The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg

The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg
Lyndsey Stonebridge
Edinburgh University Press, 192pp, £65

Forty years after the Second World War, Saul Bellow was still puzzling over why he and many other American writers had taken so long to deal with "the central event of their time, the destruction of European Jewry". "Nobody in America," he wrote to Cynthia Ozick, "seriously took this on." In Bellow's opinion, it was an "unspeakable evasion".

Yet not everyone failed to engage with the issues raised by the Holocaust and other war crimes in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. In The Judicial Imagination, Lyndsey Stonebridge looks at a group of women - novelists, reporters and political thinkers - who considered at length what had happened and its implications for writers and for thinking about justice. She focuses in most detail on the postwar writings of Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen, Martha Gellhorn and Iris Murdoch.

All were clear that they had lived through a historical disaster and nearly all of them attended one of the trials or peace conferences that took place after the war, reporting for newspapers and magazines. West covered the Nuremberg trial for the Telegraph and the New Yorker, Arendt and Spark reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Bowen on the Paris Peace Conference, and Gellhorn attended all three. All of them were dismayed by what they saw, and in particular by the gap that opened up between the enormity of the events and the failure of all these hearings, in courtrooms and in conference halls, to come to terms with what had happened. At the centre of Stonebridge's book is a striking question: how could writers break the silence? What kind of writing do these events demand, in fiction, but also in reportage and political thinking?

Today, an entire academic industry has exposed the failures of the Nuremberg and Eichmann processes. Nuremberg did not address the murder of the Jews as genocide. Where were the Jewish voices bearing witness? Not only was it victors' justice, but one of the winners was the Soviet Union, equally guilty of the most appalling crimes. How could the Soviets seriously judge others, when their own hands were covered in blood?

Yet these writers were concerned by something else: these great trials seemed flat, even dull. In the first article she filed from Nuremberg, West wrote of the "staleness" of the proceedings. They may have had judicial correctness, but they lacked humanity. All too often in what was supposed to be a momentous event, there was "legal boredom" where there should have been moral passion. "West," Stonebridge writes, "gave one of the first critiques of the extent to which Nuremberg's radical juris­prudence failed to find an imaginative form adequate for its moral ambitions."

This last sentence suggests a problem with the book. Too much of Stonebridge's writing is dense, at worst riddled with jargon. "Eichmann is pure social and linguistic identity," she writes. Or later: "Arendt's 'we' linguis­tically enacts its own historical un-homing."

This is bad enough, but there are even more problems. Stonebridge treats 1945-61 as a single period, as if there were a clear continuity from Nuremberg to the Eichmann trial. That allows her to imply a unity among her chosen group of writers. Yet there was a major break at this time. The 15 years after the war were characterised by silence from important English-speaking writers about the Holocaust. Only at the end of the 1950s and in the early 1960s did their reticence give way, releasing a wave of books and films. Stonebridge does not address this.

Finally, she fails to establish a clear historical context. If you want to know about the trials, you would be better off reading David Cesar­ani's biography of Eichmann, Lawrence Douglas's The Memory of Judgment, or Tony Judt's brief account of Nuremberg in Postwar.

The Judicial Imagination is contemporary literary criticism at its best, and its worst. It explores how writers responded to historical catastrophe in a way that made them think differently about literature and justice - and yet, too often, we lose sight of the writers and history in a theoretical mush. This is a shame because, behind the jargon, there is an original set of ideas about writing and justice from which we could all learn much.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?