Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — Primo Levi’s Last Will and Testament |
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Last Will and Testament

The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi,
translated by Raymond Rosenthal

Primo Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved—published in Italy before he committed suicide—is the condensed, poised summation of all his written work, which includes novels, memoirs, poems, short stories and critical articles. All his books deal more or less directly with the disastrous historical earthquake of which the great crimes of Nazi Germany constitute the epicentre, and on whose shifting ground we who are alive still stand. None of the books is less than substantial and some of them are masterpieces, but they could all, at a pinch, be replaced by this one, which compresses what they evoke into a prose argument of unprecedented cogency and force. If the unending tragedy of the Holocaust can ever be said to make sense, then it does so in these pages. The book has not been as well translated as one could wish—Levi’s supreme mastery of prose is reduced to something merely impressive—but its status as an indispensable guidebook to the infernal cellars of the age we live in is beyond doubt from the first chapter.

That we need guidance is one of the things Levi was always insistent about. He insisted quietly, but on that point he never let up. In a tough joke on himself, he acknowledged his kinship with the Ancient Mariner—the epigraph of this book is from Coleridge’s poem—but he didn’t apologize for telling his ghastly tale. The mind will reject this kind of knowledge if it can. Such ignorance doesn’t even have to be willed. It is a protective mechanism. Levi was in no doubt that this mechanism needs to be overridden. Not knowing about what didn’t suit them was how people let the whole thing happen in the first place.

A powerful aid to not knowing was the scale of the horror, hard to imagine even if you were there. The SS taunted the doomed with the assurance that after it was all over, nobody left alive would be able to credit what had happened to the dead, so there would be nothing to mark their passing—not even a memory. Levi’s argument, already a summary, is difficult to summarize further, but if a central tenet can be extracted it would have to do with exactly that—memory. Beyond the evidence, which is by now so mountainous that it can be challenged only by the insane, there is the interpretation of the evidence. To interpret it correctly, even we who are sane have to grasp what things were really like. Levi is trying to make us see something that didn’t happen to us as if we remembered it. There are good reasons, I think, for believing that not even Levi could fully succeed in this task. We can’t live with his memories, and in the long run it turned out that not even he could. But if he has failed he has done so only to the extent of having been unable to concoct a magic potion, and in the process he has written a classic essay.

In Auschwitz, most of Levi’s fellow Italian Jews died quickly. If they spoke no German and were without special skills, nothing could save them from the gas chambers and the ovens. Like most of the deportees from all the other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, they arrived with small idea of where they were, and died before they could find out. Levi’s training as a chemist made him exploitable. The few German words he had picked up in his studies were just enough to convey this fact to the exploiters. In the special camp for useful workers—it is fully described in his first and richest book, Survival in Auschwitz—Levi was never far from death, but he survived to write his testimony, in the same way that Solzhenitsyn survived the Gulag, and for the same reason: privilege. If Solzhenitsyn had not been a mathematician, we would probably never have heard of him as a writer. But if Levi had not been a chemist we would certainly never have heard of him as a writer. In the Soviet labour camp, death, however plentiful, was a by-product. The Nazi extermination camp was dedicated exclusively to its manufacture. Luck wasn’t enough to bring you through. You had to have an edge on all the others. The proposition sounds pitiless until Levi explains it: “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses.” The typical prisoner did not get out alive. Those at the heart of the story had no story.

Shame, according to Levi, is thus the ineluctable legacy of all who lived. Reduced to a bare ego, the victim was under remorseless pressure to ignore the fate of everyone except himself. If he had friends, he and his friends were against the others, at least to the extent of not sharing with them the extra piece of bread that could make the difference between life and death within the conspiratorial circle but if shared outside would not be even a gesture, because everyone would die. During a heatwave, Levi found a few extra mouthfuls of water in a rusty pipe. He shared the bounty only with a close friend. He might have told others about this elixir of life, but he did not. Luckily, his self-reproach, though patently bitter, helps rather than hinders his effort to re-create for us the stricken landscape in which feelings of complicity were inescapable.

One of Levi’s several triumphs as a moralist—for once, the word can be used with unmixed approval—is that he has analysed these deep and complicated feelings of inexpungible shame without lapsing into the relativism that would make everyone guilty. If everyone was guilty, then everyone was innocent, and Levi is very certain that his persecutors were not innocent. The Nazis were as guilty as the Hell they built. The good citizens who decided not to know were less guilty but still guilty. There were many degrees of guilt among those who were not doing the suffering. Some of them were as innocent as you can be while still being party to a crime. But parties to a crime they all were. The victims of the crime had nothing at all in common with those who planned it or went along with it. The victims who survived, and who were ashamed because they did, were not responsible for their shame, because they were driven to it. Even if they did reprehensible things—in the area of behaviour that Levi calls the Grey Zone—they could reasonably contend that they would never have contemplated such conduct in normal circumstances, from which they had been displaced through no fault of their own.

Levi has no harsh words even for those most terribly contaminated of survivors, the Sonderkommando veterans. The few still alive decline to speak. Levi believes that the right to silence of these men, who chose to live at the price of cooperating with the killers, should be respected. He is able to imagine—able, momentarily, to make us imagine—that the chance of postponing one’s own death was hard to turn down, even at the cost of having to attend closely upon the unspeakable deaths of countless others. Levi manages to sympathize even with the Kapos, not all of whom were sadists, and all of whom wanted to live. Levi has no sympathy for the persecutors, but he is ready to understand them, as long as he is not asked to exonerate them. His patience runs out only when it comes to those who parade their compassion without realizing that they are trampling on the memory of the innocent dead. As a writer, Levi always keeps his anger in check, the better to distribute its intensity, but occasionally you sense that he is on the verge of an outburst. One such moment is when he reproves the film director Liliana Cavani, who has offered the opinion “We are all victims or murderers, and we accept these roles voluntarily.” Faced with this brand of self-indulgent vaporizing, Levi expresses just enough contempt to give us an inkling of what his fury would have been like if he had ever let rip. To confuse the murderers with their victims, he says, “is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.”

Levi might have written like that all the time if he had wished. But his sense of proportion never let him down. The offence was too great for individual anger to be appropriate. Emerging from his discussion of the Grey Zone of behaviour, in which the survivors, pushed to the edge of the pit, were excusably reduced to base actions that they would not have dreamed of in real life, he goes on to discuss the inexcusably base actions of those engineers of cruelty who made sure that even the millions of victims murdered immediately on arrival would have an education in despair before they died. In a chapter called “Useless Violence,” Levi reminds us that we should not set too much store by the idea that the Nazi extermination programme was, within its demented limits, carried out rationally. Much of the cruelty had no rational explanation whatsoever. No matter how long it took the train to reach the camp, the boxcars were never provided with so much as a bucket. It wasn’t that the SS were saving themselves trouble: since the boxcars had to be sent back in reasonable shape to be used again, it would actually have been less trouble to provide them with some sort of facility, however crude. There was no reason not to do so except to cause agony. Old people who were already dying in their homes were thrown onto the trains lest they miss out on the death the Nazis had decided was due them, the death with humiliation as a prelude.

You would expect Levi’s voice to crack when he writes of such things, but instead it grows calmer. He doesn’t profess to fully comprehend what went on in the minds of people who could relish doing such things to their fellow human beings. His tone of voice embodies his reticence. He is not reticent, however, about any commentator who does profess to fully understand, without having understood the most elementary facts of the matter. After the protracted and uncertain journey recorded in The Reawakening, Levi at last returned to Italy, and there was told that his survival must surely have been the work of Providence: fate had preserved him, a friend said, so that he might testify. In this book Levi characterizes that idea as “monstrous”: a big word for him—almost as big as any word he ever uses about the events themselves.

He is firm on the point, but this firmness is only a subdued echo of how he made the same point at the end of the “October 1944” chapter of Survival in Auschwitz, where the prisoner Kuhn, after the terrifying process of selection for the gas chambers has once again passed him by, loudly and personally thanks God. In the earlier book Levi was scornful of Kuhn’s selfishness in believing that the Providence that had ignored so many should be concerned to preserve him. (“If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.”) In this book, the same argument is put no less decisively, but more in sorrow than in anger, as if such folly were ineradicable, a part of being human. Though Levi was never a fatalist, at the end of his life he seems to have been readier to accept that human beings are frail and would prefer to misunderstand these things if given the opportunity. Wonderfully, however, he remained determined not to give them the opportunity. At the very time when he feared that the memory and its meaning might slip from the collective human intelligence and go back into the historic past that we only pretend concerns us, Levi’s trust in human reason was at its most profound. Transparent even in its passion, level-headed at the rim of the abyss, the style of his last book is an act of faith.

From the translation, however, you can’t always tell. Raymond Rosenthal has mainly done a workmanlike job where something more accomplished was called for, and sometimes he is not even workmanlike. The Drowned and the Saved ranks with Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope as a testament of the age, but Nadezhda Mandelstam’s translator was Max Hayward, whose English was on a par with her Russian. One doesn’t want to berate Mr. Rosenthal, who has toiled hard, but one might be forgiven for wishing that his editors had noticed when he needed help. If they weren’t aware that a paragraph by Levi always flows smoothly as a single rhythmic unit, they should at least have guessed that a sentence by Levi is never nonsense—and when it comes down to detail the translation all too often obscures what Levi took pains to make clear, dulls the impact of his most precisely calculated effects, and puts chaos back into the order he achieved at such cost.

There doesn’t seem to have been much editorial control at all. Punctuation is arbitrary and spellings have been left unchecked. In the original Italian text, Levi left a handful of German words—part of the uniquely ugly vocabulary of Naziism—untranslated, so that they would stand out with suitable incongruity. In this Englished version they are treated the same way, but some of them are misspelled, which might mean either that Mr. Rosenthal does not read German or that he does not read proofs, but certainly means that the editors were careless. A Geheimnisträger is a bearer of secrets. If Geheimnisfräger means anything, it would mean an asker of secrets, which is the opposite of what Levi intended. This kind of literal misprint can happen to anyone at any time and is especially likely to be introduced at the last moment while other errors are being corrected, but another piece of weird German seems to have originated with the translator himself. “There is an unwritten but iron law, Zurüchschlagen: answering blows with blows is an intolerable transgression that can only occur to the mind of a ‘newcomer,’ and anyone who commits it must be made an example.” The word should be zurückschlagen, with a lower case “z” because it is not a noun, and a “k” instead of the first “h.” Worse, and probably because the word has not been understood, the first comma and the colon have been transposed, thereby neatly reversing the sense. What Levi is saying is that it was against the law to strike back. The English text says that this law was called: to strike back. An important point has been rendered incomprehensible.

The translator’s Italian is good enough to make sure that he usually doesn’t, when construing from that language, get things backward, but he can get them sidewise with daunting ease, and on several occasions he puts far too much trust in his ear. To render promiscuità as “promiscuity,” as he does twice, is, in the context, a howler. Levi didn’t mean that people forced to live in a ghetto were tormented by promiscuity. He meant that they were tormented by propinquity. The unintentional suggestion that they were worn out by indiscriminate lovemaking is, in the circumstances, a bad joke. Similarly, the Italian word evidentemente, when it means “obviously,” can’t be translated as “evidently,” which always implies an element of doubt; that is, means virtually the opposite. “Also in the certainly much vaster field of the victim one observes a drifting of memory, but here, evidently, fraud is not involved.” Thus a point about which Levi is morally certain is made tentative. Again, the word comportamenti is good plain Italian, but “behaviours” is sociologese: the translator has left room for the reader to suspect that Levi was prone to jargon, when in fact he eschewed it rigorously, out of moral conviction.

Sometimes neglect attains the level of neologism. When Levi says that the daily life of the Third Reich was profoundly compenetrato by the Lager system, the word compenetrato is hard to translate; “penetrated” isn’t comprehensive enough, but you certainly can’t render it as “compentrated,” which looks like a misprint anyway and, even if it had an “e” between the “n” and the “t,” would still send you straight to the dictionary—and it would have to be a big one. Such a verbal grotesquerie, however, at least has the merit of being easy to spot. More insidious are transpositions of meaning which sound plausible. There are sentences that have, under a troubled surface, an even more troubled depth. “But it is doubtless that this torment of body and spirit, mythical and Dantesque, was excogitated to prevent the formation of self-defence and active resistance nuclei: the Lager SS were obtuse brutes, not subtle demons.” Here nuclei di autodifesa o di resistenza attiva, which could have been translated in the same word order and sounded like good English, has been pointlessly inverted to sound like sociologese; and escogitato has been taken straight when it needed, for naturalness, to be turned into some simpler word, such as “planned” or “devised.” But you could make these repairs and still leave the deeper damage undisturbed. The word “doubtless” should be “doubtful.” Retroactively this becomes clear. The rest of the paragraph eventually tells you that its first sentence is nonsensical. There is the satisfaction of solving a brain-teaser. It is an inappropriate pleasure; Levi was not writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Having actually been through the looking-glass into the realm of perverted logic, he came back with an urgent commitment to lucidity. Watching his helpers frustrate him in this aim is not pleasant.

Most of these glitches are at the level of vocabulary and grammar. Another inadequacy, though it matters less for the purpose of initial comprehension, has the eventual effect of denying us knowledge of Levi’s intimacy with the literary tradition to which he contributed and by which he was sustained. As his book of essays Other People’s Trades explicitly reveals, Levi was cultivated in the literatures of several languages. But the literature of his own language had cultivated him. He was compenetrato with the poetry and prose of his national heritage. In this book he acknowledges quotations from Manzoni and Leopardi, but, like most Italian writers, he assumes that allusions to Dante need not be flagged. It was foolishly confident of the editors of this English edition to assume the same thing.

Levi often echoes Dante. All too frequently, the translator fails to alert us that this is happening. To leave the allusions unexplained is to weaken the central meaning, because they are always functional. A typical instance is in the passage about those Nazis who for ideological reasons had ended up among the prisoners: “They were disliked by everyone.” The word spiacenti, which would not occur in everyday language, is a reference to Inferno III, 63, where it describes those who have been rejected by both God and God’s enemies. By the translator’s simply rendering what is said, without explaining what is meant, a powerful use of literary allusion has been turned into patty-cake. Still, the sense survives, and there are worse faults in a translator than to be occasionally clueless. It is worse to be careless. Levi may have literally said that he was “intimately satisfied by the symbolic, incomplete, tendentious, sacred representation in Nuremberg,” but sacra rappresentazione means a medieval morality play and can’t be used here in its literal form without making Levi sound mystical at the very moment when he is making a point of sounding hard-headed.

In Italy, the school editions of Levi’s books are thoroughly annotated—in several cases, by Levi himself. It would have been better if his English-language publishers had waited for the school editions to come out and then had them translated, notes and all. Unfortunately, the world of publishing has its own momentum. One can’t complain about there having been so much eagerness to get Levi’s books translated, but a side effect of the haste has been that his achievement, so coherent in his own language, looks fragmented in ours. He has had several translators, of varying competence. His carefully chosen titles have sometimes been mangled in translation—especially by his publishers in the United States, who have on the whole been less sensitive than his publishers in Britain to his delicate touch. Se Questo È un Uomo, called If This Is a Man in Britain, in the current United States edition is called Survival in Auschwitz—a journalistic come-on that no doubt has its merits as an attention-getter but can’t be said to prepare the way for a narrative that dedicates itself to avoiding stock responses. In the UK, the title of La Tregua is translated as The Truce, which is accurate, but in the United States it appears as The Reawakening, which is inaccurate, because the whole point of the book is that Levi’s long voyage home was merely a pause between two periods of struggle—one to survive physically and the other to cope mentally. As for his important novel La Chiave a Stella, it can only be regretted that his publishers across the Atlantic tried so hard to help him. A chiave a stella is indeed a kind of wrench, but it is not a monkey wrench. “The Monkey Wrench,” however, would not have been as awkward a title as the one that the book was given, The Monkey’s Wrench. To translate “La Chiave a Stella” literally as “The Star-Shaped Key” might have been too poetic for Levi—who is always too truly poetic to be enigmatic—but a momentary puzzle would have been better than a lasting blur. Levi’s exactitude, after all, is not incidental to him. It’s him.

Books have their fortunes. If the transmission of Levi’s body of work into our language might have gone better, it could also have gone worse. Clearly, all concerned tried their best. It is impossible to imagine that anyone involved—whether translator, editor, designer or executive—thought lightly of the task. Presumably, Levi’s approval was sought and obtained for those clumsy titles: he could read English, and in the last years of his life he attended evening classes, so that he might learn to speak it more fluently. He was vitally interested in guarding the safe passage of his books to a wider world. Yet the results of the transference—in our language, at any rate—are less than wholly satisfactory. Thus we are given yet further evidence that the declension that Levi said he most feared—the way the truth “slides fatally toward simplification and stereotype, a trend against which I would like here to erect a dike”—is very hard to stem.

How worried should we be about this tendency? Obviously, we should be very worried. But in what way should we be worried? The answer to that, I think, is not so readily forthcoming. Most of us choose our friends according to whether or not they understand these matters—or, at any rate, we decline to keep any friends who don’t. We are already worried, and might even protest, if pushed to it, that we are worried enough—that if we were any more worried we would get nothing done, and civilization would collapse anyway. What we are really worried about is all those people who aren’t worried, especially the young. We assume, along with Santayana, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Anything written or filmed about the Holocaust—any essay, play, novel, film documentary or television drama, from this brilliant book by Levi all the way down to the poor, stumbling and execrated miniseries Holocaust itself—is informed by that assumption. Critical reaction to any such treatment of the Holocaust is governed by that same assumption. When it is argued that a rendition of the experience must be faithful to the experience, and that the effectiveness of the rendition will be proportionate to the fidelity, the argument is based on that same assumption. An assumption, however, is all it is. Hardbitten on the face of it, on closer examination it looks like wishful thinking.

It is undoubtedly true that some people who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But some people who can’t remember the past aren’t. More disturbingly, many of those who can remember the past are condemned to repeat it anyway. Plenty of people who remembered the past were sent to die in the extermination camps. Their knowledge availed them nothing, because events were out of their control. One of the unfortunate side effects of studying German culture up to 1933, and the even richer Austrian culture up to 1938, is the depression induced by the gradual discovery of just how cultivated the two main German-speaking countries were. It didn’t help a bit. The idea that the widespread study of history among its intellectual elite will make a nation-state behave better is a pious wish. Whether in the household or in the school playground, ethics are transmitted at a far more basic level than that of learning, which must be pursued for its own sake: learning is not utilitarian, even when—especially when—we most fervently want it to be.

We should face the possibility that written learning, even in the unusually affecting form of an essay like The Drowned and the Saved, can be transmitted intact only between members of an intelligentsia already in possession of the salient facts. Clearly, the quality of written speculative discussion will influence the quality of artistic treatments of the subject, in whatever form they may be expressed. Here again, however, we should face the possibility that it might not necessarily be the artistic work of highest quality which influences the public. From Alain Resnais’s breathtaking short film Nuit et Brouillard, of 1956, to the recent documentary Shoah, most of the screen treatments of the fate of the European Jews have been considered by those who know something about the subject to have spread at least a modicum of enlightenment, if only in the form of a useful myth. The exception was the aforementioned American miniseries Holocaust, which, although it won a few prizes, also received a worldwide pasting—especially from those critics who saw it in the United States, where it was punctuated by commercials. Even in Britain, where I saw it, any critic who found merit in it was likely to be told that he was insensitive to the subject. But whether those of us who had a good word to say for Holocaust were being as crass as it was crude is beside the point here. The point is that it was Holocaust, out of all these productions, that had the direct, verifiable historic effect. Just before the miniseries was screened in West Germany, a statute of limitations on Nazi crimes was about to come into effect. After the miniseries was screened, the statute was rescinded. Public opinion had been decisive. It could be said that this was a very late stage for the German people to get wise. It could even be said that if it took a melodrama like Holocaust to wake them up, then they were best left sleeping. But it couldn’t be denied that a clumsy story had broken through barriers of unawareness that more sophisticated assaults had not penetrated.

Not just of Germany but of all other countries it was, of course, true that the wider public hadn’t seen the more sophisticated efforts, so there was no comparison. But this merely proved that if the wider public is to be reached the message has to be popularized. Whether popularized necessarily means vulgarized is the obvious question, to which the answer, however reluctantly given, surely has to be yes. If the mobile vulgus is what you want to reach, then there is no virtue in constructing something too oblique for its members to be attracted by, or, if they are attracted, to understand. The more you insist that the event’s implications are endless, and the more you pronounce yourself worried that the event’s implications somehow haven’t been taken in by the general run of humanity, the more you must be committed to some process of reduction. The trick is to popularize without traducing, to simplify without distorting—to vulgarize without violating. At its best, this process will be a distillation, but it is hard to see how dilution can be avoided for long. And, indeed, there are good reasons for supposing that any effort, even the best, to convey the importance of this subject is bound to render it less than it was. Arthur Miller’s television film Playing for Time was rightly praised. The performances of Jane Alexander and Vanessa Redgrave were on a par with Meryl Streep’s in Holocaust, with the difference that Miss Alexander and Miss Redgrave were working with a screenplay that was content to evoke by suggestion what it could not show without cosmeticizing. Nothing was shirked except one thing. Though the story about the two brave lovers who escaped was a true one, it was not true that after recapture they died facing each other with one last look of love. The two recaptured runaways are given a private shared moment on the point of death, as if, though their fate was sealed, they could to some extent choose the manner of it. It is a brilliantly dramatic scene. But it is dramatic licence. In reality, there was no choice. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi tells what really happened to the two who fled. The Nazis did not allow them any last beautiful moment. Only a work of art can arrange that—and, of course, we want it to, we demand it. It is hard to see how, against this demand to give the meaningless meaning, the full facts, in all their dreadful emptiness, can prevail. We will always look for consolation, and will always need to be talked out of it.

Levi tried to talk us out of it. There is no reason to believe he gave up on the task, because there is no reason to believe he thought that it could ever be fully accomplished in the first place. If we think he died of disappointment, we mistake him, and underestimate the frightfulness he was telling us about. Writing about Tamburlaine, Burckhardt said there were some episodes of history so evil that they weren’t even of any use in defining the good: they were simply a dead loss. For all his tough-mindedness about erstwhile horrors, Burckhardt had no inkling that there were more to come. When they came, they were worse. For Burckhardt, the slaughterhouse happened in history: he was able to look back on it with a steady gaze. For Levi, it was life itself. The shock was never over, the suffering was never alleviated. The reason for his suicide, so bewildering at the time, is now, in retrospect, not so hard to guess. In the first chapter of this book he quotes his friend Jean Améry, who was tortured by the Gestapo and committed suicide more than thirty years later: “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.” Levi’s admirable sanity might have been produced in part by his dreadful memories, but it was maintained in spite of them. A fit of depression induced by some minor surgery was enough to open the way out which only a continuous act of will had enabled him to keep closed. His style to the end—and, on the evidence of this last book, even more at the end than at the beginning—had the mighty imperturbability of Tacitus, who wrote the truth as though it were worth telling even if there was nobody to listen and no prospect of liberty’s being restored. But if Schopenhauer was right to call style the physiognomy of the soul, nevertheless the soul’s face has a body, and in Levi’s case the body had been injured. Once again, the urge for consolation can lead us astray. We would like to think that in time any pain can be absorbed, rationalized, given a place. But gratuitous violence is not like childbirth; it serves no purpose, and refuses to be forgotten.

Levi’s admirers can be excused if they find it more comforting to be appalled by his demise than to admit how they had been lulled by the example of his sweet reason—lulled into believing that what he had been through helped to make him a great writer, and that the catastrophe therefore had that much to be said for it, if no more. But part of his greatness as a writer was to warn us against drawing up a phoney balance sheet. The idea that it takes extreme experience to produce great literature should never be left unexamined. The great literature that arises from extreme experience covers a very narrow band, and does so at the cost of bleaching out almost the whole of life—the everyday world that enjoys, in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s great phrase, “the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks.” Catastrophes like the Holocaust—and if it is argued that there have been no catastrophes quite like the Holocaust it can’t usefully be argued that there won’t be—have no redeeming features. Any good that comes out of them belongs not to them but to the world they try to wreck. Our only legitimate consolation is that, although they loom large in the long perspectives of history, history would have no long perspectives if human beings were not, in the aggregate, more creative than destructive. But the mass slaughter of the innocent is not a civics lesson. It involves us all, except that some of us were lucky enough not to be there. The best reason for trying to lead a fruitful life is that we are living on borrowed time, and the best reason to admire Primo Levi’s magnificent last book is that he makes this so clear.

(The New Yorker, May 23, 1988)


Why did Primo Levi kill himself? Answers abound, but the best of them still seems to me to be the counterquestion I incorporated into my review: why didn’t he do so earlier? Knowing what he knew, he must have found life hard to bear. Survivalism, an early form of Holocaust denial, was already in the air while he was undertaking his last great works. His reaction to Liliana Cavani’s reckless bromides on the subject could have equally arisen from a hundred other stimuli. The suggestion that he was tipped over the edge by an uncomprehending book review is better than plausible, although it can’t rule out the possibility that his weakened physical condition was enough to do the trick. (I was wrong, incidentally, to say that the surgery was “minor”: it was massive, and the after-effects would have been more than enough to induce terminal depression in a man who had seen nothing worse than Disneyland on a wet day.) Finally the argument about his demise is worse than useless, because it displaces the attention that should be focussed on what he achieved when he was alive: a written temple to the necessity of recollection.

As to that, I don’t see why the discussion should ever stop. New forms of Holocaust denial crop up all the time. Trying to prove that Hitler never gave the order is one of them. Trying to postpone retroactively the starting date of the Endlösung is another. The latest, at the time of writing, is the idea that we have all heard too much on the subject. A quick answer would be that they obviously haven’t heard too much in Austria. A slower answer would take in the possibility that the Nazi assault on human values was a disease of such virulence that all its antibodies are dangerous too: we will never feel well again. The best we can hope to feel is a bit more intelligent. By that measure, a sign of intelligence would be to give up looking for consolation in an area where it is not to be had: whatever illuminates Virgil’s lugetes campos, the weeping fields, it can never be the light of the sun. It was good news that in the last days of the millennium a book by a Jew, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, was at the top of the best-seller list in Germany, and that its central subject was what happened in the Warsaw ghetto. To the hungry eye, it looked like a closing of the ring, a squaring of accounts, a reassurance that the matter was in hand. But at the same moment the David Irving libel trial was getting under way in London, and the news from there could not have been worse, because whatever the outcome the innocent dead would be defiled all over again, as arguments were heard that millions of them had never died at all, and had therefore never even lived.

I was wrong about Burckhardt: he did guess that something awful was on the way. He just didn’t realize how big it would be. Nobody did: not even the perpetrators. Just because they only gradually woke up to the dizzy magnitude of what they could get away with, we should not fool ourselves that they were slow to have the intention. As Victor Klemperer’s monumental diaries (I Shall Bear Witness and To the Bitter End) sadly prove, the Holocaust was under way from the moment the Nazis came to Power. The only reason we failed to spot it is that the first victims died by their own hand.

(Reliable Essays, 2001)