After almost forty years of growing literary renown in his native Italy and in Western Europe, Primo Levi, a chemist by profession and a survivor af Auschwitz, is at last making a name for himself in the United States. In the past year, American publishers have brought out, to universal critical acclaim, two of Levi’s most recent works: The Periodic Table (published in Italy in 1975),1 a wry and ingeniously constructed history of his career as chemist, and If Not Now, When? (1982),2 a novel of Jewish partisans fighting the fleeing German army at the end of World War II. Three more books are expected in early 1986: a reissue of his twin classics, If This Is a Man (1947) and The Truce (1963), and Lilith,3 a collection of short stories. Levi, whose career in Italy was crowned in 1982 when he won the prestigious Viareggio and Campiello prizes, is thus on his way as well to becoming a figure on the American literary scene.
Born in 1919, the son of a cultivated middle-class family which settled in the Piedmont in 1500 after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Primo Levi belongs to a particular segment of Italian Jewry whose relation to Italy on the one hand, and to its Jewishness on the other, is of great historical interest.
The Italian Jewish community, whose origins reach back to the time of ancient Rome, played a significant role in the founding of the modern state. Italian Jewish patriots figured prominently in the Napoleonic invasion and in the Risorgimento, and with the general emancipation which followed Italy’s unification in 1870, Jews rose quickly to eminence in every area of national life. Many were ennobled for service to their country.
Although Jews, at least in the past two centuries, never constituted more than one-tenth of 1 percent of the country’s population, it is estimated that as high as 8 percent of university professors in Italy before World War II were Jewish. That Jews should have chosen academia is perhaps less unusual than the shining preeminence they achieved in government and in the armed forces. By the time of World War I—a single generation after non-Catholics had been given the vote—there had been two dozen Senators of Jewish origin in the National Assembly, two Prime Ministers (Sidney Sonnino and Luigi Luzzatti), two Ministers of Finance, and a Minister of Defense.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Italian Jews reaffirmed their reputation for patriotism and military valor. Out of a community of only 40,000 (according to the 1911 census), over 1,000 received decorations; eleven rose to become generals. Of Italy’s three university professors who fell in battle, two were Jewish and the third was a half-Jew.
This civic zeal, and this demonstrated achievement in many areas of national life, are tributes in part to the acceptance in Italian society which Jews had long enjoyed—an acceptance which the emancipation only formalized. As the historian Cecil Roth writes of post-emancipation Italy: “There was in the vast mass of the people not even the arrière-pensée of anti-Jewish feeling. Whether it was in parliamentary elections or university appointments, charitable organizations or social gatherings, the question of a man being or not being a Jew rarely came into question, except perhaps in those circles which objected no less to Lutherans and freemasons.”
There was, however, a price to be paid for such full and distinguished participation in society. Throughout the 19th century, Italian Jews became increasingly assimilated. Roth, lamenting the fact that most of the great Italian Jewish statesmen and soldiers were “Jews only by virtue of descent,” notes that Italy had become “a byword in the Jewish world for the completeness of emancipation on the one hand, for its deadly corrosive potentialities on the other.” And, as Primo Levi himself has observed, “Equality was the fruit of the largely secular character of the Risorgimento. Participation in the revival struggle brought with it, if not an obligation, then at least a decided invitation to secular living.”4 Religious observance declined; synagogues that had been open for prayer three times daily could no longer assemble a quorum on the Sabbath; mixed marriages soared. According to the historian Renzo de Felice, from 1930 to 1937, 30 percent of Italian Jews married Gentiles, compared with only 11 percent in Germany (1934 census), while in 1938—the year of Mussolini’s racial laws restricting Jewish social and economic activity—the number of mixed marriages rose as high as 44 percent.
For many Italian Jews, however, there must have seemed nothing deadly or corrosive in this slow and half-conscious loss of tradition. Because of the relative absence of either popular or official anti-Semitism, and the social standing enjoyed by many Italian Jewish families, Italian Jews rarely had to make a choice between career and position on the one hand and their religious and ethnic identity on the other, and hence could afford to be proud or indulgent of what Jewishness remained to them. There came into being something familiar enough from the American scene: a large body of “holiday Jews,” who went to synagogue on the High Holy Days and ate prosciutto and shrimp the rest of the year, Jews for whom Judaism was the expression of a kind of subsidiary “ethnic pride” whose value was in large measure nostalgic.
In the work of the few Italian writers who deal with their Jewishness at all—writers like Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani (author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), or Natalia Ginzburg (two of her works, All Our Yesterdays and The Little Virtues, have just been reissued in English in this country)5—religion and ethnicity alike appear as something homey, sentimental, amusing, surrounded by the aura of childhood. For these writers, Jewishness belongs to the memory cupboard with fat uncles, eccentric aunts, good smells from the kitchen, and—for Levi—a language known only in code words, to be used in front of servants. For Primo Levi, before his deportation to Auschwitz, Jewishness indeed was little more than a negative presence. “A Jew is somebody who at Christmas does not have a tree, who shouldn’t eat salami but does, who has learned a little bit of Hebrew at thirteen and then has forgotten it.”
Still, however much of Jewish tradition was frittered away through assimilation and intermarriage, many educated Italian Jews seem nonetheless to have retained what H. Stuart Hughes has called (in his invaluable book, The Silver Age of Italian Jewry) a “residual Jewish consciousness.” This consciousness, moreover, was no cloistered virtue, but a feisty devil which moved to the fore whenever Judaism was under fire or liberty of conscience threatened. A characteristic expression came from Luigi Luzzatti, journalist and Prime Minister of Italy, who in 1909 told the Socialist parliamentary leader that although an unrepentant deist, “I was born a Jew, and I return passionately to being one whenever I am criticized for being Jewish or my being Jewish puts me in danger.”6
For his first decade or so in power, Mussolini enjoyed a reputation for philo-Semitism and did much to win Jewish support (which, indeed, he succeeded to a certain extent in getting). Declaring himself a Zionist to the Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Goldmann, Mussolini promised on various occasions to find the Jews a homeland more suitable than the “ridiculous” one of Palestine offered by the British; he took in Jewish refugees from Russia, Germany, and Eastern Europe; he cultivated cordial relations with Italian rabbinic leaders; and in 1930-31 he introduced a series of longed-for measures according the Jewish community legal status and dividing it into twenty-six smaller zones with powers of religious administration and political representation. (This move, popular at the time among Jewish religious figures, later proved invaluable in helping the Nazis round up Jews for deportation.)
These concessions, however, went hand in hand with such assaults upon the confidence and good faith of Italian Jews as the Lateran Pact of 1929 establishing Roman Catholicism as a state religion, fascist support for Arab rebels in Palestine, and increasingly virulent anti-Semitic tirades in the government-controlled press. Mussolini’s attitude toward the Jews was, in short, complex, and intimately connected with his shifting world views. What seems to have remained constant throughout his career was a deep-rooted and unquestioning belief in the existence of a powerful political entity called World Jewry, on whose good side he was anxious to be. Only when Hitler’s unopposed successes proved the power of “international Jewry” to be negligible, and when Mussolini’s own shortcomings as Hitler’s partner abroad made conformity to Nazi doctrine at home the more pressing, did he declare an open war against the Jews.
Thus, the summer of 1938 saw the official adoption in fascist Italy of Nazi racial theories. In the autumn of 1938 came the deeply unpopular race laws, forbidding mixed marriages, ordering the expulsion of those Jewish refugees whom Mussolini formerly had welcomed, and barring Jews from institutes of higher learning, from the armed forces, from many forms of economic and social activity, and from the fascist party (membership in which was a virtual prerequisite to earning a livelihood).
To Primo Levi, then a nineteen-year-old student of chemistry in Turin, it was in effect the racial laws that made him a Jew. Levi belonged to a generation of young, educated, middle-class Italians, both Christians and Jews, who grew up under fascism (Levi was only three years old when Mussolini seized power) and who were in a sense unmanned by it. The anti-fascist resistance of earlier years—much of which had been based in Levi’s native city of Turin—had for the most part been silenced by the time these children came of age: heroes like the Russian-born Leone Ginzburg, Carlo Levi (no relation), Enzo Sereni, and the Rosselli brothers were already abroad, imprisoned, or murdered. Ignorant of even the possibility of active resistance to a regime they found repellent, Levi and his friends grew up “superficial, passive, cynical.” In The Periodic Table, Levi deftly describes their withdrawal from political reality and, later, from the war itself into a world of conversation, country hikes, poetry, chaste flirtation, and, in Levi’s case, chemistry, whose demonstrable truths seemed the very antithesis of fascism’s bluster.
It is revealing of the emotional constriction of these young people that their voiced objections to fascism were largely aesthetic in nature: the young Levi scorned fascism’s highflown rhetoric and mistrusted its stifling insistence on homogeneity, which, he instinctively understood, also meant trouble for the Jews. And it is indicative of their profound demoralization that Levi and his friends felt equally estranged from the Allied cause. To these young intellectuals, the United States and Nazi Germany were like two grim Titans fighting overhead; since each was invincible, the war would go on forever. “The Allies were masters of the sky, perhaps in the end they would win and fascism would end—but it was their business, they were rich and powerful, they had the airplane carriers and the Liberators.”
It was only with the first signs of a decisive Allied victory and with the collapse of the fascist regime on July 25, 1943, that Levi found within himself the will to resist. Caught in Milan after the Nazis had seized northern Italy and established there the detested Salo Republic which sent almost 8,500 Jews to the death camps of Poland, Levi took to the hills with a few friends and a pearl-handled pistol, hoping eventually to join up with the famed resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà. Instead, his band was captured by the fascist militia in December 1943. Levi, who mistakenly thought it safer, if caught by Italian fascists, to declare himself a Jew rather than a member of the partisans, was sent to the detention camp at Fossoli; in February 1944, he was deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 men, women, and children in Levi’s transport, only twenty returned.
In Auschwitz, Levi was assigned to a labor camp attached to the synthetic rubber factory at Monowitz-Buna (a tower of Babel built and manned by slave labor, which in four years never produced so much as half a pound of rubber). After some months, he found work as a chemist in a camp laboratory. His survival Levi attributes to three factors: to his relatively privileged position as a chemist; to an Italian civilian worker who brought him food every day for six months; and to a case of scarlet fever contracted on the eve of liberation which kept him in the infirmary while the Germans evacuated 20,000 prisoners on a march from which no one emerged alive.
After his liberation by the Red Army in January 1945, Levi joined an aimless Soviet-sponsored migration of displaced persons, and was eventually returned to Italy by way of the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Rumania—a trek described with much wit and good humor in his second book of memoirs, The Truce. In the four decades since the war, Levi has lived in his family’s house in Turin, publishing his occasional short stories, novels, and reminiscences and working as director of a chemical factory until his retirement in 1977 to write full-time.
As a writer, Primo Levi represents a relatively unfamiliar combination in the literature of the Nazi concentration camps. He is a survivor without Jewish—or, more specifically, without East European—inflections, a memoirist endowed with all the fruits of a classical Mediterranean education, an aesthete, a skeptic, a mild, equable, and eminently civilized man who is more at home in Dante and Homer than in the Bible. Some of the qualities he brings to his work—secularism, cultivation, elitism (coupled with an attitude of amused affection toward the common man), and a lack of deep familiarity with Jewish history or religion—are typical of his generation of Italian Jewish writers. Virtues that are his alone include precision, economy, subtlety, a dry and rueful wit, an intimate understanding of the dramatic potential of understatement, and a certain frigidity of manner which combines effectively with the explosiveness of his subject matter.
All these virtues find preeminent expression in Levi’s brief masterpiece, If This Is a Man. Begun immediately upon his return to Turin from the camps, and first published in 1947, If This Is a Man is the story of his ten months in Auschwitz. Despite the terrifying immediacy of the experience it relates, it is an elegantly constructed and remarkably compressed piece of work, blessed with a low-key but frequently poetical style of utterance and marked by Levi’s efforts both to render concrete and to transcend the destruction he witnessed.
In this book, Levi sets forth in patient yet urgent detail all that he saw in the camp. He describes the routines of daily life, of reveille, meals, latrines, work squads, sleep, the workings of the black market, the operations of the sick bay, the prisoners’ preparations for the “selection” in which some were chosen to be gassed and some spared. Levi delineates the social and national hierarchies which rose up in the camp, and, above all, examines how different kinds of men adapted to the lunatic netherworld of Auschwitz and what combination of qualities—including luck—enabled a prisoner to survive. In some ways the book is less a memoir than a sociological and psychological study elevated into a work of art.
What first strikes the reader entering the world here depicted is that Primo Levi did not miss a thing. This overeducated and inexperienced twenty-four-year-old dreamer kept his eyes open, from the moment of his disembarkation from the cattle car to the day of his liberation by the Red Army ten months later. Such are his efforts that not one muttered aside, not one sign on a washroom wall goes unrecorded; indeed, the reader cannot help suspecting that Levi, agnostic though he may have been, decided almost upon his arrival in the camp that he had been put on earth as God’s spy, simply to go to Auschwitz and come back to tell the tale.
Along with Levi’s native curiosity and attention to detail goes a scientist’s mental tendency to make distinctions and to classify. Thus, in a spirit of inquiry he unveils “the funereal science of the numbers of Auschwitz, which epitomize the stages of the destruction of European Jewry.” To camp veterans, the tattooed number on a prisoner’s wrist tells the time of his entry into Auschwitz and hence his nationality, and from his nationality further characteristics follow:
Everyone will treat with respect the numbers from 30,000 to 80,000. There are only a few hundred left and they represented the few survivals from the Polish ghettos. It is as well to watch out in commercial dealings with a 116,000 or a 117,000: they now number only about forty, but they represent the Greeks of Salonica, so take care they do not pull the wool over your eyes. As for the high numbers, they carry an essentially comic air about them like the words “freshman” and “conscript” in ordinary life. The typical high number is a corpulent, docile, and indolent fellow: he can be convinced that leather shoes are distributed at the infirmary to all those with delicate feet, and can be persuaded to run there and leave his bowl of soup “in your custody.”
As this excerpt reveals, along with Levi’s deliberate coolness of manner goes a gently mocking wit, which harps upon the droll and comical aspects of human degradation as a way of making bearable an outrage too massive to endure. This quality of Levi’s (along with his elegant literary bearing) no doubt helps to account for his attractiveness to certain European and American intellectuals who (in the words of one of those admirers, Irving Howe) “are dismayed by the vulgarizations to which discourse on the Holocaust has recently been subjected” and who “wince at the shoddy rhetoric it evokes from publicists and politicians.” Though quite a number of books have been written about Auschwitz by survivors, Levi’s is one of the very few humorous ones.
But the book’s central concern, as its title suggests, is in fact not so much with recording for posterity the particular historical catastrophe of Auschwitz as with defining what it is to be a man under conditions stripped of all that makes human nature human. In his preface, Levi writes that it is not his intention “to formulate new accusations” but rather “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.” This intention separates If This Is a Man from a book like Elie Wiesel’s Night, with its swelling lament for the Nazis’ destruction of a people and their civilization, and also from one like Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, a macabre exposé of human cupidity, brutality, and indifference. Rather, Levi chooses to dwell upon episodes in which ordinary individuals reveal their pluck, their endurance, their abiding decency, their reserves of integrity, and their boundless capacities for invention and initiative.
In the book’s most famous passage, Levi encounters in a washroom the “good soldier” Steinlauf, recipient of an Iron Cross in World War I, a man in his forties who now is scrubbing himself vigorously with muddy water and drying himself on his cloth jacket. Why wash? demands Levi, who has already gone defiantly to seed, and to whom such an energy-wasteful display of obeisance to now-superfluous rites of home life comes as an affront to the skepticism which he holds to be the better part of common sense. He remonstrates with Steinlauf: “We will all die, we are all about to die.” In the ten minutes between reveille and work, better to look at the sky and gather one’s thoughts than to get wet and dirtier. To the contrary, Steinlauf responds: it is precisely because the camp is “a great machine to reduce us to beasts” that one must maintain at all costs the habits and principles of civilized life by keeping oneself clean, holding oneself straight, and going about one’s business with dignity and propriety.
Paradoxically, then, the message of If This Is a Man seems to be not how easy it was to kill six million Jews but that it is, after all, as difficult to destroy a man as to create one. Though it does not gloss over the uglier human qualities which camp life brought to the fore, If This Is a Man places its stress on human strength and dignity. As such, it comes as a welcome antidote to the sometimes lopsided effects produced willy-nilly by Holocaust studies and by a literature saturated with images of helplessness, passivity, and wretchedness.
Yet although this brilliant and stirring book is full of moral resonance, it also suffers from the limitations of understanding which Levi has imposed on the events he describes. “We would like to consider that the Lager [camp] was preeminently a gigantic biological and social experiment,” Levi writes, an occasion for observing, under impossibly ideal laboratory conditions, “what is essential and what adventitious to the conduct of the human animal in the struggle for life.” By adopting, however ironically, this denatured pseudo-scientific pose, Levi deliberately glosses over the plain fact that the “experiment” of which he speaks was designed by a particular group of people, the Nazis, not to observe the human animal “in the struggle for life” but rather to wipe another particular group of people, the Jews, off the face of the earth. Levi in this book comes to many interesting and moving conclusions about the abilities and mental attitudes which enable prisoners to survive in an environment designed to kill them, but he says next to nothing of the circumstances that made the “experiment” possible, of the ultimate aims of the experimenters, or of the people against whom it was directed.
When it comes to interpreting the significance of this unprecedented cataclysm, moreover, Levi falls back on a rather hackneyed social psychology. The story of the death camps, he suggests in his preface, is the story of xenophobia run amok, the result of carrying to its logical conclusion the instinct “latent” in many men and nations that “every stranger is an enemy.” Although this might be useful as an admonition to today’s Europeans to mind their manners in dealing with the Turkish and North African migrant workers in their midst, it hardly answers to the Holocaust; certainly, it is inadequate as an explanation of why the destruction of the Jews was conceived precisely at a time and in a place in which the Jews had become thoroughly assimilated into society. Indeed, as a victim who himself hailed from a country in which the Jew had never been a stranger, but which had fallen under totalitarian rule, Levi was particularly well-placed to see that the origins of the Holocaust might be found to lie less in all our darkest impulses than in the kind of political system which alone in civilized nations can institutionalize such impulses.
To be sure, in thus stressing the “universal” aspect of the Holocaust, Levi is being true to the secular and humanistic tradition of Italian Jewry—a community to at least some of whose members Jewishness was no more (in his words) than “an almost negligible but curious fact, a small amusing anomaly, like having a crooked nose or freckles.” As Levi later testified, it was only with his arrest and internment that he found himself “segregated from the ‘normal’ world and forcibly immersed in an exclusively Jewish environment.” What is curious is that Levi, the acute observer of human manners, says nothing in If This Is a Man about his own reactions and impressions on being introduced for the first time to the highly distinctive and utterly alien world of East European Jewry, or of the religious life and ethnic traditions of the people among whom he lived—at exceptionally close quarters—for ten months. In If This Is a Man there are Poles, Hungarians, Frenchmen, and Italians in abundance, each with subtly detailed cultural characteristics, but there are no Jews as such.
It was only years later, in the volume of stories entitled Lilith, that Levi set out to portray the Jewish side of life in Auschwitz. Lilith is a collection of vignettes serving as footnotes or appendices to his tales of the camps. Some of these sketches are culled from Levi’s later reading about the war and the Holocaust: the experiences of a Polish partisan who fought in Italy, or of a young Jew who survived the war disguised as a Hitler Jugend. Many are about religious Jews—cantors’ and rabbis’ sons who continued to practice their faith and to preserve their cultural and historical memories in the death camps.
These tales, told in a faux-naif manner reminiscent of Yiddish fabulists and utterly unlike Levi’s characteristically polished and subtle style, are uneven, but although even at his worst Levi is deft and able to convey much in a few words, nevertheless he must be said to fail in his larger attempt to recreate something of the flavor of Jewish life in the camps. In part the problem is one of inauthenticity. Thus, in one tale a watchmaker from a remote Lithuanian village astounds his barracks chief—a German Communist—by refusing food on Yom Kippur since, as the narrator informs us, cooking on that day is labor considered “inadvisable” by “some commentators.” (It is forbidden, and on no lesser authority than Leviticus; but perhaps more significantly, rabbinic authorities had actually laid a positive injunction upon Jewish inmates of the camps to eat on Yom Kippur, in order to preserve life.) But such missteps are no more than symptoms of a larger discomfort.
By his own admission, Primo Levi is the child of a peculiarly Italian credo that “nothing is of greater vanity than to force oneself to swallow whole a moral system elaborated by others, under another sky.” In addition to this resistance to all “unproven revealed truths,” Levi is simply cursed with a tin ear for religion, and is incapable of representing imaginatively the life of people who practice their faith “without any feeling of constraint, rebellion, or irony.” The unfortunate literary consequence is that although he self-consciously sets out in these stories to reproduce the traditions of East European Jewry as they were preserved in the death camps of Poland, he unwittingly reduces that tradition’s central component—the Jewish faith—to the status of an archaic cult, a magpie’s nest of quaint fables and “maniacally subtle” prohibitions.
Lilith also bears witness to a new and puzzling variation on Levi’s tendency to view the camps, in his own words, “as a distorted mirror of the present-day world.” In the last story of the book (in its author’s estimation, the most important) he describes the life and career of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi-installed Eldest of the Jews who turned the Lodz ghetto into a miniature kingdom, printing his own currency and postage stamps, commissioning poems in his own praise, organizing an army of workers ten thousand strong, and, finally, negotiating with the Germans over the transportation of Jews to concentration camps.
Rumkowski’s career is hardly unknown: it has been the subject of much scholarly attention, it has offered occasion for at least one novel (Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews), and most recently it has been brought to our attention once more in Lucjan Dobroszycki’s masterful edition of The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto. Levi has nothing new to add to the lamentable story. Instead, his half-whimsical, half-solemn retelling of it deliberately deflects its historical particularity, urging an “allegorical” view of Rumkowski as an emblem of a universal human potentiality. In Levi’s reading, this former orphanage director and bankrupt who was dismissed from the Zionist party for insubordination before he rose to power under the Nazis was no sport brought to prominence by the unnatural circumstances of ghetto life but rather a kind of everyman, whose bizarre and sorrowful career serves as “a metaphor for our civilization”:
We are all mirrored in Rumkowski, his ambiguity is ours, that of hybrids molded of clay and spirit; his fever is ours, that of our Western civilization which “descends to hell with trumpets and drums,” and its miserable tinsel is the distorted image of our symbols of social prestige. . . . Like Rumkowski, we too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is enclosed, that beyond the enclosure wait the lords of death and that close by the train is waiting.
This statement, with its muddled sentimentality, its descent into educated cliché, and its note of hauteur disguised as an almost maudlin self-incrimination (somehow, one does not believe Levi means to include himself in the “we” under indictment here), sits startlingly at odds with the modesty, the rationality, the faith in human will, and above all the bent for exact discrimination which illuminate Levi’s finest writing.
Levi’s latest book, If Not Now, When?, based on a year’s research into “Yiddish civilization,” completes his immersion into what he calls “the moonstruck world of Ashkenazic Jewry.” The novel—his first to appear in English—was prompted by the controversy over the nature and extent of Jewish resistance to Nazism, and describes a Jewish partisan band fighting the German army at the end of World War II.
If Not Now, When? chronicles the struggles of this group on its trek across Eastern Europe to Italy. The action is seen through the eyes of Mendl, a village watch-mender and Red Army straggler, who joins the band and takes part in its clashes with unfriendly Russian and Polish partisan groups in the forests and in acts of sabotage: diverting German parachutists, dynamiting train tracks, sniping at a shooting party of German officers on a nobleman’s estate, commandeering a locomotive, even liberating a concentration camp. At the novel’s conclusion the bedraggled survivors are lionized in Italian Jewish drawing rooms as they wait to board ship for the Holy Land.
Though outwardly an adventure story, If Not Now, When?, like Levi’s earlier work, is a quiet and rather private tale. Even so explosive an event as the concentration-camp liberation is curiously muted. The freed inmates, colorless shrouds whose stories are never told, are too weak to join the fray and simply drop from sight, leaving the Jewish partisans quarrelsome and depressed, and the deed of liberation—with the terrible knowledge which accompanies it—vanishes from the book as if it had never been.
In place of driving action, If Not Now, When? concentrates instead upon the band’s inner dynamics—on the contrasts between the tormenting doubts and scruples of Mendl, a worrier afflicted with an ability to see his enemy’s side of the question, and the ruthless certainties of Line, a waif-like feminist-Zionist-Communist named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst; and on the carefree volatility of the band’s leader Gedaleh, a violinist gifted with “the logic and bold imagination of the Talmudists, the sensitivity of musicians and children, the comic power of strolling players, and the vitality absorbed from the Russian earth.”
Levi intends the group to be a microcosm, comprising “all the nuances which can be found between Jewish nationalism, Marxist orthodoxy, religious orthodoxy, anarchist egalitarianism, and Tolstoyan return to the earth,” and united only in the determination to “survive, do the maximum damage to the Germans, and go to Palestine” where they will build a world without money and without landowners, where “everybody does what work he can, and is given what he needs.”
If this sounds dangerously close to the stuff of propaganda, the impression is not dispelled by the central irony which provides much of the novel’s humor: the spectacle of guns in the hands of children of tailors and rabbis. The actor Pavel, drawing on “the endless supply of Jewish self-mockery,” tells the story of yeshiva students in the czar’s infantry who, though crack shots at target practice, refuse to fire in battle, astonished that the enemy is no longer cardboard but “men, like us. If we shoot, we might hurt them.” The Jewish partisans hold long debates over the sinfulness of taking human life, finally deriving solace from the biblical precedent of Samson (surely, in the light of that unlucky hero’s eventual fate, an ambiguous model for Zionists).
Much of this self-consciousness could be forgiven if Levi’s novel succeeded on artistic grounds. Unfortunately, although he has chosen a most engrossing and important subject, If Not Now, When? must be judged a failure. The plot is at once stiffly schematic (the book finishes on August 7, 1945 with “the ambiguous double omen” of the birth of a baby to two members of the band and the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima the day before) and unsettlingly random (a major protagonist, Leonid, drops from the picture midway, and is eventually killed after hinting that Gedaleh is an NKVD agent, a charge which is neither denied nor substantiated). Levi’s men and women are wooden logs whose mental qualities, backgrounds, motives, and convictions are never shown to us but rather set forth in the leaden exposition which serves for conversation in this novel. In the absence of dynamic action or persuasive human types, Levi resorts to staged ideological confrontations, with the characters stating in turn their political philosophies and debating on set topics as they sit around the campfire in the woods of wartime Byelorussia.
Levi must be admired for his bravery in tackling this immensely ambitious task, a work of fiction portraying the deeds of fighters steeped in a tradition which he could only approximate through painstaking research. Yet for all his hard work and good will, the distance between Turin and the forests of Eastern Europe proves too far to be bridged by so fastidious and uncertain an imagination as his. If Not Now, When? forfeits the accuracy of historical accounts while never grasping those qualities of human reality that fiction promises and at its best succeeds in conveying.
Primo Levi’s place in 20th-century letters is a peculiar one. He is a consummately gentlemanly writer, a watcher from the sidelines who has made himself master of a literary manner light, subtle, elliptical, curiously ascetic, and rather patrician, a manner which relies for its effects on understatement and irony but which paradoxically found its true complement in an experience utterly blunt and overwhelming in its horror.
Levi’s first book, If This Is a Man, written when he was only twenty-eight, remains, almost forty years after its composition and for all its faults of omission, one of the finest literary works of its kind, a book whose low clear tones long echo in the reader’s imagination. Its companion piece, The Truce, though weaker, still retains something of the tautness and resonance of its predecessor. And in such later works as The Periodic Table Levi demonstrates a talent for witty speculation and piquant vignettes, a love of the colorful and quirky, a taste for subtle discrimination and sweetly-scented reminiscences that fully justify his reputation as a literary master, albeit in a minor key.
Yet for all their grace, intelligence, and often poetical qualities of expression, the memoirs, novels, and short stories of Levi’s middle age suffer from a certain inhibiting fastidiousness and insubstantiality, an inertia which stems perhaps from snobbery or timidity, perhaps from lack of conviction. Describing his ancestors in the opening story of The Periodic Table, Levi could be describing his own later books: “Though quite various, [they] have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.”
Levi’s finest work, a civilized man’s record of the ultimate barbarity, recalls that of the poets of late Latin antiquity, the last fruits of a rich and eloquent culture, living on the edge of an “endless night.” The classical scholar Helen Waddell writes of Ausonius, a 4th-century poet, consul, and memoirist, who after a full career settled on his estate in Bordeaux to grow Paestum roses, work on his memoirs of the provincial grand bourgeoisie, and compose poetry dallying in “anagram and compliment, enamelled fragments of philosophy, the fading of roses, the flavor of oysters.” Levi is such an Ausonius, one who lived to see and tell of the Sack of Rome and who was, if alas only momentarily, endowed by the sight with a strange power of speech.
1 Translated by Raymond Rosenthal, Schocken, 233 pp., $16.95. Two chapters of this book appeared in COMMENTARY (in different translation): “Vanadium,” March 1977 and “Iron,” August 1977.
2 Translated by William Weaver, Summit, 349 pp., $15.95.
3 If This Is a Man and The Truce, both translated by Stuart Wolf, will be brought out by Summit under the respective titles of Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening; the former is also available as a Collier (Macmillan) paperback, 157 pp., $3.95. Lilith and Other Stories, translated by Ruth Feldman, will also be published by Summit.
4 “Beyond Survival,” Prooftexts (January 1984).
5 All Our Yesterdays, translated by Angus Davidson, Carcanet, 300 pp., $14.95; The Little Virtues, translated by Dick Davis, Carcanet, 110 pp., $14.95.
6 Quoted in Michael Ledeen, “Italian Jews and Fascism,” Judaism, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 1969. According to H. Stuart Hughes, however, Natalia Ginzburg, for one, extinguished even this residual ethnic pride after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when, declaring herself regretful that one could no longer imagine Israel “little” and “defense less,” she ceased altogether to write about Jews.