Page 178 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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tions that guided the writing of
I f Not Now, When?
In an interview
he conducted with Levi, Roth remarks:
I f Not Now, When?
is like nothing else o f yours that I’ve read in
English. Though pointedly drawn from actual historical events,
the book is cast as a straightforward, picaresque adventure tale
about a small band o f Jewish partisans o f Russian and Polish
extraction harassing the Germans behind their eastern front lines.
Your other books are perhaps less “imaginary” as to subject matter
but strike me as more imaginative in technique. The motive behind
I f Not Now, When?
seems more narrowly tendentious — and conse­
quently less liberating to the writer— than the impulses that gener­
ate the autobiographical works. I wonder if you agree with this— if
in writing about the bravery o f the Jews who fought back, you felt
yourself doing something you
to do, responsible to moral
and political claims that don’t necessarily intervene elsewhere,
even when the subject is your own markedly Jewish fate.8
Levi’s response — that for him
I f Not Now, When?
was indeed a
“liberating” book— is less interesting than the fact that Roth, who
obviously has a high opinion of Levi’s literary qualities, is politely
distancing himself from the one work in which Levi seems to have
been motivated by an inclination to improve Jewish public rela­
A review essay in Commentary Magazine is not so polite.
Fernanda Eberstadt, the author of the essay, has come to the
conclusion that
I f Not Now, When?,
whose plot is at once “stiffly
schematic” and “unsettlingly random,” must be considered a fail­
ure. Eberstadt judges that “Levi’s men and women are wooden
logs whose mental qualities, backgrounds, natures, and convic­
tions are never shown to us but rather set forth in the leaden
exposition which serves for conversation in this novel. In the
absence of dynamic action or persuasive human types, Levi
resorts to staged ideological confrontations, with the characters
stating in turn their political philosophies and debating on set
topics as they sit around the campfire in the woods of wartime
Byelorussia.”9While one might argue that things do not actually
8 Philip Roth. “A Man Saved By His Skills.”
The New York Times Book Review
(October 12, 1986), p. 41.
9 Fernanda Eberstadt. “Reading Primo Levi.”
(October 1985), pp.