Literature or Life

Overview

Jorge Semprun was twenty years old - already an accomplished philosopher and poet - when arrested by Nazis for activites in the French Resistance. He was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Literature or Life, a bestseller in France, is a deeply personal account not only of Semprun's time at Buchenwald, but also of the years before and after, of his painful attempts to write this book...created out of obsessions that returned him again and again like themes in a nightmarish rhapsody. His long reverie on ...

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Overview

Jorge Semprun was twenty years old - already an accomplished philosopher and poet - when arrested by Nazis for activites in the French Resistance. He was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Literature or Life, a bestseller in France, is a deeply personal account not only of Semprun's time at Buchenwald, but also of the years before and after, of his painful attempts to write this book...created out of obsessions that returned him again and again like themes in a nightmarish rhapsody. His long reverie on life-as-death, now translated with the mesmerizing power of fiction. It is a profound contribution to Holocaust literature.

? Semprun was awarded the Jerusalem prize at the 1997 Jerusalem International Book Fair.
? Semprun's first novel, The Long Voyage, won Europe's prestigious Formentor Prize.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Thirty years after The Long Voyage, his haunting autobiographical novel about his deportation to Buchenwald at the age of 20, Semprun has written another autobiographical work. This one explores his experiences trying to return to life after having "crossed through death." A sensitive, vital young man fighting in the French Resistance, Semprun was captured by the Nazis. Before the war, he had spied for the Spanish Communists during Franco's regime (before being expelled from the Party) and had written novels and screenplays. Even 50 years after the camps, Semprun still feels less a survivor than a ghost, an Ancient Mariner figure separated from the rest of life by the incommunicable burden of his memories. Pushing autobiographical fiction to the limits, Semprun compellingly reexamines significant episodes in his life from Buchenwald's liberation in 1945 to his only return there in 1992, for a documentary. In 1945, he showed the camp's crematory to a group of Frenchwomen who had mistaken it for the kitchen (an event also briefly described in The Long Voyage). Semprun uses a densely allusive writing style to draw out his sense of historical ironies. Rich with acutely felt observations and many examples of his sustaining love of literature and philosophy, as exemplified in the works of Andr Malraux, Louis Aragon, Ren Char and Martin Heidegger, Literature or Life is a memoir that employs novelistic elliptical structure and allusive literary touches in its personal search for life's meaning after surviving the unthinkable. (Mar.) FYI: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics is simultaneously reissuing The Long Voyage.
Kirkus Reviews
A moving account of life in Buchenwald and a subsequent lifetime spent trying to write about it, by the Spanish novelist and screenwriter best known for his classic filmscripts (Z, La Guerre Est Finie) and a previous nonfiction account of his ordeal (The Long Voyage, 1964).

Semprun was a 20-year-old philosophy student and a member of the French Resistance when he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and incarcerated. After 18 months in Buchenwald, he was freed by American troops—and thereafter endured almost a half-century of vacillation between variously failed attempts at capturing his experiences in "literature" (unable to span "the insurmountable gulf between what you envision and its narrative realization") and equally painful efforts to shrug off that burden. Circling back and forth among various past times and the present, Semprun creates a discursive and dramatic mosaic in which ruminations about his obligations as a survivor and struggles as a writer alternate with memories of encounters in the camp (with dying comrades, a young Russian "barbarian" who worked as an orderly, and a Jewish- American lieutenant who was one of his "liberators," among others); relationships with literary friends and sympathetic lovers before and after the war; and—always—discussions of books and writers that influenced him profoundly (for example, Kafka's letters to his fiancée Milena Jesenskà—who outlived him only to die in a concentration camp). Initially, Semprun's confession of his inability to sort out and write about such matters feels contrived, but the book gathers both internal logic and emotional power as it proceeds. In the concluding pages, in which Semprun learns from the suicide of fellow Holocaust victim Primo Levi that he too is mortal and must finish his work, and his discovery, during a return visit to Buchenwald in 1992, of the clerical error that undoubtedly saved his life, triumphantly justify his "novel's" long genesis and circuitous structure.

A masterly work, and the obvious capstone of Semprun's distinguished career.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140266245
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/1/1998
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Jorge Semprun, novelist and playwright, was Spain's Minister of Culture from 1988-1991. He lives in Paris.

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