Andre Schwarz-Bart

Author of 'The Last of the Just'

Thursday 05 October 2006 00:00 BST

André Schwarz-Bart, writer: born Metz, France 23 May 1928; married (one son); died Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe 30 September 2006.

André Schwarz-Bart was an exceptional human being and the author of one popular and memorable novel, Le Dernier des Justes, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1959. It had taken him 11 years to compose this supreme work of fiction based on a knowledge of centuries of human suffering endured by the Jewish people at the hands of rival religionists, in particular Christians.

He was born in 1928 at Metz, into a modest Polish-Jewish family who all perished in Nazi extermination camps - mother, father and two brothers all victims of the Holocaust. André, however, had a miraculous escape: he was never deported, and was able to join the Resistance fighters. With a passion for reading, he was overwhelmed by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, a great novel that he regarded as a kind of psychological thriller.

The novel's central theme of a man torn between his perception of the existence of evil and the search for an all-powerful divinity became the basic philosophical structure of Schwarz-Bart's work, a novel that was to make him world-famous - Le Dernier des Justes. It became an unexpectedly triumphal success, and was to be translated immediately into English - as The Last of the Just (1960) - and a dozen other languages. It brought him the highest distinction in French literary life, the Prix Goncourt, awarded every November by the Académie Française.

Schwarz-Bart's publishers, the leading firm of Seuil, had craftily "jumped the gun", giving news of this grand prize three whole weeks before the official announcement. Thus were eliminated the ladies of the all-female Prix Fémina - a procedure that considerably flustered their dovecote. The Last of the Just took off in a shrill climate of literary disputation and jealous backbiting, which Seuil ably exploited, resulting in sales of over a million copies.

Overwhelmed by this luck, André Schwarz-Bart discreetly retired from the literary scene with its jealous uproar and remorseless publicity machinery, and slipped into semi-retirement. But his great work had become a living legend in a period that was to become the century of the Shoah.

The novel, mixing history and fiction, spans the centuries of Jewish martyrdom until the day in 1943 on which the hero, Ernie Lévy, is arrested and locked up in the concentration camp of Drancy in northern France - one of the last of "the Just" who were slaughtered in their millions, and finally met their abominable fate at the hands of the Nazis all over Europe.

Mercifully, this harrowing story is not without a searingly ironical sense of humour - one of the ultimate proofs of a man's humanity and his respect for his fellow human beings, friends or foes:

If our God is split up into fragments, what meaning is there left in being a Jew? What place does Jewish blood have now in the universe?

Ironically, the theme of the Shoah in all its barbarity is one attracting great publicity now in France, with Jonathan Littell's immense novel Les Bienveillantes the firm favourite for this year's Prix Goncourt. Its theme of Nazi barbarism is a salutary reminder of the horrors so vividly described in Schwarz-Bart's novel.

André Schwarz-Bart married a woman from the Antilles, Simone. They soon left France for Simone's native island, Guadeloupe, where her own literary career began, and prospered to such an extent that it has almost completely submerged her husband's work, though in 1972 he published a second novel, La Mulâtresse solitude (A Woman Named Solitude, 1973).

With Simone, he wrote Un Plat de porc aux bananes vertes ("A Dish of Pork with Green Bananas", 1967). They also collaborated on a six-volume encyclopaedia, Hommage à la femme noire (1988; In Praise of Black Women, 2001). Simone went on from one literary success to another, while André seems to have fallen silent.

It is significant that in The Harper-Collins World Reader (1994), which gives pride of place to writers from the Antilles, Simone Schwarz-Bart occupies a dozen of the large pages - including an account of her life and an extensive excerpt from her autobiography, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972; The Bridge of Beyond, 1974), while André is fleetingly mentioned as her husband in a brief footnote.

Nevertheless, a very moving 75th-birthday tribute was paid to André Schwarz-Bart three years ago, in May 2003, at the great Musée d'Art Juif in Paris. The fine classical actor of the Comédie-Française Denis Podalydès read vibrant excerpts from Le Dernier des Justes and two friends of the author, the cinéaste Robert Bober and the psychoanalyst Marie Moscovici, made their hommages.

James Kirkup

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