The Auschwitz memoir of Primo Levi is the obvious counterpart to this literary phenomenon in that this text exemplifies the legal style of a well-written affidavit,1 even though Levi’s memoir is not designed to function as a deposition. The contrast is worth careful examination. The truth is that it is difficult not to refer to Levi in a critical appraisal of Wiesel’s work. The two men stand together in their class apart. Is it even possible to put our finger on what is proper to Wiesel without keeping Levi’s memoir within reach? The point of comparison, for our purposes, can be brought out clearly enough by restricting our attention to just one short sample passage from Se questo è un uomo, namely Chapter 16, ‘The Last One,’ an example in which the entire genius of his memoirist’s craft is distilled into a pure compound, namely the evocation of the ‘horror of Auschwitz’ in the description of the clever construction of a modular broom. Levi fondly remembers the industrious enterprise as his ‘little baby.’2
I knew that the Blockältester of 44 was short on brooms, and I stole one in the yard; this much was nothing extraordinary. The difficulty was to smuggle the broom into the Lager during the return march, and I solved this in a manner I believe to be unprecedented: I dismembered the prize into broom-head and handle, sawing the latter into two pieces, carrying the various articles separately into camp (the two sections of the handle tied to my thighs, inside my pants), and re-assembling the whole thing in the Lager, for which I had to find a piece of sheet metal, a hammer and nails to reconnect the two sticks. The transfer took only four days.
Contrary to what I feared, the customer not only did not devaluate my broom, but showed it around as a curiosity to a number of his friends, who gave me a regular order for two other brooms ‘of the same model.’
The short passage, except for the two German terms Blockältester and Lager connecting it to the wider setting of the memoir, reads like a technical brochure. This of course is a deliberate literary technique from which the passage derives its absolute horror, namely the way that Auschwitz is swept out of the way and into the margins of the page along with any possible generic term—beginning with the term ‘horror’ itself—that might be called upon to designate the category under which the proper name Auschwitz might be subsumed. The fact that Levi generally prefers to evoke Auschwitz without naming it rather than to invoke it by name, is, no less than in the case of Wiesel, if not considerably more so, a matter of studied principle. As Levi himself explains in a later appendix, the ultimate motive behind the literary technique, a motive he shares with someone like Simon Wiesenthal, is justice, justice.
Precisely from this motive, when writing this book [Se questo è un uomo], I deliberately assumed the calm and sober language of a witness, neither the lamenting one of the victim nor the irate one of the avenger. I thought that my word would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded impassioned; only in this way does a witness before justice fulfill his function, which is to prepare the ground for the judge. You are the judges.3
This theoretical literary protocol, as we can see from the example of the broom, does somewhat overestimate, or perhaps underestimate, the actual praxis of writing in at least one way. Levi is not completely free of inappropriate courtroom habits. The phrase ‘of the same model’ is a good example. Levi’s dell’arte application of a naturally good sense of humour to a situation that is basically humourless is based on a writing code that stipulates memoirization as a premeditated act of re-membering an utter dismemberment like the one operative in Auschwitz by means of an adhesive medium of humour. (That such an intrepid sense of humour comes easily to the Italian temperament, judging from Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze, or more recently Benigni’s La vita è bella, is not implausible; any more than that Wiesel’s temperament shows symptoms of having inhaled that rain-and-cigarettes air of Montmartre semble triste and the over-agonized Harlequinism of Marcel Marceau, who for more than one reason, after all, might have been the less outspoken doppelganger of Wiesel.) This sense of humour is something that Levi cannot rein in from overruning his stated program of ‘calm and sober language.’ It belongs in fact among the venerable rhetorical techniques of the barrister’s art. Where Wiesel remains the plaintiff of Auschwitz, Levi takes pains to adopt the stiff limitations on style required of a prosecuting attorney. The double function of the prosecutor’s dry humour is to make a case while respectfully stepping back from the autonomous emotional and mental room the judges require in order to make up their own minds. ‘You are the judges,’ as Levi says to his readers, the emphasis being on ‘you’ (I giudici siete voi).4 A dry jest like the description of the makeshift Auschwitz broom as a ‘model’ in high demand within the Auschwitz economy is not without manipulative force. But within the context of a deposition, the manipulation at least lies perfectly exposed and transparent. Really it is the mark of a gentleman’s politesse and a compliment to the reader’s intelligence; while to an unintelligent reader, it is illegible and of no consequence. It may be worth recalling that the great master of this gentlemanly literary technique was Kafka. He probably remains the greatest of the masters because of the extraordinary authorial generosity whereby he is able to go so far as to openly acknowledge the very artifice of his own politesse toward the reader by adding one more obfuscating layer to the masquerade, namely a humour so hermetically dry that one is tempted by one’s own fears to see in Kafka, not the purest quintessential comedy stretched high above the four sublunar elements of the small worlds that he creates in his stories, a comedy thus purified of any point of reference within the story itself if not purified of laughter itself, but, instead, something merely magically eerie and bizarre, a mundane lunacy often just barely legible and of little consequence. And, who knows, Levi might well have been the single greatest disciple of Kafka if only the little world of Auschwitz had not preemptively cheated him of his most perfect metaphors by instead imposing them upon his person as realities. Here we touch the point where the art meets the artist. As the content of the memoir itself reveals, Levi’s sense of humour did not exactly begin with the work of memoirization. The impulse within the memoir that jokingly remembers the broom as a fine ‘model,’ as a yet unpublished bit of ‘research and development’ (inedito), is continuous with that feat of engineering that produced the broom in the first place, as well as with the sociable readiness to share an entrepreneurial excitement with other inmates (‘… that we have new things to talk about is no negligible gain’.5) Primo Levi’s literary advantage over Wiesel, in short, which appears to be rooted in a certain ‘Italian’ buoyancy capable of bracketing out and dimming down the metaphysical grandeur of Auschwitz in order to allow for a quotidian concern with a broom, is what shows up again as a second buoyancy in the engineering of words from memories and the evocation of Auschwitz by means of a broom, which gives Auschwitz room to manifest itself as a horizon circumscribing his immediate theme rather than as the theme itself. Again, an evocation is what is operative here;6 to which we will have occasion to see a correlative provocation. The horror of Auschwitz is legible in the broom much more than in the horror. Precisely the studied chiaroscuro in which the broom gleams forth as a happy tool within an inviting narrative that presents it in a typical adequatio epistemic does Auschwitz suddenly open up in the reader’s peripheral vision as the dark ‘clearing’ enveloping the broom.
All of this is the mark of Levi’s vital atheism. Mind, it is not the anti-theism that gives classical tragedy its yes-saying attitude to a life of suffering ordained by the gods, such as Prometheus defiant refusal to apologize for his misdemeanours to the godfather mafioso in charge of Olympus. Where Prometheus draws his heroic endurance from an absolute disrespect for Zeus, Levi’s buoyancy—and this must be the precise term for one in whose memory those who did not survive appear as i sommersi, ‘the drowned,’ ‘the submerged’—leaves myth and metaphysics altogether behind in order to focus on filling its lungs to capacity, and thus remain afloat, with a narrow-minded Pharisaic interest in the little issues of daily existence. A proper genealogy of this buoyant approach to life would have to acknowledge the rabbinic mindset hidden in its ancestry.7 The famous stubbornness of the Jew, which is really synonymous with his ability to find something interesting to do even in hell, was not cultivated within a bourgeois spiritualism. The fact that Levi designates himself as an atheist matters little as a counter-indication to this.8 We see in Levinas, for instance, how profitable and even how downright indispensable the word ‘atheism’ can be for surviving, and for salvaging a little ‘faith’ from, all the obnoxious theological approaches to Auschwitz.
All of which brings us to our literary point of comparison with Wiesel. In some ways, Wiesel is closer to Prometheus and the titan’s metaphysical outrage. Yet the atheism that tragedy places at centre-stage as its heroic theme is never a serious option for Wiesel. Even in the Yiddish deposition, we find sentences, paradoxical as they are bitter, such as: ‘God … I have given up believing in His existence. However, in conjunction with this, I have continued to believe in His malice.’9 How far such furious ‘atheism’ stands from the unthematized and hence, by comparison, merely perfunctory atheism of Levi’s buoyancy! Thus Wiesel comes to the task of writing, this highly defined task of ‘writing the disaster,’ by comparison with both Aeschylus and Primo Levi, with miserably few literary resources at hand and in fact with both hands tied behind his back. One might well ask how under such conditions he could not make a fool of himself. He is constrained to grope about inwardly for gaudy, technicolour, over-stated garments to cover up his unseemly sentiments and cogitations.
How then can the writing of Wiesel be fairly evaluated within the categories of literary criticism, if extra-literary factors seem to necessarily cramp the literary style? The question itself can be sharpened by an examination of two cadavers produced within Wiesel’s text. The portrait of the first cadaver serves to illustrate the conspicuous mediocrity of this type of literary effort. The portrait of the second will then serve to negate the effect of the first, not its mediocrity as literature, but by placing in the reflection of a silver-backed question mark the value of literature altogether. The examination of these two cadavers should illustrate the wide divide between the Yiddish deposition of 1956 and its 1958 French reconfiguration as a memoir.