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A Dante Of Our Time

Primo Levi and Auschwitz


Risa B. Sodi

This original and timely volume details the influence of Dante's Inferno on Primo Levi's classic Holocaust narrative, Se questo è uomo, and his last book of essays, I sommersi e i salvatie. Such key concepts as memory, justice, and the realm of the neutral sinners - «la zona grigia» for Levi - are given particular emphasis. Three questions form the backbone of the book: Can memory be overcome? Where is justice for the Holocaust survivor? and, Is there a middle ground between victim and oppressors, and how does Levi define it? Ample use of interviews with the author reveal how Levi relates these three questions to such contemporary figures as Sigmund Freud, Franz Stangl, Rudolf Höss, Jean Améry, Liliana Cavani, and Kurt Waldheim.


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Introduction 1


INTRODUCTION Why trace Primo Levi's development by comparing and contrasting it to Dante, poet of the inferno, master fantasist, as able with allegory as with truth, devout Christian, defeated potitician? What can the bard of the trecento have to say to the memorialist of the Holocaust? Why com- pare a fictional inferno to a real one? Even admitting the enormous differences of age, style, and orienta- tion between Levi and Dante, one still cannot overlook the strange kin- ship that binds these two artists together. Primo Levi's first and last books, Se questo ~ un uomo and I sommersi e i salvati and Dante's Infer- no bear striking affinities. This should not be wholly surprising since Levi received a classical education in Italy at a time when Dante still occupied a central place in secondary schooling.1 Nonetheless, Levi draws on Dante in such a knowledgeable and mean- ingful way as to make their connection more than just circumstantial. Levi quotes Dante repeatedly, from the moving "Canto di Ulisse" chapter in Se questo ~ un uomo to the Dantesque title of I sommersi e i salvati (which, incidentally, was the original working title of Se questo ~ un uomo). His conversations were littered with quotations from the Com- media; in an interview with me, Levi used Conte Ugolino to help prove 2 Introduction his point about the memory of offense and Fra Alberigo illustrated his comments on the Nazis' view of the Jews.2 Taken together, even these few tidbits point to the formidable intellectual...

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