The Croquet Club has seen better days. New Town, February 2011.
Another Friday, more books.
The Drowned and the Saved is a book of essays on life focused on understating life in the Nazi extermination camps by Italian author (and Holocaust survivor) Primo Levi, who draws upon his personal experience to face this ambitious task.
Levi is one of the authors that I respect most, and whereas If This is a Man – a tremendous first of a pair of novels written directly after the war– was an autobiographical attempt at both recording and understanding, The Drowned and the Saved is his effort at an analytical approach. The problem of the fallibility of memory, the techniques used by the Nazis to break the will of prisoners, the use of language in the camps and the nature of violence are all studied.
This book, published just months after his (apparent) suicide in 1987, was written in a time far removed from the experience of the camps. In it, Levi attempts to position himself as the dispassionate observer of a system perceived by many as incomprehensible. His mission is to make sense of something that seems unfathomable.
In this task, I think that he does an admirable job exploring a multitude of ideas that are often avoided, glossed over or written off with a simplistic dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. He ruminates on the notion of the ‘grey zone’ of actions in such circumstances, and the study of the concepts of ‘shame’, ‘communication’, and ‘Useless Violence’, are compelling and convincing.
I believe that if you are ever to truly understand humans, their capacity for violence towards each other, and their capacity to survive such violence; Levi’s work is essential. It is a challenging read emotionally, but incredibly rewarding. To get the most out of it, I would suggest that you read If this is a Man, The Truce and The Drowned and the Saved collectively, if possible.
After a succession of books that might be defined as ‘downers’, I cast my net out looking for something brighter to pep me up. So of course, I turn to Hitler…
Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall is the first of Spike Milligan's war autobiographies. The book spans from the British war declaration war in 1939 to Milligan’s arrival in Algeria as a part of the Allied African campaign.
The book is an interesting format one might expect from the Goon, mixing narrative anecdotes, photographs, excerpts from diaries, letters, and plenty of doodles and sketches. It is a very funny read, but the words from the preface are worth reproducing:
There were the deaths of some of my friends, and therefore, no matter how funny I tried to make this book, that will always be at the back of my mind: but, were they alive today, they would have been the first to join in the laughter, and that laughter was, I'm sure, the key to victory.
As such, this is at once an entertaining and enlightening read. I’m a little disappointed that of the eventual seven (7!) volumes of Milligan’s memoirs, the Tasmanian Library only has three. Oh well, three is far better than none!
Well worth chasing down…