Portions of this essay were delivered as a talk for The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College on April 23, 2014.
My existence shrank from an arrow of light pointing into the future forever to a speck of light that was the present moment. I got better at living in that point of light, making the world into that point. I paid close attention to it. I loved it very much.
And then one day, my life was a ray again, and the point was gone.
— Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
IN DECEMBER 1943, Primo Levi, a recent PhD in chemistry from the University of Turin who had gone into the mountains to join the Italian resistance, was arrested by the Fascists. Under interrogation, he admitted he was a Jew, and was shortly handed over to the Germans. They shipped him to Auschwitz. Here his life came very close to an end. Maybe it ended for a time, to be reconstituted later. The concatenation of stubborn, plodding biological functions the Greeks called Zoē continued, or was allowed to continue, partly because Levi’s skills as a chemist were useful enough to save him from the gas chamber, partly because of luck. But before the Nazis destroyed their prisoners materially, they destroyed them as individuals. This was why they gave them numbers and tattooed those numbers on their wrists. (I grew up around people who had such numbers; they looked like old laundry marks.) It was why the barracks and work details were made up not of menschen, “men,” but of häftlinge, “prisoners,” and why the bodies taken from the gas chambers weren’t called bodies or even corpses, but figuren, a word that is also used for dolls or dressmakers’ dummies, and why any prisoner who mistakenly called them by their old name risked being beaten.
The life that was nearly extinguished was Levi’s life as a human being. How he held onto it is the true subject of his great, sober, terrifying memoir, Survival in Auschwitz. This is made clearer by the book’s Italian title, under which it was first published — and ignored — in 1947: Se questo è un uomo — “If this is a man.” The question this book, which may be the definitive memoir of the Shoah, addresses is not how one remains alive at Auschwitz. (For that, Levi would later quote a woman doctor named Ella Lingens-Reiner: “‘How was I able to survive in Auschwitz? My principle is: I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others.’”) [i] It’s the question of how one remains human in an environment designed in every detail to turn men and women into things, figuren-in-waiting, future corpses. Levi explores that question in a chronological narrative spanning the 11 months between his arrival in the camp in February 1944 and his liberation in January 1945.
Following his release Levi returned to Turin and the profession of chemist — he managed the laboratory of a paint company — and in 1975 published The Periodic Table, the book that is widely considered his masterpiece. This revelatory text is commonly thought of as fiction, albeit fiction drawn from life; just to start with, it contains three outright fables, which, like the other chapters, are named after the elements, And it skips over events that most of us would think of as essential to a life story, and certainly to Levi’s life story. There’s nothing about his marriage and the birth and upbringing of his children. His father’s death takes place offstage, while the young chemist is working in a mine, extracting tiny quantities of zinc from rock. And although he often referred to Auschwitz as the “fundamental experience”[ii] of his life, he treats it at length only in one chapter, where he details his efforts to shape some pilfered rods of the rare earth cerium into flints for cigarette lighters:
According to Alberto, the price of a lighter flint was equivalent to a ration of bread, that is, one day of life; I had stolen at least forty rods, from each of which could be obtained three finished flints. The total: one hundred and twenty flints, two months of life for me and two for Alberto, and in two months the Russians would have arrived and liberated us; and finally the cerium would have liberated us, an element about which I knew nothing.
Still, I think of the book as a collection of autobiographical essays, or even a memoir. It’s only in the past 20 years or so, after all, that readers have come to expect memoirs to be factually accurate documents of their creators’ lives — literary odometers whose slightest alteration constitutes fraud. Levi was writing out of an earlier tradition, dating from a time when the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction were more vague and porous, when Benvenuto Cellini could matter-of-factly recount conjuring up devils in the Colosseum and Xavier de Maistre could write a travel narrative that plays out in the single room where he was confined under house arrest. I am not referring to the “emotional truth” that bad memoirists invoke to justify the distortion of facts. In Levi’s books facts matter a great deal, maybe because there are fewer of them, or because some facts defy comprehension. The facts of chemistry, verifiable by experiments that can be repeated again and again with identical results, are different from the facts of the death camps. This may be what gives Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table the grave strangeness of emanations from the distant past, even as they treat one of the defining events of modernity.
Levi had more than enough reasons for structuring these books so differently. He wrote Survival in Auschwitz in the years immediately after his return to Italy, in a fury to relate what he had witnessed, if only he could find the language equal to the task:
My very writing became a different adventure, no longer the dolorous inventory of a convalescent, no longer a begging for compassion and friendly faces, but a lucid building, which now was no longer solitary: the work of a chemist who weighs and divides, measures and judges on the basis of assured proofs, and strives to answer questions. Alongside the liberating relief of the veteran who tells his story, I now felt in the writing a complex, intense, and new pleasure, similar to that I felt as a student when penetrating the solemn order of differential calculus. It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter. Paradoxically, my baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; it seemed to me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant.
He wrote The Periodic Table in a country that was now rich beyond his earlier imagining, as crooked as fusilli, and terrified of its own children, who were robbing banks and kidnapping government officials. He’d been practicing chemistry long enough that it had now become the second axis of his personality. In the 30 years between the two books, the Shoah (Levi refused to call it “the Holocaust,” since that the word originally meant a sacred offering, and what could be less sacred, more profane, than the industrialized slaughter of a people?) had gone from being the thing that nobody wanted to talk about, least of all its survivors, to an occasion for self-congratulation and empty piety. Perhaps in that time he had been thinking more generally about the way one structures a life story — a story of one’s life, or a part of it. I might as well say the way one structures a life, since, aside from its bare biological aspects, every life is a narrative. With apologies to Joan Didion, we don’t tell ourselves stories in order to live. Our lives are what we call the stories we tell ourselves.
If This Is a Man, the title I prefer to use, is the story of trauma, a word that in Greek means “wound.” We usually think of trauma as a specific event — the literary critic Shoshana Felman calls it “the event par excellence, the event as unintelligible, as the pure impact of sheer happening.” A trauma is a catastrophic event in which the body and psyche are irreparably scarred, if not broken. Often, it happens very quickly, so quickly and brutally that afterward survivors may not be able to put the experience in words. Psychiatrists who treated soldiers with shell shock during World War I (today, their condition would be recognized as PTSD) found that they couldn’t say what had happened to them in the trenches until they were put under hypnosis; then they reenacted the traumatic moment as though it were happening in the present. They moaned and crawled through invisible mud, they cringed from silent cannon fire. The event may be limited in duration, but the wound is lasting. In 1987, 42 years after his liberation from Auschwitz, Levi hurled himself over the railing of the marble staircase outside the fourth-floor apartment where he had been born and to which he had returned at the war’s end, and fell to his death.
Any suicide is shocking, but to many readers Levi’s was particularly so. Perhaps they felt betrayed; perhaps they wanted to believe that writing those books had been enough to cure the wounds of his ordeal. Just what kind of wounds writing can cure, or whether it can cure anything at all, is beyond the scope of this essay. I’m more interested in how one writes about events so devastating, that they become literally unspeakable, resisting any attempt to frame them in language. Levi’s method is to write with the precision of the laboratory scientist he was. When he arrives at Auschwitz, in a shipment of Italian Jews delivered by cattle car, he notes that the empty room in which the arrivals are made to wait contains a dripping water tap; it’s what you would notice if, like Levi, you’d had nothing to drink for four days. He also notes that above the tap is “a card which says that it is forbidden to drink as the water is dirty.” His first reaction is that this must be the Nazis’ cruel joke, but when he drinks, he discovers that “the water is tepid and sweetish, with the smell of a swamp,” and he has to spit it out. He continues:
This is hell. Today in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap that drips while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen. What can one think about? One cannot think any more, it is like being already dead. Someone sits down on the ground. The time passes drop by drop.
We are not dead. The door opens and an SS man enters, smoking. He looks at us slowly and asks ‘Wer kann Deutsch?’ One of us whom I have never seen, named Flesch, moves forward; he will be our interpreter. The SS man makes a long calm speech; the interpreter translates. We have to form rows of five, with intervals of two yards between man and man; then we have to undress and make a bundle of the clothes in a special manner, the woolen garments on one side, all the rest on the other; we must take off our shoes but pay great attention that they are not stolen.
Stolen by whom? Why should our shoes be stolen? And what about our documents, the few things we have in our pockets, our watches? We all look at the interpreter, and the interpreter asks the German, and the German looks him through and through, as if he were transparent, as if no one had spoken.
I had never seen old men naked. Mr. Bergmann wore a truss and asked the interpreter if he should take it off, and the interpreter hesitated. But the German understood and spoke seriously to the interpreter, pointing to someone. We saw the interpreter swallow and then he said: ‘The officer says, Take off the truss, and you will be given that of Mr. Coen.’ One could see the words coming bitterly out of the interpreter’s mouth; this was the German manner of laughing.
Now another German comes and tells us to put the shoes in a certain corner, and we put them there, because now it is all over and we feel outside this world and the only thing is to obey. Someone comes with a broom and sweeps away all the shoes, outside the door in a heap. He is crazy, he is mixing them all together, ninety-six pairs, they will be all unmatched. The outside door opens, a freezing wind enters and we are naked and cover ourselves up with our arms. The wind blows and slams the door; the German reopens it and stands watching with interest how we writhe to hide from the wind, one behind the other. Then he leaves and closes it.
Now the second act begins. Four men with razors, soap-brushes, and clippers burst in; they have trousers and jackets with stripes, with a number sewn down the front . . . We ask many questions but they catch hold of us and in a moment we find ourselves shaved and sheared. What comic faces we have without hair! The four speak a language which does not seem of this world. It is certainly not German, for I understand a little German.
Finally another door is opened: here we are, locked in, naked, sheared and standing, with our feet in water – it is a shower-room. We are alone. Slowly the astonishment dissolves, and we speak, and everyone asks questions and no one answers. If we are naked in a shower-room, it means we will have a shower. If we have a shower it means they are not going to kill us yet. But why then do they keep us standing, and give us nothing to drink, while nobody explains anything, and we have no shoes or clothes, and we are all naked with our feet in the water, and we have been traveling for five days and cannot even sit down.[iii]
Although Levi is writing from memory — perhaps because he is writing from memory and his memory is the memory of a writer — he organizes his material in a literary fashion, and so the image of the dripping tap is mirrored or bookended by the later image of the shower. The tap looks promising, but the water turns out to be undrinkable, maybe poisoned. The shower looks reassuring (If we have a shower it means they are not going to kill us yet) but only to somebody who doesn’t realize what happened in shower-rooms in the death camps. Because the reader knows, the very appearance of the word “shower-room” sounds a knell of dread.
Similarly, when a man with a broom comes to sweep away the newcomers’ shoes, Levi’s first thought is “He is crazy.” On one level, this is what shrinks call the correct response. The mistake is in ascribing that madness to a “he” rather than a “they” or an “it” — that is, to the system that has swallowed Levi and his fellow inmates with the aim of rendering whatever value it can from them, before it destroys them. A further irony, one that Levi would unpack in his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, is that in light of that purpose, the camp system wasn’t crazy at all. One of the ways it maintained control over its millions of wards was by keeping them demoralized and confused. Levi’s attitude in this scene shows that the system worked. His confusion is made worse by his limited German, and his incomprehension of his captors’ language stands in for all the other things about this place he doesn’t know or understand. He understands nothing. And the futility of his desire for reasons will be revealed later, when a guard strikes him for trying to break off an icicle that hangs over the window of his barracks so he can lick off a few drops of water: when Levi asks why, the guard replies, Hier ist kein warum. “There is no why here.” [iv]
This is hardly the worst of what Levi witnessed at Auschwitz. It can’t have been. But in this book, the scene functions as the central trauma — as the moment when his life is suddenly cut in two like a strip of film, with the cut marked by a lurch and a few frames of glare. That’s why a later chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” is so moving and even, briefly, triumphant. In it, we see Levi speaking fluent German and gossiping knowledgeably about the affairs of the camp, its undeclared systems of governance, its hierarchies of power and privilege, symbolized by the color of the triangles sewn onto prisoners’ jackets. He is no longer an uncomprehending victim, he is somebody who knows. This places Levi in the role of the classic memoir protagonist, for every memoir, at its heart, is the story of how a human being acquires knowledge; about his or her family, or town or nation; about his or her self. Arriving at knowledge is the hero’s journey, and consider the heroism needed to acquire knowledge in a place where there is no why.
“The Canto of Ulysses” centers around Levi’s conversation with another inmate, an Alsatian boy named Jean who holds the esteemed position of Pikolo, the messenger-clerk of the barracks. The two prisoners are bringing the midday soup to the pit where their work detail is laboring; they carry the cauldron between them, hugely heavy, slung from a heavy pole. Levi is teaching Jean Italian, using Dante’s Inferno as his text. What he can remember of the poem, he recites; what he can’t, he paraphrases. Today’s lesson is the 26th Canto, in which Dante, who is being guided through the underworld by the poet Virgil, meets Ulysses. The parallels between the prisoners’ situation and those of Dante and Ulysses are too obvious to belabor. All of them are exiles, dreaming of loved ones who may have forgotten them, who may be dead. All of them are in hell. But in telling the story of the canto, Levi is briefly tunneling out of the death camp and into the past. I mean not just the solitary past of his personal memory but a collective past built up from the mineral accretions of culture and history, a past he can share even with a boy who doesn’t speak his language. Considerate la vostra semenza: / fatti non foste a viver come bruti, / ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza, he quotes Virgil. “Consider well the seed that gave you birth: / you were not made to live your lives as brutes, / but to be followers of virtue and knowledge.”
The Periodic Table is concerned with the acquisition of another kind of knowledge, that of the elements of matter that lend their names to its different essays or stories: Argon, Hydrogen, Zinc, Iron, Potassium, Nickel, Lead, Mercury, Phosphorus, Gold, Cerium, Chromium, Sulfur, Titanium, Arsenic, Nitrogen, Tin, Uranium, Silver, Vanadium, Carbon. Some chapters literally recount an episode of Levi’s chemical education or his work in chemistry before and after the war: experiments conducted in a college laboratory; a job searching for minute traces of nickel in a remote mine, under conditions so secretive that Levi can’t even tell his co-workers his name; an assay of a strange metal that may be the remains of a Nazi atom bomb. In other chapters, the element plays a more elusive, metaphorical role. For instance, Levi uses the inert gas argon to introduce his family and the tiny Jewish enclave of Turin because “all the deeds attributed to them, though quite various, have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.”
This method allows the author to negotiate the challenge that confronts anyone foolish or narcissistic enough to write autobiographically. It’s one thing to write about a specific period of one’s life: Mary Karr’s childhood in The Liars’ Club, or Patti Smith’s early years in New York, or Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War, or even Levi’s 11 months in Auschwitz. Those periods, contained, qualify as events, and an event can be recounted the way a point can be plotted on a graph. But a life is a line or, since its endpoint remains unknown, it’s a ray — an “arrow of light,” in Sarah Manguso’s phrase, “pointing into the future forever.” How does one write about a ray? The primary problem isn’t that no one living can write his life from beginning to end. It’s that we can’t know what will truly matter, or what might matter to a disinterested reader, who as far as a book is concerned is in the same position as god. The Judeo-Christian god punishes a variety of mortal sins, but the god of literature recognizes only two: dullness and dishonesty. Dullness is worse.
Levi structured the point that was his time in the death camp the way Dante structured the Inferno, as a series of rings. The rings of Auschwitz are located not in space but in time, and the innermost circle is a crater so deep that we can’t see into it. Not even Levi could see into it. Many years later, he would write: “The history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralyzed by suffering and incomprehension.”[v]
But if Auschwitz was one great fact of his life, chemistry was the other, and so he sensibly organized his account of life before and after the death camp around the organizing principle of his craft: the periodic table. Actually, the table is the organizing principle of all matter. Hence, to the young chemist who had dedicated himself to unraveling matter’s secrets, “[it] was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and, come to think of it, it even rhymed!” Throughout the book, Levi treats matter with an attention so scrupulous that it approaches reverence. Not just its appearance, but its smell, its heft, sometimes its taste (which makes the reader a little anxious), its common and uncommon uses, its interactions with other kinds of matter. In science, of course, anything less than scrupulous attention has consequences. Consider this passage from the chapter “Potassium,” brought to my attention by the wonderful writer and teacher Rebecca Chace. It’s just before the war, and Levi is working for a young assistant professor of physics, who in violation of the Fascist racial laws has allowed him to conduct experiments in his laboratory. The novice chemist neglects to thoroughly clean a flask in which he had earlier placed some potassium, causing a small explosion that nearly burns down the lab. Once he has confessed all to his employer:
The assistant looked at me with an amused, vaguely ironic expression: better not to do than to do, better to meditate than to act, better his astrophysics, the threshold of the Unknowable, than my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.
One can read the entire Periodic Table as a manifesto of matter, and of the powers of observation and ratiocination that reveal its secrets. Why should matter need a manifesto? Maybe this becomes necessary in a society that has dedicated itself to surmounting matter, triumphing over it, purifying it, annihilating it. “The Fascist philosophy insisted a lot upon spirit,” Levi told an interviewer a little before his death.
The slogan was: it is the spirit that masters matter. For instance, the Italian Army was badly equipped but if its spirits dominated matter, so we could win a war even without the equipment. The idea was that if you had the spirit, you’d be able to win. […] I was cross with this insisting upon spirit. What is spirit? Spirit isn’t soul. I was not a believer; I am not a believer. Spirit is something you can’t touch. At that time it seemed to me an official lie insisting upon something you can’t experience with your eyes, your ears, with your fingers. […] The very reason I chose to be a chemist [was] to have something under my fingers that could be verified as true or false.[vi]
For this scientist-writer, then, the study of matter isn’t value-neutral; it’s profoundly moral. And seen in this light, the entire Periodic Table is almost as much “about” the Shoah as If This Is a Man is — about the events and attitudes that led up to it and those that issued from it. The book begins with an evocation of the modest, insular, earthy, sardonic Piedmontese Jews who would be swallowed in the death camps. Its penultimate chapter recounts Levi’s discovery that the German chemist with whom he has been corresponding concerning a defective shipment of resin is the same one who ran the lab where he worked while a prisoner at Auschwitz and thus — unintentionally — saved his life. In between, he tells us what it was like to come of age in a Europe where “the premonition of imminent catastrophe condensed like grumous dew in the houses and streets, in wary conversations and dozing consciences.” Grumous, meaning grainy, from grume: a clot of blood.
For a scientist’s memoir, The Periodic Table abounds in what in another book would be called portents. A mine contains a bottomless pit of ash-like asbestos at its center. Laboratory rabbits are injected with phosphorus. A factory courtyard is piled with thousands of blocks of bright orange paint that some unknown flaw has caused to partially solidify: “they were gelatinous and softish; they had the disagreeable consistency of slaughtered tripes.” And then there are those fables that lead any intelligent reader to question whether The Periodic Table can remotely be called a memoir. Two — “Lead” and “Mercury” — are about elements that poison anybody who has prolonged contact with them, and the prospector-narrator of “Lead” comes from a people known as Saksa, Nemet, or Alaman: all names for Germans. The third fable, “Carbon,” which appears at the book’s end, follows the migration, taking place over hundreds of millions of years, of an atom of carbon, the fundamental element (urstoff in German) of all life. There was carbon in the smoke that rose from the chimneys of the crematorium. But it was also there in the leaves of the trees of Levi’s Turin, and in the cells of Levi’s brain, which produced this beautiful book. Few are more beautiful, or speak more lucidly of matter that is most resistant to speech.
If you asked me why I consider The Periodic Table a memoir, I would say that it does its fictionalizing frankly, using devices that make its invented episodes immediately evident as such. This is more than James Frey ever did; if Frey seems like too easy a target, it’s more than Bruce Chatwin did. In every other respect, the book seeks to recreate not only its author’s outer circumstances but also his inner life and even the structure of his thought. That, to me, is the memoirist’s true task. With a few exceptions, our lives are pretty similar: birth, school, work, death, with some sex thrown in to ease the tedium. It’s the stories we tell ourselves that are different. In those mercifully rare zones where “why” has been abolished, they are what we turn to in its place: they give us comfort or torment; they keep us awake; they allow us, finally, to sleep.
[i] Quoted in Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved. Raymond Rosenthal, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1989), 79
[ii] “Primo Levi, The Art of Fiction, No. 140.” The Paris Review, Downloaded April 13, 2014.
[iii] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Stuart Woolf, trans. (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 22-24
[iv] Ibid, 29
[v] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved. Raymond Rosenthal, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1989), 17
[vi] “Primo Levi, The Art of Fiction,” op. cit.