Nat Leach’s 2019 Year in Reading

I invited my friend and sometime EMJ contributor, Nat Leach, to write about the highlights of his year in reading. Not only did he write about his favourites, he also described his idiosyncratic reading project. Enjoy! (I couldn’t help but add a few editorial comments along the way.)

When Dorian suggested that I consider writing a review post on my reading for the year, I was keen to share some of my thoughts, but also felt the need to preface it with a confession of sorts, so here goes:

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I have never been the sort of person who could read just one book at a time. When I was an undergraduate student, I kept a pile of books beside my bed. I would read a chapter from the top book, place it in a new pile beside the first one and repeat until the pile was empty. Then, I would repeat the same process in reverse. This had the benefit of keeping my reading fresh, never getting bogged down in one thing, and allowing me to continually be surprised. It took me a little longer to finish books, but I quite enjoyed this too; when I really liked them, I wanted to savour them, and when I didn’t like them, I was soon able to switch to something else.

The problem came when I entered graduate school, moved to a city with excellent used book stores (London, Ontario) [have to say, this does not correlate to my memory of London! – DS] and started to become more broadly curious about literature, theory, philosophy, and just about everything else, than I ever had been before. One pile became two, then three, and eventually I had a long coffee table covered with nothing but book piles. My system became more sophisticated, but the basic principle of moving from one book to the next did not change. Over the years, I made compromises (my wife insisted on bookshelves to replace that coffee table, for example) but I never changed my ways. I continued to enjoy picking up books with no preconceived decision-making process in mind. Thomas de Quincey’s excellent essay on sortilege and astrology influenced my thinking on this point; he accepts that connections exist between things that cannot be rationally understood, so sees value in allowing chance to bring them to light. And indeed, I have often felt that I was reading just the right book at just the right time, some kind of synchronicity between my reading and my life, or between two books I happened to be reading at the same time.

It wasn’t until I joined Twitter two years ago that I began to take stock of my reading life. For one thing, I joined Twitter to participate in the great book conversations that I discovered there, but it’s hard to join in conversations when you have only read parts of so many books. How many times can you say “Oh yeah, I read the first quarter of that book! It’s really good!”? For another thing, I realized that I’m not as young as I used to be, and in the face of inevitable mortality, I’d rather die having finished a few good books as opposed to having started a whole bunch.

It was at this point that I realized that the only way to overcome the negative effects of an absurd and ill-advised reading strategy, I was going to need another absurd and ill-advised reading strategy. I hit on the idea of methodically working my way through all of those never-completed books one at a time from A to Z (from Achebe to Zola, if you will). I already tended to arrange my reading alphabetically, so this simply built in the requirement that I had to finish a book before moving on to the next one.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I now read only one book at a time. But at least I’m now cycling between 20-30 books rather than hundreds, and focusing primarily on a single book. Nor does it mean that I am entirely rigid in my system; it initially intended to involve only books that I had already started, but gradually I have allowed alluring new books to slip into their place in the alphabetical queue. I have also made exceptions for borrowed/library books and communal Twitter events, all of which slow my progress somewhat, but since the pleasure is in the journey, I also enjoy these diversions and side-trips.

All of which is to explain why most of my reading for the year falls within a fairly small alphabetical range. In 2018, I got through A, B and most of C. This year, I finished C and got through D, E and most of F. If I keep this pace of almost 3 letters per year, I’ll be done this project by 2027 (and then I’ll probably just start again). Statistically speaking, I completed 39 books last year and 31 this year; not huge totals, but since I hadn’t even cracked 30 since 2000, I think I can say my new system is showing progress. Also, 9 of the 31 were over 500 pages, which partly accounts for the slower pace. These 31 books were written by authors from 15 different countries, which I thought was a pretty remarkable ratio considering the arbitrariness of my system, although this diversity primarily comes from various countries in Europe; I may need to work on exploring other continents. I read 18 books by men and 13 by women.

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Having said all that, I present thumbnail sketches of my 2019 reading:

Couperus, Louis- Eline Vere

Technically, my last book of 2018, but I finished it on January 3, and it’s so good, I’m including it. It’s a book with a personal connection for me, since my Dutch grandmother had numerous figurines of the title character around her house in The Hague; she explained that because this book was so famous, Eline had become a sort of figure of pride for the city. Once I finished the book, this puzzled me a little, since Eline is not exactly the heroic sort of character one would expect to be commemorated in this way, but the book is fantastic in its depiction both of its social world and Eline’s disaffection and alienation from it. [I really love this book too, and wish it were better known! — DS]

Crummey, Michael- Galore

A magical realist novel set in Newfoundland (think One Hundred Years of Solitude but with a whole lot more ice). Crummey incorporates the folklore and history of the island into a compelling and fantastical multi-generational narrative (this is one of those novels where you are very grateful that there is a family tree included at the beginning of the book). It also features that rarest of things, an ending that is totally unexpected and yet a perfectly appropriate way of resolving the narrative.

Dante- The Divine Comedy

There’s not much new that I can say about Dante, but I do think that reading this book is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Even a lapsed Unitarian like me has to appreciate the thoroughness of his cosmology, even if I’d be very afraid of someone who actually believed all of it. It does inevitably suffer from Milton’s problem, that what happens in Hell is so much more interesting than what happens in Heaven.

David, Filip- The House of Remembering and Forgetting

I had high hopes for this book after reading some early reviews, but in the end was disappointed with it. There are some powerful moments, but it ultimately reads as an awkward mishmash of Holocaust narrative and mysticism (two things that, frankly, do not go together). [Might explain why I never finished this book. — DS]

DeLillo, Don- Falling Man

I count White Noise among my favourite novels of all time, and it didn’t seem surprising that the author of a book that depicts mundane American life being punctured by disaster would choose to write a novel about 9/11. DeLillo represents the traumatic aftermath of the event on one man and his family in a thoughtful and nuanced way. This narrative is juxtaposed with a number of scenes focalized through one of the hijackers which seem to offer a broader perspective, though these segments seem rather under-developed compared to the main plot. I enjoyed the book, although in the end, I found myself wondering if it had really gone anywhere (but maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to?)

Dickens, Charles- Hard Times

This is a book that my younger self didn’t get on with very well because of its overt didacticism, but this time I enjoyed it a great deal, having a better sense of its context. Still not my favourite Dickens, but that’s not really a criticism.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor- Crime and Punishment

Another literary experience that I think everyone should undergo, harrowing though it is. I was already about halfway through the book, having read the crime and was awaiting the punishment. I was somewhat surprised by how long I had to wait, as the book seems quite digressive, but that may also be the point, that the consequences of the crime infiltrate every aspect of Raskolnikov’s life.

Drndic, Dasa- Belladonna

Another book I was very much looking forward to, and this one did not disappoint; it’s fiercely written and utterly compelling. Andreas Ban’s body is deteriorating in a way that mirrors the corruption he sees in his country, Croatia, and his memories and experiences frame the book’s reflections on history, politics, theory, and culture. Much of the book recounts Nazi and Ustase persecution of Jews in WWII and condemns the post-independence government of Croatia for its complicity in rehabilitating war criminals (both from WWII and from the Balkan genocides). Its attacks include a lengthy screed that will cure you of ever wanting to read Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones. [I’m a big fan of Littel’s novel, so now I’ve got to read this. — DS]

Du Maurier, Daphne- My Cousin Rachel

This is a perfect book of its kind. Is Rachel a kindly relative or a cynical gold-digger? Is Philip a paranoid misogynist or a potential victim? Du Maurier keeps the pendulum swinging between these options, building suspense and cultivating uncertainty so that we’re never entirely sure of the truth, but compelled to keep reading. So good it sent me on a Du Maurier book-buying binge after finishing it. [And rightly so! I too loved this one. — DS]

Duncan, Sara Jeanette- The Imperialist

This Canadian classic from 1904 begins as a domestic drama about the Murchison family in a small town in Ontario, but widens into tackling broader economic and political issues. The family’s eldest son, Lorne, becomes an advocate for a preferential trade agreement with Great Britain, and runs for political office on that platform. The novel does get a bit bogged down in economic minutiae of a past era, but its concerns with British isolationism, election fraud, and the exploitation of Canada’s Indigenous people all seem disturbingly current.

Duncker, Patricia- Hallucinating Foucault

In the 1990’s, I think this was an obligatory book for theory-heads like me, but despite touching on Foucaultian themes such as madness and incarceration, it doesn’t really have much to do with him. The book starts with an interesting academic mystery, a graduate student searching for a French author with an oblique connection to Foucault, but fizzles out once he actually finds him. It just feels like the book tries too hard, culminating with an overtly symbolic character death that I couldn’t help laughing at. [Wow, now I need to re-read it. I loved it when I read it as the theory-head graduate student Nat describes, and have always wondered what happened to Duncker. Could I have been so wrong? (Yes.) — DS]

Edgeworth, Maria- Ormond

Edgeworth was much admired by Jane Austen, but her books have not achieved as wide a readership as Austen’s. The perceived regionalism of her Irish settings is no doubt one cause, but this book is at its strongest in its early scenes depicting the tension between Irish and Anglo-Irish ways of life. This novel begins in a picaresque mode, with Harry Ormond sent to live with an Irish relative after nearly killing a man in a quarrel and aspiring to become “an Irish Tom Jones”.  Ormond does improve morally, and the narrative loses some of its energy in the later scenes in Paris which demonstrate his reformed character. Perhaps this didacticism is another reason for Edgeworth’s neglect, but it does not negate this book’s many charms.

Eliot, George- Daniel Deronda

This one was quite a commitment, but was definitely the best book I read all year. From its in medias res opening that takes hundreds of pages to untangle to its swerve in the second half of the book away from concerns with individual relationships towards larger cultural, religious and moral issues, I found it thoroughly compelling both in narrative terms and in ethical ones.

Esquivel, Laura- Like Water for Chocolate

This is as close to light vacation reading as I get; magic realism with a feminist kick. Tita is expected by family tradition to remain unmarried in order to take care of her mother until her death, and the narrative is about overcoming the weight of these expectations. Tita’s creative energies are channeled into cooking, and a recipe accompanies each chapter, making this a potentially very tasty read (although most of them seemed too advanced for my culinary abilities).

Fallada, Hans- Every Man Dies Alone

This book about one couple’s small acts of resistance against Nazism drew me in from the very start and the ensuing cat and mouse narrative raises ethical questions about the obligation and the capacity to resist injustice. These questions become more ponderous as the book goes on, and the stakes are raised, but we never lose sight of the message that each individual must make these choices in ways both big and small. [So, so good! — DS]

Farrell, M.J. (Molly Keane)- Young Entry

I didn’t know whether to file this under F (for the author’s pen name) or K (for her real name), but chose the former simply because I was keen to read it. One of my favourites of the year for sheer reading pleasure; much as the plot about teenage girls coming of age against the backdrop of hunting culture in early 20th century Ireland sometimes bewildered me as I lack the vocabulary for hunting, horse riding and ladies’ underthings, the writing is so sharp and witty, I just went along for the ride. There are, for example, some wonderful passages presented from the point of view of the dog, or take this description of a runaway bicycle: “As the slope grew steeper, and consequently their progress faster, Prudence made the interesting discovery that Mr. Bennet’s bicycle entirely lacked brakes.”

Findley, Timothy- Headhunter

I remember wanting to read this book when it was first published (1993) because I had just read Heart of Darkness and was intrigued by the book’s initial premise, that Mr. Kurtz escapes from the pages of the book and terrorizes Toronto. That is quickly revealed as the delusion of a mentally ill character (Kurtz and Marlow are, coincidentally, the names of two psychologists), however, and what is depicted in this book is actually more horrifying (as readers of Findley might well expect.) Exploitation of the mentally ill, a child pornography ring, graphic violence against humans and animals: it’s not a book for the squeamish. In the end, I’m not sure it really holds together, as it tries to do way too much (and is already over 600 pages), but it sure is prescient on topics such as fake news and climate change denial.

Fink, Ida- A Scrap of Time

I read this book on Dorian’s recommendation, and he’s much better equipped than I am to explain the brilliance of these Holocaust stories. What impresses me most about them is the way that Fink dramatizes the complex dimensions of impossible moral situations. By showing, for example, a father remembering his attempt to hide while his children are being taken away (“Crazy”), or a woman being asked to suppress her past in order to keep a new lover (“Night of Surrender”), Fink makes us see the horrifying ways in which the persecutions of the Holocaust are perpetuated and internalized by survivors. [Yes, these stories are indispensable. — DS]

Flaubert, Gustave- Sentimental Education

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, I got about as wide a range of responses as possible; some people love the book, others hate it, and some feel completely indifferent about it. Upon reading it, I can understand all those responses; it’s a chaotic novel that challenges readerly expectations in ways that might seem exhilarating, annoying, or tedious depending on the reader. I liked the book for the most part; even though the protagonist, Frédéric is often quite obnoxious, and his desire for the unattainable Madame Arnoux so excessive, I was still interested in him as a somewhat exaggerated exemplar of the human condition. His single-minded commitment to the object of his passion and his vacillation on every other desire seem painful, but typical human weaknesses. [Oh man, do I have mixed feelings about this one. — DS]

Fleming, Ian- You Only Live Twice

This was the first Bond novel I had ever read, and was not at all what I expected; the first half reads as a travelogue of Japan, and only in the second half do we get into some (fairly tame) spy stuff. The villain’s diabolical plan is somewhat limited in scope, but his “suicide garden” of toxic plants is evocative and terrifying. I liked it much better than the film, which used almost no material from the book, aside from some character names.

Gaskell, Elizabeth- Cranford

I must confess that I read this one out of order because it was the next book up on my e-reader while I was on vacation. I already knew that I loved Gaskell’s writing, her perceptive analysis of human character and her ability to produce powerfully emotional scenes. What I learned from this book is that she can also be laugh-out-loud funny. These vignettes about women in an English village are sweet, heartbreaking, and humourous by turns; my favourite moment is when a rather hyperbolic panic caused by a suspected wave of break-ins sweeps the town.

Best of the rest:

Levi, Primo- The Monkey’s Wrench

I re-read (and wrote about) The Periodic Table in commemoration of Levi’s centenary, and had intended to write about it in conjunction with The Monkey’s Wrench, but realized it would have been too much. The two books have much in common, including Levi’s characteristically keen eye for the nuances of human character, and a belief in the ennobling power of work. Where The Periodic Table celebrates the chemist’s ability to solve mental challenges, The Monkey’s Wrench often celebrates the more physical aspects of work in stories told by Libertino Faussone, a fictional character whom Levi identifies as a composite of many real men, and the narrator, a version of Levi himself. The most interesting parts of the book, though, are the many places where this manual labour is compared to, and aligned with, the act of story-telling itself.

Pontoppidan, Henrik- Lucky Per

This book intrigued me and frustrated me by turns, but it certainly did make me think. Most of my frustrations came from the book’s seeming uncertainty about how it felt about the protagonist. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, in which Per is a rebel against the soul-destroying form of Christianity practiced by his family, but as Per’s behaviour becomes more reprehensible, the book seems to lack a critical distance from him so that it’s not clear how we are supposed to react to his egotism. This book inspired me to re-read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a favourite of mine which seemed a clear model for this novel, although the possibility of redemption is handled very differently in the two works. Despite my frustrations, this is a book that has stuck with me.

Vermette, Katerina- The Break

I read this fantastic, troubling book because Dorian told me to and you should too!

2019 Year in Reading

Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.

Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.

For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)

And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.

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Best of the Bunch

Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)

Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.

I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.

Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.

 Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.

Other Awards

Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)

Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.

Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.

Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.

Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.

Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.

Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.

Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.

Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).

Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).

Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.

Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain

Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).

Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!

Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.

Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.

Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).

Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).

Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.

Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).

Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.

Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!

Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).

Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.

Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).

Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.

Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.

Monthly Review Posts

January, February, March, April, May,  June, July/August, September, October, November, December

Coming in 2020

More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.

In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.

One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.

As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.

And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.

July & August 2019 in Review

Been a long time since I wrote anything here, and two months since my last reading update. What have I been doing? Took a long vacation back home the end of July and early August. Then school started up again. (We’re through the first two weeks: I’m surviving, but the whole thing doesn’t feel quite real yet. The entering class seems sharp, though, which is heartening.) And my wife and I finally gave in to our daughter’s pleas: we got a puppy (exhausting, even though our older dog is doing a lot of the work). I’ve found it hard to make time to write, but I did do a fair bit of reading, especially on holiday, mostly light stuff. Much of it was enjoyable, but I’m not sure too much here will be on the end of the year list.

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July

Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (2002) Not especially captivating (the writing was surprisingly pedestrian), but a great way to learn a lot about Levi. He could be joyful, caring, and inquisitive, but the older he grew the more those sides of him struggled to get out from under serious depression. At the end of his life he despaired about the resurgence of fascism. This was in the mid 80s. Think how unhappy he’d be today.

As part of my centenary celebration of Levi’s life and work, I made a list of Levi facts.

Esther Freud, Lucky Break (2011) My summer project to make it through Freud’s backlist (see May and June’s posts) continued with this, her second-most-recent novel. It begins at an acting school in London in the late 70s, early 80s, almost certainly modelled on the one Freud herself attended. (She’s written about this milieu before, most notably in Peerless Flats.) What’s different here is that Freud continues past the adolescent/early-adult years and tracks the fates of several characters into middle age. She moves between perspectives, showing us who makes it, who doesn’t, who never gets over that formative drama school experience, who brushes it off or takes it in stride in becoming their mature self. What is a lucky break? When you get what you want? When you make a narrow escape? Not Freud’s best, but I don’t think she has a bad book in her.

Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers (1946) Trans. Karen van Dyck (1995) You can read my thoughts here. Short version: good!

Inge Auerbach, I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (1986) Illustrations Israel Bernbaum A Holocaust memoir for young readers (I’d say maybe 9-12). For me, the primary appeal was the unusualness of the writer’s circumstances. Auerbach grew up in a small town near the Black Forest, surprising because Germany had a Jewish population of only half a million before the war, and few lived in the south-west. Auerbach was deported to Theresienstadt, a former military barrack turned Potemkin village, from which she was fortunate not to have been deported to Auschwitz. She was there at the time of the infamous Red Cross visit (the Germans spruced the place up to show the world how much they had the interests of Jews at heart) and she clearly remembered the production of the children’s opera Brundibar. I Am a Star would be a good introduction to the Holocaust (unusually for a book of its time it is not centered on a Gentile child who witnesses events at second hand), but I must confess it hasn’t particularly stayed with me. (I had to look up most of these details.) What is vivid is a scene in which the six-year-old Auerbach has to take the train, all alone, to the not-so-nearby city of Stuttgart in order to go to the only school in the area for Jews. She’s wearing the star, which I believe was instituted in Germany proper only in 1941, which means this was happening when preparations for the full implementation of the “Final Solution” were gaining speed rapidly; the adults around her are hostile, indifferent, or mutely embarrassed.

I’ve just learned I’m going to get to meet her this fall. It will be an honour.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments (1987) Impelled to read this by the NYT poll that listed it as the best memoir of the past 50 years. Well, who knows about that, but it’s definitely great. Personally, I found it less fascinating than her much more recent The Odd Woman (crazily underrated), but I still liked it a lot. Even if you’re less fascinated than I am by American (aka Jewish) communism of the 1930s and its long, mostly sad aftermath you’re bound to find much to love here. Who doesn’t love a great tale of generational conflict? Gornick’s mother is a monster, and a delight, and a show-stealer. (Gornick has the grace not to begrudge this.) The book moves between memories of Gornick’s childhood and descriptions of the long walks she takes with her mother in the present (now long past) day. These walks are the venues for a life-long argument about how women should understand their lives. As Gornick explains so usefully in the first half of her book The Situation and the Story (I teach it all the time), good writing doesn’t so much depend on what you’re writing about (the situation) as it does how you frame it, how you tell it, how you organize it (the story). Fierce Attachments gives an old situation (which is why people from all kinds of backgrounds will likely relate to it) a killer story.

Ross Macdonald, The Moving Target (1949) The first Archer novel, notable mostly for showing how much Macdonald improved as a writer over his career. The book has its moments—Macdonald was always terrific with California geography (here best expressed in two harrowing drives, one along the coast in thick fog and one through the mountains at night), and his fascination with misunderstandings between generations is already evident—but on the whole it’s fairly thin. For completists only.

Georges Simenon, The Strangers in the House (1940) Trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury w. David Watson & others (1951) I’ve read a few Simenons (a couple Maigrets, a couple romans durs), but I’ve never really got on with him. My attention wanders, even though they’re so short. But everyone loves them, so I keep trying. With The Strangers in the House everything finally clicked. Hector Loursat has given up: he holes up in his crumbling house, whole floors of which are boarded up, where he lives alone except for some servants and his adult daughter, Nicole, emerging from his room only for meals and trips to the cellar for more Burgundy. Drinking and reading is all that’s left in his life. (Honestly, is that so bad?) His law career is abandoned, his reputation in tatters (not that he cares). But one day he hears a gunshot from inside the house. He investigates: there’s a dead man upstairs. Nicole admits that she and some friends had run over a man during a drunken late-night joyride. Her boyfriend, Emile, was the one driving the car, but the young couple insist they didn’t kill him. In fact, they’d brought him into the house and tended to him in the hopes he would heal. The police don’t believe a word of it, and they arrest Emile. To everyone’s surprise, even his own, Hector decides to defend the boy, which brings him closer to his daughter than he’d been for years.

I loved three things about this book: its atmosphere (perennially foggy, drizzly, and grey); its refusal of redemption (it teases us with the possibility before foreclosing it abruptly); and its hair-raising depiction of a man who just wants to be left alone being brought out into the world. A frightening parable for introverts everywhere.

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017) Trans. Tim Mohr (2018) Had high hopes for this Viennese crime novel set in the immediate aftermath of WWI, but, although diverting enough for a plane ride, it’s disappointingly clunky. The series might improve (at least two installments remain untranslated), but doubt I’ll follow up. The more historical crime fiction I read, the more I realize no one can touch Philip Kerr.

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) They don’t write them like this anymore. I don’t really know what I mean by that. Maybe it’s the tone—kind of old-fashioned, but not in a bad way. Maybe it’s the self-confidence of the world it depicts (Berkley and a ranch in rural California), even though the main character has no such assurance. Ingeniously narrated in three parts, the first and last by the eponymous Cassandra, and the middle by her twin sister, Judith, the book is set in the days before Judith is to be married. Cassandra doesn’t want her to. She wants to be with Judith forever. Baker’s trying to do something really complex. We have to be drawn to Cassandra, but we have to see that there’s something monstrous about her, too. Yet if we demonize her we risk capitulating to some pretty conventional ideas of what life should be like, especially for women. But we also have to recognize that someone could desire to be conventional without being in bad faith. Baker pulls it off—always keeping us off balance, always make us think further. She ends with a beautiful, vivid, and enigmatic image, a shoe spiraling from the Golden Gate bridge into the water. Intimation of release or premonition of bad things to come? Jacqui has a good review. Please link to others in the comments.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends (2017) I confess I started this as a hate-read. A number of readers I trust had disparaged it (thin gruel, overrated, the kids today). But I loved it. And not just the book, but the reading of the book. Sometimes reading feels like work, or like something I steal from the rest of life. But every once in a while it’s pure pleasure and amazement. I stayed up much too late, as compelled to read just one more chapter as if it had been the most suspenseful thriller. Although initially unimpressive at the level of the sentence—an impression I increasingly questioned and that I look forward to revising when I read it again, as I’m sure I will—the novel really impresses in its depiction of new models of relationships. (I was reminded of Women in Love, which is pretty much the highest praise I can give!) As soon as I finished I started thinking about how well it would fit at the end of my 20th Century Experimental British Fiction course. Rooney’s depiction of relationships would complement Lawrence and Ballard, while her use of narrative voice could be juxtaposed to Woolf (in The Waves) and Beckett (in Molloy). Conversations with Friends is contemporary without being topical. (It’s not the inclusion of text message strings that makes it of our moment.) By all means read this essay by Claire Jarvis: she has so many interesting things to say about Rooney. For example: “She is baring her teeth at the group of female writers she closely resembles. Masochistic elements run through her fiction, not exactly as fully fledged fetishes or desires, more as evidence of the baseline structure of heterosexuality.”

Can’t wait to read Normal People (after three months on the library waiting list I’ve finally cracked the top 20!).

John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) I didn’t love this book, but I did come to admire it. Le Carré tells his story with impressive vagueness. Imagine a spy novel in which all the action is told second or third hand. (In this way, Le Carré is the anti-Lionel Davidson.) As I read I kept seeing Smiley as Alec Guiness—but, since I dozed through most of that lengthy British mini-series when my wife and I watched it years ago (she loved it; I recognized it was good but found it a powerful soporific), the ending hadn’t been ruined for me. And as the book went on (it’s not short) I grew increasingly invested in who the mole in the British service might be, and how Smiley’s duel with Soviet string-puller Karla would turn out. Probably spy stories are not my preferred genre (I’m too stupid—all the double and triple crossing confuses me), but I can see that this is good stuff. And I’m interested enough to read more Le Carré, especially the rest of the Karla trilogy. But not so interested that I’m dropping everything to do so.

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August

Kit Pearson, The Sky is Falling (1989) While on vacation I read three books by the Canadian children’s writer Kit Pearson. They were perfect choices. (I hadn’t read her before; I was just too old for her books when she started writing.) Pearson doesn’t seem well known in the US. (Or in the UK?) But she should be. The Sky is Falling is the first of The Guests of War trilogy, which focuses on child evacuees from England to Canada during WWII. Norah and Gavin Stokes, ten and five years old in this first book, are sent along with hundreds of other English children in a convoy across the North Atlantic to safety in Canada. Especially for Norah, through whose eyes we experience events, the journey is a mixed blessing. She misses her friends and family, she fears she has been made by her parents to be a coward, and she resents the superiority of the Canadians she meets (she resents their security). The Stokes children are taken in by the old-moneyed Ogilvies, who live in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. Florence Ogilvie, the family’s matriarch, is bossy, used to getting her way, and blinded by grief at the death of her son in WWI. Florence’s chief victim is her gentle but cowed daughter, Mary—that is, until she shifts her attention to trying to rein in Norah. I was impressed by the profound moral dilemma Pearson considers here: what happens when learning to make your way in a new life comes at the cost of losing the old one? What do children and parents owe each other? Lots to chew on here: I recommend for readers of all ages 10 and up.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Chochar (2013) Trans. Srinath Perur (2017) Wonderful novella about a family in Bangalore who are much richer than they used to be, but who aren’t willing to acknowledge what they had to do to get there. Shanbhag doesn’t judge them for it, but he makes the cost clear. He’s a genius at suggesting something’s wrong without telling us what exactly (like Ishiguro, but less mystical). A friend of mine, talking about college donors, says there’s no clean money. More books today should be about money. If I were Fredric Jameson I might say something about how only a so-called Third World country—only a country that has the particular vexed relationship to capitalism that so-called emerging economies have—could take up the mantle of the 19th century European realists. I’m most left haunted by the untranslated title, an expression made up by a family peripheral to the story to describe something tangled beyond repair. A beautiful, mysterious book. Read Joe’s review for a more detailed take.

Kit Pearson, Looking at the Moon (1991) The second volume of the Guests of War trilogy is set at the Ogilvies’ summer place in Muskoka, the genteelly shabby Gairloch. A couple of years have passed since the first book (it’s now 1943), and Norah is becoming a teenager. The war is more in the backdrop here than in the previous book, but it matters all the same, especially when a cousin of the family, dashing 19-year-old Andrew, arrives for summer vacation. Norah has her first crush, but she can’t understand why he is terrified of enlisting. Even in this perfect summer book—if you want to know about a certain kind of Old Canadian life, real Group of Seven stuff, sort of New England patrician transported to the Canadian shield, complete with lots of canoeing and sailing and fishing and blueberry pies, this is the book for you—difficult problems arise.

Kit Pearson, A Handful of Time (1987) Not part of the trilogy (the last book was checked out at the library: now that I’m back in the States I’ll have to track it down via interlibrary loan), but another enjoyable read from Pearson. Twelve-year-old Patricia’s parents are getting divorced, and her brittle, accomplished mother (a news anchor) sends her West for the summer. Leaving Toronto—where she is used to cooking sophisticated meals with her father and going to art classes she doesn’t particularly enjoy—Patricia arrives in Edmonton and is immediately taken to a nearby lake where her relatives summer. As she fears, Patricia (a more immediately likeable character than Norah) is scorned by her outdoorsy cousins; taking refuge in a disused cabin she finds an old watch that takes her back to the 1950s, and the summer when her mother was twelve. Another terrific summer read.

Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (1969) Trans. Amanda Prantera (2011) Last year I read Haushofer’s The Wall for Women in Translation month. I loved it, and thought I’d follow up with The Loft, Haushofer’s final novel. (She died of cancer shortly before her 50th birthday, leaving only a handful of works.) Maybe it wasn’t the right book to read on holiday. Maybe the translation isn’t quite up to snuff. (Shaun Whiteside did a wonderful job with The Wall; not sure I can say the same for Amanda Prantera here. The book felt awkward to me in ways the earlier one didn’t. The syntax is straightforward enough that I could have a go at the original, just to see.) But in the end, I think it’s that The Wall, despite its post-apocalyptic setting, is simply a more generous book. Haushofer’s subject is the crippling conformity of post-war Austria (she’s a less histrionic Bernhard).

The loft of the title is the narrator’s atelier, where she works on her drawings of insects for children’s books, and pursues her endless quest to draw a bird that doesn’t look as though it is the only one in the world. Mostly, though, it’s the place where she hides away to read entries from her own diaries, which begin arriving mysteriously by post. The diaries are from a two-year period in her life, shortly after the war, when she was sent away by her husband to recuperate in the countryside (with only the company of two differently vexing and surly men, nursemaids and confidantes of a sort) from an unnamed traumatic event and sudden attendant deafness. (Hysterical in the true sense of the term: that is, her deafness is a way to express in bodily form feelings that can’t otherwise come out.) Pleasingly, the arrival of the diaries is just as non-cathartic as the event is undescribed. (It presumably has something to do with the legacy of the war, but I appreciate Haushofer’s unwillingness to spell that out.) Yet the book feels cramped and airless in a way The Wall doesn’t. Which makes sense of course: the conceit of the earlier work is that it would take a vast destructive event (an event even more traumatic than a war) to liberate women. (And even that liberation would be on temporary, on sufferance). In this regard, The Loft is the kind of book it has to be. I just like the kind of book The Wall is better.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Glass-Blowers (1963) Pretty different from the other Du Mauriers I’ve read. Historical, yes, but neither a romance nor Gothic. Written apparently in a fallow time in Du Maurier’s life, when she decided to spend time in France researching the origins of her mother’s family. (While there she became inspired to write The Scapegoat, one of her best books. It’s unclear if Du Maurier really understood what it was to be fallow.) At any rate, this is a book about the years before, during, and after the French revolution centered on a family of glass-blowers. It has always been a shame of mine how poorly I understand the revolution. I’ve never read Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel or even Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. In her excellent introduction to this recent Virago edition, Michelle de Kretser (I loved The Lost Dog) uses the term “dutiful” to describe parts of the book. Accurate, but as de Kretser says, not because Du Maurier has written a bad book. Rather, Du Maurier’s interestingly taking on herself here—aiming to write a realist novel different in tone, style, and premise from the books that made her famous. De Kretser suggests that the best parts of the book are the ones in which Du Maurier can’t hold herself to her task, or, to say it another way, when she can’t help but be her herself. (I was particularly struck by the book’s ambivalent exploration—part condemnation, part fascination—with rumour-mongering as a political tactic. Rumours and gossip are presented as monstrous, taking on a life of their own with grim results.) The Glass-Blowers isn’t Du Maurier’s best book, and I’d never suggest anyone start with it, but it’s never dull. It’s more muted than her other work, but still highly readable. I do wish there’d been more actual discussion of glass blowing, though. Du Maurier uses it as a metaphor for shape- and sense-making more generally. Which, when a society moves from a time when meaning is monarchical (fixed and guaranteed) to one in which it is arbitrary (arbitrary and relational), is no small matter.

Adrian McKinty, The Chain (2019) High-concept crime novel that starts fabulously but fades badly. The idea is pretty genius: a shadowy cabal creates a demonic chain letter. The parents of a kidnapped child don’t get their child back until they kidnap another child, and so on down the list. The idea is terrifying, and almost plausible. But the resolution is antic and overdrawn. By the end of the day—yes, I read it in a single day, almost against my own wishes—I felt tawdry and bloated, as if I’d eaten nothing but junk food.

Dervla McTiernan, The Ruin (2018) By contrast, a much quieter and more successful crime novel, an old-fashioned procedural, with echoes of Tana French (partly from the Irish setting, partly from the mistrust among members of the murder squad). A pleasant surprise.

Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (2010) Not the best Bernie Guenther, but solid nonetheless. Kerr has always included historical figures in the series, but usually in walk-on parts. Here Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Blond Beast, the primary architect of the Final Solution, takes center stage, and this seems to hamper Kerr. The Guenther books are always despairing, but they’re usually leavened with laugh-out loud humour. Here things felt sour.

Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar (2019) The second in the Cormac Reilly series isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still better than your average procedural. McTiernan is fleshing out the other members of the murder squad admirably, which promises even better things from the third installment, due next year. (One of the things that made Mankell’s Wallander series so good—aside from their suspense—is that the other cops mattered too.)

Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake (2019) The first audiobook of the semester was a doozy. I loved last year’s Sunburn (still think about it all the time), but Lippman has outdone herself here. True, I’ve only read four or five of her many books, so my sample size isn’t huge, but I can easily imagine this is her best book. Like all her work, it’s set in Baltimore. But it’s also about Baltimore, and, by extension, plenty of other cities that are in fact really more like small towns. She’s so good at showing how various parts of the city—journalism, politics, the police—and various groups, especially Jews and Blacks, intertwine. There’s a sociological or anthropological quality, fascinating in itself, but even better in that it serves a suspenseful and moving plot, about a 30-something Jewish woman in 1966 who leaves married life and sets out to become a newspaper reporter. Added bonus: Lippman writes sex really well.

Georges Simenon, The Train (1958? 1961?) Trans. Robert Baldick (1964) Strange book, from the bibliographic information on down. (The copyright page of my edition has no original pub date, and an online search revealed conflicting information. Any ideas, people?) After enjoying Strangers so much (see above), I thought I’d make my way through some more of my Simenon backlog. (I own a lot of books by him, considering how lukewarm I am on him.) This started promisingly, another quasi-everyman (but maybe a bit of a wrong un) dropped into extreme circumstances. But the circumstance here is the German invasion of France. In June 1940 Marcel Féron escapes his northern French town for points south together with his pregnant wife and small child. But they are soon separated, and his convoy, mostly filled with Belgian refugees, becomes a version of the transports taking Jews to death in the East. Marcel meets a woman on the train, they get involved, they live for a while in a refugee camp in the south. Their relationship ends as suddenly as it began: Marcel gets word of his family’s whereabouts and returns to them. He sees the woman once more, and only then do we learn her full name, Anna Kupfer, and her particular war work. The idea is that’s she’s Jewish, and Marcel’s unwillingness to get involved with her or her resistance work is perhaps a metaphor for French quietism. But the book works neither on its own terms nor as a political allegory. And so my interest in Simenon has waned once again. Maybe we’re just not meant to be.

There you have it. The highlights were Baker, Liberaki, Gornick, Shanbhag, the McTiernans and, above all, Sally Rooney. How was your summer, reading or otherwise?

 

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.

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.

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?

 

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.