Elie Wiesel’s Night is 133 pages of a honest story, one that I don’t think anyone else could have written for him. Yet, I found myself reading it thinking that there’s a disconnect between the author and his story.
Night is Wiesel’s experience before and during his time in Auschwitz. I don’t think I need to explain why it’s an important novel, nor why it’s moving.
The disconnect I felt while reading, I’d felt before while reading an autobiography. So I began to wonder about it. Was I imaging things, or was there really a difference between the memoirs I read and the biographies? I think there is.
The first book that prompted my fascination with WWII nonfiction novels was Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers. It had me near tears so much that it took me months to finish it. I had to close the book a lot because of how much it made me feel emotionally for the soldiers in the story. Sides crafted the story of the soldiers in a POW camp so beautifully and carefully that It was like I was watching them suffer.
In Maus I & Maus II, Art Spiegelman tells his father’s Holocaust story by way of graphic novels, and they are probably the most heart wrenchingly truthful stories I’ve ever read- not only because Spiegelman is telling his father’s story, but he’s honest in his own character and how he felt about his father.
These two authors wrote someone else’s story so well I was emotionally tied to every page. These people had become my family.
Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back is his autobiography about his time serving in WWII. In case you didn’t know, Murphy was the most decorated soldier in WWII…and he was about 19 or 20 when the war was over. It was when I was reading Night that I realized the disconnect I felt in that novel existed in this one as well.
And I think that the disconnect is actually more powerful than the emotionally tied ones. (Here I’d mention that I don’t think that Sides or Spiegelman internally emotionalized the stories, but rather the material was emotional on it’s own.)
With Ghost Soldiers and Maus we’re not getting the story from the direct source–Maus is a little bit, but even though Spiegelman is having his father tell his story, he’s still the one writing it out and drawling it into a graphic novel.
In To Hell and Back, Murphy often has a nonchalant way of writing the most horrific experiences. As if he was explaining a trip to the grocery store. He often would comment on how a friend died, but that’s all. Just a comment, not a long exposition on how awful he felt, but in that it told me everything I could never imagine. There’s this scene where he’s explaining that he couldn’t handle it anymore and he was balling his eyes out. Even then, it’s just commenting.
Everything’s told matter of fact. Granted, there are some beautiful lines in the novel, but they’re almost accidental, like it wasn’t something he thought about, it was really how he saw the world.
With Night, it’s much the same. Wiesel wasn’t so much nonchalant, but more so telling you the truth. What I mean is that he’s telling you about something awful that happened to him, but he doesn’t want your pity, he just wants you to read the story and to know–not what happened to him, but what happened to them all.
In Ghost Soldiers and Maus, the stories are powerful, but they are easy to manipulate because they didn’t live through it. It may not have been easy for Hampton Sides to write down the story of a man burned alive in a ditch, but that’s what he wrote: a story. Elie Wiesel didn’t just tell a story, he couldn’t just replace one word with another to make it sound more terrifying.
Murphy and Wiesel told the story “as is.”
The disconnect in these novels is more powerful to me because I may not cry while reading these books, but I’m able to peek at the true pain of these men. Disconnect doesn’t mean they don’t care or it doesn’t matter to them, but that they say more with saying less.
And it’s like they tell these stories, not because it’s too painful, but they are simply able to because the events that occurred happened to a man no longer alive within them.
In that disconnect is true connection because we’re seeing how a man was broken and how he still was.