[Q]ui dit quoi à qui, au juste?(Derrida, Donner la mort, p. 175)
When reading Semprun's prodigious literary output, it is hard to forget his remarkable life, from exile and imprisonment in Buchenwald to the clandestine struggle against Franco's regime, expulsion from the Communist Party, success as an author and a period as Minister of Culture in post-fascist Spain. His work is almost invariably, irresistibly treated as a form of testimonial life writing, tied to his experience, especially (though not exclusively) to his experience of Buchenwald, and also more broadly to his standing as a pre-eminent witness to European history and politics in the twentieth century. To dissociate the man from his work might seem, Régis Debray suggests, simply absurd (‘Semprun en spirale’, p. 9). Semprun was an extraordinary person whose traumatized and resilient engagement with the dense fabric of reality is reflected in his writing.
Semprun, then, is one of the great literary witnesses of the twentieth century, in particular to the experience and aftermath of the Second World War. He is comparable in stature to Elie Wiesel, with whom he published the book Se taire est impossible. And, as with Wiesel, his fictional output is sometimes overlooked because of the power and importance of his personal testimony. The next chapter will examine how, in Wiesel's case, fictional storytelling is integral to his literary production even though it sits uneasily with his commitment to bearing witness. This chapter examines Semprun's turn to literature in the 1960s, and then in particular his practice of fiction, which becomes a tense space of witnessing and invention, telling and not telling, exposure and reticence.
What can literature do?
To begin, I shall concentrate on two early texts, both produced before Semprun's expulsion from the Communist Party: the semi-fictional Le Grand Voyage and his contribution to the symposium ‘Que peut la littérature?’ What is at stake in both these texts are the capabilities, limits and value of literature at a transitional moment in Semprun's life and career as an author, and at a tense moment in French literary and intellectual culture.
In 1964 the French communist student newspaper Clarté organized a symposium in Paris with the title ‘Que peut la littérature?’