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We’ll Never Know

Gabriel Dover, 3 August 1995

Signs of Life: The Language and Meanings of DNA 
by Robert Pollack.
Viking, 212 pp., £16, May 1994, 0 670 85121 3
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... futures’, in the best tradition of Italy’s two scientific literati, Italo Calvino and Primo Levi. Indeed, the links with Calvino are closer and more meaningful than Pollack probably realises, as I will argue later. First, let me get one complaint off my chest. The text suffers from a surfeit of fast-switching metaphors – no doubt with the ...


Jonathan Coe, 20 March 1997

The Emigrants 
by W.G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse.
Harvill, 237 pp., £14.99, June 1996, 1 86046 127 1
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... fact is indelible. In his chapter on memory and the Holocaust in The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi was at pains to stress that memory is unreliable, and that ‘even under normal conditions a slow degradation is at work, an obfuscation of outlines, a, so-to-speak, physiological oblivion, which few memories resist.’ But Sebald’s book shows ...

Homo Narrator

Inga Clendinnen, 16 March 2000

Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography 
by Susanna Egan.
North Carolina, 275 pp., £39.95, September 1999, 0 8078 4782 8
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... athletics of Mary Meigs wearyingly dense, but that is possibly a reflex of age. Her assessment of Primo Levi and the impossibility of autobiography after the Nazi assault on language also is unpersuasive, especially in view of Levi’s superb critique and transcendence of it, and ‘crisis’, always a key identifier ...


Eric Hobsbawm: An Assembly of Ghosts, 21 April 2005

... Italy. His was the most prestigious publishing house in the country (Pavese, Calvino, Vittorini, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, not to mention Gramsci), and, for a couple of decades after the war, probably the finest in the world. He would take (under-royaltied) authors like me to dinner at the opulent Cambio restaurant, unchanged since Cavour had ...

Where mine is at

Gordon Burn, 28 May 1992

Outerbridge Reach 
by Robert Stone.
Deutsch, 409 pp., £14.99, May 1992, 0 223 98774 3
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... Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Lawrence Shainberg’s Brain Surgeon and ‘the works of Primo Levi, in particular If this is a man, The Truce, The Drowned and the Saved and Moments of Reprieve’. It is no longer acceptable, if it ever was, to regard journalists and other toilers in the seams of non-fiction as ‘day labourers who dig up slags ...

I am the decider

Hal Foster: Agamben, Derrida and Santner, 17 March 2011

The Beast and the Sovereign. Vol. I 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoffrey Bennington.
Chicago, 349 pp., £24, November 2009, 978 0 226 14428 3
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... may be killed and yet not sacrificed’ (already in the concentration camps witnessed by Primo Levi, the lowest of the low were called ‘Muselmann’). It is important to complicate, even to historicise, this picture of bare life, for otherwise it becomes not only too total in political terms but also too given in ontological terms. On this ...

How Jeans Got Their Fade

Peter Campbell: Mauve and indigo, 14 December 2000

by Jenny Balfour-Paul.
British Museum, 264 pp., £19.99, October 2000, 0 7141 2550 4
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Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World 
by Simon Garfield.
Faber, 222 pp., £9.99, September 2000, 0 571 20197 0
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... them). The only writer I know who makes chemistry intellectually exciting for the lay reader is Primo Levi, but, although he writes wonderfully about learning chemistry and the routine work of industrial analysis, he has no reason to describe the history of chemical innovation. Garfield tries analogies – he drops in a recipe for Nesselrode ...

‘Beyond Criticism’

Eliane Glaser: Concentration Camp Memoirs, 20 November 2008

Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler 
by Margarete Buber-Neumann, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.
Pimlico, 350 pp., £17.99, January 2008, 978 1 84595 102 3
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... be ‘beyond criticism’, especially since some of these memoirs – most obviously those of Primo Levi – are so good. It isn’t clear how we are supposed to respond to these books: dutifully, as unimpeachable records of a catastrophe, or critically, as we might any other piece of writing. Reviewers tend to sidestep the problem by summarising ...

Nothing he hasn’t done, nowhere he hasn’t been

Adam Shatz: Claude Lanzmann, 5 April 2012

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir 
by Claude Lanzmann, translated by Frank Wynne.
Atlantic, 528 pp., £25, March 2012, 978 1 84887 360 5
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... or the mentally ill or homosexuals. The lack of context was deliberate. Citing a story told by Primo Levi in If This Is a Man, Lanzmann argued that attempting to understand the Holocaust was a form of ‘madness’, ‘an absolute obscenity’. Levi, desperately thirsty, grabbed an icicle and an SS officer took it ...


Jeremy Treglown, 6 August 1992

Writers on World War Two: An Anthology 
edited by Mordecai Richler.
Chatto, 752 pp., £18.99, February 1992, 0 7011 3912 9
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Legacies and Ambiguities: Post-war Fiction and Culture in West Germany and Japan 
edited by Ernestine Schlant and Thomas Rimer.
Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Johns Hopkins, 323 pp., $35, February 1992, 0 943875 30 7
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... the conflict has always been written about with a powerful sense of place – but how many places! Primo Levi’s Auschwitz, Günter Grass’s Danzig, Natalia Ginzburg’s divided Italy, Elizabeth Bowen’s London, Nicholas Monsarrat’s North Atlantic, Norman Mailer’s Pacific, Olivia Manning’s Balkans, John Hersey’s Hiroshima ... Among other ...

Full of Words

Tim Parks: ‘Arturo’s Island’, 15 August 2019

Arturo’s Island 
by Elsa Morante, translated by Ann Goldstein.
Pushkin, 370 pp., £9.99, May 2019, 978 1 78227 495 7
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... to inform me.’ The Italian here is more emphatic, but also more fluent: ‘fu lui, mi sembra, il primo a informarmene’ – ‘it was him, I think, who first informed me.’ Goldstein also adds the explanatory ‘Arcturus’, not in the original, which breaks up the excitement of the metaphor ‘Arturo è una stella’ – ‘Arturo is a star’ – perhaps ...

We Are All Victims Now

Thomas Laqueur: Trauma, 8 July 2010

The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood 
by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, translated by Rachel Gomme.
Princeton, 305 pp., £44.95, July 2009, 978 0 691 13752 0
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... became the basis for a broader social commitment to the notion of ‘never again’. (Primo Levi, who for years couldn’t get If This Is a Man published, saw it become the exemplary memoir and himself the iconic survivor.) Together, according to Fassin and Rechtman, the Holocaust and psychoanalysis created an epistemic rupture: a new regime ...

Thinking without a Banister

James Miller, 19 October 1995

Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger 
by Elzbieta Ettinger.
Yale, 139 pp., £10.95, October 1995, 0 300 06407 1
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Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954: Uncollected and Unpublished Works 
by Hannah Arendt, edited by Jerome Kohn.
Harcourt Brace, 458 pp., $39.95, May 1994, 0 15 172817 8
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Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought 
by Margaret Canovan.
Cambridge, 298 pp., £12.95, September 1995, 0 521 47773 5
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Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 
edited by Carol Brightman.
Secker, 412 pp., £25, July 1995, 0 436 20251 4
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Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers: Correspondence, 1926-1969 
edited by Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber.
Harcourt Brace, 821 pp., $49.95, November 1992, 0 15 107887 4
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... vision long ago lost its shocking novelty. Thanks to the memoirs of survivors like Jean Améry, Primo Levi and Nadezdha Mandelstam, we know much more now than we did in 1951 about the inner experience of totalitarian regimes, and the manifold ways in which moral confidence can be shaken and trust undermined by a system of mutual surveillance, forced ...

Love in the Ruins

Nicolas Tredell, 8 October 1992

Out of the Rain 
by Glyn Maxwell.
Bloodaxe, 112 pp., £6.95, June 1992, 1 85224 193 4
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Body Politic 
by Tony Flynn.
Bloodaxe, 60 pp., £5.95, June 1992, 1 85224 129 2
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by Linda France.
Bloodaxe, 80 pp., £5.95, June 1992, 1 85224 178 0
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Red-Haired Android 
by Jeremy Reed.
Grafton, 280 pp., £7.99, July 1992, 9780586091845
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by Peter Robinson, with an essay by Peter Swaab.
Robert Jones, 36 pp., £9.95, July 1992, 0 9514240 2 5
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... addresses, with tact and restraint, the sufferings of those in Nazi concentration camps – Primo Levi is crucial here for Flynn. ‘The Butcher’ is a graphic tale of a mother who stabs her baby daughter in obedience, as she believes, to God’s command, His bloody instructions not rescinded at the last moment for her as they were for the ...

Writing Machines

Tom McCarthy: On Realism and the Real, 18 December 2014

... to which they never refer far more profoundly than the directly representational writing of, say, Primo Levi. The idea that a work’s unspoken real can reside in exterior historical fact is most lucidly stated, ironically enough, by one of Nazism’s intellectual architects, Carl Schmitt, who, writing on Hamlet, sees in the murder of James I’s father ...

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