Primo Levi: the biographer's challenge and the reader's double bind.
I must begin with an apology for the fact that this review will be as much about my own double bind in evaluating Angier's biography as it will be about the book itself. The sheer length of the volume (731 pages of text plus another 167 of scholarly apparatus) meant that I lived with it for quite a while (I am a slow reader), and my engagement with the text became a full-fledged commitment that left me alternately fascinated, infuriated, awe-struck, and bewildered. Realizing that the intensity of my reaction was itself significant, I decided that a personal essay, rather than a formal review, would be the most appropriate medium for what I have to say. Such a subjective response is justified, indeed necessitated, by Angier's own most controversial strategy in writing this biography--i.e. the decision to insert herself as a character in her text, to foreground her investigative procedure, and to declare her subject position in good, post-structuralist fashion. This is a methodological choice that I accept in principle because it accords with my own belief in the impossibility of truly "transparent," objective writing, and my consequent desire to understand the author's motives, biases, presuppositions, and goals in narrating and interpreting the life of another human being. (In its most extreme form, of course, this principle would lead to the reductio ad absurdum that all biographies must be prefaced by the life story of the biographer.)
Angier gets around this problem in an ingenious, yet disturbing way--by dramatizing her own relationship to the biographical process throughout the course of the book. The occurrences of the personal pronouns "I" and "me" are legion, and they crop up in two contexts: when Angier recounts the vivid story of her interviewing and research adventures, her detective-like tracking down of clues, her clever gimmicks for getting people to talk (what I call the "journalism narrative"), and when she intervenes with personal interpretations and opinions about what she has learned, e.g. "Now I think I can add something else: that Primo's mother did not love him ..." (63; what I call the "conjecture narrative"). But the intensity of my distaste for this approach is a measure of how much I otherwise admire in the project, and how much I regret that its considerable strengths have been diluted by Angier's unfortunate choice of methodology. It is only proper, therefore, that I begin with a look at the positive side of the reader's double bind in confronting this prodigious achievement.
The publication of The Double Bond is itself an event--a cultural occurrence of signal importance not only for Levi scholarship, but also for the larger disciplines of contemporary Italian literature, and for the ever-growing field of Holocaust studies. Beautifully produced by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, generously illustrated with a veritable photo album of Levi's life and times, and massive in length, the volume, as material object alone, is a tribute to the monumental stature of Levi's personal and literary legacy. The author dedicated ten years to the researching and writing of this book, and every page resonates with her passionate commitment to the subject matter. She has thoroughly internalized Levi's writings and has immersed herself in his cultural milieu, leaving no research lead unexamined, no text unread, no acquaintance uncontacted. In other words, in reading The Double Bond we are in the presence of an obsession that, like Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (also ten years in the making) invites us inside the compulsive and monomaniacal process of investigation. The result of this loving, dogged, and intelligent research is a kind of summa, a compendium of knowledge of truly encyclopedic scope, embracing historical context, literary criticism, psychological interpretation, and even chemical expertise.
Angier begins by thoroughly mapping the historical ground of her study, with accounts of Italian Jewry from its origins, the cultural development of Piedmont (in general) and Turin (in particular), Levi's family chronicle, and later, the annals of Fascism, WWII, postwar terrorism, and even the events in the Middle East after the 1967 war (which shaped Levi's attitude toward Israel). The book's organization is tripartite, including (1) the Turinese years from birth in 1919 through the university until 1942, (2) the move to Milan, the Resistance interlude, arrest, deportation, the Auschwitz ordeal, and the post-Liberation odyssey ending in 1945, and (3) marriage, family, achievements in the workplace and on the written page, depression, and death in 1987. Angier cleverly interweaves Levi's autobiographical devices into her own writing, often giving her chapters subheadings borrowed from his texts, and meticulously comparing Primo's prose accounts with the factual record as she unearths it through interviews and personal observation. Similarly, Angier adopts a number of Levi's own insights and uses them as leitmotifs throughout her ensuing narration. For example, Levi's ill-fated effort to extract alloxan (for ladies' lipstick) from chicken feces, given droll dignity in the Latin phrase aurum de stercore (see the "Nitrogen" chapter of The Periodic Table), comes to signify, for Angier, this man's quest for value in even the most horrific of circumstances. The biographer makes excellent recurrent use of Levi's Ancient Mariner allusion, comparing the survivor's eloquence, and urgency, to the Coleridgean protagonist's "strange powers of speech" and the need to exercise them at "an uncertain hour." Levi's penchant for hybridity and impurity (see "Zinc"), explains his own identity as a "Centaur"--Italian and Jewish, chemist and humanist, rationalist and depressive, as well as his writings themselves, with their intriguing blend of scientific learning and literary invention. Angier aptly points out Levi's own formula for living in this state of hybridity, which requires, in his own words, "a double leap, up and down, between two levels of energy"--a process that would become harder and harder to sustain in life, and would only remain viable in writing. Another Levian theme that Angier pursues throughout the biography is the quest for an answer to the titular question posed in Se questo e un uomo. The definition of the human condition obsessed Levi, and its answers were multi-dimensional, including considerations of gender, aggressivity, moral courage, intellectual acumen, and literary prowess. Finally, and most obviously, Angier takes the notion of the double bond from the title of Levi's unpublished last manuscript, and elevates it to the status of the driving force behind his life story. Drawn from organic chemistry, the study of molecules with double bonds (as opposed to inorganic molecules that attach to each other at only one point), this image implies the greater richness, but simultaneous instability, of the primary building blocks of life.
Angler is at her best in analyzing Levi's development and struggles as a writer. She examines with passion and sophistication his entire literary production, including the poems, novels, short stories (both the scientific-moral fables and the Holocaust portraits), essays, and even two theatrical pieces (a radio play of La tregua and a stage version of Se questo e un uomo), in addition to the great memoirs. The translation projects are also considered, as well as the numerous public speaking engagements (paratextual performances) that were required of this most private of men. Nor does Angier slight the critical reception of Levi's output as recorded in the many reviews she has surveyed while researching this biography. In examining his literary production, Angier is especially sensitive to the difficulty of Levi's creative process--the uncertainty about his vocation and the need for liberation from the paroxysms of self doubt that besieged him at each step of his career. Her readings of his works are paragons of sophistication, doing justice both to the primary and meta-levels of meaning on which the Levian texts so importantly rely. In one striking example, Angier interprets the central image in the story "Retirement Fund" (published in Storie naturali in 1966), as a metaphor for Levi's entire literary enterprise. The image is that of the magic helmet, called the Torec, that enables the narrator to experience another individual's reality. Entering into the consciousness of someone else, the narrator can feel the surrogate self's negative passions--violence, rage, vengeance--without being tainted by them. This offers the perfect solution to the biographical Primo Levi, so intent on rigid emotional control, so threatened by the prospect of experiencing and expressing powerful onslaughts of feeling.
When the narrator puts the helmet on his head, he feels anger, hate, revenge--he fights, he feels, and inflicts pain. But it is not his anger, his hate, his fighting and pain. While he wears the Torec he feels them--but he can take it off, he can return to innocence and safety. The story itself is Primo's Torec: in writing he can allow hatred and violence inside himself just far enough to (perhaps) understand it, and no further. Indeed the story is even better than the Torec, because if the Torec is a fiction to the narrator, the story is a fiction about a fiction to Primo--and both are invented and controlled, by him. (90; original emphasis)
In addition to the critical sophistication of the above passage, it is hard to miss the liveliness and engaging quality of its prose, and indeed I could cite any number of wonderfully felicitous phrases and formulations that enhance the pleasures of this text. As a research tool, The Double Bond offers a wealth of annotations (113 pages worth), a bibliography broken down by categories, and a conceptual index. In short, this book stands as a precious resource for all future Levi scholarship, in any language. But this is where I run into my double bind. I cannot bring myself to utter the standard next sentence something along the lines of "Angier has written the definitive biography." For all the massive research, full immersion, and apparent honesty of this work, its pretensions to authority are undermined by Angier's personal and intellectual agenda in writing The Double Bond.
First, the biography is characterized by what I would call a "tyrannical teleology"--it is driven by its end, Levi's death, which Angier reads as a suicide, caused not by the trauma of Auschwitz, but by a depressive personality disorder, made unbearable by a series of external conditions in his waning years, including the burden of caring from his severely disabled elderly mother, along with the physical and mental decline of his own advancing age. Angier uses the metaphor of the chemical double bond to explain the depression that afflicted Levi throughout his life. It is the bond to a father who was a hedonistic, free-thinking, womanizing bon vivant, and a mother who was pleasureless, withdrawn, and dictatorial. This primal division is not only at the root of Levi's ambivalence toward women, or toward pleasure and freedom, but is also the cause of his conflict between science and the humanities, between fact and fantasy, between "hard" and "soft" knowledge. For Angier, this double bond becomes a double bind--it blocks and stymies Levi, and it finally does him in. Because the entire biography is governed by the logic of its ending, which Angier attributes to suicidal depression caused by his primal conflict, the biographer reads this mechanism back into Levi's entire life course, creating a sense of inevitability, of inescapable doom from the very start. It is almost as if, in theological terms, Angler had robbed Levi of his free will, or, as if by a kind of biological determinism, he were genetically programmed to repeat the fate of his suicidal grandfather Michele Levi, and his first cousin Giulia. This foregone conclusion is coercive and oppressive--it hovers over the entire 731 pages like the metaphoric crow used by Angier to describe Levi's recurrent bouts of depression. This teleological tyranny denies us, as readers, our own prerogative to entertain the possibility that Primo's choices were conscious and free ones, dictated by forces other than those of neurotic impulse or heinous external circumstance.
Figuring into both the negative and the positive sides of my reader's double bind is this book's dual loyalty in generic terms. It is both scholarly and journalistic, both academic and popular in its reach. As such, it blends the journalist's drive "to get the scoop"--to make a disclosure that will grab the public's attention and sell books--with the scholar's quest for intellectual and cultural revelation. The two drives come together in Angier's thrilling discovery of Levi's last book: the abovementioned manuscript that gave its title to the biography and whose analysis makes up the volume's most gripping pages. According to Angier's account, the manuscript consists of six chapters, each of which is composed of a letter from a certain chemist to a certain lady, on the model of eighteenth-century books for the education of young women. Begun in 1986, the first two chapters intertwine scientific explanations (the definition of volts and amperes in the first letter, the explanation for why a boiled egg hardens rather than softening as do other materials when heated, in the second) with far-ranging digressions of the most whimsical or serious sort. The next set of letters, instead, involves the effort at self-understanding and they take the chemist through the history of his own sexual anxieties (letter 3), and through his ambivalence about success (letter 4). The final two letters, instead, retreat from personal self-examination and move toward the realm of pure scientific speculation, with musings on the nature of containers in letter 5 and on the meaning of matter and time in letter 6.
It is here, in the final section of the biography, that Angier's method commits its greatest sin of intrusion. Having hinted at the existence of the manuscript throughout the biography, and having given tantalizing foretastes of its riches, the reader is primed for the climactic revelations it promises. Though nothing should distract us from its epiphanic power, Angier makes the strategic error of placing herself more than ever in the forefront of this section. In describing the manuscript, Angier insists on telling of her encounters with two women who were the confidantes of Levi's final decades, and the recipients of drafts of various chapters. Whether out of coyness or out of respect for these women's privacy, Angier gives them pseudonyms, Lilith and Gisella, drawn from Levi's texts. Together with Lucia (Levi's wife), Gabriella (an early love interest), and Wanda (his soul-mate in Fossoli), they make up the gallery of women who sustained him throughout his adult years. These women were, according to Angier, his interlocutors, his sounding boards--"All Primo's loves were his listeners" (658)--women who held out the hope of salvation by enabling him therapeutically to bear witness. For reasons having to do with practical inaccessibility (Gabriella was already engaged, Vanda would not survive Auschwitz) or with temperamental deficiencies (Lucia was incapable of truly understanding her husband's psychology), all of these women failed in their rescue attempts. The implication is that by diagnosing the failure of these other women, especially of Lucia, Angier could herself have been the only one to have saved him, the donna angelicata in flesh and blood who could have freed Levi from his double bind, the listener endowed with redemptive power to deliver him from the clutches of a profound inner division only aggravated by the women in his life.
It could be argued that I am being unfair in reading Angier's own authorial voice in such a gendered way, that it is wrong (and even misogynous) to hold her to a gender-neutral standard, and that it is unjust to see her critique of the women in Levi's life as an exercise in female cattiness. Such objections would be entirely justified, were it not for one shocking passage in which Angier eroticizes her authorial persona, so that our reading of her presence throughout this biography is profoundly conditioned by it. I am referring to her encounter with Alberto Salmoni, who makes an amorous advance at Angier during a stroll in the mountains. Granted, Salmoni is 76 years old at the time, and Angier recounts the incident to show how this man has maintained his vigor and his animal magnetism (she admits to being attracted to him), but the passage comes across as pure exhibitionism. If I may indulge in my own amateur psychologizing, couldn't we see in the flirtation with Salmoni a displaced version of Angier's own wish-fulfillment fantasy about Levi? In fact, Angier reports that her strategy for rebuffing Salmoni involved conjuring up Levi's memory, if only in the guise of moralizing restraint. ("What would Primo say?" 165). In any event, such a personal intrusion in the text introduces a jarring note, and one that indicates an inappropriate, barely suppressed desire to join Levi's privileged gallery of women "listener-loves."
If readers of this review sense my own competitive impulses at work here, they are absolutely right. In analyzing my own response to the biography, I realized that Angier's pretense to expose the secret Levi, to pry into the innermost recesses of his life, triggered in me a form of protectiveness, or indeed possessiveness, that was edifying, if upsetting, to me. In a sense, she had taken away "my" Primo Levi and laid superior claim to him, and my anger revealed to me something very significant about my own investment in a certain idea of this writer. Throughout the biography, Angier faults Levi for his self-effacing tendencies, for his need to subtract himself from his own story. What she applauds are his efforts to re-instate himself in his narrative, as he does in the revised version of Se questo e un uomo. The unpublished last manuscript, is, for Angier, the confessional text that finally corrects for all of Levi's earlier reticence about himself. She therefore makes it her business to fill in the blanks throughout the biography, to interpolate, to speculate, to conjecture, often on rather flimsy, second-hand evidence, since those closest to Levi refused to be interviewed.
The strength of my reaction against this meddlesomeness revealed to me a number of things about my own construction of Primo Levi. The kind of scrutiny to which celebrities are subjected is a natural by-product of fame, and artists, political leaders, athletes, etc. invite such personal exposure the minute they court the kind of public visibility that fame entails. Primo, as Angier unequivocally proves, never sought such visibility--his literary mission was thrust upon him by cruel circumstance, even if he had dabbled in creative writing before Auschwitz. Indeed it was Levi's reluctance to put himself on display that contributed to the literary techniques most effective in bearing witness. The restraint of his prose, its thoughtfulness and balance are what give his testimony not only its dignity and majesty, but also its rhetorical power. By this, I mean that Levi's studied calm and intellectual rigor, his banishment of the suffering self from the testimony, is the very mechanism which engages us so profoundly in his testimonial process. "Nello scrivere questo libro" he states of his Auschwitz chronicle,
ho assunto deliberatamente il linguaggio pacato e sobrio del testimone, non quello lamentevole della vittima ne quello irato del vendicatore: pensavo che la mia parola sarebbe stata tanto piu credibile ed utile quanto piu apparisse obiettiva e quanto meno suonasse appassionata; solo cosi il testimone in giudizio adempie alla sua funzione, che e quello di preparare il terreno al giudice. I giudici siete voi.
The metaphoric space within which Levi's testimony unfolds, then, is the courtroom, and we as readers are invested with the solemn task of judgment. In the gap between Levi's calm and sober language, and the atrocity to which it refers, we rush in to fill the void. Our act of interpretation, then, becomes both literary and moral, and we are thereby conscripted to take part in the "judicial" procedure that testimony sets in motion. The rhetorical figures that best characterize Levi's testimonial strategy are two: litotes and ellipsis, understatement and selective silence, both of which require the reader to self-consciously supply what is minimized or omitted from the text.
Angier, instead, does that for us. She makes explicit all the latencies, gaps, innuendoes, putting our interpretive faculties out-of-commission, and thereby undermining the moral purpose of Levi'strategy, which is actively to engage us in the making of meaning. A striking example of the reductiveness of Angier's fill-in-the-blanks technique emerges in the section dedicated to the departure from Fossoli on the way to Auschwitz. On the eve of the journey, Levi reports; "molte cose furono allora fra noi dette e fatte; ma di queste e bene che non resti memoria" (14). And in the transport, just before arriving at Auschwitz, Levi tells of his exchange with a woman who had been with him throughout this ordeal. "Ci dicemmo allora, nell'ora della decisione, cose che non si dicono fra i vivi" (16). These are huge, mysterious pronouncements, whose signifying power resides precisely in their privacy, in their restraint, in their ineffability for those of us who remain on this side of the" filo spinato" (78). For Levi, that divide is absolute, and he spent his entire post-Liberation life both acknowledging and struggling against it through writing.
Angier's disrespect for that divide, and for the privacy of the man whose mission it was to confront it in his own literary terms, emerges in just such episodes as these. The biographer insists on identifying Levi's intimate fellow sufferers and giving concrete, and banal signifieds to his mysterious and soul-shattering signifiers. The referent of "molte cose ... fatte" becomes the lovemaking of Levi's friends Luciana Nissim and Franco Sacerdote, and the "cose che non si dicono fra i vivi" are reduced to the words exchanged between Levi and one of his many objects of unrequited desire, Vanda Maestro. The textual passages, so resonant with private meanings that we supply as readers, forced to imaginatively recreate life in extremis, are relegated to the level of tabloid sensationalism, in the first case, or to self-indulgent sentimentality, in the second. The haunting power of such phrases as "e bene che non resti memoria" and "cose che non si dicono fra i vivi" insist on the danger or impossibility of understanding on the part of those of us who have remained "al di qua" is undone by Angier's reading of such passages as if they were a roman a clef. And it is this compulsion to unearth all such mysteries, to make the silences speak, to fill in the gaps in the ellipses, to pump-up the understatement, that violates the entire moral logic behind Levi's rhetorical techniques.
As I formulate these objections to Angier's book, I realize that they are similar to the complaints leveled at filmmakers who adapt literary texts to the screen. Cinematic adaptations are reductive (in fact, the Italian term for them is riduzione)--they limit the range of associations to which literary works are open, they pre-empt the reader's freedom to visualize, to listen, to imaginatively engage in the narrative process, etc. In studying the problem of adaptation, I have advocated an approach that allows for creative liberties, which sanctions the filmmaker's freedom to rewrite the text in medium-specific terms. Similarly, Angier's biography may be seen to "rewrite" Levi's own texts, to reconfigure his autobiographical works and to adapt them to the genre of contemporary biography (a genre that invites the intrusive presence of the biographer). In defending the creative latitude of filmmakers, I argued that those liberties take us back to the literary sources with renewed awareness of what makes those texts unique and essentially "untranslatable." The adaptation makes us repossess our own personal reading of a text with a heightened consciousness of its richness and specificity. Likewise, the experience of reading and working through my objections to Angier's biography has helped me to develop and sharpen "my" Primo Levi, as opposed to Angier's, and to appreciate the rhetorical strategies that make his survivor testimony the monumental achievement that it is.
In the final analysis, I recommend this exhaustively researched, passionately written, beautifully produced biography to all those interested in Primo Levi, in contemporary Italian literature, and in Holocaust Studies, but with one major reservation--that Angier's personal commentary be taken with the proverbial grain of sodium chloride.
MILLICENT MARCUS is Mariano DiVito Professor of Italian Studies and director of the Center of Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specializations include Italian cinema and medieval literature. She is the author of An Allegory of Form: Literary Self-Consciousness in the Decameron (1979), Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (1986), Filmmaking by the Book: Italian Cinema and Literary Adaptation (1993), and, most recently After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age (2002).
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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