kafka-manuscript-thetrial

“In 1983, the publisher Einaudi asked [Primo] Levi to translate Kafka’s The Trial. Infinite interpretations of The Trial have been offered; some underline the novel’s prophetic political character (modern bureaucracy as absolute evil) or its theological dimension (the court as the unknown God) or its biographical meaning (condemnation as the illness from which Kafka believed himself to suffer). It has been rarely noted that this book, in which law appears solely in the form of trial, contains a profound insight into the nature of law, which, contrary to common belief, is not so much rule as it is judgment and, therefore, trial. But if the essence of the law – of every law – is the trial, if all right (and morality that is contaminated by it) is only tribunal right, then execution and transgression, innocence and guilt, obedience and disobedience all become indistinct and lose their importance. “The court wants nothing from you. It welcomes you when you come; it releases you when you go.” The ultimate end of the juridical regulation is to produce judgment; but judgment aims neither to punish not to extol, nether to establish justice nor to prove the truth. Judgment is in itself the end and this, it has been said, constitutes its mystery, the mystery of the trial.”

— Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive.

Primo Levi, Turin, 1985
Primo Levi, Turin, 1985

“In countries and epochs in which communication is impeded, soon all other liberties wither; discussion dies by inanition, ignorance of the opinion of others becomes rampant, imposed opinions triumph.”

— Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved

“Intolerance leads to censure, and censorship increases ignorance of other people’s reasons and thus intolerance: it is a rigid vicious circle that is hard to break.”

— Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (trans. Michael F. Moore)

I rise at 6am, and spend the early hours writing, reading, and drinking hot tea.

I am reading Primo Levi’s The Truce, an account of his long journey home after the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The chemist has a close eye for detail, and describes people’s actions with clarity and economy. His work is relevant for its account (and analysis) of historical injustice, but feels more so during these times.

Experimenting with black and white photography, and pleased with the results. Since I capture images using a phone camera, quality can be a concern in poor weather or dim lighting. But I find that in black and white photography these conditions are not a hindrance, but work to one’s advantage. The results are always interesting and sometimes beautiful. A dark and blurry portrait resembles a canvas painted with broad strokes.

There is a juvenile Eurasian coot living in a nearby canal. It was born much later than the others, and its family has not yet flown south for the winter.

primo-levi-philip-roth

“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…)

Tim Parks (NYRB) reviews the Complete Works of writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi
Primo Levi was born in 1919 on the fourth floor of an “undistinguished” apartment block in Turin and aside from “involuntary interruptions” continued to live there in the company of his mother until in 1987 he threw himself down the stairwell to his death. The longest interruption was from September 1943 to October 1945 and would provide Levi with the core material for his writing career: it involved three months on the fringe of the partisan resistance to the German occupation, two months in a Fascist internment camp, eleven months in Auschwitz, and a further nine in various Russian refugee camps.

(more…)