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“Of all the intellectually-gifted artists of this century – and Levi’s uniqueness is that he is even more the artist-chemist than the chemist-writer – he may well be the most thoroughly adapted to the totality of the life around him. Perhaps in the case of Primo Levi, a life of communal interconnectedness, along with his masterpiece on Auschwitz, constitutes his profoundly civilised and spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his every sustained connection and tear him and his kind out of history.”

— Philip Roth, The London Review of Books

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.
Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.

In a recent piece for The Times Literary Supplement, Ian Thomson has reviewed Penguin’s new three-volume collection of Primo Levi‘s Complete Works in English. Thomson praises the work of Ann Goldstein, the editor who oversaw the new translations (including one revision) over the course of fifteen years. He also takes time to acknowledge the power of Goldstein’s own translation, which bring “Levi’s formidably concise Italian into a transparent and bracingly spare English”.

Thomson, the author of Primo Levi: A Life, offers a number of fascinating insights into the character and sensibility of the late writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor (including a note on Levi’s distaste for the term “Holocaust”). Readers of Franz Kafka will be interested to learn that Levi attempted to translate the Prague writer in the early 1980s, and found the experience deeply unsettling:

“In his essay ‘Translating Kafka’, included in Volume Three, Levi relates how his translation of The Trial in 1982 left him more terribly involved than he could have imagined. Originally he had hoped to improve his German, but found only bleakness in Josef K., who is arrested for a crime he probably did not commit. Levi wonders in the essay if he has any ‘affinity’ at all with Kafka. Yet the more he immersed himself in the work of ‘St Franz of Prague’, the more he saw uncomfortable parallels. Kafka lived an unremarkable life as an insurance clerk in Prague, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents; Levi believed he was similarly constricted in his own life as the manager of a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of a grotesque bureaucratically structured system foreshadowed by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had ‘astounding clairvoyance’, Levi comments, to have looked so accurately into the future.”

Victor Brombert discusses how literature reflects changing ideas about life, death, and the condition of mortality
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
Victor Brombert, Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

What motivated you to write the book?

Probably it was an early childhood and adolescent awareness of our mortal condition, of human vulnerability in general: the death in infancy of my younger sister (I was seven years old), the assault on human life and dignity by totalitarian regimes that forced families like mine into multiple exiles, and later the experience of war and the Nazi occupation of France, our escape to the United States on an overcrowded freighter zigzagging for six weeks across the Atlantic to elude German U-boats, my joining the American army and surviving the Omaha Beach landing and the Battle of the Bulge — perhaps above all the growing belief that all valuable human achievements, especially in literature and the arts, were a defiance of death.

Your subtitle traces a history between Leo Tolstoy and Primo Levi. What is significant about these two writers?

It is a long trajectory between Tolstoy and Primo Levi. The distance and the contrast tell a story. Whereas Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych is concerned with an exemplary individual, his morally and spiritually empty life, and his ultimate salvational epiphany at the hour of death, Primo Levi by contrast is dealing with a collective moral and political context in which private salvation is no longer thinkable. The trajectory as well as the authors along the way tell the story of the 20th century as that of a growing awareness of a collective tragedy. (more…)

A new historical novel watches the rise of Nazism through the eyes of Sigmund Freud and a boy from the country
Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist
Robert Seethaler, The Tobacconist

Can you imagine getting dating advice from Freud? This is one of the conceits of Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, recently published by Picador in a translation by Charlotte Collins. The novel is a coming-of-age story about Franz, a seventeen-year-old boy who leaves his rural town to become a tobacconist’s apprentice in Vienna in the 1930s. As the naïve young Franz is dazzled by the lights and stimulations of the modern city, Dr Freud appears as a customer in the small tobacco shop where he works. They strike up cigars and conversation, and speculate on love, life, and a rapidly-changing world.

Seethaler rose to prominence with A Whole Life (2014), a novel shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Praised by Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, the text explored the influence of modernity and the Second World War on traditional ways of life. Seethaler’s interest in this theme persists in The Tobacconist, where what begins as a whimsical tale shifts gear into a novel exploring the rise of fascism in Austria. The forces of history push Franz towards maturity, and he transitions from a wide-eyed witness to tragic commentator on antisemitism, political violence, and populist rhetoric. (more…)

A new fully-illustrated volume offers a fascinating portrait of Austria’s most significant post-war writer
Thomas Bernhard, 3 Days: From the Film By Ferry Radax (Blast Books, 2016)
Thomas Bernhard, 3 Days: From the Film By Ferry Radax (Blast Books, 2016)

In the summer of 1970, experimental filmmaker Ferry Radax arranged to meet with the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Over the course of three days, Radax recorded the writer amid the pleasant surroundings of a park in Hamburg. For readers familiar with Bernhard’s work, the setting was incongruous: his novels Frost (1963), Gargoyles (1967) and The Lime Works (1970) portray dark, grotesque landscapes of murder, ignorance, and obsession. As Bernhard himself admits, ‘I am hardly a cheery author’. And yet, in such bright and affable settings, Radax manages to capture a revealing portrait of the writer George Steiner called ‘the foremost craftsmen of German prose after Kafka and Musil.’

Blast Books, an independent publisher in New York, has taken a great deal of care to adapt Radax’s film, entitled 3 Days, into a book. The beautifully presented hardback volume includes Thomas Bernhard’s own reflections on Radax’s film, and a fully-illustrated record of the documentary translated from the German by Laura Lindgren. Also included is a critical afterword by film scholar Georg Vogt, and a fully-illustrated appendix of Radax’s notes for the filmmaking. The book makes considered use of space, word, and image to capture the spirit of Radax’s documentary, and the rhythms and emphasis of Bernhard’s monologues. (more…)

Joseph Anderton’s compelling new study explores the role of creaturely life in Beckett’s post-war prose and drama

Joseph Anderton, Beckett's Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Joseph Anderton, Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016)
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Samuel Beckett volunteered with the Irish Red Cross on the European continent. With a strong grasp several languages, the writer was assigned the role of driver and translator in the devastated Normandy city of Saint-Lô. During this time, while still stationed in the city, Beckett submitted a record of his experiences to Ireland’s national broadcaster, Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ). It was entitled ‘The Capital of the Ruins’. This unaired report on a landscape of wounded civilian casualties and collapsed buildings is the starting point for Joseph Anderton’s compelling new study, Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust. [Read More]

This is an excerpt from a review of Joseph Anderton’s Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure After the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016), published in Studies in Theatre and Performance(October, 2016).

Interweaving wartime footage with haunting images of abandoned concentration camps, Alain Resnais’ breakthrough was one of the first films to confront the ravages of the Holocaust. (Source:The Criterion Current)

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“Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize winner, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan at the age eighty-seven. Best known for Night, an autobiographical account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps toward the end of World War II, Wiesel, “more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience,” wrote the New York Times.”

More at The Paris Review.