Books June 2007

If This Is a Man

Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoirs stand among the best literature of the 20th century, but his greatest creation was himself.

He writes about his journey to the camps, in a boxcar, which he shared with old people, men and women, “inmates of the Jewish Rest Home of Venice,” for whom the absence of a latrine proved

a much worse affliction than thirst and cold … for them, evacuating in public was painful or even impossible: a trauma for which civilization does not prepare us, a deep wound inflicted on human dignity, an aggression which is obscene and ominous, but also the sign of deliberate and gratuitous viciousness.

With characteristic sunniness, he finds in this chaos the spirit of invention and celebrates it.

It was our paradoxical luck (al­‑ though I hesitate to write this word in this context) that in our car there were also two young mothers with their infants of a few months and one of them had brought along a chamber pot: one only, and it had to serve about fifty people. Two days into the journey we found some nails stuck into the wooden sides, pushed two of them into a corner and with a piece of string and a blanket improvised a screen, which was substantially symbolic: we are not yet animals, we will not be animals as long as we try to resist.

But he finishes the passage with a vision in which even pluck cannot subvert brutality.

The convoy was stopped two or three times in the open countryside … [and] the doors were opened another time … during a stop in an Austrian railroad station. The SS escort did not hide their amusement at the sight of men and women squatting wherever they could, on the platforms and in the middle of the tracks, and the German passengers openly expressed their disgust: people like this deserve their fate, just look how they behave. These are not Menschen, human beings, but animals; it’s clear as the light of day.

This was actually a prologue.

Completely different in kind from a plague of insomnia, a shower of butterflies, or the immemorial drumming child, Levi’s created scene—and it is that, though made out of fact—remains as fantastical, and it bears the additional power of having happened.

Of his prodigious output, the memoirs still stir readers most deeply; his playful stories derive from Italo Calvino, but without the captivating dreamy inevitability. Levi’s most successful work of fiction is also an amalgam: The Periodic Table, in which each element gives rise to a particular meditation or tale.

This new book, A Tranquil Star, a slim volume of previously unpublished stories, translated to English by Ann Goldstein, Alessandra Bastagli, and Jenny McPhee, contains two particularly resonant pieces. “The Death of Marinese,” about a prisoner detonating a bomb to kill his German captors, arose from an opportunity Levi once had but didn’t use (“I didn’t have the courage”); “Bear Meat” gives us again his full-hearted narrator, this time describing not a death camp but mountain climbing. Even given the less dramatic subject, the latter story generates power and affection, and suggests another direction Levi’s fiction could have gone: The narrator he created for the memoirs could have chronicled civilian life.

The allegorical stories here feel clever, but sometimes labored in their striving for originality, less distinctive than his substantial memoirs or than The Periodic Table and the three or four best of his poems. Though it doesn’t represent Levi’s major work, it completes his important library in English.

For many of his readers, the end of Levi’s life has been particularly hard to bear. In 1987, after a debilitating bout of major depression (in which, according to his biographer Carole Angier, he “dwelt obsessively” over the “drops of water he had not shared” with his fellow prisoner in Auschwitz), while his mother suffered through an agonizing illness, he was found dead on the lobby floor of his own apartment building. Though some doubt remains, there’s unanimity among those closest to him in believing that he committed suicide.

At the time, the general take on his death was that the Holocaust had finally destroyed him after all. Many readers, particularly Holocaust survivors, still feel betrayed, having assumed that Levi the writer had been his own persona. But Angier’s 2002 biography, The Double Bond, revealed that Levi had never been that man and that the Holocaust had not done in Primo Levi. According to Angier, the Holocaust, in fact, represented a remission from the serious depression Levi suffered all his life.

He was not the normal-man-made-writer-by-history, but an artist with an artist’s sensibility. Auschwitz was his great adventure, Angier writes, “his time in Technicolor … for which he could even feel nostalgia.” Afterward, he suffered the usual civilized tortures: Even with literary respect, fame, and the promise by many of a Nobel Prize, he feared that he was not a “real” writer.

I fell in love with a man who was as much a creation as Mr. Darcy. Levi’s great achievement rests on a paradox and great artifice. Who but a chronic depressive (given to the habit of self-criticism) could be sent to Auschwitz and focus on the behavior of the Jews, intricately chronicling their moral gradations of honor and corruption? The Auschwitz that Levi indelibly rendered could have been conjured only by someone who’d always believed in the existence of Nazis, whatever their guise.

There have been hundreds of depictions of the German camps, in a dozen different forms. The reason this one will remain primary and essential is precisely because of Levi’s skewed vantage. Levi ignored the big story that saner prisoners and screenwriters ever since have focused on: the simple brutality of the Germans, the pathetic and tragic plight of the victims. But big stories, written by people not unlike Levi’s narrator, do not last in their particulars. The truth of history is not the truth of art.

If Levi’s own “keen vision” was re‑ quired to see the Ausch­witz he saw, he must have realized that he needed to imbue his account with more than sporadic, rare stories of often-doomed heroism. He also needed to obscure his sensibility—after all, one discounts a certain portion of what a depressed person says, attributing it to his cast of mind.

Levi intuitively understood that the man he wished he could have been was the character to tell the tale that he himself had endured, even if such a man would not have registered the Ausch­witz Levi gave us, with its thieving and conniving and grabby survival. That man would have seen the barbarism of the Nazis in all its dramatic, grotesque detail and considered the Jews only as victims en masse— understanding that whatever they did, they did in the interests of animal survival, of life itself—and perhaps recorded a few acts of astonishing heroism, likely those that succeeded. Levi considered the few successful acts of heroism almost miracles; generally, he believed everyone still alive afterward to be somewhat tainted. The heroism he felt most drawn to was the sort he described in Hurbinek; a mighty striving toward humanity that ended in failure and death. While revealing the debasement easily accessible in human nature, Levi believed we needed the romance of man. He died of the “roar on the other side of silence,” but the narrator he created built fires in the Russian woods and sang all night, trusting in the restoration of a just world. On the bookshelf containing the immortals, there is no such thing as memoir. It is all fiction.

Presented by

Mona Simpson is completing her fifth novel, My Hollywood. Her other books include Anywhere but Here (1986) and Off Keck Road (2000).

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