“With what face would we confront each other?” – Primo Levi’s Centenary


Today is the centenary of Primo Levi’s birth, and I wanted to share a short extract from a short essay tucked away in volume 2 of the Complete Works.

Unknown (Mondadori Publishers) [Public domain] – via Wikimedia Commons

The Nazi massacre bears the mark of folly, but also another mark. It is the mark of the inhuman, of human solidarity negated, forbidden, shattered; of slave-like exploitation, of the shameless establishment of the law of the strongest, smuggled in under the banner of order. It’s the mark of bullying, the mark of fascism. It’s the realization of an insane dream, in which one person rules, no one thinks anymore, everyone always stays in line, everyone obeys to the death, everyone always says yes.

The essay is called “Monument at Auschwitz”; it was published in La Stampa on 18th July, 1959. Like everything Levi has to say, it’s profound and moving; and frighteningly enough still relevant today. I’d like to think, on a day when I’m remembering a great writer who bore witness to his times, that humanity had progressed from the horrors of the 20th century – but alas, I’m not convinced we have…

Primo Levi – a few musings


As I’ve probably mentioned before, this month sees the centenary of the birth of the author and chemist Primo Levi. I’ve written about him before on the Ramblings, and the reading of his book “The Periodic Table” back in my twenties had a profound effect on me. I’d read all of his works which had been translated into English previously, although as I recorded on the blog, the discovery of a reasonably priced copy of the three volume set of his Complete Works in London caused a lot of stressful lugging around the big city and transporting home! I’m not sorry, thought, and I have been spending time this month dipping into the three large books (amounting to several thousand pages).

As I’d read all of his fictions in the past, I’ve been focusing on poetry and shorter prose, the latter in the form of stories and essays, and there are so many riches. I frankly don’t feel that I’m well-versed enough in his literature (and indeed in Holocaust literature) to comment in depth; in fact, if you want some wonderfully in-depth pieces discussing Levi’s work in detail, I recommend  you visit the marvellous Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau blog of Dorian Stuber, who’s featured some excellent posts this month.

Levi’s poetry is, of course, incredibly moving; and like his prose often painful to read. I believe he disliked being regarded as a witness of the times he lived through, but his works inevitably do just that – tell us of events we must *not* forget for fear of a repeat (and goodness knows we seem to be sliding rapidly in that direction at the moment). I’ll share a few lines with you, but urge you to go and read his work – it is, of course, remarkably powerful…

I see you in my heart, exhausted comrade;
Suffering comrade, I can read your eyes.
In your breast you have cold hunger nothing
The last courage has been broken in you.
Gray companion, you were a strong man,
A woman traveled next to you.
Empty comrade who has no more name,
A desert who has no more tears,
So poor that you have no more pain,
So exhausted that you have no more fear,
Spent man who has a strong man once:
If we were to meet again
Up in the sweet world under the sun,
With what face would we confront each other?

(from Buna, 28 December, 1945 – translated by Jonathan Galassi)

You can’t go home again…


Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel

Sometimes a book comes your way at the right time and skips over all those lurking on Mount TBR to make it to the front of the queue – and “Brodeck’s Report” was just one of those books. I first read about Claudel on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and I’ve had “Grey Souls” on the wish list for a while. However, BR was sitting happily in the Oxfam while I browsed and my eye snagged on the author’s name, so it came home with me. The subject matter kind of resonates with what I’ve been reading recently too, so the time was most definitely right.


The book opens with a dramatic enough declaration from our narrator, Brodeck himself:

“My name is Brodeck and I had nothing to do with it”

So the intrigue starts from the very beginning of the story, and as Brodeck continues with his story we gradually find out what has happened. The men of his village have murdered a stranger, known as the Anderer (outsider) and Brodeck, being a recorder of plant life and nature in the vicinity, is set the task of recording the events and why they happened. The time is just post WW2; the location is a small village in France just over the border from Germany; so there is obviously a lot of baggage and back story here. The place and location are never given explicitly like much in the book, but there are enough hints given in the book to make this clear.

Brodeck is not a native, having come to the village in his childhood after the first war of the 20th century, in the care of Fedorine who rescued him from the ruins of his birthplace. Gradually, as the book progresses, we find out about his past; how he grew up, studied, met his wife Emelia and how his idyllic life was shattered by the coming of Nazism and the new war.

This is a book where things are not spelled out but implied; Brodeck is a Jew, although this is never stated but we can glean it from a reference to the ‘missing piece of skin between his thighs’. The story continues and whilst telling the tale of the villagers and their actions, Brodeck also tells his own story. And a harsh one it is, as many of his memories revolve around his time in a concentration camp, his survival and his return to the village and his family…

“War is a great broom that sweeps the world. It is where the mediocre triumph and the criminal receives a saint’s halo; people prostrate themselves before him and acclaim him and fawn on him. Why must men find life so gloomy and monotonous that they long for massacre and ruin? I have seen them jump up and down on the edge of the abyss, walk along its crest and look with fascination upon the horror of the void, where the vilest passions hold sway.”

I’m not going to say any more about the plot, as part of the beauty and skill of this novel is the way that the narrative gradually progresses and reveals the past. Claudel’s writing is superlative, carefully building up his narrative, weaving together his story and teasing us with details. Brodeck is a gentle man, motivated by the love of his wife and cared for by the devoted Fedorine. But it’s clear from early in the book that the war has taken its toll not only on him, but on Emelia, Fedorine and also his daughter Poupchette – and the events that caused things to change are gradually detailed in the most beautiful and evocative prose, in a way that is never gratuitous but that is all the same horrifying.


BR reveals much about the human condition; about mob mentality, about how people behave when they’re threatened, about how they will turn on others and about what they will do to survive. There is a feeling of underlying menace throughout the book, as Brodeck is threatened by those around him, his memories of the past and his knowledge of how low human nature can go. The murder of the Anderer becomes inevitable as he holds a metaphorical (and almost literal!) mirror up to the villagers revealing their hidden, true natures, showing what they’d tried to forget.

“Stupidity is a sickness that goes very well with fear. They nurture each other, creating a gangrene that seeks only to propagate itself.”

The hardest thing about reading this book is that it’s so beautifully written but often the subject matter is almost unbearable, rooted in the psychological effects of occupation and the aftermath of a conflict. It’s full of heartbreaking events and I read it in a state of tension because I knew awful things would happen and almost couldn’t stand to see them. Claudel has created a powerful book which shows the horrors of war and occupation; it also works on deeper levels and I wondered whether Brodeck was meant to represent the general plight of the Jewish race, wandering from place to place, alwaysa  kind of outsider himself. This was a beautiful, painful read and I’m looking forward to reading more of Claudel’s work.

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