Many of the works collected in this blog belong to that category of literature which I call "The Invisible Library" - works that were burned, or banned, or whose writers were burned, or banned; works that were once highly regarded, yet slipped out of favour and became forgotten; works that can only be found by those who have privileged access (the Library of Prohibited Literature in the vaults of the Vatican for example); works that are known in their own language, yet seem not to have made the journey into other languages, leaving them and their authors foolishly unknown. The works of Charlotte Delbo fall into most of these sub-categories.
Charlotte Delbo was the wife of the French Resistance leader Georges Dudach, both of them arrested in 1943. Her husband was shot by firing squad; Charlotte was sent to Auschwitz and then Ravensbrück - and miraculously survived. To "donner à voir" – to ensure the world knew – she wrote out her personal catharsis, Primo Levi-like, Elie Wiesel-like, in a series of vignettes, poems and stories. At times her books remind me of Argaman's Treblinka Notebooks, in "The Flaming Sword", though I did not come across Delbo until years after I had written them. For example this passing memory of a moment in the death-camp:
“A man unable to follow any longer. The dog lunges at his backside. The man does not stop. He continues walking, followed by the dog walking on its hind legs, its muzzle at the man’s rear end.”
Argaman would have pared it even closer to the core. Perhaps "a man wearing for a tail the teeth of a rabid dog" – but the method, and more importantly the purpose, is the same: though hers has the somewhat greater virtue of being authentic witness-statement, whereas mine, the dead gods be praised, is only fiction. But either way, photographs in words, uncaptioned. The presentation of reality, without commentary (in truth, does it need commentary?). Objective facts, undeniable by future generations (though of course they will be).
But Delbo does not quite achieve this. She wishes to put colour in the photograph where surely black and white would describe this reality more precisely. The narrator needs to interject. So she continues, unnecessarily (from a literary perspective; and yet absolutely necessary):
"The man is walking. He has not uttered a sound. Blood stains his trousers' stripes. It seeps from inside, a stain spreading as though upon a blotter."
Yes - absolutely necessary. Because now the description has become allegory - the stained blotter is the book of human history itself. But more than this, because the ultimate purpose is not literature, but personal catharsis. So she needs to recall each memory individually, and in full, in order to come to terms with it through the act of writing down. So my literary criticism is irrelevant, redundant, and indeed insulting. She is not writing literature; she is writing testimony.
“Try to look,” she intervenes in the narrative description. “Just try and see.”
As though, without the aid of newsreel, any human being could ever possibly succeed in doing that.
But necessary - because there is the personal catharsis, but there is also the requirement to draw the whole world into her trauma, in order that sympathy, and empathy, might add a coat of iodine, in order that past injustice may be expiated, by future justice becoming established in the souls of posterity, precisely through this act of recording what took place in fastidious detail, of rendering history visible.
And yes, iodine –
I cannot evade noting this element of personal catharsis –
iodine is purple.
Lilacs out of the dead land.
Each of her pieces, taken in isolation, is banal - but not banal in the way that Hannah Arendt used the word, reducing Nazi lucidity and conscious intention to the merely mythological "evil" in that manner, and allowing Polish posterity, for example, thereby to declare itself not guilty and insist there were no "Polish death camps". Delbo's banality is simply what is left of human life, when it has been reduced to zero in this manner.
But taken as a whole, this universe of infinite banalities without respite becomes a most extraordinary personal witness-statement, and ranks alongside Primo Levi's and Elie Wiesel's, and not as literature, but simply (simply!) in their capacity for catharsis. She writes, for example, and with divine justification:
I came back from the dead
this gave me the right
to speak to others...
- speak to, mind, not speak for –
but when I found myself face to face with them
I had nothing to say
that you cannot speak to others.
The use of the alexandrine as a line-ending, a line-shortening, is disturbing, and meant to be. A breakdown of communication made explicit through the very methodology of broken-down communication. But the statement is also one of desperation, and reminds us that Primo Levi eventually threw himself downstairs, even after a dozen books, republished in every living language, and world-wide acclamation for his heroic testimony. And why? Because in thirty years nothing had changed, except the location of the repetition. Because he had gone on speaking, trying every mode and tone available - and nobody who really mattered, despite their endless pious speeches, was even listening.
I have returned
from a world beyond knowledge
and now must unlearn
for otherwise I clearly see
I can no longer live.
Delbo's words, though I can imagine Primo Levi saying something very similar, under his breath, as he placed his hands on the banister, and took a last look down into the abyss.
So Dante supplanted Orpheus. So Levi, Wiesel, Delbo, perhaps even Argaman, supplanted Dante.
The lines quoted above are from a poem she called "Prayer to the Living To Forgive Them for Being Alive" and the only two things that I do not understand about them are, first, why she did not also address it to the dead, to grant them forgiveness as well (they probably deserve it more); and second, why she chose only certain letters to capitalise?
Step out of history
to enter life
just try that all of you
you’ll get it then
I propose these lines for her epitaph – they close the untitled poem which begins "You'd like to know" – but in doing so I also wonder if two words might not be interchanged: the words history and life. I would like to hope so. Though she is now largely forgotten, and was virtually unknown outside France even in her lifetime, it is a place that she deserves.
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