Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Primo Levi and the Painted Veil |
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Primo Levi and the Painted Veil

What do we need to be told about Primo Levi that he doesn’t tell us himself? In his middle twenties he spent a year in Auschwitz. Later on he wrote a book about it, the book we know as If This Is a Man: one of the great books of the twentieth century, and possibly the greatest among its sad category of great books we wish had never needed to be written at all. The book is beyond anybody else’s power to summarize, since it is already a summary. The same might be said of his other writings, which were published intermittently during the remainder of his life and cumulatively suggested that one of the best reasons to continue living, after one had seen the world at its worst, was to get things written that would establish a place for the introspective self even in a context of overwhelmingly destructive historic forces.

But a commercial exploitation of his personal history was the last thing on his mind. Slow to commit himself as a full-time professional writer even after he was famous, he went on earning a salary as an industrial chemist. Though his waxing fortunes would have permitted a move up, he never left the flat in Turin where he had spent his whole life except for those fateful two years away when he was young: one year in Milan, the other in Poland. Everyone who knew him knew that his home life was hard. Having assigned to his wife the duty of looking after his ailing mother, and having thus made sure that they would spend a claustrophobic day with each other before he came home to them in the evening, he had created conditions for himself that might have been considered too obvious a stress-inducing mechanism even by Goldoni. And it all went on for years, whereas a Goldoni play only seems to.

But Levi never complained in public. Though Turin is a tight-lipped town, there were friends of friends who said that he complained to certain women, some of whom in turn complained that he was never allowed out for long. It seemed a fair inference that his reasons to stay were better than his reasons to leave, always granted that his wife was not herself struggling with the question of whether to keep him or kick him out. In his creative work there were hints at personal unhappiness, but the obliquity served only to bolster the impression that to preserve a decent reticence was a condition for creating at all. He must have struck some kind of workable balance, because he never stopped writing for long. In Italy, where there is a Booker committee around every corner, literary prizes count. He won them all. In the wider world, he was on his way to the Nobel Prize. It was only a matter of time. His life was a testament to the virtues of getting the past in proportion. All over the world, his admirers took solace from his true success, which was to grow old gracefully in spite of everything: think of what had happened to Primo Levi, and yet he still wanted to create, to live a life of order, to stick with it to the end.

Thus it was doubly, shockingly unexpected when, at the age of sixty-seven, at the apartment block in Turin, he killed himself by throwing himself down the stairwell. Though the possibility should not too soon be ruled out that he told us quite a lot about this before he did it, there is certainly no denying that he couldn’t tell us much about it afterwards. Previously, he had left little room for other commentators to be more profound about his life than he could. Now they had space to operate. They also had what looked like an open invitation. There was a mystery to be investigated. Why, exactly, did he kill himself? Auschwitz had been ages ago. Could it have something to do with that other mystery, the mystery of his private life? For modern biographers, who increasingly feel less inhibited about writing to a journalistic brief, the prospect was hard to turn down. Two of them moved into the Turin area and got on the case. We must try to be grateful that they proved so diligent. They interviewed everybody except each other. The diligence, however, has produced two books which, arriving at the same moment, weigh on the spirit almost as much as they do on the muscles. You can just about hold one of them in each hand, but not for long.

Called simply Primo Levi, Ian Thomson’s effort is already heavier than a house-brick. More mysteriously entitled The Double Bond, Carole Angier’s is heavier than Ian Thomson’s, partly owing to the abundance of material yielded by her talents as a mind-reader. To increasingly comic effect, women pining for the allegedly maladroit Levi (“like a child in matters of the heart,” even though—perhaps because?—“a Colossus of thought”) show up under sobriquets to protest that nothing will make them speak, little knowing that Angier has access to their brainwaves by telepathy. Unvoiced appetencies, normally resistant to verbal notation, are transcribed at length. Even on the level of ascertainable fact, rarely can she make a point in less than a page. She turns subtlety into a blunt instrument. She refuses, for example, to be fooled by the seemingly obvious connection between Primo Levi’s direct experience of Auschwitz and his suicide forty years later. She is confident on the subject. “Not Auschwitz, but his own private depression, killed him in the end.” If she means that the memory of Auschwitz might not have been enough to kill him without his private depression, there could be some sense to what she says, and thus reason for the confidence. But if she means that the private depression would have killed him even without Auschwitz, she is being confident about what she can’t possibly know. She could be in a position of certainty only if Levi had killed himself before he got to Auschwitz. But he killed himself afterwards. It was long afterwards, and in the interim he had accumulated plenty more experience to be depressed about; but to assert that his most terrible memory played no crucial part in the decision that sent him over the balustrade is to make a far larger claim to knowledge about the way his mind worked than he ever did.

Ian Thomson is less given to speculation, which is the main reason that his book is considerably shorter than Carole Angier’s. Since life, too, is short, and time reading about Primo Levi will probably be time taken away from reading Primo Levi unless the reader is devoted to no other subject, it should logically follow that if either book is to be recommended, Thomson’s should be the one. Apart from his harder head, another reason for Thomson’s comparative conciseness is that he simply writes with more snap than his rival can command, although like many another in the new generation of serious literati he somehow dodged the remedial English course on the way to his honours degree. At school Levi had a friend called Giorgio. “Phlegmatic, lazy, sensitive and generous, Levi called him ‘Giorgione.’ ...” Surrounding evidence suggests that all those adjectives apply to Giorgio, not Levi, but the word order suggests the opposite. “To brutalize” does not mean to treat like a brute; “exult” does not mean “exalt”; “refute” does not mean “rebut”; “contend” does not mean “oppose”; and participles, if they are meant to dangle occasionally, ought not to dangle so far that they confuse the sense. Of Natalia Ginzburg: “Born to an exemplary anti-Fascist family, her father was arrested in Turin in 1934 ...” But unless there were exemplary anti-Fascist families before the advent of Fascism, it was she, and not her father, who was born to the exemplary anti-Fascist family. These blemishes in written English would be less striking if Levi himself had not been a fastidious master of Italian prose, which he learned to write at a time when a mistake was a mistake and not a sign of free expression.

Luckily Thomson’s brio and sense of relevance are proof against his solecisms. Into his smaller space he packs with reasonable neatness most of the pertinent facts adduced by Angier, plus a few more that she somehow missed, perhaps because she was busy dreaming up code-names for the ever-increasing crowd of women whose lips were sealed. She didn’t find out, for example, that in 1939 Levi’s parents enrolled him for English lessons with a woman called Gladys Melrose, a Londoner scratching an existence in Turin as a teacher for Berlitz. Gladys Melrose ignited Levi’s admiration for Aldous Huxley: an admiration which was to have large consequences later, when Levi formed the Huxleyan aim of studying the extermination camp as a laboratory of behaviour. Thomson also notes, as Angier does not, Levi’s fondness for Louis Armstrong. A taste for good-time jazz is not necessarily a sure sign of a sunny nature (Mussolini’s passion for Fats Waller was of no help to the Ethiopians) but it does suggest at least the capacity for lightness of spirit. It’s the kind of detail that adds to our picture of Levi’s character by making room for a quality he must have had but which is not often enough mentioned: a charming openness, on the mental level at any rate, to those easy pleasures from which, he was inclined to believe, his nature had shut him out. Did he snap his fingers as he listened to “Sugar Foot Stomp”? Did he hum along with “Savoy Blues”? Nobody ever asked, and at this rate nobody ever will, because not even Ian Thomson seems to realize that those little concrete details outrank any amount of abstract speculation.

His publisher, alas, shares the same obtuseness. Louis Armstrong, though present on page 118 of Thomson’s book, is missing from its index. So are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They are in the text, but they don’t make it to the status of a fact that a scholar might want to look up later on. Yet there is a danger of depopulating Levi’s imagination if we automatically assume that his principal mental symbols for two lovers swept away by passion were Paolo and Francesca from Canto V of the Inferno. The Fascist regime had banned Hollywood movies by 1941, but in Milan there were bootleg screenings. At one of those screenings, Levi marvelled at Fred and Ginger dancing in Top Hat. It was one of the last things he did before he went off and joined the doomed little group of young resistenti who behaved as if they had been trained for nothing else except to get arrested. He fell in love with one of them. Her name was Vanda. What did he see in his mind’s eye, in the last hour they ever spent together? Was it Paolo and Francesca riding on the storm, or was it Fred and Ginger floating a magic millimetre above a white floor, touching each other with the lyrical chasteness that reduces the soul of a shy young man to a sob of longing? Because Levi is a classic, there is a bad tendency to think that he was raised on a strictly classic diet. But he took everything in: probably the main reason why he was able to take in even Auschwitz. Dreadful grist, but a brilliant mill.

You know you are getting old when the biographers scramble the most elementary facts about World War II, as if it all happened before their time: which, of course, it did. Thomson gives us a picture of Levi, in the Lager infirmary, finding out from German and Polish newspapers that the Allies were “moving towards Normandy.” No newspaper of any nationality could possibly have carried such information. The newspapers might have said that the Allies were moving further into Normandy, or else were moving out of it as they expanded their bridgehead south and east; but if the newspapers had said that the Allies were moving towards Normandy they would have been privy to the biggest Allied secret of the war. On the other hand, Thomson has a sure sense of what Jewish bourgeois society was like in Turin before Mussolini made the unforced error of copying the Nuremberg laws.

Thomson paints a picture of assimilation rather than persecution. In Germany and Austria, it was the very success of the assimilation that got the anti-Semitic intellectuals so excited, with disastrous consequences: but for Italy this had never been true. Anti-Semitic theorizing had never been powerful enough to infect even the Church, whose rank and file were later to behave very well during the Nazi round-up, with the result that the Italian branch of the Final Solution was a relative flop. The theory being lacking, there had never been much practice. Thomson’s version of young Primo is bullied because he is a shrimp, not because he is a Jew: is bullied, in fact, even by other Jews. Angier can’t resist wheeling the anti-Semites on early, as if Fascism had always been bound to bring them to power. But not even the Fascists, some of whom were Jews, had harboured any such expectation until Mussolini fell prey to the brainstorm that did as much as anything else to demoralize the country. (Most of the more intelligent Fascist hierarchs realized that their dream was on its way downhill from the moment that Mussolini issued the Manifesto of Racial Scientists in 1938, but they were counting on the usual gap being maintained between rhetoric and actuality.) In Angier’s book, the Holocaust is practically waiting to grab Levi in the school playground. Levi told his Italian biographer, Fiora Vincenti, a story about his being given a hard time at school by a pair of athletic boys. Making it clear that a more powerfully equipped biographer is now on the scene, Angier goes on interpreting the story until the athletic boys end up as Jew-baiters. The interpretation is longer than the story; and anyway, if that was what Levi meant, why wouldn’t he have said it? She puts herself continually in the untenable position of knowing more than he does about the one subject he knew more about than anybody, and of wanting to get more said when saying everything he could was his principal object.

Admittedly, “everything he could” did not always mean everything he knew. There is such a thing as a decorum that goes out of date. As Thomson notes, Levi held back from evoking the pitiable scene at Fossoli when the SS gleefully photographed the prisoners as they squatted defecating in the railway siding before the train departed. Typically, the SS got a particular charge out of photographing the women. Luciana Nissim, who was there, recorded the moment in her Memoir from the House of the Dead, which was published before Levi had finished writing If This Is a Man. Thomson plausibly conjectures that Levi was held back by “some strange puritan stringency,” but to a man of his generation—and, indeed, of mine—it is the word “strange” that would seem strange. Why add insult to injury by speaking of the unspeakable? That the SS could visit such barbarism on women was the proof that the devil was loose. For all his determination to tell the whole truth, Levi thought he could not do it unless the devil within himself was kept on a short leash: vengeance and hatred were his enemies, not his friends. And decorum: well, that was his friend. Look what had happened when it had been outlawed, in that militarized bedlam where anything went and only luck could save you.

“Only luck could save you” was a favourite admonition of Nadezhda Mandelstam to anyone cherishing the illusion that in Stalinist times there might have been a strategy for dodging fate. Solzhenitsyn knew that it was only the accident of his being a mathematician that saved his life. Levi knew that it was his qualification in chemistry that kept him in the work camp and out of the gas chamber. But a lot of other lucky breaks were necessary as well. He had a few words of German; he fluked a double soup ration; and, at the end, the scarlet fever he almost died of saved him from the forced march on which he would have died for certain. One of the many great things about him was that he never attributed all these strokes of fortune to a benevolent fate. When, after the war, someone in Italy said that Providence had intervened so that Levi might bear witness, Levi got uncontrollably angry for one of the few times in his life. Here lies the full meaning of the “Kuhn’s prayer” sequence in If This Is a Man: a full meaning which Angier goes on worrying at in an unnecessary attempt to make it fuller still.

Kuhn thanked God for sparing him. When Levi said that if he had been God he would have spat at Kuhn’s prayer, Levi was saying that there was no such thing as divine intercession for an individual case. The point isn’t really all that hard to understand. Levi, after all, devoted the best of his magnificent literary powers to driving it home. Levi also made the uncomfortable point that when it came to surviving the initial selections, high qualities of character were more likely to be a drawback than an advantage. Angier, when praising the “bold” personality of one of Levi’s female contemporaries, does so by imagining her being caught up in the Holocaust: “I think she might have survived.” But Levi spent a good part of his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, pointing out that the Lager system punished any signs of fighting back with certain death. So unless her boldness had been accompanied by a prophetic capacity to keep it concealed, Levi’s friend wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. Angier’s intuitive grasp of survival potential is the very kind of sophisticated incomprehension of his message which added to Levi’s despair in the later part of his life.

The question remains of how desperate he was already. It will always remain, because it is unanswerable. For all we know, suicide is the mandatory escape route for anyone with clear sight, and the rest of us get to die in bed only because we have the gift of regrowing our cataracts from day to day. Seen steadily and seen whole, life is hard to bear even in conditions of civilized normality. In Levi’s case, there was the Holocaust. Later on there were all the forms of its denial: forms that he tirelessly analysed, but with a growing sense that he was trying to mop up the incoming tide. It could be argued that these later disappointments would have been enough to tip him over the edge even if he had never had direct experience of the Holocaust in the first place. But since he did have such experience, it seems perverse to subtract it from the equation, especially when Levi himself made a famous statement on the subject as long after the event as 1978, the year in which his fellow survivor Jean Améry drank poison. Levi had always been impressed by Améry’s contention that the man who has been tortured once stays tortured. Writing about Améry’s suicide, he returned to the same idea. Thomson quotes what Levi said.

Suicides are generally mysterious: Améry’s was not. Faced by the hopeless clarity of his mind, faced by his death, I have felt how fortunate I have been, not only in recovering my family and my country, but also in succeeding to weave around me a “painted veil” made of family affections, friendships, travel, writing and even chemistry.

Carole Angier is very bold to leave this crucial passage out, although one can see that it might have interfered with the main thrust of her original research, in which it is established, to her satisfaction at any rate, that Levi, if he recovered his family, certainly did not succeed in weaving around himself any kind of veil, whether painted or otherwise, when it came to family affections. Not only was the young Primo Levi “pathologically shy” (not just shy) but the older, post-Auschwitz Primo Levi stayed that way, torn between the wife he was unable to leave and the women he could not allow himself to love. There is no notion that Levi might have been honouring his wife for her loyalty, love and sacrifice, and that the other women, in declining to twist his arm, might have been honouring him through respecting his real wishes. Early or late, he was the victim of a sex problem—a view Angier sticks to even while, on her own evidence, the ageing hero looks to be grappling with the same sex problem as Warren Beatty. The child was the father of the man, and the man was a child in matters of the heart. Why? Because he was depressed all his life. What depressed him? Depression. Thus Angier reduces a moral genius to a helpless plaything of his own childhood and adolescence, a message we might find comforting. But we should watch out for that kind of reassurance. In the democratic component of liberal democracy, there is a sore point called egalitarianism, and the craze for biography might be one of its products. The craze for biography puts the reader on a level with superior people. Part of the effect of Thomson’s book, and the whole effect of Angier’s, is to suggest that Primo Levi was a bit like us; which is only a step away from suggesting that we are a bit like him. Magari, as the Italians say: if only it were true.

(Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 2002)


In a book review there is room to say only so much, but perhaps I should have found room to say that Levi himself didn’t approve of the term “Holocaust.” Unfortunately, to open a question of terminology would have imposed the obligation of following it up, and in this case to no clear end, because a preferable term has been slow to present itself. When we tell people that they don’t know enough about the Holocaust, at least they have some idea of what it is we are saying they don’t know enough about. If we tell them that they don’t know enough about the Shoah, they aren’t even aware of what subject it is that we suppose them to be ignorant of.

On this point it is important to remember that Levi, while never less than scrupulous in his personal use of language, was generously prepared to accept that other people could feel keenly even if they spoke clumsily. As I noted in my review of The Drowned and the Saved, the American TV miniseries Holocaust was much derided by experts when it was first screened, but it was not derided by Levi. He thought its heart was in the right place.

As he grew older, Levi found out the hard way that the precious truth he was trying to guard had more to fear from misplaced fastidiousness than from vulgarity. Were there such a thing as life after death, he would have found out from his biographies that the truth itself can be put to inhuman use, and not only by tabloid journalists. Reputable scholars can persuade themselves that duty requires a full disclosure of any truffle unearthed. Very few among even the more serious reviewers of these two books raised the question of what Levi would have thought about the prospect of the women in his life having their privacy intruded upon while they still breathed. Until the day he died, he did his best to protect all concerned from the consequences of having loved him. The day after, all bets were off. It is offensive to pretend that we have a right to behave this way because Levi was a great man who gave us our best account of what it was like to share the fate of the anonymous millions, and who, therefore, is a proper object of study in all details, no matter how embarrassing they might happen to be for his family and intimate friends. Now that his protesting voice is supposedly silent (and how truly vulgar his biographers are to suppose that), his dearest wish—to restore and preserve the concept of a private life—is trampled upon simply and solely because he was famous. His loved ones are maltreated because he shared the fate of Elvis Presley.

None of this is to say that a decent, proportionate biography of a literary figure can’t be useful, if only to cancel myths and correct false assumptions. When I reviewed The Drowned and the Saved I assumed that the foreign language Levi was trying to perfect on the eve of his death was English. From the biographies I learned that it was German. Levi never got as far with English as one was inclined to hope. In the world of fulfilled wishes, Levi would have acquired an exact ear for English, realized that the American titles of some of his books were worse than useless, and done something to set things straight. Alas, there was no time, and we would probably have remained stuck with the titles anyway: for legal reasons, they are set in stone. For a long time to come, the most important single book about the inexorable terrors of state-sponsored mass murder will go on billing itself as a guide to getting by in tough conditions: Survival in Auschwitz.