Tipping into transgressiveness: a critical enquiry into the subversive holocaust fiction of Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer
The Holocaust, perhaps the most infamous crime of the twentieth century, has embedded itself in the collective consciousness of the Western World. In the seven-and-a-half decades which have succeeded the event, this genocide has been treated as sacrosanct. Such treatment has made the writing of Holocaust fiction contentious. As theorist Lawrence Langer argues, the genre of Holocaust fiction has been drawn into a narrow area of association, where creative licence is restricted, partly by the historical record and partly by awe. Indeed, Robert Eaglestone notes the complexity of the assumed right to represent the dead, an issue which plagues few other genres of fiction in quite this way. The last three decades have seen a shift in the way writers engage with this topic. In an effort to counteract prevailing sentiments, works of gratuitous violence and subversion have been produced. Mathew Boswell has identified the extreme versions as “Holocaust impiety”, although many argue that these works show too little restraint and thus alienate their audience. Specifically, Nathan Englander’s short stories ‘The Tumblers’, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’, ‘Camp Sundown’ and ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’, as well as Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated, grapple creatively with the trauma of the Shoah, in addition to the problems of its representation. Englander’s stories are characterized by what Bonnie Lyons describes as stylistic ‘edginess’, being unsettled, innovative and dark. ‘The Tumblers’ takes recognizable characters from Jewish folklore and inserts them into the extraordinary circumstances of the Holocaust, while ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’ uses the realism of Raymond Carver to probe contemporary responses to the Shoah. Both ‘Camp Sundown’ and ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ explore the impact of the trauma of the Holocaust on its survivors, thus subverting traditional assumptions about their sanctity. Foer’s Everything is Illuminated draws on folklore, postmodern tropes and comedy to tell the story of its protagonist’s quest to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Englander and Foer’s mode of subverting the conventions of Holocaust fiction is linked to the Bakhtinian tradition of the Carnivalesque, a licensed overturning of dominant social structures and normative moral requirements. These authors’ exploration of normative morality opens up grey zones, where the lines between good and evil collapse into what Tzvetan iv Todorov describes as the responses of ordinary people, who are neither saints nor monsters. The Derridean concept of “cinders” also weaves its way into these works as both writers explore absence and loss in the wake of the Shoah. This dissertation contends that the works of these two writers, as well as other secondary texts, constitute a transgressive tipping point in the literary genre, a new modality for navigating the Holocaust, in fiction and in fact.
A research report submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2023