Blood From the Sky
by Piotr Rawicz
Harcourt, Brace and World, 316 pp., $4.95
by Meyer Levin
Simon and Schuster, 478 pp., $5.95
One reason for the foolishly deplored lack of great new novels is not, perhaps, the absence of great talents but that the great subjects are now too large. Tolstoy could, with one campaign, encompass the whole idea of war as he knew it, but could even Tolstoy have dealt with thermonuclear fate? If that is true of a bomb that would merely end the world and thus end all responsibilities, what shall be said of the act that withered a civilization’s ethos but left it with responsibilities? What is a writer of fiction to do with the German mass murder of the Jews?
Leave it alone, if he can. Besides the magnitude of the matter, there is the familiar and usually true observation that fiction cannot equal the facts themselves. Further, the processes of art, no matter how holily employed, must contain (as artists know) a secret hand-rubbing glee of achievement and, always, some artifice. And shall a writer select and arrange these facts in order to make them more effective and take pleasure in it? Artists have of course been making art out of horror for two thousand years; but it seems profane here, not only because of the size of the atrocity as such, but because of its date in the Christian calendar A.D.
So, at least, it would seem. But all dicta of art must, happily, yield to the practice of artists. What if the writer cannot leave this subject alone, as many have not been able to do? All the fiction written about it divides obviously and immediately: reconstructions by those who were not personally involved and distillations by those who—one way or another—were involved. The atrocity as such, but because of its Hersey’s The Wall to the mud of Leon Uris, with a niche well on the way down (as we shall see) for Meyer Levin.
Of the latter group, there have been two more examples in recent months: Herod’s Children by Ilse Aichinger and The Terezin Requiem by Josef Bor. The first, although often poignant and always delicate, diminishes in effect as it proceeds because it has only one effect: a child’s attempt to understand and deal with homicidal madness, a nursery picture of persecution. The second novel never makes an effect because it takes an anomalous and moving fact—the performance of Verdi’s Requiem in a concentration camp—and treats it with no fictional art whatsoever.
To date, the outstanding work in this latter group has been André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just. It is now joined and, in my view, surpassed by Piotr Rawicz’s Blood From the Sky. Schwarz-Bart used a lovely Jewish legend as armature for a story that wound through history to the 1940s and that sang essentially of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. Rawicz’s novel, in addition to its mute, stony grief, its oblique but overwhelming rendering of the terror, is also in fact …