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On Hating and Despising Philosophy

Bernard Williams, 18 April 1996

... expose deliberate untruth, there is a deeper connection between freedom and looking for the truth. Primo Levi tells in his autobiography how he found a refuge from Fascism’s suffocating and poisonous lies in his work on chemistry. His idea was that the pursuit of objective scientific truth itself expressed freedom, because what one did was not under the ...

Fundamentally Goyish

James Wood: Zadie Smith, 3 October 2002

The Autograph Man 
by Zadie Smith.
Hamish Hamilton, 420 pp., £16.99, September 2002, 0 241 13998 8
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... author’s approval, in a stew of language that manages to quote, uncomfortably, the title of a Primo Levi book, and misquote the first line of Herzog (Bellow has ‘it’s all right with me’). Alex disappears under the weight of all this reference, and never recovers. Amid this anarchy of styles, amid the cartoonishness and excess, the misplaced ...

Hitler’s Teeth

Neal Ascherson: Berlin 1945, 28 November 2002

Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 
by Antony Beevor.
Viking, 490 pp., £25, April 2002, 0 670 88695 5
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... to Russia. They were drunk much of the time. Their transport columns looked like circus caravans: Primo Levi, after the victory, watched camels towing yellow Berlin buses across the Ural steppe into Asia. And yet – what soldiers! The old Russian teaching – if you reach a river, cross it and ask questions afterwards – still held good. Small units ...
State of Exception 
by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Kevin Attell.
Chicago, 104 pp., £8.50, January 2005, 0 226 00925 4
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... in the king’s bedroom; the Muselmann sometimes survives, his very inhumanity proof that, as Primo Levi put it, ‘the human being is the one who can survive the human being.’ However, Agamben’s original model of bare life holds no such promise. The homo sacer was, according to archaic Roman custom, a criminal condemned not to a ...

The cow, the shoe, then you

Philip Oltermann: Hans Fallada, 8 March 2012

More Lives than One: A Biography of Hans Fallada 
by Jenny Williams.
Penguin, 320 pp., £12.99, February 2012, 978 0 241 95267 2
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A Small Circus 
by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann.
Penguin, 577 pp., £20, February 2012, 978 0 14 119655 8
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... on the cover of the paperback is ‘redemptive’, and the killer quote on the inside flap is from Primo Levi: ‘the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis’. It is tempting to see Quangel as a portrait of the author, the untalented but persistent scribbler, but Escherich too is a candidate: the slightly arrogant deskbound ...

For the hell of it

Terry Eagleton: Norberto Bobbio, 22 February 2001

In Praise of Meekness: Essays on Ethics and Politics 
by Norberto Bobbio, translated by Teresa Chataway.
Polity, 186 pp., £50, October 2000, 0 7456 2309 3
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... Wheatcroft’s claim that the most difficult truth of all about it is its meaninglessness. Primo Levi points out that there was simply no point in subjecting one’s victims to cruelty and humiliation, dragging them on a senseless journey across Europe, when you were going to exterminate them anyway. Why not just kill them in their beds? If you ...

The crematorium is a zoo

Joshua Cohen: H.G. Adler, 3 March 2016

The Wall 
by H.G. Adler, translated by Peter Filkins.
Modern Library, 672 pp., £12.99, September 2015, 978 0 8129 8315 9
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... events do take place but are not true; others are – although they never occurred.’ Along with Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, Aharon Appelfeld, Piotr Rawicz, Jakov Lind and Jerzy Kosinski, he elided events and fashioned composite characters to attain a sense of realism – but that doesn’t mean that Auschwitz was a hoax, or that Israel is ...

Sent East

James Wood: Sebald’s ‘Austerlitz’, 6 October 2011

... or the irrational horror that one’s survival involved someone else’s death (an irrationality Primo Levi explores in his work). There is also guilt at the idea that the dead are at our mercy, that we can choose to remember or forget them. This is finely caught in a stray passage by Adorno, in an essay on Mahler written in 1936: ‘So our memory is ...

Always Somewhere Else

Blake Morrison: Anuk Arudpragasam, 4 November 2021

A Passage North 
by Anuk Arudpragasam.
Granta, 290 pp., £14.99, July, 978 1 78378 694 7
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... almost careless way, her neck broken at the bottom of a well’. But that’s how trauma works. Primo Levi died in a similar fashion, decades after surviving Auschwitz.A Passage North is a novel about war’s aftermath: we don’t hear bombs and shells falling. In Arudpragasam’s previous novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, we hear little ...

‘I’m not signing’

Mike Jay: Franco Basaglia, 8 September 2016

The Man Who Closed the Asylums: Franco Basaglia and the Revolution in Mental Health Care 
by John Foot.
Verso, 404 pp., £20, August 2015, 978 1 78168 926 4
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... assembled a team of collaborators whose views were shaped by an evolving canon that included Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and, most significant of all, the work of Erving Goffman, which Ongaro translated for an Italian edition. In 1961, too, Goffman ...


Sylvia Lawson, 24 November 1988

Games with Shadows 
by Neal Ascherson.
Radius, 354 pp., £18, April 1988, 0 09 173019 8
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... to find larger readerships. Thus Ascherson joins the oddly-assorted, lively company of Primo Levi, Oliver Sacks, John Berger, Edward Said and Germaine Greer – but from a slippery starting-point: the journalist is a specialist in nothing. Sometimes he seems to know that only too well, and to underrate his own contribution. Calling for work on ...

Our Dear Channel Islands

Linda Holt, 25 May 1995

The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule 1940-1945 
by Madeleine Bunting.
HarperCollins, 354 pp., £20, January 1995, 0 00 255242 6
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The Channel Islands: Occupation and Liberation 1940-1945 
by Asa Briggs.
Batsford, 96 pp., £7.99, April 1995, 0 7134 7822 5
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... Churchill’s heroic struggle or basking in its post-war glorification. Such ‘shame’, as Primo Levi calls the malaise felt by survivors of imprisonment, does not parade itself. There are political reasons, too, why the resistance hasn’t been chronicled more thoroughly – Bunting’s account is itself far from complete or accurate – and why ...


Barbara Everett: Coleridge the Modernist, 7 August 2003

Coleridge’s Notebooks: A Selection 
edited by Seamus Perry.
Oxford, 264 pp., £17.99, June 2002, 0 19 871201 4
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The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. XVI: Poetical Works I: Poems (Reading Text) 
edited by J.C.C. Mays.
Princeton, 1608 pp., £135, November 2001, 0 691 00483 8
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The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. XVI: Poetical Works II: Poems (Variorum Text) 
edited by J.C.C. Mays.
Princeton, 1528 pp., £135, November 2001, 0 691 00484 6
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The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Vol. XVI: Poetical Works III: Plays 
edited by J.C.C. Mays.
Princeton, 1620 pp., £135, November 2001, 0 691 09883 2
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... actual quotation and direct allusion in modern texts in themselves very different from each other. Primo Levi prints a phrase from the poem as an epigraph; in one of his fables, Borges uses the poem as an instance of primary importance to a fictitious, quintessentially modern writer; a stanza in a recent volume by Carol Ann Duffy makes good use of an ...
The Restraint of Beasts 
by Magnus Mills.
Flamingo, 215 pp., £9.99, September 1998, 0 00 225720 3
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... as one of the Hall brothers says. The Restraint of Beasts was apparently inspired by Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, and asks to be read as an analogical extension of Levi’s description of the Lager as a gigantic social experiment: Thousands of individuals differing in ...


Mary-Kay Wilmers: Putting in the Commas, 15 September 1988

... seriously. So there is no lack of places where reviewers can write. The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi’s last book, was discussed at some length in ten or twelve different papers. Levi may be a special case – there aren’t many translated writers who command that degree of attention – but the regard in ...

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