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?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide