Chronicling a writer's despair.
In the introduction to this hefty tome, Carole Angier says that digging up the facts about Primo Levi from his Turin-based relatives, friends, and associates was a difficult exercise, given the reserve of the city's inhabitants. Not too difficult, however, in view of the encyclopedic harvest of biographical data she has gathered about one of the most gifted writers to emerge from the "other planet" known as Auschwitz.
The author has not composed a mere biography; she has adopted, for better or worse, the rattier of psycho-historian in trying to reconstruct Levi's personal views on diverse matters. Some of that thinking she is able to reconstitute through close readings of the 14 books that Levi published or remarks he offered on public platforms. What is problematic, and hence less attractive, is that in other forays into Levi's thought patterns, she has combined hearsay and speculative analysis.
The first quarter of Primo Levi's life unfolded as if in technicolor; it revealed the child of an assimilated Jewish family under the bright sun of Turin in the Piedmont section of Italy. A more or less happy childhood, despite some specks of gray, was followed by an equally felicitous adolescence and entry into the chemistry lab, where a romance was born with the periodic table and the double bonding of organic chemistry. In order not to push the analogy too far, one must note that the bright colors of this period were mitigated by some darkening clouds on the political horizon--and within Levi's own psychological foyer.
When the Italian dictator Mussolini had the unwisdom to ally himself politically, and later militarily, with the devil's personal surrogate on earth, the roseate hues of Levi's first two decades turned to Stygian darkness. After a brief stint with Italian partisans, Levi was sent to a Fascist internment camp at Fossoli and thence --to Auschwitz. When confronted by the Fascist militia, Levi volunteered the information that he was a Jew, believing that admitting to being a partisan would bring more severe punishment.
This occurred in January of 1944, almost five years after the swastika had begun to blot out the sun from the European continent, and it shows that this ardent practitioner of chemistry was totally removed from the reality and knowledge of Nazi barbarism. The 13 months he spent in Auschwitz and its component camps introduced him to an inferno that even his beloved Italian bard, Dante, could not capture in his inimitable verses. It was during this period that the German word Lager (camp) entered, and became part of, Levi's formidable vocabulary.
Author Angier makes the point that what Churchill would call "the black dog" --depression--did not make its first appearance in Levi in Auschwitz. He had had periodic bouts with it even in sunnier days. Its etiology was rooted in his DNA (a grandfather) and in adolescent disquiet over shyness, and insecurity about his manliness. Childhood taunts that equated circumcision with castration did little to bolster his self-image, or Jewishness. According to Angier, it was depression of an unimaginable magnitude that finally caused Levi, at age 67, to take his own life.
He survived Auschwitz only because of his relative good health (he survived scarlet fever as well) and expertise in chemistry, the latter permitting him to work as a researcher in an I.G. Farben laboratory attached to the camp and thus in a heated environment during the bitter cold of a Polish winter. The Lager experiences shocked Levi to his existential roots, and in the several volumes where he documented them, his lacerated soul reflected, among other things, on the gratuitous cruelty that animated the Nazi murder machinery.
In her survey of the Lager literature, author Angier provides succinct summaries and commentaries on Levi's works and discusses their reception. If This Is Man, Levi's magisterial inquiry on the nature of the concentration camp, was politely received when it was published in 1947, but it quickly disappeared off the charts. It took more than 20 years before the importance of that book and his others--principally Survival in Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, The Monkey Wrench, The Periodic Table--registered upon the reading public. Before his death, Levi's works had been published in a dozen languages and in millions of copies.
There are three important observations that Angier furnishes about Levi's success as a writer. First, he was consummate stylist, who chiseled his portraits in an elegant Italian prose. Although his major works were non-fiction, that is to say, testimonies about the lessons of the Lager, he did not hesitate to use the mechanics of fiction to enhance or amplify the ideas he was expounding. Thus his portraits of the suffering people who intersected with him in Auschwitz are sometimes composites, a common literary device.
Second, only the cognoscenti would be aware of the fact that Levi was also an accomplished poet, and when success came, it afforded him an opportunity to publish his verse, snippets of which Angier provides in Italian with English translation. Again, few people know that Levi also published a number of what we would call science fiction tales. Many of these ingenious compositions explore the strange correspondences between animal, vegetable, and mineral, a subject of obvious interest to a chemist.
Third, Primo Levi was an assimilated Jew and was, says Angier, like most of the Italian Jewish community, more Italian and more Turinese than his countrymen and his fellow citizens in Turin. Levi was also indifferent towards Zionism and Israel and, in one unguarded moment, allowed that the establishment of the Jewish state had been a mistake. This, and his inexplicable silence on the unique Jewish dimension of Auschwitz, earned him the hostility of some American Jewish critics. Other American Jewish writers embraced him warmly: Philip Roth cemented a relationship with Levi when he interviewed him for an article in The New York Times Book Review.
It has been said that the vices of a country flow often from an excess of its virtues. The same can be said of this volume, which overflows its banks with reports of every conceivable thing relevant to Primo Levi. But relevance is a subjective judgment call, and there are occasions in this book where she tells us more than we want to know about Levi. The dresses, hair styles, postures, and physiognomies of the people she interviewed for this book need not have been conveyed.
Levi's administrative problems with labor unions at the factory where he worked after the year and later became an important bureaucrat do little to advance our undersstanding of the writer. The author's learned dissertations on the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry are too taxing for the average reader. Angier's speculations on Levi's putative dalliance and assignations with women are totally unnecessary. What is necessary, and that is not reported on in this exceptional biography, are details about Levi's children --lacunae that are inexplicable.
These inconveniences in the text do not, however, ultimately detract from what this reviewer considers to be the most important contribution in this epoch-making volume --the chronicling of the slow descent that saw Primo Levi go from an international literary figure of superstar proportions to a pitiable anchorite who shunned the simple warmth of human contact-- that which he once saw as the defining characteristic of humankind.
In this context, Angier reveals aspects of Levi's decline that did not make it into the numerous and adulatory obituaries which followed his death, most certainly by suicide, at age sixty-seven. His mental equilibrium was apparently dislocated in the mid-1970s by the emergence of Holocaust deniers such as Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy Frances chief dispatcher of French Jews to Auschwitz. He who had lived through the degradation of the camps and who survived to document its horrors now faced that black brotherhood that was negating his own life experience.
Two other factors played roles in the development of Levi's eclipse and break down. The mother whom he doted on all his life, disintegrated physically before his eyes. According to Angier, there was also the matter of an enlarged prostate which caused Levi to avoid lengthy journeys because of his frequent urination. An operation to remedy the problem was entirely successful but Levi was convinced that the doctors were hiding a cancerous condition from him.
The surprising thing in this scenario is that, except for a small coterie of friends and relatives, no one knew that Primo Led was engaged in a titanic and ultimately unwinable battle against his own personal demons. In public, Levi was always cool and imperturbable, never raising his voice, always the model of polite discourse; he was a man of almost courtly disposition and demeanor. That Levi had become the living, tormented incarnation of the famous painting by Edvard Munch, The Scream, is something that few could understand or even imagine.
It is also difficult to understand Levi's ambivalence towards Israel, Jews, and Judaism. Angier makes several good stabs at locating Levi's Jewish gyroscope --which always seemed to be tilting towards the most secular expression of that tradition. The problem, of course, is that Primo was, at heart, an elegist giving the hesped (eulogy) over those who had died in Auschwitz. In the past, before Jews had learned the metier of the historian, the dark memories of torture and persecution, pogroms and crusades, were enshrined in piyutim, religious hymns with Biblical cadences and resonance.
Levi is not part of that tradition, for he was not learned in the Jewish vernacular of despair. On the other hand, Levy was a child of the secular enlightenment of the 20th century and a benefactor of Italy's romance with art, beauty, music, and science. It was natural for him to use the secular gifts bestowed upon him by his education and upbringing to chant a kaddish in the best way he could. He did not use traditional melodies, but the earnestness of his approach shone through.
The late Daniel Elazar, scholar of Jewish studies, once noted that there were three, not two, branches of the Jewish family and each had a word associated with it. The Ashkenazim were tagged with gevurah--strength, steadfastness, vigor; the Sephardim were characterized by chesed--lovingkindness, mellowness, and judicious judgment. Finally, there were the Italian Jews, and only one word suited them--tifferet--splendor. Primo Levi, in his own quiet and unassuming way, combined elements of the three tribes, and the world is richer for it.
ARNOLD AGES, a professor at the University of Waterloo (Ontario), is a specialist in modern intellectual thought.
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|Author:||Ages, Arnold; Angier, Carole, author|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2002|
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