Book Review: And The Sea Is Never Full

And The Sea Is Never Full:  Memoirs 1969-, by Elie Wiesel

Sometimes I am puzzled by the point of a book.  Elie Wiesel has written a lot of books, some of them nonfictional (like this memoir) and some of them fictional, and all of them that I have read have dealt in some respect with the perspective and experience of Jews.  When one deals, as is the case here, with a memoir from an elderly man, there are likely two sorts of pictures that one sees.  Some people mellow like fine wine and produce far more irenic writing than was the case during their fierce and tumultuous youths.  That is not the case here.  What we have here is the case of a somewhat cranky old man trying to settle scores with a wide variety of people, including Simon Wiesenthal, Ronald Reagan, and others more obscure but no less pointedly dealt with here.  Elie Wiesel in many ways sees this particular memoir as a way to settle some old scores and correct what he views as misconceptions, and the result is a deep and sometimes sad way of looking at the influence of politics on the telling of a story, even a personal story as is the case here.

This book of slightly more than 400 pages is by no means an easy book to appreciate unless one is a big fan of Wiesel’s life and writings.  Covering the time period from 1969 to 1999, when the book was published, it looks at Wiesel as an aging statesman but someone still with a great deal of vigor.  The author explores his own writings, many of which are referred to here, and the reader is likely expected to be familiar with those writings as well.  The author by no means lived an uninteresting life, even if the author’s first three and a half decades were more exciting.  He marries and leaves Israel when his wife insists that he not be involved in Israeli politics.  He has a son and tries to be a good father and maintain his faith and his mission of correcting misunderstandings about the Holocaust.  He struggles with the language of the horror suffered by the Jews during World War II and its applicability to other attempted genocides.  He writes book reviews and deals with political polemics, helps establish a Holocaust museum, teaches about the subject of the Shoah, and wins the Nobel Peace Prize, trying to toe the line between a cynical pro-Israeli and the stereotypical leftist self-hating Jew, even as he resents the rise of right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism.

Is this a good book?  The author’s attempts to settle historical scores and deal with longstanding enmities and ruptured friendships suggests that Wiesel was not the easiest of people to get along with.  It also happens that many people he dealt with had some shadows to wrestle with.  It is especially telling that the author takes Primo Levi to task, in talking about his suicide, for his view that Holocaust survivors were inevitably gray in some respect, although Levi’s view is not so unlike the harshness of Akiba when it came to the obligations of survival.  It is impossible to take this particular book at face value as a definitive book.  In general, this work is a dialogue with Wiesel’s work of encouraging the proper memory of the Holocaust and being a somewhat fierce gatekeeper of what is acceptable discourse about the it.  Gatekeepers in general are not necessary always beloved figures, whether they are self-appointed or not.  Like a grouchy old man menacing a shotgun and telling people to get off of his yard, this book has more than a little bit of bile in it.  If you appreciate the author’s perspective and approach though, it is not without at least some sort of worth and enjoyment.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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