One of the most persistent problems thrown up by writing and reading about the Holocaust is that of style and its relation to ethics. (1) The ungraspable quiddity of the event displaces interpretational energy away from the operations of writing and onto the act of writing itself. To write is an act of bearing witness and of record. It betokens statements such as 'I am' and 'I saw' and 'these things were', and thus assigns to writing a powerful quality of material presence that in itself is prior to and defies stylistic analysis. In a more general sense also, to write is to assert one's humanity in the act of describing its stripping away. Primo Levi's writing clearly partakes of these meanings on an intensely personal level, as his constant return to the refrain of the Ancient Mariner, (2) and the very title and structure of his Se questo e un uomo demonstrate. (3) With only a flawed vocabulary to describe these events, writing itself takes on the moral burden and the moral content of coming to terms with the Holocaust, and the particular stylistic qualities of any one utterance are as if supplementary to its primary, monumental 'being there'. An act of writing has no style as such. It often follows that the most acclaimed texts of this kind are those that give off self-effacing, neutral and transparent effects. For example, Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy (London: Collins, 1986) aspires to this styleless quality, providing a relentless record of events, names, numbers and chronologies without any explicit attempt to explain them. There might also be a quasi-spiritual dimension to such an act, famously described by George Steiner in an essay on Chaim Kaplan's Warsaw Diary (4) and Elie Wiesel's La Nuit (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1958):
As in some Borges fable, the only completely decent 'review' [...] would be to re-copy the book, line by line, pausing at the names of the dead and the names of the children as the orthodox scribe pauses, when recopying the Bible, at the hallowed name of God. Until we know many of the words by heart (knowledge deeper than mind) and could repeat a few at the break of morning to remind ourselves that we live after, that the end of the day may bring inhuman trial or a remembrance stranger than death. (5)
Levi's writings on his experiences in Auschwitz, perhaps even more than most survivors' written testimony, have built their immense reputation and popularity on just this sort of self-effacing quality of style. His writing has been variously and persistently praised as unemotional, scientific, lucid, detached, unembroidered, and so on. (6) His voice has the muted intelligence of the observer who records but does not project inwards his experience. His work is a compendium of character vignettes, a diverse human gallery of victims, in which the writer plays down his own importance. Levi himself acknowledges as much when describing his relationship with Mordo Nahum in La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1963): 'Perche il greco raccontasse queste cose a me, perche si confessasse a me non e chiaro. Forse davanti a me, cosi straniero, si sentiva ancora solo, e il suo discorso era un monologo' (I, 257). A central moral strength of the work thus lies in its giving a place and a voice to these individuals. But there is a sense in which this is not an adequate account of how Levi's writing works, nor perhaps of why his popularity has been so striking and general. Two caveats come to mind. First (although this is not my primary interest here), it is seriously flawed as an account of his prose style. Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo has analysed at length the syntactic and lexical patterns of Levi's work, and shown how the lucid, unfettered prose that many, perhaps aided by translations, have discerned, is largely mythology. (7) Indeed, in some ways, the defining characteristic of his style is its somewhat laboured, rather formal aspect which creates an interesting, fertile distance between the narrative voice and its medium. (8) Secondly, as must be inevitable with such a monumental approach to writing, it stops short of the subtle, half-hidden, but persistent qualities of Levi's writing which not only make his voice a powerfully personal and intimate one, but which also allow for the moral dimension of his work to go well beyond the act of writing, and of giving voice, to encompass and grow out of the actual weft of his written language. (9) One of the essential vehicles for this intrinsic or organic ethical dimension to Levi's writing, its irony, provides the primary focus of this article.
The key to Levi's direct, but subtle use of irony is set by the opening words of the preface to Se questo e un uomo: 'Per mia fortuna, sono stato deportato ad Auschwitz solo nel 1944 [...]' (I, 3). The literal truth of the statement is unimpeachable, since, as he goes on to explain, the shortage of manpower in Germany at the time led the Nazis to extend the average life of camp inmates, and hence gave young prisoners like Levi at least a slim chance of survival. However, the boldness of the opening (what fortune is it to be deported to Auschwitz?) lies in its immediate broadening, through irony, of the canvas against which his story will be painted. The irony of the phrase 'per mia fortuna' forces us to rebuild our expectations and perceptions of the experience of deportation by undermining our tendency to conflate or generalize individual and contingent experiences of suffering. With those three words, then, we are already projected into the grey zone that Levi will explore with forceful acuity in I sommersi e i salvati, (10) and we are already led, by the merest turn of phrase, to a heightened sensitivity towards the subtle gradations of the individual's position in historical events. A similar acute awareness of distinctions, this time between different forms of writing and their relationship to lived experience, is to be found in the poignant mock-formulaic closing statement of the preface: 'Mi pare superfluo aggiungere che nessuno dei fatti e inventato' (I, 4). (11)
Irony is notoriously difficult to classify and wide-ranging in its potential application, but something of the pattern of these first two ironies can be found underpinning large parts of Levi's writing. His work is shot through with rhetorical checks and balances, self-conscious interruptions, and nods and winks to the reader, or to some larger outside force such as fate or history, and all these are built on irony. The ironic tone to his writing is a key factor in creating his somewhat oblique, semi-detached perspective on experience and on his own narrative creations. But the implications of his use of irony go well beyond their foundation in questions of tone. To describe its particular qualities and dynamic, one can turn to the descriptive model given in one of the most sober and meticulous accounts of irony, Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony. (12) Booth occupies a particular position in the extensive field of theories of irony, and his account chimes well with Levi's own instinct for sobriety and wit and his impulse towards the moral. In particular, Levi would seem to share Booth's reservations about over-enthusiastic modernist ironists and theorists of irony, who see all irony as somehow subversive, ambiguous, endlessly deferring meaning, and resolution, 'opening out vistas of chaos' (Booth, p. ix). For Booth, irony has most often been 'intended, but covert, stable and localized' (p. 7); that is, 'that once a reconstruction of meaning has been made [after the literal meaning has been demolished], the reader is not then invited to undermine it with further demolitions and reconstructions [...]. It does not say, "There is no truth"' (p. 6). In these cases, a single, specific meaning substitutes for the literal once irony becomes apparent, but the process of arriving at it is none the less sophisticated for having an endpoint. Booth sets great store by two consequences of this stable process, both of which are powerfully applicable to Levi. First, it can produce a form of knowledge, on the one hand through its Socratic acknowledgement of the limits of the knowable (pp. 274-75), and on the other hand through the potential falsifiability of this kind of ironic speech act (pp. 14-19). Secondly, and as a consequence of the production of knowledge, it creates strong bonds of community through the process of 'reconstructing' out of irony. Describing his own working model of the reconstructive process, on pages 10-12, Booth notes:
I see that it completes a more astonishing communal achievement than most accounts have recognized. Its complexities are, after all, shared: the whole thing cannot work at all unless both parties to the exchange have confidence that they are moving together in identical patterns. The wonder of it is not that it should go awry as often as it does, but that it should ever succeed. (p. 13) (13)
Levi too, in the ethically charged context of his Holocaust experience, forges an ironic perspective that enables him to move beyond literal reproduction, to reconstruction of a community and a constrained form of knowledge. This perspective is in large part founded on contrasts or apparent discrepancies of language use or meaning, which alert and invite the reader to an unspoken quality of response, opening up a new trajectory of possible understanding. These contrasts are very often set in relief by instances of simple, ironic turns of phrase, but more important, they partake of a broad ironic quality in and of themselves owing to their questioning juxtaposition of differences. The tension in the contrasts consists in a sort of potential energy, and the overturning or expanding of received associations which the resolution of the contrasts entails is a (re)cognitive enactment of that potential, and this act of bridging the gap creates a bond of community between reader and writer. Furthermore, where Booth's irony depends for its effect on sets of shared assumptions between reader and writer, the very core of Levi's ironic perspective is the validity of such shared assumptions when confronted with the experience of Auschwitz. In other words, he ironizes one of the key mechanisms of irony itself. Thus he not only creates community through irony and uses community to create irony, but also uses irony to set out a trajectory of communal ethical evolution. He broadens and qualifies and illuminates those shared assumptions, figuring a path to new (or, rather, refined) knowledge. The primary ethical value and function of irony, in Levi and perhaps elsewhere also, is contained within this dual cognitive and communal impulse. Three particularly prevalent types of ironic statement in his writing can be taken to illustrate this duality.
The most persistent type of explicit, verbal irony, which forms the foundations of its broader, more articulated ironic perspective, has its vehicle in his classificatory impulse (see Mengaldo, 'Introduzione', Opere, III, xviii-xxiii) and its form in a broadly zeugmatic or even oxymoronic juxtaposition of terms: for example Cesare, one of the brightest characters of La tregua, is described in these abundant terms: 'Cesare era un figlio del sole, un amico di tutto il mondo, non conosceva ne odio ne disprezzo, era vario come il cielo, festoso, furbo e ingenuo, temerario e cauto, molto ignorante, molto innocente e molto civile' (I, 286). This is a strikingly rich illustration of Levi's stylistic exuberance, cast in a rolling, rhythmically varied, leavened prose, instances of which recur in even his most sober writing. Mengaldo describes this aspect of his style as 'abbondante, a festoni' (III, xix). Its playfulness and lightness of touch, however, should not disguise its governing impulse, which is to make manifest the contradictory and complex variety of human character. It has, in other words, a cognitive function, and in this respect it is the seed-bed for Levi s cognitive irony. The characterization of Cesare is at its most obviously ironic in its final oxymoronic contrasts ('furbo e ingenuo', and so on), but these represent only the climax of a process of homing in on the best epithets to capture his individual human qualities. That process is one of the keys to the ethical subtlety of Levi's style: as he writes he sculpts a profile that carefully assembles the contradictory, multi-faceted, and ironic nature of character. Furthermore, in the descriptive, cognitive process, Levi himself, as well as Cesare, comes alive, in the struggle to encompass his memories and perceptions in language, and to anchor his experience in communicable terms. At times, mechanisms of this kind, often through only a single complementary or contrasting pair of adjectives (Mengaldo, III, xx-xxi, lxxiv-lxxv), work to elucidate and subtly analyse the immense aporia of the camp world. At other times, they play on words and rhythms, on witticisms and light turns of phrase that acquire by analogy, if not in their own right, an imprint of the same evolving struggle to move, as Levi puts it in the essay 'Tradurre Kafka', when describing his general writing practice, 'dall'oscuro al chiaro' (III, 920).
A second type of irony works on a larger, structural scale, and in Se questo e un uomo it is founded on the ironic contraposition of two sets of values and customs: that of 'common sense' (literally the perceptions of experience common to reader and writer) and that of the uncommon camp world. At times the contrast is a direct and terrifying one of mutual exclusion: what pertains here (paradigmatically what is human) does not pertain there, and language is often the kernel of such division:
Vorremmo ora invitare il lettore a riflettere, che cosa potessero significare in Lager le nostre parole 'bene' e 'male', 'giusto' e 'ingiusto': giudichi ognuno, in base al quadro che abbiamo delineato e agli esempi sopra esposti, quanto del nostro comune mondo morale potesse sussistere al di qua del filo spinato. (14)
But even here, where the indirect question invites a response that acknowledges the absolute inadequacy of common sense, the invitation to reflect hints at the ironic (that is, communal and cognitive) energy behind the contrast. The process of reflection forces us to a collective refinement of our understanding of the ethical terms on offer, despite the ultimate invalidity of the polar comparison of there and here. And, of course, Levi often casts his ironist's eye over his canvas where comparison is not quite invalid, seeing both similarity and difference between here and there, carefully extracting the parallel lines and the intersections, and questioning the totality of any absolute division. Again the very process of writing out and thinking through the contrast contains within itself distinctive ethical implications.
This ethical process is typically inaugurated when Levi interrupts his anecdotal narrative of his everyday experience in the camp to offer what seems a diversion into the statement of vague and general common assumptions. As he works his way back from the apparently self-evident truths of those assumptions to his own unfathomable present reality (or vice versa), (15) he leads us both to question and to value the stability of those truths and to understand in a limited, partial (ironic) way an aspect of the experience of the Lager. One of the most direct examples of this comes at the opening of the seventh chapter of Se questo e un uomo, 'Una buona giornata':
La persuasione che la vita ha uno scopo e radicata in ogni fibra di uomo, e una proprieta della sostanza umana. Gli uomini liberi danno a questo scopo molti nomi, e sulla sua natura molto pensano e discutono: ma per noi la questione e piu semplice.
Oggi e qui, il nostro scopo e di arrivare a primavera. Di altro, ora, non ci curiamo. (I, 70)
The chapter goes on to relate a pause in the otherworldly suffering of normal days in the camp, as the sun shines and a store of fifty litres of extra soup is discovered. Levi traces precisely the partial return to the sensations of 'uomini liberi', to feelings of warmth and to a sense of the future ('Das Schlimmste ist voru ber', according to Ziegler (I, 70)), however illusory this may be. The whole becomes a poignant meditation on human nature and its boundaries, lived out in the characters and experiences of the chapter, by way of an interrogation of the terms of that opening meditation. A meaning to life is both an object of yearning for Levi and the others in the camp and a noble mirage for Levi the survivor, mocked by inhumanity. The threads of the chapter are tied together in its final sentences, which confirm and amplify the reversals and profound ironies thrown up by such common assertions and unexpected moments:
Poiche siamo tutti, almeno per qualche ora, sazi, cosi non sorgono litigi, ci sentiamo buoni, il Kapo non si induce a picchiarci, e siamo capaci di pensare alle nostre madri e alle nostre mogli, il che di solito non accade. Per qualche ora, possiamo essere infelici alla maniera degli uomini liberi. (I, 76)
In 'Una buona giornata', the whole chapter, then, is constructed around the paths of this ironic interrogation. Indeed, it could be argued that such interrogation represents the dominant structural principle underpinning the chapters of Se questo e uomo, and much of Levi's basic writing units elsewhere, whether they be essays, stories or articles for 'terze pagine'. There is another striking example in the chapter of Il sistema periodico entitled 'Cerio' (I, 558-65), where an assertion of the unfathomable difference between here and there at once illuminates the reality of experience in Auschwitz, and poses implicit ethical questions about actions here and there growing out of that difference. The story told in 'Cerio' is of Levi and Alberto's chance discovery of a hidden source of an iron-cerium alloy, and their plan to make lighters out of it to sell and thus boost their chances of survival in the last weeks of the war. In retrospect Levi realizes that they risked their lives at every stage of their enterprise, with no guarantee of success:
Si esita sempre a giudicare le azioni temerarie, proprie od altrui, dopo che queste sono andate a buon fine: forse non erano dunque abbastanza temerarie? O forse e vero che esiste un Dio che protegge i bambini, gli stolti e gli ebbri? O forse [...]? Ma noi non ci ponemmo allora queste domande: il Lager ci aveva donato una folle famigliarita col pericolo e con la morte, e rischiare il capestro per mangiare di piu ci sembrava una scelta logica, anzi ovvia.
Here Levi performs a sort of sleight of hand. The questions are posed and then removed, but their residue remains. They are built on almost folkloric or instinctual conceptions of cause and effect, which cannot apply to the present situation. But their illogicality, their tendency to rely on slippages of meaning (here in the two usages of 'temerarie'), find an echo in the unknown, macabre world of 'allora', with its own illogicality and its own, often fatal slippages of meaning.
The structural type of irony echoes and explains a more general impulse in Levi's work to dwell on moments of transition and transformation: these include the processes of dehumanization in the opening chapters of Se questo e un uomo, but also the torture of the reawakening of humanity (and thus of shame, or desire, or memory) after the Germans have left (end of Se questo e un uomo; La tregua; I sommersi e i salvati); the grey zones of suffering, the moments of reprieve, the chemically or humanly hybrid. All these liminal moments or objects of interest that pepper Levi's writing, and derive from and determine the very texture of his writing, are moments of irony.
The third type of irony that characterizes his writing only confirms this pattern of difficulty, division, and interpenetration, realized in knowledge. This third type can be termed metonymic irony: the specific or individual stands in for, qualifies, or corrects, and analyses the general. Levi's faith in the exemplum of each human life or particular action is most apparent in his consistent fascination with the individual characters he encounters, with the gallery of vignettes which makes up his entire oeuvre. His narratorial position is always intimately human and interlocutory, another factor in the intense community between him and his reader. From this position, his way of writing again embodies or inscribes an ethical position and gives itself rein to enact as well as describe that ethics. His style is a constant negotiation between the individual case and a very cautious and ironized version of general experience or received opinion. In a sense, his power as an ethical writer, and as a writer of testimony, lies in the constant implicit attention in his work to the problems involved in speaking for oneself and for more than one self; to the problem of working out who 'noi' is. As the chapter 'Comunicazione' in I sommersi e i salvati (I, 720-34 (pp. 720-21)) makes clear, it is a problem of which he refuses to make paradoxical play, and which he refuses to leave unresolved. Hence, although it might seem at first sight alien to his impulse towards the particular and the contingent, Levi is not averse to adapting his facility in sketching character to fashion poignant emblems of general conditions. Perhaps the two most powerfully drawn character-emblems of this kind are the 'figlio della morte', the speechless, doomed child Hurbinek in La tregua (I, 226-28), and Muller, the ex-Buna civilian chemist, whom Levi encounters by chance professionally years later, as related in 'Vanadio' (Il sistema periodico, I, 628-40). But one could adduce any number of other characters in this regard: it is a further freedom afforded the reader by Levi's narrative abundance to orient himself or herself towards characters in a more or less emblematic reading.
The individuals in Levi's world almost always have metonymic potential, but are not reduced to metonyms; they are partly representative, but representative precisely because each is unique. The profound ethical impact of this moving between the poles of the general and the particular is most apparent in an account, in the chapter entitled 'La zona grigia' in I sommersi e i salvati, of a horrifying episode amongst the Sonderkommandos, told by a Hungarian doctor who worked in the camp, Miklos Nyiszli. (16) A young woman is found still alive after a gassing. The Sonderkommandos are profoundly disturbed by this absolutely exceptional challenge both to their horrific but necessary blindness to human life, and to the system, which cannot allow exceptions: 'Non ha capito, ma ha visto; percio deve morire' (I, 692). (17) In telling this profoundly disturbing story, Levi crafts an extraordinary language of hesitation, generalization, literary echo, of historic presents, rhetorical questions, and free indirect speech to follow through the experience and some of its implications. It is worth quoting at length, since the passage's circuitous style in itself poses the ethical question of how to deal with the exception, the moment of discontinuity, the particular or individual: that is, how to be 'noi', as victims or readers, how to be a 'Mitmensch', or 'co-uomo':
[...] sul pavimento trovano una giovane ancora viva. L'evento e eccezionale, unico; forse i corpi umani le hanno fatto barriera intorno, hanno sequestrato un sacco d'aria che e rimasta respirabile. Gli uomini sono perplessi; la morte e il loro mestiere di ogni ora, la morte e una consuetudine, poiche, appunto, 'si impazzisce il primo giorno oppure ci si abitua', ma quella donna e viva. La nascondono, la riscaldano, le portano brodo di carne, la interrogano: la ragazza ha sedici anni, non si orienta nello spazio ne nel tempo, non sa dov'e, ha percorso senza capire la trafila del treno sigillato, della brutale selezione preliminare, della spogliazione, dell'ingresso nella camera da cui nessuno e mai uscito vivo. Non ha capito, ma ha visto; percio deve morire, e gli uomini della Squadra lo sanno, cosi come sanno di dover morire essi stessi e per la stessa ragione. Ma questi schiavi abbrutiti dall'alcool e dalla strage quotidiana sono trasformati; davanti a loro non c'e piu la massa anonima, il fiume di gente spaventata, attonita, che scende dai vagoni; c'e una persona.
Come non ricordare 'l'insolito rispetto' e l'esitazione del 'turpe monatto' davanti al caso singolo, davanti alla bambina Cecilia morta di peste, che, nei Promessi sposi, la madre rifiuta di lasciar buttar sul carro confusa tra gli altri morti? Fatti come questi stupiscono, perche contrastano con l'immagine che alberghiamo in noi dell'uomo concorde con se stesso, coerente, monolitico; e non dovrebbe stupire, perche tale l'uomo non e. Pieta e brutalita possono coesistere, nello stesso individuo e nello stesso momento, contro ogni logica; e del resto, la pieta stessa sfugge alla logica. Non esiste proporzionalita tra la pieta che proviamo e l'estensione del dolore da cui la pieta e suscitata: una singola Anna Frank desta piu commozione delle miriadi che soffrirono come lei, ma la cui immagine e rimasta in ombra. Forse e necessario che sia cosi; se dovessimo e potessimo soffrire le sofferenze di tutti, non potremmo vivere. Forse solo ai santi e concesso il terribile dono della pieta verso i molti; ai monatti, a quelli della Squadra Speciale, ed a noi tutti, non resta, nel migliore dei casi, che la pieta saltuaria indirizzata al singolo, al Mitmensch, al co-uomo: all'essere umano di carne e sangue che sta davanti a noi, alla portata dei nostri sensi provvidenzialmente miopi.
Viene chiamato un medico. [...] sopraggiunge Muhsfeld, uno dei militi SS [...] esita, poi decide: no, la ragazza deve morire [...]. (I, 691-92)
Much of Levi's prose, with its awkward leaps and unresolved closings, its jumps and incisions, could be reread in the light of this example, as a studied means of opening up this kind of ironic enquiry through and as part of the experience of reading.
Underpinning this third form, and indeed all Levi's ironic writing, is a persistent hostility to absolutes of any kind, to systems and to deterministic foundations as sources of knowledge. His truths, such as they are, are hard won by the strenuous labour of reason and experience combined, and they are small-scale, contingent and wholly founded on lived experience. They embody a concrete, novelistic learning about the world, of the kind intimated by Martha Nussbaum:
Teaching and learning do not simply involve the learning of rules and principles. A large part of learning takes place in the concrete. This experiential learning, in turn, requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action. [... Henry] James plausibly suggests that novels exemplify and offer such learning. (Love's Knowledge, p. 44)
In the 'Appendice' to the 1976 edition of Se questo e un uomo, where Levi attempts to collate his answers to the most commonly asked questions about his book and his experiences in Auschwitz, he sets out a warning against other more seductive purveyors of truths not won through such anchored processes:
Poiche e difficile distinguere i profeti veri dai falsi, e bene avere in sospetto tutti i profeti; e meglio rinunciare alle verita rivelate, anche se ci esaltano per la loro semplicita e il loro splendore, anche se le troviamo comode perche si acquistano gratis. E' meglio accontentarsi di altre verita piu modeste e meno entusiasmanti, quelle che si acquistano faticosamente, a poco a poco, senza scorciatoie, con lo studio, la discussione e il ragionamento, e che possono essere verificate e dimostrate. (I, 210; see also 'Premessa' to Racconti e saggi, III, 833)
Within this credo is a combination of two key elements in Levi's working/living method: his chemistry, in the need to experiment, observe, and prove, and his Conradian 'misurarsi', in the faith in work and wit pitted against the problems of living which he explores most strikingly throughout his most extraordinary book La chiave a stella (Turin: Einaudi, 1978, now in Opere, II, 3-181), and in a remarkable character in Il sistema periodico, Sandro ('Ferro', I, 462-73). (18) Sandro's instinctive 'attenzione ironica' deflates the naive young Levi's rhetorical faith in chemistry, promising in the perils and exhilarations of mountain-climbing (19) a struggle based on lived experience and wit, not on systems: the poetry and pedagogy of experience and action is set against the mirage of poetry Levi finds in the Periodic Table ('aveva perfino le rime!' (I, 466)). As he learned very early in his chemical studies, impurity for the chemist, as for any of us, is the stuff of life, and purity, absolutes, pure vice, and pure virtue are 'detestabil[i]' (I, 459). Levi's irony is above all a pragmatist's irony.
The ethical focus of Se questo e un uomo, and by extension of all Levi's work, is already clear in the declared aim of its preface to 'fornire documenti per uno studio pacato di alcuni aspetti dell'animo umano' (I, 3). That declaration posits an ethical enquiry, but one that is as yet not undertaken: the book is simply to be its raw material, and the enquiry is to be ours, as well as his in later works. His responses to the extremes and the norms of experience, and his way of encompassing those responses in writing, set out an ethical field by virtue of an ironic perspective some of whose aspects have been described above. The nature of the bond thereby created between writer or text and reader may be illuminated by reference to the ethics of writing narrative in general. Above, the account of irony given by Wayne Booth was adduced as an appropriate model for reading Levi's irony, emphasizing as it does the potential for the attainment of knowledge through a stable acknowledgement of the latter's limits. In a later book, The Company We Keep, (20) Booth develops the ethical aspect of his work on irony (and much else) into an 'ethics of fiction' in which the act of reading creates a bond between reader and (implied) author that is akin to a bond of friendship. Levi's ability to make friends out of his readers (as he did with so many of the characters who people his books, including many so radically different to him, such as Mordo Nahum and Faussone) is astonishing and has been widely experienced and noted. (21) He carves out an intimacy with his reader that guides and accompanies any reading of his work. The subtlety, variability, and eclecticism which make up the ironic weft of his writing are some of the dominant vehicles for the creation of that bond of friendship. And the figuring of friendship in Levi's writing can be extended to take in his own attitude to books and to reading. In his presentation of his anthology of favourite books, La ricerca delle radici, he slips with ease among books, authors, and people, speaking of each in terms of companionship and friendship, of rich, varied, and contingent human contact:
si eleggono i libri che ci accompagneranno per la vita
non ho sposato quegli autori perche avevano quelle determinate virtu ; li ho incontrati per opera di fortuna
Rabelais (a cui sono fedele da quarant'anni [...])
le inimicizie sono inesplicabili quanto le amicizie: confesso di aver letto Balzac e Dostoevskij per dovere, tardi
In altri casi [...] non ho fatto il passo decisivo per pigrizia, per pregiudizio o per mancanza di tempo. Se lo avessi fatto, mi sarei forse procurato un nuovo amico [...]. (La ricerca delle radici, pp. ix-xi)
It is not insignificant that in that collection, comic or ironic writers ( Job, Rabelais, Swift, Belli, Carlo Porta, Thomas Mann, Sholem Aleichem) play a central role, grouped under the line of interpretation Levi tellingly labels 'la salvazione del riso' (p. 3). The bonds of friendship, born of laughter, which such texts provide mirror the bonds of friendship, born of horror, which his memorial writing forges in us. The familiar judicial metaphors of testimony and judgement used not only to examine the Holocaust but also by consequence to define the relationship between survivors and the rest of us, can be seen as in some way superseded by more human vocabularies such as that of friendship.
Levi's irony is cognitive and communal. It relies on shared experience to broaden and hone an understanding of both shared and exceptional experience. It distinguishes and carefully clarifies, without offering single definitive answers to the problems it poses. It also shows itself, and its author, in the processes of perception, making us follow its adjustments in the course of its events, of its writing down and thinking through, and of its reading through. The very rhythm or duration of his writing creates irony and opens up ethical fields. Irony also then sets limits to those fields, and thus to the texts' cognitive and communicative faculties, but it knows that the negotiation of a sense for saying 'we' is always possible, indeed necessary. (22) Despite the hideous cruelty and the insurmountable difficulties of its subject, Levi's writing organically displays an ethical position in which cruelty is precluded, in which darkness moves into light through sensitivity and clarity. Such a sensitivity to the texture of ethical questions, and analogously to the infinitesimal gradations of irony, is both the prerequisite and the projected end of Levi's writing.
Two deceptively simple phrases from Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, quoted and discussed by Nussbaum (Love's Knowledge, pp. 85, 148-67), capture precisely the scale, the profound generosity and the alert acuity in Levi, and reflect the subtlety of what has been outlined above: his writing is 'finely aware and richly responsible', his voice that of 'a person on whom nothing is lost'.
(1) On the problems of Holocaust literature in general, see Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975); Alvin H. Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980); James Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). References to Levi's work, unless otherwise noted, are to volume and page number of Primo Levi, Opere, 3 vols (Turin: Einaudi, 1987-90).
(2) For Levi's use of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and its refrain 'Since then, at an uncertain hour, | That agony returns: | And till my ghastly tale is told | This heart within me burns', see the poem 'Il superstite' (Opere, II, 581); the title of his collected poetry Ad ora incerta (Milan: Garzanti, 1984, now in Opere, II, 521-607); the epigraph to I sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Einaudi, 1986, now in Opere, I 651); the description of his state of mind as a writer immediately after his return from the war, in 'Cromio' (Il sistema periodico (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), in Opere, I, 570-72); and the appearance of the Mariner as a character preserved in the fantastic literary theme-park of 'Nel parco' (Vizio di forma (Turin: Einaudi, 1971), in Opere, III, 295-305 ).
(3) The telling construction of the title of Se questo e un uomo (Turin: De Silva, 1947) is itself indicative. Its demonstrative 'questo', its present 'e' and its emphatically open and negative indirect interrogative 'se'; these all integrate suggestively connotations of the book as correlative of its author's surviving humanity with its step-by-step diegesis of the dismantling of humanity in the author and in the wide range of other characters who populate the text. 'Questo' is thus both 'this representational form', 'this individual author reduced to nothing' and, 'every victim' or 'everyman'. Although the direct source is Levi's own rewritten version of the Jewish Shema prayer (I, I, and II, 529), the iconographic tradition this formulation echoes and taps into is that of the Ecce homo.
(4) Scroll of Agony. The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, trans. and ed. by Abraham I. Katsh (London: Hamilton, 1966).
(5) George Steiner, 'Postscript', in Language and Silence (London: Faber & Faber, 1985), pp. 180-93 (p. 193).
(6) It is rare to find any writing on Levi that does not include such epithets. See, for example, Edouard Roditi, 'The Jewish Contribution to Post-War Italian Literature', Jewish Quarterly, 28.1 (1980), 20-23 (pp. 20-21); Stuart Woolf, 'Primo Levi, Drowning and Surviving', Jewish Quarterly, 34.3 (1987), 6-9 (p. 7); Clive James, 'Last Will and Testament', New Yorker, 23 May 1988, pp. 86-92 (p. 88).
(7) See Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, 'Introduzione. Lingua e scrittura in Levi', in Opere, III, vii-lxxxii.
(8) Cesare Cases has analysed, with particular reference to Levi's early work, the 'residuo scolastico' in certain archaic or over-formal usages, such as 'quivi' ('L'ordine delle cose e l'ordine delle parole', L'indice dei libri del mese, 4.10 (December 1987), 25-31, and Patrie lettere (Turin: Einaudi, 1987), pp. 137-50).
(9) A powerful and important statement on the ethical substance of literary style, its potential to ask questions and approach problems of ethics in a way not open to traditional philosophical discourse, is made in Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). See in particular the essay 'Form and Content: Philosophy and Literature', pp. 3-53.
(10) I, 674-703. In I sommersi e i salvati, Levi returns several times to the same formula, often underlining its ironic quality: for example, 'Per nostra paradossale fortuna (ma esito a scrivere quella parola in questo contesto)', I, 740; see also I, 654, 760, 767. In general, his irony comes not by stealth but through open and, if necessary, underscored declaration.
(11) Alberto Cavaglion sees in this formula a veiled and rare reference in Levi to current literary debates in Italy surrounding the neo-realist movement and its interest in reportage (Primo Levi e 'Se questo e un uomo' (Turin: Loescher, 1993), pp. 20-21).
(12) Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974; see also Douglas Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen, 1969).
(13) On reconstruction, see also Booth, pp. 33-47, 233-76. On irony and knowledge, see Booth, pp. 14-19. In some recent theoretical work on irony there has been a significant return to the potential for ethical communities created by and creating irony: see, for example, Gary Handwerk, Irony and Ethics in Narrative: From Schlegel to Lacan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); Linda Hutcheon, Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), who echoes Booth on community in her chapter 'The Miracle of Ironic Communication' (pp. 89-101; see also pp. 44-56); Richard Rorty, Irony, Contingency and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
(14) 'Al di qua del bene e del male', Se questo e un uomo, Opere, I, 87, and compare I, 126-27. The importance of language as an aspect of Levi's experience and analysis of Auschwitz, and as an object of interest, study, and creativity throughout his work, cannot be overemphasized: see, for example, Cavaglion, passim; Adam Epstein, 'Primo Levi and the Language of Atrocity', Bulletin of the Society for Italian Studies, 20 (1987), 31-38; Sander L. Gilman, 'To Quote Primo Levi: "If You Don't Speak Yiddish, You're Not a Jew"', in his Inscribing the Other (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 293-316.
(15) Mengaldo notes that the single most prevalent stylistic feature of Se questo e un uomo is its use of the 'present historic' tense to site the events and experiences in a present which binds writer and reader (III, xli); see also Cavaglion, pp. 70-73.
(16) Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, trans. by Tibere Kremer and Richard Seaver (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest, 1960).
(17) It is worth noting in passing how telling this lapidary statement is for the meaning and form of testimony, which is precisely a seeing (with its potential corollary, a recounting), and not an hermeneutic unravelling. The thought process into which Levi projects himself in this painful exercise in free indirect speech thus envisages the Nazi system of killing as, precisely, a destruction of testimony, or what he calls elsewhere '[una] guerra contro la memoria' (I, 670). This is, in part at least, what Rosenfeld (see note 1 above) means by 'a double dying'. What is striking in Levi's ethics is his refusal to take on the third term in the statement ('non ha capito') by offering a pretence of understanding or judgement of the event (see I, 87, 187). In this he bears fascinating comparison with Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985). On testimony, see Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge, 1992), passim (on Shoah, see pp. 204-83).
(18) For Levi's use of Conrad, see, for example, La ricerca delle radici (Turin: Einaudi, 1981), pp. 70-82, 111; Opere, II, 183; III, 300.
(19) On mountain-climbing as an influence on Levi's work, see Cavaglion, pp. 54-56.
(20) The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). A step in this direction is already to be found in A Rhetoric of Irony: see pp. 13-14. Guido Almansi, L'amica ironia (Milan: Garzanti, 1986) makes the same link between irony and friendship, but Almansi is a reveller in irony's infinite, ludic ambiguity. His hostility to Manzoni's irony as flat and pedantically moralistic, would, I suspect, be applied to Levi as well. Levi's appreciation of Manzoni is apparent, even as he, pedantically perhaps, picks him up for a rare lapse in descriptive precision in 'Il pugno di Renzo' (L'altrui mestiere (Turin: Einaudi, 1985), in Opere, III, 659-64).
(21) Paul Bailey notes: 'Primo Levi seems to me to be one of that select band of writers with whom it is possible to sustain a lasting friendship. One can turn to him for advice and help' (introduction to the English edition of I sommersi e i salvati: The Drowned and the Saved, trans. by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Joseph, 1988), p. x). Peter Gilbert says: '[on hearing of Levi s death] I was overcome with a profound sense of loss. It was as if someone I had been close to for years had just died' ('A Letter for Primo Levi', Jewish Quarterly, 34. 3 (1987), 10-12). For a fuller treatment of the theme, see my article 'Primo Levi: On Friendship', in Sguardi sull Italia, ed. by Gino Bedani and others (Leeds: Society for Italian Studies Occasional Papers), forthcoming.
(22) On the problem of carving out a community by setting a meaning for the pronoun 'we', see Richard Rorty's discussion of so-called 'we-intentions' and 'we-practices', as the basis for an ironist, pragmatic ethics, in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 54-65 and passim.