THE Mt. Rushmore of Holocaust remembrance offers a range of iconic faces: the precocious Anne Frank, the devilish Jerzy Kosinski, the owlish Aharon Appelfeld and the mournful Elie Wiesel. Yet, despite being set in stone, the one face that defies easy description belongs to the inscrutable Primo Levi.
No other writer of atrocity has displayed so many disparate, discordant moods, from the painfully brooding to the improbably life-affirming, from the clinically detached to the intimately familiar. Unlike the other bedfellows of Holocaust memory cast in bedrock, Levi’s face remains more sphinx than founding father.
After all, Levi, a chemist transformed through the alchemy of Auschwitz into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, wrote memoirs, essays, poems, short stories and one novel. Yet, for much of his life he remained the director of a paint factory. And while he excelled at so many literary trades, he confounded readers with a vast array of untraceable literary themes.
Levi’s first and best-known book, his memoir “Survival in Auschwitz” (which in Europe was titled “If This Is a Man”), seemed to be written by a different man than the one who wrote the novel “If Not Now, When?” The memoir was a tersely cool rendering of the Auschwitz taxonomy. The novel was a more expansive and emotional portrait of partisans fighting in the forest.
Indeed, there have been several elusive Primo Levis, all writers, but none the same. His memoirs were obsessively observant, as if written by a scientist and not a survivor. Levi’s poems, by contrast, were dark speculations on the inner depths of man, the rage of the survivor simmering, unmistakably, above the surface. Dante, who wrote about a less earthly hell than Auschwitz, was an obvious influence. Levi’s essays took yet another detour by proclaiming more hopeful possibilities for man. In still another about-face, Levi’s fiction offered whimsy, fantasy and even romance.
And on top of all of these mysteries and contradictions is the greatest of them all: Twenty years ago, on April 11, Levi, suffering from depression and writer’s block, took his own life without leaving a note of explanation. This final, wordless coda left a void in world literature. And the effect on Italy was even worse. Levi was a national treasure, a symbol of what the nation had lost during World War II -- an avuncular, dignified presence in a world that didn’t deserve it. So great and unimaginable was the grief that, to this day, many Italians maintain that Levi’s fall from his apartment landing to the ground floor was an accident, not a suicide.
Now, to commemorate the inauspicious anniversary of Levi’s death, comes “A Tranquil Star,” a collection of 17 stories, translated into English for the first time by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli. Though Levi had written poems and stories before he was deported to Auschwitz in 1943, these were written, and many were published in Italian journals, after his liberation.
Reading “A Tranquil Star” is not unlike wishing upon one. Each story is a Rorschach test of literary voyeurism. Do they leave any clues about the psychology of this particular writer, the one who eventually took his own life despite fooling his readers into thinking that he was a life-affirming optimist? The stories are breathtaking in their breadth of offerings, yet Levi’s clarity of voice is consistently offset by his familiar misdirection.
“The Death of Marinese” involves a captured partisan who detonates a grenade from the belt of a Nazi, taking his own life and that of four Nazis with him. “Knall” is about an invention that looks like a harmless toy but has been casually embraced as an instrument of death. “In the Park” introduces a national park that is a fantasy world of famous literary characters, including Holden Caulfield, Leopold Bloom and Alexander Portnoy. More fantastical elements occur in some of the later stories such as “The Magic Paint,” which features a paint that wards off evil. And there is even romance: “The Girl in the Book” features an older man’s lust for a mysterious woman at a seaside villa.
Notably absent are any overtly Jewish or Holocaust-related themes. Indeed, the stories in no way suggest that they were written by a Jewish writer at all, not to mention one who had survived Auschwitz. Except for two. In “One Night,” a train lumbering through a vernal, nameless landscape halts in the middle of a long expanse of isolated train tracks only to be met by a group of villagers. They proceed not only to dismantle the beams and girders of the train but also the tracks. It is a disturbingly creepy story that screams Holocaust without announcing itself as such. And in the title story, a worried astronomer contemplates the possible explosion of a long-dormant star. But in language almost identical to that in “Survival in Auschwitz,” the astronomer ponders the limitations of language when forced to describe the unimaginable, the very freaks and accidents of nature that defy human comprehension.
This collection is a noble literary achievement. And yet, it still remains impossible to evaluate Levi on the basis of literary merit alone. Given what he endured and witnessed, we are mesmerized by his powers of observation, but we also know that his vision was forever obscured, refracted through the prism of the ungodly prison he had survived.
The scientist and writer, co-inhabiting the body of a Holocaust survivor, were ultimately in conflict with each other. The scientist experimented with various literary genres but made certain not to become captive to a particular formula. The survivor wrote precisely, but varyingly, while the chemist ultimately proved too mercurial for his own good. If Levi’s readers were looking to crack the code to what it meant to survive a death camp, they were destined to sift through many writerly smokescreens and obstacle courses to human understanding. “Survival in Auschwitz” wasn’t the definitive manual. Levi kept his readers guessing and ended up one of the Holocaust’s true rock stars.
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