has been your greatest achievement as a public figure? You've said you
don't enjoy politics, but do you have what you would consider a greatest
achievement in the political realm?
I don't know much about politics, and I don't want to know. That's why I rarely involve myself in politics. But I think I've tried to raise awareness of the suffering of Jewish people, and beyond it--but not without it--the suffering of other people during the Second World War. And there's my fight for Soviet Jews who are dissidents. I was in Russia for the first time in '65. I never stopped fighting for them. My book Jews of Silence came out a year later.
I am also proud of my work as a teacher; I love teaching.
What courses are you teaching now?
I never teach the same course twice. This semester, I am teaching two courses. One is a course in literature in which we took a group of writers and compared their first book to their best book.
Which authors did you cover?
Dostoevsky. His first book was called Poor Folk, but the masterpiece in my mind was The Brothers Karamazov. Virginia Woolf also, and Camus. That's one course. The other course was "The Theme of Reconciliation in Ancient and Modern Philosophy and Literature." That was a depressing course, because we only used documents and books written about tragedies, such as those that have occurred in the twentieth century. We began with the Second World War, with the Holocaust, with Primo Levi, and we ended with Rwanda. Of course we discussed the black experience, the Native American experience. We wondered, is reconciliation possible? What are its limits? What are its major components? It felt like a great accomplishment, to hear students speak about the impact my course had on them.
That sounds like a course I should have taken. You teach in Boston?
Yes, I've been a professor for thirty years, and I've been at Boston University for the last twenty-four. I love my students.
No chance you'll teach at Columbia?
Not unless you invite me.
I'm in no position to invite you right now, unfortunately.
Become President of Columbia. Then you could arrange it.
What has been your greatest disappointment, as a public figure?
I'm not a public figure. I'll go with it, since that's the expression you've used. But, my greatest disappointment is that I believe that those of us who went through the war and tried to write about it, about their experience, became messengers. We have given the message, and nothing changed. Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was. Too much indifference in the world, to the Other, his pain, and anguish, and hope. That is my greatest sorrow, my great disappointment. We tried our best, we have even gone beyond everything, to deliver the message, and to issue warnings. Yet anti-Semitism is still not only rampant, but growing. This is true in Russia, what used to be the Soviet Empire, in Hungary, in Romania, in the Ukraine. I was convinced in 1945 that what happened must never be forgotten. One thing appeared to me then: that anti-Semitism died in Auschwitz. But now we realize that only its victims perished. Anti-Semitism is still well and alive. That hurts.
If you had to teach yourself in your course, your best book versus your first book, what would be your own best book?
Really, I am so close to my books; I've published over forty of them. Each one is to me the best. I can't choose one in particular, except for my very first novel, Night, which is the basis for everything else. If I had not written Night, I would not have written anything else.
Was it also the most difficult?
Yes it was. They are all difficult. I write very slowly: I write in a sort of anguished pleasure. Or a pleasurable anguish? There is much of both in my writing, and even in the process of writing. But this one was difficult. My first manuscript for Night was 864 pages, and it was reduced in Yiddish to one hundred pages, and even that has been reduced. It was impossible to write, but impossible not to write.
I'd like to ask you about a fellow Nobel laureate, Gunter Grass, who recently won the Nobel Prize. You mention him briefly in your memoir, and I am wondering if you've read his work, and what you thought of it.
Yes. I think his first novel, The Tin Drum, is a great, great novel. Therefore he deserves the prize, if it were only for his very first, very great novel.
What was it that you most admired?
I admired the idea, to speak about someone who wants to speak but cannot, because he has so much to say. He doesn't speak much about the suffering of the Jews, but he spoke about the guilt of those who caused their suffering.
I heard people say that the novel rehabilitated German literature after the crimes of World War II. I also heard that it failed to rehabilitate it. That, to me, is an interesting idea, that a book would rehabilitate a nation's literature in some fashion.
I speak about the first novel. The first novel came out and was received--almost unanimously--by everyone who loves literature, and who knows history. How does one compare him, let's say, with the first postwar Nobel given to a German author, Heinrich Böll? If rehabilitation has a meaning, it should apply to both, unquestionably, the work of both. In both cases, the judgement of people that I respect on the committee in Stockholm, and on other committees, is stable.
Another Nobel-winner who you mention in your memoir is Samuel Beckett. You said you were excited at the time to learn that he had won. Did his work have a great influence on your own, as a writer?
Not on my own, no. He had a great influence on theater in general. Mainly his plays, and a few prose works, will remain. Everything he wrote will remain, but his influence was mainly felt in the theater.
There is a line that I love in Waiting for Godot, in Lucky's speech, I can't remember the exact wording, but he suggests that God is aphasic and athambic, meaning--I think--mute and incapable of being perturbed. Do you think these are attributes of God?
No, I don't. I find it difficult to speak about God in general. Kafka said one thing that I like, which was "One cannot speak of God. At best, one can speak to God."
There are a couple of statements about God that you make in your memoir. You say that he is the loneliest figure in the Bible.
I think he is condemned by himself to loneliness. God is One: he was, he is, he will be always One. One is so lonely. Maybe that is why he created human beings--to feel less lonely. But as human beings betray his creation, he may become even lonelier.
And that's what makes him tragic, as well?
Yes, I think so. I quote my teacher, Saul Lieberman, who said the most tragic figure in the Bible is God.
I've heard you speak on television about Jacob and Esau. Was it fair that Esau lost his birthright and his father's blessing to Jacob?
I had sympathy for Esau at that time: "Poor Esau, his mother didn't like him." But his father, Isaac, loved him, preferring him to Jacob. Then in our entire tradition, we don't like him. Why don't we? Simply because he wasn't chosen, because he suffered, because of what his descendants have done later on? The Bible does not believe in cover-ups. If somebody was wrong, the Bible says he was wrong. In many commentaries later on, we find questions raised about Jacob's behavior. But then, the moving force behind the entire adventure, that we call Jacob's Adventure, in the history and even later on, in Israel, is the mother, Rebekah. She's the one who concocted the plot how to deceive her own husband. Why? Because they all believed there was a mission from heaven given to the Jewish people. And Rebekah believed, and Jacob believed, later on, that therefore everything is permitted.
Esau ended up making out pretty well, in the long run.
In the long run, Esau has power. More power than his brother. After all, we are a very small people, and always have been a small people. Still, we believe that Esau means Rome. That his family would eventually become the Roman Empire.
On the topic of empires, are you optimistic about international coalitions working to prevent large-scale crimes like those that occur so often during the twentieth century? Organizations like the U.N., or NATO? Are you optimistic that something can be created at the systemic level?
Well, we haven't done it yet. Occasionally there have been international interventions: against Iraq, or the International Tribunal. I am for the International Tribunal in Hague, that has been established to punish criminals against humanity. These moves are important. Mostly because, justice must prevail. When justice is served by international opinion, in the international community, that's good for humanity. Can it be done? It's difficult to say, because politics plays a role. Politics means compromises on principle, and I am against compromise when it comes at such times. I think Milosevic should be arrested and brought to trial. I would like to see some kind of expedition...a commando raid. I know I am naïve saying that, that it can't be done. But it could have at one time. Just organize a kind of commando, Green Beret, (laughs) a James Bond kind of thing. Pick him up there and bring him to trial.
Are you familiar with Edward Said? Do you know him, or have you read his work?
I know who he is, but I have not read his book. I have his book here, and I am actually going to read it over the semester vacation.
There was a quasi-controversy recently about his [Palestinian] background, and I wanted to ask you...
His background. Honestly, I haven't read his work yet, and it would be unfair for me to comment. I don't mean to evade your question, but ethically it's impossible for me to answer that question. I have the book here on my desk, and I am going to read it over the vacation.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
Okay, then, become President of Columbia and get back to me about teaching there.
And then you can teach with Edward Said, and you can get to know one another.
(Laughs) Yes, we can even teach something together.
interview by Anson Lang