Book Review: The Morning Star
by Andre Schwarz-Bart and Simone Schwarz-Bart
Overlook Press, 2011
Andre Schwartz-Bart, who died in 2006, wrote a great, forgotten book called The Last of the Just, which was published in French in 1959 and in English in 1960. In that book, which won the Prix Goncourt, eight hundred years of a Jewish family are traced through the lonely lineage of “the Just,” the select group of men whose essential righteousness in each generation gives the grounding for God’s love of mankind. In the book’s most harrowingly memorable sequence, the last of these legendary figures is killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. The Last of the Just is entirely chiselled out of a sadness so deep, so elemental, so all-encompassing that reading the book is a transformative experience.
It’s perhaps no surprise that an author who could write such a work would write little else. This was certainly the case with Schwarz-Bart, which makes the appearance of The Morning Star from Overlook Press so noteworthy.
Of course, it’s troubling too. In an emotional and impressionistic brief introductory note, the author’s widow, Simone Schwarz-Bart, talks about how her husband would sometimes dictate brief miscellaneous passages to her or their son. She writes: “And, every time, we asked ourselves, my son and I, deeply moved: What on earth is stopping him from finishing this book? What is it? As time went on, he would write, destroy, rewrite; we now knew he would never publish.” She tells us of going through his scattered notes after his death, finding a fragment in which a character is given a variation of her own name, and feeling the touch of purpose:
And suddenly, I understood. I understood that, beyond death, he had once more made a place for me next to him: the whole secret lay there, in this silent legacy. From that moment, I was no longer alone. He was there … he sat by my side then. Once again, the planet smiled on me.
These are wrenchingly delicate matters, then. Andre Schwarz-Bart’s parents were transported to Auschwitz when he was just a young boy. He never saw them again, and as The Last of the Just makes clear, he obviously came to consider the near-extermination of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis to be not only a calamity but a judgement – on God. Rage and betrayal and pain of perhaps became a kind of legacy inside him, a thing too important to be set down in finite words. This raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions about Simon Schwarz-Bart’s decision to assemble this book from her late husband’s notes. Just like The Last of the Just, it raises the question of when an act of devotion is also an act of betrayal.
Readers will have to grapple with such questions on their own (this particular reader thinks neither this book nor anything like it should have been given to the world). In the meantime, there’s The Morning Star itself before us, the last echo of the mighty voice that thrilled so many of us a generation ago. Disregarding a strained and obviously tacked-on framing sequence set in a post-apocalyptic future, this book is the story of young Haim Lebke, a cobbler’s son who’s moved with his family first to the Warsaw ghetto and then to Auschwitz. His parents and his older brother are killed in a quietly horrifying scene, and he’s left to fend for himself and his younger siblings. That story – the story of Haim’s survival – is the core of the book The Morning Star would have been, if its author had written it. On page after page, there are moments of unsparing power, as when the famous violinist Isaac Kelmer, in the ghetto, is ordered by the Nazis to play accompaniment in a propaganda film. He angrily declines, smashing his violin on the ground, only to be dealt instant retribution:
Without looking remotely ruffled, an officer did to his head what Isaac had done to his violin. Haim tried in vain to say Kaddish over the body, thrown across the pavement. Then, followed by his emaciated brothers, little green leaves that had dried out in patches, he went on a pilgrimage to the linden tree. A few buds were poking up ironically. An invisible violin played way up high in the sky, but its beauty was an irredeemable offense, a sin, and so was the serenity of the linden tree.
The despair in that concluding line is explosive and complicated, and it’s threaded through almost all the incidents of this book. In the ghetto – and even more so in Auschwitz – beauty is a blasphemy, hope is a trick, and reality itself is unbearable. Toward the end of the book we encounter a wary kind of acceptance of these things:
But love is stronger than death, and the things that have been have been, and that is enough. No, not one of these dead had been swallowed up by the void. Even beyond the ages, after the planet has disappeared, nothing will change the fact that man once was, or the beauty of a child, the beauty of a young girl’s smile. God Himself could not cancel the past. Things have been. The beauty of the earth has been. The fragile beauty of the world and of certain human beings, greatness, dignity, nobility, all these things have been: that is enough.
But this assurance is weakly contradicted in the book’s single harshest and most touching exchange, between a heartbroken widow and a rabbi trapped in his own optimism. They engage in a poignant inversion of Abraham’s dickering with the Lord over the fate of the Cities of the Plain:
“Rabbi, when we arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow, will I find my first husband, the father of my children?”
The old Jew with the red beard silently nodded, as a mark of approval. So the woman went on, smiling with one eye, weeping with the other:
“Rabbi, that might not be a true miracle.”
“And what would be a true miracle, in your eyes?” asked the man with the red beard.
She hesitated for a few seconds.
“Rabbi, they laid my husband on a barrel and they ripped his beard off, so he wouldn’t be a Jew any more. Then they took off his clothes and ripped out his belly, so he wouldn’t be a man any more. Rabbi, the miracle would be if I found him the way he was before, exactly the way he was.”
The old man answered good-naturedly:
“And so it will be, daughter of Israel.”
She brought both hands to her temples, her eyes wild.
“Rabbi, for him just to get his body back would not be a true miracle. What I ask God is this: that there be no trace left of all that in his memory, that he forget everything.”
The old man did not seem at all surprised.
“But that’s the very least you can ask for, daughter of Israel, and so it will be if it please God, Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe.”
But the woman was still not really satisfied.
“Rabbi, for him not to remember anything would not be a true miracle: the true, the genuine miracle, would be that none of these things ever existed.”
The old rabbi hesitated for a second.
“And do you think they really did exist?” he said in a trembling voice. “Do you really think so?”
“All his life,” we’re told, “Haim had tried to talk about Auschwitz without being able to write about it … He had tried hundreds of different approaches to writing about that planet, Auschwitz, but he had never made it to the end: every time, the shame of writing about the dead had won the day and he had destroyed everything.”
This gets to the heart of the matter, the question of whether or not an author’s reticences (and failures) are also an inviolable part of his legacy. Readers will eagerly consume these new passages from Schwarz-Bart, naturally – I wish we had ten writers of his greatness working today, or fifty. But for reasons known only to himself, he didn’t, or couldn’t – make this book while he was alive. As grateful as we are for the words, we can wonder if his widow should have respected that.