Page 179 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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LOWIN / PRIMO LEVI’S UNORTHODOX JUDAISM
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transpire in the novel as Eberstadt describes them, it is clear that
the critic has put her finger on one of the problematics of the text.
Has the problem to do with Eberstadt’s antipathy for Levi’s
artistic style in general? On the contrary, she feels that
Survival in
Auschwitz,
for example, is “one of the finest literary works of its
kind, a book whose low clear tones long echo in the reader’s imag­
ination” and “fully justify” Levi’s reputation as a “literary mas­
ter.” Eberstadt nevertheless has a bone to pick even with this
memoir, a book she finds so masterful. Her complaint has to do
with Levi’s representation of Jewish religious reality. For her,
Levi’s attempts, in
Survival in Auschwitz,
to depict authentic Jewish
life in the camps do not ring true. And she puts her finger on
what she believes is the cause of Levi’sJewish failure. In contrast
to Hughes’ assessment of Levi as “a ‘real’Jew,” Eberstadt takes
Levi to task for what she calls his “lack of deep familiarity with
either Jewish history or religion.” Levi, she asserts further, is
“cursed with a tin ear for religion and is incapable of representing
imaginatively the life of people who practice their faith.”
ESTHETIC SENSIBILITY
Eberstadt attempts to account for Levi’s lack of a religious sen­
sibility by according to him a deep esthetic consciousness. She also
believes that it is possible to ascertain the source of the dichotomy.
She describes Levi as an esthete who is “more at home in Dante
and Homer than in the Bible.” This description does more than
express the critic’s uneasiness with Levi’s novel. It points to a
problem in Jewish writing generally and in the writing of an
author like Levi specifically. The question may be formulated in
the following manner: How are we to approach an author whose
work derives from, is inspired by, and gets its nourishment from
two equally compelling traditions, in this case, the Jewish and the
Italian, both of which are at the same time particular and univer­
sal?
Survival in Auschwitz
is persuasively instructive in this matter,
and provides a case for study. One of the more important lessons
Levi learned during his Auschwitz experience was that it was both
possible and necessary to maintain one’s dignity in the face of the
Germans’efforts to humiliate and degrade their Jewish captives.
Levi’s book is an inquiry into a further question. If one is rich