As Hannah Arendt tells it, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for his role in organizing the Final Solution, was given a copy of Lolita by one of his jailers. The gift did not go over well. Two days later, Eichmann, “visibly indignant,” returned it, unfinished. His verdict? “‘Quite an unwholesome book’—‘ Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch.”
I’m baffled by this story. What motivated the Israeli official? Was he making a joke? Setting a test? Teaching a lesson? (Lolita is framed as a jailhouse confession, after all.) Why did Eichmann reject the book? Did he take Humbert Humbert’s tale at face value—that is, did he fail to see the book’s critique of pedophilia? Or on the contrary did he see his own evasions in the narrator’s? Was he rejecting the joke, test or lesson? Above all, why “unwholesome”? (Unerfreulich can also mean unpleasant.)
Arendt offers no explanation for her inclusion of the anecdote. (It’s literally a parenthesis.) But she places it in a discussion of what she calls Eichmann’s aphasia—his inability to wield language without resorting to cliché. The man himself apologized for his inarticulateness to the court, saying that his only language was Amtsprache, bureaucratese. According to Arendt, anyway, Eichmann had no critical faculties. He saw the world through ready-made phrases and shopworn ideas. No wonder wholesomeness was his recourse. He knew what he liked because he liked what he knew.
But maybe in this case he was on to something. Lolita is disreputable. It relishes that designation, of course, asking us to decide what we mean when we reject something as immoral. The point of that challenge isn’t to expand what counts as acceptable behavior but to make us realize how easily we accept, even condone abuse. The novel’s glittering language—the fancy prose style Humbert warns us about in its first pages—only exacerbates the sordidness of its subject matter, so that even our pity and horror for what happens to twelve-year-old Dolores Haze comes to seem tainted by having to be earned from reading against the grain.
I thought about Eichmann and Lolita as I wondered how to respond to Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation (1979), certainly the most unpleasant and maybe the most unwholesome book I’ve read in a long time.
It’s all the publisher’s fault. When I read the promotional copy—which also appears on the dust jacket—describing Deviation as “a seminal work in Holocaust literature” I was immediately intrigued. (“Seminal” should have tipped me off—I thought we retired that word.) I even managed to convince Scott—who knows Italian literature much better than I do—to read it with me. (Sorry, Scott!)
But Deviation is not about the Holocaust. About fascism, yes, about forced labour camps, definitely, about the relationship between industry and Nazi expansionism, quite interestingly, and about moral equivocation most definitely. But not about the Holocaust, and to suggest this is, frankly, disgusting and disrespectful.
The publisher’s bait and switch has certainly coloured my view of the book, but even without that aggravation I think I’d be hard-pressed to know what to make of Deviation. I’ll let D’Eramo—in the guise of her narrator, basically a version of D’Eramo herself—explain what the book is about. Lucia, like her author born and partially raised in France before returning to Italy as a teenager, is an ardent Fascist. With the establishment of the Republic of Salò in September 1943 and the rise of partisan resistance to fascism, believers like Lucia were left “feeling as though their earlier ideals were crimes” (they were!). Eighteen-year-old Lucia comes to a decision:
I realized that the only way to learn the truth for myself about Fascists and anti-Fascists—many said that they could no longer figure it out [note the resemblance to Trump’s pet expression “People are saying”]—was to ascertain it firsthand. Understanding this, I had to go to the places about which the most outrageous stories were told: the Nazi concentration camps. That’s why I ran away from home on February 8, 1944, and went to Germany as a simple volunteer worker, with pictures of Mussolini and Hitler in my backpack, sure about what I was doing. But after spending a few months in a labor camp near Frankfurt am Main, my comrades organized a strike at the factory, the IG Farben, where I worked in the Ch 89, the chemical division. As a result, I was jailed, then later transferred and detained in Dachau. In order to survive, I escaped from there in October, and for a couple of months I remained hidden in Munich. Then I left, following the death of the friends who were helping me … I headed back to my first Lager [the IG Farben camp at Frankfurt-Höchst], travelling partway by train without a ticket, crouched in the toilets of the cars, partway on foot, spending the night in bomb shelters, in abandoned cattle cars, in foreigners’ barracks … in mid-February  I arrived in Mainz.
Basically, the book is about Lucia’s attempt to come to terms with the evasions and lies in this story. What she first tells us is that on December 4, 1945 she finally returned to Italy, and did so as a paraplegic, her legs having been paralyzed when a wall fell on her as she was helping to dig survivors out of the rubble of a bombed-out building. But this first return was in fact her second.
It’s true, Lucia was involved in the brief and ultimately unsuccessful strike led by both volunteer and forced labourers at the IG Farben camp. And it’s also true that she was arrested. But after a failed suicide attempt—she took rat poison, and only survived because she took too much too quickly, and vomited it up: a nice metaphor for her life, where excess always turns in her favour—she was repatriated by the Italian consul and sent back to Italy.
As far as Lucia is concerned, the only good thing about this outrageous bit of good fortune is that her father, a bigshot in Fascist Italy whom she hates, had nothing to do with it. In fact, he refused to pull any strings for her. But in Verona, waiting for the train that will take her to Como, and home, she rebels. (That’s not the right word. She does something remarkably stupid.) She throws away her papers and arranges to get arrested by some SS men taking a convoy of political prisoners to the station. In this way, she is sent to Dachau, from which she eventually escapes after she volunteers to be part of the shit commando—a work detail sent around Munich to unclog sewage pipes (there are some memorable descriptions of this work in the book’s first pages). When the work detail is caught in an air raid, she slips off into the pandemonium, eventually ending up at a makeshift transit camp for displaced foreigners located in an old brewery. And from there she makes her way, in the manner described in the long quote above, to IG Farben and later to Mainz, where she has her accident.
The novel—it’s really autofiction avant la lettre—was written over a period of about 25 years, and its distinct sections are dated to show us this progress. D’Eramo usually tells the story in first person, but sometimes switches to third person, suggesting, as translator Anne Milano Appel suggests in her introduction, how foreign to D’Eramo that person now seems to her. (I’m using author and narrator interchangeably in a way I normally never would, but D’Eramo invites the equivalence.)
In the second half of the book, D’Eramo asks why she repressed the memory of returning voluntarily to Germany. But what she presents as an attempt at self-understanding reads as delusory exculpation. Even her big theory about Nazism and its camp system (she regularly distinguishes between Fascism, by which she means Italian Fascism, and Nazism; this distinction is her most interesting idea) fails to make us think better of her. In D’Eramo’s view, the camp system was a form of class warfare, in which only the working classes were made to suffer. Her evidence is that she never met any rich people in her various forms of voluntary incarceration. (Leading her to offer an anti-Semitic canard about Jewish wealth: “The big financiers, the truly wealthy were sheltered abroad.” Bollocks.)
Here and indeed everywhere in the book, D’Eramo comes across as a terrible person, describing “defenseless masses [that] huddle like sheep,” remembering concentration camp inmates as “a swarm of horrible, wonderful insects” (what the hell is “wonderful” translating here?), and criticizing an old woman’s desperate grief at the realization of her impending death as “a kind of greediness that was more irritating than moving.” She is revolted by the coarseness of her fellow inmates, repulsed by their way of eating, and eventually driven to exclaim, “I despise victims.”
Readers will surely agree with Martine, one of the narrator’s co-conspirators in fomenting the IG Farben strike, who sees through D’Eramo’s political awakening: “So shut your mouth and peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else. Why do you try to excuse yourself? You are who you are.” Specifically, she’s someone who, Martine adds, wants the privileges of being a fascist student in the camp (better food and living conditions) without any of the drawbacks (D’Eramo is hurt that others hate her so much).
The most generous reading of Deviance I can muster is that at least D’Eramo is honest enough to show herself in a bad light. But that honesty feels so self-serving. She’s proud of it, like the student who thinks that his honesty in admitting he hasn’t done the reading for class is enough for him to be excused from any consequences. After all, at least he hasn’t tried to bullshit the instructor. But the fact is he’s merely swallowed his own bullshit. So too D’Eramo, whose great struggle in life—the thing she wrestles with for decades—is the lie she tells anyone who will listen, mostly herself, that she was sent to Dachau for her part in organizing the IG Farben strike, when in fact she chose to be sent there. Finally acknowledging that lie, she seems to think, is a courageous thing to do. (Amazingly, she never refers to her real courage, which consists of living with constant pain from her injury, and refusing to use her disability as an excuse for not doing what she wants to do—having a child, writing her books, etc. Except maybe that doesn’t take courage, just determination.)
Admittedly, D’Eramo does wrestle with the hold that the concept of willpower has over her—she sees this as a legacy of her upbringing and she believes more than anything in the need to overcome the prejudices of her bourgeois milieu. Not because she regrets her commitment to fascism. Nor even because she sees the terrible ends to which a belief in willpower can be put (demonizing anyone unlucky in any way or lacking the advantages of her class position as weak and second-rate). Only, as far as I can tell, because she hates her family so much. And even that rejection relies on the attributes of her middle-class childhood: she wills herself to overcome the idea of willpower. This is akin to the fetishization of toughness that the philosopher Theodor Adorno called one of the most damaging attributes of the fascist mindset. Even if D’Eramo regrets her past beliefs (and I’m not clear she ever does), she maintains the very attitudes that undergirded that belief.
One of the prisoners in the train taking her to Dachau, a partisan (that is, someone brave enough to resist the regime), tells her, after he finds out how D’Eramo came to be in the freight car with the rest of them, “The performance is over. You can go home.” As much as I sympathize with the man, he’s wrong. D’Eramo’s performance, aimed at much at herself as us, is never over, even when she later acknowledges her own act. Because in the end the acknowledgement is the performance.
And I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of that performance. When she calls herself “an inveterately elite worm,” should we applaud her self-awareness? When she describes how she failed in turning what she thinks could have been the most socially aware moment of her life (choosing to be sent to Dachau) into a mere moral act, adding that, even if she can be excused for what she did at the time, given her youth, her upbringing, etc., can she be excused now, are we supposed to admire the question?
No way. After all, she never gets beyond asking it. D’Eramo regularly points out her mistakes—yet she keeps making them. She offers what she knows is a false analogy between her own experience in the hospital after her accident, waiting for the paperwork to come through so she can leave Germany, to the travails of deportees in the cattle cars. But saying it’s a shitty analogy doesn’t make it less shitty.
Nor is she winning me over when, writing in the mid 1970s, she explains that she “agonized retroactively for the children of the Osten [Slavic prisoners of war, both military and civilian, mostly Russian, whom she encountered in the IG Farben camp] and Jews whom I could see clustered behind the barbed wire when I skirted the transit camps in search of shelter, and who, in my distorted memory, stared at me with the dark eyes of my son.” Thanks for nothing, lady. It’s almost as bad as the anti-Semitism and historical inaccuracy in her description of a gold necklace she continues to wear for decades after the war, which she “snatched from a body, like the Jewish Sonderkommando [the prisoners forced to operate the crematoria] did at Auschwitz.”
Really, the only thing that didn’t make my gorge rise while reading Deviation is D’Eramo’s use of scabrous details: she tells us of men aroused in the disinfection shower; of the chest burns she suffers when she’s assigned to carry blocks of sulfuric acid in the IG Farben camp, as punishment for demanding equal food for Eastern and Western prisoners; of the aftermath of her injury, when her buttock splits open, “emitting copious putrid matter with an unbearable stench”; and of a nurse in the hospital where recovers from that injury who, receiving a letter from a man asking for money to start up a toilet paper factory, since it is sure to be in short supply in post-war Germany, uses the letter to wipe herself.
These details are the only things in this book that don’t stink. They’re gross, but honestly so. They’re not bullshit. The unwholesomeness of the book lies in D’Eramo’s mental gymnastics not her bodily suffering. Adolf Eichmann was wrong about Lolita: the unpleasantness of its events is not something readers are invited to pat themselves on the back for navigating. But his judgment wouldn’t be inappropriate for Deviation. Who do I give my copy back to?
Wow. My milquetoast response to this book has been rightfully run over by your scathing one. It seems so clear now that the elements that seemed exculpatory and solipsistic were in fact, well, exculpatory and solipsistic. Just after posting, I suddenly flashed on Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and her convincing explanation of the manner in which trauma gets chemically inscribed in the brain. I was struck by how most of the few reviews of Deviation seemed simply to accept d’Eramo’s struggles with “repressed memories” without question, when as you infer above, she takes pride in them as if recovering them is the aim of dealing with Nazism. I was also struck by how different Deviation seemed from other works I’ve read from the period, which are almost invariably possessed of a moral and structural clarity, with no need for searching muddled memories and shifting, overlapping chronologies.
And of course her memories are so selective – there’s really almost nothing about her family relations, or more importantly, concerning what she relayed (or didn’t relay) back to Italy with regard to her stated purpose of going to Germany to uncover the truth. I mean, this is not exactly Panaït Istrati returning from witnessing Stalinist atrocities and spreading the word, leading to his utter ostracism.
I’m now quite curious to know what those writers mentioned in the biographical information concerning d’Eramo – Moravia, Vittorini, and especially her friend Ignazio Silone – really thought about her work. I’m equally curious to know how some of those other writers – partisans such as Beppe Fenoglio or Italo Calvino (or Ada Gobetti, whose Resistance memoir I want to read) – might have responded to this work.
Anyway, no apologies necessary for inviting me to read along; it was worth it all just to get to this post.
Wow indeed. I had coincidentally been looking at this in the publisher’s catalogue yesterday and wondering whether it was something I should read. I’m now convinced I shouldn’t and it sounds completely unlike the idea I got of it from the catalogue – and also extremely problematic. On Sunday I dipped into Primo Levi’s work and found none of the issues you raise here. I shall avoid this like the plague – thank you.
D’Eramo is the anti-Levi, that’s for sure. In fact, I wonder what he made of her. He must have known the book.
If you’re looking for a book by an Italian woman about the Holocaust, may I recommend Liana Millu’s Smoke over Birkenau? It’s terrific.
Thanks! I’m always happy to have book recommendations! 😀
Man, even when you really dislike books, you make them sound interesting. Looking at the publisher’s write-up, I see that the claim about the book is that “a devoted fascist changes her mind and her life” but you are arguing that any apparent change continues to be in “bad faith”. Do you think it is actually possible for someone to read the book as such a narrative of genuine change, or is this characterization of the book in “bad faith” all around?
You hit it exactly, Nat. That’s the central question about the book. If you read Scott’s post, you can see that he does read it as a story of change (though he doesn’t really dwell on the change, and I need to read his post more closely to be sure of what I’m saying–Scott, feel free to chime in here!).
Interestingly, D’Ermao almost never addresses the topic. Her hand-wringing is all about why she pretended/forgot/repressed that she was deported to Dachau rather than having chosen to go. I definitely think the publisher is overstating the case–trying to make this unpalatable narrative into a triumphant (or, at least, chastening and therefore educational) story.
But push comes to shove I would say it’s a bad faith reading.
I don’t know that there’s anything about d’Eramo’s change that she provides for the reader to dwell on. I think the biggest problem I had with the notion of a “change” stemmed from two nagging thoughts I had while reading Deviation. The first has to do with d’Eramo’s stated reason for going to Germany, which was to see for herself (or more accurately, disprove) the rumors of deportations and atrocities. But while she describes the conditions of Dachau and the work camp, she never explicitly returns to this stated intention, not even 30 years later. The second problem is that she spends nearly the entire book getting to the point where she recognizes to herself that she was a Fascist. And…the book ends. That might have been where the book should have started. As Dorian points out, it’s as though d’Eramo sees her achievement as consisting of coming to that self-awareness. But she stops there, as though that’s enough.What might it have meant to other Italians seduced by Fascism for her not to have stopped there? D’Eramo went on to write a work on Immanuel Kant, a study of Silone and another novel about the Red Brigades (which I’m sure would be interesting to place up against Leonardo Sciascia’s masterpiece, The Moro Affair); did she write anything else that directly addressed her engagement with Fascism? I’m extremely curious to know how the book was received in Italy besides its having been a “bestseller.” I can well imagine that some demurring reviews there might make Dorian’s comments almost quaint by comparison.
Exactly! And I wonder what her take on the Red Brigades could have been? As I said in response to Nat, I so wonder what Levi and Millu had to say about her. Or Calvino, say. (He fought with the partisans, right?)
Thanks, both of you. Between the two of you I’ve become more curious about this book than I probably should be. Other online reviews and comments seem to present her actions as heroic– “the girl who volunteered to be imprisoned by the Nazis”– or redemptive– citing her suffering and self-reflection as making amends for her “original” fascist beliefs– both of which seem intolerable positions based on your more thoughtful analyses. I share Scott’s curiosity about the book’s reception in Italy; it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t have been significant backlash against the semi-memoirs of a semi-repentant ex-fascist.
Yes, I’m more and more curious about that. I wonder in particular if Levi or Millu wrote about the book.
I just don’t see either of the positions you’ve found in other reviews as justified. What Koolaid have these reviewers been drinking?
Review: Deviation by Luce D’Eramo
Thanks for sharing these. I’d seen the Haas piece in Harpers. In general, I’m baffled by the adulation here. Appreciate the Times reviewer’s hesitation.
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