PRIMO LEVI

TRAGEDY OF AN OPTIMIST

A French novelist’s fine-grained, illuminating exploration of a life lived under the shadow of Auschwitz. Primo Levi (1919—87) is widely regarded as one of the most lucid and coolly reflective witnesses of the Holocaust. He was a well-educated Italian Jew, a native of Turin, whom the SS deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Because of his professional expertise in chemistry and, as he emphasized, through blind luck, the Nazis did not murder him but put him to work. He survived and arduously made his way back to Italy. He returned to his childhood home (until his death he lived in the house he had been born in), established himself in the field of industrial chemistry, married and raised a family. As Anissimov shows, this modest, reserved, and seemingly dispassionate technologist burned inwardly with the “urgent need to free himself from his experience, believing that such a release—never to be achieved—was a moral and civic obligation.” The full-bodied, unsentimental, yet immensely sympathetic image of Levi that emerges from these pages will not startle those familiar with his work (The Drowned and the Saved, 1988, etc.), but it will sharpen and deepen their understanding and appreciation of his writings. Perhaps the strongest point of Anissimov’s accomplishment is her account of Levi’s life from the 1950s to his suicide—if it was a suicide—in 1987. She believes he threw himself down the deep stairwell of his apartment building because of depression, rage, and despair (though the writer left no note), but she also records his comment that Auschwitz failed to destroy his desire to live: “That experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness.” In the years since 1945, so many ’survivors” of death camps have killed themselves. Did meaningless suffering finally overwhelm even Levi’s reserves of optimism and sense of mission? Anissimov does not solve the puzzle, but she has admirably set out the pieces for her readers to ponder.

Pub Date: Jan. 14, 1999

ISBN: 0-87951-806-5

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 1998

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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