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Jorge Semprún, 1923 - 2011

Updated through 6/12.

"Jorge Semprún, a Spanish writer whose novelistic memoirs (or memoirish novels) drew on his experiences as a French Resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, Communist organizer and Communist dissident, and who wrote distinguished screenplays for Alain Resnais, Costa-Gavras, Joseph Losey and other directors, died on Tuesday at his home in Paris. He was 87."

We'll get back to Bruce Weber's obituary in the New York Times in a moment, but first, Michael Eaude in the Guardian: "The experience of 18 months in Buchenwald, from 1943 to 1945, underlay all he thought and did. To the end of his life he suffered nightmares of the camp. His last public appearance, in April 2010, was to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the camp's liberation. He spoke then, on the same esplanade where he had seen people killed, of his belief in a united Europe rising from the ashes of Buchenwald's crematoria…. After the second world war, he worked for six years as a translator for Unesco before in 1953 accepting the task of organising the banned Communist party in Madrid. Elegant and handsome, as 'Federico Sánchez,' Semprún became a legendary figure, remaining one step ahead of Franco's secret police. If anyone should doubt the danger, his replacement, when he was withdrawn in 1962, was Julián Grimau, who was arrested, tortured and executed the following year."

Lila Azam Zanganeh, introducing an interview with Semprún for the Paris Review in 2007, notes that "in 1988, eager to participate in Spain's new democratic government, he accepted an appointment as Minister of Culture under Prime Minister Felipe González. He held office for three years before returning to Paris and writing his best-known and most important work, Literature or Life (1994). Semprún published the book as a memoir, but in it he declares that 'the essential truth of the concentration camp experience is not transmissible.' His literary solution is to introduce fictional scenes and details whenever his own memory is too faint, too incoherent, or when it simply fails to evoke what he feels to be the truth of his experience. Semprún's decision to meld fiction with memory in recounting his concentration camp experience sparked heated debate in France, where critics accused him of calling all memory and eyewitness accounts into question. Semprún's fiercest critic was Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic documentary film Shoah, who argues that his own approach to recording the experience of survivors — through direct testimony — is the only legitimate method, and that art and imagination can have no part in such an endeavor…. Semprún allows that testimony is vital to historians, but he notes that testimony, too, is not always precisely reliable, and that historians, alas, are never quite as effective as novelists at conveying the essence of experience. 'Horror is so repetitive,' he says, 'and without literary elaboration, one simply cannot be heard or understood.' Hence he argues, 'The only way to make horror palpable is to construct a fictional body of work.'"

Back to Bruce Weber: "Americans are more likely to be familiar with Mr Semprún as a screenwriter than as a novelist. His films include Z, Costa-Gavras's tale of a political assassination in Greece, starring Yves Montand; Stavisky (1974), a Resnais film, based on events in 1930s France, about a small-time swindler turned powerful financier (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), set against the rise of fascism; and Roads to the South (1978), Losey's drama about a former Spanish revolutionary turned screenwriter (Montand) who is drawn back into the political fray."

Adam Bernstein for the Washington Post: "Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a tribute to Mr Semprún in the Spanish newspaper El Pais that noted, 'like Albert Camus, his was a literature filled with great moral preoccupation.'"

Viewing (1'35"). A euronews report.

Update, 6/12: For the White Review, Jacques Testard introduces an interview conducted almost exactly one year ago: "Despite his age, his intellect was intact, his curiosity limitless, his critical ability unaltered. An elegant and eloquent man, Semprún will go down in memory — a memory he played a part in forging — as a truly impassioned 20th-century intellectual."

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