As German Jews held to the culture of Goethe, so Primo Levi summoned Dante in Auschwitz. His struggle was with literature as well as testimonyby Joseph Farrell / April 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
‘The Double Bond: Primo Levi’ & ‘Primo Levi’
Carole Angier (Viking, ?25) & Ian Thomson (Hutchinson, ?20)
All his life, Primo Levi craved recognition as a writer. According to Ian Thomson’s biography, the description “witness” irked him. After Levi’s death the balance shifted. Those who now speak of Levi as one of the central writers of the 20th century are sometimes accused of downplaying his role as an Auschwitz witness. In the last year of his life he was even attacked for being insufficiently Jewish in his response to the Holocaust.
During his more tranquil moments-of which there were deplorably few-Levi was happy to view himself as witness and writer. Whimsically, he found his literary alter ego in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. He identified with the agony which seized hold of the Mariner, giving him no peace until his “ghastly tale is told.” In homage to the moment when the Mariner manages at last to find his listener, the title of Levi’s sole collection of poems came from Coleridge’s line: At an Uncertain Hour. He was upset at the tepid welcome the collection received.
Levi remained dogged by the need to find listeners, but even while still in Auschwitz he had a recurring dream of returning home, desperate to unburden himself, only to find that no one among family or friends would listen. When If This Is a Man was published in 1947, Levi certainly failed to attract the attention of “one in three.” Of the 2,500 copies printed, some 600 were still lying in a Florence warehouse in 1966 when they were destroyed by floods which devastated the city. In both these new biographies, Thomson and Carole Angier agree that the work was not in tune with the spirit of post-liberation Italy when the impulse was to build and forget. Levi, for all his stoicism, was nevertheless devastated, first by the rejection of his book by Italy’s big publishers and then by its failure to find readers. He gave up writing to work full time as a chemist, and it was 1963 before his next book, The Truce, an account of his return from Auschwitz to Turin, was issued.
Later, Levi would arouse deeper affection than Bruno Bettelheim, Elie Wiesel, Jean Am?ry or any other writer on the Shoah. More quietly, yet more persuasively than any of them, he stood against the dissolution of human dignity, his only foothold a tenacious, secular humanism. Religion had no hold on Levi the scientist, and Levi the man never sought a grand cosmic explanation for suffering. “Auschwitz exists, therefore God does not,” he liked to say. He was irritated by the suggestion that providence had saved him so that he could teach others to remember. In his eyes, survival came via the help of friends, the fact of being a chemist (and so being assigned to a special group in Auschwitz), and to luck. Angier reveals, as Levi himself did not, that on arrival at Auschwitz he was put into the line destined for the gas chambers. His friend Alberto had the wit to tell the guards that Levi was needed for essential work. Amazingly, they heeded him.
German Jews used the phrase, Goethe und Gemeinde, to denote a lingering attachment, even at the height of persecution, to both Jewish community and German culture. Levi, an assimilated Jew from Turin, similarly held on even in Auschwitz, to Dante. He recounts his attempts to recall Dante’s account of the voyage of Ulysses. His listener was Jean, a student from Alsace. Angier has been tireless in uncovering the people behind the pseudonyms, and Jean Samuel, still alive in France, told her that the conversation did indeed take place, and that even if he did not understand Dante, he certainly understood Levi.
Levi was not always so scrupulous and both biographies make it clear that there is a high level of fiction in seemingly observational narrative. Initially, Levi felt obliged to present If This Is a Man and The Truce (especially the first) as the spontaneous outpourings of a survivor, thrown together pell mell as memories crowded in on him. He feared that an admission of literary artifice would detract from the credibility of his testament. Only later would he concede that his techniques were the result of literary choices. And he could be careless in his use of his friends’ experiences. He refashioned incidents and distorted character where that would add to the impact. His friend Gabriella found her conversion into the flirty Giulia Vineis in The Periodic Table hard to take, while the family of Sandro, the man who introduced Levi to mountaineering, was not pleased with his transformation into a peasant. Playing around with fact is acceptable in ordinary literature, but Holocaust literature is understood to demand something purer.
Yet the liberties Levi took were not arbitrary, and not dictated simply by aesthetic considerations. He was meticulous in his depiction of central truths, and permitted himself literary embellishment only to deepen impact. If the category of Holocaust writer doesn’t quite fit, nor does any other. He simultaneously records and moulds the material of an evil which was both particular and universal. Perhaps Levi’s greatest achievement was the creation of a new moral vocabulary, a way of coping with the enormity of the Holocaust on a human scale. The biographers differ over whether Auschwitz made him a writer or not. Thomson suggests it did; Angier believes that he would always have been a writer. His diffidence, his scientific training, his powers of observation made him an ideal reporter. But it was his genius as narrator which enabled him to forge his own moral universe, to pick through the depravity of the human psyche. Later, he placed his hopes for being taken as a “real” writer in his only novel, If Not Now, When? about a group of Jewish partisans in Poland. He was again disappointed at its lukewarm reception. Some of his critics wondered if the failure of a writer of Levi’s stature to put the Holocaust into a novel meant that the task was beyond the grasp of fiction.
After he had finally achieved literary recognition, following publication in 1975 of The Periodic Table, he produced an anthology of extracts from the writers who were important to him. He was surprised, he writes, to find that his “experiences in the concentration camp should weigh so little.” He states a preference for novelists, Joseph Conrad above all, who conceal themselves behind their characters. He focuses on thinkers from Job to Bertrand Russell who debate the problem of evil. But Levi reserves his warmest affection for Rabelais. It is a mildly shocking idea: Rabelaisian fantasia being celebrated by the timid Levi.
Levi’s reverence for clarity of expression produced unexpected literary aversions: even a fellow victim of Hitler such as Paul Celan received only tepid praise. Levi also regretted his decision to agree to translate The Trial, since the work forced him into an unwilling, loveless relationship with Franz Kafka, whose worldview he found repellent. Kafka died too young to know the reality of Auschwitz, where his sisters were to perish, but Giulio Einaudi, Levi’s publisher, was not the first to see Kafka as the prophet of the concentration camp. He assumed the two men would share a common vision and invited Levi to devote himself to the translation. It was a misreading of Levi, who held fast to optimism of the will, even as he succumbed to pessimism of the intellect. He blamed exposure to Kafka for a depression which he never shook off. “In my writing, I have always sought to move from the darkness to the light… Kafka strides along the opposite path,” he wrote. Levi refused to allow that Auschwitz was a metaphor for the world, or that guilt was universal.
Nevertheless, he continued to examine the notion of guilt, not so much his own for having survived as the evaded guilt of those who were actually, even if passively, responsible. The Drowned and the Saved is a meditation on this theme. He was suffering from depression at the time he wrote it, and the work reads like the product of a mind at the end of its tether. Some saw it as the “longest suicide note in history.”
His suicide was greeted not only with dismay but with disappointment. To some, it seemed like betrayal. The New Yorker voiced the fear that “the efficacy of his words had somehow been cancelled by his death.” There have been some who have denied that Levi did kill himself, but both biographers entertain no doubts. Thomson does not rule out the impact of Auschwitz memories on his suicide, but Angier emphatically rejects all talk of “Hitler’s last victim,” blaming instead the depression he was suffering and the terrible domestic conditions in which he was living.
Both these books serve their subject well, from rather different perspectives. Thomson is passionate about Levi but takes a slightly distant stance, while Angier invites readers to come with her on a personal journey. She escorts them into the homes and lives of the people who surrounded Levi at different points of his life, and recounts her own meetings with them. The Primo Levi who emerges is a more fallible man and a more harsh judge than we had known before; but he is enhanced both as witness and writer.