Culture, Identity

Oprah Meet Elie, Elie Meet James Frey

Oy. Is there any other word for the juxtaposition of James Frey, whose memoir/novel/load of bunk has been revealed to be a gross exaggeration (at best) or a gaggle of outright lies (at worst), and Elie Wiesel, whose originally Yiddish, then French, then English and now English again Night has just been announced as Oprah’s next book club selection?
Wiesel’s retelling of his life in Nazi concentration camps is one of the most prolifically read books in the modern Jewish canon, and the author himself has won the Nobel Peace Price for his tireless efforts to use his literature as a force against similar genocides and injustices. Nevertheless, there has been criticisms made in the almost fifty years since the book was first translated into English. Was it a novel or a memoir? Entirely true, or essentially true with some deviations, however small?
The debate has been minor, and largely irrelevant to the millions who’ve read the book and been moved by its power. If the details were off, what does it matter? The man still survived these camps, and one wonders if their horrors could ever be truly exaggerated.
Then came Oprah, or rather James Frey. The controversy swirling around his book A Million Little Pieces has caused the Oprah pick of Wiesel to shed new light on the old, quiet debate about Night. Without question, nobody is comparing Frey’s fabrications to Wiesel’s writing, even if the Holocaust survivor got some details wrong. But in a culture that eats controversy for breakfast and lunch (dinner is reserved for family-friendly fare, so sayeth the FCC), it can invite less informed readers (or would-be readers) to look at Wiesel’s story with a degree of skepticism that is hardly warranted.
I won’t say this is a horrible danger, even in a time when Holocaust denial grows ever more vociferous and ever more effective in gaining a platform to preach to the mainstream. But if it cheapens, even a little bit, even in the eyes of only a few, the power and accepted truth of Wiesel’s work, then Frey has done more than a disservice to his own readers. He’s done a disservice to Elie Wiesel’s as well.
But don’t take it from me. The New York Times has an article on the subject, and NPR has run a commentary by Peter Manseau on the same subject.
{ Cross-posted with }

4 thoughts on “Oprah Meet Elie, Elie Meet James Frey

  1. Always heartwarming, the nice volks at Stormfront.
    See also: Oprah’s New Mess,0,6889697.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions
    “Again, there’s no denying the truth of Wiesel’s experience. But he has his own problems with credibility, which Winfrey might wish to note. Not with the facts of his own life but with broader issues of historical truth and historical memory, which touch upon matters far more substantial than the number of hours James Frey spent behind bars.
    “For example, Wiesel does not believe that Gypsies and gays should be remembered alongside Jewish victims of the Holocaust, although hundreds of thousands of them perished. He has frowned upon the use of the term “genocide” in reference to the Armenian holocaust.
    “Wiesel’s troubles with memory and truth are especially acute when it comes to Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians. For example, he has long maintained that the 1948 Palestinian refugees left voluntarily, “incited by their leaders,” a claim that Israel’s own historians have done much to shatter.
    “In the face of abundant evidence from human rights groups that Israel has committed widespread human rights violations in the occupied territories, Wiesel has either denied such reports or loftily asserted that, as a Jew who does not live in Israel, he has no right to air his criticisms (though, paradoxically, his nonresident status does not prevent him from airing his praise). His last Op-Ed article in the New York Times was a lamentation for the settlers of Gaza, zealots whom even Ariel Sharon, the architect of the settlement project, finally had the wisdom to remove from their stronghold.
    “The author of a justly praised Holocaust memoir, Wiesel may provide Oprah with good cover after the Frey disaster. As a historian and political commentator, however, Wiesel has been a specialist in denial, a man who has contributed far more to the blurring of fact and invention than the author of “A Million Little Pieces.””
    One thing this article does not mention is that Weisel was a journalist for Irgun at the time of Deir Yassin. He has never commented on this, to my knowledge.

  2. Wow, what a biased piece of tripe from a The Nation writer. How surprising to read such bias and hatred.
    By the way, no historians shattered any myth of Palestinians voluntarily leaving because of their leaders. Some historians have shown that many Palestinians left because they were made to leave by the Israelis, but that at least half if not more, left of their own volition.

  3. This ‘debate,’ particularly Manseau’s remarks, is bizarre. Wiesel’s personal belief structure on Armenians and genocide, a Palestinian state, do not detract from the sublime nature of ‘Night.’ That Wiesel made some small changes between English/Yiddish/French versions is irrelevent. Artemisia painting several slightly different Judiths does not in any way alter Judith’s story.
    Wiesel’s small changes do not change his story, either.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.