK” of fists on the door, trivialize the rendered scene and offer a potentially dangerous comedy of sound effects. The radical hybrid form is an appropriate but chancy genre.

In a prediction that has already borne fruit, A. B. Yehoshua wrote in Between Right and Right that, “As the number of surviving eyewitnesses to the period diminishes, the more freely will human imagination range in its attempts to achieve understanding. All this will have to be met in a spirit of patience and openness. The horror of the events and the sufferings of the victims will not rob the new attempts–including new emotional and moral judgements–of legitimacy. The freedom of man’s spirit suffers no restriction.” These are grand words, but the question that will remain for us, despite the apparent effectiveness of the hybrid form, is how far can the imagination range and still “make it real?”

Originally Published in April/May 1990 issue of Boston Review