Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Just a preview of an article I'm writing about my encounter with the diaries of Etty Hillesum:

Readers tend to be either bewildered or deeply moved by her. I've recommended these diaries to many friends who, despite having adored Anne Frank, have come back to me rather exasperated by all the emotional temperature-taking in Hillesum's writing. Others, meanwhile, have found her surreal sexual relationships a little difficult to fathom: Etty wrestling with her therapist on the floor of his office or Etty bedding down with her aged landlord--all while she pines after a personal God and a prayerful life, all while the persecution of Jews escalates outside her window.

For these readers, she must appear to lead a rather mixed-up if not haphazard existence, somewhere between bohemianism and a sort of low-level mysticism.

There are, however, those of us who find in Etty's writing an original and unabashedly human voice. A voice akin to that of her beloved Rilke in the way she struggles to stand apart from history, all while trying to wrangle hold of life in all its earthly feeling. Hers is a difficult balance between trancendent ideals and devotion to the things of this world.

'The trajectory of her journey,' writes Eva Hoffman, 'echoes classical accounts of spiritual transformation; but Etty's pilgrimage grew out of the intimate experience of an intellectual young woman--it was idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern...Her essential existence, she often reminded herself, took place in the privacy of self-reflection, at a desk covered with pinecones, vases of flowers, and books.' [vii, viii]

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