A Morning Star by Andre Schwarz-Bart
Recently I read, and then bought so that I can reread and reread, a book that’s been calling out to me: A Morning Star, written by the French novelist, Andre Schwarz-Bart, and posthumously finished and published by his wife Simone, also a novelist. The first novel that he wrote, and finished on his own in 1959, was the prize-winning The Last of the Just, a masterpiece of Holocaust literature in which a moving and mystical account of one family’s tribulations is written in the framework of an ancient Jewish legend.
Schwarz-Bart had sufficient talent and the experience to enable his becoming a universally accepted voice of the victims of the Holocaust like his friend, Elie Wiesel, had he not been blocked by his lasting inability to find appropriate variations on the one theme that had significance for him. He searched but could not find a better way to tell the story he had already told. Simone tells us in the foreword to the new book, a semi-autobiographical account of the Tragedy, that it was years in the making. This incredibly fine writer wrote draft after draft of his story and, finding them all wanting, rejected them all. He could find no language to adequately convey the true horror he and millions of others had experienced. Although what he saw and heard and smelled as a child surviving alone in Nazi Poland was seared into his brain forever, he feared that sharing those sensations with the world in a less than perfect way would have dishonored his lost loved ones. As he says, in an epigraph to Chapter VII:
Staying silent is not enough and talking is too much: we need to find the right cries, mutterings, or start singing a new song that encompasses all words, all silences, all cries.
That is what he was seeking but could not find. His sense of inadequacy to do the task justice, his reluctance to put his observations into words, is shown in the ironic understatements Schwartz-Bart uses to report the nature of the protagonist’s experiences. His descriptions of the tragic events are lean, spare. Close relatives disappear in a sentence and are never heard from again. God-awful things happen in parenthetical phrases. For me, reading Schwarz-Bart is like communing with a likeminded soul. I get him completely and feel his sadness in my bones, with no need for details of the horrors. On the contrary, I am relieved by the lack of specificity. A reader who can’t read between the lines or doesn’t know the underlying history will not like the book, as I do.
An epigraph for Chapter VI quotes Moses pleading with God:
If you have reserved such a fate for me, ah! please, let me die instead –if I’ve found favor in your sight – so I may no longer see all this affliction. ………. Numbers 11:15
The writer might have meant this cry for his own epitaph. He could not bear his role as witness to the suffering. And yet he kept struggling to deliver the message in just the right words for the distasteful task until he died, leaving behind only disjointed pieces and scraps of paper waiting to be assembled into a book. Fortunately for us, the pieces were put together and published this spring in good, if not altogether perfect, form.
Miriam Raskin (June 14, 2011)