quarta-feira, 22 de outubro de 2014
Surviving Auschwitz, Surrendering To Despair
By ANTHONY GRAFTON
By Ian Thomson
Illustrated. 583 pages. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $32.50
The first edition of Primo Levi's book on his time in Auschwitz, ''If This Is a Man,'' appeared in October 1947. Few trumpets sounded. Ian Thompson, whose 583-page biography, ''Primo Levi: A Life,'' traces the writing and publication of each of Levi's major books, comments dryly: ''In those days, books were expected to make their own way. There were no author interviews, no magazine profiles, no launch parties.''
Natalia Ginzburg, herself a major writer, had rejected the book at Einaudi, the publishing house that set the literary and intellectual tone in postwar Italy. Levi's publisher Franco Antonicelli did his best, but ''If This Is a Man'' received only a modest number of reviews and sold a mere 1,500 copies. Slowly, painfully, memory came back, in the countries that had killed, or betrayed, or simply ignored the Jews of Europe in the 1940's. Italians created a new literature and a new film, and Levi carved out a distinctive place for himself, producing a luminous account of his return from the camp, ''The Truce''; a daring, evocative book structured on the table of the elements, ''The Periodic Table''; and a set of scarifying meditations on the moral world of the camps, ''The Drowned and the Saved.'' Translations of ''If This Is a Man'' appeared in English and German, bringing Levi a vast range of responses from outside Italy.
By the early 1980's the literary establishments of the West realized that this industrial chemist from Turin was also one of the great European writers of the 20th century. The creator of a genre of his own -- a cross between the story and the essay, neither pure memoir nor pure fiction -- Levi brought a clear eye; a pure, lean prose; and an amazingly judicious habit of mind to bear on the anus mundi, Auschwitz, where he had learned that he and everyone else inhabited a gray zone in which the violence of captors and fellow prisoners alike leached away character and morality. He eventually became a celebrity, a canonical author in American universities, widely read in introductory surveys of world literature as well as in courses on the Holocaust.
Through all these triumphs, Levi suffered again and again from clinical depression. He lived a cramped, difficult life with his mother and wife, who did not get on, in the apartment where he was born. Retirement from the work as a chemist, which he had always enjoyed, brought little relief. In April 1987, in despair at the rise of Holocaust revisionism and his sense that his own faculties were fading, he apparently killed himself, jumping from the landing outside his apartment door.
How does one write the life of such a man? Mr. Thomson has done so with great -- perhaps too great -- respect, producing annals of a writer's life rather than an interpretation. He takes us through Levi's early years in Turin, an industrial city rooted in its own ways, famous for its distinctive dialect and foods (both dear to Levi). He traces the intricate genealogies that bound Levi to a large Jewish family, describes his career at school and university and follows him into the early, poorly organized Resistance unit that he joined in 1943. Betrayal and capture soon followed, and then the terrible journey to Auschwitz, where Levi spent a year and a half.
Still young, he came home in 1946, and Mr. Thomson devotes most of his book, which appeared last year in Britain, to Levi's double career, as industrial chemist and executive in a company that made paints and coatings during Italy's postwar economic rise, and as a writer about the Holocaust and many other things.
Brief, fact-packed sketches along the way illuminate the worlds that Levi inhabited: familial, scientific and literary. Clipped, lucid analyses highlight the sources from which he drew the ingredients of his art, from the literary drill he detested at school but which gave him the command of Dante that he portrayed so movingly in the Ulysses chapter of ''If This Is a Man,'' to the Darwinian analysis of nature that served as one of his models for analyzing life in the camps.
Mr. Thomson never pretends, as many biographers do, to know his subject better than he could. At times his discretion seems astounding, even admirable, as when he insists that Levi's many close relationships with women were asexual and refers to his subject consistently by his last name.
Mr. Thomson's reserve enables him to deal frankly with Levi's emotional struggles and personal shortcomings, while avoiding the modern biographer's overpowering temptations: to treat his main character as a moral inferior or a patient to be diagnosed.
Yet the accumulated facts sometimes take over and drive the narrative. Mr. Thomson interviewed Levi himself and a great many other people, from Levi's intimate friends to his hosts on junkets abroad. He chased every piece of paper to its final resting place in library or official file. And he spares the reader few of his findings.
No vacation at the beach or in the mountains goes unrecounted, as Mr. Thomson follows his quarry up and down the mountains, to the ocean and back, to dinner and home, telling us what was eaten and drunk and even what sort of apartment his other characters lived in. Unlike Levi, Mr. Thomson has not imposed an artistic shape on the mass of personal and historical experience that he surveys.
Michael Holroyd and Hermione Lee, those master biographers, have shown that this much-abused genre can shed light not only on individuals, but also on the worlds they inhabited, like Bloomsbury, the habitat of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. Naturally Mr. Thomson makes no effort to rival Levi in describing life and death at Auschwitz.
But he could have described the Turin that Levi came from as an intellectually exciting city, bursting with politically engaged and cosmopolitan intellectuals. Those who survived Fascism, invasions and civil war did much to create the spectacular postwar revival of Italian culture.
Both Primo Levi and Carlo Levi -- the painter (unrelated) who wrote another of the great, shocking books of postwar Italy, ''Christ Stopped at Eboli'' -- sparked critical reflection on Fascism and the war in Italy, at a time when debate was much more muted elsewhere. Did this have something to do with the particular Piedmontese world from which they were torn into their radically different exiles?
Mr. Thomson could have asked questions like these, and offered more detailed answers, without demeaning his subject. By doing so he could have made his book not only a chronicle of one man's life, but a larger inquiry -- of the sort that occupied Levi himself -- into the ways in which a particular society shapes minds and souls.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 13:42