The Drowned and the Saved - Primo Levi (Italian)
Of the three other books I’ve read by Levi, this is the first that deals with the ten months he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz. I tend to avoid that subject. Levi, on the other hand, could not avoid it – it was the central experience in his life. Some of what he writes will be hard for survivors of the death camps to accept; he questions the veracity of their memories (his included) and writes that “the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators, the spies.” But dehumanized people – and in his analytical way Levi describes the process by which human beings were systematically reduced to animals – are not noble or brave or generous. Especially if they’re in a state of constant fear, hunger, exhaustion. For perpetuating the worst crime known to man Levi condemns not only those authorities who carried out Hitler’s agenda, but also the German civilians who were alive at the time. In the book’s last section he provides excerpts of letters he received from Germans after the publication of Survival in Auschwitz in Germany (it was written in 1947 but not translated into German until 1961). Though he had shown how fear ruled the lives of those imprisoned in the camps, he rejects the claim by Germans that they refrained from any form of resistance due to fear of retribution; he finds the silent (often complacent, in his opinion) onlookers also culpable. Levi died a year after the publication of this book. A coroner deemed his death a suicide, a conclusion that some dispute. What is known is that he fell three stories from the interior landing of his apartment house. Days before his death he had complained to his physician of dizziness. But there must have been a railing on the landing; surely the coroner took into consideration its height to determine if someone could have accidentally toppled over it. At any rate, I don’t think it was healthy for Levi to retire from his job as a chemist; when he devoted full time to writing he had one tormenting subject that he had to revisit. He tried to turn to others – notably (and quite successfully) in The Monkey’s Wrench – but he wasn’t a novelist. In The Drowned and the Saved he writes that a reason which would justify his survival is that he could bear witness. But, he notes, “. . . the thought that this testifying of mine could by itself gain for me the privilege of surviving and living for many years without serious problems troubles me because I cannot see any proportion between the privilege and its outcome.” I have a photo of Levi taken in the summer of 1986 (he died in April, 1987). He’s sitting at his desk, looking over his typewriter at the camera. I can use only one word to describe his expression: desolate. On the pages of his final book there are many references to suicide. And to survivor’s guilt. Ultimately, no one escapes Auschwitz.
The Hermit – Eugene Ionesco (French)
This “novel” is a conceptual mistake in which Ionesco mixes two distinct modes of writing. There’s the story of a man who retires from his job after coming into an inheritance; he moves to a new apartment, begins to settle in, etcetera. Though this unnamed narrator is able to interact with others, he’s solitary and idle – a bad combo – and is prone to anxiety attacks, which he turns to alcohol to ease. I found the account of the man’s daily existence to be fairly interesting. But we also get a heavy dose of his musings on life, death and the Meaning of It All. Or lack of meaning: he sees the world as an inexplicable void. A sample: “I would take on such dimensions that by occupying the entire space that one might refer to as existential, I would again find myself hard against the walls of the inconceivable.” As the book progressed this contemplative aspect took over and became bleak and frenzied; the man seemed to be going mad. But Ionesco had buried him under the weight of so much abstract thinking that I couldn’t relate to a human being. The Hermit was no longer a novel, and I was no longer a reader.
A World of Profit - Louis Auchincloss
There must be at least a few good novels among the thirty-two that Auchincloss wrote in his long life. This doesn’t happen to be one of them, and I won’t be embarking on a search for any winners. Not that Profit is bad – it’s a competent piece of writing, and I finished it. But I did so in a disengaged manner. I had high hopes in the beginning – there a was a plot, characters were developed, dialogue was lively. The first inklings of a problem had to do with motivation. The character’s emotions and actions didn’t ring true; they seemed to be playing roles in a contrived drama. I felt I was reading – for all its trappings of depth and intelligence – what amounted to the equivalent of a TV soap opera. The ending, in which all the dilemmas that had accumulated are left unresolved, wasn’t disappointing because I didn’t care very much about anyone. Auchincloss was born into a wealthy family, attended Groton and Yale, had a career at a prestigious New York law firm. (There’s an orderliness to his prose, probably an asset in composing a legal brief.) He draws from his background for his fictional subject matter, and I think his audience came mainly from the upper crust of society. He also produced over a dozen non-fiction works (the man was a compulsive writer); one is about Edith Wharton, who, like him, was a chronicler of the world of privilege. But in her best work she cared so deeply about her characters that they came alive for the reader. I wonder if Auchincloss realized what she possessed, and what he – at least in this novel – lacked.