Monday, September 19, 2005


Primo Levi's afterlife

[Note: The following piece was commissioned by The Atlantic Monthly in 2001, but never ran. I came across it recently, thought it still held up pretty well, and decided to post it. Two additional biographies have been published since then--Ian Thomson's Primo Levi: A Life and Carole Angier's The Double Bond--and their dual portrait of Levi's final, fraught decade certainly makes me feel like I was on the right track.]

Every book, as the saying goes, has its own fate. But so too does every author, particularly in the wake of his or her death, when heavy hitters and small fry alike are consigned to a kind of cultural afterlife. This is partly a measure of literary accomplishment, of course. But personality also plays a major role, which is why a figure like Bruce Chatwin seems to tower eccentrically over his actual output, while posterity has rendered the self-effacing Bernard Malamud nearly invisible--the Mensch in the Iron Mask. Nor would this calculus be complete without factoring in fashions, fads, dumb luck, and a generous dose of mythology. We have to look at the whole package to understand precisely how a vanished writer's words are (in Auden's phrase) modified in the guts of the living.

Primo Levi's afterlife began prematurely, and with heartbreaking abruptness, on April 11, 1987, when he plunged down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. Yet the myths about this Holocaust survivor, chemist, and indispensable author had begun to propagate long before. And by simplifying him--by turning him into a sunny and scientific plaster saint--they end up diminishing both Levi and his creations.

To be sure, some of these red herrings were put into play by Levi himself. For example, there was the idea that his books--especially the quietly devastating pages of Survival in Auschwitz--were dispassionate works, in which human agonies were coolly assessed like so many specimens in a petri dish. Hadn't Levi himself asked us, in the ninth chapter of that very book, to consider Auschwitz as "pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment"? He even went on to define the lab conditions: "Thousands of individuals, differing in age, condition, origin, language, culture, and customs are enclosed within barbed wire: there they live a regular, controlled life which is identical for all and inadequate for all needs, and which is much more rigorous than any experimenter could have set up to establish what is essential and what is adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life."

This was the sort of thing that prompted a celebrated spitball from Fernanda Eberstadt in the October 1985 issue of Commentary. The very notion of a twentysomething novelist taking Levi to task for his clinical tone, not to mention his "fastidious and uncertain" imagination, would be almost comical--a satirical leaf from our contemporary Dunciad--if Levi hadn't been so wounded by it. But the point is that even in his imperishable account of the Lager, he was hardly immune to rage and despair. Nor did this mild-mannered scientist hesitate to pass judgement, and not only on his captors.

There is, for instance, the casual yet crushing verdict delivered when a Kapo presses Levi into use as a human handkerchief: "Without hatred and without sneering, Alex wipes his hand on my shoulder, both the palm and the back of his hand, to clean it; he would be amazed, the poor brute Alex, if someone told him that today, on that basis of this action, I judge him...and the innumerable others like him, big and small, in Auschwitz and everywhere." But oddly enough, one of the author's supreme expressions of disgust is directed at a fellow prisoner, who has been spared during the selekcja--the Germans' annual harrowing of this particular hell. As Kuhn thanks God for saving him, however temporarily, from the crematorium, Levi listens in horrified disbelief.

"Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination," he asks, "which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?" Then comes the most damning sentence of all: "If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer."

So much for the lofty clinician at work. But as it turns out, even Levi's translator, the estimable Stuart Woolf, seems to have climbed onto the bandwagon here, opting for a kinder, gentler imprecation. The line in Italian reads: "Se io fossi Dio, sputerei a terra la preghiera di Kuhn." A more accurate rendering would be: "If I were God, I would spit out Kuhn’s prayer on the ground." A minor difference, perhaps. But what Levi actually wrote--an image of divine revulsion on par with God’s threat, in Revelation 3:16, to "vomit thee from my mouth"--is more of a shocker. And it certainly contradicts Levi's image as a neutral party.

For this insight regarding Woolf's error, and for great many others, we can thank a pair of recent books. Memory and Mastery, a collection of essays, is something of a mixed bag, mingling sound assessments of Levi’s legacy with a few squishy specimens of what we can only call New Age Holocaust Criticism. (The prime offender would be Yaffa Eliach’s riff on "the universal-humanistic time element," whatever that means.) Still, Lawrence Langer's superb "Legacy in Gray," which addresses Levi's transformation into a plucky symbol of post-Lager uplift, is alone worth the price of admission, as are the contributions by Risa Sodi and Franca Molino Signorini.

The Voice of Memory, meanwhile, brings together 36 interviews that Levi granted between 1961 and 1987. The editor, Marco Belpoliti, makes the ambitious argument that Levi considered "his role as a talker and witness a third profession, to set alongside his official and recognized careers as chemist and as writer." This may be stretching it. I doubt that Levi viewed the Q-and-A as a bonafide branch of literature, let alone a full-fledged vocation--remember, we’re talking about the man who left his phone off the hook throughout his American tour in 1985, simply to avoid being peppered with questions on a regular basis. Yet The Voice of Memory does present us with a fascinating and formidable conversationalist. Whether Levi is obliging a local interviewer or squaring off with such world-class contemporaries as Philip Roth or Germaine Greer, he answers in lucid, cant-resistant paragraphs. A Piedmontese to his fingertips, he steers clear of confessional gush. But this is undoubtedly a more informal, unvarnished portrait of the artist, with occasional glimpses of those private demons that Levi so rigorously excluded from his writing.

Taken together, these books bring to the table a considerable freight of critical acumen and biographical fact. It's no wonder, then, that they manage to demolish still other cherished myths about Levi and his creations. Two examples should suffice. First: more than a half-century after its initial appearance, Survival in Auschwitz continues to be characterized in some quarters as no more (and no less) than an act of witness: a vital historical document, that is, but not a work of art. This may be less common in the United States than in Italy, where Levi was pigeonholed for decades as a Holocaust survivor who happened to write, rather than the other way around. But in a recent interview, so astute an observer as Cynthia Ozick classified the book as "testimony"--excusing it, ironically, from the distrust she feels for most works of Holocaust literature--which suggests that the perception is still alive and kicking.

Again, it was Levi himself who got the ball rolling. On more than one occasion he described how his first book grew out of a compulsive need to unburden himself after his return from the Lager. "The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me,” he recounts in The Periodic Table. "...It seemed to me that I would be purified if I told [my] story, and I felt like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, who waylays on the street the wedding guests going to the feast, inflicting on them the story of his misfortune."

There’s no reason to doubt this scenario. Indeed, Myriam Anissimov’s 1998 biography, Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, paints a vivid picture of her subject's compositional labors, which took place at home, at the lab, and even on streetcars. Still, compulsion is hardly the enemy of art. Nor, under the right circumstances, is speed, as any reader of a quick-and-dirty masterpiece like The Charterhouse of Parma can confirm. As Levi spatchcocked together the episodes of Survival in Auschwitz, he was blessed or cursed by a classical education, and by an astonishing set of narrative instincts. The result was a work of literary art--meticulous enough to satisfy a historian, and agile enough in its language to violate Adorno’s famous ban on poetry after Auschwitz.

Risa Sodi’s piece in Memory and Mastery, "The Rhetoric of the Univers Concentrationnaire," makes an eloquent case for Levi's artistry. She praises the distinctive music of his prose--the way in which German or Polish or Yiddish phrases keep ambushing the author’s lean and logical Italian--along with his manipulation of verb tenses and allusive debt to Dante and the Bible. These are not the techniques of a tale-spinning naif. But if anyone still imagines that Levi simply blurted the whole thing out, let's turn to his interview with Germaine Greer in The Voice of Memory, where he pleads guilty to a little myth-mongering of his own.

"It's forty years since I wrote it," he says. "And in those forty years I've constructed a sort of legend around that book, that I wrote it without a plan, that I wrote it on impulse, that I wrote it without reflecting at all. The other people I've talked to about it have accepted the legend. In fact, writing is never spontaneous. Now that I think about it, I can see that this book is full of literature, literature absorbed through the skin, even while I was rejecting it." He may be discussing literary artifice as though it were a skin rash--something that will require an ointment later on--but he's certainly not denying the contagion.

Even Levi's hard-earned reputation as a creature of reason is thrown into a new light by some of the material in The Voice of Memory. He never, to be sure, insisted that sweet-tempered positivism could untangle all of history's uglier knots. Yet even the pandemic madness of Nazi Germany struck him as a cautionary tale about what could happen in the very absence of reason: Hitler's brand of anti-Semitism, as he told an interviewer in 1961, represented "an irrational impulse, intimately biological in its make-up, even when dressed up in low-grade Romantic philosophy." And more than a decade later, discussing the publication of The Periodic Table, he dug in his deeply rational heels once again. "We cannot take a holiday from reason," he assured two journalists from La Stampa, who took this admonishment seriously enough to make it the title of their article.

But by 1983, when Levi participated in an oral-history project in Turin, his faith in reason had undergone some serious erosion. The previous few years had given him ample cause for disillusionment, as Israel dirtied its hands in Lebanon and nitwit revisionists like Robert Faurisson attempted to sweep the Holocaust under the rug. Still, it's very strange to find this sane and sensible empiricist blaming the great historical catastrophe of his century not on human folly, not on territorial ambition, not on our eminently corruptible hearts and minds, but on a theological fall guy: the devil.

"I have come to the stage of believing in the heroic version of history, in which an evil, potent, charismatic man, the incarnation of the devil that Hitler was, drags behind him an entire people like a flock," he confesses. "What other explanation is there? To see the encounters between Hitler and the public on the newsreels is terrifying. It is like a flash of lightning, a giving and receiving."

If Levi came to accept such fulminations as fact--to consider the triumph of Nazism as a kind of black magic--then clearly nothing could be done to prevent its return. How can this have struck a man who had crossed the Brenner Pass four decades earlier in a cattle car, and witnessed the industrialized carnage of the camps at first hand? Meanwhile, Levi had other, more private reasons to despair. By the mid-1980s he no longer remembered the past with his customary clarity--a terrible affliction for a writer who often functioned as a recording angel--and worried that he had nothing left to say.

There was also the matter of his mother’s health, which had begun to fail around 1975. If we're to believe an anecdote in Anissimov’s biography, Ester Luzzati was some kind of Jewish Mom: when her son, presumed dead, appeared on her doorstep one October afternoon in 1945, her first response to his miraculous resurrection was, "It's cold, put a sweater on." (Levi refused.) In any case, the presence of his increasingly senile, nonagenarian mother came to dominate Levi's life, tethering him to his apartment around the clock. He wasn't, of course, the type to vent his familial frustrations in public. Still, we may be able to catch an echo of his desperation in "Agave," a poem he produced in September 1983, which concludes:
I've waited many years to send up
My towering desperate flower,
Ugly, wooden, stiff, but stretching toward the sky.
It's our way of shouting:
I'll die tomorrow. Now do you understand?
Exactly who's dying, and whose understanding is being solicited, is hard to pin down. But the poet surely knew that his eponymous subject was not only a spiny-edged plant but Pentheus's mother, who tore her son limb from limb in the Bacchae--even as Levi himself was being less melodramatically rent by guilt, anger, love, and filial duty. Nor, it seems, did he have the thick-skinned man's capacity to detach himself. "Everyone's anguish," as he wrote in an earlier poem, "is our own."

Pursued by these furies--and by the pain of his own memories, which his books had never succeeded in truly anaesthetizing--it's no wonder that Levi spent the final years of his life in a steep cycle of depression. Yet the news of his (apparent) suicide was too difficult a pill for many of his admirers to swallow. Some felt betrayed, as though Levi had written not books but checks and then ultimately failed to honor them. In a widely quoted piece in The New Yorker, for example, Elizabeth Macklin suggested that "the efficacy of all his words had somehow been cancelled by his death--that his hope, or faith, was no longer usable by the rest of us." Others avoided the question of self-annihilation altogether, sometimes by fairly Jesuitical means. Not long after Levi’s death, Raymond Rosenthal (who translated The Periodic Table into English and practically arm-wrestled Schocken into publishing it in 1984) told me that the verdict of suicide was incorrect. What had killed the author, he insisted, was a raptus. But this lethal bit of Latin turns out to denote a mental seizure, a psychotic impulse, which would rule out premeditation but not, alas, the act itself.

Whether Primo Levi died by his own hand is a question that will probably never yield a definitive answer. Anissimov's biography chalks up his death to suicide, while Diego Gambetta, who has marshaled the evidence quite impressively in a recent Boston Review article, seems to be taking an agnostic position. The jury is, as they say, out. In the meantime we're obliged to accept a certain ambiguity, a quality that Levi approved of, although he preferred to think of it in molecular terms: "A good book," he told an interviewer, "is necessarily, I won't say ambiguous, but at least polyvalent." Without a doubt the description applies to his own creations, compounded as they are of matter and spirit, science and artifice, suffering and spontaneous delight. Such recombinant richness should guarantee Levi a more complicated afterlife, and a more triumphant one, than any we could have expected--and that, for a writer at least, is what survival is all about.

Wow, this is a terrific piece. Sorry it didn't run. I wonder if it still could. You write with obvioius knowledge and a delicacy of tone that suits his work and life. And 'spatchcocked"? to me.
Many thanks, whoever you are!
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