Thursday, 15 February 2007

Reading Difficult Things

As I hinted before, I'm currently reading some Primo Levi. During the last ten years or so I must have read over two thousand pages of history concerning the Nazi regime and its atrocities. At first my reaction to it was a kind of dazzled horror - and I'd be lying if I said there was no fascination too. I was once asked by a patronising PGCE tutor whether I had heard of what the Nazis did to the Jews - the only question I think I've ever been enraged by. I don't know whether it is that I'm older, or that Primo Levi is such a different writer (only the third author I've read who has actually suffered in the camps) but my thoughts, reactions and feelings are now completely different. For a start I'm finding it (The Drowned and the Saved) extremely hard going. I'm averaging about 10 pages per sitting. It is the pained anger, the bafflement, the long, isolated memory that is so hard to read. This is neither historian nor novelist but a mixture of both, admitting as he does that he weaves his fallible memories into things he knows from outside. The ethics of his writing are just agonising for him - you can feel it: he knows there is no forgiveness, is utterly contemptuous of fashionable theories of victim/oppressor relationships, and most of all, he is tortured by an indefinable but strong sense that his survival, utterly contingent, means that he did not see the truth of the camps, and that some element of something he would rather not be, or have, enabled that survival.

Secondly most of the book is predicated on this experience being something most, if not all of his readers will literally be unable to imagine, even with practice. That it is a category of being utterly outside of his readers' view. There is a particularly memorable passage in which he struggles to define the pain of camp-hunger and seems - to me, shouting as he does so -to be flailing around in finding a comparison. There is the difficulty of interlocking the boredom and the terror and trying to find a way to explain that these were two halves of an existence, not totally different habits of mind or moments. As a reader this is much harder to read than an academic work, even one liberally interspersed with eyewitness accounts, because it drips from every page and every word. At no point can the reader relapse into a communication with someone who has also not experienced this, and thereby touch a common ground, as I find I can reading (say) Martin Gilbert (utterly painful though a lot of that is too).

Finally, reading it now, one knows that the author took his own life not too long after completing the book. This always gives a work itself a different complexion and makes it a matter of discipline not to jump to neat conclusions (I'm especially guilty of this, as a fan of Sylvia Plath and Joy Division). It also layers more tragedy onto a work that throws its hands up in despair and confusion as it is written.

By way of a conclusion, the single most striking passage, and the one that resonates with me, as a coward and a doubter: Levi recounts facing another selection, knowing that if he looks even a little too weak to work he will be sent to the gas chamber that day, considers offering up a prayer. But with death more than likely imminent, he realises he cannot change the rules of his life, and cheat both himself and the deity, should it exist.


Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Yes, I have studied the works of Primo Levi and they are certainly disturbing and challenging. As you say, when you read them KNOWING that he took his own life that is bound to change your reading of them. But he is a wonderful writer, don't you think? Have you read André Schwartz-Bart's "The Last of the Just"? This work truly changed my life with regard to how I view racism - ie, here I learnt how easily it begins and how it grows if we do not immediately challenge it - and it is the only work I have studied regarding this era which I believe is on a par with Levi's.

james higham said...

That's some pretty heady stuff you've taken on, TD.

Steve_Roberts said...

I very much enjoy Levi's short stories based on his technical career - in The Wrench' and 'The Periodic Table'. He was a wonderful author

The Tin Drummer said...

He is a great writer but I've missed those stories - I'll have to get hold of them.

The Tin Drummer said...

WL, I don't know that work either! But that's another for the list. I find Levi a wonderful writer but in a profoundly difficult way - like Kuznetsov, with "Babi Yar".