Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Of Fire and Forgiveness by Gabriel Valjan

The building’s on fire, what books do you save?


In loco parentis. The Latin phrase means ‘in place of a parent.’ Today, I am the writer asked to rescue someone else’s child, and anyone who knows me knows I’m a driven person, an impatient person, especially with myself, and I dislike (intensely) talking about myself.


Like the mother asked who is her favorite child, my answer speaks volumes (couldn’t resist the pun). What a person reads may betray their moral values (or lack thereof); their fantasy life, or how they see the world and people around them. Except for the last point, the same could be said about a peek inside a refrigerator, into a person’s closet, and their DVD collection. All of this, of course, presumes evidence in plain sight, books in physical form. Now that there are Kindles, we can hide gigabytes of evidence


My library is where I write. Writing is monastic, lonely, and daunting because there are no guarantees that what you write will be read. My library is private, personal, and communal in that I can turn to authors on the shelf.


To answer the question, I need to provide context. I write crime fiction. Unlike writers who research crime, use their imagination and say, what if? I have known criminals and I’ve known victims. When it comes to this duality, the hardest lesson to learn is Forgiveness of self and others; for this reason, the author’s whose book I would save is Elie Wiesel’s Night.


I first read his Night in French after I had taught myself the language so I could read my favorite short story: Flaubert’s “The Legend of Saint-Julian the Hospitaller.” The story contains one of the most stunning sentences I’ve ever read. If you’ve read Flaubert in the original, you know he’ll send you to the dictionary often. After Flaubert, I explored French literature. I read Elie’s Night, first in French. The language is simple, stark, and the volume, slim, though the subject matter defies language and speech. I told Elie as much and it prompted Elie to disclose something that had embarrassed him and caused him shame.


The precursor to Night was written in Yiddish and massive, at over 800-pages. The French and subsequent English translation are anorexic by comparison, at a devastating 200-pages. Night, the first in a trilogy, documents life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Elie Wiesel had survived both rooms in Hell.


If there was ever an example of ruthless editing, Night is it. Elie admitted that he owed his publication in French to the novelist (and already a Nobel Laureate) François Mauriac who relentlessly shopped La Nuit among French publishers. Note: Elie was a polyglot, and he wrote in French. Initial sales were flat, but momentum did pick up with reviews and interviews. The rest is literary history.


Elie’s crime, by his own admission, was how he had treated Mauriac. Horribly.


When the two men had met, Mauriac was 70 and Elie, 27. Mauriac helped shape the French text, made suggestions, but honored Elie’s final decisions. Elie was emphatic about Mauriac’s support. Mauriac called publishers and showed up at offices, copy in hand. Elie was not forthcoming about what he had said to Mauriac, but he told me the old man remained resolute, stoic and steadfast. Elie said he had acted disrespectful to a man who had no reason to help him, a man who risked his reputation on his behalf. Elie called his behavior shameful displays of youthful arrogance and a profound lack of gratitude.


I suppose it’s conjecture on my part, but I think the younger Elie was responding to French antisemitism and Catholic indifference to Nazism—and for those who don’t know Mauriac is one of France’s great Catholic writers, considered the greatest novelist after Proust, and the only writer within the French Academy to publish essays against the Nazis. He would later become an outspoken critic of Franco in Spain. When the two writers met, however, Mauriac had not known about systematic extermination within the concentration camps. Elie’s writing cured him of that ignorance. I suspect Elie’s anger circled around these facts and, at a subliminal level, Mauriac had become the father Elie had lost [among other family members].


Elie said he learned forgiveness from a Catholic, by example.


Mauriac never harbored any recriminations. He wrote the Foreword to La Nuit.


François Mauriac died in 1970. Elie Wiesel died in 2016.


I admire the love, respect and friendship between these two writers. My copy is a personal connection to both men. I remember Elie Wiesel as a rumpled version of François Truffaut as Detective Columbo. He carried the sadness of the world with him. He learned to smile, yet he always had a tear in his eyes when he spoke about Mauriac. His capacity for self-awareness, his choice to extend compassion to himself, and forgive himself, has endeared him to me.


His memory has been a blessing.


1 comment:

James W. Ziskin said...

Beautiful piece, Gabriel. Thank you.