“Yes, Here I Am”: Life and Fate’s Holocaust

Among other things, Life and Fate is an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust. The Holocaust touched Grossman personally. I’ve referred now a couple of times in these posts on the novel to his essay “The Hell of Treblinka.” Grossman was with the Red Army when it arrived at the former killing center, which the Germans had largely abandoned in 1943. His investigative journalism, including interviews with many of the local Poles, produced one of the earliest documents we have about the camps. But the Holocaust touched Grossman in a much more personal way. His mother was murdered in their hometown of Berdichev when the Germans invaded the Ukraine in the summer of 1941.

One of the novel’s most famous chapters contains the text of a letter from Anna Semyonovna, Viktor’s mother, to her son. Smuggled out just before the Berdichev ghetto is liquidated, the letter is a clear, careful, and enormously moving description of how quickly life turned upside down for the Jews of Ukraine in the summer of 1941. It is also Grossman’s homage to his mother; she was never able to send him anything comparable. Like his stand-in, Viktor, Grossman was plagued his whole life by guilt that he wasn’t able to get her to safety in Moscow before the German invasion.

The letter shows how fast life was overturned for the Jews of Berchidev. No sooner had the Germans arrived than many of the locals—even former friends and neighbours—feel emboldened to take over their apartments and steal their things. In a matter of days, the Germans announce the construction of a ghetto where all Jews are required to move. The ghetto is horrible—everyone hungry, sick, despairing. But it’s better than that brief period before. Anna concludes: “Now I’m no longer a beast deprived of rights—simply an unfortunate human being. And that’s easier to bear.”

Anna’s letter is filled with similar heartbreaking and pithy claims. “Nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto,” she writes. Anna describes herself seeing patients (she is an eye doctor) and saying “Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks” when the signs are clear they will all be murdered soon:

The Jews who were sent to dig potatoes are digging deep ditches four versts from the town, near the airfield, on the road to Romanovka. Remember that name, Vitya—that’s where you’ll find the mass grave where your mother is buried.

She imagines herself becoming nothing but a faint memory, imagines some of her non-Jewish neighbours saying: “‘And there was a doctor who used to sit there, beneath that old pear-tree—I can’t remember her surname but once I went to her to have my eyes treated. After she finished world she use to bring out a wickerwork chair and sit there with a book.’ Yes, Vitya, that’s how it will be.”

I defy anyone to read this chapter with a dry eye.

1280px-Jew_Killings_in_Ivangorod_(1942)

In addition to showing the complicity of the local population in the Nazi murder of Ukrainian Jews and daring to suggest that the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism were no so different, Grossman’s other big crime, as far as the Soviet authorities were concerned, was to assert that Jews suffered inordinately in the German invasion. That might seem obvious to us, but it was a brave, dangerous thing to say in the USSR in the 1950s. As translator Robert Chandler notes in his introduction, this was the time of the slogan “Do not divide the dead!” That is, all victims of fascism were supposed to be the same: all Soviets suffered together. Grossman challenges this orthodoxy in Life and Fate.

Indeed, one of the tragedies of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union is that many Jews there no longer or had never thought of themselves as Jewish. (This was true elsewhere in Europe too.) Viktor and his mother feel this way, as did Grossman himself. In a characteristically fine review of the novel, Adam Kirsch points out how Soviet modernity had transformed Jewish life, taking people out of the shtetls that persisted elsewhere in Eastern Europe (and in the USSR as well), bringing them to cities like Berdichev (prewar population 60,000, half of them Jewish), and allowing them access to all sorts of professions.

This transformation of Jewish life is evident in the novel. After being captured by the Germans outside Stalingrad, Sofya Levinton, an army doctor who is the other main Jewish character in the novel, is eventually deported to a concentration camp. In the cattle-car she studies her fellow prisoners and reflects on how the world of her childhood has changed:

The cattle-wagon was full of workers from different co-operatives, girls at teacher-training college, teachers from a school for trade unionists; there was a radio technician, an engineer who worked at a canned-food factory, a livestock expert, and a girl who worked as a vet. Previously, such professions had been unheard of in the shtetl.

As you can see from this example, the lists I discussed last time are present in the Holocaust sections of the book as well. Grossman uses them to show the enormous scope of Jewish persecution, as well as to remind readers that the Nazi-sponsored genocide affected Jews from across Europe and from all walks of life. In a powerful scene, Grossman depicts a meeting between (the fictional) SS Obersturmbannführer Liss and Adolf Eichmann, who reveals to him the plans for the Final Solution:

‘Can you give me some idea—just a rough estimate—of the number of Jews we’re talking about?’ …

Eichmann answered his question.

What?’ Liss gasped in astonishment. ‘Millions?’

Eichmann shrugged his shoulders.”

Riding in a limousine on the way to the meeting, Liss dreams of his future. Grossman interrupts his reverie with a kind of documentary overview of the coming destruction that is clearly not from Liss’s point of view:

Smolevichi [today in Belarus] is full of quiet little houses with gardens; grass grows on the pavements. In the slums of Berchidev there are dirty hens running around in the dust, their yellow legs marked with red and violet ink. In Kiev—on Vassilievskaya Avenue and in the Podol—there are tall buildings with dirty windows, staircases whose steps have been worn down by millions of children’s shoes and old men’s slippers.

In yards all over Odessa stand tall plane trees with peeling bark. Brightly-coloured clothes and linen are drying on the line. Pans of cherry jam are steaming on cookers. New-born babies with swarthy skin—skin that has yet to see the sun—are screaming in cradles.

On the six floors of a gaunt, narrow-shouldered building in Warsaw live seamstresses, book-binders, private tutors, cabaret-singers, students and watchmakers…

In Stalindorf [a Jewish agricultural colony in the Ukraine, established in 1924] people light fires in their huts in the evening. The wind blows from Perekop [on the isthmus between Ukraine and Crimea], smelling of salt and warm dust. Cows shake their heavy heads and moo…

In Budapest and Fastov [Ukraine], in Vienna, Melitopol [Ukraine] and Amsterdam, in detached houses with sparkling windows, in hovels swathed in factory smoke, lived people belonging to the Jewish nation.

The barbed wire of the camps, the clay of the anti-tank ditches and the walls of the gas ovens brought together millions of people of different ages, professions and languages, people with different material concerns and different spiritual belies. All of them—fanatical believers and fanatical atheists, workers and scroungers, doctors and tradesmen, sages and idiots, thieves, contemplatives, saints and idealists—were to be exterminated.

This passage is a good example of Grossman’s tendency to intersperse the narrative with little mini-essays or pieces of reportage (I gather Tolstoy does something similar with his writings on history in War & Peace). It’s also a clear statement of Jewish identity, really extraordinary given the ideological dreams and political realities of Soviet life.

Eventually, it becomes clear that Sofya not Victor is the novel’s main stand-in for the Jewish people. She is just as vivid, sympathetic, and moving a character as Viktor’s mother, Anna. Shortly after the passage I cited earlier about all the professions represented in the cattle-car, Sofya begins to think of herself as a member of a communal Jewish identity, addressing the others on the transport as Brider yidn (Fellow Jews). (Compare Anna: “But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with a maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before.”)

Many pages later, when Sofya and the others are forced into the gas chamber, we’re given a passage that moves from individual Jewish bodies to the collective body of the Jewish people, from corporeal to historical continuity:

When a man has no clothes on, he draws closer to himself. ‘God, the hairs on my chest are thicker and wirier than ever—and what a lot of grey!’ ‘How ugly my fingernails look!’ There’s only one thing a naked man can say as he looks at himself: ‘Yes, here I am. This is me!’ He recognizes himself and identifies his ‘I’, an ‘I’ that remains always the same. A little boy crosses his skinny arms over his bony chest, looks at his frog-like body and says, ‘This is me’; fifty years later he looks at a plump, flabby chest, at the blue, knotted veins on his legs and says, ‘This is me’.

But Sofya Levinton noticed something else. I was as though the body of a whole people, previously covered over by layers of rags, was laid bare in these naked bodies of all ages: the skinny little boy with the big nose over whom an old woman had shaken her head and said, ‘Poor little Hassid!’; the fourteen-year old girl who was admired even here by hundreds of eyes; the feeble and deformed old men and women who aroused everyone’s pitying respect; men with strong backs covered in hair; women with large breasts and prominently veined legs. It was as though she felt, not just about herself, but about her whole people: ‘Yes, here I am.’ This was the naked body of a people: young and old, robust and feeble, with bright curly hair and with pale grey hair.

The scholar Marat Grinberg—more from him next time!—has observed that Sofya here references the hineni (Here I am!) of Abraham’s response to God in the story of the Akedah, that is, the binding of Isaac. It’s amazing to see the secular, atheist, Communist Grossman, who grew up without a traditional Jewish education, cite this central moment from what might be the most powerful and puzzling story in all of Torah. It’s even harder to know how to understand this choice. Is Grossman suggesting, via the biblical allusion, that even in the hell of the camps God will somehow look out for, even validate Jewish suffering? What could that possibly mean? These people are about to be murdered—unlike in “The Hell of Treblinka,” where Grossman also imagines a scene in the gas chamber but pulls away at the last moment, as if to say the moment of the death is beyond representation, here he actually depicts the death of Sofya and the rest:

Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David [a little boy she cares for on the journey to death], now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.

Is the “you” in this powerful passage meant to refer to Jews? To all human beings, even those who are on the other side of the doors, peeping through the porthole window? To us as readers?

Or is the reference to the hinenei supposed to be ironic? Is Grossman saying, despairingly, contemptuously: This is what has happened to the faith in the 20th century? I don’t think so. I think Grossman is wrestling with the relation between individual human life, which he values so much, as I’ve shown over and over in these posts, and group identity, which he wasn’t allowed to value except through the idea of Soviet or communist identity.

Although there’s a lot more to say about the role of the Holocaust in Grossman’s self-understanding and in the novel, I’ll finish by simply pointing out a few of the moving characters Grossman offers us.

There’s Rebekkah Bukhman, who strangles her baby when it begins crying in the hiding place from which she and her family are nonetheless wrenched during a house-to-house search in a ghetto. There’s Naum Rozenberg, an accountant forced to become a Brenner, one who burned the bodies of those shot by the SS Einsatzgruppen; Rozenberg has miraculously survived the liquidation of his unit only to be recaptured by the Germans and deported to Treblinka; he spends the train ride in a fugue state, calculating exactly how many bodies he was forced to burn. There’s an unnamed man, distinguished only by his raised collar, who suddenly shrugs his shoulders as the column of new arrivals is marched to the crematorium and “with a sudden nimble jump, as though he had spread his wings… punche[s] an SS guard in the face and knock[s] him to the ground.”

Grossman is too honest to simply ennoble the victims. Take a look at this passage, describing a husband and wife who are separated on the ramp and then by the so-called selection process. He is sent to work; she is sent to death. The passage starts out conventionally enough, just skirting piousness, but then takes a swerve that leaves false emotion far behind:

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time> How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face? Yes, and how can a man live with the merciless memory of how, during the silence of parting, he blinked for a moment to hide the crude joy he felt at having managed to save his life? How can he ever bury the memory if his wife handing him a packet containing her wedding ring, a rusk and some sugar-lumps? How can he continue to exist, seeing the glow in the sky flaring up with renewed strength? Now the hands he had kissed must be burning, now the eyes that had admired him, now the hair whose smell he could recognize in the darkness, now his children, his wife, his mother.

Yet he doesn’t blame the victims, either. That passage is like a punch to the gut because it acknowledges how the drive to live trumps every decent human emotion, even as it suggests how terrible it is that a person in that situation can, indeed must, become so callous. At the same time, though, the questions posed by the narrator aren’t just rhetorical. Grossman doesn’t let us forget that those of us who weren’t there struggle to understand. (Which isn’t the same as saying we can’t.) In an earlier passage, describing how the Nazis relied on their victims’ unwillingness to countenance what was happening to them “(A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed”), the narrator explains:

It is important to consider what a man must have suffered and endured in order to feel glad at the thought of his impending execution. It is especially important to consider this if one is inclined to moralize, to reproach the victims for their lack of resistance in conditions of which one has little conceptions.

In the vast and powerful literature of the Holocaust, few writers can convey more forcefully than Grossman the desire for life, which is as much physiological as metaphysical. In the gas chamber, the victims aren’t even animals—the way they squeeze into the room isn’t the way people move, not even the way “the lowest form of animal life moved”:

It was a movement without sense or purpose, with no trace of a living will being it. The stream of people flowed into the chamber; the people going in pushed the people already inside, the latter pushed their neighbours, and all these countless shoves and pushes with elbows, shoulders and stomachs gave rise to a form of movement identical in every respect to the streaming of molecules.

Yet even as, perversely, the air the victims desperately drive into their lungs only drives life out they remain human. The boy David, the one Sofya looks after, stands for them all. In the last minute, thinking of his summer with relatives in Ukraine, brutally interrupted by the Nazi invasion, David can’t let go of this life:

This world, where a chicken could run without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by their front feet—this world still preoccupied him.

Next time, look for one last post on Life and Fate, a conversation with someone who really understands this book.

Advertisements

“Mysterious, Statuary Fatality”: A Conversation on The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Wise-Writers-Tomb-of-Words-1200-630-15185458-1

A while ago I convinced Scott of seraillon to help me host a discussion of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962). I hope others will join in, and as they do I’ll link to their posts here:

Meredith at Dolce Bellezza

Jacqui at Jacquiwinejournal 

Grant at 1streading’s Blog

Nathaniel Leach

I’ve written up my thoughts on what for me are some of the key aspects of this fascinating and beautiful novel. Scott has responded and added some of the issues that most struck him. In a separate post at Scott’s blog we’ll reverse the roles.

Thanks, Dorian! Since you’ve divided your thoughts into discrete sections, I’ll respond in italics after each one.

First, a brief summary of the book:

On a Sunday in April 1957, the unnamed narrator is on a day trip from Rome with friends. They unexpectedly end up at some Etruscan tombs. A little girl in the party asks her father why ancient tombs are not as sad as new ones. With those who have been dead so long, he replies, it’s as if they never lived. To which the girl rather precociously (one of the book’s few false notes) responds:

‘But now, if you say that’, she ventured softly, ‘you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.’

He doesn’t say so directly, but the narrator seems to be moved by these remarks. We might even say that he is unsealed. The Etruscan tombs remind him of the grandiose tomb of the Finzi-Contini family in his native Ferrara. Perhaps emboldened by the girl’s insistence that everyone who is dead deserves to be remembered, the narrator thinks of the fate of Italy’s Jews during the war. He tells the story—a story it seems he has held inside for a long time: that’s what I mean by his coming unsealed—of his relationship to the Finzi-Contini family in the years before the war. (Interestingly, he only tells us, not his traveling companions. I’m not sure what to make of this, other than to suggest that, as befits this tightly wound character, even emotional catharsis is restrained.)

Beginning with the end, the narrator explains that the story of the Finzi-Continis is one of catastrophe. Of all the members of the family the narrator “had known and loved” only one had managed to find the eternal rest promised by the tomb:

In fact the only one buried there is Alberto, the older son, who died in 1942 of a lymphogranuloma. Whereas for Micòl, the second child, the daughter, and for her father, Professor Ermanno, and her mother, Signora Olga, and Signora Regina, Signora Olga’s ancient, paralytic mother, all deported to Germany in the autumn of ’43, who could say if they found any sort of burial at all?

The plot then shifts to the narrator’s childhood, highlighting his occasional encounters with the Finzi-Continis, before moving forward to 1938 and the promulgation of racial laws in Italy. When the wealthy Jews of Ferrara are forced out of the tennis club, Micòl and Alberto invite the younger set to play on the court on the estate surrounding the family home.

The narrator, who had always been drawn to the mysterious family, quickly falls in love with the Finzi-Continis and especially with Micòl, and over the following year they become increasingly close but never intimate. Micòl evades and eventually rejects the narrator. He is distraught and eventually forces himself or is forced to get over it. And then the war begins and this idyllic (if that’s the right word) time in the narrator’s life ends. That’s the story he wants to tell—the story of the days in the garden of the Finzi-Continis’ estate—not the story of what happened to them all later.

When I put it like this, the book might sound dull, but I found it completely riveting. Whoever chooses to read along with us in the coming days will help us build a picture of the novel. For now I want to talk about three things that struck me, and then mention a fourth.

I too found The Garden of the Finzi-Continis beautiful and riveting – so much so, in fact, that I’ve now read it twice since January, first in the Jamie McKendrick translation and now in the translation you read by William Weaver. I can well understand why this could be someone’s favorite novel; it is moving, exquisitely constructed and has a delicacy and sense of closeness to lived experience that few novels attain from one end to the other. Both times I’ve read it I came away unable to think about much of anything else for days.

 Bassani’s choice to place his “end” of the novel at the beginning, the revelation of the fate of the Finzi-Continis, signals to the reader that the author’s interest lies not in depicting the horrors of the Holocaust but elsewhere: in the world(s) that it destroyed. One might argue that the novel shouldn’t be categorized as “Holocaust literature” because it deals more directly with Italian Fascism, but I’d counter that Bassani is aiming precisely at overturning the sentiment that if Mussolini had not formed an alliance with Hitler, the country’s situation might have been tolerable. Something of this view gets conveyed in the intense political discussions the narrator has towards the end of the novel with his friend Malnate, one of the novel’s only non-Jews, but Bassani clearly wants to lay bare Italian culpability. For all of the peace that Bassani portrays within the walls of Edenic garden of the Finzi-Contini family, he also provides increasingly palpable glimpses of the hell that is growing beyond the garden walls, of the insidious, creeping intolerance and oppression that are alluded to subtly but frequently for much of the novel. For me this worked brilliantly – focusing on the bright lives at the center of an encroaching darkness rather than on the darkness itself. At the end one feels – but only afterwards, after the gentle impression of the final words have subsided – the colossal weight of all that has been pressing inward. The effect is devastating.

Hilltop at Evening 1928 by Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964

I. (Jewish) Outsiders

I really love books about outsiders who fall into (or maybe insinuate themselves into) worlds that are different—and, in their perception, better, richer, more enlivening, more satisfying—than their own. L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between is a fine example. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is another.

I think I’m drawn to this scenario because, as a child of immigrants, I was tasked with helping my parents find their way in a new place. At the same time, I wanted to escape that role by finding worlds or social situations that were just for me. Literature has of course been for me the most important and all encompassing of those worlds. But my decision to move to another country is another example as is, more pertinently to Bassani’s novel, my conversion to Judaism.

I fell in love with Judaism for many reasons, mostly generous and anything but self-serving, but certainly one reason was the sense I had of it as a kind of refined minority. I realize this way of thinking verges perilously close to anti-Semitic stereotypes of secret cabals. But I understood the narrator’s attraction to—what he calls his “deep solidarity” with—the Finzi-Continis. The comparison I’m making is inexact. The narrator isn’t a Gentile, drawn by some sort of philo-Semistism to this Jewish family. No, he’s Jewish too. So in what sense is he attracted to something other or foreign in the Finzi-Continis? The Jewish community in the Ferrara of the novel is small—a handful of families—but as in all Jewish communities (and the smaller they are the truer this seems to be) divisions are as important as similarities.

In his introduction to the Everyman Edition, Tim Parks notes, “One of the curiosities of Bassani’s writing is that, while deploring persecution, he actually seems to relish the phenomenon of social division, that fizz of incomprehension that occurs when people of different cultures, backgrounds, and pretensions are obliged to live side by side.” I agree, though “deploring” seems too unequivocal, too dutiful, too mildly liberal and progressive for Bassani’s narrator, who is a slippery figure.

At any rate, the narrator’s family prides itself on being modern. The father joined the Fascist Party already in 1919. That might sound crazy to us, but Italian fascism was not initially anti-Semitic and might never have been had Hitler not pushed Mussolini in that direction, leading to the Nuremberg-style racial laws of 1938 that I mentioned in my plot summary.

The Finzi-Continis, by contrast, are conservative; Professor Ermanno refuses to join the Fascists, not out of any anti-Fascist or progressive/communist/socialist conviction but because he doesn’t want to join anything, not least the modern world. (It’s interesting that Micòl more than anyone else in the family shares her father’s views, more than her brother, that’s for sure, who is all about his gramophone and modern design, though Micòl also avails herself of certain privilege of modernity, like taking a university degree for example.)

Yet the narrator’s family and the Finzi-Continis are united in their form of worship: they belong to the Italian rather than the German synagogue (these differing congregations meet on different floors of the same building, a wonderful example of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”) I’m confused by Bassani’s distinction here: I think it might be something like Orthodox (Italian) versus Reform (German) (Reform Judaism started in Germany in the 19th Century), but I’m not sure. Later, the Finzi-Continis and one or two other families (but not the narrator’s) decide to worship at even more exclusive synagogue (they call it the Spanish). I wondered if the suggestion was that they were Sephardic rather than Ashkenazi. Can anyone shed light here?

This wonderful essay by Adam Kirsch is smart on the paradoxical function of Judaism in the novel. He doesn’t explain the different congregations, but he has a lot to say about how the Finzi-Continis are positioned as “the Jews of the Jews,” an elite within an elite. The narrator’s father is convinced that the Finzi-Continis are in fact anti-Semites, adducing as proof their rejection, or, more accurately, lack of interest in the rest of the Ferranese Jewish community, as symbolized by the walls that surround their estate.

And yet the narrator’s father also thinks it’s embarrassing, even wrong, to be too devoutly or overtly Jewish: he barely speaks Hebrew, knows only a little of the liturgy, thinks of himself more as a freethinker than anything else. And yet that doesn’t contradict his strong sense of being a Jew, and his conviction that all Jews share a kinship he faults the Finzi-Continis for rejecting.

This sort of complicated emotional response—veering between pride and self-loathing—manifests itself in the narrator too, as in the scene where he runs into a Jewish boy of his own age: “Rapidly, between him and me, there passed the inevitable glance of Jewish complicity that, with anxiety and disgust, I had already foreseen.” The complicity might be good, but the anxiety and disgust sure aren’t.

The narrator remembers how, as a child, he would gather with the rest of his family under his father’s talit (prayer shawl) for the benediction. Because the shawl, which had belonged to the narrator’s grandfather, is so old and full of holes, the narrator is able to look out from, perhaps even to plot his escape from, what in the words of the blessing is the loving embrace of the family.

And what he looks out at is of course the Finzi-Continis performing the same ritual. He is drawn to the father—a scholar, a mild man, perhaps ineffectual but, we learn, genuinely kind, someone who will eventually become almost a colleague to the narrator—but even more so to the children. Yet where Professor Ermanno is the emblem of everything the narrator wants (what he calls “culture and rank”), his children, Alberto and Micòl, are at once more appealing and more off-putting:

I looked up, with always renewed amazement and envy, at Professor Ermanno’s wrinkled, keen face, as if transfigured at that moment, I looked at his eyes, which behind his glasses, I would have said were filled with tears. His voice was faint and chanting, with perfect pitch his Hebrew pronunciation, frequently doubling the consonants, and with the z, the s, and the h much more Tuscan than Ferranese, could be heard, filtered through the double distinction of culture and rank…

I looked at him. Below him, for the entire duration of the blessing, Alberto and Micòl never stopped exploring, they too, the gaps in their tent [the prayer-shawl]. And they smiled at me and winked at me, both curiously inviting: especially Micòl. (Ellipsis in original)

The narrator always wants to penetrate the closed-off space that is the life of the Finzi-Continis (the children don’t go to school, for example, and when they do have to appear for the end-of-year exams they arrive in a coach from the last century). The family, especially Micòl, seems to encourage him in doing so. But in the end he is just there on sufferance. Of course the ultimately irony is that whatever distinctions Jews make among themselves will be leveled by the terrorizing hate of National Socialism.

I’m drawn to your personal response to the work and how it resonated with you as an outsider, an immigrant and as someone who chose Judaism. The outsider element resonated with me too, and probably with many readers. I love how Bassani constantly literalizes this sense of exclusion, from the narrator seeing the Finzi-Contini children’s eyes peeking out from beneath the talit, to his initial inability to penetrate the Finzi-Contini estate during the beautiful young adolescent scene at the garden wall, to the lengthy, almost To the Lighthouse–like postponement of his entry onto the grounds then only much later into the house, and the remoteness of Micòl’s own room, which he is forced to conjure through imagination until he finally, too late, gets to see it for himself. Incidentally, that slow attainment of this “inner sanctum” appears to have as its countermeasure the slow encroachment of Fascism into the garden.

Of course another element that drew me into the novel is one you mention here: “At the same time, I wanted to escape that role by finding worlds or social situations that were just for me. Literature has of course been for me the most important and all encompassing of those worlds.” On the second read through, I was astounded at all the literature in this novel, which in addition to providing something of a crash course in late 19th century Italian poetry alludes to an astonishing variety of works, from Ariosto, to Stendhal (and the narrator, if anything, is a Stendalian figure), to Dumas, to Melville (I can’t recall whether Enrique Vila-Matas makes use of the “Bartleby” discussion in his Bartleby and Co., but if not, he missed a stellar example) and even possibly invents – in a curious passage – a Jewish poetess of 17th century Venice. A central literary figure is the renowned poet Giosuè Carducci, some letters of whom have come into the possession of Professor Ermanno, and around whom literary discussion sometimes revolves, especially arguments over Carducci’s nationalist sentiments and Republicanism (putting aside for a moment the characters’ religion, there is also in the novel an examination of their Italian-ness as relates to a glorified past now threatened by Fascism). Both the narrator and Micòl are by choice literature scholars, he in Bologna, she in Venice, he writing a dissertation on Enrico Panzzachi, a poet in Carducci’s vein, and she on Emily Dickinson. It’s telling that Micòl prefers “real novels” like The Three Musketeers to contemporary works like Cocteau’s Les Enfants terribles. It’s also telling that so little of what was transpiring in literature during the explosive literary decade of the 1930’s Italy appears in the novel. For all their obsession with literature, the narrator and Micòl seem little aware of what is being written around them, at least until the narrator argues with his father, towards the end, that “the only living literature” is contemporary literature. But again he names no names. Another thing I appreciate about Bassani is his avoidance of “literariness” by cleverly making his characters literary scholars themselves, thus allowing him to bring in discussion of all kinds of literature without having to shoehorn it awkwardly into the narrative. I can think of few novels with more literature in them – okay, maybe Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

Your dissection of the Jewish inter-relationships is fascinating. I assumed that the Finzi-Continis were Sephardic because of their obvious Spanish roots – the two uncles Herrera from Venice who are Spanish, their tendency to speak “Finzi-Continian” as the narrator calls it, a hybrid of Ferrarese and Tuscan Italian peppered with Spanish words. I don’t really subscribe to Tim Parks’ notion that Bassani “seems to relish” the idea of social division. Rather, I think this is part and parcel of a style that pushes things apart so as to make them more distinct, to gain some clarity. The remarkable Chapter IV of the first part, for instance, that portrays the inside of the synagogue, possesses the same kind of clarity with regard to the divisions among Ferrara’s Jews that Bassani applies to spaces and interiors, which he almost treats like staging. In addition, the use of such distinctions helps underscore Bassani’s emphasis on the democratizing, leveling force of death. Ironically, I think he’s actually more interested in commonality than in division, since from the beginning, with the visit to the Etruscan tombs in the Prologue, he stresses the universality of death and of remembrance. One could write an entire essay on the description of the Finzi-Contini tomb, with its weirdly international Greek, Egyptian and Roman features and garish conglomeration of materials that seem to come from all over.

II. Telephones

Telephones are really important in this book. Why? One idea is that telephones are a way to combine intimacy with distance. In another novel, characters might write letters to each other. But here they call each other—at least until they know each other well enough to simply drop in. (Well, the narrator drops in on the Finzi-Continis; they never come to his family’s apartment. That would be unthinkable.)

Telephones also a sign of wealth and privilege. Malnate, for example, a friend of Alberto’s, an engineer, a Gentile, a communist, and a rival to the narrator in a way he doesn’t foresee, doesn’t have one; the narrator has to wait outside his rooms when he wants to see him. Maybe it’s important that only the Jewish characters have telephones (though admittedly, there aren’t very many non-Jews in this book). I seem to recall reading someone—maybe it was the philosopher Jacques Derrida—who argued that the telephone is a particularly Jewish mode of communication because it concerns the voice: Derrida or whoever connected it to the Jewish prohibition on representations of God. In the Torah, God speaks (to Moses, to Abraham, etc), but is never seen, indeed, is not to be seen.

These speculations aren’t meant to suggest that the telephone is some kind of divine technology—yes, it facilitates important narrative events (Micòl invites the narrator to the inaugural tennis party over the phone; later, after Micòl decamps for university, Alberto invites him over for what become regular evenings with Malnate and the family) but it can also foil them (as when the narrator misses Micòl’s call to tell him she is leaving town).

So telephones can keep people apart as much as bring them together. But perhaps their most important function is as yet another way that otherwise inaccessible spaces can be entered. But always in mediated form. The telephone is a form of intimacy that is never too intimate: talking on the phone is different than talking to someone in person. Yet talking on the phone, especially to Micòl, is surprisingly intimate, or at least promises intimacy, because the Finzi-Continis have separate extensions in their rooms, so that when the narrator talks to Micòl she is typically in bed. And the narrator wants badly to know what that room looks like. Micòl refuses to tell him. The narrator always wants—and assumes—more intimacy with the Finzi-Continis than he is given.

What a great element to zero in on! I’d of course noticed the phones, but frankly hadn’t given them much thought other than as appurtenances of a wealthy family that wants to be up with the latest technology. I especially like your observation of them as “yet another way that otherwise inaccessible spaces can be entered.” This novel is chock full of inaccessible spaces, and/or of spaces that seem enclosed yet endless, Piranesian tunnels and abysses (I’m thinking in particular of the strange mounds near the city walls that had served as munitions caches, into one of which the narrator enters, at Micòl’s insistence, in order to hide his bicycle, but also of the configuration of the Finzi-Contini house, which like something in a dream the reader can never quite puzzle out – I couldn’t anyway). I found it almost painful how Micòl, who nearly always answers the phone, later lets others answer when she is avoiding the narrator – even that tenuous line to her cut off.

Material objects in general inhabit a strange space in this novel. Some – like the American elevator in the house or the ancient but still meticulously maintained carosse in the garage, appear to stretch the Finzi-Continis mystical aura temporally similar to how the vastness of the house and estate stretches it spatially.

5d102a0b310d054f2b1db28229253f7e

III. The Narrator

For me, the narrator is the crux of this novel. The more I read, the more uncertain I became about him. I didn’t like or trust him. (So what could it mean that I identified so strongly with his desire to be accepted?) I couldn’t figure out what we’re supposed to make of him. He reminded me of the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels—not showily or vertiginously unreliable (like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, say), but profoundly blind to himself, his emotions, and the world around him. Clueless, but with more menace.

Actually, by the end of the novel, I sensed we were supposed to think he’s been hard done by. But I couldn’t quite manage to sympathize with him, despite the one thing we learn about what happened to him during the war.

This piece of information comes at the end of an apparently heartwarming scene. The narrator has been kicked out of the public library (Jews are banned), and this is particularly humiliating because he’s completing a dissertation on 19th Century Italian literature. Once he learns the news, Professor Ermanno invites the narrator to use the family library. With its twenty thousand (!) volumes, the professor wryly notes, he should be able to make good progress. The narrator works in the library every morning, and he and the professor, whose study is next door, fall into a routine of checking in on each other:

Through the door, when it was open, we even exchanged a few sentences: ‘What time is it?’ ‘How’s the work progressing?’ and so on. A few years later, during the spring of ’43, the words I was to exchange with the unknown man in the next cell, shouting them towards the ceiling, towards the air vent, would be of that sort: uttered like that, chiefly through the need of hearing one’s own voice, of feeling alive.

The narrator, we learn here, becomes a member of the Resistance (perhaps by being jailed for that reason he avoids being deported as a Jew—that almost happened to Primo Levi, for example). And his political commitment to fighting fascism should make us admire him. But I’m unconvinced. Even here the language is typically solipsistic. It’s probably more a commentary on the nature of imprisonment and the tactics the fascists used to crush their opposition than a criticism of his personality, but notice how the narrator’s prison “conversation” is really a monologue, practiced for selfish, though admittedly important, reasons, “the need of hearing one’s own voice.”

I can feel myself being unjust to the narrator here. But I wonder why this is the only reference to the narrator’s wartime experiences. Why not make more of it? After all, in the years after the war, everyone in Italy, it seemed, claimed to have been in the Resistance. It seems an obvious way to make us feel more strongly for the narrator. To me, it’s suggestive that Bassani downplays the option he’s given himself. Instead, he chooses to portray the narrator much more ambiguously.

Here’s a passage that stood out to me as particularly hard to parse. The narrator is celebrating Passover at home with his family. It’s 1939, and life for Italy’s Jews is getting ever more restricted. So what should be a joyous occasion is somber. The irony of celebrating the Israelites’ journey to freedom in a climate of anti-Semitism isn’t lost on anyone. But these societal concerns are less important—less irritating—to the narrator than his reluctance to be there. He chafes at his family; he wants to be with the Finzi-Contins. (Later, on Alberto’s invitation, he steals over to the Finzi-Contini’s Seder and notes that the same pastries he’d eaten with reluctance at home now taste delicious.)

Looking over the family members who have gathered to celebrate the holiday, the narrator sees faces that are “sad and pensive like the dead”:

I looked at my father and mother, both aged considerably in the last few months; I looked at Fanny [his sister], who was now fifteen, but, as if an occult fear had arrested her development, she seemed no more than twelve; one by one, around me, I looked at uncles and cousins, most of whom, a few years later, would be swallowed up by German crematory ovens: they didn’t imagine, no, surely not, that they would end in that way, but all the same, already, that evening, even if they seemed so insignificant to me, their poor faces surmounted by their little bourgeois hats or framed by their bourgeois permanents, even if I knew how dull-witted they were, how incapable of evaluating the real significance of the present or of reading into the future, they seemed to me already surrounded by the same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now, in my memory…. Why didn’t I evade, at once, that desperate and grotesque assembly of ghosts, or at least stop my ears so as to hear no more talk of ‘discrimination’ and ‘patriotic merits’ and ‘certificates of services,’ of ‘blood quotients,’ and so on, not to hear the petty lamenting, the monotonous, gray futile threnody that family and kin were softly intoning around me?

What are we supposed to make of this? Even though the passage is divided between past and present, even though the responses at the time are coloured by the knowledge of how things would turn out, I don’t sense much compassion for the past.

It’s a trope of Holocaust literature to juxtapose past innocence to present knowledge, and some writers are famous for their ruthless and judgmental hindsight (Elie Wiesel in Night and Aharon Appelfeld in almost all of his works are classic examples). The narrator is similarly callous here: “The same aura of mysterious, statuary fatality that surrounds them now” isn’t much of a compliment. In fact, the whole logic here is hard to fathom. The narrator is saying: Even though they were so ignorant of what was to come, they nonetheless already had the same kind of fatality that they now have for me in my memory of them. It’s not that they were once vital, nor that their obliviousness has been ennobled or mitigated by the horrors that befell them. It’s that they haven’t even changed.

Is the idea then that the narrator’s prolepses—his flash forwards to future events—don’t make any difference? (Here’s an example from early in the book when as a boy he wanders around the walls of Finzi-Contini estate: “I stopped under a tree: one of those ancient trees… that a dozen years later, in the icy winter of Stalingrad, would be sacrificed to make firewood, but which in ’29 still held high.”)

I don’t know about you but I can’t warm to someone who listens to his frightened relatives and hears only “petty lamenting.” What does he want from them? Is it to be as blithely uninterested in the future as the Finzi-Continis? Maybe so: the scorn at the little bourgeois hats and hairdos sounds like something the Finzi-Continis might think, though would never say. Or, actually, it sounds like something they wouldn’t even concern them with. If anything, this is the narrator seeking—and failing—to ape what he thinks of as his betters.

It’s hard for me to excuse the narrator because of his youth: rather than callow he seems callous. Or somehow emotionally deadened, almost a bit autistic, though I’m uneasy at applying that kind of anachronistic diagnostic label. The novel often compares the narrator to Perotti, the Finzi-Continis’ servant, who disparages modernity even more than the family he has spent his life working for. You’d think that the suggestion that he is only a retainer to the family he admires so much—and possibly so pointlessly? I’m not sure what the novel wants us to think about them—would make us sympathetic to him. But I don’t think it does.

Not even the final “revelation” of why Micòl has spurned his often clumsy, even violent advances doesn’t change my feelings—SPOILER ALERT: he thinks Micòl has been having an affair with her brother’s friend Malnate—especially because I don’t see any evidence that this outcome is anything other than a self-serving construction on the part of the narrator.

Please tell me what you make of the narrator. Why is it that he doesn’t seem to have any present-day (that is, post-war) existence? He’s just a ghost in that opening section, as if he lives only to tell this story of the past.

I’m a little surprised by the degree of your negative reaction to the narrator, as I found him more sympathetic than not. True, he displays a great deal of immaturity – it’s not at all difficult to understand Micòl’s rejection of his groveling, possessive behavior – but at the same time he seems to grow in ways that the other characters do not. Micòl seems to retreat further and further into her Finzi-Continism. Alberto fades almost literally, recusing himself from the intense political discussions the narrator and Malnate engage in together and then, of course, slipping into terminal illness. And Malnate adheres to a fairly strict and pat Communist party line (despite his unexpected appreciation of poetry as revealed near the end; one other minor reason to read Garden is that one gets a rare English translation of Milanese poet Carlo Porta!). The narrator, despite having changed his dissertation interest from Italian Renaissance painting to Panzacchi, in the end advocates for living, contemporary literature, pushes back against those who seem to be inhabiting the past and lacking in foresight as regards the dangers Fascism poses for the future. And yet I agree that it’s unclear how much of the narrator’s “awareness” of that danger is supplied through his backwards glance. Still, if one thinks of Garden as a Holocaust novel, then the narrator plays the essential role of witness, one for whom the question of reliability is almost beside the point. It’s not as though the Finzi-Continis’ fate or the ravages of the Racial Laws are in question. Bassani’s own father disappeared into the camps, and it’s significant – almost irresistible to a writer, I would think, a Jewish writer from Ferrara no less – that of the 183 Ferrarese Jews rounded up and deported to Germany, only one survived. The narrator is obviously not that one, but he plays a role one could imagine that person playing, of having alone survived to tell the tale.

While I also thought the Passover supper scene complicated and puzzling, the narrator’s attitude made some sense to me given the dark constellation of tensions under which he had fallen: the rupture with Micòl; the somber, empty celebration given the dinner talk of increasing restrictions; the abeyance in which he finds himself after completing his dissertation yet – partly because of those restrictions – having no clear option for his future; and perhaps above all his complicated attraction to the Finzi-Continis, who have appeared from the beginning to represent for him wealth, culture, education, beauty even, and perhaps most of all what he refers to early on – and I can’t find the quotation – to their isolation, an aloofness, an outsider quality, that he himself feels almost as a privilege. Though at this point of the novel, the Passover dinner, the narrator is in his mid-twenties, I almost see him as a rebellious teen just itching to get out of the house and go where he’s understood – or perhaps more accurately where he’s among people with whom he aspires to belong.

There’s another element to this behavior hinted at not very obliquely in the remarkable father/son scene near the end of the novel and given a significant clue in light of that scene’s mention of the incident with “Dr. Fadeghi,” which must strike some readers as puzzling since it’s never explained and seems gratuitous. This is a reference to Bassani’s The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, and thus to the narrator’s possible, even probable homosexuality. His father is on the cusp of suggesting as much but can’t say it. Suddenly the narrator’s timid, aloof, unconsummated attraction to Micòl makes sense. I wondered about this too in relation to the prologue, where he’s traveling with “friends” from Rome as a lone man in a car with a family. There’s a second car of friends too, but who is in it? Why is the narrator stuck with the family? What’s his relation to them? They’re likely not Jewish, as we suspect from the father, laughing, telling his the daughter to ask the man in the back seat to answer a question she has about the Jews. I’m not sure that helps with your questions.

IV The Translation

William Weaver’s translation seemed to me excellent, but I don’t have any Italian, and I’m eager to hear your thoughts. I’m especially curious to hear how other translators have dealt with the text’s references to Hebrew and Yiddish, in particular, and Jewish custom and tradition in general.

I can only address the translations to the extent of my ability amateur opining, so I’ll only say that they struck me as quite different. McKendrick’s seems more precise, formal and elegant, which I suspect might be the right fit for Bassani. But Weaver’s seems warmer, more casual, closer to the blood that pulses through Bassani’s young characters. In the end, I could toss a coin and be content either way it landed, though I might hope slightly that it would land with McKendrick face-up. I took a look at the Hebrew/Yiddish language references in both translations, and while neither translator resorts to awkward English equivalents, McKendrick uses quite a bit more of the Hebrew/Yiddish terminology than does Weaver. I certainly get the sense that McKendrick is more careful than Weaver.

To summarize my main points: I’m really drawn to a novel narrated by a character I’m skeptical, even, it’s not too much to say, repulsed by. What’s especially weird about that is that I really sympathize with the narrator’s desire to be accepted by a family and a social world not his own. Maybe what I can’t take is the rejection of his background entailed by what at its best is not mere social climbing but rather a way to express who he most fully wants to be.

I did not get a sense of the narrator engaging in “social climbing” so much as wanting to escape from a relatively limiting environment – and in this regard the novel did have personal resonance, since I could not wait, as an adolescent, to escape the confines of a bourgeois home and find others interested in art, literature, travel, a wider view. So we have different takes – and therein lies the value of doing this sort of collaborative reading. I’d like to continue the discussion, and may send you a few meditations of my own about Bassani’s novel and ask for your responses. I’m eager now to go see what others have written.

Holocaust Lit Fall 2016: Week 1

Last fall I blogged about my Short Fiction class. (You can read the first entry here.) I couldn’t keep it up all semester, and there’s no reason to think this year will be any different. But I’m going to try again, this time with the course I have taught the most, and that means the most me: English 248, The Holocaust in Literature, Theory, and Film.

So far this group (18 students) has impressed me with its energy and intelligence. We’re only in the second week, of course. But the beginning has been promising.

Today I thought I’d share with you the text we worked through on the second day of class, a short excerpt from The Reawakening, one of Primo Levi’s extraordinary memoirs of his experiences during the war.

Levi, a secular Jew from Turin who had trained as a chemist, was arrested in the Italian Alps in December of 1943 where he had joined a small band of partisans in the nascent Italian Resistance movement. Once it was discovered that he was a Jew, Levi was deported first to a transit camp called Fossoli and then to Auschwitz in February 1944. Thanks to his scientific background, Levi avoided the gas chamber and was sent to work in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, called Buna-Monowitz, where the Germans were trying to synthesize rubber. Through good fortune and the care of a Gentile Italian prisoner, who slipped him extra food when he could, Levi survived the bitter depredations of camp life. He was lucky to have been in the camp infirmary when the Germans abandoned it in January 1945 shortly before the Red Army arrived. In this way he avoided being sent on one of the so-called Death Marches, in which the Germans force-marched the remaining prisoners to other camps in Germany proper. Thousands of the malnourished and weakened prisoners died that way.

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

The passage we worked through begins with a description of the change in camp life after liberation:

Outside the windows, despite the steady snowfall, the mournful roads of the camp were no longer deserted, but teemed with a brisk, confused and noisy ferment, which seemed to be an end in itself. Cheerful or wrathful calls, shouts and songs rang out till late at night. All the same, my attention, and that of my neighbours in the near-by beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation of the smallest and most harmless among us, of the most innocent, of a child, of Hurbinek.

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, as thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency; it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgment, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish.

None of us, that is, except Henek; he was in the bunk next to me, a robust and hearty Hungarian boy of fifteen. Henek spent half his day beside Hurbinek’s pallet. He was maternal rather than paternal; had our precarious coexistence lasted more than a month, it is extremely probably that Hurbinek would have learned to speak from Henek; certainly better than from the Polish girls who, too tender and too vain, inebriated him with caresses and kisses, but shunned intimacy with him.

Henek, on the other hand, calm and stubborn, sat beside the little sphinx, immune to the distressing power he emanated; he brought him food to eat, adjusted his blankets, cleaned him with skillful hands, without repugnance; and he spoke to him, in Hungarian naturally, in a slow and patient voice. After a week, Henek announced seriously, but without a trace of selfconsciousness, that Hurbinek ‘could say a word.’ What word? He did not know, a difficult word, not Hungarian: something like ‘mass-klo,” ‘mastiklo.” During the night we listened carefully: it was true, from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.

Hurbinek continued in his stubborn experiments for as long as he lived. In the following days everybody listened to him in silence, anxious to understand, and among us there were speakers of all the languages of Europe; but Hurbinek’s word remained secret. No, it was certainly not a message, it was not a revelation; perhaps it was his name, if it had ever fallen to his lot to be given a name; perhaps (according to one of our hypotheses) it meant ‘to eat,” or ‘bread’; or perhaps ‘meat’ in Bohemian, as one of us who knew that language maintained.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.

What is it about Hurbinek, I asked the class, that so gets to Levi and the others? What is the source of “the distressing power he emanate[s]”? It’s that he can’t speak but he wants to, said one student. It’s his need for language, said another. It’s because he’s judging them, said a third. So already we see the power of language and expression, as something fiercely desired but perhaps unattainable. Note what doesn’t surprise or horrify them: that a toddler is here in Auschwitz. The chasm between our expectations and the victims’ experiences is immense—we will encounter this again and again in the course.

Does Hurbinek freak everyone in the camp out, I asked. Not Henek. What’s different about Henek? He cares for him. Does any one else? The Polish girls, one student noted. But what does Levi say about the Polish girls? They don’t really care for him, answered one. They fuss over him, but they don’t like him, said another. He’s like a mascot to them, one concluded. Like a puppy or something. Right, I agreed. Levi distinguishes between false and true intimacy. Something about Hurbinek’s lack of language keeps almost everyone at a distance. Note that he sleeps on a pallet, like an animal. He has his own corner. He’s separate. And yet he isn’t an object of disgust or scorn. He fascinates the others. They follow his efforts to wield language with something like avidity.

How old is Hurbinek, I asked, switching gears. Three, a couple of people said at once. He looks three, one immediately added. That’s when I really first started having hopes for this class. Most readers don’t notice that Levi does something strange here: he begins with uncertainty—“he looked about three”—but ends with conviction: “Hurbinek, who was three years old.” I think this redescription is important—it’s a version in miniature of the speaking by proxy that Levi, in an essay we’ll read in a couple of weeks, will describe as central to the survivor experience. The survivor always testifies to an experience that isn’t the “true” or “ultimate” experience of the camp, which of course was to murder everyone in it. For now I noted that Levi’s descriptions of Hurbinek are unstable. He calls him a baby at one point. But his stare is also called “mature.” In an especially resonant phrase, Levi calls him “the little sphinx.”

Why? And what’s a sphinx? A couple of students cobbled together an accurate enough description of the Theban sphinx. Does anyone know the riddle he posed to travelers? The one only Oedipus could solve? “What goes on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?” Right—and the answer of course is a person, a human being.

In some ways, Hurbinek, who is paralyzed from the waist down, doesn’t fit the terms of the riddle at all. In that sense, he could be taken to be some kind of non-human other. But it’s clear that Levi values Hurbinek, even if he’s a little afraid of him. The literature of the Holocaust, I argued, is regularly preoccupied by what it means to be human. It will be important for us to see both victims and perpetrators as humans—it is as bad to demonize the latter as it is to demean the former. If we do so, we might falsely be able to convince ourselves that the events we’re studying have nothing to do with us, as we are neither angelic martyrs nor inhuman monsters.

The reference to the sphinx also tells something about Levi and his values. What can we tell about him based on his use of the term? He’s smart, he’s well read. Yes, and in a tradition that isn’t only or primarily Jewish. (We’ll say a lot more about Levi’s classical, humanist upbringing when we read his most famous memoir, Survival in Auschwitz starting in the second week of class.)

IMG_0444

 

Time was getting short and there were still a number of things I wanted to get through. I hurried us along. Let’s go back to Henek for a second, I said. Notice that Levi uses the same word to describe him that he does to talk about Hurbinek. Henek is “calm and stubborn”; Hurbinek continues “in his stubborn experiments.” Repetition is always significant in interpreting literature, I told the class. When we see the same images, the same metaphors, the same formulations or sentence structures, the same words, we should take note. Patterns are suggestive and meaningful.

By using the same word in reference to each figure, Levi cements the connection between them. But why this word? What does it suggest to us that they are stubborn? I can’t remember how they responded to this question. Not particularly helpfully, as I recall. But I was also going for something here, and so the question wasn’t particularly useful. Stubborn suggests persistence, I said, it suggests working away at something difficult. Anyone who writes about the Holocaust—and by extension anyone who reads about it—has to be stubborn. In fact, “stubborn experiments” could be a name for Holocaust literature itself, which is dogged in its attempt to describe what has been called indescribable. Holocaust literature is necessarily experimental literature. But the persistence connoted by the word “stubborn” promises attainment or completion or at least possibility. I want students to finish the course thinking that the Holocaust can in fact be represented.

I thus offer Hurbinek as a figure for the struggle to put traumatic experience into language. He does, after all, say a word. It’s not a message, it’s not a revelation. The word remains secret, though it’s open to, and in fact even demands, interpretation.

In the end, then, the real writer here, the one who wields language with extraordinary finesse, is not Hurbinek but Levi. In the last few minutes of class I turned our attention to the final phrase of the passage, one I’ve always found strange: “he bears witness through these words of mine.” Shouldn’t that be: I bear witness to him through these words of mine? Once again Levi points towards the necessarily proximate status of witnesses. The survivor is always a surrogate for those who didn’t survive.

The most significant way Levi can speak for Hurbinek—that is to say, be that surrogate—is to mimic in his own language the child’s struggle to express himself. I pointed students to the striking syntax of so many of Levi’s sentences:

All the same, my attention, and that of my neighbours in the near-by beds, rarely managed to escape from the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation of the smallest and most harmless among us, of the most innocent, of a child, of Hurbinek.

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed.

In each of these examples, I said, as the hour came to an end, Levi seems to do what he says Hurbinek did, when in his groping toward language he offered “several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme.” Levi seems compelled to re-describe Hurbinek. It’s never enough to say one thing about him (he was a nobody). He has to say three things about him (he was a child of death, a child of Auschwitz). Clusters of adjectival phrases and ramifying clauses cascade forward in these elongated and elegant sentences. We read of “the obsessive presence, the mortal power of affirmation” of Hurbinek, who is variously described as “the smallest and most harmless among us,” “the most innocent,” “a child,” “Hurbinek.”

Levi’s technique here might be a function of the way Hurbinek escapes definition. Which would return us to the suggestion we considered earlier that he is some kind of unknown being, some non- or a-human creature, a little sphinx indeed. But we could instead say that it is the best way for Levi to honour Hurbinek. In offering his own version of linguistic experimentation and variation he seeks to do justice to the child’s experience, and his ambivalent effect on his listeners. In this way, perhaps, Hurbinek does indeed bear witness through Levi’s words.