August 1, 2008


Italian author (and chemist) Primo Levi, who was an Auschwitz survivor, wrote in his novel, The Truce:

[And] a dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals. It is a dream within a dream, varied in detail, one in substance. I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends, or at work, or in the green countryside; in short, in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat. And in fact, as the dream proceeds, slowly and brutally, each time in a different way, everything collapses, and disintegrates around me, the scenery, the walls, the people, while the anguish becomes more intense and more precise. Now everything has changed into chaos; I am alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command, of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, "Wstawàch."

We all have our own personal 'Wstawàch' that keep us awake at night!

Also, I did not know that Primo Levi apparently committed suicide (although I read somewhere else that there was some uncertainty about it also.) This is not surprising since I have not read much about him or his writing, except for reading his book of short stories, Periodic Table, in the 1990s. (In fact, buying books in sales, I had somehow ended up with two copies of the book. I was taking one of the copies - almost new - as a gift for one of my friends in India earlier this year and briefly took it out of my bag on the flight and seem to have forgotten it on the plane.)

In fact, I just learned that Primo Levi left behind an unfinished book, which remains unpublished, which was intended as a sequel to The Periodic Table, which...

... takes the form of letters written by a chemist to a woman whom he is instructing in basic chemistry. Levi titled the book Il doppio legame, which can mean either "the double bond" or "the double bind"; the first term from chemistry, the second term from psychology. The double bond is the way in which organic molecules attach to each other: they connect "at two or even more points, making possible richer but also less stable combinations." The double bind Angier defines as "a crippling conflict between contradictory or unfulfillable requirements, which you can neither escape nor win."

Due to its disturbing nature, I have for the most part kept away from Holocaust memoirs. Having just read Viktor Frankl's Man's search for meaning, I wonder if I should read Levi's Aushwitz memoir: If This Is a Man, which has been described as one of the most important works of the twentieth century although it hardly gathered much attention when initially published:

Publishing can be a brutal game of chance. When, in 1947, Primo Levi had finished If This Is a Man , he found only rejection slips and disillusion. Then at last the house of Antonicelli took him up. But Levi's haunting story of Auschwitz was released almost simultaneously with The Path to the Nest of Spiders, Italo Calvino's buoyant tale of partisan revolt.

Two young and brilliant Italian writers, two accounts of war remembered: Levi and Calvino were reviewed together and sold together. Immediately, the upbeat Calvino, feeling good about the new Italy, had his bestseller. The horror of the Holocaust seemed somehow out of time, too near to confront. It would be a decade before one of the great books of the twentieth century was reissued and seen across the world for what it was.

Such are the vagaries of publishing and life. A great book has great trouble finding a publisher but becomes a classic a couple decades later. A man somehow survives the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp but takes his own life four decades later

And so it goes!

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