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Primo Levi’s Need to Write About Auschwitz

"In Levi's writing, nothing is superfluous and everything is essential."—Saul Bellow Of all the Holocaust memoirs painting chilling, indelible pictures of SS guards and their cruelty, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz looks instead at his fellow inmates. He sees them, … Read More

By / July 9, 2007

"In Levi's writing, nothing is superfluous and everything is essential."—Saul Bellow

Of all the Holocaust memoirs painting chilling, indelible pictures of SS guards and their cruelty, Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz looks instead at his fellow inmates. He sees them, writes Mona Simpson in her Atlantic review, in “various stages of degeneration.” (Levi, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass, was Simpson’s hero when she was a Berkeley freshman in 1978, and her review pays homage to Levi’s affect on a precocious young English major/budding novelist.) In Survival, Levi sees a paralyzed child, his scrawny forearm barely wide enough to hold the number inked into it. “He bears witness through these words of mine.” The author describes a literally gut-wrenching scene along the train trip from Russia, when the people in his overpacked boxcar were forced to relieve themselves in the open:

for them, evacuating in public was painful or even impossible: a trauma for which civilization does not prepare us, a deep wound inflicted on human dignity, an aggression which is obscene and ominous, but also the sign of deliberate and gratuitous viciousness.

And then, Levi renders the determination of those people to construct a latrine in the corner of the car with a chamber pot, a blanket and string. After Auschwitz, he returned to his home in Turin, Italy. He wrote in many genres, painted, married, fathered children, and practiced chemistry. His new collection of seventeen stories is A Tranquil Star, all originally published in Italian between 1949 and 1986. They show magical realism leaning so far into realism itself that fantasy and reality become one. As Anita Desai writes in The New York Review of Books, “These stories, brief as they are, span the two worlds and indeed break down and even deny that a barrier exists between them.” Levi once said that he felt a psychological need to write about Auschwitz. After the war, his fiction and characters took many forms, but his was always a fiction written by a witness to horror. Even if the subject is light years away, you can hear it in his prose. A passage from the title story, “A Tranquil Star,” reads,

If this story must be written, we must have the courage to eliminate all adjectives that tend to excite wonder: they would achieve the opposite effect, of impoverishing the narrative. For a discussion of stars our language is inadequate and seems laughable, as if someone were trying to plow with a feather. It’s a language that was born with us, suitable for describing objects more or less as large and as long-lasting as we are; it has our dimensions, it’s human.

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