A Centenary of Levi Facts

As part of my efforts to celebrate Primo Levi’s centenary, I read Ian Thomson’s biography. Primo Levi: A Life (2002) is thorough, chilly, occasionally a little plodding. But it’s full of fascinating material. Here are 105 things that struck with me. (Tried to keep it to a round hundred, but the effort defeated me.) After the list I offer brief thoughts on the biography itself.

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1. Bartolo Mascarello, apparently the maker of the best Barolo in Piedmont, described Levi this way:

Primo was a sort of owl, you know, extremely intelligent and observant—but at the same time apparently quite ordinary. Primo had a kind face, laughing eyes, extraordinary eyes—penetrating and sagacious. He struck me then and much later as un uomo allegro, a happy man. He was very measured but not in an aristocratic way, in a human way.

2. Levi was “raised on a mixture of coddling and bourgeois stiffness”

3. His mother, Ester, was formal, reserved, cautious, prudish, fastidious. Passed on many of these traits to her son. His father, Cesare, trained as engineer, sold machinery, fancied himself man about town, a sophisticated roué. In fact, claims Thomson, he was an autodidact and a bit of a bumpkin.

4. Cesare grudgingly joined Fascist party (like so many Italian Jews, though many were enthusiastic); Primo joined fascist youth movement in 1924, as a five-year-old.

5. Levi was a frail boy who grew up determined to overcome this frailty. As a teenager (and for the rest of his life) he was an avid mountaineer.

6. The Torinese have an expression for the fatigue that comes from a strenuous mountain hike, la grande fatica.

7. In August 1932 Levi observed his Bar Mitzvah—later in life he described his religious education as entirely perfunctory: in the milieu he grew up in, boys could read Hebrew just well enough that their family could be congratulated.

8. Levi was drawn to study of science because other learning (especially of classics) was done by rote. Fascist regime valued humanities; devalued science.

9. Entered university in October 1937. His first professor told the entering students, “Chemistry is a bricks-and-mortar trade and you lot are brick-layers. Don’t expect to discover the meaning of life around here.” Levi would eventually set his sights on just that grandiose aim, but he always appreciated the brick-layer role. Nonetheless he Later wished he had studied physics.

10. In 1938 Levi narrowly avoided being thrown out of university along with most Jewish students as Mussolini’s regime acceded to Hitler’s demands for anti-Semitic Nuremberg-style laws. At the last minute, it was decided that those who were already in their second year of study could complete their education.

11. The assimilated Jews of Turin and throughout Italy were blindsided by new anti-Semitic laws. Couldn’t believe they would really be affected.

12. Like so many young European Jews, Levi was intrigued by Zionism, especially its secularism. Encouraged by his English tutor (many Italian Jews belated prepared to leave the country), he even translated the British White Paper of 1939 (which reduced number of Jewish refugees to Mandate Palestine). But the Levis would never have been persuaded to leave Turin: 95% Italian, 5% Jewish, they said.

13. Indeed, Levi had no interest in the Jewish refugees arriving in Turin and other parts of Italy from Eastern Europe.

14. Levi wrote his dissertation on what would eventually be called quantum chemistry, specifically the idea that asymmetry is central to the make-up of the universe: the carbon atom is asymmetrical.

15. In summer 1941, Levi graduated with first class-honours—only the second such degree in 25 years. He was a Dottore, but as a Jew had no career prospects.

16. In summer 1942 Levi was hired by a Swiss film in Milan. His project: to extract anti-diabetes medication from burdock root. Swiss firms could hire Jews but needed to keep them on the down low. Levi was taken on as Doctor Primo.

17. In Milan Levi ate at canteen across from the main newspaper. There he met reporters and editors who knew the paper’s Russia correspondent Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt, The Skin). All of them, Thomson says, knew what was happening in the East.

18. By 1942, when Levi’s father died, Italian Jews were no longer allowed to place obituaries in the newspaper.

19. At this time, Levi began to be involved with the Resistance: wrote slogans (LONG LIVE PEACE) on Lira notes and smuggled propaganda into provinces from Milan.

20. 1 December 1943, Salò regime decrees Jews of all nationalities be arrested & placed in special camps.

21. Levi joined Partisans in the mountains in the high valleys above Turin. His ragtag group was soon infiltrated by fascist spies; he and the others were arrested on December 13, 1943.

22. The night before the arrest, Levi spent the evening discussing the famous Lippizaner horses of Slovenia, said to be able to spell words with their hooves.

23. Levi spent 39 days in jail before being transferred to a transit camp at Fossoli.

24. Life in Fossoli under its corrupt Commissar Avitabile (he demanded sexual favours from women, for example) was relatively good: communal living, packages allowed in, sharing of food and clothes. “Primo is well,” one of his fellow prisoners wrote to her relatives.

25. A minimum number of prisoners was needed for a deportation train: to meet this quota, Italian officials raided a Jewish old folks home. Numbers in the camp began to swell. On February 22, 1944, Levi and the other prisoners in Fossoli were deported to Auschwitz.

26. Levi later described the assimilated Italian Jews who arrived with him at Auschwitz as “eggs without a shell.”

27. Levi sent as slave labour to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Monowitz-Buna, run by the chemical company IG Farben. The rubber-producing plants at Buna, which came online in mid-1944, consumed as much electricity as all of Berlin. It gave Levi satisfaction that the plants never produced any useable rubber.

28. Buna was short for Butadiene and Natrium (Latin for sodium).

29. The SS & I. G. Farben sabotaged each other: former wanted to kill prisoners as quickly as possible; latter needed them for labour. SS ordered Jews to bring back 40 bricks every day from Buna to delay construction; Farben allowed Levi to sell blankets he stole from barracks.

30. In Buna Levi met Alberto Dall Volta, also an Italian chemist—Alberto spoke German well, and was a genius at “organizing” (finding ways to steal and otherwise get ahead in the camps). He and Levi became inseparable—eventually dividing their rations. Alberto died in the so-called Death March just before liberation.

31. Levi also met Lorenzo Perrone, a Piedmontese mason, a volunteer worker in the Third Reich (i.e, he was not Jewish), who smuggled an extra soup ration to Levi every day for six months. His help contributed immeasurably to Levi’s survival. As a civilian, Perrone received packages from home and had a reasonable ration. The soup wasn’t pleasant—it “might contain a sparrow’s wing, prune stones, salami rind, even bits of La Stampa newsprint reduced to pulp”—but it gave Levi an extra 500 calories a day. Perrone suffered upon returning home; he became an alcoholic, which Levi understood as a form of suicide. He died in April 1952.

32. Thanks to his training, Levi was conscripted into a work commando in the lab at Buna. It was in the relative warmth of the lab during the winter 44-45 that Levi began to secretly record his experiences. His notes never amounted to 20 lines, and he destroyed them after committing them to memory. But If this is a Man born already in camp.

33. Caught scarlet fever in January 1945. When admitted to Infektionsabteilung (the camp infirmary) on January 11th, Levi weighed 80 lbs.

34. In the weeks before and after liberation, Levi formed a close friendship with Leonardo De Benedetti, a Turinese doctor who was appointed head of surgery by the Russians after they took over the camp. Benedetti: “I’m like a beggar who has lost everything—except life.” They would be lifelong friends, although they never quite recovered from an argument over Israel late in their lives.

35. On June 6, 1945, Levi—at this point halfway through the six months it took him to make the journey home—wrote a letter to his mother and sister. Here is the PS, which Thomson rightly calls extraordinary:

Maybe I’ll come home shoeless, but in compensation for my ragged state I’ve learned German and a bit of Russian and Polish, I also kjow how to get out of many situations without losing my nerve, and how to withstand moral and physical suffering. To economise on the barber I’m sporting a beard. I know how to make a cauliflower or turnip soup, cook potatoes in a hundred different ways (all without seasoning). I know, too, how to assemble, light, and clean stoves. And I’ve been through an incredibly variety of careers: assistant bricklayer, navy, sweep, porter, grave-digger, interpreter, cyclist, tailor, thief, nurse, fence, stone-breaker. I’ve even been a chemist!

36. Levi reached Turin 19 October 1945. Of the 650 Jews on the transport from Fossoli, 24 returned.

37. At the end of 1945, beginning of ‘46 Levi began buttonholing strangers on trams and on the street to tell them of his experiences. He was in the grip of a compulsion.

38. At Rosh Hoshanah 1945, Levi met Lucia Morpurgo, who would become his wife. A coup de foudre, but although their marriage was lifelong, it wasn’t especially happy. A big reason was the fact that they lived with Levi’s mother for their entire marriage.

39. In January 1946 Levi began to work at a paint factory (DUCO) near Turin. Train service was still so poor that Levi roomed there during week. That’s when he began writing If this is a Man.

40. He began with the last chapter, “The Story of Ten Days.” The famous and brilliant “Canto of Ulysses” chapter was composed in a single half-hour lunchbreak!

41. That chapter describes an experience with a fellow prisoner, the Alsatian Jean Samuel. He also survived, and the two men stayed in touch for the rest of their lives. Levi to Samuel: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.”

42. The hardest thing for Levi to deal with in writing If this is a Man was his anger.

43. Lucia was an exacting editor of the manuscript.

44. The book was turned down by Little, Brown in 1946 on recommendation of a well-known American Rabbi.

45. Even earlier, it had been turned down by Einaudi, the most prestigious Italian publisher. A huge blow to Levi. The novelist Natalia Ginzburg, a reader at the publisher, liked it but thought it not right for their list. Rejected by 5 other Italian publishers too.

46. Levi’s classical style was paradoxically a reminder of Fascist times.

47. Franco Antonicelli, a former leader of the Resistance, agreed to publish the manuscript with his (valiant but small) press. The working title was In the Abyss. Then Drowned and Saved. Antonicelli decided on the final title.

48. Levi was asked to testify at the trial of Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz, but couldn’t get the time off work.

49. Levi married Lucia Morpurgo 8 September 1947; on 11 October If this is a Man was published.

50. Levi frustrated by being labelled as a witness. Thought of himself as writer first, witness second.

51. This now canonical book was indifferently reviewed (except by the writer Italo Calvino). Sold less than 1500 copies.

52. The Levis’ daughter, Lisa Lorenza, born 31 October 1948; their son, Renzo Caesare, born 2 July 1957.

53. SIVA (the paint and varnish company Levi moved to in the late 1940s and spent the rest of his career at) moved to new head office about 20 miles from Turin. Levi would choose the wines for the canteen. Employees enjoyed a 2-hour break, complete with, depending on season, snowball fights and bicycles rides.

54. Levi received a reparation payment from I. G. Farben worth about $12 000 today.

55. In 1955 Einaudi agreed to republish If this is a Man but the press’s financial problems meant it wouldn’t appear until 1958. In meantime, Levi revised and added a new chapter (“Initiation”). He also changed the opening sentence, added the section on the WWI vet he names Steinlauf. Steinlauf was modelled on a man named Eugenio Gluecksmann, but also, apparently, on Otto Frank, who Levi had seen at Auschwitz and then met later in Turin (1952 or 53). He also added material on Alberto, but misrepresented him, saying, for example, that he couldn’t speak German.

56. Einaudi’s first printing sold out; Levi began to become a spokesman of the Holocaust.

57. Met Stuart Woolf, who would translate If this is a Man into English. Levi worked closely with him. One day, Woolf gave Levi Tolkien to read. He hated it, returning it the next day.

58. Samuel Fischer bought German rights, with Heinz Riedt as translator: remarkable man who had grown up in Italy where his father was consul in Palermo, got himself exempted from Wehrmacht, fought with partisans in Padua. His father-in-law imprisoned in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. “Perfect collaboration” between two.

59. US reviews middling; UK better.Germany different: 20,000 sold immediately. Levi spoke to Germany’s young.

60. Began writing The Truce in 1961—important moment in his writing career because it was the first time Levi consciously turned his experience into literature. Published in 1963, it was an immediate success in Italy—but more with ordinary readers than critics. Where If This is a Man had not been neo-realist enough in 1947, The Truce in 1963 was criticized as too neo-realist.

61. At the end of 1963 Levi suffered his first serious depression. He feared he had said all he had to say about his experiences and that he was finished as a writer. This fear reappeared regularly for the rest of his life.

62. In April 1965 Levi returned to Auschwitz for 20th anniversary of the end of the war. Felt nothing at Auschwitz. Saw Birkenau for the first time (!). Amazingly, the plant at Buna was still operational.

63. Levi published two collections of science fiction. Neither was a success. Later he would virtually disown them.

64. Levi wouldn’t tolerate anyone who made fun of others, even children playing together: “The moment the defenceless are derided is the moment Nazism is born.”

65. In late 1966, entered into what would become sixteen-year correspondence with Hety Schmidt-Maas, a German who came from an exemplary anti-Nazi family. As a child, she had refused to join the League of German Women (v unusual). Her ex-husband had been a chemist for I. G. Farben. Schmidt-Maas was on a one-woman mission to understand Germany’s recent past. Levi asked Hety if she had any contact information for the German chemists he had worked under at Auschwitz. Most were dead or had disappeared. But Ferdinand Meyer, who had treated Levi as an equal more than anyone else, was still alive—she offered to put them in touch. Meyer wrote to Levi in 1967. Levi was wary, especially of Meyer’s platitudes of working through past.

66. Meyer (wrongly) saw in If this is a Man the spirit of forgiveness. (Surprisingly, the survivor and philosopher Jean Amery also saw this trait in Levi.)

67. Levi decided not to meet Meyer. He didn’t want the responsibility of forgiving him: not his place. The survivor and historian Hermann Langbein called Meyer a “spineless grey creature.”

68. Later in 1967 went to visit Hety. Successful visit. She called Meyer while Levi was there; the two men spoke by phone. It is not known what they said. Levi confessed to Hety his great fear of seeing Meyer again. Meyer died in December 1967. Thomson’s verdict: “Meyer was less infamous than inadequate.”

69. In 1968 Levi made his only trip to Israel. Not a success. Levi couldn’t square Israel with his preference for the diaspora. Levi was only published in Hebrew in 1988, after his death.

70. In late 1971 Levi wrote to Hety about his depression:

We are not masters of our mood, of our reactions, of our very personality: a slight disturbance in one’s hormonic [sic] balance, and you are turned into somebody else; and you are liable to revert to this obnoxious state again and again, and each time you will stubbornly be persuaded that this is your ral and final condition, that you will have no future…

71. Neither of his children wanted to hear of his past experiences. Thomson concludes Levi had neighbourly but not affectionate relationships with them.

72. In early 1973 Levi began writing The Periodic Table.

73. This was a time of serious neo-fascist violence in Turin: gangs prowled the streets with knuckledusters. Later in the decade, businessmen would take tourniquets with them when going to work in case of being shot.

74. Levi retired from SIVA on December 1, 1974. Had long wanted to do so. Not a good manager, the responsibility tormented him. He felt like a Kapo. At his retirement party, the staff urged him to make a speech. He said, in full: “I believe I have always tried not to get on anyone’s nerves.”

75. Both he and Lucia’s mothers were in poor health. Levi walked his mother around the block twice a day. The only time in their life they were separated for any length of time was the 22 months he was deported.

76. The Periodic Table published in 1975—big hit, much feted, Levi by now a literary legend in Italy. The book expresses the tension between the writer he was becoming and the writer he was taken to be (invention v documentation).

77. Hety visited the notorious Nazi Albert Speer in prison and gave him If this is a Man. Speer didn’t read it, saying he didn’t want to “disturb” Levi by reading it (?!?!)

78. In the late 70s, Levi was indicted on two counts of ‘personal injury’ for causing involuntary injury to workers at the SIVO plant. In the end, no evidence was found and he never stood trial. But the incident shook Levi. The investigating magistrate did find Levi to have been careless of others’ safety—perhaps, Thomson speculates, because of his Auschwitz experience.

79. After retiring, Levi took German lessons diligently for several years at Turin’s Goethe Institut: enjoyed being “their oldest student.”

80. Levi’s literary taste was conservative: found Proust boring, Beckett “annoys me terribly.”

81. In 1979 Levi began to research what would become If Not Now, When. Thomson thinks it a bad book, embarrassing even. (Crude rhetoric, schematic, mouthpieces, over-researched: that was the US critical consensus too.) Began writing in October 1980—wrote the novel quickly in what he called eleven blissful months.

82. On 7 November 1980, the remains of the Holy Virgin St Lucy stolen in Levi’s name from a church in Venice. The thieves left an anonymous ransom note: “St Lucy will be returned on condition that a page of If this is a Man be read each day in all secondary schools and lycèes in the Veneto area.” A local criminal eventually claimed responsibility.

83. Levi thought the natural world was inimical to language, not a human phenomenon like Auschwitz.

84. In 1982 Levi accepted a commission to translate The Trial. He didn’t like the book—“revived his disquiet about Jews and Judaism.”

85. Levi met regularly with students who were writing about him. He was very patient. One student telephoned him about his school essay on If this is a Man, which he hadn’t read: “I promise to read all your books soon,” he told the bemused Levi. (See under: chutzpah)

86. Visited Auschwitz again in summer 1981. Flinched at the sound of a passing freight train.

87. Levi: “Sometimes I wonder if I belong to the Jewish people at all.”

88. The US had been largely uninterested in Levi. If Not Now, When published only reluctantly. The Periodic Table had been published only when Saul Bellow offered a rave blurb. But when Levi met Bellow on his US tour in 1985 Bellow snubbed him.

89. Levi met Elie Wiesel in summer 1981. He had no fondness for Wiesel. The latter had claimed to have had a friendship with Levi in Buna. Levi denied this, saying he had no memory of him.

90. In the fall of 1981, the doctor and survivor Leonardo de Benedetti Nardo died. Levi, as he put it, “became a lonely survivor.” De Benedetti’s maid claimed she never saw Levi smile again.

91. In summer 1984 Levi bought a personal computer. Became a “Mac bore”—convinced the American translator of Italian William Weaver to buy one. Talked about it all the time.

92. The Periodic Table published in the US in the fall of 1984. Finally, Levi received praise and recognition in the US, and he accepted his publisher’s request for a US tour the following year. In America, Levi was always a survivor first and a writer second. Indiana UP had accepted Periodic Table in 1981 but on the condition that only the Holocaust parts be published. (Levi declined.)

93. Einaudi had shorthand for his two Levi writers, Primo and Carlo: “Levi Man’ and “Levi Christ” (Carlo Levi’s most famous book is Christ Stopped at Eboli.)

94. The US trip was a mixed success at best. When Levi met Nahum Glatzer, the publisher of Schocken Books, he left his prosciutto and melon untouched; he didn’t want to offend the observant Glatzer. Thomson claims Levi was puzzled by how much Americans emphasized his Jewishness, complaining that they had “pinned a Star of David” on him. Yet he was very glad to have the US market open to him; his publishers thought he would be back within a year.

95. At the end of June 1985, Esther Levi turned 90. Levi felt increasingly imprisoned by her. He even likened her to “the drowned” of his famous Holocaust metaphor.

96. Jean Samuel visited in the fall and found his friend in very low spirits. In particular, Levi worried about the rise of revisionism; feared all his writing would one day fall on deaf ears.

97. Writing to an Englishwoman who thought she had recognized her uncle in The Periodic Table (it turns out she was right), Levi said “I preserve absurdly precise memories of that period.”

98. In response to an interviewer who asked if he ever dreamed of Auschwitz, Levi told of a dream he occasionally had. He was being driven back into the camp, but protested: “Gentlemen, I have already been here. It is not my turn.”

99. In April 1986 Levi met Philip Roth in London. The two men got on very well: “With some people you just unlock—and Levi was one of them,” Roth later said. In the fall, Roth and his then-wife Claire Bloom visited the Levis in Turin. Roth insisted Levi take him to the paint factory. They shared an emotional farewell: both men cried. Levi: “I don’t know which of us is the older brother, and which is the younger brother.”

100. In an interview, Levi rejected the interviewer’s claim that he wrote from the experience of an underdog:

Levi: I was never an underdog.

Interviewer: But you were in Auschwitz…

Levi: The ones below me were the underdogs. I kept my human abilities. I never sank that far. Underdogs lose the capacity to speak, to articulate. An underdog would never be likely to write anything.

101. Levi’s essay collection The Drowned and the Saved was published in June 1986. Levi planned to write a sequel investigating the German industries involved in the camps. Would that this had come to fruition.

102. Levi’s “unidentified antagonist” in his last book was Bruno Vaari, survivor of Mauthausen, who believed ex-deportees survived thanks to their virtue.

103. Levi fell into a particularly dark depression in the winter of 1987. In February he wrote to a friend: “I know that this phase will pass, just as others have done, but I’m aware of this only at the rational level; my overriding impression is that it will last for ever and that I will never find an exit out.”

104. On the morning of Saturday, April 11, 1987, Levi fell from the landing of the stairwell in front of his third (in the US, fourth) floor apartment. He died immeditely. Ever since, people have debated whether he jumped or fell. (He was on medication that made him dizzy.) Thomson plumps for suicide. To my mind, it doesn’t matter. What is more instructive is our desire to want to make sense of the event. At any rate, news spread quickly in Turin and respectful crowds gathered in front of the building.

105. Levi had said he wanted words Homer uses to describe Odysseus, pollà plankté, much erring, driven to wander far and wide, as his epigraph.

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I don’t read biographies much, so it’s hard to say how good this one. My sense is it’s ok. Thomson is a pretty pedestrian writer, which surprised me, as I read a fabulous essay about his father’s death in the TLS a couple of years ago. The last third of the book feels like a grim, plodding forced march, but, then, Levi’s last years were not easy.

Thomson doesn’t seem to know much about Jewishness. And he has the attitudes of the time regarding depression and mental health. (I gather he did most of the research in the 1990s). He’s not exactly judgmental, but says, for example, that Levi “abandoned himself to black moods.” Just a little dubious, and unsympathetic.

He’ll also occasionally say something silly, as when he writes, apparently with a straitght face, that in Los Angeles Levi “saw no evidence of the murderous gunplay that defines the City of Angels.”

But Thomson, who knew Levi and interviewed him, knows Italian well, and seems very sound on the politics of the 30s and 40s as well as the terror of the Years of Lead in the 1970s. Most importantly, I learned a lot about Levi from this book, which is the point. It reaffirmed by love of him, but also usefully tempered it. Levi wasn’t a saint, and he didn’t want to be one. He was endlessly frustrated at being known as a witness first and a writer second. But witnessing matters. And he can rest assured that he is both a great witness and a great writer.

 

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (II)

In my first post on teaching Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir Survival in Auschwitz, I discussed the conclusions I help students come to in regards to what I take to be the two most important chapters in the book. In this post I’ll list some of the other aspects I address. I never get to all of this material; there just isn’t enough time. Take this then as a menu of options, from which I choose based on our conversations:

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1. Levi’s aims—reading the preface:

Survival in Auschwitz begins with a short author’s preface. It’s easy to skip, but you shouldn’t. It tells us interesting things about what Levi thinks he is up to in his book. The first phrase—“It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944” and the last sentence—“It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented”—offer good opportunities to think about tone and rhetoric (the irony of the opening, the preterition of the closing). More than that though I want students to think about Levi’s aims. As the final line suggests, Levi is at least in part motivated by the impulse to document. The things he will relate really happened. Levi was often asked whether the Holocaust could happen again. His response: it happened once, thus it can happen again.

But Levi isn’t only a documentarian. Yes, he wrote the book, he explains, not to accuse but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” Yet in the very next paragraph, Levi apologizes for “the structural defects of the book,” which date to his time in the camp, where the need not just to tell his story to others but to make them participate in it had already taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” On one hand, Survival is sober and reasoned (that quiet study of the mind: Levi refers to syllogisms and logic); on the other, it’s an emotional outpouring. This isn’t some kind of failure on Levi’s part; it’s typical of the fractured quality of so much Holocaust literature. These texts struggle with its very textuality. Every text has some kind of shape or form. But what happens when the subject matter of that form is destruction, terror, violence, in a word, formlessness? Each work of Holocaust literature answers this question in a different way, but, I tell my students, it’s one we’ll come back to again and again.

2. Author as character:

I’ll often start our second session, by which time students have read most of the book, by asking these questions: Who is Primo Levi? How does he present himself? What do we learn about him from his memoir?

He’s Italian. He’s Jewish. What does Jewishness mean to him? He doesn’t seem to be very Jewish. How can you tell? He’s not religious. (This is a useful place for a mini-lecture on Jewishness as both religion and culture: my students, almost none of whom are Jewish, often have many questions.) How does he end up at Auschwitz? That is, what brings on his deportation? He’s arrested. For what? For fighting as a partisan. (Mini-lecture on the partisans, and the situation in Italy before and during the war, especially 1943-44.) Right, he’s arrested as an anti-fascist. And when he is arrested, he prefers to admit, as he puts it, his “status of ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race,’” believing, wrongly as it turns out, that it would be more dangerous to confess to being a partisan. To me this suggests that he thinks of his Jewishness as a kind of bargaining chip: not that he doesn’t care about it, but that it isn’t central to his sense of self.

What else do we know? How old is he? 24. Why is that important? He tells us that he was neither too old nor too young—adducing as an example of the latter a teenage prisoner known simply as Null Achtzehn (Zero Eighteen, the last digits of his tattooed number). No one likes to work with Null Achtzehn because he has no sense of proportion. He doesn’t husband his strength. He works flat out until he collapses, invariably bringing trouble on whomever happens to be his partner that day. (Their job in this particular anecdote is moving “sleepers,” railway ties frozen into the Silesian mud.)

What about Levi’s background? Can we tell anything about who he’s been before deportation? I’ll often have us look at a passage where Levi mentions how, for days after his arrival at Auschwitz, he would reflexively look at his wrist, and find, instead of a watch, a tattoo. What does this anecdote suggest? Dehumanization, of course—his name has been taken away (along with his clothes, his hair, his belongings, his dignity), he has been entered into a vast bureaucracy. (Which requires us to complicate the consoling idea that the Nazis are monsters, irrational, barbarians, etc. They are efficient, methodical, all-too-human.) All true. But what else? What kind of person looks at their watch? (Tricky question, getting more abstruse every year, as watches fade from memory.) Students will offer hesitant replies. An anxious person? A punctual person? A detailed-oriented person? (Levi was all of these things.) How about, I say, a person who understands time in a certain way: a person who doesn’t work in the fields. Levi is bourgeois, a middle class professional. The Italian Jews—secular, assimilated—are known throughout the camp for being professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). What do other prisoners think of them? They laugh at them, think of them as useless, hopeless. Right. Levi notes they can’t do anything practical, they are not long for this world.

What is Levi’s own training? He is a scientist, a chemist. Why is that important? It saves his life: he is transferred to a work detail, a chemical unit, which gets slightly better rations and, just as importantly, works inside, out of the worst of the cold. Some students will suggest that we can see Levi’s scientific background in his style. I am always a little resistant to this idea, which always seems to me based on a crude idea of science, but they adduce his matter-of-factness, almost brusqueness, the absence of showy stylistic flourishes. I admit they have a point, especially when we think of how thoroughly Lei effaces himself in the text, and, more generally, how much he downplays agency, that is, willpower.

But I want us to get back to the matter of Levi’s style as a function of his background. Does Levi only know about science? Does he have other knowledge that appears in his writing? Those questions don’t always go anywhere right away. So I’ll point to the passage about the guard on the truck taking the “lucky” prisoners from the ramp to the labour camp at Monowitz: Levi calls him “our Charon.” We discuss who Charon is, and briefly consider the implied comparison of Auschwitz to the underworld. My point, though, is that this is a classical allusion, an example of Levi’s humanist education, which we will consider in detail when reading the Canto of Ulysses chapter. Levi is as much a humanist as a scientist. He is well-rounded, a real liberal arts guy. Levi is interested in everything pertaining to the human.

3. Levi’s style:

An exercise that always gets good results is to ask students to find a passage they consider representative of Levi’s style and to free write why. I’ll choose a few students to share their examples, selecting students who’ve been quiet so far. (This is usually in the second week of the semester.) I always have my own example in reserve. Depending on how much time we have, we sometimes work through it. (Sometimes students even select it: always a happy occasion.) Levi is describing the arrival of his transport at Auschwitz:

The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train. In a moment the platform was swarming with shadows. But we were afraid to break that silence: everyone busied himself with his luggage, searched for someone else, called to somebody, but timidly, in a whisper.

A dozen SS men stood around, legs akimbo, with an indifferent air. At a certain moment, they moved among us, and in a subdued tone of voice, with faces of stone, began to interrogate us rapidly, one by one, in bad Italian. They did not interrogate everybody, only a few: “How old? Healthy or ill?” And on the basis of that reply they pointed in two different directions. […]

In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group. What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working usefully for the Reich; we know that of our convoy no more than ninety-six men and twenty-nine women entered the respective camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau, and that of all the others, more than five hundred in number, not one was living two days later.

Here is Levi’s version of a scene central to so many Holocaust memoirs—the scene of arrival at the camp, with its sudden shift from limbo to hell. One of the most surprising things about Levi’s depiction is how calm, almost silent is a scene that other writers describe as a cacophonous tumult. After the opening crash of the transport doors and the barked orders, there is only silence. This is matched by the casualness, even indifference of the SS, their legs akimbo. There is no sadism here. And the scene is the more terrible for its absence. (Though Levi will certainly experience that later, not least in a famous scene when, tormented by thirst, he has tried to grab an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away. Why? he asks. The guard responds, chillingly: Here there is no why.)

The unexpected calmness is further conveyed by Levi’s unadorned, modest prose. In this passage (as elsewhere), he is chary with metaphor. The SS men have faces of stone, the night swallows up those sent to the gas chambers, but those are the only examples. The description in the first paragraph of the ramp swarming with shadows is probably literal, given the glare of the lights.

I suggest the scene is more report than narrative. Notice Levi’s pronouns. He doesn’t use I at all here, and quite seldom in the text, which is surprising since he’s writing a memoir. That effacement of the self by the group reflects Levi’s wish to consider the event in its larger significance. It’s not just about him. Sometimes students want to take is use of “we” as a gesture of solidarity, which is a fine thought, though neither here nor elsewhere is that a real possibility. Besides, the “we” doesn’t, in fact, just refer to the deportees. In the excerpt’s last sentence, it expands to refer maybe not to everyone but to all who have studied these events. And Levi makes it clear that each of us must take up the task.

Perhaps for this reason—his desire to record the truth about an experience the significance of which extends beyond himself—Levi often writes in the kind of judging, assessing, almost omniscient style we might find in Balzac, or, more pertinently, Manzoni. Look at the end of the first sentence: orders are uttered in “that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” The orders aren’t just barked; they are barked the way Germans bark them, expressing a thousand-year-old rage. (Maybe there is a buried reference to the thousand-year Reich here, too.)

What most concerns Levi in this passage is the speed with which human beings can be turned into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger, himself seduced by Nazism, called “standing reserve”: an inability to see anyone or anything in anything except for their use value. Levi and his fellows are so many kilojoules, units of work to be extracted before their bodies are discarded as useless husks.

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Arrival records from Auschwitz. Levi’s name is seventh from the top.

4. Kraus, or, Friendship in Auschwitz:

I often devote time to short chapter called “Kraus.” Unusually, Levi is at the center of the action. Kraus is one of the thousands of Hungarians who flood Auschwitz and its sub-camps in the summer of 1944. By now it is November and it is raining. The veterans, like Levi, who counts as one after having survived nine months, fear the onset of winter. Kraus, though, is still a newbie. Kraus can’t march in step and he risks bringing the Kapo’s ire on the rest of the work detail. For some reason, which he cannot or will not explain, Levi suddenly addresses the man in pidgin German. He tells Kraus he dreamt about him. In the dream, the war was over and Kraus visited Levi in Italy, bringing a warm loaf of bread with him. Levi puts him up for the night, introduces him to his family, they share good fellowship.

Then comes this:

What a good boy Kraus must have been as a civilian: he will not survive very long here, one can see it at the first glance, it is as logical as a theorem. … Poor silly Kraus. If only he knew that it is not true, that I have really dreamt nothing about him, that he is nothing to me except for a brief moment, nothing like everything is nothing down here, except the hunger inside and the cold and the rain around.

Why, I’ll ask the class, does Levi include this moment? He wants to show a full picture of himself, that he’s not just good. What, is he bad? Well, no, not bad. The situation is bad. So that’s what he wants to show? The whole book is about that. Why this moment? Discussion ensues. He’s mean to Kraus, someone will say. Yeah, the way all the veterans are mean to the new arrivals, retorts another. I don’t know if he’s mean, he’s trying to encourage Kraus. But he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a trick, cynical even. I’ll jump in: so is this like “bless your heart”? I always ask this question, because I can’t help playing to the gallery and it always gets a laugh. (I lived in the South for several years before I realized just how double-edged this expression is, which mostly means something like “What an idiot,” but can sometimes mean “Poor you.”) Then I’ll add: has Levi become like the prisoners he condemned in an earlier chapter, people who’ll use anyone in any way to aid their own survival? Depending on time, I’ll juxtapose this scene to Levi’s descriptions of two people who were really like friends, as much as possible in that place, anyway. Alberto was another Jewish deportee from northern Italy; Leonardo a civilian worker sent from Italy to support the war effort. As a non-Jew, he lived in a different kind of camp, had access to food parcels, and received a much greater ration. The two encountered each other by chance one day and realized they were both Piedmontese. For six months Leonardo left a pint of soup each day for Levi.

By comparing these descriptions of friendship to the example of Kraus we can think further about whether solidarity is a meaningful concept in the world of the camp. Since everything in the book goes back to the concept of the human, we can think about how solidarity might preserve humanity.

5 “The Story of the Last Ten Days”: The end of Survival in Auschwitz:

Why does the book end as it does? Why is the last chapter presented as a diary, unlike anything else in the book? (Even though it is clear that the diary is fake—that is, written retrospectively. Interestingly, Levi wrote this chapter first.) Why does it end so abruptly? The last entry concludes by stating the fate of two Frenchmen with whom Levi formed a trio dedicated to helping each other in the newly-liberated camp: “Arthur has reached his family happily and Charles has taken up his teacher’s profession again; we have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The students and I note that liberation is presented neither as a triumph nor an invitation to resume life. The abrupt ending suggests that something has ended, but nothing has yet replaced it. (Levi would write another book about the many months it took him to return home.) The only hint that humanity will be a part of whatever that new state turns out to be is the fact that Levi’s last lines reference communication and connection. The last chapter describes the stages by which the prisoners slowly inch towards becoming human again, the best evidence of which is their willingness to help each other.

As part of the process of reawakening, the dated “entries” reintroduce ordinary time to the text. Which is where the book begins: the first line is “I was captured by the Fascist Militia on 13 December 1943.” But that’s one of the last references to time. Survival in Auschwitz is organized thematically, not chronologically. This decision is a function of Levi’s interest in structure, in analysis, in the big picture. As we’ve already noted, he isn’t just telling his own story. But it is also a function of the way time changes in the camp. The days are all the same, only the weather is a little better or a little worse. The linearity we attach so much importance to in thinking about our lives is gone. There is no beginning, middle, and end. The final chapter, then, is important as a marker of change. Liberation returns Levi to time.

That’s hardly everything there is to say about this important book. But we return to Levi throughout the semester. He becomes our touchstone, not so much the arbiter of how to think about the camps, but the one most interested in documenting it as scrupulously as possible. Levi sometimes bridled at the term “witness.” In the book’s first reviews—basically uninterested: the book was not initially a success—Levi is often called a witness, a term explicitly contrasted to writer. As if Levi were merely transcribing, rather than also shaping experience. But Levi came more and more to embrace the term. As he wrote to Jean Samuel, immortalized in the book as the Pikolo in “The Canto of Ulysses,” who remained a close friend after the war: “Whether we like it or not, we are witnesses and we bear the weight of it.” Studying Survival in Auschwitz is one of the first ways my students learn what it might mean to bear that weight.

“Without Families You Don’t Get Stories”: Bart van Es’s The Cut Out Girl

In The Cut Out Girl (2018), the Dutch-born English academic Bart van Es investigates his family’s past. At its heart is Lien de Jong, who in August 1942 was given into the safekeeping of van Es’s grandparents by her desperate Jewish parents.

Van Es’s title refers to a paper silhouette that Lien pastes into an album that surprisingly survived the war. Such albums were common in Holland (the famous diary Anne Frank received for her 12th birthday, less than two months before Lien joined her new family, was probably an album of this sort). Friends, family, and neighbours would fill the pages with well-wishes, typically phrased as achingly sententious poetry.

But the title also refers to Lien herself, who is sliced away from life as she has known it—and then, many years later, cut out again, this time by her adopted family. Van Es’s detective work is prompted by the confusion and resentment, the whole no-go zone that surrounds Lien’s place in his family. Is Lien his aunt or not? What happened between her and his grandmother? Most families suffer from blights of this kind: some fight or hurt the causes of which no one is even sure any more but the effects of which persist through the generations. In this case, though, that ordinary event is complicated by war, displacement, and trauma.

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In their first meeting, Lien tells van Es, “Without families you don’t get stories.” For Lien, stories are important because they ensure continuity. They let you make sense of yourself by connecting you to those around you. Van Es would agree, but for him the act of telling is as important as the substance of what’s told. After all, the word Lien uses is stories not story: stories compete with but also complete each other. The plural implies richness, motivation, complexity.

Midway through his researches, van Es is shown a book called Bennekom: Jewish Refuge, detailing the fates of the 166 Jews who were hidden in the town, more than 80% of whom survived. (This is particularly remarkable, since the death rate for Jews in Holland was the exact opposite of Bennekom’s—80% were murdered, higher than anywhere else in Western Europe.) With trembling fingers, van Es finds the entry for Lien:

At Algemeer 33 with Gijs van Laar there was a Jewish girl, Lientje [a diminutive of Lien], in hiding. Lientje belonged to the family and was a total part of it. She attended the Reformed School. She survived the war.

The Cut Out Girl is an attempt to replace this brusque—and, we learn, misleading—narrative with a fuller picture; to take this quasi-official story and to show what it doesn’t or cannot tell; to expose what is self-serving or misguided in it. For van Es also recognizes that stories can blind us. They can confer a false sense of mastery. Which is why he aims to be as self-aware as possible in reconstructing Lien’s story.

That story begins in 1933 in The Hague, when Lien is born to Charles de Jong and Catharine de Jong-Spiero. In the handful of surviving photos, Lien’s parents are attractive, sporty, carefree. That can’t have been the whole story: there was some sort of trouble between her parents when Lien was very small, and she was sent to live with relatives for a year. But her parents reconcile, and Lien grows up an ordinary child living an ordinary life, even after Germany invades Holland in May 1940. But by the next year life is more difficult for Dutch Jews, even ones like the de Jongs who do not identify as such. By 1942, deportation notices are widespread. Lien’s parents look for a way to send her into hiding; in August they entrust her to a resistance organization headed by a couple named Heroma (who seem absolutely heroic and deserve a book of their own). Mrs. Heroma brings Lien to the van Es home in Dordrecht, and later ferries her to the many safe houses she passes through.

Despite some initial difficulties—Lien has always been a finicky eater and her new family has no patience for that sort of thing; she has never slept in a room with other people; her upbringing has been more sheltered and more emotional than the world she now enters—Lien fits in well with the family, who have children close to her age. At first she calls Jans and Henk van Es Auntie and Uncle; later it will be Ma and Pa. Van Es includes heartbreaking letters smuggled from Lien’s parents to their daughter congratulating her on her ninth birthday. By the time she receives them, both have been deported to Auschwitz. Neither survive.

Lien does, though it is a near thing. One day in early 1943 two policemen arrive at the house, looking for Jews. (Holland was the only country to offer cash rewards to those who turned in Jews.) Lien narrowly escapes: Auntie sends her to a neighbour where she cowers in the unused sitting room). Thus begins the most difficult phase of her time in hiding. She is moved from one safe house to another, often staying only a day or two in any one place. Eventually, she is placed with a family in Bennekom. The van Laars are pious and self-righteous. Yes, they have taken a risk by accepting Lien into their home, but they also treat her as a servant. Lien spends the rest of the war with the van Laars. By this time, events have taken a toll on her. She loses a clear sense of who she is: her life was on low heat, she tells van Es. She lived in a dreamworld, she sometimes felt herself flying over her surroundings. She regresses, wetting her bed, losing weight. She becomes numb, disassociated, feelings that only intensify when Gijs van Laar’s charismatic but violent brother, a man she has also learned to call Uncle, sexually abuses her. The van Laars turn a blind eye—it is understood that Lien and her Uncle have a special friendship. What this means is that the man takes her into the forest and rapes her.

Lien is desperate to escape. When the war ends, Mrs. Heroma asks her what she wants to do. She wants only to return to the van Esses. At first they refuse. It is a great blow. In the time Lien has been away they have had another child; Henk is increasingly involved in socialist politics and the postwar reconstruction effort; bringing Lien back into the house would just be too much. But Mrs. Heroma senses it is a matter of life and death, and eventually the family relents.

A happy ending? Not quite. Lien is happy, she becomes one of the family again, even more so than before. But she never fully fits in. There’s an unhappy incident when the van Esses basically browbeat her into not applying for the gymnasium, the academic high school: the practical school was always good enough for them. But Lien finds her way. She trains to be a social worker, specializing in troubled children. Unsurprisingly, she is perfectly suited to the work. One day, in 1953, she is at home for a few days from school and falls ill. Dozing on the sofa, she is awakened by Pa kissing and stroking her. It is yet another terrible hurt, but, amazingly, this incident, which Lien keeps to herself, doesn’t separate her from the van Esses. That happens later, around 1980, after Lien has married and had children and gotten divorced. The ostensible reason for the falling out is banal, but presumably it’s just a stand-in for the sense both Lien and Ma have long felt that she never quite fit with them. Ma writes Lien an icy letter: she doesn’t want to see her again. Lien becomes part of murky family lore: thirty years pass until Bart van Es reaches out to her.

*

I certainly enjoyed The Cut Out Girl, reading it in a single day, drawn into the mystery van Es sets out to solve. But I wasn’t only reading for the plot. I had another agenda, another question in mind. Would I teach this book? On the face of it, The Cut Out Girl fits perfectly with the concerns of a course I teach called Literature after Auschwitz, which explores “postmemory,” Marianne Hirsch’s influential term for the experience of those who did not live through the Holocaust but whose lives have nonetheless been strongly shaped, often disfigured, by what those close to them (usually their parents) did experience.

Van Es’s memoir would usefully add a third-generation perspective to the class, plus one that isn’t Jewish. My interest in it as a teaching tool lies elsewhere, though. Ever since Helen Epstein first wrote about the children of survivors in the 1970s, the language of generations has dominated scholarship on the after-effects of trauma. Last year I was at a conference where Erin McGlothlin suggested that we retire or at least question this language, which she finds unnecessarily biologizing, as if there were a genetic component to trauma. Recent neurological research suggests this might in fact be true, but we should consider the relationship between these findings and the racism and biological essentialism of fascism. And what do we lose if we emphasize neuroscience? What happens to history, personal or otherwise, if we think about generations in a primarily genetic sense? What would be narrative’s place in understanding trauma? What would happen to Lien’s stories?

The Cut Out Girl adds to this conversation by advocating a non-biological sense of family. Movingly, at the end of the book Lien introduces van Es to her friends as her nephew, the man who is going to tell her story. (Too bad van Es dilutes this moment by adding an epilogue, though it’s lovely to read that in her 80s Lien has formed a relationship with a man she knew briefly as a child.) I think the book’s expansive, generous definition of family (or at least its willingness to challenge the dominance of biology in our thinking of family) will interest students.

As will its unflinching portrayal of sexual abuse during wartime, which emphasizes how easily victims can be re-victimized. This aspect of the book is so relevant to our own time, as we finally begin to acknowledge the scope of abuse and assault in society writ large. Van Es’s frankness fits with a sea change in Holocaust studies: in the past many Holocaust stories would have passed over such material in silence, though we are learning how common such experiences were. (I could usefully contextualize this material by assigning an Ida Fink story and brief selections from Molly Appelbaum’s diary that also depict the sexual abuse of Holocaust victims.)

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As you can see, then, there is a lot to like from both a readerly and a pedagogic perspective about The Cut Up Girl. Yet I also have reservations, particularly about its style and structure. I found it pedestrian at the level of the sentence, and I’m always nervous about teaching texts that I don’t think are especially amenable to close reading. (I’ve barely quoted from the book, because it’s the content much more than the expression that’s interesting.) In terms of structure, van Es does a few things well. At times, he doubles back when narrating Lien’s experiences, explaining that she has no memory of the events he’s just told. He’s forthright about how he put the story together, how he supplemented Lien’s telling with other sources, where he is speculating, etc. His telling is self-aware, which is an essential component of Holocaust literature. (But why oh why must he write in the present tense? I hate that it’s become the default narrative mode.)

But van Es’s own story is not very interesting. Of course, it’s never going to match Lien’s, nor should it. But his exercise routine, his trips to the archives, his nights clubbing with his cousin, they are all so prosaic. The point of including his own story, I think, is to assert how easily familiar terrain can become unfamiliar. How could this village have been filled with hidden people? How could this pleasantly anodyne fitness center have been the home of a family dispersed and destroyed? Sudden revelations—where what you think you know vertiginously reveals a hidden face—are as much a part of family history as of geography.

But for this conceit to really work the book would need more of van Es’s past. We would need to know more about his childhood memories, more about his own (much more modest) dislocation, between England and Holland, more about what being Dutch means to him. And we would definitely need to know more about his relationship with his stepdaughter Josie, which has been fraught in ways that, he hints, resonate compellingly with Lien’s experiences. (Not the abuse part; the having a hard time accepting someone who is thrown into your life part.) I totally get why he won’t tell us more, but it’s frustrating to be asked to imagine these connections.

But if in talking about himself van Es is too elliptical, in telling Lien’s story he uses indirection to good effect. He ably delays the big reveal (what happened between Lien and Ma?) And, more interestingly, when the answer turns out to be pretty underwhelming, he is smart about the significance of what it means that we feel let down. In other words, he has a lot to say about our desire to explain and understand. On the one hand, order is central to self-understanding. As Lien says, once she understood her own experiences as part of a pattern (a sentiment she thinks of in Buddhist terms) she was able to live more fully and freely. But on the other, we can value order too much. Patterns can become templates, sense can become cliché. The villains in The Cut Out Girl—aside from the obvious ones of the Nazis, who, true to the experience of most of their victims, barely figure in the story, or the Dutch collaborators (and there are quite a lot of these)—are those, like Mother van Laar and even Ma, who live with unshakeable conviction about how the world works. Rigidity can be a way to handle the troubles the world throws at you, not least when you’re risking your life to hide someone in your home, but it can also cause further trouble. (This paradox is similar to the one van Es proposes when he considers the Dutch tradition of tolerance, which has involved staying out of other people’s business, leading to the creation of a siloed society comprised of “pillars” (Protestants, Catholics, liberals, etc.) that seldom overlap. Could that very separateness, he asks, have been what allowed the Germans to act as they did in Holland?)

In this regard van Es’s use of the poems from Lien’s album is interesting. At first I wondered why he felt the need to include so many of them. They’re objectively terrible. Here’s one:

Roses big and roses small

Soft as velvet on a wall

But the softest petal part

Is the rose of Lietje’s heart.

But the contrast between the sentiments they express—the things Lien’s loved ones wish for her: health, happiness, success, long life—and the reality of her experience is important, and not just because of their ironic juxtaposition. Instead van Es explores an analogy: conventional form is to idealized (that is, false) sentiments as unconventional form is to accurate experience. The clunky poetry of the well wishes is so kitschy because it can’t express actual experience. To do so, especially in a time of war and disruption, would require a more unconventional way of telling.

In the end, I’m unconvinced van Es has found such a form. His book is nothing like those poems, but neither is it like the daring comparison of the story of a family and the story of a people that structures Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million or the elegant prose of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes, to name two books doing similar work to The Cut Out Girl. In the end, van Es’s book reminds me a bit of the doggerel that Lien’s friend Lily, who copied the lines I cited above, added at the bottom of the page: “I lay in bed and mucked about / so mum got cross and started to shout.” A lot better than the canned poem, and an engaging and daring act of non-conformism in a conformist society, but not exactly great art.

Still and all, I think I’ve talked myself into assigning the book. Do you agree? A couple of years ago I did something similar with Sara Kofman’s memoir of her time as a hidden child in Paris, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat. And Kofman has been a staple of the class for years. Students love it. Indeed, I might describe it as the book Lien might have written. That is, it is totally fractured, cryptic, and fragmented. It’s like an expression of trauma, whereas van Es’s book is a consideration of trauma, if that makes sense. The latter is less striking, but also, perhaps, more necessary. Certainly more healthy.

 

Rohan’s post on The Cut Out Girl is well worth reading. She liked it more than I did, but in general we agree about its merits. She also mentions an important sub-plot, as it were, when van Es visits the street where Lien first lived in Dordrecht, which has now become public housing inhabited mostly by Muslim immigrants. A man gets upset at him for taking pictures—van Es agrees that coming to look and not to tell is a problem. Which leads me to wonder: when does a story end? What would happen if we juxtaposed that man’s story with Lien’s?

 

 

Primo Levi: A Centenary Celebration

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi was born 100 years ago in Turin, Italy. He spent his entire life there, except for the months he spent imprisoned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Buna-Monowitz, and the year it took him to make his way home. Although Levi’s actual birthday is not until next month (he lived from July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987), I’ve decided to spend much of June reading and writing about him.

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Levi is a writer close to my heart. It would not be wrong to say that I am in love with him. Which is of course a preposterous thing to say. But from the time I first read Levi, in my second year at university, I was smitten with his secular humanism. I admired the way he bridged the so-called “two cultures” (not an idea, I suspect, he would have had much time for). And mostly I sensed that he was a decent, kind person—a mensch of the first order. Of course, I gleaned that sense from his autobiographical writings, and, like all memoirists, the persona Levi offers us in writing is related to but not the same as his actual person. I have long had Ian Thomson’s biography on my shelves, and this seems the perfect time to read that alongside Levi’s own works.

(Thomson is a great writer, and I’m really looking forward to his book, but I know there are at least two other biographies in English, one by Carole Angier and one by Berel Lang. I won’t have time to read them, but if anyone has read one or both, I’d like to know what you think. I’m dimly aware that Thomson and Angier come to different conclusions about Levi, particularly, I believe, about his mysterious death.)

When I speak to groups about the Holocaust, I am often asked what books I would most recommend for people who want to learn more. It’s a question to which there are so many possible, equally worthy answers. There are so many urgent Holocaust books. But I always list Survival in Auschwitz (as it is frustratingly titled in the US: a much better, and more accurate title would be If This is a Man) first. For me, it is one of the most indispensable books of the twentieth century.

Here’s what I have in mind at the moment for my centenary celebrations:

  • A post on Survival in Auschwitz, specifically how I teach it. [Note: this turned into two long posts: here and here.]
  • A post on his genre-defying The Periodic Table, which I read 25 years ago and look forward to revisiting. [Note: Didn’t do this, but my friend Nat did–he’s thoughtful as always.]
  • A post on If Not Now, When?, a novel in which Levi takes on the Eastern Jewish experience that wasn’t his own (it’s about a band of partisans making their way from Russia to Palestine, perhaps loosely based on the Bielski partisans).
  • A post on some of Levi’s non-Jewish writing: I’m thinking Other People’s Trades and some of the stories
  • A post on some of the things I learned from Thomson’s biography

That’s an ambitious schedule, and who knows how much of it I’ll get to. In the meantime, you could check out a couple of things I’ve already written on Levi. Here at the blog I wrote about how I always begin my introductory Holocaust Lit course with a close reading of a passage from the second of Levi’s memoirs, The Reawakening. And a couple of years ago I reviewed an interesting new book about Levi’s time as a partisan in the Italian Alps in 1943. (It was for this resistance work, rather than his being Jewish, that Levi was first arrested.)

I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to join me in reading Levi—no need to match my choices, especially since I’m not even sure I know what they’ll be yet. And if you feel compelled to write about your responses to those works, I’ll gladly post your thoughts on the blog.

Reminder! Lucky Per Readalong

Tomorrow is US pub day for the Everyman Library edition of Henrik Pontoppian’s Lucky Per (1904) in Naomi Lebowitz’s translation.

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A while ago I wrote about why I want to read it, and how much I hope others will join me. At the time, lots of you said yes. Here’s hoping you’re still interested! Whether you’re drawn to canal building, Jews, the influence of Thomas Mann on Danish literature, or the sheer delight of saying (and typing) “Pontoppian,” I encourage you to read and share your thoughts.

As a reminder, here’s what the publisher has to say about it:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

Given the exigencies of the end of the semester, I’ll have to wait until next month to encounter Per.

So the plan is to read and write about Lucky Per anytime in May. Do join in. Write one post or several. As short or as long as you like. I’ll gladly run guest posts from anyone who doesn’t have a blog. Or you can make your contributions in the comments.

Let’s use the hashtag #LuckyPer2019 for Twitter conversations. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to make one of those emblem things participants can add to their posts.

Beyond Night: A Holocaust Remembrance Reading List

January 27th is International Holocaust Remembrance Day; it was on that date in 1945 that Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A powerful way to commemorate the Holocaust is to read its literature: the letters, diaries, memoirs, essays, poems, and fiction created during the events and since. A handful of these texts are well-known: Anne Frank’s Diary, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi’s memoirs Night and Survival in Auschwitz, Art Spiegelman’s comic Maus. These are rightly famous, and well worth reading (even if Night drives me crazy).

But what if you’ve read them and are looking for more?

Here are 15 less-familiar titles that will deepen your understanding of the Holocaust:

David Albahari, Götz and Meyer (1998) Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac (2004)

In this novel, a teacher in Belgrade traces the fate of his relatives, uncovering the circumstances of their deaths in a gas van driven by the SS officers of the title. A novel about the limits of history and the possibilities and perils of the imagination.

Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (2017)

Why read this out of the many fascinating and heartbreaking Holocaust diaries? For one thing, the story is extraordinary: together with a cousin, Applebaum took refuge on a farm near Tarnapol, Poland. For much of their time in hiding, the two young women were buried in a wooden box, about the size of a wardrobe, able to come out only for an hour or two each night. More vexingly still, both women had sex with their protector, events described obliquely yet excitedly by Applebaum, yet which can’t help but lead us to ask questions about consent and abuse. Another quality that distinguishes this diary is that it’s paired with a memoir written much later, in which Applebaum describes her new life in Canada and reflects on her wartime experiences, yet in ways that seem at odds with the way she told them in the diary.

Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (1986) Translated by Patrick Greaney and Vincent Kling (2010)

Conceptual poetry, writes the scholar Leslie Morris, “seeks to create texts that disavow the very act of creation.” Bäcker’s poems are taken from official documents and eyewitness testimony. Here’s one, taken from a postwar record of criminal proceedings:

whereas he had to prepare breakfast each morning for about 300 prisoners in camp III, he had to provide a midday meal for only about 150.

Jurek Becker, Jacob the Liar (1969) Translated by Leila Vennewitz (1990)

Maybe the most brilliant ghetto novel, written by one who survived the Lodz ghetto and two concentration camps. At the beginning of the novel, Jacob happens to overhear a bulletin on German radio describing a Russian advance. Having let slip the news, Jacob, who is too frightened to explain how he came by this knowledge, pretends that he has a radio (strictly forbidden in the ghetto) and invents the news. Amazingly, the book is funny, as well as very, very sad. Jacob’s inventions are an allegory for our own desires as readers of traumatic events.

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (written 1946-48) Translated by Barbara Vedder (1967)

Dark. So dark. These stories are more or less loosely based on Borowski’s own experiences as a non-Jewish political prisoner at Auschwitz and Dachau, most famously about his time as a member of the “Canada Kommando,” the prisoners tasked with separating the new arrivals from their belongings. Desperate.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Translated by Samuel E. Martin (2017)

The bark of the title comes from a birch tree at Birkenau, peeled off by Didi-Huberman on a recent visit. These same trees can be seen in the four famous photographs taken (at great risk and with daring subterfuge) by a member of the Sonderkommando (the “special squad”—the name given by the Nazis to the groups of Jews they selected to take the bodies from the gas chambers to the crematoria) in the summer of 1944; these comprise the only images of the Holocaust taken by its victims. In this little book, Didi-Huberman intersperses his own amateur photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site with essayistic meditations on the paradoxes of commemorating mass murder.

Ida Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories (1983) Translated by Madeline Levine and Francine Prose (1987)

Ah, these stories! I’m in awe of how much Fink packs into just a few pages. Plus, she turns each text into a meditation on the stakes of representing and interpreting traumatic events. You would think the allegories of reading would get in the way of the emotional power of the stories. But no, Fink’s genius is to combine self-awareness with heart. Maybe the greatest Holocaust writer.

Imre Kertész, Fatelessness (1975) Translated by Tim Wilkinson (2004)

The most difficult but also the most brilliant Holocaust novel I know. Fourteen-year-old György is deported from Budapest in the summer of 1944 to a series of camps and (barely) lives to tell the tale. He tells his story in a fussy, roundabout style that is more amazed than horrified. What makes the book so challenging is that Kertész never allows his narrator the benefit of hindsight. Which allows us to experience the events of the Final Solution as its victims would have: as bewildering, boring, even at times exciting. An amazing accomplishment.

Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)

Kluger’s bitter insights spare no one: she’s as scathing about the Vienna of her childhood as of the Jim Crow America she arrived in shortly after the war. And her portrait of her relationship with her mother—together, the two women survived Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen—is similarly unflinching. The memoir is highly self-reflexive; no surprise, perhaps, for Kluger, who re-wrote the book in English after writing a version of it in German, became a professor of literature.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)

Enigmatic and fragmentary memoir by an eminent philosopher of Nietzsche and Freud about her experiences as a hidden child in Paris after her beloved father, a rabbi, is deported. The heart of the story is the triangular relationship between Kofman, her mother, and the loving yet anti-Semitic woman who took them in. I blogged about it here.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947) Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (1991)

Brilliant memoir in which Millu tells heartbreaking stories of life in the women’s Lager in Birkenau. Here we find stories of pregnancy, prostitution, maternal love, self-sacrifice, sabotage, and gossip, told in unshowy, elegant prose. I’ve no idea why this book isn’t much more famous.

Jona Oberski. Childhood (1978) Translated by Ralph Mannheim (1983)

Spare, memorable novel based on Oberski’s own experience: born in 1938 in Amsterdam to German Jewish refugees, then deported first to the Westerbork transit camp and then Bergen-Belsen, where he was orphaned and cared for by a family friend. Much of its power comes from the point of view—we see what the child sees, we know what the child knows, leaving us often in the dark. I wrote about the effects of its style when the book was reissued a few years ago.

Göran Rosenberg, A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012) Translated by Sarah Death (2015)

Rosenberg, a Swedish journalist, uncovers his parents’ story: how they respectively survived the war and built a life in Sweden after being miraculously reunited. As the title suggests, though, that life, although successful in many ways, was always lived in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rosenberg, as I wrote here, excels at depicting the scope of the concentration camp system, and the similarity between it and the Displaced Persons camps that replaced it.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter (2017)

Proving that great books about the Holocaust can still be written, Seiffert’s novel has several things going for it: its discrete, matter-of-fact style, which is nonetheless beautiful, even at times incantatory; its focus on an underexamined (at least in the English-speaking world) facet of the Shoah, the depredations of the Einsatzgruppen in the Ukraine in 1941/42; and its braiding together of stories of victims, perpetrators, and so-called bystanders.

Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, revised 1984)

A recent discovery for me: an absorbing account of Tec’s wartime experiences, in which she lived with a Polish family and passed as a Gentile.

Do you have favourite Holocaust texts? Particular omissions you want to rectify? Let me know! And take a moment to thank the translators of these books; the Holocaust was a multilingual phenomenon: we need translators to understand its true dimensions.

Lucky Per (May 2019 Readalong)

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The only thing I do more than read–and honestly I do it much more–is to trawl the internet looking for new books to read. This is insane, because I have hundreds of unread books. And more are coming into and through the house all the time. My problem, I’ve recently learned, is that I am a time fantasist. I have a poor sense of how long things will take or what I can reasonably accomplish. (My wife, by contrast, is a space fantasist: for example, she thinks there’s always room for everything in the house, her car, etc. Luckily, she is a time realist and I am a space realist. Of such balances are happy marriages made.)

Anyway, one way I’ve found to commit to a reading project is to invite others to join me, so that I’m accountable to them. The strategy doesn’t always work: I’ve flaked out on plenty of group readings. But sometimes it does.

All of which is to say that I recently learned that Everyman’s Library will be publishing what I think might be the first English translation of Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per. Published in installments between 1898 — 1904 (which seems a long time; there must be a story there), the novel was lauded by the likes of Thomas Mann and Ernst Bloch. Naomi Lebowitz has brought it to English; I gather a film version was recently made, though I’ve no idea if it was released in the US/UK.

Here’s what the publisher has to say:

Lucky Per is a bildungsroman about the ambitious son of a clergyman who rejects his faith and flees his restricted life in the Danish countryside for the capital city. Per is a gifted young man who arrives in Copenhagen believing that “you had to hunt down luck as if it were a wild creature, a crooked-fanged beast . . . and capture and bind it.” Per’s love interest, a Jewish heiress, is both the strongest character in the book and one of the greatest Jewish heroines of European literature. Per becomes obsessed with a grand engineering scheme that he believes will reshape both Denmark’s landscape and its minor place in the world; eventually, both his personal and his career ambitions come to grief. At its heart, the story revolves around the question of the relationship of “luck” to “happiness” (the Danish word in the title can have both meanings), a relationship Per comes to see differently by the end of his life.

I’m always intrigued by what the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari called “minor literature,” whether that be literature from less well-known languages or languages written by minorities within a well-known language (their example is Kafka’s German, inflected by Yiddish and written in a predominantly Czech-speaking city). And the idea of a doorstop always appeals to me (it’s almost 700 pages). But mostly I am curious about the (lamentably unnamed) love interest, the Jewish heiress. I’m especially curious to compare Pontoppidan’s portrayal of Jewishness to George Eliot’s in Daniel Deronda, which I read about ten years ago.

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Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to join in! If you have experience with and knowledge of 19th century literature, Danish culture, Jewishness, novels of development, or either luck or happiness, so much the better. But no worries if you don’t!

The book comes out in April; I plan to read it once my semester ends in early May, with a view to discussing it in late May. So check your calendar. Are you game? Are you free? Can you help me a time realist here? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

On Holocaust Diaries

I gave this paper as a talk the other day at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The next day I taught three hour-long sessions using passages from three of the diaries I reference in the talk  to middle- and high-school students and their teachers. Both events were part of the 27th annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. My thanks go to the conference organizer and Chair of the Arkansas Holocaust Education Committee, Grace Donoho, and, especially, Dr. Jennifer Hoyer of the German Department and Chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Fayetteville.

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I want to focus today on our fascination with Holocaust diaries, and I want to suggest that the reasons they typically fascinate us are not actually the reasons why they are so important.

We tend to privilege diaries, and especially Holocaust diaries, for their seemingly immediate access to experience. We are getting events as they happened and so are placed directly in the midst of a historical event to which we might otherwise not have access. So the thinking goes, anyway. Holocaust diaries can be considered Exhibit A in the category of testimonial literature that Elie Wiesel, writing in the late 1970s, deemed the genre of his generation, and that critics writing in the wake of Wiesel have described as the kind of writing most commensurate to the traumas of the 20th century.

In this context, let’s consider the following statement by survivor Primo Levi, who incidentally did not write a diary [other than the “retrospective” diary at the end of Survival in Auschwitz]:

We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. … We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are… the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception.

Survivors, he adds, “speak in their stead, by proxy.”

The Final Solution was designed to be just that—final; there weren’t supposed to be any survivors. Survivors can thus be considered as a kind of noise or static, or, to change the metaphor, as the flaw that inheres in any system or machine. Exceptional, and interesting as such, but hardly representative. And because it is the case that many diarists did not survive the war—to use Levi’s language, those who did are the exception rather than the rule—these writers could be said to be what he calls “the complete witnesses” and therefore to offer us something even more valuable than survivor memoirs. But what interests me about Levi’s claim extends beyond the distinction between who lived and who died. To my mind, what Levi is really pointing to is something more fundamental about the very nature of experience, namely, that there is an inescapable surrogacy at the heart of experience.

I’m arguing, on the basis of reading Holocaust diaries, that all experience is characterized by indirection, by proxy-ness. To rephrase this in terms given to us by literary criticism, there is always a distinction between the “I” that narrates and the “I” that experiences.

Here, for example, is Hélène Berr, a 20-year-old student of literature at the Sorbonne, writing on June 24, 1942 about the traumatic events of the previous day, when her father, a prominent industrialist, had been arrested:

The first time I awoke and saw the morning light through the blinds, it occurred to me that this morning Papa would not have his usual breakfast, that he would not be coming to the breakfast table to get his toast and pour his cup of coffee. The thought was immensely painful.

That was only my first awakening, and gradually (I often drifted back to sleep) other thoughts came to me, making me realize what had happened. I am still waiting for the sound of keys jangling in his pocket, of him opening the shutters in his bedroom; I am still waiting for them [her parents] to get up, because he’s the one who turns on the gas. At those moments I can grasp it. At this moment of writing, I am not managing very well.

In her description of how she feels when expecting her father, she can grasp the fact of his arrest—via absence, via what’s not happening, and who isn’t there—but in the actual act of writing, she cannot grasp the situation at all. In other words, what the narrating I grasps is that it cannot really grasp what has happened to it.

Later, on October 10, 1943, taking up her diary after a year-long hiatus, Berr describes this split even more clearly:

Then there is the considerable repugnance I feel at thinking of myself as “someone who writes”, because for me, perhaps mistakenly, writing implies a split personality, probably a loss of spontaneity and abdication. [Not mistakenly!]

The split between narrating I and experiencing I allows us to see that even the testimony of direct witnesses to the Holocaust is indirect. The record of experience is at a remove from experience itself. That doesn’t mean these records are fictional or biased or untrustworthy. But it does mean that no one, not even the person doing the experiencing, has unmediated access to direct experience.

[Riff on James Young: the things diarists say are said from within the frame of their world-view: contrast Frank with Flinker—I absolutely agree but my point is more about experience itself.]

Moreover, even the very diaries themselves, irrespective of what is in them, are themselves examples of mediation, documents that stand in for the life of the person who wrote them, a person that is often no longer present, even alive once we are reading their entries.

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Published Holocaust diaries usually begin with an introduction explaining how the diary came down to us. Some of these stories are almost as well-known as the diaries themselves.

For example, many people know that Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary, searched through the secret annex after the Gestapo raided it and retrieved Anne’s diary, which she kept in case any of the family returned from deportation.

Anne Frank had no way of knowing her writing would be preserved. Others were more deliberate about attempting to enact that preservation. Often, they relied on non-Jewish friends to keep their pages safe. Hélène Berr passed hers on to the family cook with instructions that she get them to Berr’s lover, who was fighting with the Free French. Victor Klemperer similarly gave his to a sympathetic friend.

Other stories are more haphazard, even dramatic. Dawid Serakowiak’s notebooks were found stacked on a stove, ready to be burned, when the Lodz ghetto was liberated. And consider the case of the diaries of Petr Ginz—a Czech teenager who wrote and illustrated adventure stories in the mode of Jules Verne, and whose entries are usually laconic descriptions of which of his friends are no longer at school, but who also wrote a heartbreakingly detailed description of the day he received his deportation notice, a description that focused on the delicate task of disassembling typewriters to clean their keys (this was his after-school job) (it’s a remarkable example of disassociation or of preserving one’s dignity, depending on how you look at it). Ginz’s diaries resurfaced when a man remembered some papers and drawings he had inexplicably kept after he bought an old house in Prague. He was reminded of the documents because of a news story about the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. Among the crew was an Israeli astronaut who had taken with him a drawing of the moon by a teenager deported from Prague to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz—the same Petr Ginz.

There’s something avid in the way these stories are described by editors and readers alike. (I confess I share this sentiment.) I think that hunger, that fascination is worth thinking about, because it allows us to consider more fully the relationship between the diarist and the diary.

Diaries often seem to be direct replacements for the writers themselves. Perhaps even to be more important than the writer.

Think of Anne Frank naming her diary Kitty—turning it into an other, and, even more importantly, into an authority that legitimates her writing by being not only confidante but also judge.

Think of Chaim Kaplan, writing on August 2, 1942, amidst liquidation of Warsaw ghetto, in the last line of his last entry: “If my life ends—what will become of my diary?”

Think of Hélène Berr, writing in October 1943: “It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée [the family’s cook] will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore.”

Think of Molly Appelbaum, writing from near Tarnów, Poland, on March 1, 1942: “I look at each written page [of my diary] with respect. Why, these are the pages of my existence, my life.” (Even though her emphasis is on herself, the proof of the value of that life lies only in the diary.)

Think too of Artie Spiegelman, in the autobiographical comic Maus, listening to his father tell him about his separation from his wife, Artie’s mother, upon their arrival at Aushwitz-Biurkenau after months in hiding. Artie exclaims, “This is where Mom’s diaries will come in especially useful. They’ll give me some idea of what she went through when you were apart.” (But he finds out his father burned them, at which point he bursts out, accusingly, “God damn you, you murderer!”, as if the diary was in fact a person.) (It might be worth noting that these dairies were themselves reconstructions: they were lost in the war and she re-wrote them once settled in America.)

These are all instances in which the person seems subordinate to the diary.

Holocaust diarists are often convinced—usually rightly—that they will not survive. (The last line of Sierakowiak’s diary” “There is really no way out for this for us.”) But they want their diaries to survive. We might say that the narrating I triumphs over the experiencing I.

What does that mean, then, about the status of diaries as witnesses if the experience contained within them is never as direct as we assume?  Have we fetishized diaries at the expense of the actual lives involved?

The diarists themselves offer a response:

Klemperer famously writes, on May 27, 1942, “I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!”

Berr says something similar on October 10, 1943: “I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill.”

And Samuel Golfard, in hiding in Eastern Galicia, begins his diary on January 23, 1943:

I am not composing these words for myself. They are intended for those who will survive and who might quickly forget what they had lived through not so long ago. Let these words refresh in their memory the moments of horror, the bloody scenes that took place before their eyes, the black night of savagery.

These statements are directed outwards, beyond the self. There’s even a sense that the writers don’t want to keep writing any more, or do so only at great cost or against all odds. Berr says as much: “I’m not even keeping this diary anymore, I’ve no willpower left, I’m just putting down the salient facts so as to remember them” (September 10, 1942). Sierakowiak doesn’t say it in so many words, but the terseness of his entries, coupled with his laments over his weakening concentration, failing health, and ebbing vitality, indirectly indicate to us how much the writing takes out of him.

On this way of thinking, the diary is an instrument, a tool of survival. Moreover, it is the often the only means of survival, and the only way it survives is by becoming separated and distanced from its writer. It is the very distinction between the writer’s experience and the diaries’ representation (their being a form of representation) that allows us to have access to these historical events at all.

Diaries, then, substitute for people who aren’t there any longer. [Even prey upon them? Cf Berr: I’m not even writing this diary anymore, but I have to.]

This is a melancholy, even dismal state of affairs. And inasmuch as we replace the reality of loss, suffering, and death—starvation, terror, dehumanization, typhus, tuberculosis, all the terrible traumas suffered by Frank and Berr and Sierakowiak and Klemperer, to name only a few—with the survival of the diaries themselves then it’s worse than that. To do so is to emphasize triumph where there is in reality only loss, a loss we’re literally papering over by fetishizing the miracle that the documents have come to us at all.

But this doesn’t have to be the only way to think about diaries as proxies for their authors. We can take the distance between diary and diarist not as a replacement of the latter by the former, but as a tribute the former pays to the latter.

Because if it weren’t for the mediated-ness of representation we wouldn’t have witnessing at all. The distance between person and diary is necessary. Sometimes that distance is physical (the two get separated: think of Frank’s pages scattered on the floor of the secret annex; think of Sierakowiak’s stacked on the stove, that narrow escape from the funeral pyre) but it is always structural (as I’ve been arguing, it’s constitutive of the form).

The separation of the diary from the diarist—sometimes a contingent fact of the vicissitudes of history but always an inescapable fact that is constitutive of the very act of writing—does two things at the same time: it keeps us from accessing direct experience but that very separation allows us to have any access to experience at all.

For Elie Wiesel, the legitimacy of the literature of testimony lies in its urgency:

We have all been witnesses and we all feel we have to bear testimony for the future. And that became an obsession, the single most powerful obsession that permeated all the lives, all the dreams, all the work of those people. One minute before they died they thought that was what they had to do.

The “we” in Wiesel’s first sentence refers to Holocaust survivors. But, like Levi, although less consciously, he distinguishes between those who survived and those who were murdered. Beginning with “we” Wiesel moves to “they” and “those people.” Holocaust diaries, I have hoped to show, show us in action what Wiesel can only unconsciously recognize, the fundamentally mediated quality of supposedly immediate or direct testimony.

“Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

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A while ago I convinced Scott of seraillon to help me host a discussion of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962). I hope others will join in, and as they do I’ll link to their posts here:

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza

Jacqui at Jacquiwinejournal 

Grant at 1streading’s Blog

Nathaniel Leach

I’ve written up my thoughts on what for me are some of the key aspects of this fascinating and beautiful novel. Scott has responded and added some of the issues that most struck him. In a separate post at Scott’s blog we’ll reverse the roles.

Thanks, Dorian! Since you’ve divided your thoughts into discrete sections, I’ll respond in italics after each one.

First, a brief summary of the book:

On a Sunday in April 1957, the unnamed narrator is on a day trip from Rome with friends. They unexpectedly end up at some Etruscan tombs. A little girl in the party asks her father why ancient tombs are not as sad as new ones. With those who have been dead so long, he replies, it’s as if they never lived. To which the girl rather precociously (one of the book’s few false notes) responds:

‘But now, if you say that’, she ventured softly, ‘you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.’

He doesn’t say so directly, but the narrator seems to be moved by these remarks. We might even say that he is unsealed. The Etruscan tombs remind him of the grandiose tomb of the Finzi-Contini family in his native Ferrara. Perhaps emboldened by the girl’s insistence that everyone who is dead deserves to be remembered, the narrator thinks of the fate of Italy’s Jews during the war. He tells the story—a story it seems he has held inside for a long time: that’s what I mean by his coming unsealed—of his relationship to the Finzi-Contini family in the years before the war. (Interestingly, he only tells us, not his traveling companions. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than to suggest that, as befits this tightly wound character, even emotional catharsis is restrained.)

Beginning with the end, the narrator explains that the story of the Finzi-Continis is one of catastrophe. Of all the members of the family the narrator “had known and loved” only one had managed to find the eternal rest promised by the tomb:

In fact the only one buried there is Alberto, the older son, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma. Whereas for Micòl, the second child, the daughter, and for her father, Professor Ermanno, and her mother, Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, Signora Olga’s ancient, paralytic mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?

The plot then shifts to the narrator’s childhood, highlighting his occasional encounters with the Finzi-Continis, before moving forward to 1938 and the promulgation of racial laws in Italy. When the wealthy Jews of Ferrara are forced out of the tennis club, Micòl and Alberto invite the younger set to play on the court on the estate surrounding the family home.

The narrator, who had always been drawn to the mysterious family, quickly falls in love with the Finzi-Continis and especially with Micòl, and over the following year they become increasingly close but never intimate. Micòl evades and eventually rejects the narrator. He is distraught and eventually forces himself or is forced to get over it. And then the war begins and this idyllic (if that’s the right word) time in the narrator’s life ends. That’s the story he wants to tell—the story of the days in the garden of the Finzi-Continis’ estate—not the story of what happened to them all later.

When I put it like this, the book might sound dull, but I found it completely riveting. Whoever chooses to read along with us in the coming days will help us build a picture of the novel. For now I want to talk about three things that struck me, and then mention a fourth.

I too found The Garden of the Finzi-Continis beautiful and riveting – so much so, in fact, that I’ve now read it twice since January, first in the Jamie McKendrick translation and now in the translation you read by William Weaver. I can well understand why this could be someone’s favorite novel; it is moving, exquisitely constructed and has a delicacy and sense of closeness to lived experience that few novels attain from one end to the other. Both times I’ve read it I came away unable to think about much of anything else for days.

 Bassani’s choice to place his “end” of the novel at the beginning, the revelation of the fate of the Finzi-Continis, signals to the reader that the author’s interest lies not in depicting the horrors of the Holocaust but elsewhere: in the world(s) that it destroyed. One might argue that the novel shouldn’t be categorized as “Holocaust literature” because it deals more directly with Italian Fascism, but I’d counter that Bassani is aiming precisely at overturning the sentiment that if Mussolini had not formed an alliance with Hitler, the country’s situation might have been tolerable. Something of this view gets conveyed in the intense political discussions the narrator has towards the end of the novel with his friend Malnate, one of the novel’s only non-Jews, but Bassani clearly wants to lay bare Italian culpability. For all of the peace that Bassani portrays within the walls of Edenic garden of the Finzi-Contini family, he also provides increasingly palpable glimpses of the hell that is growing beyond the garden walls, of the insidious, creeping intolerance and oppression that are alluded to subtly but frequently for much of the novel. For me this worked brilliantly – focusing on the bright lives at the center of an encroaching darkness rather than on the darkness itself. At the end one feels – but only afterwards, after the gentle impression of the final words have subsided – the colossal weight of all that has been pressing inward. The effect is devastating.

Hilltop at Evening 1928 by Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964

I. (Jewish) Outsiders

I really love books about outsiders who fall into (or maybe insinuate themselves into) worlds that are different—and, in their perception, better, richer, more enlivening, more satisfying—than their own. L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is a fine example. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is another.

I think I’m drawn to this scenario because, as a child of immigrants, I was tasked with helping my parents find their way in a new place. At the same time, I wanted to escape that role by finding worlds or social situations that were just for me. Literature has of course been for me the most important and all encompassing of those worlds. But my decision to move to another country is another example as is, more pertinently to Bassani’s novel, my conversion to Judaism.

I fell in love with Judaism for many reasons, mostly generous and anything but self-serving, but certainly one reason was the sense I had of it as a kind of refined minority. I realize this way of thinking verges perilously close to anti-Semitic stereotypes of secret cabals. But I understood the narrator’s attraction to—what he calls his “deep solidarity” with—the Finzi-Continis. The comparison I’m making is inexact. The narrator isn’t a Gentile, drawn by some sort of philo-Semistism to this Jewish family. No, he’s Jewish too. So in what sense is he attracted to something other or foreign in the Finzi-Continis? The Jewish community in the Ferrara of the novel is small—a handful of families—but as in all Jewish communities (and the smaller they are the truer this seems to be) divisions are as important as similarities.

In his introduction to the Everyman Edition, Tim Parks notes, “One of the curiosities of Bassani’s writing is that, while deploring persecution, he actually seems to relish the phenomenon of social division, that fizz of incomprehension that occurs when people of different cultures, backgrounds, and pretensions are obliged to live side by side.” I agree, though “deploring” seems too unequivocal, too dutiful, too mildly liberal and progressive for Bassani’s narrator, who is a slippery figure.

At any rate, the narrator’s family prides itself on being modern. The father joined the Fascist Party already in 1919. That might sound crazy to us, but Italian fascism was not initially anti-Semitic and might never have been had Hitler not pushed Mussolini in that direction, leading to the Nuremberg-style racial laws of 1938 that I mentioned in my plot summary.

The Finzi-Continis, by contrast, are conservative; Professor Ermanno refuses to join the Fascists, not out of any anti-Fascist or progressive/communist/socialist conviction but because he doesn’t want to join anything, not least the modern world. (It’s interesting that Micòl more than anyone else in the family shares her father’s views, more than her brother, that’s for sure, who is all about his gramophone and modern design, though Micòl also avails herself of certain privilege of modernity, like taking a university degree for example.)

Yet the narrator’s family and the Finzi-Continis are united in their form of worship: they belong to the Italian rather than the German synagogue (these differing congregations meet on different floors of the same building, a wonderful example of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”) I’m confused by Bassani’s distinction here: I think it might be something like Orthodox (Italian) versus Reform (German) (Reform Judaism started in Germany in the 19th Century), but I’m not sure. Later, the Finzi-Continis and one or two other families (but not the narrator’s) decide to worship at even more exclusive synagogue (they call it the Spanish). I wondered if the suggestion was that they were Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi. Can anyone shed light here?

This wonderful essay by Adam Kirsch is smart on the paradoxical function of Judaism in the novel. He doesn’t explain the different congregations, but he has a lot to say about how the Finzi-Continis are positioned as “the Jews of the Jews,” an elite within an elite. The narrator’s father is convinced that the Finzi-Continis are in fact anti-Semites, adducing as proof their rejection, or, more accurately, lack of interest in the rest of the Ferranese Jewish community, as symbolized by the walls that surround their estate.

And yet the narrator’s father also thinks it’s embarrassing, even wrong, to be too devoutly or overtly Jewish: he barely speaks Hebrew, knows only a little of the liturgy, thinks of himself more as a freethinker than anything else. And yet that doesn’t contradict his strong sense of being a Jew, and his conviction that all Jews share a kinship he faults the Finzi-Continis for rejecting.

This sort of complicated emotional response—veering between pride and self-loathing—manifests itself in the narrator too, as in the scene where he runs into a Jewish boy of his own age: “Rapidly, between him and me, there passed the inevitable glance of Jewish complicity that, with anxiety and disgust, I had already foreseen.” The complicity might be good, but the anxiety and disgust sure aren’t.

The narrator remembers how, as a child, he would gather with the rest of his family under his father’s talit (prayer shawl) for the benediction. Because the shawl, which had belonged to the narrator’s grandfather, is so old and full of holes, the narrator is able to look out from, perhaps even to plot his escape from, what in the words of the blessing is the loving embrace of the family.

And what he looks out at is of course the Finzi-Continis performing the same ritual. He is drawn to the father—a scholar, a mild man, perhaps ineffectual but, we learn, genuinely kind, someone who will eventually become almost a colleague to the narrator—but even more so to the children. Yet where Professor Ermanno is the emblem of everything the narrator wants (what he calls “culture and rank”), his children, Alberto and Micòl, are at once more appealing and more off-putting:

I looked up, with always renewed amazement and envy, at Professor Ermanno’s wrinkled, keen face, as if transfigured at that moment, I looked at his eyes, which behind his glasses, I would have said were filled with tears. His voice was faint and chanting, with perfect pitch his Hebrew pronunciation, frequently doubling the consonants, and with the z, the s, and the h much more Tuscan than Ferranese, could be heard, filtered through the double distinction of culture and rank…

I looked at him. Below him, for the entire duration of the blessing, Alberto and Micòl never stopped exploring, they too, the gaps in their tent [the prayer-shawl]. And they smiled at me and winked at me, both curiously inviting: especially Micòl. (Ellipsis in original)

The narrator always wants to penetrate the closed-off space that is the life of the Finzi-Continis (the children don’t go to school, for example, and when they do have to appear for the end-of-year exams they arrive in a coach from the last century). The family, especially Micòl, seems to encourage him in doing so. But in the end he is just there on sufferance. Of course the ultimately irony is that whatever distinctions Jews make among themselves will be leveled by the terrorizing hate of National Socialism.

I’m drawn to your personal response to the work and how it resonated with you as an outsider, an immigrant and as someone who chose Judaism. The outsider element resonated with me too, and probably with many readers. I love how Bassani constantly literalizes this sense of exclusion, from the narrator seeing the Finzi-Contini children’s eyes peeking out from beneath the talit, to his initial inability to penetrate the Finzi-Contini estate during the beautiful young adolescent scene at the garden wall, to the lengthy, almost To the Lighthouse–like postponement of his entry onto the grounds then only much later into the house, and the remoteness of Micòl’s own room, which he is forced to conjure through imagination until he finally, too late, gets to see it for himself. Incidentally, that slow attainment of this “inner sanctum” appears to have as its countermeasure the slow encroachment of Fascism into the garden.

Of course another element that drew me into the novel is one you mention here: “At the same time, I wanted to escape that role by finding worlds or social situations that were just for me. Literature has of course been for me the most important and all encompassing of those worlds.” On the second read through, I was astounded at all the literature in this novel, which in addition to providing something of a crash course in late 19th century Italian poetry alludes to an astonishing variety of works, from Ariosto, to Stendhal (and the narrator, if anything, is a Stendalian figure), to Dumas, to Melville (I can’t recall whether Enrique Vila-Matas makes use of the “Bartleby” discussion in his Bartleby and Co., but if not, he missed a stellar example) and even possibly invents – in a curious passage – a Jewish poetess of 17th century Venice. A central literary figure is the renowned poet Giosuè Carducci, some letters of whom have come into the possession of Professor Ermanno, and around whom literary discussion sometimes revolves, especially arguments over Carducci’s nationalist sentiments and Republicanism (putting aside for a moment the characters’ religion, there is also in the novel an examination of their Italian-ness as relates to a glorified past now threatened by Fascism). Both the narrator and Micòl are by choice literature scholars, he in Bologna, she in Venice, he writing a dissertation on Enrico Panzzachi, a poet in Carducci’s vein, and she on Emily Dickinson. It’s telling that Micòl prefers “real novels” like The Three Musketeers to contemporary works like Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles. It’s also telling that so little of what was transpiring in literature during the explosive literary decade of the 1930’s Italy appears in the novel. For all their obsession with literature, the narrator and Micòl seem little aware of what is being written around them, at least until the narrator argues with his father, towards the end, that “the only living literature” is contemporary literature. But again he names no names. Another thing I appreciate about Bassani is his avoidance of “literariness” by cleverly making his characters literary scholars themselves, thus allowing him to bring in discussion of all kinds of literature without having to shoehorn it awkwardly into the narrative. I can think of few novels with more literature in them – okay, maybe Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

Your dissection of the Jewish inter-relationships is fascinating. I assumed that the Finzi-Continis were Sephardic because of their obvious Spanish roots – the two uncles Herrera from Venice who are Spanish, their tendency to speak “Finzi-Continian” as the narrator calls it, a hybrid of Ferrarese and Tuscan Italian peppered with Spanish words. I don’t really subscribe to Tim Parks’ notion that Bassani “seems to relish” the idea of social division. Rather, I think this is part and parcel of a style that pushes things apart so as to make them more distinct, to gain some clarity. The remarkable Chapter IV of the first part, for instance, that portrays the inside of the synagogue, possesses the same kind of clarity with regard to the divisions among Ferrara’s Jews that Bassani applies to spaces and interiors, which he almost treats like staging. In addition, the use of such distinctions helps underscore Bassani’s emphasis on the democratizing, leveling force of death. Ironically, I think he’s actually more interested in commonality than in division, since from the beginning, with the visit to the Etruscan tombs in the Prologue, he stresses the universality of death and of remembrance. One could write an entire essay on the description of the Finzi-Contini tomb, with its weirdly international Greek, Egyptian and Roman features and garish conglomeration of materials that seem to come from all over.

II. Telephones

Telephones are really important in this book. Why? One idea is that telephones are a way to combine intimacy with distance. In another novel, characters might write letters to each other. But here they call each other—at least until they know each other well enough to simply drop in. (Well, the narrator drops in on the Finzi-Continis; they never come to his family’s apartment. That would be unthinkable.)

Telephones also a sign of wealth and privilege. Malnate, for example, a friend of Alberto’s, an engineer, a Gentile, a communist, and a rival to the narrator in a way he doesn’t foresee, doesn’t have one; the narrator has to wait outside his rooms when he wants to see him. Maybe it’s important that only the Jewish characters have telephones (though admittedly, there aren’t very many non-Jews in this book). I seem to recall reading someone—maybe it was the philosopher Jacques Derrida—who argued that the telephone is a particularly Jewish mode of communication because it concerns the voice: Derrida or whoever connected it to the Jewish prohibition on representations of God. In the Torah, God speaks (to Moses, to Abraham, etc), but is never seen, indeed, is not to be seen.

These speculations aren’t meant to suggest that the telephone is some kind of divine technology—yes, it facilitates important narrative events (Micòl invites the narrator to the inaugural tennis party over the phone; later, after Micòl decamps for university, Alberto invites him over for what become regular evenings with Malnate and the family) but it can also foil them (as when the narrator misses Micòl’s call to tell him she is leaving town).

So telephones can keep people apart as much as bring them together. But perhaps their most important function is as yet another way that otherwise inaccessible spaces can be entered. But always in mediated form. The telephone is a form of intimacy that is never too intimate: talking on the phone is different than talking to someone in person. Yet talking on the phone, especially to Micòl, is surprisingly intimate, or at least promises intimacy, because the Finzi-Continis have separate extensions in their rooms, so that when the narrator talks to Micòl she is typically in bed. And the narrator wants badly to know what that room looks like. Micòl refuses to tell him. The narrator always wants—and assumes—more intimacy with the Finzi-Continis than he is given.

What a great element to zero in on! I’d of course noticed the phones, but frankly hadn’t given them much thought other than as appurtenances of a wealthy family that wants to be up with the latest technology. I especially like your observation of them as “yet another way that otherwise inaccessible spaces can be entered.” This novel is chock full of inaccessible spaces, and/or of spaces that seem enclosed yet endless, Piranesian tunnels and abysses (I’m thinking in particular of the strange mounds near the city walls that had served as munitions caches, into one of which the narrator enters, at Micòl’s insistence, in order to hide his bicycle, but also of the configuration of the Finzi-Contini house, which like something in a dream the reader can never quite puzzle out – I couldn’t anyway). I found it almost painful how Micòl, who nearly always answers the phone, later lets others answer when she is avoiding the narrator – even that tenuous line to her cut off.

Material objects in general inhabit a strange space in this novel. Some – like the American elevator in the house or the ancient but still meticulously maintained carosse in the garage, appear to stretch the Finzi-Continis mystical aura temporally similar to how the vastness of the house and estate stretches it spatially.

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III. The Narrator

For me, the narrator is the crux of this novel. The more I read, the more uncertain I became about him. I didn’t like or trust him. (So what could it mean that I identified so strongly with his desire to be accepted?) I couldn’t figure out what we’re supposed to make of him. He reminded me of the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels—not showily or vertiginously unreliable (like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, say), but profoundly blind to himself, his emotions, and the world around him. Clueless, but with more menace.

Actually, by the end of the novel, I sensed we were supposed to think he’s been hard done by. But I couldn’t quite manage to sympathize with him, despite the one thing we learn about what happened to him during the war.

This piece of information comes at the end of an apparently heartwarming scene. The narrator has been kicked out of the public library (Jews are banned), and this is particularly humiliating because he’s completing a dissertation on 19th Century Italian literature. Once he learns the news, Professor Ermanno invites the narrator to use the family library. With its twenty thousand (!) volumes, the professor wryly notes, he should be able to make good progress. The narrator works in the library every morning, and he and the professor, whose study is next door, fall into a routine of checking in on each other:

Through the door, when it was open, we even exchanged a few sentences: ‘What time is it?’ ‘How’s the work progressing?’ and so on. A few years later, during the spring of ’43, the words I was to exchange with the unknown man in the next cell, shouting them towards the ceiling, towards the air vent, would be of that sort: uttered like that, chiefly through the need of hearing one’s own voice, of feeling alive.

The narrator, we learn here, becomes a member of the Resistance (perhaps by being jailed for that reason he avoids being deported as a Jew—that almost happened to Primo Levi, for example). And his political commitment to fighting fascism should make us admire him. But I’m unconvinced. Even here the language is typically solipsistic. It’s probably more a commentary on the nature of imprisonment and the tactics the fascists used to crush their opposition than a criticism of his personality, but notice how the narrator’s prison “conversation” is really a monologue, practiced for selfish, though admittedly important, reasons, “the need of hearing one’s own voice.”

I can feel myself being unjust to the narrator here. But I wonder why this is the only reference to the narrator’s wartime experiences. Why not make more of it? After all, in the years after the war, everyone in Italy, it seemed, claimed to have been in the Resistance. It seems an obvious way to make us feel more strongly for the narrator. To me, it’s suggestive that Bassani downplays the option he’s given himself. Instead, he chooses to portray the narrator much more ambiguously.

Here’s a passage that stood out to me as particularly hard to parse. The narrator is celebrating Passover at home with his family. It’s 1939, and life for Italy’s Jews is getting ever more restricted. So what should be a joyous occasion is somber. The irony of celebrating the Israelites’ journey to freedom in a climate of anti-Semitism isn’t lost on anyone. But these societal concerns are less important—less irritating—to the narrator than his reluctance to be there. He chafes at his family; he wants to be with the Finzi-Contins. (Later, on Alberto’s invitation, he steals over to the Finzi-Contini’s Seder and notes that the same pastries he’d eaten with reluctance at home now taste delicious.)

Looking over the family members who have gathered to celebrate the holiday, the narrator sees faces that are “sad and pensive like the dead”:

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny [his sister], who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later, would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory…. Why didn’t I evade, at once, that desperate and grotesque assembly of ghosts, or at least stop my ears so as to hear no more talk of ‘discrimination’ and ‘patriotic merits’ and ‘certificates of services,’ of ‘blood quotients,’ and so on, not to hear the petty lamenting, the monotonous, gray futile threnody that family and kin were softly intoning around me?

What are we supposed to make of this? Even though the passage is divided between past and present, even though the responses at the time are coloured by the knowledge of how things would turn out, I don’t sense much compassion for the past.

It’s a trope of Holocaust literature to juxtapose past innocence to present knowledge, and some writers are famous for their ruthless and judgmental hindsight (Elie Wiesel in Night and Aharon Appelfeld in almost all of his works are classic examples). The narrator is similarly callous here: “The same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now” isn’t much of a compliment. In fact, the whole logic here is hard to fathom. The narrator is saying: Even though they were so ignorant of what was to come, they nonetheless already had the same kind of fatality that they now have for me in my memory of them. It’s not that they were once vital, nor that their obliviousness has been ennobled or mitigated by the horrors that befell them. It’s that they haven’t even changed.

Is the idea then that the narrator’s prolepses—his flash forwards to future events—don’t make any difference? (Here’s an example from early in the book when as a boy he wanders around the walls of Finzi-Contini estate: “I stopped under a tree: one of those ancient trees… that a dozen years later, in the icy winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed to make firewood, but which in ’29 still held high.”)

I don’t know about you but I can’t warm to someone who listens to his frightened relatives and hears only “petty lamenting.” What does he want from them? Is it to be as blithely uninterested in the future as the Finzi-Continis? Maybe so: the scorn at the little bourgeois hats and hairdos sounds like something the Finzi-Continis might think, though would never say. Or, actually, it sounds like something they wouldn’t even concern them with. If anything, this is the narrator seeking—and failing—to ape what he thinks of as his betters.

It’s hard for me to excuse the narrator because of his youth: rather than callow he seems callous. Or somehow emotionally deadened, almost a bit autistic, though I’m uneasy at applying that kind of anachronistic diagnostic label. The novel often compares the narrator to Perotti, the Finzi-Continis’ servant, who disparages modernity even more than the family he has spent his life working for. You’d think that the suggestion that he is only a retainer to the family he admires so much—and possibly so pointlessly? I’m not sure what the novel wants us to think about them—would make us sympathetic to him. But I don’t think it does.

Not even the final “revelation” of why Micòl has spurned his often clumsy, even violent advances doesn’t change my feelings—SPOILER ALERT: he thinks Micòl has been having an affair with her brother’s friend Malnate—especially because I don’t see any evidence that this outcome is anything other than a self-serving construction on the part of the narrator.

Please tell me what you make of the narrator. Why is it that he doesn’t seem to have any present-day (that is, post-war) existence? He’s just a ghost in that opening section, as if he lives only to tell this story of the past.

I’m a little surprised by the degree of your negative reaction to the narrator, as I found him more sympathetic than not. True, he displays a great deal of immaturity – it’s not at all difficult to understand Micòl’s rejection of his groveling, possessive behavior – but at the same time he seems to grow in ways that the other characters do not. Micòl seems to retreat further and further into her Finzi-Continism. Alberto fades almost literally, recusing himself from the intense political discussions the narrator and Malnate engage in together and then, of course, slipping into terminal illness. And Malnate adheres to a fairly strict and pat Communist party line (despite his unexpected appreciation of poetry as revealed near the end; one other minor reason to read Garden is that one gets a rare English translation of Milanese poet Carlo Porta!). The narrator, despite having changed his dissertation interest from Italian Renaissance painting to Panzacchi, in the end advocates for living, contemporary literature, pushes back against those who seem to be inhabiting the past and lacking in foresight as regards the dangers Fascism poses for the future. And yet I agree that it’s unclear how much of the narrator’s “awareness” of that danger is supplied through his backwards glance. Still, if one thinks of Garden as a Holocaust novel, then the narrator plays the essential role of witness, one for whom the question of reliability is almost beside the point. It’s not as though the Finzi-Continis’ fate or the ravages of the Racial Laws are in question. Bassani’s own father disappeared into the camps, and it’s significant – almost irresistible to a writer, I would think, a Jewish writer from Ferrara no less – that of the 183 Ferrarese Jews rounded up and deported to Germany, only one survived. The narrator is obviously not that one, but he plays a role one could imagine that person playing, of having alone survived to tell the tale.

While I also thought the Passover supper scene complicated and puzzling, the narrator’s attitude made some sense to me given the dark constellation of tensions under which he had fallen: the rupture with Micòl; the somber, empty celebration given the dinner talk of increasing restrictions; the abeyance in which he finds himself after completing his dissertation yet – partly because of those restrictions – having no clear option for his future; and perhaps above all his complicated attraction to the Finzi-Continis, who have appeared from the beginning to represent for him wealth, culture, education, beauty even, and perhaps most of all what he refers to early on – and I can’t find the quotation – to their isolation, an aloofness, an outsider quality, that he himself feels almost as a privilege. Though at this point of the novel, the Passover dinner, the narrator is in his mid-twenties, I almost see him as a rebellious teen just itching to get out of the house and go where he’s understood – or perhaps more accurately where he’s among people with whom he aspires to belong.

There’s another element to this behavior hinted at not very obliquely in the remarkable father/son scene near the end of the novel and given a significant clue in light of that scene’s mention of the incident with “Dr. Fadeghi,” which must strike some readers as puzzling since it’s never explained and seems gratuitous. This is a reference to Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, and thus to the narrator’s possible, even probable homosexuality. His father is on the cusp of suggesting as much but can’t say it. Suddenly the narrator’s timid, aloof, unconsummated attraction to Micòl makes sense. I wondered about this too in relation to the prologue, where he’s traveling with “friends” from Rome as a lone man in a car with a family. There’s a second car of friends too, but who is in it? Why is the narrator stuck with the family? What’s his relation to them? They’re likely not Jewish, as we suspect from the father, laughing, telling his the daughter to ask the man in the back seat to answer a question she has about the Jews. I’m not sure that helps with your questions.

IV The Translation

William Weaver’s translation seemed to me excellent, but I don’t have any Italian, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts. I’m especially curious to hear how other translators have dealt with the text’s references to Hebrew and Yiddish, in particular, and Jewish custom and tradition in general.

I can only address the translations to the extent of my ability amateur opining, so I’ll only say that they struck me as quite different. McKendrick’s seems more precise, formal and elegant, which I suspect might be the right fit for Bassani. But Weaver’s seems warmer, more casual, closer to the blood that pulses through Bassani’s young characters. In the end, I could toss a coin and be content either way it landed, though I might hope slightly that it would land with McKendrick face-up. I took a look at the Hebrew/Yiddish language references in both translations, and while neither translator resorts to awkward English equivalents, McKendrick uses quite a bit more of the Hebrew/Yiddish terminology than does Weaver. I certainly get the sense that McKendrick is more careful than Weaver.

To summarize my main points: I’m really drawn to a novel narrated by a character I’m skeptical, even, it’s not too much to say, repulsed by. What’s especially weird about that is that I really sympathize with the narrator’s desire to be accepted by a family and a social world not his own. Maybe what I can’t take is the rejection of his background entailed by what at its best is not mere social climbing but rather a way to express who he most fully wants to be.

I did not get a sense of the narrator engaging in “social climbing” so much as wanting to escape from a relatively limiting environment – and in this regard the novel did have personal resonance, since I could not wait, as an adolescent, to escape the confines of a bourgeois home and find others interested in art, literature, travel, a wider view. So we have different takes – and therein lies the value of doing this sort of collaborative reading. I’d like to continue the discussion, and may send you a few meditations of my own about Bassani’s novel and ask for your responses. I’m eager now to go see what others have written.

On Being Too Generous

I was invited to give the d’var Torah (literally, “a word of Torah,” but in practice an essay on the week’s Torah portion, or parsha) at our synagogue last night.

This week’s parsha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei (it’s actually a double portion–you can read about what that means here) if you want the context for my remarks, which I titled “On Being Too Generous.”

Thanks to Rabbi Barry Block for the opportunity.

On Being Too Generous

This week’s parsha—actually a double parsha, a generous serving—offers us a mixed message.

It begins with Moses reminding the Israelites that G-d has commanded them to observe Shabbat, and not to kindle fire on that day. Interestingly, he says: “These are the things that the Eternal has commanded you to do” (my emphasis), as if these were the only things G-d had ever commanded. Moses’s phrasing tells us how important these particular commandments are. Above all else we are enjoined to observe the day of rest.

But the Israelites do not rest. In fact, they do just the opposite. For the very next thing Moses says puts them to work. G-d, Moses says, has also commanded that “everyone whose heart is so moved” shall bring gifts for the Eternal. He names a long list of precious objects that the people might bring: gold, silver, and copper; beautiful yarns and linens; animal skins and acacia wood; oils and incense. I’m interested in this commandment that apparently doesn’t apply to everyone—only “everyone whose heart is so moved” is commanded to bring what he or she can. What does it mean to command something for only a few? Aren’t the commandments for everyone? Maybe a gift that doesn’t come from a moved heart isn’t really a gift. Or maybe this way of putting it is Moses’s strategy for making everyone participate. After all, who wants to admit to being unmoved? Whatever the case, the commandment works. In fact, we soon learn, it works almost too well.

The gifts will be used to make the mishkan, the tabernacle, as well as the priestly vestments for Aron and his sons. Many commentators note that by beginning with a reminder of the commandment to observe Shabbat the parsha implicitly connects this creative work with the creation of the world itself.

Which is another way of saying that what is happening in the desert here is really important.

No wonder, then, that the Israelites are so generous with their gifts. In fact, they are too generous. They keep bringing gifts “morning after morning” until the master craftsmen who are leading the project have to talk to Moses about it: “The people,” the craftsmen say, ”are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done.” Moses responds immediately:

Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done.

I’m really struck by this demand to stop giving. It seems counterintuitive to me. I would have thought the more gifts the better; the more gifts the more powerful the sign of the Israelites’ recognition of G-d. But that’s apparently not the case. Which leads me to wonder: can we ever be too generous?

Some people are instinctively and openly generous. I married someone like that. But some people, like me, aren’t. Not that we’re cheap or defensive or selfish. But we fear the toll that giving takes on us, emotionally, physically, maybe even financially. Do I have it in me to give? I ask myself that question a lot. This week’s parsha might be saying: an important part of giving is knowing when to stop giving. Not because we’re lazy or selfish or protective of what we have, but because we need to recognize our limits.

This isn’t the only place in our tradition where we find the exhortation to value what we have, what we have done, and what we are capable of doing rather than what we don’t have, what we haven’t yet done, and what we feel we should be able to do. I’m reminded in particular, as Passover approaches, of dayenu—the principle of sufficiency we shout out in joyous song. Dayenu is less about making do or being satisfied with whatever crumbs the world gives us than it is about valuing the meaning of what is and what has been given.

Giving, the parsha suggests, is a kind of doing. The Israelites’ problem isn’t that all their gifts are getting in the way of the craftsmen’s ability to work. Giving, in this story, isn’t an inferior or second-rate version of doing, the way we sometimes criticize ourselves for writing a check instead of, say, marching at the Capitol. Rather, the Israelites’ problem is that they’ve given more gifts than the craftsmen could ever possibly need. Some kind of proportion or balance has been undone. As the text puts it, the people bring “more than is needed,” “their efforts have been “more than enough.” That surfeit, that plenitude, that extra just isn’t needed. And it counters the point of the gifts, which is to allow us to honour G-d.

So it turns out that what I thought was a mixed message is in fact quite consistent. We must be busy, we must be generous, we must gather the particular gifts we have to give. But then we have to stop giving. We have to appreciate what we’ve done and what we’ve made possible. If we give too much we’re actually doing harm, making a problem for ourselves and for others. What attracts me about this week’s parsha is that it’s not a lesson about overweening pride or about the inevitability of scarcity. It’s pleasantly un-punitive. It’s as generous in its thinking about generosity as the Israelites are. No one is harmed by the Israelites’ generosity—except maybe the Israelites themselves. Once they stop bringing more and more they are able—as the parsha goes on to do at great length—to admire the beautiful creation that comes from their gifts. And to do that, they—and we—need to stop kindling our literal and metaphorical fires and observe the literal and metaphorical Shabbats in our lives.

If we rest from our giving, the parsha explains, it’s only so that we can gain the gift of our rest.

Shabbat shalom!