Approaches to Teaching the Works of Primo Levi.
In light of the growing importance surrounding the figure of Primo Levi, Patruno and Ricci's edited volume Approaches to Teaching the Works of Primo Levi is a much-welcomed contribution in the bookshelf of the Italian studies scholar. The essays included in the book present a critical survey of materials and methodologies to approach "the important work of teaching Levi's works", intersecting disciplines that range from Jewish studies to Holocaust history, from comparative literature to Italian studies (p. 15).
Opening the book is a detailed bibliographical introduction, intended to provide the reader with a first orientation in the abundant critical literature existing on Levi. Unfortunately, the contributors could not integrate in their bibliographical references the recently published collection of Levi's Complete Works, edited by Ann Goldstein, which went into print the year immediately following the publication of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Primo Levi. With the addition of Goldstein edited Complete Works and of some more references to essays and works in Italian language (for instance, Belpoliti's edition of Levi's interviews, Conversazioni e interviste, 1963-1987), this bibliographical guide may still represent a helpful resource for the reader. The book gathers contributions of established American scholars of Levi that enrich the structure of the volume with diverse methods and critical perspectives. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Primo Levi presents thus a series thematic analyses of Levi's works, a discussion on the use of Levi's works in language teaching and translation, and a group of targeted readings devoted to singular texts of the author.
The first section, "Testimony, Autobiography and the Holocaust," includes essays authored by scholars such as Jonathan Drucker, Nancy Harrowitz, Nicholas Patruno, Massimo Giuliani and Massimo Lollini, intended to critically connect the two main teaching contexts in which Levi is generally encapsulated: the disciplinary domain of courses in Italian studies, where Levi is read primarily as an Italian writer who witnessed the Jewish genocide, and on the other hand that of courses in Holocaust studies, where Levi is read primarily as a Holocaust writer who happens to be Italian. This double contextualization frames Harrowitz's analysis of the "question of style" in Levi and its impact on the depiction of the genocide developed in the testimonial narratives of If This is a Man and The Truce. Drawing a comparison with the other major literary witness of the Jewish genocide, Elie Wiesel, Harrowitz observes that students accustomed to the "emotional truth" of Wiesel's intense poetic prose react in a significantly different way to the reading of Levi: "instead of sweeping away readers in a flood of poetic images and emotions," Levi's writing "challenges them to use their intellectual faculties," with the result that "students resist the complexity of the reading" (pp. 22-23). The complexity of Levi's literary representation provides however a powerful tool to expose the unsettling realm of the univers concentrationnaire. Its strength "lies exactly in this paradox: as Levi leads us directly to the Gorgon, he also deflects us from this path toward paralysis and toxicity of knowledge" through a language that refuses any excess of emotional emphasis (p. 27). Levi's specificity in the teaching of Holocaust literatures emerges then exactly from the force of a language that, giving priority to an analytical rather than emotional memory, constitutes a prime vector of knowledge to probe the reality of the genocide. The attempt to define the relevance of Levi's works in the general education curriculum guide as well Jonathan Drucker's analysis of The Drowned and The Saved (pp. 29-35). Addressing the theme of the "grey zone", Drucker underscores the aptitude of a text like The Drowned and The Saved to raise questions that go well beyond the epistemological universe of literature, stimulating significant intersections with the domains of ethics, philosophy and psychology. Likewise, similar recontextualizations of Levi's work through different methodological frames inspire the essays by Lollini, Patruno and Giuliani.
The following section of the book ("Language, Language Teaching and Translation") tackles the use of Levian texts in language teaching. After an introductory chapter by Pietro Frassica focusing on Levi's relationship with the Lagerjargon and its "untranslatability" (pp. 68-79), Letizia Modena and Lina Insana explore the complexity of cultural and didactic aspects embedded in the study of Levi's language(s). If Modena's contribution proposes a series of teaching strategies to meaningfully incorporate Levi's texts as linguistic sources in the Italian language curriculum, Insana sees in the "translation studies approach to Holocaust representation" a "pedagogically rich framework" to penetrate the "complexity of processes of survivor witnessing, but also mechanisms by which first-personal narratives are disseminated both across languages (interlingual translation, or translation proper in Jakobson's terms) and across systems of signification (intersemiotic translation)" (p. 90). Recognizing the importance that translation across languages acquires in several loci critici of Levi's oeuvre, translation defines then both a "metaphor" and a "theoretical paradigm" to investigate the challenges of testimony and the witness/translator's task to counteract "the fragmentation of Babel" (p. 90). Projecting a series of critical tools derived from translation studies onto the study of Levi and Holocaust literature that echo Lawrence Venuti's theories on the translator's (in)visibility, Insana's study expose thus both the "levels of mediation and filtering" that separate the atrocities of the genocide from "our reception of them as secondary witnesses," as well as the "mediated" nature of the representations of the extermination (p. 93).
These multidisciplinary intersections between Holocaust and translation studies anticipate the concluding part of the book, "Teaching Individual Works," where contributions by Millicent Marcus, Elisabetta Properzi Nelsen, Gaetana Marrone and Risa Sodi extend the analysis to texts such as The Periodic Table, Rosi's cinematic adaptation of The Truce, and the novel If Not Now When?. Besides offering interesting forays into some under-investigated aspects of Levi's work, as it is the case with Patruno's investigation of the short-stories of Storie naturali and Lollini's study of Levi's poetry included in the first section of the book, these contributions reveal to adhere to one of most recent acquisitions in the criticism about Levi, namely the growing awareness of what Marco Belpoliti has termed the "polyhedral" nature of Levi's writing. The deepening of our knowledge of Levi's intellectual universe in fact has increasingly brought to attention, along with his "Holocaust testimony and theory," the intellectual versatility of one of the most significant writers of the Italian Novecento: witness but also essayist, moralist and writer of science-fiction, translator and scientist, philologist and anthropologist: polysemic facets of the "Levi prism" of which the authors of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Primo Levi show to be fully aware.
Reviewed by: Tommaso Pepe, Brown University, USA