Compelled by the duty of remembrance

<i>And The Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs 1969- </i>by Elie Wiesel (HarperCollins, &pound;19.99)
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The Independent Culture

It was Stravinsky who said that when it comes to Russian literature, one is either for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. When it comes to Holocaust literature, one is either for Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi.

It was Stravinsky who said that when it comes to Russian literature, one is either for Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. When it comes to Holocaust literature, one is either for Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi.

Personally, I have always preferred the discreet, restrained, precise narratives of Levi to Wiesel's overblown, metaphorical fables. Wiesel is descended from the eastern European Hasidic tradition, based on simple piety, mysticism and the folk wisdom of itinerant preachers. It was a world largely destroyed by the Nazis, who massacred its inhabitants or herded them into concentration camps.

Wiesel, as a survivor of Auschwitz where the rest of his family perished, has always been compelled by the duty of witnessing and remembering. For those of us descended from the rigorous Jüdische Wissenschaft (science of Judaism) tradition in western Europe, his parables about saints and wise beggars no more answer the deep and terrible theological problems of belief in God after Auschwitz than would Fiddler on the Roof.

Even allowing for such opposed starting points, this is still a dire book. It is no conventional autobiography, in the sense of someone looking back over their life and seeking to discover order in haphazard circumstances. Rather, it is a long list of self-congratulatory pages from Wiesel's engagements diary. How I saved Abba Eban's career; how Golda Meir confided in me; why Kissinger was grateful to me; if only Gorbachev had listened to me; how mine was the one voice of sweet reason in the controversy surrounding the Washington Holocaust Museum...

At times, beneath his insistence on being a shy person who hates public exposure, the conceit is breathtaking. Wiesel informs us that not since Schweitzer has a Nobel Prize winner been more warmly received. The mock-modest tone of "Aw shucks, fancy me, the yeshiva student from Sighet, here in the White House/ Elysée Palace/Kremlin" soon wears thin. Wiesel reveals himself as vain, arrogant, gullible and naive about international affairs. He defends his silence over the worst excesses of previous Israeli governments with the hackneyed excuse that only those who live there have a right to criticise. That doesn't deter him from being vociferously and justifiably critical about Austria, Germany, the Soviet Union, Poland, Bosnia and Serbia.

When the mask of saintly forbearance slips, it is to settle old scores with Simon Wiesenthal, rival contender as Most Important Holocaust Witness. "I feel sorry for him," he concludes, having gouged, rabbit-punched and kicked his opponent. Wiesel does not take kindly to "too many experts" encroaching on his Holocaust preserve, which he always refers to as "The Event". Elsewhere, it becomes "the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted", which rather begs the question of what his life's work has been all about.

For one who sets such store on words, the style of this book is appallingly mawkish. Who outside of Mills & Boon would get away with "Spring is here, Paris is alive with the joy of its lovers" or the nonsense statement that "The quality of a novel is measured not by the weight of its words but by that of its silence"? Only when detailing his pleasure in teaching, summoning up the ghosts of his dead family and linking them to his young son or pondering on the suicides of fellow-survivors Primo Levi, Paul Celan and Piotr Rawicz, does Wiesel transcend banality.

The quality of his writing has declined in inverse proportion to his celebrity. He seems to spend his time touring the world with an entourage of Nobel winners, organising conferences with titles like "The Anatomy of Hate and Conflict Resolution". Ferried first-class to five-star hotels, the great and the good deliberate at length and issue insipid declarations which Wiesel solemnly reproduces. How one would love to get on to the gravy train! Alas, this wanton review will have scuppered my chances.

The reviewer is Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London