Book #56: The Drowned and the Saved

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Primo Levi. I spent the whole spring of my senior year picking apart his first memoir, If This Is A Man (American title Survival in Auschwitz), for my senior paper.

I’ll probably give a more in-depth bio of Levi when I review that book, but here’s the short version for context:

Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist. In World War II he joined the Italian resistance movement. He was captured and sent to an internment camp in Fossoli. From there he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. He survived there until the camp was liberated in 1945.

The Drowned and the Saved is much different from If This Is A ManIf This Is A Man was Levi’s first book, and he wrote it in the first few years after he’d left Auschwitz. At that point, he would have been focusing more on writing what happened and getting the memories on paper and trying to make sense of what happened. It’s very disjointed, and you get the sense that Levi just wants to get the book out of him. It’s beautiful and there are some good reflections, but at its core, If This Is A Man is more musings than analysis.

By the time Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, he’d had time to process Auschwitz a little more. This, I think, is why it’s so much more philosophical and so much less of a memoir. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi mostly talks about  trauma and how we think about things that have happened to us. He talks about the different ways people survive trauma, and how survivors of trauma both remember and deal with what happened to them.

In this way, The Drowned and the Saved is much more a meditation on memories and how we remember them than a recounting of Levi’s memories. This was interesting. Anyone studying Holocaust memoirs in any depth at all will quickly come up against this question of memory and trauma. What does trauma do to our memories? How do we make sense of a traumatic event after it happens (because really, we can’t understand traumatic things as they’re happening; only in the aftermath)? How accurate are our memories of these things and what purpose do they serve?

These questions apply not only to Holocaust literature, but also to everyday life. It’s an interesting and disconcerting thing to think about memory, and Levi addresses this topic, through the filter of perhaps one of the most traumatic events in history, very adeptly.

Rating: *****

Up Next: Great Expectations 


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