Primo Levi and the Identity of a Survivor.
Harrowitz' dexterous call to consider Primo Levi's multifaceted identity intimates an engagement with intersectionality without naming the theory. For at its most basic precepts intersectionality proposes that all conditions of an identity must be analyzed as simultaneously interacting with one another and how these conditions affect societal perception, and that these aspects of identity cannot be simply contemplated singularly. Harrowitz' principal argument relies on the fact that, "The categories of 'Levi the scientist,' 'Levi the survivor and testimonial writer,' and even 'Levi the assimilated Jew' have become convenient classifications within which he has often been pigeonholed, and the lack of dialogue between these categories has been detrimental to understand his work" (p. 4). The text's second objective, in conjunction with establishing critical intersectional map work upon which future scholars may consider Levi as a complex and multi-layered subject rather than disentangling his many subjectivities, is also to examine his writings as intersectional; in other words, to transcend strictly reading Levi through his own theorizations on writing and to focus on his literariness. Harrowitz convincingly defends and employs close readings of Levi's work in lieu of arriving obliquely to read him through his own lens. The text does also pose the question as to why this singular approach has been so prevalent in Levi studies, going so far as to call it "puzzling" (p. 5).
Harrowitz's text is divided into six chapters and in the first chapter, the introduction explains her rationale for considering Levi intersectionally and outlines her chapters. The second chapter, "The Complications of Jewish Identity," immediately drops the reader into a complex and remarkable analysis, via a combined sociohistorical and literary approach, that primes the reader to understand Levi's seemingly conflicting relationship to his Jewish identity. This critical approach helps the reader to understand Levi's complete phenomenological development as an Italian Jew from moments between post-Unification Italy to a post-Shoah Europe. Harrowitz' claim that, "It is in the interstices between fiction and a historical mode that Levi's most interesting ideas about identity and culture are to be found" (p. 30) embodies powerfully her overall approach: Levi is an interstitial subject and one must consider texts that "might seem like an anomaly" (p. 30) in order to tease out how his writings realize this interstitiality. Chapter 3, "Primo Levi's Writerly Identity: From Science to Storytelling" introduces a durational temporality to Levi's identity formation that emphasizes how literary critics have segmented Levi into a science writer, a pre-Holocaust Jew, a survivor, a testimonial writer, and then the chapter offers a shift that highlights how all of these facets are constant and everpresent multitudes to Primo Levi during his ever-evolving experience. Harrowitz reconfigures a necessary investigation of multiplicity which she describes as a "question of multiple writing personas comes into play, and the question of how Levi wanted to be perceived, as opposed to what he actually believed about writing" (p. 53). The text then carefully analyzes how, while Levi may have wanted to prove he was a chemist and a survivor, his modus operandi belies rather a writer engaging in his own multiplicities. As evidence, the text utilizes the highly-charged re-telling of Dante in Se questo AaAaAeA? un uomo and then weaves between many of his ficti short stories.
The primary goal of Chapter 4, "Against Autobiography", is to critically analyze how autobiography is a catalyst for Levi as collective memory; how he speaks for the MAaAaAeA sselmanner in his writing. Instead of undertaki the breadth of testimonial theory written about Levi, Harrowitz concentrates on her reading of Levi's understanding of the inextricable and exasperating autobiographical and testimonial junction by closely reading key intertexual moments that highlight how Levi's writing can function as a testimonial catalyst. The text ultimately arrives to the conclusion that, "Autobiography is a narrative mode that is presumed to take place within civilized society. The text of trauma interferes with autobiography's aim of establishing the narration of an autonomous individual self (pp. 106-107). Chapter 5, "Shame's Identity," exemplifies how affect theory may best be deployed to read Levi as Harrowitz explains that his literary devices are moments of high testimonial anxiety and their importance to Levi. How Harrowtiz understands Levi's definition of shame acknowledges her previous gestures of an on-going multiplicitous phenomenological development, "Guilt is used to indicate actions, or lack thereof: shame is the feeling that persists, that goes beyond the temporality of actions, and is the condition that deeply affects the soul of the survivor" (p. 113). The last concluding chapter contains the moments in which Harrowitz' close readings reveal Levi's relationship to literature: not as a static tool to testify, to be objective, to fragment, but rather as an evolving relationship to understand better Levi's complexities as a human who is also Jewish, a chemist, a writer, and a survivor.
This text is important not only for Primo Levi studies but also for testimony studies as it creates an entrance that is understudied: how a writer, who is also a survivor, develops a relationship to literature and that via a pragmatic approach, literary criticism must examine the whole as much as the sum of its parts. Primo Levi and the Identity of a Survivor is a step forward in reshaping how academia analyzes stories of trauma and these writers as they are irreducibly complex subjects that merit close readings of all their parts to better understand the whole.
Reviewed by: Kevin Regan-Maglione, University of Oregon, USA