Thursday, July 28, 2005


Primo, short stuff

On the basis of several glowing reviews, including Terry Teachout's notice in the Wall Street Journal--and because I've been fascinated by Primo Levi's work for more than two decades--I took in a performance of Antony Sher's Primo last night at the Music Box Theater. I gather that the South African-born actor negotiated with Levi's estate for several years before they gave the nod to his adaptation of If This Is A Man. To Sher's credit, he has stayed true to the lucid, low-key splendor of the original text (meaning the English translation made by Stuart Woolf, under Levi's whiskey-fueled supervision, in 1958.) The set--three concrete slabs, one doorway, one chair--is appropriately minimal. The sound design and lighting are unobtrusive. And Sher himself consistently underplays. His narration is so even, so tightly controlled, that when he puts some extra English on certain phrases--"interminable black pine forests"--it qualifies as a dramatic event. So too does the moment when he rolls up his sleeves, or replaces his glasses, a gesture carefully timed to coincide with his liberation by the Russians.

Three or four times, Sher does ratchet up the intensity. And in one case, he actually falls short of Levi's true level of outrage, due to a mistake in Woolf's translation. On the heels of a "selection"--the periodic harrowing of the camp population by the SS--Levi observes a fellow prisoner sending up a prayer of thanks to God for sparing him. Repelled, he writes: Se fossi Dio, sputerei a terra la preghiera di Kuhn. Meaning: "If I were God, I would spit out Kuhn's prayer on the ground." Woolf puts a slightly milder spin on this expression of metaphysical disgust: "If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn's prayer." (For this insight, a tip of the hat to Risa Sodi's essay in Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness, published by SUNY Press in 2001.)

A minor flaw, of course. But Sher's fealty to his source material does have some problematic consequences. Agreed: any attempt to juice up Levi's tale, to make it more boldly theatrical, would be an absolute betrayal of the original book. But this is a work of drama, after all, which is ultimately hobbled by Sher's anti-dramatic mandate. What's left is an expert, empathetic, but lukewarm creation. If Levi's book had never been published--if it hadn't already taken its place as one of the primary texts of the last, sanguinary century--I surely would have found Primo more riveting. Having read If This Is A Man, I found it sadly superfluous: Auschwitz Lite. (A final affront: having adjourned with my companions to a nearby bar for a post-theater drink, we had to listen to Sting sing "King of Pain" on the jukebox. Definitely not a good chaser after an evening of Primo Levi.)

On a very different note: brevity is the new black. According to a piece in the Western Mail (via Literary Saloon), Leaf Publishing--a spinoff of the University of Glamorgan in Wales--is launching a series of bite-sized books called A6. Each volume will run to about 4,000 words, and is meant to be devoured in a single sitting. The series will include both fiction and nonfiction, color-coded by genre. (No details about what color goes with what genre. But it was Flaubert, let's recall, who said: "I want to write a novel about the color gray.") Meanwhile, Amazon has launched its Amazon Shorts program: brief stories or essays by name-brand (for the most part) authors, sold excusively as HTML downloads for 49 cents a pop. I came across the program via Publishers Lunch, and it may not be quite ready for prime time, given the difficulty of finding it on the site. In any case, there seem to be a few remaining kinks in the digital pipeline. When I clicked through to the Nonfiction Shorts page, I got the following message: "We're sorry. We are currently out of these items." Somebody better check the virtual inventory, no?

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