Page 177 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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LOWIN / PRIMO LEVI’S UNORTHODOX JUDAISM
1 6 9
1985 and 1987, published no fewer than five titles by Primo Levi.
These include both a reissue of Levi’s classic Holocaust memoir,
Survival in Auschwitz
,4
and the appearance of what may well be
Levi’s finest artistic achievement,
The Monkey’s Wrench,
a paean of
praise to “work-well-done.”5 To note that this latest volume is
only remotely connected to Levi’sJewishness is to imply nothing
about Jewish attitudes to fine craftmanship. Rather it is to empha­
size that while Levi has graciously accepted the epithet of “Jewish
writer,”6 it would be literary folly to try to read into every one of
his works a Jewish focus.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that Levi is a writer in the Jewish mode.
It is curious therefore that the one book in which Levi is most self­
consciouslyJewish and consciously in search of a particularlyJew­
ish form of expression has caused considerable uneasiness
among some of his otherwise fervent admirers.
HIS ‘FINEST WORK
True, Irving Howe believes that the novel
I f Not Now, When?
is
possibly Levi’s finest work. For Howe, the author of
The World of
Our Fathers,
it is no small achievement for an Italian-Jewish
author to have written “a tribute to those east European Jews who
tried to offer some resistance to the Nazis.” In this book, which
may be considered a “gesture on a gesture,” Howe finds that “cer­
tain of Levi’s strongest literary gifts reach full play.” For example,
Levi’s evocation in the novel of the life of a community of Jewish
partisans, the “Republic of the Marshes,” is, in Howe’s estimation,
“simply brilliant.”7
On the other hand, Philip Roth, no less an admirer of Primo
Levi’s opus than Howe, reveals a certain mistrust of the motiva­
4 Primo Levi.
Survival in Auschwitz
and
The Reawakening.
Trans. by Stuart Wolf.
(New York: Summit Books, 1986). Both o f these books appeared in English
earlier under different titles, the first as
I f This is a Man,
the second as
The
Truce.
References to
Survival in Auschwitz
will be made, in the body o f the text,
to the paperback edition, (New York: Collier Books, 1961).
5 Primo Levi.
The Monkey’s Wrench.
Trans, by William Weaver. (New York:
Summit Books, 1986). For the sake of completeness: Primo Levi.
Moments of
Reprieve.
Trans, by Ruth Feldman. (New York: Summit Books, 1986).
6 Primo Levi. “Beyond Survival.”
Prooftexts 4
(1984): 9.
7 Irving Howe. Introduction to
I f Not Now, When?,
p. 15.