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

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…

Review: The Tudor Secret, by CW Gortner

Pages: 327Original date of publication:My edition: 2011 (St. Martin’s)Why I decided to read: Heard about this through Amazon.comHow I acquired my copy: Amazon Vine, December 2010Originally published as The Secret Lion, The Tudor Secret is the first in what will be a series featuring Brendan Prescott, an orphan foundling who was raised in the household of the Dudley family. In 1553, King Edward is on his deathbed, and William Cecil gives a secret mission Brendan. Soon he finds himself working as a double agent, as he attempts to discover the secret of his own birth.There ‘s a lot to like in this novel, mainly in the historical details that the author weaves into the story. He knows Tudor history like the back of his hand, and it definitely shows in this book. Because it was his first novel, however, there are some rough patches. There were a couple of plot holes that I had trouble navigating around—primarily, why would a secretive man such as Cecil entrust a seemingly nobody with this …

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Pages: 972 Originally published: 1944 My edition: 2000 (Chicago Review Press) How I acquired my copy: Amazon.com, 2004

Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.

Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is…