Page 38 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Lowin
30
to offer some resistance to the Nazis.” In this book, which may be
considered a “gesture on a gesture,” Howe finds that “certain 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 parti­
sans, 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
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 of 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 ofJewish parti­
sans of Russian and Polish extraction harassing the Germans behind their east­
ern 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
NotNow, When?
seems more narrowly tendentious—and consequendy less lib­
erating to the writer—than the impulses that generate the autobiographical
works. I wonder if you agree with this—if in writing about the bravery of the
Jews who fought back, you felt yourself doing something you
ought
to do, re­
sponsible to moral and political claims that don’t necessarily intervene else­
where, 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
tions.
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
7. Irving Howe. Introduction to
I fNot Now, When?,
p. 15.
8. Philip Roth. “A Man Saved By His Skills.”
The New York Times Book
Review
(October 12, 1986), p. 41.