'Per Mia Fortuna.': Irony and Ethics in Primo Levi's Writing

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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. …