Primo Levi's Hybrid Texts

By Wilson, Jonathan | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Primo Levi's Hybrid Texts


Wilson, Jonathan, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


IN THE PERIODIC TABLE PRIMO LEVI POINTS OUT THE WAY IN which the idea and celebration of "impurity" was central to the development of his sense of rebellion against Nazi theory and practice. The Nazis wanted the world to be both abstractly "pure" and "purified" of Jews, but Levi's chemistry studies confirmed for him the value and beauty of impurity. Levi's celebration of impurity is extended in the form that he chose for his book. The Periodic Table, an exercise in what Levi called "autobiographist" writing, belongs to a self-created genre that incorporates "straight" autobiography, autobiographical fiction, essays, and short stories. Levi's meditations on purity, impurity, and the Holocaust begin, however, in his first book Survival in Auschwitz, and I want to turn first to this text in order to establish the parameters of the argument.

Survival in Auschwitz is a memoir of Levi's experiences in Buna-Monowitz, a subsidiary of the main Auschwitz camp. The book is comprised of case histories and descriptions of isolated incidents; its focus is on the terrible loneliness of individual struggles for survival and on the bravery, cowardice, compassion, and indifference engendered by such struggles. The book's honesty is unnerving; there are very few heroes and most of the individuals that we are given access to are almost thoroughly dehumanized: such "bravery" and "compassion" as exist can be understood only in minimal terms. The issue is survival, which is something of a paradox as hardly anyone will survive--and everyone in the Lager knows this. Levi, himself "a helpless and exhausted slave," [1] barely manages, through a mixture of luck and resourceful improvisation, to stay alive until the camp is liberated. The style of the book can be adequately summarized by one of Levi's own descriptions of his approach to writing non-fiction: "Writing abo ut things seen is easier than inventing, and less joyful. It is writing-describing: you have a trail, you dig into your close or distant memories, put the specimens in order (if you have a talent for it), catalogue them, then you pick up a kind of mental camera and snap: you can be a mediocre, good or even 'artistic' photographer ... but in every case you are guided, held hand by the facts, you have ground under your feet." [2]

Survival in Auschwitz exemplifies Levi's Zola-like, taxonomical approach to character, and exhibits precisely the kind of zoological perspective that Levi describes above. The book has been widely read and has become, like Wiesel's Night, one of the canonical and much taught works of Holocaust literature.

The quality that sets Survival in Auschwitz apart from other texts seems to be its aura of restraint. Levi has been commended for his meticulous and "objective" portrayal or "cataloguing" of concentration camp types, both inmates and guards, and praised for his "lack of self pity," "muted passion," and so on. Survival in Auschwitz is a powerful text, surprising in its honesty and perhaps even more so for the balanced register that its author is able to maintain while reporting atrocity. Sometimes, however, one gets the sense that Levi's tendency to classify rather than judge character is covering or shielding deep feelings that are not being expressed. This subtle discomforting sense, that Levi is perhaps too muted, too free of anger, too taxonomical, and too much in favor of letting the facts speak for themselves (which, of course, they do!) is endorsed when we read Levi's later work, in particular The Drowned and the Saved where many readers were surprised to discover the emergence of an uncharacteristic r age. [3] From this perspective we may have to entertain the unhappy notion that the popularity of Survival in Auschwitz may be partially accounted for by the fact that it spares us the full horror. Our narrator emerges from the Lager with his exemplary generous human spirit intact. Of course, we would not want Levi to be broken and impaired but the equanimity suggested by the narrative register in Survival in Auschwitz seems almost too good to be true. …

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