Counterfactually Assessing the Impact of Primo Levi’s Death on his Writing

In his recently published review of Berel Lang’s new biography of Primo Levi in the Association of Jewish Studies Review, Alvin H. Rosenfeld (yes, he’s related) employs a counterfactual argument to question Lang’s insistence that readers approach Levi’s work from a perspective that brackets off the circumstances of his death (very likely, although never proven, by suicide). 

Rosenfeld writes:

“Lang subtitles his study “The Matter of a Life,” but the book is not intended as a full-scale biography, and readers already familiar with the biographies of Levi available in English will not come away from reading Lang with any new facts about the author's life. They may, however, feel moved to ponder what they find in these pages about Levi's death.”

“Lang devotes to this a whole chapter, in which he strongly contests the idea that writers' deaths might “retroactively alter their creations” (14). “Why should Levi's suicide…loom so large in thinking and speaking about him…?” he asks. “The words and sentences…of his writings remain exactly as they would have however he had died” (12).”

“In a literal sense, this last sentence is true, but so, too, is it true that a writer's death can, and often does, influence the way we read his or her books, sometimes decisively so. To cite but one prominent example: Anne Frank's famous diary almost certainly would never have achieved the canonical status it has today had the book's youthful author survived the war. As Philip Roth put it in The Ghost Writer, were the diary “known to be the work of a living writer, it would never be more than it was: a young teenager's diary of her trying years in hiding during the German occupation of Holland.”

“Inasmuch as readers commonly bring some knowledge of Anne Frank's premature and tragic death to their reading of her book, their encounters with the diary become a more troubled, but also a more moving and meaningful, experience. The same may be true of those who read Levi's writings about the Nazi death camps in the shadow of his death. They are not wrong to do so.”

Both Rosenfeld and Lang have valid points to make.

Lang legitimately takes issue with possibility that readers may strain to “see” the signs of Levi’s death (again, probably by suicide) prefigured in his writings.  This certainly represents a violation of his literary output’s integrity. 

His discomfort with this practice is reminiscent of Michael Andre Bernstein’s concept of “backshadowing” – which he defines as a practice that “works by a kind of retroactive foreshadowing in which the shared knowledge of the outcome of a series of events by narrator and listener is used to judge the participants in those events as though they too should have known what was to come.” (Bernstein offers the specific example of the Holocaust, noting that “our knowledge of the Shoah is used to condemn the "blindness" and "self-deception" of all those who did not actively strive to save themselves from a doom that was supposedly both clearly visible and inevitable.”).  (These quotes are taken from “Victims-in-Waiting: Backshadowing and the Representation of European Jewry,” New Literary History, Vol. 29, Nr. 4, 1998, pp. 625-651).

Lang is not exactly warning against backshadowing in discussing Levi (it’s not as if Levi himself should have known of the circumstances of his fate) but the tendency to see his end as predictable or inevitable is something Lang clearly wants us to be alert to.  And it is a reasonable request.

Rosenfeld convincingly argues, however, that our knowledge of the “end” of the story of the author’s life bears heavily on how we might read its earlier phases. His counterfactual employing of Anne Frank (which itself relies on Philip’s Roth own counterfactual) makes this point very well.  We would be missing much of the point of her diary if we remained unaware of her ultimate fate.

It’s a similar point that I’ve made with reference to “clockstopper counterfactuals.” Lang is effectively asking readers to stop the clock of Levi’s life before his tragic death and evaluate his work without knowing the end of the story.  This can be likened to film critics who resist telling readers the ending of a whodunnit by claiming a desire to resist “spoilers.”  (Conversely, the phrase “spoiler alert” is now commonly appended to reviews that give readers a heads-up of what’s coming).  Lang’s point is well-taken, but ultimately artificial.  We cannot roll back the clock of Levi’s life, imagine that his fate were otherwise, and still plausibly interpret his work with the same sensitivity as if we retain an awareness of what is to come.  

The fact remains that where we end a story determines how we view it.  This is equally true of history and counterfactual history.