A Secular Alternative: Primo Levi's Place in American Holocaust Discourse

Article excerpt

This essay sketches Primo Levi's emergence from obscurity to near-universal acclaim in the United States, where he is now considered one of the most important witnesses of the Nazi genocide and a significant twentieth-century writer. As he emerged into the American public sphere, Levi came to occupy a particular discursive place as a representative bearer of Enlightenment values. Among intellectuals across the political spectrum his reputation for sobriety and secular reason stands against other, more dominant tendencies in American Holocaust culture, such as the sacralization of the genocide often associated with another survivor-writer, Elie Wiesel.

Introduction

Today Primo Levi is considered by an educated readership in the United States to be one of the most important witnesses of the Nazi genocide and a significant twentieth-century intellectual. Levi is invoked frequently in intellectual journals and revues and his books are taught in dozens of classes each year in colleges and universities, thus assuring him a continuing stream of new readers twenty years after his death. But this wide recognition is a relatively recenr phenomenon. In the following pages we sketch Levi's belated emergence from obscurity into near-universal acclaim in the mid-1980s. As he emerged into the American public sphere he came to occupy a particular discursive place as a representative bearer of Enlightenment values - as a proponent of "reason and light," as one influential essay collection termed it. In this role, Levi has come to stand against other, more dominant tendencies in American Holocaust culture, such as the perception of a widespread commodification of the genocide and, especially, the tendency to sacralize the genocide, an inclination often associated with another survivor-writer, Elie Wiesel. Levi's reputation for sobriety and secular reason has left him with less of a popular base than Wiesel - who is by far the most well known person in America associated with the Holocaust - but it has solidified his reception among intellectuals across the political spectrum both inside and outside the academy.

Part I. Publications and Translations

Levi's reception in the United States was enabled by the translation of his major works. The texts and typography of the American editions of Levi's first two books, Se questo è un uomo and La tregua, were virtually identical to those published first in the U.K., using the same reliable translations by the historian Stuart Woolf. What is noteworthy is that the American publishers changed the British titles of the two memoirs, which were in each case close to the original Italian ones, to titles that seem to promise a measure of redemption from the Holocaust. Thus, If This is a Man, first published in both the U.K. and the U.S.A. in 1959 by Orion Press, became Survival in Auschwitz in the 1961 Collier edition. The Truce, published in the U.K. in 1965, was re-titled The Reawakening when it came out that same year in the U.S.A.' It is safe to say that the reception of Se questo è un uomo was multiply displaced in the U.S. context: first, it was only translated after its second edition had appeared in Italy; second, it soon began to appear with the misleadingly optimistic title; and third, it only became well known twenty-five years after its initial translation when a spate of new Levi translations converged with a larger societal trend toward interest in the Shoah.

The much acclaimed The Periodic Table, rendered in English by the experienced translator Raymond Rosenthal, was first published in 1984 by Schocken Books after Rosenthal convinced chief editor Emile Capouya of the book's appeal. In fact, the first hardcover print run of 14,000 sold out in less than two months.2 A paperback edition issued in that same year was covered with glowing blurbs, including one on the front cover from Saul Bellow, a writer with particular cachet among American Jews. The popularity of this book encouraged the rapid translation and mass-market publication of seven more books by Levi. …