A Portrait Talks Back

By Gordon, Robert S. C. | The Spectator, May 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Portrait Talks Back


Gordon, Robert S. C., The Spectator


SPEAK YOU ALSO by Paul Steinberg, translated by Linda Coverdale with Bill Ford Allen Lane/ Penguin L9.99, pp. 176, ISBN 0713995408

Like Philip Roth in The Counterlife or Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry, but with more qualms, Primo Levi was acutely aware of the problems visited by the autobiographical artist on the real people traduced by his art. In his remarkable narratives and essays about Auschwitz, Levi changed names, asked for permission from those whose stories he wanted to tell, or discreetly waited for their deaths before telling them. And yet he knew he would still offend, that no one ever quite sees themselves in others' portraits of them. Paul Steinberg's powerful and at times scathing book, Speak You Also (first published in France in 1996 before his death in 1999), a memoir of 15 months spent in Auschwitz, is a direct product of this literary form of kidnap, a reply to Levi's portrait of him as a young man overeager to survive.

In Levi's 1947 work, If This is a Man, perhaps the greatest of all Holocaust memoirs, there is a chapter entitled `The Drowned and the Saved' (a title he would, of course, use again, 40 years later, for his last book on the Holocaust). In it, Levi divides the concentration-camp victims into two extreme types: the drowned - those degraded beyond all will to live - and the saved - those obscurely gifted with an innate disposition to struggle and survive. Most of the latter died all the same, of course, but a handful survived. Paul Steinberg, renamed Henri by Levi, was one of these. Levi's masterly psychological sketch of Henri is poised on a knife edge between admiration and unease. Henri, he tells us, is young, clever, cultured, amiable and open. He knows all the angles and has a clear strategy for survival, which he expounds to all who will listen: play the system, make others feel sorry for you and, if all else fails, steal. He is always on the look-out for the next best move, builds networks of influential friends and uses people any which way he can even as he is being amiable. His humanity is hidden beneath a hard impenetrable shell. All this leaves Levi feeling ambivalent and strangely diminished. `Today I know that Henri is still alive. I would give a great deal to know about his life as a free man, but I have no wish to meet him again. …

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