Levi’s Oyster

Karl Miller

  • The Drowned and the Saved by Prime Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
    Joseph, 170 pp, £10.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7181 3063 4

The Italian writer Primo Levi died a year ago, on 11 April 1987, to the dismay of his readers, and The Drowned and the Saved may well be the last of his writings to be translated and reviewed in this country. There was a time when it must have seemed to many that he would never receive a bad review, or even a cross word. His first book, If This Is a Man, about his months in Auschwitz, and its sequel, The Truce, were hard to fault, and the successive publications of his middle age have been greeted by an admiration responsive both to his skills as a writer and to his character as a man. In October 1985, however, the chauvinistic American-Jewish magazine Commentary did succeed in performing the outlandish act of disparaging Levi and his books. ‘Alas,’ wrote Fernanda Eberstadt, a German-American, the later ones are inferior to the first two, and alas, the personal character freely imparted in his writings is flawed. ‘Reading Primo Levi’ is in some respects a strong essay. The later books are in large measure accurately described, and the experience of the assimilated Jew in Italy, where the Jews came to harm under Mussolini but where they were never the strangers they have been in several other countries, is summarised in a well-informed and pertinent fashion. At the same time, the article is tainted by what seems to be a desire to inflict damage on Levi’s reputation, of a kind which may be thought to serve the ideological tendency of the magazine in which it appeared.

So what is wrong with Levi and his Levi-like writings? It is made to seem that he was a stranger, a gentleman, a ‘watcher from the sidelines’. He was ‘cursed with a tin ear for religion’. As a result, there are ‘no Jews as such’ in his Auschwitz book. She means that he could not get on with the believing Jews from Eastern Europe whose religion and traditions he neither shared nor understood. But many Jews are not believers, and are still, for most people, including themselves, palpably Jewish. He also had, the article conveys, a tin ear for the ordinary man. He is like the poet Ausonius, alas – that Silver Age abstainer from the world and connoisseur of oysters.

Literary criticism is doing here what it often does: it has gone for the faults and, in so doing, inverted the truth. When is a Jew not a Jew? When he does not accept the religion revealed in the Old Testament. The Primo Levi who is read by Fernanda Eberstadt is a man who is unable to write about Jews – though he does in fact write about them with great sympathy, believers and unbelievers alike – and who has no feeling for those people whose background and abilities are different from his own, though the joy of Levi’s work, for other readers, is that he has such feelings, that he knows himself to be, while also knowing himself not to be, an ordinary man, a worker, a man who worked as an industrial chemist and who was no less of a worker when he wrote books. The Levi who emerged from a regime of cruelty and humiliation with his judgment intact, his mind not closed, neither vengeful nor forgetful, and who wrote a noble and rational book about what had happened to him, is mentioned only cursorily and as if concessively by Fernanda Eberstadt.

It is not the case that all her objections are mistaken. But their accumulation is very far from the complicated truth. The article leads you to wonder about her religious faith, if she has one, and about where it stands in relation to the outlook of the editor of Commentary, author of a book about his ambitions for worldly success: Making it must be the least pious book that has ever been written.

The stress on Levi’s insensitivity to religion is allowed to suggest that all Jews are religious, and there are readers for whom this might signal the corollary that all Jews are Zionists, and are likely to be supporters of Israeli government policy. By these standards, Levi would appear to be an imperfect Jew, and this could well be an opinion that underlies the talk about his later books being not nearly as good as his earlier ones. The principal reference in his writings to Israel is, from a Zionist point of view, tin-eared. The reference occurs in this last book of his, a collection of pieces which revert to themes pursued in If This Is a Man: ‘Desperate, the Jewish survivors, in flight from Europe after the great shipwreck, have created in the bosom of the Arab world an island of Western civilisation, a portentous palingenesis of Judaism, and the pretext for renewed hatred.’ There are those for whom it is not Jewish to speak in this way about Israel.

It is odd to speak of the creation of a state as the ‘pretext’ for anything: the translator may possibly be responsible for the oddity here, as for the orotundity that precedes it. But it seems evident that there is a distance between Levi’s view of Israel and the views that Commentary chooses to publish. The second sentence of the issue of May this year refers to the first twenty years of the state: ‘Threatening to “push the Jews into the sea”, the Arab world re-formulated the Nazi theory of Lebensraum in Mediterranean terms: there was no room in the region for a Jewish homeland.’ Arabs who had been expelled from their land and thrust into the condition of Jewish refugees are hereby re-formulated as imperialist aggressors and as Nazis. This is not unlike the sort of inversion a fault-finding literary criticism can produce – which is not to deny, which is indeed to admit, that the Arab leaders and polemicists of the region have had their faults, including some of those which have been identified over the years by Commentary. The magazine’s line on such matters would also appear to be remote from, and distinctly harder than, that taken in its dying days by the Reagan Administration. George Shultz travelled to the Middle East this summer to spread the word that ‘the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the frustration of Palestinian rights is a dead-end street. The belief that this can continue is an illusion.’ It is a measure of the grim recalcitrance of the region’s problems that Shultz’s message was saluted by a strike called in protest among the Palestinians of the occupied territories.

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[*] The Death of Methuselah by Isaac Bashevis Singer will be published by Cape on 20 October.

Levis‘ books were originally published in hardback by Joseph, and are available in paperback from Abacus, as follows:

If This Is a Man and The Truce (398 pp., £3.95. 1987, 0 349 10013 6)
Moments of Reprieve (172 pp., £3.50, 1987, 0 349 10007 1)
If Not Now, When? (281 pp., £3.95, 1987, 0 349 12199 0)
The Periodic Table (233 pp., £3.95, 1986, 0 349 12198 2)
The Wrench (171 pp., £3.99, 1988, 0 349 10012 8)