World War II Through Many Eyes


It’s true, I have been all over Twitter today about the February/March 2009 Issue of Bookforum. Yes, indeed, stimulating. They do such of good job with quality book coverage from major publishers to smaller, independent publishers. As I read this issue, two pieces stuck out for me: Seeing Eye to Eye by William Vollman and The Sound of the Furies by Leland de la Durantaye. Vollman’s piece is on the ethics of photography and de la Durantaye’s piece is a review of Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones (which I am in the midst of reading and am loving it so far). What is interesting about these two pieces are two unifying elements: thematically, they both focus on World War II and on perspective. Vollman discusses the repsonsibilty of photographers in WWII and of the publisher that puts out books with these images. He focuses on three books specifically and it is simply a fascinating article about perspective, historical truth and cultural responsibility. Like when Vollman supposes he were one the photographers of the Holocaust put in this book:

How would I feel, if I were Alex? His photographs are indeed documents of horro, not works of art. They are also icons of horror. Gazing at them, I feel what studying the Holocaust so often makes me feel: a kind of sllimy, filthy grief, a vileness that respect for the dead and fear of enabling new murders enjoin I not wash away. Didi-Huberman’s uncropped versions cause me to feel that filth grief no and no less that the museum’s tightened, rotated versions. So little who Alex was or might have been remains, not to mention the identities of the other victims we see in photographs, that the well-intentioned editorial violence done to Alex’s artifacts hardly robs them of their power. In any case, I see them in the essential horror that Alex sought me to see.

Fascinating and yes, horrifying. But the piece ends with a focus on optimism in photograpy by praising Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography.

Which is the perfect companion piece to lead us into de la Durantaye’s review of The Kindly Ones. If you know nothing about this book, it was written by an American raised in France and wrote this book in French which ended up winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2006. It has recently been translated and just released in the US. It is a first person account of an SS office who feels no guilt about his role in the Holocaust. And just as photography has a perspective and a responsibility, so does fiction. Although to some, the gruesome depictions of war crimes are gratuitous, Littel gives us a perspective that is real. De la Durantaye does an excellent job of giving us reference material and the ehtical dilemna that this book brings to the forefront and how it has been done many times before.

Both of these pieces are strong and deserve your attention.

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