Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel
As someone who has read a fair amount of the author’s body of work, there is still something poignant about this particular volume, written by the author after having open heart surgery (spoiler alert: he lived) but before his death about two years later. In this book we have an old man coming to terms with the possibility of death, with the reality of slowing down, and with the desire to stay alive to finish future projects that likely never got finished. Not everyone gets the chance to feel the possibility of death and write about the desire to choose to keep on living and accomplishing as much as possible, and among those who do, not everyone does so with the sort of humor and graciousness that Wiesel shows here in this particular book. While the author himself was surprised as the initial success of this book in France, it should not have been a surprise that a humane and witty discussion about survival and modern medicine should have captured the fancy of any nation’s readers, and though it might not have been a bestseller in the United States (at any rate, I never heard of it before looking for the author’s books to read en masse recently), it certainly is a worthwhile book and a relevant one.
For the prolific writer, and the author certainly qualifies there, everything is grist for the mill. The author was in his 80’s, and though he was aging, he thought himself to be doing fine and was a bit concerned with his digestion when the doctors told him that they wanted to run some tests on his heart. Lo and behold, he had five blocked arteries and was told that a stent wouldn’t be enough and that he needed open heart surgery. After making sure his wife and son heard the news, he went under the knife and discussed the dreams he had as well as the recovery and the continuing sense of fatigue that continued to bother him after the surgery was done, as he had been warned. In the midst of his ruminations on his health and on the issue of life and death, he finds time to talk about his writings that he had yet to complete and that he hoped to continue, his question of faith and showing gratitude for God and for His messengers, namely the surgeons, as well as his desire to be alive for the bar mitzvahs of his grandsons. All in all, this makes a touching and poignant (and short, at less than 100 pages) volume about aging and facing the possibility of death.
In the aftermath of the surgery and in reading this book, one can see at least some of what a serious Jew thinks about when it comes to misfortunes. He wonders what he did wrong to have had all of this come upon him in the same year, thanks to the nonbiblical idea that God decides the fate of everyone during the ten days between the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement. Likewise, one can see an old man coming to terms, however belatedly, with the reality of aging and the effect that it has on such things as exercise, teaching classes, and writing large amounts of book. This book is a reminder, if any reminder was necessary, that aging is unpleasant for mortal human beings but it beats the alternative of being taken before our time, as it were, as so many were in the life and times of the author himself, something he reflects upon often as he wonders why so much of his writing deals with subjects other than the Holocaust.