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A Matter of Writing Life and Death

by Michael McDonald

The Double Bond: Primo Levi
by Carole Angier
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002, 898 pp., $40

Primo Levi
by Ian Thomson
London: Hutchinson, 2002, 624 pp., £25

Primo Levi (1919-87) was a largely autobiographical writer who, in addition to being a chemist, led a third career as a public witness to the Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz. The facts of his life, much like his prose, are simple and straightforward.

Levi was born in Turin on July 31, 1919 and, with two exceptions (work in Milan at the outset of the Second World War and his imprisonment at Auschwitz), he lived in the same apartment his entire life. His family came from the Piedmont countryside, having moved to Turin near the turn of the century. Levi's parents were both culturally assimilated Jews and the prevailing tone in the household was one of irreligion. The family was well off and Levi grew up amid affluence and comfort, in every respect a typical ragazzo borghese italiano.

Levi attended the Liceo Massimo D'Azeglio, a secondary school noted for its academic excellence, along with the scions of Turin's bourgeoisie. Children of Levi's generation received a rigorous classical education and, from an early age, Levi was an indefatigable bookworm, what the Italians call a violino. But rather than seek a career in the humanities, Levi chose chemistry when he enrolled at the University of Turin in 1937. Because he had entered a year before the enactment of the Fascist racial laws, which, along with other restrictions, prohibited Italian Jews from attending public schools, he was allowed to complete his studies. He was graduated summa cum laude in 1941 and later in life became an international authority on synthetic wire enamels.

Until his early twenties, Levi had little reason to reflect upon his roots. Like most Italian Jews, he considered himself an integral part of the society, and with good reason: Jews had been present in Italy since before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. Of more immediate relevance, more than one-third of Italian Jewish adults were members of the Fascist Party.1 All this changed with the introduction of the racial laws in September 1938. From that point forward, as Mussolini "irrevocably yoked his carnival chariot to Hitler's funeral hearse", in the bitingly apt words of Elsa Morante, Levi began to take an interest in Jewish culture.

In September 1943, following the fall of the Fascist regime, the Germans created the puppet government known as the Republic of Salò and installed Mussolini, whom they had rescued from prison, at its head. Civil war broke out in Italy and, with the German army in control of much of central and northern Italy, the ethnic cleansing began. Nearly 6,400 Italian Jews (out of a population of 45,000) were deported, mainly to the camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Mauthausen.

According to his postwar military papers, Levi joined a small Resistance group stationed in the Aosta region north of Turin on October 1, 1943. Unfortunately, he took up arms at a time when the partisan movement lacked organization and was easily infiltrated. A Fascist agent betrayed Levi's band, which was captured in the first anti-Fascist round up in Occupied Italy. Levi was 24 years old when he was seized and, after declaring himself to be Jewish, shipped to Auschwitz in a cattle car. Of the 650 people who traveled with him only 24 returned home.

The average life expectancy in the auxiliary work camp of the sprawling Auschwitz complex to which Levi was sent was three months. But thanks to luck, friendship and a driving need to understand and to testify, Levi, who became Häftling (prisoner) 174517, survived his ordeal for eleven months, from February 1944 to January 1945. He returned to his apartment in Turin wearing the uniform of his Red Army liberators in October 1945.

Sixteen weeks after his homecoming, Levi began the book for which he is most famous, Se questo è un uomo ("If this is a Man", which appears in its American translation under the unbefitting title of Survival in Auschwitz), an account of his experiences in the anus mundi of Auschwitz. After being rejected out of hand by several large publishing houses, a small press issued the book to critical and public indifference in 1947. In the meantime, once reintegrated into postwar life, Levi married and began work for a local paint company. In June 1958, as the 20th anniversary of Mussolini's race laws approached, the prestigious Turin publishing house of Einaudi agreed to republish Se questo è un uomo. This event, and the much warmer reception the book received the second time around, encouraged Levi to return to writing. In 1963 Einaudi published La tregua ("The Truce", published in the United States as The Reawakening), Levi's colorful account of his picaresque odyssey home from Auschwitz. The book's overwhelmingly positive critical reception and impressive sales marked the beginning of his fame in Italy. Over the next decade, Levi wrote at night after ten hour workdays, and gained increasing visibility as a writer of the first rank.

Levi's best known books include La chiave a stella ("The Star-Shaped Key", published in English as The Monkey's Wrench), a fictional account of a Piedmontese crane-rigger who travels the world as a skilled worker; Se non ora, quando? (If not now, when?), a novel about Jewish partisans during World War II in Eastern Europe; and, of course, Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table), the autobiographical collection of stories that boosted his international reputation, especially in the United States. Levi became a regular contributor to La Stampa in the early 1960s, which enabled him to write short articles and essays, in the manner of Orwell's "As I Please" columns, on all manner of subjects that interested him. In 1975 he took early retirement to be able to write full-time.

Levi's last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), published in 1986, one year before his death, is perhaps the most incisive of all his Holocaust works. It is in several ways a continuation of Se questo è un uomo, but it allies the rigorous descriptive prose of that initial work with a deeper meditation on the complex, often ambiguous relationships between oppressor and victim in the Nazi death camps. That same year rumors began to circulate of Levi's soon receiving the Nobel prize. Instead, the world was shocked to read on April 11, 1987 that Primo Levi had died at the age of 68 after falling 15 meters head-first down the stairwell of his apartment building onto a marble floor. Although some thought it an accident, a Turin court and most of those closest to Levi believed otherwise.

Primo Levi has already told us a great deal about his life in his publications and interviews. Is there any need for biographies? Not really. Apart from his internment at Auschwitz and his return home, Levi lived an unremarkable life. To learn about those two great experiences, and how he reacted to them, one has only to read him. But the fact of his apparent suicide created a mystery and, in the 15 years since Levi's death, has provided ample justification for biographers to travel to Turin to untangle it.

Three monumental biographies of Levi's life are currently available in English. The first, Myriam Anissimov's 452-page Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, appeared in 1999. Rightly criticized for the uninspired way in which it surrounded paraphrases of what Levi wrote with large, undigested chunks of general material dealing with Italian Jewry, the Fascist race laws and the postwar Italian boom, it was inevitable that other biographers (or, as Joyce would have it, "biografiends") would follow. Enter Carole Angier and Ian Thomson, whose large, off-putting housebricks of books-what Italians would call mattoni-have both appeared this year. Due credit should be given to their respective publishing houses for confirming (as if further proof were necessary) the decline of editing practices; either tome could have been condensed by a third or more without losing anything much, if at all, of substance.

The books have a good deal in common: Both took ten years to write and are the product of hundreds of interviews. (Thomson actually met Levi a year prior to his death; Angier never did.) Both give the reader a feel for what Turin, that most un-Italian of the peninsula's great cities, is like. Both agree that Levi was a mother's boy (Thomson: he had a "diffident, feminine nature"; Angier: he was "full of male self-doubts") whose "low spirits" as an adolescent later developed into a recurrent depressive illness. In addition to sharing a congruent view of Levi's underlying personal insecurities, both biographers rely upon similar leitmotifs to bind their narratives together. For example, they each maintain that, throughout his life, Levi sought out extroverted, rugged friends who could supply the other half of what was missing in his own make-up. Regrettably, however, both writers, particularly Angier, cannot seem to resist the boring biographical game of "gotcha." If Levi has not been entirely accurate (as they see it) in his depiction of a person or event, one or the other is sure to point out the discrepancy, no matter how trivial. Levi, of course, was perfectly aware that the best a writer can hope for, no matter how scrupulous his use of language, is to recount events or situations in a true but necessarily "filtered" way.

It is mostly in retelling the story of Levi's last two decades that these books add to the record Levi left behind. Angier and Thomson chart his intermittent use of tranquilizers and anti-depressants; his struggle for literary recognition as a creative writer rather than "mere" memorialist; his various psychosomatic fears-for example, of Alzheimer's disease when he was only fifty, and his progressive disaffection with married and family life. We also learn that he had planned, but never completed, an autobiographical sequel to The Periodic Table and hoped to write an account of those German industries involved in the Nazi camps.

As for his death, both writers are convinced that Levi committed suicide. Angier puts the blame squarely on his chronic depression and terrible domestic situation, living in a cramped apartment with his estranged wife and children, as well as his ailing mother and mother-in-law. Thomson argues more broadly that his suicide was provoked by "a complex web of factors": his clinical depression, his mother's illness, the tide of historical revisionism with respect to Nazism, fascism and the Holocaust that was beginning to take root in Europe in the 1980s, his fears of mental incompetence and cancer and, perhaps, his survivor's guilt.

Of the two books, Thomson's is the more readable. He uses language without pretension and, for the most part, avoids undue speculation about hidden facets of Levi's career. This is not to say that his biography is without faults; for example, he betrays his mildly leftist political sympathies by never missing an opportunity to single out Italy's Christian Democratic Party for special abuse or to suggest, contrary to historical evidence, that throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Italy stood precariously on the verge of a neo-fascist coup. Thomson also overstates the degree to which Levi was anti-American and anti-Israeli. Levi did object to American pop culture (who can blame him?), which he believed had filled Italians' "heads with rubbish." But there is no "pronounced anti-American streak" detectable in either his life or public utterances. Indeed, he spoke admiringly of America as an "example" to other nations in the treatment to be afforded foreign immigrants. As for Israel, Levi did grow increasingly unhappy with what he perceived to be the nation's progressive militarization after the Six Day War. He sharply disapproved of Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin's government and its use of the rhetoric of Nazi victimization to justify the repression of Palestinians. Levi was ashamed when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and later said that the Phalangist massacre at Sabra and Chatila had "polluted" the image of Jews throughout the world. That said, Levi was unwavering in his support for the necessity of Israel to exist, opposed contacts with the PLO as long as it refused to renounce terrorism, maintained that Israel must be defended, and took very strong exception to those who compared the fate of the Palestinians living in Gaza and in the West Bank under Israeli rule to that of the Jews under Nazism.

Less serious, but irritating nonetheless, is Thomson's cultural leftism, manifest, for example, in his apparent belief that the release of Beatles lps can be used to mark social watersheds. Similarly, in one of his few attempts at literary criticism, Thomson reproaches Levi for failing to appreciate what he terms the modernist aesthetic of fragmentation and inaccessibility: "This conservative anti-modernism of Levi's", Thomson asserts, "was one of his least attractive characteristics." Really? I suspect that most admirers of Levi's clear, communicative prose see it as one of his most attractive characteristics.

Angier's tome evinces other sorts of defects, though they are no less off-putting. Much like those ghastly telemarketers who phone you in the guise of friends doing you a favor, she has the annoying habit of referring to Levi on a first-name basis. And as with telemarketers, she prattles on beyond all reason and tolerance. In her endless retellings of her encounters with secondary friends and acquaintances of Levi, she exhibits what Henry James in The Aspern Papers described as "the most fatal of human passions: not knowing where to stop." What should be obiter dicta ends up becoming omnia dicta as Angier makes us privy to her every thought. Thus, when she meets a school friend whom she suspects bullied Levi in his youth, we are treated to a Hamlet-like monologue intérieur on the order of: "Shall I challenge him? Shall I ask straight out-did you bully Primo Levi for being more monster than man?"

Angier is also given to melodramatic overstatements usually introduced by "surely." ("Surely this wasn't the whole story." "Surely the similarities are more than coincidental?" "Surely he feared that …") She is also prone to sententious pronouncements that come off sounding like parodies of Zen koans: "If you make your child unable to love anyone but you, he will not be able to love you either." Combined with her penchant for pseudo-psychological labels-in short order she informs us that Levi had a "success complex", an "attention complex", and a "fame complex"; indeed, every type of complex except a high-rise complex-and statements that are simply over the top ("he longed intensely for sex-and probably indiscriminately too"), one is left all but hoping for a telemarketer to call, just to interrupt her driveling on. This is a pity: Angier is obviously intelligent and can write with grace and precision when she tries. She well understands, for example, that: "If there is one way to describe the whole of [Levi's] work, it is this: it seeks out his opposite, even his enemy-human, animal and material-in order to cross the gap between them, to explore and understand them, to find a connection." Moreover, she does a much better job than Thomson, who hardly bothers, at offering imaginative, if not always convincing, readings of Levi's fiction.

But when all is said and done, the value of any biography lies in its ability to illuminate unexpected relationships either between past and present, or, in the case of a literary subject, between a writer's life and work. Regrettably, neither book under review offers any such compelling connections. Angier in particular hinders a deeper understanding of Levi's work because she reduces too much of what he wrote to personal neuroses and sexual repression. In so doing she becomes a prime example of the type of biographer Nabokov termed a "psycho-plagiarist." Angier remarks early on that "biography is not much appreciated in Italy." If translated into Italian, her book will certainly do much to confirm the antipathy.

A reader might come away from these biographies believing that Primo Levi, a gifted writer, was nonetheless a neurotic man whose importance is largely confined to Holocaust studies. This would be worse than a mistake; it would be a missed opportunity.

In different parts of the world, various communities are again being persecuted, tortured and ethnically cleansed. The ongoing reversion to mass murder and the ubiquitous use of hunger and imprisonment as political instruments mark a continuing crisis of culture and reason to which Levi's testimony about the death camps remains relevant. But Levi's books also speak to certain specific violations of human dignity that are to be found even in the peace and affluence of contemporary America and Europe.

In his recent look at Nazism, Michael Burleigh observes how an unnamed reporter compared the process of Nazism's moral transformation of German society to rebuilding a railway bridge. Engineers could not simply demolish an existing structure, because of the impact on rail traffic. Instead, they slowly renewed each bolt, girder and rail, work that hardly caused passengers to glance up from their newspapers. However, one day, they would realize that the old bridge had gone and a new structure stood in its stead.

This metaphor of incremental social subversion helps us to understand why feel-good but fuzzy humanistic standards of conduct ultimately proved so fragile a barrier against political brutality in Germany; but it should also keep us vigilant against the molecule by molecule moral substitutions slowly seeping into our own society.

At the end of World War II, Nazism became the damned part of Western civilization, the nec plus ultra of evil, so much so that there was not much psychic room left for other, yet unburied evils (communism, for example). But as with most other examples of self-evident consensus, the Sixties said goodbye to all that. Saul Friedländer was among the first to note "a new discourse about Nazism on the Right as well as on the Left" that was gaining ground, "an aesthetic re-elaboration" beyond ideology in such films as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler, a Film from Germany and Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter. Primo Levi, too, published caustic attacks on films that he believed falsified the nature of Nazi violence. Sadly, though, "swastika chic" and its accompanying moral idiocies seem more endemic in the West now that when he wrote. Consider three recent events.

As reported in the August 20 New York Times, filming is set to start in a few months on a four-hour cbs mini-series based on the life of Hitler before his ascension to power in 1933. Nancy Tellem, president of cbs Entertainment, has suggested that people have been so "focused on Hitler and the involvement in World War II and the concentration camps" that they have overlooked the other Hitler who rose to power from humble beginnings. "[H]ow Hitler became Hitler, I think it's unbelievably compelling", she gushed. According to a former cbs executive who has seen the script, Hitler is presented as a bit "idiosyncratic, odd" but overall the film will resemble Rocky, in which a boxer triumphs against the odds.

Then there is "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art", an exhibition recently hosted by the Jewish Museum in New York City. As the title suggests, the show featured 13 contemporary conceptual artists-some of whom are descended from families of Holocaust victims-who use Nazi era imagery to "invite the viewer to identify with the perpetrators." The "art" consisted of such puerile constructions as a series of faux lego boxes with pictures of miniature concentration camps made out of the children's play blocks, and phony Zyklon B gas canisters decked out in the signature colors and logos of luxury-goods stores such as Tiffany's and Chanel. Such meretricious kitsch is what we have come to expect of the art scene and is easily dismissed. Not so the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition.

As to be expected, the catalogue evinces a self-congratulatory tone that enthuses both about "a groundbreaking exhibition…filled with difficult, challenging art" and "the courage" of the show's artists, curators and organizers. One reads the by-now stock phrases about "multivalent meanings", "transgressive modes of presentation" and the necessity of crossing "taboo confines" by means of "taboo images." Lacan, Foucault, Bataille, Adorno, Horkeimer, Derrida-all the Academy's beloved continental thinkers-dutifully put in an appearance at some point. The result is that an asinine ("Were Nazis beautiful?"), condescending (these artists are out to "complicate the secure divide between good and evil that Western culture so comfortably assumes"), or offensive ("By teaching the Holocaust we have made it boring") remark appears on almost every page. And yet, somehow, every now and then, a bit of honesty breaks through:

Work about the Nazi and Holocaust era is part of a larger body of contemporary art that reflects today's historical amnesia and how current events have rewritten what we had assumed to be historical gospel…Distance from historical events and divergent attitudes among different generations are clearly central to the changing and contentious definitions of experience and memory…Until these artists came along, representing the Holocaust playfully had been taboo. Now it seems that a new generation of artists can relate to the Holocaust only [sic] in the mode of play.

One of the writers in the catalogue refers to ours as "a post-Holocaust culture", the suggestion seeming to be that we are "post" not in the chronological sense of "coming-after", but in a psychological sense of being "past" or "over it." Another of the catalogue's contributors complains that there has been too much rational information and education about the Holocaust and opines, incredibly:

In the face of that overdose, 'ignorance' is needed. An ignorance, not in terms of information about the Holocaust but of everything that stands in the way of a 'felt knowledge' of the emotions these events entailed.

Well, not all emotions; just those of the perpetrators.

Over the years, Levi developed what he called an "allergy" toward the pop Sixties sociology that facilely equated Italian factories with Nazi camps. He believed that graffiti of the sort "fiat=Auschwitz" only degraded the survivors' experience. It is not difficult to know, therefore, what he would think of a statement made by Tom Sachs, the creator of "Prada Deathcamp", another work in the Jewish Museum show, to a New York Times reporter: "I'm using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about loss of identity."

Finally, consider "Body Worlds", an exhibition that consists of human bodies that have been flayed, preserved and put on display. The exhibition, which has attracted 8.5 million visitors since it began touring in 1996, is currently a hit in London and will be travelling soon to the United States. A German anatomist by the name of Gunther von Hagens is the brains behind the exhibit, having perfected a novel means of exhibiting cadavers by replacing body fluids with plastic. Keep in mind that the bodies, though they look like models, are those of once living, real human beings. One of the "exhibits" is of a pregnant woman with her womb exposed to reveal a seven-month-old fetus. According to one account, she is "put in a position with one hand behind her head that makes her look like she is posing for Playboy. But her chest is slit down the middle, and you see the curled-up fetus in her womb."

Von Hagens argues that his displays provide unique insights into the human body; he says that he is out to "enlighten people by means of aesthetic shock" and claims to be "honored" by what little controversy his freak show has generated. Of course, he has also enriched himself in the process, making, by some estimates, more than $100 million. In a sane world, von Hagens would be prosecuted for desecrating corpses, but for the fact that he has received prior legal consent from the deceased to exhibit them in this way. Too bad for von Hagens that Dr. Kevorkian is in jail; otherwise the twisted American doctor could supply the bodies directly to his German colleague without having to wait for them to die of natural causes.

Again, there is little doubt how Levi would react to "Body Worlds." When an exhibition of antique torture instruments arrived in Turin in the 1980s, Levi visited it for La Stampa. Thomson reports that seeing the leg-locks, thumb-screws and the like, "all fetishistically displayed in Turin's Museum of Fine Art, Levi felt disgusted. His review of the exhibition…evinced a saeva indignatio worthy of Dickens." Levi excoriated the curators for their opportunism and castigated the European collectors who had loaned the instruments to make money.

Thanks to such efforts as The New Republic's "Idiocy Watch" in the wake of September 11, we know how blasé many of our leading intellectual luminaries have become about mass murder. Yet movies and exhibitions of the kind referred to above make clear that such moral obtuseness is not the exclusive preserve of highbrows and that the moral transformation Burleigh described in Germany is again at work in the West. Just as fascist writers such as Ernst Jünger in Germany and Gabriele D'Annunzio in Italy did much to deaden moral sensibilities by aestheticizing violence in the years leading up to World War II, so too contemporary gallery owners and hip young film makers (one thinks inevitably of Quentin Tarantino) are doing much the same to us today. Which helps explain why it has become increasingly hard for many people to keep the plain hideousness of planned mass murder in sharp focus. To a shocking extent, even September 11, 2001 has already been archived, aestheticized and taken variously to the bank. And yet the shrug-of-the-shoulder reaction to this type of horror is a terrible thing and represents a radical defeat of human sensibility.

À propos of September 11, Walter Laqueur has observed that "there has been a cult of sacrificial death in battle in the history of most peoples all through recorded history", but it was Nazism that, in modern times, gave "strong impetus to this cult." The Holocaust was the central revealed truth about that criminal regime, and Levi is the indispensable writer for understanding it. Any attempt to keep a modern form of humanism afloat will, as Tzvetan Todorov wrote recently, "far from ignoring Auschwitz and Kolyma, take them as a starting point." To help to retain our humanity, to avoid a recrudescence of the brutalization of manners that occurred in civilized nations during the last century, and to prevent seemingly fixed moral thresholds from evaporating before our eyes, we can do no better than to read Primo Levi. His biographies, on the other hand, we can skip.
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