The Paris Review posts a long excerpt of an interview with Imre Kertész, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature. How Kertész responds to the above question:
I was able use my own life to study how somebody can survive this particularly cruel brand of totalitarianism [the Holocaust]. I didn’t want to commit suicide, but then I didn’t want to become a writer either—at least not initially. I rejected that idea for a long time, but then I realized that I would have to write, write about the astonishment and the dismay of the witness—Is that what you are going to do to us? How could we survive something like this, and understand it, too?Look, I don’t want to deny that I was a prisoner at Auschwitz and that I now have a Nobel Prize. What should I make of that? And what should I make of the fact that I survived, and continue to survive? At least I feel that I experienced something extraordinary, because not only did I live through those horrors, but I also managed to describe them, in a way that is bearable, acceptable, and nonetheless part of this radical tradition. Those of us who were brave enough to stare down this abyss—Borowski, Shalamov, Améry—well, there aren’t too many of us. For these writers, writing was always a prelude to suicide. Jean Améry’s gun was always present, in both his articles and his life, always by his side.
I am somebody who survived all of it, somebody who saw the Gorgon’s head and still retained enough strength to finish a work that reaches out to people in a language that is humane. The purpose of literature is for people to become educated, to be entertained, so we can’t ask them to deal with such gruesome visions. I created a work representing the Holocaust as such, but without this being an ugly literature of horrors.
Perhaps I’m being impertinent, but I feel that my work has a rare quality—I tried to depict the human face of this history, I wanted to write a book that people would actually want to read.
(Photo of Kertész as an adolescent, taken from the website of the play adapted from his novel “Kaddish for an Unborn Child”)