What is the course about?
At the beginning of If This is a Man, Primo Levi comments on the behaviour of the 150 Italian Jews who were his fellow prisoners in the last moments before their journey to Auschwitz: “Many things were then said and done among us; but of these it is better that there remain no memory”.This course will take Levi’s meticulous personal testament as its starting point, while also considering the role of Holocaust memory and the voluminous literature it has fostered in our perception of the mass slaughter that stretched across two decades of European history.
We will then turn to three writers who have either found themselves setting out on trails of documentary evidence (Patrick Modiano and W.G.Sebald) that led implacably to the heart of that darkness, or, in the case of Philip Roth, a wholesale, gloves-off reimagining of the ascent and triumph of anti-semitism and its obliteration of the Jewish American community Roth himself grew up in in the Newark, New Jersey of the 1940s. In which ways do each of these texts respond to the challenge Levi poses in his memoir: what can creative literature, with all the instruments at its disposal, contribute to the ongoing struggle against the forces of hatred?
Stephen Winfield has lectured in English for over thirty years. He taught Language and Literature at Richmond upon Thames College in Twickenham from 1989 to 2017, and was Coordinator of the International Baccalaureate there from 2004 to 2016. He has also lectured in English Literature at the University of Katowice in Poland and taught Business English in Paris. He has taught a range of EFL courses at Richmond College, for the Bell School of Languages, the Sinoscope Project at Kings College London and the BBC Summer School. He has taught classes in English, American and International Literature at City Lit since 2014.
What will we cover?
Our main texts will be: If This is a Man, 1958 (Abacus or Everyman’s Library); The Search Warrant: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, 1997 (Harvill Press); Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald, 2001 (Penguin) and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, 2004 (Vintage). We will consider the changing face of the Holocaust over time as refracted through these novels, placing them in the contexts of their own societies and their authors’ longer term preoccupations and achievements. We will consider other examples, in fiction, poetry, and drama, of Holocaust narration, and assess the strengths and weaknesses, moral, aesthetic and political, of the extraordinarily diverse, always expanding range of treatments that is available. We will savour the eloquence and fastidious artistry of Levi, Modiano, Sebald and Roth but wonder, perhaps, whether taking pleasure in such writing, about such subject-matter, can altogether be justified.
What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...
• Discuss in detail the artistic qualities of, and complex issues raised by, each of the featured texts
• Understand how far they arise from and conform to their authors’ wider literary ambitions
• Make informed choices about your own further reading in Holocaust literature.
What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?
No previous knowledge is required. Anyone who enjoys close reading and is willing to take part in discussion is welcome.
How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?
There will be a variety of teaching methods, including direct tutor input, power point, video and audio clips. Small group or pair work will be encouraged and there will also be plenary feedback and discussion. There will be opportunities to express why individually we are participating on the course and what we hope to take away from it. No work outside class apart from any reading of one or more of the featured texts you are able to do beforehand.
Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?
It would be helpful if you could read the first of the named texts before coming to class, but this is not necessary. The tutor will provide samples from each of them, as well as examples of other works that feature in discussion.
When I've finished, what course can I do next?
Please look in our prospectus or in the Literature section on the website under History, Culture and Writing.