Nat Leach’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The fourth post is by Nat Leach (@Gnatleech). Nat has written several posts for the blog over the years, all wonderful. He lives and works on Cape Breton Island.

An Alphabetical Odyssey: Year 3

Like so many things in 2020, my reading did not exactly go according to plan. Readers of my Year in Review post from last year will know that my current project is to work through my shelves alphabetically in order to finish the many partially-read books on them. But while I managed to work my way through almost three letters of the alphabet during each of my first two years of this project, I ended up devoting most of this year to the letter “G”. There are a number of reasons for this: my own tendency to expand this project by creating mini-projects (e.g. exploring 6 translations of Goethe’s Faust or almost 2000 pages of Vasily Grossman) or by adding new books to my shelves thanks to a number of irresistible NYRB Classics titles and some very strong recommendations from Dorian (a Venn diagram of which would basically be a circle), and, of course, my Achilles heel—Twitter read-alongs (Malicroix, Our Mutual Friend, The Man Without Qualities). But if this sounds like complaining, it’s absolutely not—if ever there was a project where the point was the journey and not the destination, it’s this one. After all, what’s going to happen when I reach “Z” (assuming I live that long)? I’m just going to start all over again.

Over the course of the year, I realized something about myself that might help to account for my previous system of rotating my reading between an excessively large number of books: I enjoy beginnings a lot more than endings. A new book introduces us to a new world populated by new characters whom we desire to know better. The potential is boundless. But the closer a book gets to its end, the more it forecloses the possibilities it has opened up, and (often), the more we feel that nothing can surprise us, or, worse, that the ending is not consistent with what went before. Put another way, endings are a lot harder than beginnings; creating the broad outline of a narrative world and its characters is one thing, but sketching in the detail and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion is quite another. Over the years, I think I’ve enjoyed having read only a few chapters of certain books, and having their potential frozen in place like Keats’s urn. But now that I’m getting older, the impulse for completion is getting stronger.

Maybe this is all pretty obvious, but this year really brought it home to me, as I was enticed by the openings of a number of books only to find my interest lagging in the second half. If I could have stopped reading at a certain point, my memories of some of these books would be fonder. Fortunately, I still had mostly positive reading experiences this year; I read 33 books from 11 countries (including 6 from France, making me wonder if there is something about the letter “G” and French surnames), and enjoyed most of them. Here are some short synopses:

Ford, Richard- The Sportswriter (1986)

The only thing I learned from this book is that this middle-aged white guy has no patience for the angst of other middle-aged white guys. The protagonist of this book, Frank Bascombe, is divorced because he has been horrible to his wife, continues to be horrible throughout the entire book, and somehow I’m supposed to care about his faux-profound reflections on life? I could have tolerated this book if there was some sense of distance between its author and his protagonist, but from the light way the book tosses off Frank’s casual sexism and racism to (spoiler alert, if anyone cares) the way he is rewarded at the end of the book with an incipient relationship with a seemingly interesting, intelligent, and attractive 20-year old woman, I can’t help feeling that Ford is thoroughly endorsing Frank’s perspective. I hate to use sophisticated literary-critical terms, but this book was just too “icky” for me. In fairness, Dorian warned me not to read it, but would I listen? I know it’s a bad start to be this grumpy about my first book of the year, but at least if I get a bullet in the mail, I’ll know who it’s from.

Garner, Hugh– Cabbagetown (1968)

Another book from my list of Canadian classics, this novel focuses on the life of an impoverished community in Toronto during the Great Depression. The book’s strength comes from its powerful, vivid depiction of the struggles of its characters as each of them attempts to come to terms with the reality of the Depression in a different way. Here’s a typically great descriptive passage, of a chocolate factory at which one character is fortunate enough to be employed:

The mixing room was heavy with the smell of chocolate. The walls, the floor, the machinery, even Billy, reeked of it. It permeated his clothing, hair, and even his comb, nailfile and wallet, so that he was a permanent olfactory advertisement for Besty-Tasty products. His appetite for chocolate had been satisfied forever during his first week in the mixing room. He had imbibed his fill, not only by mouth and gullet but by absorption through his pores. Now he could no longer even smell chocolate, for it was his own body odour.

It’s far from the bleakest passage in the book, but given the unfortunate fate this character suffers in the mixing room, it appropriately attests to the way in which characters are victims of their concrete circumstances.

Genet, Jean- Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) (trans. Bernard Frechtman)

Usually, when an author has a reputation for being shocking, I find myself highly disappointed when I actually read them. Genet, however, completely lives up to his reputation. Written clandestinely in prison, the book challenges all conventions and taboos. But, going beyond Genet’s detailed and explicit attention to bodily emissions and his multiple slang terms for “penis,” two things particularly struck me. 1) The guy can write. Given his subject matter, it’s hard to call his writing beautiful, but it has a rhythm and flow that captivates, even as his digressive style is continually shifting narrative tracks. 2) At the root of the narrative is actually a very sensitive story of someone who would today be called a trans youth, told without embellishment or censorship.

Gide, André- The Immoralist (1902) (trans. Dorothy Bussy)

Call this Exhibit A of the phenomenon I mentioned above; this book captured me at the beginning, but lost much of my interest by the end. It’s an appropriate book for this year, I suppose, insofar as it is concerned with the way that illness—and recovery—test relationships. I enjoyed this book, but I somehow expected it to go further than it did. Maybe I’ve just become jaded by subsequent anti-heroes, but the climax of the book did not particularly shock me, nor did it inspire much moral reflection. In his Preface, Gide says, “I have not tried to prove anything, but only to paint a picture well”; he does that much, but I couldn’t help wanting something more.

Ginzburg, Natalia- Family Lexicon (1963) (trans. Jenny McPhee)

Call this one Exhibit B: I liked this book a lot, but I loved the first half of it and felt it ran out of steam a little bit towards the end. It opens in a really interesting way, exploring how a family’s language constructs its own particular place in the world. This thread carries through the book, of course, but at a certain point, Ginzburg becomes much more informational, describing what happened to each member of the family and its associated friends. Not coincidentally, this point is the outbreak of World War II, and the various traumas and divisions in the family are noted without being extensively described. Given that Ginzburg notoriously recommended the rejection of Primo Levi’s seminal Holocaust memoir, If This is a Man, because of its subject matter, it is perhaps not surprising to find that she is reticent about describing her own war experiences, including her husband being tortured to death by the Nazis. I liked it enough to give the book to my mother for her birthday, and her take was that the book starts from a child’s perspective, so you don’t expect very much interpretation, but once it shifts to an adult’s perspective, we feel that absence of context a lot more. Which I thought was a good point. All of this is by way of explaining why I felt the latter half of the book somewhat flatter than the first part, but I still enjoyed it a lot.

Giono, Jean- Hill (1929) (trans. Paul Eprile)

This was a late addition to my list, thanks to the recommendation of Dorian, and others on Twitter, and was certainly one of my favourite books of the year. Written in 1929, it reads in a very contemporary way because of its treatment of environmental concerns. I jokingly referred to it as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” meets Picnic at Hanging Rock because it involves a violation of nature that is punished, but in a mysterious, uncanny way. The events take place in a tiny village in Provence, where the inhabitants struggle with the forces of nature, and the book wonderfully illustrates the precarious coexistence of the human and natural worlds.

Gissing, George- The Odd Women (1893)

This book had been sitting on my shelf for some 20 years, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it I could kick myself for waiting so long. Another book that feels very contemporary despite its age, and that rarest of things, a book that deals with social issues (in this case, the Victorian “woman question”) without sounding preachy. Clearly, there are characters we are expected to identify with more than others, but Gissing brings great sensitivity and understanding even to the characters who are clearly shown to be ideologically flawed. My one criticism of this book would be its use of implausible coincidences to move the plot along; for example, when complete strangers meet and realize that they live in exactly the same building in the huge and bustling city of London, you just know that plot complications are going to follow. (On the other hand, I forgive Dickens for stuff like this ten times in a single book, so I guess I can’t really complain.) This is one of the exceptions to my tendency of the year, since it actually gets the ending just right, which is especially difficult for novels about social problems; a happy ending is liable to make readers complacent about real social ills, while an overly tragic ending makes them feel hopeless. Gissing strikes just the right balance between hope for the future and mourning for what might have been.

Godwin, William- Deloraine (1833)

Having read all of Godwin’s “mature” novels (I haven’t read his three “juvenile” novels) except this, his last, I figured it was time. It’s far from his best, and might be accused of being a re-tread of Godwin’s dominant themes: social alienation, class injustice, the haunted perspective of a pursued criminal, and an abrupt reversal of philosophical perspective at the end. He does, however, also do a characteristically good job of using conventional melodramatic situations to raise deeper philosophical questions. Is it worth saving your life, Godwin asks, if you lose your identity in the process?

Gogol, Nikolai- The Inspector General (1836) (trans. B.G. Guerney)

Sadly, this nineteenth century satire on political corruption and deceptive appearances is just as relevant now as it was then. A buffoonish but minor civil servant is mistaken for an important government inspector in disguise; hilarity ensues as local officials seek to conceal their misdeeds and appease the fake inspector, but as the play’s conclusion reminds us, the subject is not all that funny.

Goethe- Faust, Parts 1 and 2 (1808, 1832) (various translators)

I embarked on an ambitious project of beginning 6 translations, and ended up finishing 2 (the Bayard Taylor and Charles Passage versions). Part of the reason for this is that Part 1 has been much more frequently translated than Part 2; two of my translations were of Part 1 only. To summarize briefly, Part 1 was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be (Faust makes deal with Mephistopheles, seduces Gretchen, lots of witches and devilish imagery et cet.), and Part 2 was utterly and completely not (complex allegory about everything from contemporary politics to poetry to geology). I would say that it completely changed my view of Goethe, but now that I think about it, I had a similar reaction to Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, so maybe I should just admit that I have no idea what to expect from him.

Goethe- The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) (trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Brogan)

When I was an undergraduate, my classmates and I created a list of “big idiots of English literature,” to which virtually every character in every book we read would be added for one reason or another. Werther would probably have earned his own category on that list. I actually suspect that undergraduate me would have totally loved this book, but given the suicide craze that it sparked in Germany on its publication, it’s probably just as well that I did not read it until I was older and wiser. Now, I’m more inclined to say that it’s a good book, but man, that guy is a big idiot.

Gracq, Julien- Chateau d’Argol (1938) (trans. Louise Varèse)

I had heard such wonderful things about Gracq that I was very keen to read one of his books. Having received this one (his first, as it happens) as a gift some years ago, I chose it, which may not actually have been the best place to start. The writing is gorgeous, the plot minimal—a  man buys a remote castle in Brittany, his frenemy comes to visit, and brings a woman, leading to a love triangle of sorts—and some of the chapters are utterly compelling. One in which the three protagonists swim too far out into the sea and struggle to return to shore was particularly gripping. Given my interest in the Gothic, I was also intrigued by the exploration of the castle and the vivid, often grotesque, imagery, but, finally, I wasn’t sure if the book adds up to much. It gave the impression of housing some hermetic secret, but search me what that might be. But the writing itself is enough to make me want to explore Gracq further.

Grass, Günter- The Tin Drum (1959) (trans. Ralph Manheim)

Exhibit C? At least I’d been warned that the first half of this book is much better than the second. And having seen Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation three times, I certainly had some vivid memories of the beginning: Oskar Matzerath—unreliable narrator extraordinaire—tells the improbable story of his mother’s conception, eventually arriving at his own birth, and the novel’s pivotal event: he is given a drum for his third birthday and decides to stop growing. I was a bit puzzled that I had no recollection of any events from the second half of the book, but after watching the film for a fourth time, I realized that Schlöndorff only adapted the first 2 of the novel’s 3 books. Probably a wise choice since the third book is pretty forgettable, and Schlöndorff ends his film by foregrounding the Holocaust context that Grass himself has been accused of minimizing. As Ernestine Schlant puts it, “there is an ingrained obtuseness and insensitivity to those who suffered and died, evident in a language where silence is veiled in verbal dexterity and a creative exuberance rooted in pre-Holocaust aesthetics.” Schlöndorff does a much better job of addressing this context in his film, foregrounding German anti-Semitism; having Charles Aznavour sympathetically portray Sigismund Markus, the store owner who supplies Oskar with his drums, and one of the few Jewish characters in the book; and, finally, ending with the arrival of Fajngold, a camp survivor who displaces Oskar’s family. I liked the book well enough, but I think Schlant has a point: Grass loves his own creativity in a way that overshadows his book’s troubling subject matter.

Gray, Alasdair- Poor Things (1992)

A playfully postmodern riff on Frankenstein in particular and nineteenth century fiction more generally, this book starts with “Alasdair Gray” discovering and surreptitiously pocketing a manuscript written by a Victorian physician and gets progressively wilder from there. Impossible to write too much about without giving something away, but brilliant in the way that each successive level of documentation works to throw into question what has come before.

Green, Henry- Loving (1945)

This book bucked the trend of the year: it grabbed me from the beginning and never let go. The plot concerns the servants in an Irish manor during World War II, and depicts their lives with a remarkable fullness, rarely showing much of the lives of the upper-class characters at all. Highly recommended to anybody except those who can’t stand when adjectives are used as adverbs.

Greene, Graham- The Heart of the Matter (1948)

This was my third Greene novel (after The Power and the Glory and A Burnt-Out Case) and certainly the one I enjoyed the most. I suspect this has as much to do with my age as anything else; I read those first two in my 20’s, but Greene’s heroes always seem to be world-weary and cynical, a position with which I am becoming increasingly sympathetic. I could certainly feel for Scobie, a morally upright but generally insignificant colonial policeman whose conscience gets tested both in his public and his private life. The other challenge I find with reading Greene is the centrality of the Catholic beliefs of many of his characters; in this case, the entire final third of the book hinges on Scobie’s Catholic definition of sin, and even though one of the women in his life points out the inconsistency between his actions and beliefs, it is clear that readers are supposed to be aligned with Scobie’s views. George Orwell disliked the book for this reason, dismissing Scobie’s character as implausible (that, and the fact that the book is set in Africa, but is exclusively concerned with “white people problems”). So, I did enjoy the book, but also felt that I couldn’t sufficiently engage with its moral problem.

Greenwood, Walter- Love on the Dole (1933)

Another very fitting book to read this year, this account of life in a Northern English city during the Great Depression is filled with simmering, impotent frustration with the system, and one very explosive protest. Greenwood does an excellent job of showing the texture of life within the limiting constraints of “Hanky Park,” the slum neighbourhood where the characters live, from the cradle to the grave. We see highs as well as lows, but are always reminded that the system is designed in precisely this way, as the lows get progressively lower.

Grossman, Vasily- Stalingrad (1952) (trans. Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler) and Life and Fate (1960) (trans. Robert Chandler)

I bought Life and Fate on Dorian’s recommendation, but before I could read it, I heard about NYRB’s publication of Stalingrad. I tried to decide which to read first, as there seem to be many opinions on that question. In his introduction to Life and Fate, Robert Chandler says that it is “better seen as a separate novel that includes some of the same characters,” but in his Introduction to Stalingrad, he refers to the two novels as a closely connected “dilogy.” I can certainly see the logic in both claims; one does not need to have read Stalingrad to appreciate Life and Fate. As a stand-alone novel, the latter can simply be seen as opening in medias res, and its ideological perspective is markedly different from the earlier novel anyway. However, I ended up reading the “dilogy” in sequence, which did help me to feel the continuity of Grossman’s intricately depicted world. In fact, Life and Fate begins with characters who had been captured by the Germans about halfway through Stalingrad, and whom I had almost forgotten already, so I’m sure that if I had read them separately, I would have missed many of the connections between them. I enjoyed both books, although Stalingrad is much more ideologically orthodox than Life and Fate, which is more complex (and subversive) in its exploration of the dynamics of totalitarianism, both in Germany and in Russia.

Grushin, Olga- The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2005)

This was a wonderful follow-up to Grossman, exploring the history and psychology of the Soviet era with a specific lens on visual art. The novel positions surrealism as an imaginative artistic movement repressed by the official dictates of socialist realism; that repression returns with a vengeance in the psyche of the main character. The book is narratively breath-taking and deftly switches from third-person to first-person at significant moments, building to a remarkable crescendo.

Haasse, Hella- The Scarlet City (1952) (trans. Anita Miller)

Normally, I’m a sucker for all forms of historical fiction, but this one gets mixed reviews from me. Its central narrative revolves around Giovanni Borgia, who is searching for answers to the mysteries of his birth (Is he really a Borgia? And if so, through which member (or members!) of the Borgia line can he trace his lineage?) It’s interesting to note that this character does seem to be based on a real historical figure, albeit one who was murdered before the events of this narrative begin, and who does not seem to have had such mysterious parentage; so the narrative is counter-factual, but not in a way that an average reader would recognize. Giovanni explains that he writes his narrative because there is nobody in Rome he can trust. So far, so good—and this part of the narrative was quite enjoyable—but interspersed with Giovanni’s narrative are the stories of a number of other related characters, presented in a weird combination of omniscient third person narrative and unmotivated first person reflections. The fact that Giovanni’s narrative situation is explained, but these others are not, was confusing enough, but to top it off, Haasse breaks the Sir Walter Scott rule, and makes actual historical personages central figures in a way that feels very jarring from a historical point of view (Michelangelo is the focus of two segments, and we also read letters supposedly written by Machiavelli). Those parts really did not work for me, nor did the whole thing come together in any meaningful way at the end, as I had hoped, although the vivid and brutal depiction of the Sack of Rome of 1527 was a powerful segment.

Hamsun, Knut- Hunger (1890) (trans. Robert Bly)

This book does exactly what it says on the tin: there really is an awful lot of hunger in it. It is psychologically gripping, as the narrator attempts in various ways to get money for food and very often finds reasons to reject it or give it away when he is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get some. I took issue with the translator’s Afterword, in which Bly claims that the trajectory of the narrative is one in which the narrator comes to learn what he needs. I question whether any learning takes place in this book at all; the last event seems like yet another in a series, not a resolution. One interesting note from the Afterword, though, is that Hamsun apparently cured himself of tuberculosis by riding on the roof of a train to fill his lungs with air; I wonder what he would have done if he were alive this year.

Haushofer, Marlen- The Wall (1963/1968) (trans. Shaun Whiteside)

Possibly my favourite book of the year, but I’m not sure how to do it justice. It’s impossible to write a plot summary that doesn’t make it sound a little bit boring: woman thinks she is the last person on earth, tries to survive along with her animals. But it is absolutely riveting to follow the narrator’s thought processes, which are both practical in nature (how to accomplish the necessary tasks to survive) and very human in her need for affection and interaction (provided mostly by her dog, but also cats and cows) and in her reflection on her past life, thrown into perspective by her current situation. I knew I wouldn’t do it justice, but it’s a fantastic book.

Best of the Rest

Bosco, Henri- Malicroix (1946)(trans. Joyce Zonana)

It feels like a long time since I read and wrote about this book, but it still ranks as one of my favourite reading experiences of the year.

Dickens, Charles- Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)

I had read this in my youth and was very pleased that it held up as well as I remembered. I know some people complain that the ending comes off as artificial and contrived, but as someone with a great fondness for melodrama, I appreciate a good melodramatic revelation scene when it is well done, and Dickens does indeed do it very well.

Musil, Robert- The Man Without Qualities (trans. Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike)

Technically, I haven’t finished this book yet, but any time I read 1053 pages of a book, I’m going to mention it. Very good so far.

Smith, Charlotte- The Young Philosopher (1798)

Charlotte Smith is a Romantic period author who never seems to get the recognition she deserves. She thought of herself as a poet (and her 1784 Elegiac Sonnets enjoyed a great deal of popularity) but she wrote novels to pay the bills. Her novels combine radical politics and melodrama; the “young philosopher” of the title is George Delmont, who offends society by believing that a person’s merit can be determined by their actions not their status. But the novel’s focus is on his beloved, Medora Glenmorris, and her mother, embattled heroines relentlessly pursued and tormented by representatives of patriarchal culture. The melodramatic situations may be conventional, but the political use to which they are put is pointed.

What I Read, February 2020

February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.

So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:


Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.

The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.

 News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.

Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.

Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.

Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.

Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)

Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).

Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.

Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.

Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:

She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.

On Duras:

For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.

On Ginzburg:

Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.

If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”

May such a life of reading be given to us all.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.


In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.

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.


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.


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.