From my summer reading, here are the non-fiction highlights…
The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi – there are a lot of books in the world and I’ve mostly made peace with the idea that I won’t read them all. But there are some writers that I feel uncomfortable not having read, and Levi was one of them. The Drowned and the Saved was one of Levi’s later works, published for the first time in 1986, the year before he died. It is a collection of essays in which he further explores both the death camps and the people within them. It would be facile to suggest I ‘enjoyed’ reading this. There’s not a lot of enjoyment to be found (wider reading suggests that Levi’s final book is more bitter and despairing in tone than earlier ones, and I still feel like If This Is A Man is a book I must read) but I’m very glad I read it. A great deal has been written about the holocaust and I’ve read the tiniest sliver of it. I’ve never read anything like Levi though. He is understandably angry, although measured, erudite and considered. What he does that was so different to anything I’d read before was remove the easy interpretations, the sense of good people and bad people. He does away with the idea that any part of the holocaust can ever be ‘understood’ in a conventional sense. One of the essays is actually called ‘The Grey Zone’ and it quickly becomes clear that most of Levi’s polemic operates in this half light. It’s deeply unsettling but, particularly in light of recent political events, I came away confident that the unease he made me feel was vital.
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me, Jennifer Teege – the slightly ‘click-baity’ title worked on me in the library but this was actually an emotional and thought-provoking read. Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth, a fact she wasn’t aware of until, aged 38, she recognised a photograph of her maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Goeth (Goeth’s mistress while he was at Plaszow) in a library book. The reason for the title is that Teege’s father was Nigerian, and her book was an interesting companion to Levi’s essays. Levi writes about both survivor guilt and the complex guilt felt by many people in the generations that followed. With Goeth’s atrocities so well-known and recorded, Teege has a particularly heavy burden of guilt to bear. The book was her attempt to work through the terrible depression she fell into on discovering her personal history and it has much to say about the responsibility we bear for the events of the past, whether directly related to the protagonists or not.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the remaining highlights – some essays, a memoir and a Christie.