Waldensian Review No. 122 Summer 2013 - Page 11

of high anticipation. Instead of sleeping, Levi plunged headlong into writing, and for the next 10 months he worked with concentrated energy on the manuscript. And he wrote, if not in a trance-like state, then with extreme facility, the words pouring out of him ceaselessly, he said, ‘like a flood which has been damned up and suddenly rushes forth’. Though Levi claimed If This is a Man was free of consciously polished, lettered prose, it is in fact a teeming, intensely literary work of great complexity, and far more calculatedly bookish than Levi cared to admit. The chapter now unfolding in the Bachelor House was full of allusions to Italian literature, the literature which Levi claimed to have studied so unwillingly at school. Alessandro Manzoni’s early 19th-century classic of famine and devastated lands, The Betrothed, is Italy’s most important novel. In spite of its gruesome subject matter, ‘The Story of Ten Days’ has flashes of quiet humour, and its affirmation of human dignity instils a kind of joy in the reader. Levi does not dwell on the mechanics of mass murder, but on what remained of the human face in the camp. And he never loses sight of a future beyond Auschwitz. Accordingly the chapter ends, not with a finite conclusion, but with a hopeful opening up to the world outside and a hint of other narratives to come. The next morning, Levi awoke in the Bachelor House with a sense of interior liberation. His writing had been a catharsis and a purging parallel with Dante’s raising his sails on the Purgatorial migliori acque, ‘better waters’. On the afternoon of Thursday, 14 February, one week after completing ‘The Story of Ten Days’, Levi retrenched himself in his spartan room to write one of the greatest hymns to the human spirit. The miracle is that ‘[The Canto of Ulysses’ was almost entirely written in a single lunch break, from 12.30 pm to 1.00 pm: half an hour of hectic unbroken work, or so Levi later claimed. No doubt Levi was giving shape to the disordered long-hand notes he had been jotting down since his homecoming; nevertheless composition of this chapter, the 11th in the definitive edition of If This is a Man, was astonishingly swift. Levi’s immediate subject was the French prisoner Jean Samuel, whom Levi believed had probably not survived. Levi cast his mind back to a summer’s day in 1944, when he had accompanied Jean to collect the camp’s soup ration. As they trudged through the worksite, Levi recalled the Ulysses canto from Dante’s Inferno. He struggled to translate the verse into French for Jean while explaining its significance. Ulysses is addressing his ship’s crew as they embark on their final voyage before a whirlpool sucks them under: Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance Your mettle was not made; you were made men, To follow after knowledge and excellence. Considerate la vostra semenza: Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza. In the hell of Auschwitz, anus mundi, Ulysses’s words shine with a sublime humanist dignity: Levi and Jean Samuel are not beasts; they were ‘made men’ 9