I am not sure what to call the stories Levi presents, but essays (what’s on the cover) seems wrong. They are more than vignettes. They are, perhaps, sketches of decency amidst the everyday horror of Levi’s experience at Auschwitz. In addition to the beauty evoked by Levi’s account of the surprising appearance of a violin or the astonishing decision by a prisoner to ask for his food to be saved for a day because it was Yom Kippur (and the equally astonishing decision to grant this request) is Levi’s apparent lack of bitterness. His criticisms are gentle but definitive. Perhaps it’s because he knows that the horrors have been described elsewhere. I was surprised to learn that he’d read biographies of various leading Nazis.
These stories, these as true as they can be stories (Levi acknowledges the limits of memory and perspective) areas human and detailed and as moving as language can create. Each one could become a whole novel. Instead, Levi paints his sketch and leaves the gaps and the colors and the implications for his readers to supply.
I read this book in anticipation of the Maltz Museum’s exhibit of the same name (http://www.maltzmuseum.org/news/violins-of-hope-cle/). It is always difficult to read about the Holocaust. Still, I appreciated Grymes’ attention to detail, especially in the Norway section. And the focus on music, and the violins in particular, brought up some interesting questions. Some wondered how the Nazis could both love music and do what they were doing (see, I can’t even name it). Some saw their love for the music as evidence that some humanity remained. Also, I began to wonder how the other Jews felt about the musicians getting special treatment. Certainly, they were not the only group singled out and protected. But I would have liked Grymes to explore this question a bit more.
I am eager to see the exhibit and participate in some of the associated programming.
When I first learned that Modiano had won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, my first reaction was, “Who?” But I dutifully added him to my list of authors to explore. When I finally found several of his books on the shelf, I chose this not because of its length (just 120 pages), but because it was the only one that didn’t have the Holocaust mentioned on the back. (I often take self-imposed breaks from stories that relate to the Holocaust. Given this new survey though – http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/the-world-is-full-of-holocaust-deniers/370870/ – maybe I shouldn’t.)
I should have known better. The Holocaust is here, albeit at some distance, a distance some try to keep in almost surreal ways. Our narrator, Jean B., is moving in and out of time, in and out of place, and in and out of reality. Boundaries are blurring, and he has settled, comfortably, into the grey. We’re in Beckett country here.
Modiano’s prose is straightforward. He lets his details do the work and Barbara Wright, his translator, belongs to that school of translators that dictates that the translator’s job is to stay out of the way.
The cover art, a detail from The Philosopher’s Conquest by Giorgio de Chirico (here’s the whole thing – http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/30839) is the perfect choice. Verba Mundi, an International Literature Series, has produced a nice edition.
I look forward to more Modiano.