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Literature or Life [Hardcover]

Jorge Semprun , Linda Coverdale
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

28 Aug 1997
Jorge Semprun, one of Europe's most eminent voices, was twenty years old when arrested for activities in the French Resistance. He was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Literature or Life is a deeply personal account not only of Jorge Semprun's time at Buchenwald, but also of the years before and after, of his painful attempts to write this book...created out of obsessions that returned to him again and again like themes in a nightmarish rhapsody.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Viking (28 Aug 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670872881
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670872886
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 843,169 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great novel by interesting French-Spanish author 30 Dec 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
"Literature or life" belongs to the autobiographical novels of Jorge Semprun, one of the most interesting French authors (of Spanish origin). The starting point of this book is the suicide of Italian author Primo Levi, who wrote on life as a prisoner in a Nazi-camp. Semprun had also been prisoner ( in Buchenwald) and thel question he faced in 1945 (and whihc he deals with in this book) was: shall I write about this traumatic experience immediately (like Primo Levi did) and so continue to confront myself with it (with all the psychological dangers) or shall I rather start living : act and try to forget the past for the time being. He decided on doing the latter. Only in the early sixties did Semprun write his first novel on the subject. Therefor this book forms a kind of trilogy together with "Le grand voyage" and "Quel beau dimanche". Once one starts reading Sempruns books, one gets carried away because this life is so interesting and he has relevant things to say about life, society and politics from the 40's till now.
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4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Which of Semprun's books are novels? 21 May 1999
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
The reviewers seem to disagree with Semprun and his original publisher as to which of his books are fiction. Gallimard lists "Le grand voyage" as a novel and "L'écriture ou la vie" as a "récit", which means it could very well be non-fiction, as indeed the work internally purports to be.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique 22 Dec 2001
By Alyssa A. Lappen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this elegant piece of literary philosophy, Semprun treats readers to an extraordinarily rich remembrance of two years in Buchenwald. This work is shot through with memories of his life before, during and after the war and references to many of the thinkers and writers he has known. Passages as delicate as lace adorn chapters sound as bedrock. You could do much worse than to build a set of Holocaust readings on this foundation.
One aspect making this an especially vibrant Holocaust testimony is that Semprun is not Jewish. While he approaches the subject of Jewish suffering with sympathy, gravity and deep respect, his reminiscences are framed by a lifetime of learning and an important non-Jewish perspective. Readers taste the suffering Semprun has experienced through continuing memories and glimpse what must have driven celebrated Jewish survivors like Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski to suicide.
Another laudable feature is Semprun's sure knowledge that in politics, as in everything, there is such a thing as paramount Evil, to which philosophers like Heidegger contributed. Deep thinking alone does not, according to his view, constitute righteousness. Semprun elegantly examines ends and means as well as thought processes, dramatically dismissing the moral relativism common among intellectuals these days.
Despite the difficult subject matter, I found this work highly educational--and eminently hopeful and uplifting. Alyssa A. Lappen
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intellectual catharsis 28 May 2000
By Esther Nebenzahl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Jorge Semprun was born in Spain and while studying philosophy in Paris, he was arrested. Accused of being member of the resistance, he was sent to Buchenwald where he spent 18 months before the camp was liberated. "Literature or Life" is his account of what it meant to survive Buchenwald, from the perspective of a highly intellectual mind. It represents a desperate search for understandiing the horrors of Evil, using philosophy and literature as reasoning tools, as well as psychological justification for survival. It is literature of the "living dead!"
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The story of a real human being 24 Jan 2005
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Jorge Semprun spent two years in a concentration camp, Buchenwald. He was a known writer before and continued to be a writer afterwards. In this reflection on his life experience he reveals himself to be first of all a true human being , the Yiddish word is 'mensch' and it applies to him though he is not Jewish. Semprun's meditation on the meaning of his writing and the meaning of his life is a moving one, and a unique one. He is an original person with a way of thinking and understanding things of his own. Who reads this book will get to know a mind and a human being of unique distinction.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Literature or Life = Literature and Life! 16 Nov 2006
By Mark Dalton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Literature or Life by Jorge Semprun

This is a great book. Like Semprun's previous book on World War II, "What a Beautiful Sunday," this one uses his experience in Nazi concentration camps to tell a quite remarkable story (and stories within stories within stories), but also as a jumping-off place for wide-ranging musing about life, and art, and the dependency of each on the other (hence the apt title).

The book circles around the liberation of Buchenwald and the first few weeks afterwards, with extended forays into his experiences there, previous experiences with the French underground as a student at the Sorbonne, and with a lot of discussion of writers and philosophers along the way.

He starts by addressing the question of whether an experience like being in Buchenwald can be truly and fully addressed in literature - he says yes, certainly, given enough skill and commitment by the writer. Finding readers who are capable of comprehending and believing what is written is the problem. I think we have a good writer/reader match here, because I find Semprun to be startling in his clarity, illuminating, riveting and very funny from time to time (a sense of humor and absurdity that obviously served him well, and those that leaned on him for support well, too).

There is a bizarrely funny scene at the opening of the book, for example, when three British soldiers, brand new to the scene in Buchenwald walked up to him, and he was so happy to see them ("I felt more like laughing, gamboling in the woods, running from tree to tree") that he tried to engage them in what was, for him, normal conversation ("Say, I bet you fellas are noticing how quiet it is here - it's the birds! The smell of the crematory has driven them off, so the usual racket you hear in the forest just ain't happening here!") - Meanwhile these soldiers are staring at him in open-mouthed horror, as if he was a talking corpse, some kind of zombie... It takes Semprun a few minutes to figure out what the problem is here, and he decides, on reflection, that their perception is correct - that he and his comrades, the survivors, are a sort of zombie, that they hadn't really avoided death - that death and what he calls "radical evil" were so pervasive in the camp that nobody there survived in the usual sense - and he said that for the rest of his life, much of it as a younger man spent continuing to put himself in danger as a revolutionary fighter of various kinds, he felt an odd sort of invulnerability - an assumption that he would not be killed or even caught because he'd already been there, and somehow been given a pass to return to finish his business here.

One of his extended side trips is a discussion of Heidegger, of whom he says, in part, "Of course, there was a certain fascination - sometimes mixed with irritation - with the philosopher's language. With that abounding obtuseness through which one has to hack one's way, cutting clearings without ever reaching a definitive clarity. A never-ending labor of intellectual decipherment that becomes absorbing through its very incompletion."

It seems clear to me that Semprun used his experience with Heidegger partially as a guide in his own development as a thinker and writer, because, again - he writes with exceptional clarity, and no matter how far afield his musings range, he never loses the thread or the point of a remarkable and essential story in the process.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great novel by interesting French-Spanish author 30 Dec 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
"Literature or life" belongs to the autobiographical novels of Jorge Semprun, one of the most interesting French authors (of Spanish origin). The starting point of this book is the suicide of Italian author Primo Levi, who wrote on life as a prisoner in a Nazi-camp. Semprun had also been prisoner ( in Buchenwald) and thel question he faced in 1945 (and whihc he deals with in this book) was: shall I write about this traumatic experience immediately (like Primo Levi did) and so continue to confront myself with it (with all the psychological dangers) or shall I rather start living : act and try to forget the past for the time being. He decided on doing the latter. Only in the early sixties did Semprun write his first novel on the subject. Therefor this book forms a kind of trilogy together with "Le grand voyage" and "Quel beau dimanche". Once one starts reading Sempruns books, one gets carried away because this life is so interesting and he has relevant things to say about life, society and politics from the 40's till now.
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