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Who do you think you are?

Enda O’Doherty writes: In his preface to The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi recounts a phenomenon he recalled from his time as a slave labourer working for the German war machine in the Buna-Monowitz plant at Auschwitz, where he was imprisoned from February 1943 until the camp was liberated by the Russians in January 1945:

… this same thought (‘even if we were to tell it, we would not be believed’) arose in the form of nocturnal dreams produced by the prisoners’ despair. Almost all the survivors, verbally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of imprisonment, varied in its detail but uniform in its substance: they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved person, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and most cruel) form, the interlocutor turned and left in silence.

Though the intuition embedded in this prison nightmare was to prove in some respects prescient, it was not borne out by Levi’s initial experiences of telling his tale on his return to his native Turin, as his biographer Ian Thomson relates. With a compulsion “as strong as hunger”, he began, in late 1945, buttonholing fellow passengers on the Milan-Turin express, not so much at first to bear witness to the mass murders that had taken place in Auschwitz as simply to unburden himself of his remarkable personal story. Surprisingly perhaps, he was only once asked to desist (by a Catholic priest); one fellow passenger even asked him to speak louder as he was hard of hearing.

These snatches of stories, told to strangers or to friends and family, were the oral basis of what was soon to become a written memoir, If This is a Man, which Levi finished by late 1946 and began to show to friends whose literary judgment he respected. The reception was favourable, even enthusiastic. He also sent some sample chapters, through an American cousin, Anna Yona, to the publisher Little, Brown. Here, however, his work was greeted less positively.

“In 1946,” Thomson writes, “the subject of Europe’s dismal recent past did not engage – indeed it repelled – American readers.” Little, Brown’s rejection was to prefigure an Italian one. If This is a Man was turned down by the prestigious Einaudi house and by five other Italian publishers (though the book was “quite interesting”, the moment was not right was the judgment of one publisher’s reader). Levi’s memoir was eventually issued in late 1947 by the small Turin publisher Franco Antonicelli. It received respectful but unenthusiastic reviews (though Italo Calvino did recognise its merits) and sold just 1,500 copies, mostly in the author’s home city. It was to be another eleven years before the book was republished (by Einaudi this time), while after the Little, Brown rejection Levi had to wait nearly forty years – until the last years of his life ‑ before his name became well-known in America.

On a promotional visit to New York in April 1985, Levi warned his publicist that he was uneasy about being represented simply as a Jewish writer (nor did he like the American title of If This is a Man, Survival in Auschwitz): ”I don’t like labels – Germans do.” But this, unfortunately, was what everyone had identified as what me might term, somewhat anachronistically, his “unique selling point”. After a few days of being carted around from one carefully managed event to another he wondered aloud to his wife, Lucia, if any non-Jews lived in New York at all.

Primo Levi, as well as holding down a full-time job as an industrial chemist, was a versatile writer whose work ranged from poetry, through historical fiction and documentary reconstruction of his personal experience to collections of stories and fables which reflected his interest in science and technology, to occasional journalism – two sparkling collections of articles originally written for the Turin newspaper La Stampa, Other People’s Trades and The Mirror Maker. Yet it was perhaps inevitable that he was going to be most widely known as a writer about the Holocaust, or that small part of it which he personally experienced.

It was not his choice to be so identified, nor did he feel qualified to carry the burden of being “a Jewish writer”, being someone who was brought up in a mostly secular environment, who was personally non-religious and deeply attached to classical Italian literary traditions more than the Bible; someone also who, while not political with a large P, naturally gravitated towards friendships with literary intellectuals of the left (like Italo Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg).

In an article published in the New York Jewish and neoconservative review Commentary (edited by Norman Podhoretz) in 1985, Fernanda Eberstadt wrote that with Levi’s

deliberate coolness of manner goes a gently mocking wit, which harps upon the droll and comical aspects of human degradation as a way of making bearable an outrage too massive to endure. This quality of Levi’s (along with his elegant literary bearing) no doubt helps to account for his attractiveness to certain European and American intellectuals who (in the words of one of those admirers, Irving Howe) “are dismayed by the vulgarizations to which discourse on the Holocaust has recently been subjected” and who “wince at the shoddy rhetoric it evokes from publicists and politicians.”

This passage might, at this remove, require a little elucidation: Levi’s “coolness”, “gentleness” and “elegance” are not here to be understood as virtues. Not at all. Rather they are the kind of unmanly ‑ certainly unmartial ‑ qualities which are attractive to “certain intellectuals”, perhaps particularly Jewish ones, who are “dismayed” (another slightly effeminate reaction perhaps) by what they see as vulgarity and shoddy rhetoric, that is by those who bridle at the automatic recourse to the experience of the Holocaust as the clinching argument to silence any and all criticism of Israeli policy, or indeed those who suggest that there might be another way of being Jewish apart from full-bloodedly religiously and politically so.

As Levi wrote in If This is a Man, his fear and consternation on arriving at Auschwitz was accentuated by the difference between him as an Italian (Sephardic) Jew and the majority population of Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking Jews from central and eastern Europe who made up the majority of camp inmates. For them, a man who didn’t speak Yiddish could scarcely be a Jew, though there had in fact been a Jewish population in pre-Christian Rome. And so, in Auschwitz, in addition to the natural savage competition between inmates to survive, Levi found himself to a degree a cultural outsider facing hostility from his fellow-sufferers.

Though more subtle (and better-informed), Eberstadt’s attitudes to Levi and the culture from which he emerged are essentially similar to those of the bewildered Ashkenazi camp inmates. An assimilated Jew is not a real Jew. A non-religious Jew is not a real Jew. A Jew who “marries out” is not a real Jew. This phenomenon of the so-called “non-Jewish Jew”, which was common in the largely tolerant bourgeois Italian society of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was of course not unknown in America either, though for Eberstadt it is much to be deprecated:

There came into being something familiar enough from the American scene: a large body of “holiday Jews,” who went to synagogue on the High Holy Days and ate prosciutto and shrimp the rest of the year, Jews for whom Judaism was the expression of a kind of subsidiary “ethnic pride” whose value was in large measure nostalgic.

For Italian Jewish writers, she writes, (broad strokes here) “religion and ethnicity alike appear as something homey, sentimental, amusing, surrounded by the aura of childhood. For these writers, Jewishness belongs to the memory cupboard with fat uncles, eccentric aunts, good smells from the kitchen”. If this sounds quite a lot like some of the work of American Jewish novelists (Joseph Heller in Good as Gold, Mordecai Richler, early Philip Roth) it will not perhaps be surprising to hear that Levi and Roth contracted an intense late friendship in the mid-1980s. Nor indeed that Commentary had little time for Roth either and indeed did not seem to have forgiven him for some of his unsympathetic character portraits at the time of his death, when editor John Podhoretz, son of Norman, wrote: “There is nothing in his books about love. He did not really know much about ordinary life, he never had a job, he never had a marriage, he didn’t have children ... Love was something that was clearly totally absent from his life.” Roth was in fact twice married, but maybe they were not real marriages, just as, for the strain of thought represented by the ideologists of Commentary, he wasn’t a real Jew.

In 1982, after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon (which led to the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees carried out by Lebanese Phalangistes and facilitated by the Israeli defence forces) Levi organised a petition calling for the resignation of prime minister Menachem Begin signed by 150 Italian Jewish intellectuals and published in the newspaper La Repubblica. This lost him some friends among the Turinese Jewish community. Ian Thomson writes that Levi suspected that the very pro-Begin Norman Podhoretz had deliberately commissioned Eberstadt, then a young and little known, though well-connected, writer, to produce the critique. (Sartre did something very similar, through Francis Jeanson, when he wanted to destroy Camus in Les Temps Modernes.) It should perhaps be said that Eberstadt’s article, though clearly hostile in tone, and at times slyly malicious, is a more informed and intelligent, and arguably more nuanced, piece of work than Ian Thomson’s short account of it in his Levi biography might suggest. Here we have a splendidly feline example of damning with faint praise, the dagger, I think, all too visible in spite of the honeyed words:

Primo Levi’s place in 20th-century letters is a peculiar one. He is a consummately gentlemanly writer, a watcher from the sidelines who has made himself master of a literary manner light, subtle, elliptical, curiously ascetic, and rather patrician, a manner which relies for its effects on understatement and irony but which paradoxically found its true complement in an experience utterly blunt and overwhelming in its horror.

The real problem, however, one suspects, is that, apart from his unreliable politics, Levi was insufficiently ideological and that rather than telling the story as surely it must be told he told it as he found it. And the world, ever since, has been grateful for the resulting masterpiece. Primo Levi was born a hundred years ago today.

31/7/2019