A Matter of Writing Life and Death

December 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: AcademiaThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

A Matter of Writing Life and Death

Mini Teaser: Primo Levi's biographers offer no improvement on the original, whose unabridged voice we need to heed more than ever.

by Author(s): Michael P. McDonald

It is mostly in retelling the story of Levi's last two decades that these books add to the record Levi left behind. Angier and Thomson chart his intermittent use of tranquilizers and anti-depressants; his struggle for literary recognition as a creative writer rather than "mere" memorialist; his various psychosomatic fears-for example, of Alzheimer's disease when he was only fifty, and his progressive disaffection with married and family life. We also learn that he had planned, but never completed, an autobiographical sequel to The Periodic Table and hoped to write an account of those German industries involved in the Nazi camps.

As for his death, both writers are convinced that Levi committed suicide. Angier puts the blame squarely on his chronic depression and terrible domestic situation, living in a cramped apartment with his estranged wife and children, as well as his ailing mother and mother-in-law. Thomson argues more broadly that his suicide was provoked by "a complex web of factors": his clinical depression, his mother's illness, the tide of historical revisionism with respect to Nazism, fascism and the Holocaust that was beginning to take root in Europe in the 1980s, his fears of mental incompetence and cancer and, perhaps, his survivor's guilt.

Of the two books, Thomson's is the more readable. He uses language without pretension and, for the most part, avoids undue speculation about hidden facets of Levi's career. This is not to say that his biography is without faults; for example, he betrays his mildly leftist political sympathies by never missing an opportunity to single out Italy's Christian Democratic Party for special abuse or to suggest, contrary to historical evidence, that throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Italy stood precariously on the verge of a neo-fascist coup. Thomson also overstates the degree to which Levi was anti-American and anti-Israeli. Levi did object to American pop culture (who can blame him?), which he believed had filled Italians' "heads with rubbish." But there is no "pronounced anti-American streak" detectable in either his life or public utterances. Indeed, he spoke admiringly of America as an "example" to other nations in the treatment to be afforded foreign immigrants. As for Israel, Levi did grow increasingly unhappy with what he perceived to be the nation's progressive militarization after the Six Day War. He sharply disapproved of Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin's government and its use of the rhetoric of Nazi victimization to justify the repression of Palestinians. Levi was ashamed when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and later said that the Phalangist massacre at Sabra and Chatila had "polluted" the image of Jews throughout the world. That said, Levi was unwavering in his support for the necessity of Israel to exist, opposed contacts with the PLO as long as it refused to renounce terrorism, maintained that Israel must be defended, and took very strong exception to those who compared the fate of the Palestinians living in Gaza and in the West Bank under Israeli rule to that of the Jews under Nazism.

Less serious, but irritating nonetheless, is Thomson's cultural leftism, manifest, for example, in his apparent belief that the release of Beatles lps can be used to mark social watersheds. Similarly, in one of his few attempts at literary criticism, Thomson reproaches Levi for failing to appreciate what he terms the modernist aesthetic of fragmentation and inaccessibility: "This conservative anti-modernism of Levi's", Thomson asserts, "was one of his least attractive characteristics." Really? I suspect that most admirers of Levi's clear, communicative prose see it as one of his most attractive characteristics.

Angier's tome evinces other sorts of defects, though they are no less off-putting. Much like those ghastly telemarketers who phone you in the guise of friends doing you a favor, she has the annoying habit of referring to Levi on a first-name basis. And as with telemarketers, she prattles on beyond all reason and tolerance. In her endless retellings of her encounters with secondary friends and acquaintances of Levi, she exhibits what Henry James in The Aspern Papers described as "the most fatal of human passions: not knowing where to stop." What should be obiter dicta ends up becoming omnia dicta as Angier makes us privy to her every thought. Thus, when she meets a school friend whom she suspects bullied Levi in his youth, we are treated to a Hamlet-like monologue intérieur on the order of: "Shall I challenge him? Shall I ask straight out-did you bully Primo Levi for being more monster than man?"

Angier is also given to melodramatic overstatements usually introduced by "surely." ("Surely this wasn't the whole story." "Surely the similarities are more than coincidental?" "Surely he feared that . . . .") She is also prone to sententious pronouncements that come off sounding like parodies of Zen koans: "If you make your child unable to love anyone but you, he will not be able to love you either." Combined with her penchant for pseudo-psychological labels-in short order she informs us that Levi had a "success complex", an "attention complex", and a "fame complex"; indeed, every type of complex except a high-rise complex-and statements that are simply over the top ("he longed intensely for sex-and probably indiscriminately too"), one is left all but hoping for a telemarketer to call, just to interrupt her driveling on. This is a pity: Angier is obviously intelligent and can write with grace and precision when she tries. She well understands, for example, that: "If there is one way to describe the whole of [Levi's] work, it is this: it seeks out his opposite, even his enemy-human, animal and material-in order to cross the gap between them, to explore and understand them, to find a connection." Moreover, she does a much better job than Thomson, who hardly bothers, at offering imaginative, if not always convincing, readings of Levi's fiction.

But when all is said and done, the value of any biography lies in its ability to illuminate unexpected relationships either between past and present, or, in the case of a literary subject, between a writer's life and work. Regrettably, neither book under review offers any such compelling connections. Angier in particular hinders a deeper understanding of Levi's work because she reduces too much of what he wrote to personal neuroses and sexual repression. In so doing she becomes a prime example of the type of biographer Nabokov termed a "psycho-plagiarist." Angier remarks early on that "biography is not much appreciated in Italy." If translated into Italian, her book will certainly do much to confirm the antipathy.

A reader might come away from these biographies believing that Primo Levi, a gifted writer, was nonetheless a neurotic man whose importance is largely confined to Holocaust studies. This would be worse than a mistake; it would be a missed opportunity.

In different parts of the world, various communities are again being persecuted, tortured and ethnically cleansed. The ongoing reversion to mass murder and the ubiquitous use of hunger and imprisonment as political instruments mark a continuing crisis of culture and reason to which Levi's testimony about the death camps remains relevant. But Levi's books also speak to certain specific violations of human dignity that are to be found even in the peace and affluence of contemporary America and Europe.

In his recent look at Nazism, Michael Burleigh observes how an unnamed reporter

compared the process of Nazism's moral transformation of German society to rebuilding a railway bridge. Engineers could not simply demolish an existing structure, because of the impact on rail traffic. Instead, they slowly renewed each bolt, girder and rail, work that hardly caused passengers to glance up from their newspapers. However, one day, they would realize that the old bridge had gone and a new structure stood in its stead.

This metaphor of incremental social subversion helps us to understand why feel-good but fuzzy humanistic standards of conduct ultimately proved so fragile a barrier against political brutality in Germany; but it should also keep us vigilant against the molecule by molecule moral substitutions slowly seeping into our own society.

At the end of World War II, Nazism became the damned part of Western civilization, the nec plus ultra of evil, so much so that there was not much psychic room left for other, yet unburied evils (communism, for example). But as with most other examples of self-evident consensus, the Sixties said goodbye to all that. Saul Friedländer was among the first to note "a new discourse about Nazism on the Right as well as on the Left" that was gaining ground, "an aesthetic re-elaboration" beyond ideology in such films as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's Hitler, a Film from Germany and Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter.  Primo Levi, too, published caustic attacks on films that he believed falsified the nature of Nazi violence. Sadly, though, "swastika chic" and its accompanying moral idiocies seem more endemic in the West now that when he wrote. Consider three recent events.

As reported in the August 20 New York Times, filming is set to start in a few months on a four-hour cbs mini-series based on the life of Hitler before his ascension to power in 1933. Nancy Tellem, president of cbs Entertainment, has suggested that people have been so "focused on Hitler and the involvement in World War II and the concentration camps" that they have overlooked the other Hitler who rose to power from humble beginnings. "[H]ow Hitler became Hitler, I think it's unbelievably compelling", she gushed. According to a former cbs executive who has seen the script, Hitler is presented as a bit "idiosyncratic, odd" but overall the film will resemble Rocky, in which a boxer triumphs against the odds.

Essay Types: Book Review