Jean Améry was the literary pseudonym of Hanns Mayer, an Austrian Jew who suffered exile, torture and finally imprisonment in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen during the Second World War. Surviving the war but permanently damaged by these events, he established a career as a journalist, but made a wider reputation in German-speaking Europe with the publication from 1966 of three separate book-length studies that dealt with the moral, psychological and philosophical implications of his experiences: on the experience of torture; on the experience of aging; and finally on the possibility of suicide as the ultimate guarantor of freedom. These books, particularly the first - translated only in 1980 as 'At the Mind's Limits' - made him as familiar a figure in the Holocaust debates of the late '60s and early '70s as Primo Levi. Something of a prisoner of success and the post-war mood of reconciliation, he found himself increasingly typecast as an Auschwitz survivor, struggling with a melancholic temperament worsened by ill-health and an enduring sense of exile. In 1978 he ended his own life. Much of his work has still to be translated into English, though the three studies mentioned above are now all available.
This biography is a useful introduction to Améry that places him in the context of his time but refuses to limit his significance. As well as recounting the external details of the author's life, Irène Heidelberger-Leonard restores a sense of perspective that allows us to see Améry as an individual and not as a stereotype. His post-war views are situated culturally both in relation to his pre-war self-education in advanced intellectual circles in Austria, and to the influence of Sartrean existentialism. The writings that made him famous are seen as a continuation of his life's literary work, rather than as a complete break with it. Heidelberger-Leonard doesn't play down the significance of the work on torture and the camps, but insists that the books - and journalism - that precede and follow are important, and in particular that Améry's fiction has been unjustly neglected. She has made sense of Améry's life as a whole.
'The Philosopher of Auschwitz' first appeared in German in 2004, and the translation into English reads easily. The text is enlivened by around fifty black and white photographs, and supplemented by end-notes and an index of names.