LITERATURE OR LIFE by Jorge Semprun

LITERATURE OR LIFE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A moving account of life in Buchenwald and a subsequent lifetime spent trying to write about it, by the Spanish novelist and screenwriter best known for his classic filmscripts (Z, La Guerre Est Finie) and a previous nonfiction account of his ordeal (The Long Voyage, 1964). Semprun was a 20-year-old philosophy student and a member of the French Resistance when he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and incarcerated. After 18 months in Buchenwald, he was freed by American troops--and thereafter endured almost a half-century of vacillation between variously failed attempts at capturing his experiences in ``literature'' (unable to span ``the insurmountable gulf between what you envision and its narrative realization'') and equally painful efforts to shrug off that burden. Circling back and forth among various past times and the present, Semprun creates a discursive and dramatic mosaic in which ruminations about his obligations as a survivor and struggles as a writer alternate with memories of encounters in the camp (with dying comrades, a young Russian ``barbarian'' who worked as an orderly, and a Jewish- American lieutenant who was one of his ``liberators,'' among others); relationships with literary friends and sympathetic lovers before and after the war; and--always--discussions of books and writers that influenced him profoundly (for example, Kafka's letters to his fiancÇe Milena JesenskÖ--who outlived him only to die in a concentration camp). Initially, Semprun's confession of his inability to sort out and write about such matters feels contrived, but the book gathers both internal logic and emotional power as it proceeds. In the concluding pages, in which Semprun learns from the suicide of fellow Holocaust victim Primo Levi that he too is mortal and must finish his work, and his discovery, during a return visit to Buchenwald in 1992, of the clerical error that undoubtedly saved his life, triumphantly justify his ``novel's'' long genesis and circuitous structure. A masterly work, and the obvious capstone of Semprun's distinguished career.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-670-87288-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1997