Adorno said, as we all know, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This is not to say, as many imagine, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is to be forbidden, or is impossible. The word Adorno used, barbarisch, is worth pondering. Presumably he was applying it prescriptively to poets in the same way that he applied it to Stravinsky, whose music he reproached for what he saw as its murky neo-primitivism, as against Schoenberg’s pure, clear-sighted modernity. Stravinsky, by fleeing to the prehistoric past of jungle rhythm and sacrificial dance, or, later in his career, by leading the Gadarene regression to an ersatz classicism–“Back to Bach!”–was in Adorno’s opinion evading existentialist man’s duty to confront his own times in all their complexity and atrociousness.
Of course, poets, like Stravinsky, took not the slightest notice of Adorno’s stricture. Indeed, one of the greatest of twentieth-century poets, Paul Celan, not only continued to write poetry after Auschwitz but wrote poetry about Auschwitz itself, if we take “Auschwitz,” as Adorno evidently did, as not only the name of a specific and terrible place but as a collective term for all the camps, and for the Holocaust itself.
In Liquidation, the latest novel by the Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész to be translated into English, one of the characters, the writer B., or Bee, who was born in the death camp,
applied his whole talent to Auschwitz… he was a past master and exclusive artist of the Auschwitz mode of existence. He felt that he had been born illegally, had remained alive for no reason, and nothing could justify his existence unless he were to “decipher the code name Auschwitz.”
Early on in the book, Kingbitter, the narrator, if such he may be called, a translator and editor and a friend of Bee’s, tells how as a student in the 1960s he chanced upon Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus–Kingbitter, or Kertész, does not name the novel, but the references in the text identify it. In the course of the “adventures of the imagination” that the book took him on, Kingbitter tells us, he was struck in particular by the notion that “the Ninth Symphony had been withdrawn.” (In Mann’s novel his protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, writes an apocalyptic cantata aimed at negating Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”) Later in Liquidation Bee echoes the notion, but in a more positive application, in the posthumous letter his ex-wife, Judit, receives from him after his suicide, instructing her to burn the manuscript of his final novel: “by virtue of the authority I have lived through and suffered for you, and for you alone, I revoke Auschwitz….” To this, however, Judit’s present husband, the non-Jewish Adam, retorts: “No one can revoke Auschwitz, Judit. No one, and by virtue of no authority. Auschwitz is irrevocable.”
If this sequence seems complicated, it is only one strand of the vertiginously intricate web of cross-reference, echo and self-contradiction that Kertész weaves both within individual books and between one book and another. Torgny Lindgren, speaking at the Nobel Prize presentation in 2002, remarked how in Kertész’s work “the separate parts appear to have grown together, with common root fibers or circulatory systems.” The narrator of Kaddish for an Unborn Child, published thirteen years before Liquidation–and with an epigraph from Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfuge”–also experienced Auschwitz, but as a boy or young man, not as a newborn child, as was the case with Bee. Internal evidence tends to suggest, however, that this narrator is none other than Bee himself, and that Kaddish is in fact the novel that Bee’s wife Judit burned on his instructions.