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Literature Doesn’t Stop at the Unspeakable

(Cover design by Deste Roosa; cover art by Judith Wolfe, detail from Dans la Lumière de Glace 1, from the series Hommage à Charlotte Delbo, 2013.)

A Review of Ghislaine Dunant, Charlotte Delbo: A Life Reclaimed, translation and introduction by Kathryn Lachman (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021).

The work of Charlotte Delbo has accompanied my thinking and teaching about the Holocaust for the last twenty-five years. Her trilogy Auschwitz and After counts among the most searing responses to the Nazi camps that have appeared in any language, and her late work Days and Memory contains some of the most profound reflections on memory, trauma, and the afterlives of extreme violence that I know. Delbo was a non-Jewish, French political prisoner who was arrested for her work in the resistance to the Nazi occupation, held in various prisons in France, and then deported to Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, from which she was liberated at the end of the war. Across her oeuvre, she developed unique ways of representing the specificities of the experience of atrocity as well as the collective nature of what her compatriot David Rousset called the “concentrationary universe.” Although Delbo started bearing witness to her experiences immediately after liberation, the publication and reception of her work has been delayed for different reasons—in the English-speaking world, but even more surprisingly within France itself. Nevertheless, in the last couple of decades she has begun to achieve the recognition she deserves, especially in the United States, and she now figures prominently in scholarship on Holocaust testimony and in courses on the Holocaust at universities around the world.

Despite her rise to prominence there has been no book-length study of her life and work in English—until now. Fortunately, Kathryn Lachman has translated Ghislaine Dunant’s award-winning Charlotte Delbo: A Life Reclaimed for University of Massachusetts Press. Dunant’s book is neither a standard biography nor simply a literary critical study—it occupies a space somewhere in between and combines elements of both. At 460 pages of relatively small print, Dunant’s work is substantial—and might have benefited from editorial trimming. Despite some repetition, however, the text offers much both to those who know Delbo well and those who are learning about her for the first time. Dunant engages closely with Delbo’s texts, including journalistic essays, unpublished manuscripts, and earlier versions of material that would later be included in her books. She treats the writings (correctly) as literary documents in their own right, but also weaves them into her account of Delbo’s life and times, an account that also derives from letters and interviews with some of Delbo’s closest friends and collaborators. Perhaps we might best describe the overarching genre of the book as a biography of Delbo’s coming to writing or what Lachman characterizes as a “literary biography.”

Several structuring motifs traverse Dunant’s account. First, Delbo’s commitment to writing was absolute. Her texts all bear witness to the difficulty of conveying extremity, but they are fully committed to the attempt at transmission, the attempt to donner à voir—to “make visible” or to “bring out,” as Lachman offers in translation. Dunant puts it well near the end of the volume, “Literature must not stop when confronted with something that seems unspeakable, that calls its power into question. It cannot accept the idea that anything is unspeakable. It is enough that some things are inconceivable. The unimaginable exists. The role of literature is to find a means to speak it” (454). The paradoxes at work here—familiar to any student of Holocaust literature—are ones that Delbo attends to from her earliest to her latest work; she doesn’t so much resolve these tensions between imagination and expression as “make [them] visible.”

Despite this fundamental commitment, however, a second motif of the biography is the difficulty Delbo had in publishing such challenging work and finding readers. Delbo herself chose to hold back her first manuscript—None of Us Will Return, the first volume of Auschwitz and After—until it had “stood the test of time,” as various critics have announced over the years. This account is true, though as Dunant shows, the mythology of Delbo’s retention of the text is somewhat overstated: she actually tried unsuccessfully to publish the work several years before she was eventually able to place it. This difficulty would prove perennial. A number of manuscripts have remained unpublished till this day, including an account of Delbo’s disillusioning 1959 journey to the Soviet Union. Fortunately, those who do not have access to Delbo’s archives at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France now have Dunant’s detailed accounts of such previously unknown works. Most shockingly, Delbo was unable to find a publisher for her last book, Days and Memory, before she died of cancer in 1985. This powerful and moving work, which has become essential to scholars of testimony and trauma, was only published posthumously and not by Delbo’s primary publisher, Editions de Minuit, where it was meant to stand as the fourth volume of Auschwitz and After. The story of Delbo’s somewhat vexed relations with Jérôme Lindon, publisher of Minuit, is a sad strand of Dunant’s biography—especially because Lindon’s demurrals about Delbo’s work reflect the small readership for her books in France during her lifetime.

A third major theme of the biography is Delbo’s longstanding association with two important male cultural figures in mid- and late-twentieth century France: Louis Jouvet and Henri Lefebvre. Jouvet, relatively unknown in the US, was a major actor and director in Paris’s theater world, for whom Delbo worked for several years as an assistant during the late 1930s and into the war period. Famously, she returned from Jouvet’s tour of South America in 1941 to rejoin her husband Georges Dudach, a Communist militant, and take part together with him in the resistance. Dudach and Delbo’s subsequent arrest and Dudach’s execution by the Nazis would haunt Delbo for the rest of her life. Dunant shows how profoundly Jouvet’s person and his theatrical vision were for Delbo, but also how significant it was for her to break with him after he—not unlike Lindon at times—responded in a lukewarm way to the (stunning) opening pages of None of Us Will Return. Jouvet’s importance to Delbo is also clear from her work, which makes regular direct reference to him as well as to plays and the theatrical characters associated with him.

Less obvious from the work itself is Delbo’s association with the heterodox Marxist philosopher Lefebvre, who is much better known in the US as a theorist of space. Although Delbo worked as Lefebvre’s assistant from 1964 until his retirement from the CNRS in 1973, and helped him with the typing and revision of many important manuscripts, she receives only the briefest mention in biographies of Lefebvre. Indeed, Delbo and Lefebvre occupy radically different locations in accounts of the postwar cultural sphere; yet their long-term professional and friendly personal relationship represents an intriguing puzzle: what kinds of (potential) mutual influence can we find between Delbo and Lefebvre? Dunant begins to fill in this lacuna in twentieth-century French intellectual history, but much more remains to be said. Delbo’s approach to the everyday, which she weaves into and through her accounts of extreme violence—an approach I have called “traumatic realism”—strikes me as one starting place for this posthumous dialogue among close, but very different thinkers. The Delbo-Lefebvre relationship to Marxism and the French Communist Party (PCF) is also notable: Delbo, a leftist who broke definitively with the party early on, scorned Lefebvre after his reconciliation with the PCF in 1978, yet Lefebvre would appear in tears at her funeral several years later, as Dunant recounts (392).

For readers of the translation, Dunant’s account of Delbo’s contacts in the US will be of particular interest. It is no exaggeration to say that it was US-based scholars who came to appreciate Delbo long before our counterparts in France. Delbo’s current international prominence is due in no small part to Rosette Lamont’s networking over many years (itself a result of contacts with Cynthia Haft) and especially to Lamont’s standard 1995 translation of the Auschwitz and After trilogy for Yale University Press, a translation that has allowed Delbo to enter numerous American classrooms. So much of Delbo’s work was ahead of its time, as Dunant makes clear; but I would argue that Lamont’s translation was perfectly timed: it happened to appear during a period of intense engagement with the Holocaust in North America and Western Europe (remember that 1993 marked the opening of both Schindler’s List and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum). It was really only after Delbo found acolytes in the US academy—most prominently, Lawrence Langer, but I proudly count myself among them—that her work began to be received seriously in France. The Massachusetts Review also plays a significant role in the story of Delbo’s American reception—it published some of the earliest translations of Delbo’s work by Lamont in the 1970s.

It is to be hoped that the appearance of Charlotte Delbo: A Life Reclaimed will further solidify Delbo’s readership in the English-speaking world and help readers more fully grasp the nature of her texts and the contexts from which they emerged. Lachman’s translation is lucid throughout and never strikes a false note. Even more, it supplements Dunant’s text with a useful apparatus that renders the book even more accessible. Lachman’s introduction is brief but contains everything needed to launch into the text. She also includes a detailed table of contents introducing dates and works (a kind of alternative to an index) as well as a timeline of important historical and cultural events and significant moments in Delbo’s life. Both of these additions to the English edition allow readers more easily to track how Delbo’s writings intersect with historical developments, especially in the postwar world.

The ability to grasp those intersections between text and history is—for this reader—one of the most important contributions of Dunant’s book and one of the most intriguing aspects of Delbo’s life and work. While Delbo is now universally acclaimed for her experimental mode of testimony, her work is also intricately intertwined with the politics of the postwar world. For me, Delbo has not only been a catalyst for thinking about the representation of trauma but also about the dialogical nature of public memory. On the basis of Delbo’s first published book, the untranslated Les belles lettres (1961), which responded to the unfolding Algerian War of Independence, I argued that Delbo was part of a “multidirectional” tradition of remembrance that has, since the early postwar period, juxtaposed Nazi genocide with colonial violence.

After reading Dunant’s biography, I am even more certain that she belongs in this tradition. We learn here, for example, further intriguing aspects of her involvement with the Algerian struggle for independence—such as her work as a “porteuse de valises” (carrier of suitcases), providing clandestine support to the liberation movement (162); and her witnessing of the October 17, 1961 demonstration of Algerians that was violently suppressed by the Paris police (441ff). Delbo dedicated an unpublished 1982 essay to the events of October 1961—originally slated to appear in Days and Memory—at a time when almost nobody in Paris was talking about the massacre. It would take another twenty years before the city of Paris dedicated a small memorial plaque to the events and several more before a larger public learned about them through Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché. Delbo’s political passions also went well beyond the Algerian case. Dunant reveals her ongoing interest in political struggles around the world, which registers in her published and unpublished writings about Greece, Argentina, the Basque region, Chile, and much more.

During her lifetime, Delbo, a politically independent autodidact, never achieved great prominence in the public sphere, and her books found relatively few readers. Yet, her experimental, engaged mode of writing retains more currency than that of many of her more famous peers. Her oeuvre—as Dunant’s literary biography confirms—will survive. We need her courageous and iconoclastic insight today more than ever; we are lucky that we have her work as we navigate through our own ongoing, unprecedented crises.

Michael Rothberg is Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies. He is also co-organizer of the Working Group in Memory Studies and an affiliate of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. His Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford UP, 2009) has been translated into French, German, and Polish; his most recent book is The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford UP, 2019).

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