Levi’s level judgments seem un‑ tainted by neurosis (a great advantage, of course, in a chronicle of events meant to be believed; we might prefer John Hersey’s version of Hiroshima to Joyce’s, or Woolf’s). We feel we’re getting not the artist’s view of hell, but the normal man’s.
This man, whom I (and thousands of others) inferred from the narrative voice of the memoirs, turned out to be one of Levi’s greatest creations.
During an epic journey through Russia on his long trip home, he and his companions lit fires in the woods, sang and danced deep into the night. Part of this narrator’s appeal is that he’s given, in those early books, to great swoops of hope for
an upright and just world, miraculously re-established on its natural foundations after an eternity of upheavals, of errors and massacres, after our long patient wait. It was a naïve hope … but it was on this that we were living.
It’s clear that this time cut out of Levi’s life in Turin contained not only the deepest horror, but the defining experiences of his life. In the books, his optimism seemed to come from his history, his conventionality, his very nature. Never had normalness looked so good. Solidity turns up commonly enough in mankind. It’s rare—to the point of being missing—only in artists. George Eliot suggested almost a century and a half ago that if ordinary people had “keen vision,” it would be “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Which is to say that sensitivity, like its antidotes, has side effects.
Evidence for Levi’s incredible strength of character lies in his plain productivity after Auschwitz. He managed a paint company, he married, he fathered two children, and he wrote essays, fables, short stories, novels, memoirs, and poems.
Yet the original two memoirs, even after he amended them, could not bind his memories. He kept returning to that year in Auschwitz, both in his fiction and in his essayistic examinations, Moments of Reprieve and The Drowned and the Saved. In the latter, he analyzes the breaking down of humanity with substantially less optimism than in his earlier work.
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.