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.

 

“Antidote to Fascism”: Primo Levi, Chemist and Writer (Guest Post, Nathaniel Leach)

“Ah, yes, you’re the fellow who wrote a book,” a customer tells Primo Levi in The Periodic Table, Levi’s third memoir, a book about his first career, chemistry. Levi stifles his annoyance at this comment under his professional exterior in a way that reminds us that Levi, too, sees his career as a writer as secondary, a historical accident that sometimes either interferes with or assists his professional endeavours. Despite these occasional self-deprecatory references, The Periodic Table invites us to see connections between his two “careers,” both of which require careful observation and an inquiring mind that is willing to revise its initial hypotheses about the world.

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Of course, the book being referred to is his first memoir, Se questo è un uomo, notoriously translated in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, but literally If this is a Man. Levi notes that if it had not been for his deportation to Auschwitz, he may never have become a writer in the first place, but the book’s careful descriptions, thoughtful analyses and avoidance of simplistic explanations or judgments anticipate a long writing career that would only gradually start to supplant his life as a chemist. The title of this first book, in fact, provides an appropriate orientation towards The Periodic Table; the question posed by Auschwitz, Levi suggests, is whether its victims (or its perpetrators) have been completely dehumanized, reduced to the level of mere physical matter, or whether something ennobling or redeeming persists in the midst of such horror. In The Periodic Table, this question is taken up in its descriptions of the human attempt to come to terms with the materiality of the world.

In each chapter of The Periodic Table Levi presents this struggle via an anecdote related to one of the elements of the periodic table. The chapters are arranged in a loose chronological order, starting with Argon, the “inert” or “noble” gas used as a metaphor for Levi’s Jewish-Italian ancestors and ending with Carbon, a seemingly whimsical “micro-history” of an atom of carbon. In between, most chapters are autobiographical, describing an incident in the life of Levi, the chemist, although he includes two short stories written in his youth and two brief stories in which Levi does not appear (and which therefore seem to be fictional). In describing these experiences, Levi suggests resonances between the rulebound world of chemical interactions and the less predictable world of human interactions. At the heart of these parallels lies the question of Levi’s earlier book, the question of humanity; are human beings simply physical matter composed of the chemical elements discussed in the book, or something more? And in what might that something more consist?

It is characteristic of Levi that there are no simple answers offered; from the outset of the book, he calls attention to the complexity of the “human condition, since man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust”. Chemistry itself becomes emblematic of this division, as Levi’s chapters illustrate both the human desire for scientific knowledge, mastery and overcoming of the physical world and the recalcitrance of matter to even the most inspired human stratagems. As an example of the former, the chapter on “Chromium” is structured much like a detective story in which a problem (the production of faulty paint) presents itself and Levi must use his powers of deduction to solve it. In this case, Levi does indeed come up with an ingenious solution, but many other chapters describe dismal failures—explosions, escaped rabbits, chicken shit that refuses to give up its valuable chemicals, to name a few—that remind us of the limits of human science.

While Levi describes his younger self’s attraction to chemistry as idealistic (if confused), the book’s seemingly disconnected chapters illustrate many different perspectives on this science. His initial attraction to chemistry, Levi says, came from a sense “That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves…” And later, in the “Chromium” chapter, he asks: “It is the spirit that dominates matter, is that not so? Was it not this that they had hammered into my head in the Fascist and Gentile liceo? I threw myself into the work with the same intensity that, at not so distant a period, we had attacked a rock wall; and the adversary was still the same, the not-I, the Button-Molder, the hyle: stupid matter, slothfully hostile as human stupidity is hostile, and like it strong because of its obtuse passivity.”

Levi himself points out the fascist undertones of this rhetoric of conquering and domination, which is perhaps softened by his equation of “conquering” with “understanding,” but the book raises the question of whether understanding can take place in a way that does not equate to such a violent metaphor. As his schooling progresses, he changes his position: “Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy; but, having reached the fourth year of Pure Chemistry, I could no longer ignore the fact that chemistry itself, or at least that which we were being administered, did not answer my questions.” Levi criticizes the apparent alliance between the fascist and the scientific spirit, but also holds out hope that science may be thought of in other terms by noting that it is “that which we were being administered” that is harmful, not chemistry in itself. Indeed, Levi’s book presents the sciences as tentative, speculative pursuits, often quixotic in their aims, and alternately satisfying and disappointing.

In fact, one of the dominant threads that can be traced through this book is the idea that chemistry is fundamentally anti-fascist both in its humbling of the human spirit and in its illumination of the disproof the material world offers to fascist rhetoric. He notes that the sciences may be seen as an “antidote to Fascism… because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers”. Chemistry, above all, is not “fake news”; its results will always reveal truth at an elemental level, even if this truth is not the desired result.

But Levi values chemistry for reasons beyond its factuality; in an early passage describing his study of chemistry in fascist Italy, he suggests that the lesson we can learn from chemistry is that the natural world itself resists the simplistic, uniform ideals that fascism stands for: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed… Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” Levi uses chemistry to form a positive metaphor for “impurity”; rather than the Nazi metaphors drawn from the field of biology that compared Jews to a virus or to vermin, he identifies his own otherness with the catalysts in a chemical reaction. In this metaphor, difference and diversity are needed in order to propel progress forward.

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Levi (foreground, right) during his study of chemistry at the university in Turin, 1940

From this point of view, then, perhaps it is most useful to see The Periodic Table as the place where Levi’s two careers collide, and produce something original. Levi describes his early, idealistic self as feeling that “Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there in our Autenrieth [textbook], in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.” Chemistry, like writing, Levi suggests, is the transformation of the material world into a communicable form, a means of making some kind of harmony or understanding out of the raw “world of things”. In The Periodic Table, Levi is both a chemist who writes, as in “Chromium,” and a writer who uses chemistry as a metaphor, as in “Argon,” or to examine minutely the nature of the world, as in “Carbon,” which ends the book on a point that quite literally fuses the fields of chemistry and writing.

Or, as in the case of “Vanadium,” the penultimate chapter, to explore the complex relationships between Levi’s lives as professional chemist and author, and between his present and his past. Levi’s professional activities bring him into contact with a Dr. Müller, whom he confirms that he met in Auschwitz. Levi assesses him with his characteristic clarity of vision: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.” Levi is reluctantly drawn into a personal correspondence while trying to resolve a professional problem, and the chapter suggests both the power and the limitations of writing as a means of making human connections and resolving the issues of the past. As with chemistry, so with human relations; imperfections and failed connections are an inherent part of the process.

Levi suggests towards the end of the book that “matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatever.” This is what much of the book, and especially the final chapter on “Carbon” seems to suggest; the power of the chemist, like that of the writer, is to transform things, change them from one state to another without ascribing to them a single stable value. This, perhaps, is the great skill exhibited by Levi in both his careers: the power to transform matter into meaning without the hubris of claiming to have ever spoken the final word.

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.

Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

This month I’m reading and writing about Primo Levi. Here’s the first of two posts on my experience teaching his most famous work.

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Along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only book to have remained constant on my Holocaust Literature syllabus is Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. It sounds grandiose, but Levi’s memoir is one the most important books in my life. It drew me to the field of Holocaust literature in the first place, but it would be a desert island book for me even if I didn’t do what I do for a living. One of the key testimonies of the 20th century, it is the book I recommend when people ask me what they should read to learn about the Holocaust.

I’ve taught the book often enough (12-15 times, I’d say) that I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a sense of how I teach it, usually over three 50-minute class periods. Not enough time, but what can you do, there’s so much other material to get to, plus I typically spend two more days on two important essays by Levi, which gives me some extra time to squeeze in a few more bits of the memoir. By the way, the book I am calling Survival in Auschwitz is really called If This is a Man. (Readers in the UK know it under that title.) Unfortunately, for all the predictable reasons (sales, expectations of what American readers want from a text, etc), Levi’s US publishers changed the title. It’s one of the great publishing travesties, but since that’s what it’s come to be known in the US, that’s the title I use in class. Plus we can have a useful conversation about the differences implied by the titles.

What follows is likely more useful for those who have read the book. If you haven’t, I hope you will. It’s not long, and it’s really powerful.

Over the years I’ve varied my teaching approach, partly to keep things fresh and partly because my ideas about the book have changed. (Not fundamentally, but the more time you spend with a book the more clearly you see how its parts fit together.) But despite those refinements, I’ve always spent a lot of time on two chapters. They are central to Levi’s project, and they’re what I’ll talk about in this post, adding a second one about some of the other topics I like to get to.

The first of the two chapters is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” which is Levi’s way of distinguishing between two types of prisoners. For whatever reason, the alpine Levi, born and raised in Turin, always used water metaphors to conceptualize the fate of the Nazis’ victims. He uses the terms sinking and touching bottom when speaking of death in the camps. He gives the name “the drowned” to those who are not dead yet, but will be soon. Even if physiologically alive they are mentally and spiritually dead. They are barely human. In the argot of Auschwitz, the drowned are Musselmänner, Muslims. (The term in no way refers to actual Muslims; scholars still don’t know where the term came from, though some speculate it is connected to the concept of submission that is one of the pillars of Islam. But this would be a terrible distortion of what Muslims mean by that term.) No prisoner could live much more than three months on the rations they were given without succumbing, without drowning. Only those who could find a way to cheat the system, to gain some small privilege that will result in an extra half slice of bread, an extra ration of soup had a chance of surviving.

When he talks about “the saved,” Levi does not mean the elect. The saved are not better than the drowned. In fact, in an essay written much later, Levi argued they were in fact worse, because they had to have compromised their morals in some way. He does not exempt himself from this charge. (Students struggle with this. They really want Levi to be saying that the saved are morally superior: in this way, they reflect our culture’s poor understanding of Darwin, who was describing not prescribing when he spoke of the survival of the fittest.)

We spend a long time on Levi’s distinction, not least because it preoccupied Levi his whole life. I want students to figure out Levi’s attitude to the drowned. To that end, I ask them to close read this sentence:

All the musselmanns who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

I’ll begin by asking, What are the implications of this metaphor? If that doesn’t generate anything useful, I’ll break it down. Why do streams go to the sea? Gravity, someone will say. That’s just the way it is, says another. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s natural. What, then, is the implication of these answers for our understanding of the drowned? Is it in their nature to drown? Is Levi describing something like fate? Is the universe just made for them to succumb? If so, what about Levi’s many claims that chance was the main determination of who survived? Is Levi judging the drowned?

Later passages make it clear that he is not. Take this resonant, stern assertion:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

What he judges is the universe in which it is natural for the drowned to sink to the bottom, which is to say, the universe of the camps. That last sentence is further evidence of a tendency we will by this point in our conversation already have talked about, namely, how highly Levi values thought and reason. To be able to reason is to be human. But to reason in the camps is painful—it reminds the prisoner of all he has lost. That is the ambivalence of the camp infirmary: it spares prisoners from the back-breaking labour for a time (assuming they recover), but it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to them.

An even more complex consideration of the double-edged quality of reason lies at the heart of the book’s most magisterial chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” the second I emphasize. (In recently learned from Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi that he wrote it in a single 30-minute lunch break at his first job after returning home to Turin.) Here Levi submits reason to the most intense and consequential scrutiny.

“The Canto of Ulysses” concerns Levi’s relationship with his work kommando’s Pikolo, a young man named Jean. A Pikolo (also known as a Pipel) was a kind of messenger boy/mascot selected by the Kapo or head of the commando. (Kapos were themselves prisoners, but almost always criminals or sometimes political prisoners.) A Pikolo was typically a teenage boy, who was often used sexually by the Kapo; either way, he had a higher status than ordinary prisoners and received certain privileges. Jean’s full name was Jean Samuel: after the war, he and Levi maintained a decades-long friendship. Jean, an Alsatian, speaks French and German equally well. Mindful of the importance of languages in the camps, he asks Levi, on a day when he has selected the older man to accompany him from the work site to the kitchen to fetch the day’s cauldron of soup, to teach him some Italian. The chapter describes what counts as an idyll in Auschwitz. The task takes about an hour, in which the two men are free from hard labour and the threat of punishment.

Levi makes the unusual decision—which Samuel later said bemused him at the time—of granting Jean his wish by reciting for him a canto from Dante’s Inferno. He readily admits he does so more for himself than for Jean: being able to turn his mind to the foundational text of Italian literature imbues him with new life. But the canto Levi chooses—in class I pass out a copy of the relevant section, as only some lines are quoted in the chapter, and in the process offer a quick summary of Dante’s aims and achievement in the Divine Comedy—is surprising.

In the poem, Dante is surprised to find Ulysses in Hell (as opposed to in Limbo with other virtuous pagans). What, he wonders, has Ulysses done to deserve this fate? Ulysses answers by telling the story of how, having escaped the enchantments of Circe, he goaded his men into sailing across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and past the edge of the known world. He trespassed the boundaries of human accomplishment—and was punished for that audacity. Levi makes a clear parallel between the expedition he and Jean are making and Ulysses’s own, which the wily Ithacan launched in a rousing speech: you are men, and thus made for wisdom, he tells the sailors, mere beasts of burden. The canto matters to Levi because the story it tells “has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulder.”

They are not the oxen they appear to be. In using the phrase “dare to reason,” Levi echoes the Latin sapere aude, dare to know, the credo of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even this early in the semester, students hunger for a positive moment. They welcome the message that humanity can’t so easily be destroyed.

To complicate this wishful thinking, I assign an activity in which half the students make connections between the excerpt from Dante and Levi’s chapter, and other half close the chapter’s final paragraph in order to figure out how it’s related to what’s come before. In pushing them past the obvious comparisons between the rousing Ulysses and the valiant camp inmates, I focus on how Ulysses gets his men to do what he wants. (They are rightly reluctant.) The poem says that his speech about how knowing is central to being human is an example of zeal. We consider the ambivalence of this word, which can be used as much to condemn as to praise. Zeal is almost always too much. It’s irrational (think of the way we use “zealot”). What I want students to see how reason is compromised by the very intensity with which it’s upheld. Ulysses is irrational in his praise of reason. Think about our own culture’s unreasoning and often unreasonable belief in the importance of science and technology, of progress, of improvement. It’s not that these are fictions. It’s that they are hollowed out when they are fetishized. This contradiction is important, because too often the Holocaust is taken to be an aberration from Western culture, when it is, if not its logical conclusion, completely in keeping with the way the West has thought about the world.

That’s why the chapter’s final paragraph, which is set off from what’s come before by a break, is so important. Levi and the Pikolo have reached the kitchen before their language lesson can be completed. Their idyll is over; the reality of camp life returns:

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. ’Kraut und Rüben? Kraut und Rüben.’ The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ’Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’

‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’

The last line is Ulysses’s description of his expedition’s fate. This language resonates with the references to sinking and drowning I mentioned earlier. Levi’s language (“sordid, ragged”), his description of the crowd that swallows the two men, putting paid to their conversation about Dante, and his use of foreign languages to talk not about poetry but about food combine to return is to reality. What matters is what’s in the soup today. But what about that final line from Dante. Should we read it as a final irony, a dismissal of what Levi and Jean have achieved? Or as an insistence, however faint, that poetry (and human accomplishment more generally) can persist? What does it mean to describe the press of starving men in the language of Dante? Does it elevate the scene? Does it denigrate Dante? Does the scene even need elevation?

Our difficulty in answering these questions—a result of the text’s complexity, nuance, and appreciation of paradox—challenges any consoling beliefs about the human spirit.

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Next time, notes on some of the other questions I ask in teaching Survival in Auschwitz.

“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.

April 2019 in Review

April is always the worst month of the year, work-wise, with end of semester assignments added to the administrative work that’s been pushed off all year. (Step away from that Eliot joke.) For various reasons, this year was worse than usual. Which is a shame, as April is also the loveliest month in Little Rock, weather-wise. No surprise, then, that my reading suffered. Few standouts here.

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Jacqueline Winspear – The American Agent (2019) I’ve been a dedicated reader of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which emphasizes character over mystery. From the beginning, Winspear has presented post-WWI England as a traumatized culture (an idea that sometimes works and sometimes grates). Now that the series has reached WWII, Winspear seems to be casting about for a new idea; the result is the weakest book so far, not least because the author seems to have become famous enough that she no longer gets much editing. The book’s too long: the first third, especially, drags. I’ve read a lot of books on the Blitz: you have to be doing something special to get me interested. I’m no fan of Maisie’s new love interest, either. I’ll be back for the next installment, but Winspear’s now on notice.

Tadeusz Borowski – This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (1959) Trans. Barbara Vedder (1976) Although I teach the title story every semester and can practically recite it from memory—a dubious pleasure, if you know it: I mean, it is one of the extraordinary texts of the Holocaust but it is so dark—I haven’t read the entire collection in several years. This time I read it with the small group of students I’ve spent the past year teaching how to be Holocaust educators. Even though they, like me, weren’t at their best this late in the school year, they still taught me things. For example, it was instructive to see how shocked yet riveted they were by a story like “Silence,” which shows the prisoners in a DP camp paying lip service to their American liberators’ insistence on due process before taking more visceral and irrevocable revenge on a collaborator. In a way, their surprise should have come as no surprise: Borowski is a genius at overturning our received view of the Holocaust.

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March (1932) Trans. Eva Tucker revising Geoffrey Dunlop (1974) The best book I read this month by a mile, a genuinely great work of art. I read it for the group reading hosted by Caroline & Lizzy. My thoughts here.

C. J. Tudor – The Chalk Man (2018) I listened to this first book by Tudor on my commute, which is probably a good way to experience it. The story switches between the present and 1986 when Eddie, the narrator, was a young teenager. The dramatic events of that time in his life—a violent accident, an untimely death, and a body found in the woods (a young girl’s, natch)—return in the present. The scenes in the past are better than those in the present: they have a “Stand by Me” vibe. Tudor isn’t much of a writer (check out this take-down of her infelicities); not even the audiobook narrator could smooth things over. Diverting in its way, but the stinger at the end feels a bit cheap and I haven’t been tempted to try Tudor’s second book.

John Williams – Stoner (1965) Sorry, everyone, I am not a fan of the book. I say that even though “formalist precision” and “the letter-perfect novel,” are absolutely my jam. These terms come from yet another Stoner encomium, this one a New Yorker essay that imagines a counter-factual US literary tradition in which William Maxwell, Richard Yates, and Jean Stafford and not Pynchon, Barth, and Robert Coover are the acknowledged postwar American literary masters: frankly this seems a straw argument: Pynchon, perhaps, aside, who reads these guys anymore?

You could say that reading a book about an introverted college professor with a quietly undistinguished career is too much of a busman’s holiday for me, and it’s true that I don’t like campus novels (when they engage with anything that actually happens on a campus, it’s usually interpersonal politics: i.e. animosity). But I’m always on the lookout for good novels about teaching (do you know any?), which the titular character of Williams’s novel claims to have a vocation for. I appreciated that Williams was willing to show his protagonist as not especially capable—there’s a mismatch between what he wants to convey to his students and what he actually can—but that criticism gets erased by the novel’s repeated avowals that Stoner experiences teaching as transcendent. But we only ever hear this: we don’t feel it. Yet at the same time, we are asked to sympathize so strongly with Stoner, to feel indignant at the way the world treats him, that we can never take the telling rather than the showing of teaching as ironic (that is, there is no suggestion that we should wonder at Stoner’s overestimation of himself—the idea is that he is great, it’s just that the world can’t realize it).

But none of this is what’s awful about the book. Stoner’s wife, Edith—or, rather, the book’s treatment of her—is what’s awful. Edith is a monster—a fact explained only through crudely misogynistic pop-psychology (she is frigid and alcoholic because she was abused by her father). Worst of all, Stoner rapes her without the novel commenting on the fact, or even seeming to recognize it as such. Had I not been reading the book for professional reasons (see below) I would surely have abandoned it.

I’m not surprised that Stoner’s return to print in the US was spurred by huge sales in Europe: it seems like one of those cultural products that speak more to European fantasies of America than anything real (c.f. Janis Joplin, Blue Velvet, “The House of the Rising Sun”).) I’m grateful, however, that its success has underwritten the many delightful oddities published by my beloved NYRB Classics.

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Benjamin Dreyer – Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) Entertaining, even stylish guide to language use. Neither dogmatically prescriptive nor airily descriptive. Recognizes everyone has their linguistic crotchets. A book to dip into, but be warned: once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s pretty damn funny.

Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (2018) Not a book I would ever have read on my own, but I’m glad I did. As a member of the Talent Committee for the Arkansas Literary Festival, I sometimes get asked to moderate panels at the event. This year it was a session on biographies. Hargrove was immediately recognizable at the author party the night before: he was the only one wearing a Stetson. He’s affable, soft-spoken, good-looking, smart: he could play himself in the movie version of the book. Except that one of the great things about the book is that Hargrove plays almost no role in it. (Swimming against the tide, that is.) Even though he learned to chase storms as part of his research (he shared some hair-raising footage with the Lit Fest audience), he keeps himself out of it. Instead the focus is on Tim Samaras, a self-educated tinkerer who parlayed his engineering work for a defense contractor into a position as one of the world’s foremost tornado researchers (he designed probes that could withstand the force of tornados and managed to deploy them in the very heart of storms; thanks to Samaras, for the first time, researchers were able to understand what actually happens inside a tornado).

Hargrove structures his book effectively, mixing comprehensible summaries of meteorological research, a narrative of Samaras’s life (yes, he did fall in love with tornadoes watching The Wizard of Oz as a child, a film he always turned off once Dorothy got to Oz), and an exciting yet never voyeuristic reconstruction of Samaras’s last chase. Samaras and two members of his crew, including his oldest son, were killed in a tornado (the widest ever recorded) near El Reno, Oklahoma in 2013. (I was amazed to learn that they are the only storm chasers who have ever died in action, as it were.)

Tornadoes are a feature of life in the American South (in Central Arkansas, they test the sirens every Wednesday at noon). They terrify me, a transplant who did not grow up with them (although the climate has changed such that they are pretty common in Canada now). (It does not help that there are no basements in Arkansas.) I worried the book would only increase this fear, but actually it’s allayed it: not that I find them safer or less random than I did before, but now I’m more interested in them as a phenomenon. If extreme weather or extreme passion interest you, you might enjoy this book too.

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (2018) Excellent novel about a fascinating place, outback Queensland, Australia. Two brothers, Nathan and Bub Bright, meet for the first time in months, even though their cattle ranches share a fence-line: the cause of their reunion is the death of their elder brother, Cameron. As befits a psychological mystery, plenty of family secrets come out over the course of the book, which doesn’t feature a detective per se. Instead, Nathan becomes the investigator of his family’s past—and in the process of himself. (Almost everyone in the book is a lost man.)

I read Harper’s first book, The Dry, a couple of years ago: it was good but not so terrific that I raced out to get the sequel. The new book is her first standalone, and a giant leap forward in sophistication and ability. A suspenseful character study with a satisfying ending that can rightly be said to be devastating, the book cleverly combines vast outdoor spaces with the closed world of a country house murder mystery. Above all, it offers an absorbing depiction of a difficult way of life in a place where children attend school via Skype, generators cut out at 11 p.m., the skin doctor flies in once a month to excise cancers, and every house has something called a “cold room” (I never did figure out how that works when the generator’s off). Stephen Shanahan reads the audiobook beautifully.

Charles J. Shield – The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life (2018) The other book on the Arkansas Literary Festival biography panel. (Or as I liked to think of it: The Men Who Did Shit panel.) This biography did not further endear me to Williams, a man who was careless of women (though unaccountably attractive to them) and blessed (admittedly after surviving dozens of dangerous flights over the Himalayas in WWII) with the prosperity postwar America gave to white men, especially those who found their way into the rapidly expanding public university system. (Churlish to resent those who were lucky in their birth, but I do.) Shield’s telling of the life (he has previously written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, and is completing one on Lorraine Hansberry: he told some good Vonnegut anecdotes at the festival) is workmanlike. He doesn’t quite apologize for Williams, but he doesn’t take much distance from him either.

By the way, if you, like me, were wondering how the hell the tornado book and the Stoner book were ever going to work together, the answer is: quite well! Both writers were professional, courteous, and thoughtful in their responses to an enthusiastic crowd. And we made some interesting connections between the works, especially concerning whether there is any meaningful distinction between passion and obsession.

That’s it! A paltry nine books. The tornado book was interesting, but the only ones likely to stick in my mind are The Lost Man and The Radetzky March. (Plus the Borowski, but I hardly count it, since it’s practically ingrained in me.)

May’s reading has already proven much more fruitful. More on that in a couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

February 2019 in Review

Short month, short books. Verdict: plenty of decent reading, some even better than that. Here’s what I read in February 2019.

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Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 1] (2014) Trans. Anne Ishii (2017) Gentle manga about Yaichi, a single parent raising a delightful, rambunctious daughter, Kana. Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Yaichi’s brother-in-law, a white Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who visits Japan in the wake of his husband’s (Yaichi’s brother’s) death. Yaichi spares no effort to welcome Mike—aided by Kana’s joy in the sudden appearance of this unexpected uncle—but his not-so-latent homophobia keeps getting in the way. Lots of secrets, lots of emotion, but all handled lightly. I was engrossed and moved and have the sequel from the library ready to go. Plus, who doesn’t like a hunky Canadian hero?

Ken Krimstein – The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (2018) I enjoyed this comic, which combines Arendt’s biography with her political philosophy. Maybe I found the experiment so compelling because I don’t really know my Heidegger. (I’ve been avoiding him since college; my undergraduate institution was regrettably besotted by the thinker of Being.) At least that’s how I felt after reading the TLS review, which called out Krimstein for his misleading summary of Arendt’s erstwhile lover’s philosophy. I agree that Krimstein rather hurried over Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, and maybe he does spend too much time offering potted biographies of the many intellectuals, artists, and otherwise famous people Arendt came across, but Three Escapes gave me a clearer sense of Arendt’s life, especially the years before the war, and made me thrill to the capacious generosity of her ideas. A book could do worse.

Hana Demetz – The House on Prague Street (1970) Trans. Hana Demetz (1980) Score another one for open stacks. While at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive earlier this year, I was browsing the shelves when my eye was drawn to the cornflower blue spine of Demetz’s book, written in German and later translated into English by the author herself. Happily, my local library had a copy, which, I suspect, no one had checked out for years. Which is a shame: The House on Prague Street is really good. It tells the story of Helene Richter, who grows up in eastern Czechoslovakia in the 1930s but whose life revolves around the summers she spends in the small town in Bohemia where her maternal grandparents live in the house that gives the book its title.

Her mother’s Jewish family are successful industrialists, the classic success story of Austro-Hungarian emancipation. (The first pages might have come from a Joseph Roth novel.) Imagine their unhappiness when Helene’s mother marries a law clerk from a Sudeten German family. This makes Helenka, as she is affectionately known, half Jewish, which has important consequences for her after 1938. Unlike the rest of her mother’s family she is not deported to Theresienstadt or further east. Instead she comes of age in wartime Prague, where she experiences plenty of privations but nothing like those suffered by her mother. Imagine her mother’s anguish when Helenka falls in love with a German soldier, on leave for a few days from the eastern front. That Gerd seems to be a genuinely kind person, and no Nazi, does nothing to assuage the mother’s hurt. These scenes are riveting—the tone is different from, say, the bitterness of Ruth Kluger’s fights with her mother in her memoir Still Alive; Demetz’s bitterness is always mixed with sweetness—and only become more poignant in light of the traumas that descend upon the family.

The mother dies of a sudden illness because she cannot be taken to the Jewish hospital after curfew. Gerd is declared missing, presumed dead. The father survives the war, only to be murdered in a street fight between German sympathizers and communists in the weeks after armistice. At the end, Helene returns to her grandparents’ house, which has been taken over by Orthodox Jews returned from the death camps. They are suspicious and resentful of her; she respects their claim on the house, but has no respect for them, describing them as uncouth, even primitive. Not even genocide, we learn, will necessarily bring people together. Demetz offers no vision of Jewish solidarity. And why should she? After all, it was the perpetrators who defined the victims as much as or even more than the victims themselves.

The neatness of the book’s narrative structure—it ends with Helene on the station platform, awaiting the train back to Prague, standing under the same swaying begonias that so imprinted themselves on her mind as a child—reminds readers that The House on Prague Street is a novel, not a memoir. Yet it reads more like the latter than the former. It has the feeling of coming directly from the life of the author.  It’s not perfect, sometimes it strains a little for effect, but it’s captivating and moving. Some enterprising publisher ought to reissue it.

Anthony Horowitz – The House of Silk (2011) (Audiobook) Enjoyable Holmes novel, improved by Derek Jacobi’s peerless narration. It’s true, I did guess the ending (a subplot fooled me, though I also found it a bit silly), but the book’s real pleasure lies in its subtle characterization of Watson, nothing like the “sack stuffed with straw” so derided by Virginia Woolf. As always, Horowitz brings the stuff.

Hana Demetz – The Journey from Prague Street (1990) After so enjoying Demetz’s earlier novel I had to read its sequel, which sees Helene and her husband escape Czechoslovakia and build a life in America. Unfortunately, Journey isn’t a patch on its predecessor. Maybe the problem is that Demetz wrote it in English. But I think it’s more that the situations—infidelity, divorce, the trials of starting over in mid-life—are tired and their handling uninspired. Maybe Demetz only had one book in her. (I believe, actually, she wrote some others before House, but I don’t think they’ve been translated.)

Sarah Moss – Ghost Wall (2018) I’m writing about this for another outlet, so will only say: I liked it, sometimes quite a lot, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as so many people on Book Twitter seem to have been.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947/1986) Trans. Sharon Lynne Schwartz (1991) Brilliant, evenhanded, non-judgmental and unsparing narrative memoir (what I mean is that Millu tells her experience in Birkenau through a series of stories about other inmates, stories that have the texture of fiction—not that their made up, but that their telling is literary). I’ve written about Smoke before. How good is it? Well, this is the fourth or fifth time in the last couple of years I’ve read it, and it gets better and better. I now know it well enough that I won’t have to read it from cover to cover each semester, but I’ll look forward to dipping into it.

Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins (2011) Trans. Peter Millar (2015) My high hopes for this mystery, set in the rubble of immediate postwar Hamburg, were dashed almost immediately. The writing is pedestrian, and the murderer pretty obvious. The use of the setting is good, and I learned what people did to survive the brutal winter of 1947. I’d have been better off reading a history, though. I believe it’s a first novel, and it might be that Rademacher improves (there are two sequels plus a whole other series), but I’m not inclined to give him a chance. (Especially since I got the book from the UK.) No Philip Kerr, let me tell you.

Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem (1999) My third audiobook of the semester was the fifth in the Holmes/Mary Russell series. It looks back to the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (still the best so far), and expands upon an interlude referred to there in which the leads find themselves in Mandate Palestine. I’m really interested in that time and place, and I enjoyed learning about General Allenby, who seems to have been quite a character, but this book is much too long and much too dull. King hasn’t lost me entirely, Russell is still a good character, and I’ll continue with the series, but plan to take a break for a while.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016) Not only the book of the month, but the book of the year so far, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I want to write a proper post about it, so for now will just say that it’s about an indigenous family in Winnipeg, specifically its female members, and their response to the countless aggressions (micro and macro) they endure. (The Break is a strip of land, a hydro corridor, in the city’s North End). The highest praise I can give books is that I still remember them weeks later, and The Break passes that test easily.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy (2018) Wilkinson’s debut novel, conversely, does not. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, and I found its central conceit—that African Americans are like spies in enemy country, nicely formulated in an epigraph from Ellison’s Invisible Man—fascinating and timely. Marie Mitchell is an African American woman in the FBI in the late 1980s. She ends up working for the CIA in the then-newly renamed Burkina Faso on a mission to ingratiate herself with its charismatic President, Thomas Sankara. Until reading this novel I was completely ignorant of Sankara’s revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist program, which seems to have transformed life for the country’s poor. In the novel—and I suspect in life—the CIA wanted him gone; when Marie is sent on a mission of the kind she has always wanted she is forced to reconcile her love of the work with her feelings that the country she is working for isn’t really her own.

The sections in Africa are nicely handled: the book never feels like a travelogue. Yet even though I was impressed by what Wilkinson was trying to do I didn’t feel she quite pulled it off. There are two reasons for that: one, she’s trying to do too much, and, two, she doesn’t do the genre justice. In addition to everything I’ve mentioned the book also tells a family story, involving Marie’s divorced parents (one a cop and one, it turns out, a former spy) and her sister, who had tried to forge a path into intelligence work and couldn’t. Wilkinson ties this together with the political story, but it’s too much. As Wilkinson admits in this interview, she isn’t that well versed in spy fiction. I appreciate her efforts to queer/diversify the genre—it needs it!—but I want that effort to be accompanied by a better sense of suspense, pacing, etc.  For me, a fascinating misfire.

Primo Levi – The Reawakening (1963) Trans. Stuart Woolf (1965) (The proper title is The Truce.) Although I have taught a short excerpt from this for years in my Holocaust Lit class, I’d never read the whole thing. I read it with some students, and their appreciation of it increased my own. It’s a picaresque, describing the eleven months it took Levi to return to his home in Turin from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We enjoyed comparing The Reawakening to the much more famous Survival in Auschwitz (a.k.a. If This is a Man: Levi’s American publishers didn’t do him any favours). The sequel is markedly different in style, tone, and structure. It is ordered chronologically, for one thing, unlike its much more essayistic predecessor. “Picaresque” is misleading: it suggests scrapes and hijinks and ne’er-do-wells (all of which feature here), when in fact the book contains at least as much that is somber as triumphant. But it’s a book about coming back to life: hard, painful, but ultimately affirming. Levi is sometimes even funny, especially in his appreciation for Soviet organization, or lack thereof. At one point, describing a Soviet DP camp, he says something like (I don’t have the book in front of me), “There was no organization, but we got fed every day. It was a perfect system.” At moments like this, my students and I were reminded of the well-known encounter between Levi and a man named Steinlauf in Survival in Auschwitz. Steinlauf, a WWI veteran, perseveres even in the Lager he with a diligent regime of personal cleanliness, even though in those conditions hygiene was impossible. The point, he explains to Levi, urging him to wash in the ice-cold dirty water provided the prisoners, is to maintain one’s self as a human. Levi sees the man’s point, but he admits himself incapable of following another man’s system. This is the Levi we see in The Reawakening, a man who is finally free yet not forced to navigate the chaotic, ramshackle, uncoordinated but ultimately inescapable Allied bureaucracy.

Although short, The Reawakening is full to bursting with vivid characters and outlandish scenarios. Through a series of misadventures, Levi and the handful of Italian deportees who survived with him are sent east, through the Ukraine and almost up to Minsk, before making their way back down through Romania, Hungary, Austria, even Munich (where Levi refuses to leave the train station) and finally home to Italy. Maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on my students was how fraught the immediate months after the war were. We tend to think that liberation brought a return to normal life; Levi makes it clear, however, that this concept didn’t survive the war.

Looking back, February’s highlights were The House on Prague Street, The Reawakening and, above all, The Break. Anyone read them?

 

“Peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else”: Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation

As Hannah Arendt tells it, Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem for his role in organizing the Final Solution, was given a copy of Lolita by one of his jailers. The gift did not go over well. Two days later, Eichmann, “visibly indignant,” returned it, unfinished. His verdict? “‘Quite an unwholesome book’—‘ Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch.”

I’m baffled by this story. What motivated the Israeli official? Was he making a joke? Setting a test? Teaching a lesson? (Lolita is framed as a jailhouse confession, after all.) Why did Eichmann reject the book? Did he take Humbert Humbert’s tale at face value—that is, did he fail to see the book’s critique of pedophilia? Or on the contrary did he see his own evasions in the narrator’s? Was he rejecting the joke, test or lesson? Above all, why “unwholesome”? (Unerfreulich can also mean unpleasant.)

Arendt offers no explanation for her inclusion of the anecdote. (It’s literally a parenthesis.) But she places it in a discussion of what she calls Eichmann’s aphasia—his inability to wield language without resorting to cliché. The man himself apologized for his inarticulateness to the court, saying that his only language was Amtsprache, bureaucratese. According to Arendt, anyway, Eichmann had no critical faculties. He saw the world through ready-made phrases and shopworn ideas. No wonder wholesomeness was his recourse. He knew what he liked because he liked what he knew.

But maybe in this case he was on to something. Lolita is disreputable. It relishes that designation, of course, asking us to decide what we mean when we reject something as immoral. The point of that challenge isn’t to expand what counts as acceptable behavior but to make us realize how easily we accept, even condone abuse. The novel’s glittering language—the fancy prose style Humbert warns us about in its first pages—only exacerbates the sordidness of its subject matter, so that even our pity and horror for what happens to twelve-year-old Dolores Haze comes to seem tainted by having to be earned from reading against the grain.

I thought about Eichmann and Lolita as I wondered how to respond to Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation (1979), certainly the most unpleasant and maybe the most unwholesome book I’ve read in a long time.

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It’s all the publisher’s fault. When I read the promotional copy—which also appears on the dust jacket—describing Deviation as “a seminal work in Holocaust literature” I was immediately intrigued. (“Seminal” should have tipped me off—I thought we retired that word.) I even managed to convince Scott—who knows Italian literature much better than I do—to read it with me. (Sorry, Scott!)

But Deviation is not about the Holocaust. About fascism, yes, about forced labour camps, definitely, about the relationship between industry and Nazi expansionism, quite interestingly, and about moral equivocation most definitely. But not about the Holocaust, and to suggest this is, frankly, disgusting and disrespectful.

The publisher’s bait and switch has certainly coloured my view of the book, but even without that aggravation I think I’d be hard-pressed to know what to make of Deviation. I’ll let D’Eramo—in the guise of her narrator, basically a version of D’Eramo herself—explain what the book is about. Lucia, like her author born and partially raised in France before returning to Italy as a teenager, is an ardent Fascist. With the establishment of the Republic of Salò in September 1943 and the rise of partisan resistance to fascism, believers like Lucia were left “feeling as though their earlier ideals were crimes” (they were!). Eighteen-year-old Lucia comes to a decision:

I realized that the only way to learn the truth for myself about Fascists and anti-Fascists—many said that they could no longer figure it out [note the resemblance to Trump’s pet expression “People are saying”]—was to ascertain it firsthand. Understanding this, I had to go to the places about which the most outrageous stories were told: the Nazi concentration camps. That’s why I ran away from home on February 8, 1944, and went to Germany as a simple volunteer worker, with pictures of Mussolini and Hitler in my backpack, sure about what I was doing. But after spending a few months in a labor camp near Frankfurt am Main, my comrades organized a strike at the factory, the IG Farben, where I worked in the Ch 89, the chemical division. As a result, I was jailed, then later transferred and detained in Dachau. In order to survive, I escaped from there in October, and for a couple of months I remained hidden in Munich. Then I left, following the death of the friends who were helping me … I headed back to my first Lager [the IG Farben camp at Frankfurt-Höchst], travelling partway by train without a ticket, crouched in the toilets of the cars, partway on foot, spending the night in bomb shelters, in abandoned cattle cars, in foreigners’ barracks … in mid-February [1945] I arrived in Mainz.

Basically, the book is about Lucia’s attempt to come to terms with the evasions and lies in this story. What she first tells us is that on December 4, 1945 she finally returned to Italy, and did so as a paraplegic, her legs having been paralyzed when a wall fell on her as she was helping to dig survivors out of the rubble of a bombed-out building. But this first return was in fact her second.

It’s true, Lucia was involved in the brief and ultimately unsuccessful strike led by both volunteer and forced labourers at the IG Farben camp. And it’s also true that she was arrested. But after a failed suicide attempt—she took rat poison, and only survived because she took too much too quickly, and vomited it up: a nice metaphor for her life, where excess always turns in her favour—she was repatriated by the Italian consul and sent back to Italy.

As far as Lucia is concerned, the only good thing about this outrageous bit of good fortune is that her father, a bigshot in Fascist Italy whom she hates, had nothing to do with it. In fact, he refused to pull any strings for her. But in Verona, waiting for the train that will take her to Como, and home, she rebels. (That’s not the right word. She does something remarkably stupid.) She throws away her papers and arranges to get arrested by some SS men taking a convoy of political prisoners to the station. In this way, she is sent to Dachau, from which she eventually escapes after she volunteers to be part of the shit commando—a work detail sent around Munich to unclog sewage pipes (there are some memorable descriptions of this work in the book’s first pages). When the work detail is caught in an air raid, she slips off into the pandemonium, eventually ending up at a makeshift transit camp for displaced foreigners located in an old brewery. And from there she makes her way, in the manner described in the long quote above, to IG Farben and later to Mainz, where she has her accident.

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The novel—it’s really autofiction avant la lettre—was written over a period of about 25 years, and its distinct sections are dated to show us this progress. D’Eramo usually tells the story in first person, but sometimes switches to third person, suggesting, as translator Anne Milano Appel suggests in her introduction, how foreign to D’Eramo that person now seems to her. (I’m using author and narrator interchangeably in a way I normally never would, but D’Eramo invites the equivalence.)

In the second half of the book, D’Eramo asks why she repressed the memory of returning voluntarily to Germany. But what she presents as an attempt at self-understanding reads as delusory exculpation. Even her big theory about Nazism and its camp system (she regularly distinguishes between Fascism, by which she means Italian Fascism, and Nazism; this distinction is her most interesting idea) fails to make us think better of her. In D’Eramo’s view, the camp system was a form of class warfare, in which only the working classes were made to suffer. Her evidence is that she never met any rich people in her various forms of voluntary incarceration. (Leading her to offer an anti-Semitic canard about Jewish wealth: “The big financiers, the truly wealthy were sheltered abroad.” Bollocks.)

Here and indeed everywhere in the book, D’Eramo comes across as a terrible person, describing “defenseless masses [that] huddle like sheep,” remembering concentration camp inmates as “a swarm of horrible, wonderful insects” (what the hell is “wonderful” translating here?), and criticizing an old woman’s desperate grief at the realization of her impending death as “a kind of greediness that was more irritating than moving.”  She is revolted by the coarseness of her fellow inmates, repulsed by their way of eating, and eventually driven to exclaim, “I despise victims.”

Readers will surely agree with Martine, one of the narrator’s co-conspirators in fomenting the IG Farben strike, who sees through D’Eramo’s political awakening: “So shut your mouth and peddle your philanthropic bullshit to someone else. Why do you try to excuse yourself? You are who you are.” Specifically, she’s someone who, Martine adds, wants the privileges of being a fascist student in the camp (better food and living conditions) without any of the drawbacks (D’Eramo is hurt that others hate her so much).

The most generous reading of Deviance I can muster is that at least D’Eramo is honest enough to show herself in a bad light. But that honesty feels so self-serving. She’s proud of it, like the student who thinks that his honesty in admitting he hasn’t done the reading for class is enough for him to be excused from any consequences. After all, at least he hasn’t tried to bullshit the instructor. But the fact is he’s merely swallowed his own bullshit. So too D’Eramo, whose great struggle in life—the thing she wrestles with for decades—is the lie she tells anyone who will listen, mostly herself, that she was sent to Dachau for her part in organizing the IG Farben strike, when in fact she chose to be sent there. Finally acknowledging that lie, she seems to think, is a courageous thing to do. (Amazingly, she never refers to her real courage, which consists of living with constant pain from her injury, and refusing to use her disability as an excuse for not doing what she wants to do—having a child, writing her books, etc. Except maybe that doesn’t take courage, just determination.)

Admittedly, D’Eramo does wrestle with the hold that the concept of willpower has over her—she sees this as a legacy of her upbringing and she believes more than anything in the need to overcome the prejudices of her bourgeois milieu. Not because she regrets her commitment to fascism. Nor even because she sees the terrible ends to which a belief in willpower can be put (demonizing anyone unlucky in any way or lacking the advantages of her class position as weak and second-rate). Only, as far as I can tell, because she hates her family so much.  And even that rejection relies on the attributes of her middle-class childhood: she wills herself to overcome the idea of willpower. This is akin to the fetishization of toughness that the philosopher Theodor Adorno called one of the most damaging attributes of the fascist mindset. Even if D’Eramo regrets her past beliefs (and I’m not clear she ever does), she maintains the very attitudes that undergirded that belief.

One of the prisoners in the train taking her to Dachau, a partisan (that is, someone brave enough to resist the regime), tells her, after he finds out how D’Eramo came to be in the freight car with the rest of them, “The performance is over. You can go home.” As much as I sympathize with the man, he’s wrong. D’Eramo’s performance, aimed at much at herself as us, is never over, even when she later acknowledges her own act. Because in the end the acknowledgement is the performance.

And I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of that performance. When she calls herself “an inveterately elite worm,” should we applaud her self-awareness? When she describes how she failed in turning what she thinks could have been the most socially aware moment of her life (choosing to be sent to Dachau) into a mere moral act, adding that, even if she can be excused for what she did at the time, given her youth, her upbringing, etc., can she be excused now, are we supposed to admire the question?

No way. After all, she never gets beyond asking it. D’Eramo regularly points out her mistakes—yet she keeps making them. She offers what she knows is a false analogy between her own experience in the hospital after her accident, waiting for the paperwork to come through so she can leave Germany, to the travails of deportees in the cattle cars. But saying it’s a shitty analogy doesn’t make it less shitty.

Nor is she winning me over when, writing in the mid 1970s, she explains that she “agonized retroactively for the children of the Osten [Slavic prisoners of war, both military and civilian, mostly Russian, whom she encountered in the IG Farben camp] and Jews whom I could see clustered behind the barbed wire when I skirted the transit camps in search of shelter, and who, in my distorted memory, stared at me with the dark eyes of my son.” Thanks for nothing, lady. It’s almost as bad as the anti-Semitism and historical inaccuracy in her description of a gold necklace she continues to wear for decades after the war, which she “snatched from a body, like the Jewish Sonderkommando [the prisoners forced to operate the crematoria] did at Auschwitz.”

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Really, the only thing that didn’t make my gorge rise while reading Deviation is D’Eramo’s use of scabrous details: she tells us of men aroused in the disinfection shower; of the chest burns she suffers when she’s assigned to carry blocks of sulfuric acid in the IG Farben camp, as punishment for demanding equal food for Eastern and Western prisoners; of the aftermath of her injury, when her buttock splits open, “emitting copious putrid matter with an unbearable stench”; and of a nurse in the hospital where recovers from that injury who, receiving a letter from a man asking for money to start up a toilet paper factory, since it is sure to be in short supply in post-war Germany, uses the letter to wipe herself.

These details are the only things in this book that don’t stink. They’re gross, but honestly so. They’re not bullshit. The unwholesomeness of the book lies in D’Eramo’s mental gymnastics not her bodily suffering. Adolf Eichmann was wrong about Lolita: the unpleasantness of its events is not something readers are invited to pat themselves on the back for navigating. But his judgment wouldn’t be inappropriate for Deviation. Who do I give my copy back to?

 

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.