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Elie Wiesel: Embracing memory and madness

The 81-year-old Holocaust survivor's 49th book, 'A Mad Desire to Dance,' revisits themes common to his writing through the years.

February 22, 2009|Susan Salter Reynolds | Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK — "Purple in the grays. Vermillion in the orange shadows, on a cold, fine day."

-- Pierre Bonnard, from his notebooks


Manhattan in a winter storm seems galaxies away from Bonnard's bright interiors. I carry an exhibition catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Elie Wiesel's office in Midtown.

As we talk, the bright yellow cover blinks up from the coffee table, louder than the thousands of books in his office; louder than his voice, which is soft with a strong French accent and something else.

Wiesel is 81. He is modestly dressed in a blue blazer, gray pants and black shoes. His manner is a gentle combination of elegance and humility. He is not frail, but I suspect I am not the first to feel the instinct to protect him, to speak quietly, not to move suddenly, to live up to the sophistication and humanity he deserves.

Wiesel's 49th book, "A Mad Desire to Dance" (Alfred A. Knopf: 274 pp., $24) is a novel that contains, like all his books, the voice of a madman. "These were the first people to be taken away," he says, thinking back to World War II. "Children, old people, madmen. I give them shelter in my books; there is always a place for them. They haunt my universe and I say, 'Come in.' "

In the novel, Doriel, a middle-aged man whose parents lived through the war, believes he may be haunted by a dybbuk -- in Jewish folklore, the dislocated soul of a dead person. He seeks help from a young female therapist. The chapters follow the progress of the therapy, alternating between the therapist's and Doriel's points of view.

Wiesel began writing to bear witness to the Holocaust and to inspire others to write their stories. For years, he has defended the importance of memory against those who deny aspects of the Holocaust.


A loyal following

Even on the day we meet, the media carry the story of a Catholic bishop who questions the existence of the gas chambers. But readers have never abandoned him. Half a century after its publication, "Night," which details his months in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a young teenager, continues to appear on bestseller lists.

"Why did I write it?" Wiesel asks in the 2006 preface to a new translation. "Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?"

In February 2007, Wiesel was attacked by a different sort of madman, pulled off an elevator in San Francisco by a 22-year-old Holocaust denier named Eric Hunt who tried to drag him into a hotel room. Ever since, Wiesel has had a bodyguard. He has just returned from the inauguration and sees the election of Barack Obama as "history trying to redeem itself." He remembers visiting the South in the early 1950s and feeling ashamed to be white.

Most of Wiesel's books are written in French; the author settled in France after the war, studying psychology and philosophy at the Sorbonne. His wife, Marion, was his translator for many years, but recently she has been called to full-time work at the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which the couple started after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and which suffered losses of around $15 million, substantially all of its assets, in the Bernard Madoff scandal. "Night" was written in Yiddish, his childhood language.

"A Mad Desire to Dance," the author explains, is a response to his 1964 novel, "The Town Beyond the Wall," in which Michael, a Holocaust survivor, returns to the town in which he was born, is captured by communists, put in prison and tortured. The novel ends with Michael locked in a cell with a madman, a catatonic who is unable to break through his wall of silence. "He knows," Wiesel explains of Michael, "that if he does nothing he will go mad as well, so he tries to cure the madman."

In "A Mad Desire to Dance," Doriel is "cured" when his therapist leads him to the realization that his mother, a prominent resistance leader, had an affair during the war.

Did the new novel begin with a memory of dancing? "I've never danced in my life," Wiesel says. "I don't know how to dance or swim." Rather, the book "began with a melody. As for the structure, it offers itself from the inside. If I were to begin a novel with a preconceived structure, it would be false."

Certainly the structure of "A Mad Desire to Dance" comes from Doriel's therapy: the realization of his mother's affair and his ability to forgive her. "I believe in therapy," Wiesel says, "particularly between friends. If a friend talks to another friend to relieve his suffering, that is therapy. Human beings were not born to be alone. God alone is alone. People are capable of falling in love. Illness is not being able to fall in love."

Wiesel writes each book three times. He is long past denying the element of autobiography in his work. He is, like many writers, exhausted after writing. "One," he says, "has to condense so much."

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