Cultural Cohesion, p.35Clive James
The question remains of how desperate he was already. It will always remain, because it is unanswerable. For all we know, suicide is the mandatory escape route for anyone with clear sight, and the rest of us get to die in bed only because we have the gift of regrowing our cataracts from day to day. Seen steadily and seen whole, life is hard to bear even in conditions of civilized normality. In Levi’s case, there was the Holocaust. Later on there were all the forms of its denial: forms that he tirelessly analysed, but with a growing sense that he was trying to mop up the incoming tide. It could be argued that these later disappointments would have been enough to tip him over the edge even if he had never had direct experience of the Holocaust in the first place. But since he did have such experience, it seems perverse to subtract it from the equation, especially when Levi himself made a famous statement on the subject as long after the event as 1978, the year in which his fellow survivor Jean Améry drank poison. Levi had always been impressed by Améry’s contention that the man who has been tortured once stays tortured. Writing about Améry’s suicide, he returned to the same idea. Thomson quotes what Levi said.
Suicides are generally mysterious: Améry’s was not. Faced by the hopeless clarity of his mind, faced by his death, I have felt how fortunate I have been, not only in recovering my family and my country, but also in succeeding to weave around me a “painted veil” made of family affections, friendships, travel, writing and even chemistry.
Carole Angier is very bold to leave this crucial passage out, although one can see that it might have interfered with the main thrust of her original research, in which it is established, to her satisfaction at any rate, that Levi, if he recovered his family, certainly did not succeed in weaving around himself any kind of veil, whether painted or otherwise, when it came to family affections. Not only was the young Primo Levi “pathologically shy” (not just shy) but the older, post-Auschwitz Primo Levi stayed that way, torn between the wife he was unable to leave and the women he could not allow himself to love. There is no notion that Levi might have been honouring his wife for her loyalty, love and sacrifice, and that the other women, in declining to twist his arm, might have been honouring him through respecting his real wishes. Early or late, he was the victim of a sex problem—a view Angier sticks to even while, on her own evidence, the ageing hero looks to be grappling with the same sex problem as Warren Beatty. The child was the father of the man, and the man was a child in matters of the heart. Why? Because he was depressed all his life. What depressed him? Depression. Thus Angier reduces a moral genius to a helpless plaything of his own childhood and adolescence, a message we might find comforting. But we should watch out for that kind of reassurance. In the democratic component of liberal democracy, there is a sore point called egalitarianism, and the craze for biography might be one of its products. The craze for biography puts the reader on a level with superior people. Part of the effect of Thomson’s book, and the whole effect of Angier’s, is to suggest that Primo Levi was a bit like us; which is only a step away from suggesting that we are a bit like him. Magari, as the Italians say: if only it were true.
Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 2002
In a book review there is room to say only so much, but perhaps I should have found room to say that Levi himself didn’t approve of the term “Holocaust.” Unfortunately, to open a question of terminology would have imposed the obligation of following it up, and in this case to no clear end, because a preferable term has been slow to present itself. When we tell people that they don’t know enough about the Holocaust, at least they have some idea of what it is we are saying they don’t know enough about. If we tell them that they don’t know enough about the Shoah, they aren’t even aware of what subject it is that we suppose them to be ignorant of.
On this point it is important to remember that Levi, while never less than scrupulous in his personal use of language, was generously prepared to accept that other people could feel keenly even if they spoke clumsily. As I noted in my review of The Drowned and the Saved, the American TV miniseries Holocaust was much derided by experts when it was first screened, but it was not derided by Levi. He thought its heart was in the right place.
As he grew older, Levi found out the hard way that the precious truth he was trying to guard had more to fear from misplaced fastidiousness than from vulgarity. Were there such a thing as life after death, he would have found out from his biographies that the truth itself can be put to inhuman use, and not only by tabloid journalists. Reputable scholars can persuade themselves that duty requires a full disclosure of any truffle unearthed. Very few among even the more serious reviewers of these two books raised the question of what Levi would have thought about the prospect of the women in his life having their privacy intruded upon while they still breathed. Until the day he died, he did his best to protect all concerned from the consequences of having loved him. The day after, all bets were off. It is offensive to pretend that we have a right to behave this way because Levi was a great man who gave us our best account of what it was like to share the fate of the anonymous millions, and who, therefore, is a proper object of study in all details, no matter how embarrassing they might happen to be for his family and intimate friends. Now that his protesting voice is supposedly silent (and how truly vulgar his biographers are to suppose that), his dearest wish—to restore and preserve the concept of a private life—is trampled upon simply and solely because he was famous. His loved ones are maltreated because he shared the fate of Elvis Presley.
None of this is to say that a decent, proportionate biography of a literary figure can’t be useful, if only to cancel myths and correct false assumptions. When I reviewed The Drowned and the Saved I assumed that the foreign language Levi was trying to perfect on the eve of his death was English. From the biographies I learned that it was German. Levi never got as far with English as one was inclined to hope. In the world of fulfilled wishes, Levi would have acquired an exact ear for English, realized that the American titles of some of his books were worse than useless, and done something to set things straight. Alas, there was no time, and we would probably have remained stuck with the titles anyway: for legal reasons, they are set in stone. For a long time to come, the most important single book about the inexorable terrors of state-sponsored mass murder will go on billing itself as a guide to getting by in tough conditions: Survival in Auschwitz.
THE ALL OF ORWELL
Who wrote this? “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” But you guessed straight away: George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope-widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between “lies” and “truthful” leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of “murder” and “respectable,” the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with a dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming poise and compact drive of it, a world view compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath—it’s the Orwell style. But you can’t call it Orwellian, because that means Big Brother, Newspeak, the Ministry of Love, Room 101, the Lubyanka, Vorkuta, the NKVD, the MVD, the KGB, KZ Dachau, KZ Buchenwald, the Reichsschrifttumskammer, Gestapo HQ in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Arbeit macht frei, Giovinezza, Je suis partout, the compound at Drancy, the Kempei Tai, Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, The Red Detachment of Women, the Stasi, the Securitate, Cro-Magnon Latino death squad goons decked out in Ray-Bans after dark, that Khmer Rouge torture factory whose inmates were forbidden to scream, Idi Amin’s Committee of Instant Happiness or whatever his secret police were called, and any other totalitarian obscenity that has ever reared its head or ever will.
The word “Orwellian” is a daunting example of the fate that a disting
A four-volume edition of the journalism, essays and letters, which was published in 1968 (co-edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow, Sonia), had already given us a good idea of how the tree grew, but now we get an even better chance to watch its roots suck up the nutrients of contemporary political experience and—But it’s time to abandon that metaphor. Orwell never liked it when the writing drove the meaning. One of his precepts for composition was “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” For him prose style was a matter in which the ethics determined the aesthetics. As a writer, he was his own close reader. Reading others, he was open to persuasion, but he would not be lulled, least of all by mellifluous rhetoric. Anyone’s prose style, even his, sets out to seduce. Orwell’s, superficially the plainest of the plain, was of a rhythm and a shapeliness to seduce the angels. Even at this distance, he needs watching, and would have been the first to admit it.
. . .
Orwell was born into the impoverished upper class—traditionally, for its brighter children, a potent incubator of awareness about how the social system works. Either they acquire an acute hunger to climb back up the system—often taking the backstairs route through the arts, à la John Betjeman—or they go the other way, seeking an exit from the whole fandango and wishing it to damnation. Orwell, by his own later accounts, went the other way from his school days onwards. In one of his last great essays, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he painted his years at prep school (where he nicknamed the headmaster’s gorgon of a wife Flip) as a set of panels by Hieronymus Bosch:
“Here is a little boy,” said Flip, indicating me to the strange lady, “who wets his bed every night. Do you know what I am going to do if you wet your bed again?” she added, turning to me. “I am going to get the Sixth Form to beat you.”
Orwell had a better time at Eton—it sounds as if he would have had a better time in Siberia—but twenty years later, after he left it, reviewing his friend Cyril Connolly’s partly autobiographical Enemies of Promise, he poured scorn on Connolly’s fond recollections of the place. When Connolly proclaimed himself fearful that after his climactic years of glory at Eton nothing in the rest of his life could ever be so intense, Orwell reacted as if Flip had just threatened to deliver him to the Sixth Form all over again: “ ‘Cultured’ middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education—five years in a luke-warm bath of snobbery—can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period.”
Orwell often reviewed his friends like that. With his enemies, he got tough. But it should be said at the outset that even with his enemies he rarely took an inhuman tone. Even Hitler and Stalin he treated as men rather than as machines, and his famous characterization of the dogma-driven hack as “the gramophone mind” would have lost half its force if he had not believed that there was always a human being within the fanatic. His comprehension, though, did not incline him to be forgiving: quite the reverse. Society might have made the powerful what they were as surely as it had made the powerless what they were, but the mere fact that the powerful were free to express whatever individuality they possessed was all the more reason to hold them personally responsible for crushing the freedom of others. When they beat you, you can join them or you can join the fight on behalf of those they beat. It seems a fair guess that Orwell had already made his choice by the time Flip threatened him with a visit from the Sixth Form.
. . .
In the early part of his adult life, he was a man of action. He wrote journalism when he could—for him it was more natural than breathing, which, thanks to a lurking tubercular condition, eventually became a strain—but he wanted to be where the action was. Already questioning his own privileged, if penny-pinching, upbringing and education, he went out to Burma at the age of nineteen and for the next five years served as a colonial policeman—an experience from which he reached the conclusion (incorporated later into his novel Burmese Days and his essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging”) that the British Empire was a capitalist mechanism to exploit the subjugated poor. Back in Europe, he found out what it was like to be a proletarian by becoming one himself—Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier—and expanded his belief about the exploitative nature of the Empire to embrace the whole of capitalist society, anywhere. He volunteered for service in Spain in the fight against Franco, and the selfless comradeship of ordinary Spaniards risking their lives to get justice—Homage to Catalonia—confirmed his belief that an egalitarian socialist society was the only fair and decent alternative to the capitalist boondoggle, of which Franco’s Fascism, like Hitler’s and Mussolini’s, was merely the brute expression.
So here, already formed, were two of his three main political beliefs—about the awfulness of capitalism and the need for an egalitarian alternative. There was nothing uncommon about them except their intensity: plenty of intellectuals from his middle-class background had reached the same conclusions, although few of them as a result of direct experience. The third belief was the original one. It was more than a belief, it was an insight. Again, he was not the only one to have it, or at any rate part of it: though such illustrious invitees to the Soviet Union as Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and the Webbs had been fooled into admiration by the standard tricks of Potemkin Village set-dressing, Bertrand Russell, André Gide, E. E. Cummings, Malcolm Muggeridge and several other visiting commentators had already spotted that the vaunted socialist utopia was a put-up job, and in 1938 the Italian-born Croatian ex-Communist Anton Ciliga, in his book Au Pays du Grande Mensonge (In the Land of the Big Lie), gave a detailed account of the Gulag system, which he knew from the inside. But nobody ever expressed his revulsion better or more lastingly than Orwell, who got it right without ever having to go there.
He went somewhere else instead. Discovering in Spain, from the behaviour of the Russian representatives and their Communist adherents, that the Soviet Union was as implacable an enemy of his egalitarian aspirations as Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, he developed the idea that it wasn’t enough to be against Mussolini and Hitler: you had to be against Stalin as well, because the enemy was totalitarianism itself. That was as far as he
Back in England with his three main beliefs—capitalism was a disease, socialism was the cure and communism would kill the patient—the erstwhile man of action carried on his cause as a man of letters. For part of the Second World War, he was a member of the Home Guard, and for a further part he was with the BBC, preparing broadcasts for India, but as far as the main action went he was an onlooker. No onlooker ever looked on more acutely. The journalism he wrote at the close of the 1930s and in the 1940s would have been more than enough by itself to establish him as having fulfilled his life’s purpose, which he made explicit in his last years: “What I have most wanted to do is to make political writing into an art.” The whole heavy atmosphere of the prelude to the war, the exhausting war itself, and its baleful aftermath: it’s all there, reported with a vividness that eschews the consciously poetic but never lapses from the truly dramatic, because he had the talent and the humility to assess even a V-1 in terms of its effect on his own character, using his soliloquy to explain the play:
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