The Fanatic

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Novel by Meyer Levin, 1964

Despite Meyer Levin's disclaimer in his preface that The Fanatic was "a story, and not a report or portrayal of events in which I was involved, or of people involved in those events," it is hard to read this 1964 novel except as a roman á clef concentrated on the author's decade-long feud with Otto Frank over the adaptation of Anne Frank's famous Diary. Contemporary reviews agreed that the book was narrowly topical, a too close account of the politics of the publishing trade and the Broadway coterie whose commercial and ideological motives thwart the ambitions of the book's protagonist, Maury Finkelstein. In a plot parallel to Levin's own involvement with the Diary, Maury discovers a book written in Auschwitz by a young Jewish man (Leo Kahn) who died there, whereupon Maury dedicates himself to getting the book published, launches it with a successful review, and then lobbies and earns the drafting rights to a dramatic adaptation, only to be rewarded for all his efforts by having his draft inexplicably rejected by the producer. Replaced by a pair of Hollywood writers, Maury soon perceives a commercially motivated plot to oust him as a lesser-known author and, launching a public campaign for his repressed play, claims to be the victim of an ideological conspiracy to de-Judaize Leo's story and offer a vaguely anti-Fascist tale to the American public.

So overt are the transpositions of history in The Fanatic that when Frank's lawyers received a prepublication announcement concerning the book, they sued to have it suppressed, protesting that Levin was in breach of an October 1959 agreement in which he promised not to raise any further controversy over the Diary. Though the cover of fiction protected Levin from direct legal repercussions, it did little to prevent the mounting public perception of Levin as an author obsessed by a wrong done to him who insisted on airing his grievances time and again in public. All of this intersects problematically with any attempt Levin might be making in The Fanatic to render the world of Auschwitz and force us to wrestle more seriously with the historical and philosophical implications of the Holocaust. As Lawrence Graver succinctly put it, one has the impression reading this novel that Levin cared more about the damage done to his career than the atrocities committed against Jews or the misrepresentation of Anne's Diary before the American public. Told from the perspective of the Holocaust victim Leo Kahn, who watches over the actions Maury performs on his behalf, The Fanatic evokes the traditional Jewish lore of the dybbuk, almost as if Leo were living through the imaginative enterprises of the man who has married his former lover. The rhetorical point of the device is to ratify the blamelessness and dignity of Maury (as a stand-in for Levin), since Leo Kahn (as the stand-in for Anne Frank) insists that if he could choose someone among the living to represent him, he would choose "such a one" as Maury. Having imagined himself the faithful interpreter of the Diary and the true representative of Anne Frank's spirit, Levin several times during his drawn-out contention with Otto Frank made appeals to Anne's authority, almost as if she could have defended the author who had taken up her cause among the living. Thus when Leo narrates the story unable to imagine a more appropriate substitute for his own life and vision than Maury, he posthumously grants permission to Maury to use his aesthetic talents in service of a more literal historical truth—"to write the play," as Leo himself puts it, "as I myself would have written it." Referenced here is the very boundary line Levin had a hard time discerning, namely, the line between his own interpretive adaptation and the Diary 's original vision. In his 1973 memoir The Obsession Levin himself recalls how Frank's lawyers charged him with having the hallucinatory impression "that he actually wrote the Diary. "

It has to be said that Levin does not appropriate his own personal history and the larger set of issues about the proper cultural memory of the Holocaust for which it stood without some degree of self-consciousness. He chooses the somewhat surprising—and one might add, refreshing—strategy of portraying himself as a rabbi author of minor liturgical dramas, a strangely humble self-representation that may have been offered as a gentle caricature of his opponents' views. Over the course of the novel Maury struggles with the question of whether he has been right to pursue his cause, even at such great costs to his family life. The novel resolves all questions of conscience by ending in the courtroom, where a $100,000 verdict (far in excess of Levin's $15,000 no-fault settlement with Frank) finally vindicates Maury and his fight to tell the truth about the Holocaust. Though The Fanatic often makes for tedious reading, since Maury is so earnest, wronged, and renewedly hopeful that we have a hard time imagining how his evil opponents can live with themselves, it is also significant in the history of American fiction on the Holocaust because Levin's novel suggests that the American cultural memory of the Holocaust of the 1950s—with the Broadway and Hollywood versions of the Diary at the very center—lacked any serious engagement with the Jewish background of the Nazi's central victims and thus perhaps the central cultural meaning of the Nazi genocidal ideology.

—R. Clifton Spargo

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The Fanatic

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