Skip to main content

Review: An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43


Pages: 430
Original date of publication: 1982
My edition: 2010
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: September 2011, Persephone shop

I’ve been putting off and putting off writing a review of An Interrupted Life, mostly because I wanted everything to sink in and also because I really didn’t know what to say about this wonderful, albeit heartbreaking book. There I go again, using clich├ęs to describe this book, but I loved it from start to finish.

Etty Hillesum was born in January 1914 in Holland and lived in Amsterdam working as a translator of Russian and Russian teacher. Even still she aspired to be a writer, and kept a journal to that effect during WWII. As a Jew, Etty’s life became increasingly circumscribed by the restrictions placed upon her; she was later given a job as a typist in the Jewish Council, an organization that sought to mediate between the Nazis and Dutch Jews. Etty later volunteered to help accompany Jews to Westerbork, a detention camp that was the last stop to Auschwitz; and eventually ended up in Westerbork herself.

Etty’s journals and letters cover the period of November 1941-summer 1943, several months after she met Dr. Julius Spier, a Jungian psychoanalyst who figures largely in her journals as both a friend and mentor. Etty was outgoing and social in real life, yet her journals show a rich internal life as well, one in which Etty was given to a lot of introspective thought. Etty was well read and intelligent, and she had knowledge of not only literature but of psychology as well (she is constantly reading Jung and Remarque throughout). Every single page of her book is filled with insights both from her head and about the world around her. She was skilled at questioning herself, of criticizing what she knew. As the diary progresses, therefore, we start to see how Etty embraces her self-doubt and fears. The result is an acceptance of what she knew would happen to her eventually.

At one point she wonders if it was escapist of her to look so much into herself when the outside world eclipsed individuals’ lives; her answer was no. I think one of the most powerful lessons of Etty’s diary is that she thought it was important for people to look inwardly, to wage the war within first. Even at Westerbork, her writings about life in the camp are matter-of-fact, rational. As an effect of insights like this and many others, Etty’s diary is electrifying in its intensity. I thought the diary portion of this book was much stronger than the letters she wrote from Westerbork; her letters are more trivial and give you less of a sense of who Etty was.

This is Persephone no. 5.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Review: Invitation to the Waltz, by Rosamond Lehmann

Pages: 304Original date of publication: 1931My edition: Why I decided to read: I found this while looking on ebay for Virago Modern ClassicsHow I acquired my copy: bought secondhand on ebayInvitation to the Waltz is one of those coming-of-age-stories. Unlike, for example, The Crowded Street, which focuses on a young woman’s entire coming-of-age experience, Invitation to the Waltz focuses on just one moment in seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis’s life: a coming-out ball, the seminal moment in the life of any girl of the period (approximately the 1920s). Olivia is neither the most beautiful nor the most vivacious girl at the party, and she’s apprehensive about the evening and all it entails. This is not one of those “high action” books, but it gives a lot of insight into the thoughts and feelings of a girl making the leap into adulthood. I think if I had read this book ten years ago, I would have completely identified with Olivia—she’s shy and retiring, and unsure of herself. Her dress is…

The Sunday Salon

What a crazy week this has been! My cousin, who’s ten, was in town for most of this past week, and since he’s high energy, it’s taken a lot of energy especially out of my mom, who also had to deal with my 87-year-old grandmother. Plus. my sister was in town for the weekend, so it’s been mostly crazy around here. All of my posts this past week have been scheduled; and I only got around to writing a bunch of outstanding reviews yesterday afternoon. It’s quieter here now that my mom has driven my sister back to New York, and I’ve spent much of today catching up on sleep and, of course, reading. Right now I’m reading one of my Virago Modern Classics: The Rising Tide, by Molly Keane (though it was originally published under her pseudonym MJ Farrell). I’m really loving it; the author really knew how to combine wonderful (sometimes exasperating) characters with a great plot. I’ve been cruising Ebay for more books by Molly Keane, since I’m living her writing style. This is easily one of the b…

Read in 2014

January:
1. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
2. The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, by Tony Attwood
3. Mozart and the Whale, by Mary and Jerry Newport
4. Handling the Truth, by Beth Kephart
5. Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
6. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
7. Them, by Joyce Carol Oates
8. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

February:
1. Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
2. I Was Told There'd Be Cake, by Sloane Crosley
3. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
4. Twilight Sleep, by Edith Wharton
5. Twirling Naked in the Streets, by Jeannie Davide-Rivera
6. Hungry Hill, by Daphne Du Maurier
7. Me, Myself, and Why, by Jennifer Ouilette
8. Lady Chatterley's Lover, by DH Lawrence
9. The Wise Virgins, by Leonard Woolf

March:
1. Out With It, by Katherine Preston
2. Never Have I Ever, by Katie Heaney
3. Look me in the Eye, by John Elder Robison
4. Beyond, the Glass, by Antonia White
5. Atypical, by Jesse Saperstein
6. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Far…