IB Tauris, £20, 304pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Philosopher of Auschwitz, By Irène Heidelberger-Leonard, trans. Anthea Bell

Jean Améry had always wanted to be someone extraordinary. Yet when he became just that, lauded by post-war writers, from Heinrich Böll to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ernst Bloch to Günter Grass, Alfred Andersch to Ingeborg Bachmann, he still felt he had not achieved enough. He was the darling of the German media. Prizes and honours were raining down: from Switzerland, which had provided him with a living, working relentlessly hard, as a journalist and critic after his survival of the concentration camps; from Germany, the land not only of thinkers and high culture, but also of perpetrators, where he had not set foot during the intervening years; and even from Austria, from which he had been hunted "like a hare" in 1938, but where he returned to take his own life in 1978.

This self-doubt, this desire to be someone other, or someone different in addition –a celebrated man of belles-lettres as well as the fêted essayist – was the flip-side to a writer who took his place beside Primo Levi and Theodor Adorno, while at eloquent odds with both, as chronicler and unique analyst of the experiences of the Holocaust. His searing honesty and clarity brought a further essential level to the discussions taking place in the Germany of the 1960s, prompted by the Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil, the debate of the Statutes of Limitations, and the Auschwitz trial which started in December 1963 in Frankfurt.

Améry's 1964 essay collection, published in English as At the Mind's Limits, tackles in a subjective, yet highly analytical way, the "situation of the intellectual in the concentration camp". It examines how the mind, or intellect, deals (it cannot) with the overwhelming realities of torture and the camps of the Holocaust. These landmark essays made an enormous impact. Not enormous enough, however, for Améry to feel he had wholly "arrived".

Irène Heidelberger-Leonard's meticulously researched biography, in Anthea Bell's elegant translation, is empathetic, but true to the ambivalences of her fascinating and troubled subject. A rich and intellectually satisfying portrait both of the man and his times emerges, from his loyalty to the tenets of the Enlightenment, his forays into 1930s Viennese neo-positivism, and his belief in the power of education (one of his greatest regrets was not to have been taken up fully by students, nor by the New Left).

When his Jewish-ness could no longer be lived on the periphery with the Nuremberg Laws, his intellectual journey continued in Belgium. There he joined the resistance. After the camps, it was in exile in Brussels that he became "Jean Améry", an anagram of his birth name, Hans Mayer. Sartre, Thomas Mann, and Proust remained constant companions in a life inextricably shaped by thought. As does the presence of the option of death, even before the Auschwitz experience, as his second wife Maria writes in an imaginary letter to him: "Auschwitz number 172363 – for that number sealed your fate... But there was so much else; it was all in you from an early date. It was no coincidence that as a very young man you loved only the poetry of those poets who wrote of decline, melancholy and death."

Améry's legacy is a body of work that still makes essential reading today, be it his essay on "Torture", or his characteristically provocative On Ageing and On Suicide. This prize-winning biography provides the perfect platform to re-enter arguably one of the finest minds of the last century.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape