A Different Kind of Survivor: Calculating Creature Tells All

Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning , by Paul Steinberg. Metropolitan Books, 163 pages, $21.

There is a character in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz called Henri, one of the few figures in the book whom the master Holocaust memoirist singles out for contempt. Henri is a Jewish inmate from Paris, so young he cannot grow a beard, civilized, intelligent, multilingual, pleasant; but he has mastered a skill so contemptible that Levi compares him to the Serpent in Genesis: He survives by capturing and playing upon the pity of the brutes who are the inmates’ keepers and executioners. In a world that produces men who are not human when it does not simply produce corpses, Henri, Levi seems to be implying, is one of the most inhuman of all.

“Henri” is the name Primo Levi gave Paul Steinberg, an Auschwitz survivor who died in 1999. Steinberg only became aware that he himself was “that cold and calculating creature singled out by Primo Levi” late in life, on the cusp of writing Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning , which appeared in France in 1996 and is now out in an English translation by Linda Coverdale with Bill Ford. It is, the entire situation, rather interesting.

We live in a time of memory wars. Director Claude Lanzmann furiously battles Steven Spielberg for Mr. Spielberg’s importuning of memory without moral license; historians Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning fight over the meaning of guilt; books by Tom Segev, Norman Finkelstein and Peter Novick each, in various ways, interrogate an aftermath that Mr. Finkelstein calls the “Holocaust Industry” and Art Spiegelman labels, in its worst excrescences, “Holokitsch.” There are good memoirs, mediocre memoirs, faked Swiss memoirs, Swiss financial scandals, package tours to the killing grounds; there is Harvard casting about for years to choose someone for a new endowed chair in “Holocaust studies” that proves too controversial to fill. Memory “is sweating, oozing,” writes Steinberg in one of his best metaphors.

I say “metaphor,” which raises another order of complication: the reviewer’s pang of conscience when describing what a Holocaust memoirist does in such ordinary literary terms as “metaphor”–as if Steinberg were writing any old kind of book. Morally, you feel like Wayne and Garth lying prostrate at the feet of Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World : “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” (If I can be allowed a joke–as if I were reviewing any old kind of book.)

In this case, however, the memoirist is even more conscious of these overdeterminations than the reviewer. Paul Steinberg reflects throughout on his working method (“A strange vacation assignment, one I’ve been planning for fifty years, for the moment in my life when I could freely devote myself to it,” writing straight through the story in four months of fever dreams and mood swings). He thinks through the standard bromides about writing as therapy, as exorcism, meditates on the condition of writing a Holocaust memoir itself–wondering whether his traumatized recollections are not “trick[s] of the imagination,” reminding himself “I must not let the writings of other witnesses affect me.” Because this morbid ground has been gone over so many times, inevitably some of the things he writes about are familiar unto cliché: the gentiles protesting “we didn’t know”; the cruel instruction upon deportation to pack a suitcase that the deportee will “get back” later; the liberated inmates who breathe their last while finally enjoying a restorative meal; that certain style of black humor; even the memoirist’s heightened literary self-consciousness itself. Steinberg smartly makes sure you know he knows there are clichés here. Recalling from 1944 a “dreamless” night of sleep after a certain harrowing experience, he continues, “I wrote ‘dreamless’ almost automatically, without thinking.” He corrects himself: He never dreamed in the camp.

Speak You Also calls attention to itself as an act of literature. So I feel no compunction about judging it as a piece of literature: It’s not so good. Steinberg writes well sometimes, but he’s no master. His visceral distinction between the early days in 1941 and 1942–”a time of handmade death”–and the time when gas chambers did the killing anonymously instead of guards doing it face-to-face is, for example, startling; but his decision to write an entire chapter about a friend of whom he remembers nothing is foolish. To get himself started, he seems to require the distancing strategy of writing in a garish and annoying Damon Runyon style: “way out in the sticks,” “pop him one or two in the breadbasket,” wearing the yellow star as a “trap for suckers.” (I doubt it’s the translators’ fault.) The wiseguy tone drops away, but you’re not sure whether this is a decision of craft or a failure of it.

He is all too aware, also, of the self-imposed burden to redeem his comrade Primo Levi’s assessment, and he does so by reworking the familiar phenomenon of “survivor’s guilt”; he stresses, instead, a kind of survivor’s pride. This comes to grate. Then it comes to backfire. Pages are given over to recitations of his remarkable stratagems, special fitness for camp life, keen intellect and luck–his miraculous inducements of pity in the guards (“because in any flock of sheep … the herdsman always has his favorite”); his horrible childhood which gave him an “immersion course” in “continual displacements and readjustments, the absence of ties and enduring friendships”; even the remarkable good fortune of never having been circumcised. “Can one be so guilty for having survived?” he asks.

Other times he displays a kind of victim’s guilt, reciting the times he thinks he could have escaped but didn’t (“I went meekly to the slaughter like a lousy sheep”), as if somehow he could achieve the impossible, besting the Nazis once and for all. He seems to have become a nice enough old man. Still, it’s hard not to recognize the figure Primo Levi described as “hard and distant, enclosed in armor, the enemy of all, inhumanly cunning and incomprehensible.”

In the most affecting moments, it is his body, not his pen, which proves the best archaeologist. The body the writer lives in is the same one that was once inhabited by an emaciated, sickly ghost. The body that never lets itself onto a Paris bus because of a repressed memory of the last bus trip he ever took, which led him to his first holding camp; the body whose writing hand bears an oval scar from pustulence brought on by poorly thrown bricks in a camp chain gang; the body that doesn’t know how to act like a mourner when mourning is called for because meaningless death was once too familiar for him. The body that watches American action movies and calls up fantasies about “do[ing] a Rambo” on SS soldiers.

As a survivor, of course, he has more than earned the right to think and feel this way. And who is to say these sentiments, which make him unusual among testifiers, can’t make for worthy testimony, worthy writing, worthy art? No one. But to whom does it fall finally to judge the art? The critic, and properly so. And as literature, what we have here is a sometimes interesting, pleasant read–though that’s not quite right. It’s unpleasant, of course. But that’s the problem: Considering the subject, Speak You Also is not nearly unpleasant enough.

Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang) will be published in March.