The minute I picked up Sergio Parussa's Writing as Freedom, Writing as Testimony: Four Italian Writers and Judaism, published by Syracuse University Press, I was reminded of a classic work of more than 25 years ago, Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924-1974 by famed scholar H. Stuart Hughes.
The latter was, according to its author, an attempt to analyze the history of Italian Jewry through the works of six contemporary novelists: Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi, Primo Levi (no relation), Natalia Ginzburg and Giorgio Bassani — all of whom withstood the crucibles of homegrown fascism, World War II and, in various degrees, the existential threat of the Holocaust.
Parussa, for his part, has taken the last three of Hughes' subjects and added Umberto Saba (a writer I had not heard of till now), and has told a similar story with greater emphasis placed on how each in this quartet dealt with the blessing or burden of his or her religion.
Not that Parussa, who is associate professor of Italian studies at Wesleyan College, ignores the larger issue of how Judaism fit into Italian history, from the ancient period on. And he specifically maps the changes in the general Italian populace and sensibility toward Judaism from mid-19th century till the post-World War II era in his lengthy introduction.
Rather, the point is that the author's focus is on the writers themselves and their struggles, especially in what it meant to be both Italian and Jewish, and how that shaped their writing.
According to Parussa, who paraphrases French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch on the subject, Jewish history and thought "are characterized by a tension between two contradictory aspects: the tendency to resemble others and adapt to the culture of the majority, and, at the same time, the desire to preserve a sense of religious or cultural difference." This tension, which affects us all in some sense, and Jews significantly, represents for Jankélévitch a profound human freedom: "the freedom to be at once equal and different, oneself and something other than oneself."
Parussa notes early on in his discussion that his analysis of the relationship between writing and Judaism is organized around just such a "dual freedom." In Saba's work, the critic sees a "discomfort with this tension, his being eternally divided between Judaism and Catholicism, between two religions and two cultures that he saw as opposed and incompatible." Ginzburg, for her part, strove to draw closer to this freedom "by claiming a double identity, both Jewish and Italian." On the other hand, Bassani and Levi attempted to recover a sense of Jewish cultural memory, "of a secular and cultural sense of belonging to Judaism," which involved, for them, being Italian and Jewish at the same time.
The author says he hopes to show through this foursome a certain irony: That the sense of a connection to Judaism and the rediscovery of Jewish culture are active responses to an attempt at "physical and cultural confinement."
"When Primo Levi polemically states, in a well-known passage from The Periodic Table that he, as a Jew, is like a mustard seed, the vital imperfection that is necessary for life to continue, he takes up the thread that he will use over the years to recover a sense of belonging to Judaism. By using this image from a Christian parable about the importance of difference, by using the language of the persecutor, Levi restates his difference, the existence of his culture as well as his individual freedom. A similar example can be found at the end of Bassani's The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, when the young narrator says, 'But I would never have returned from my exile. Never again.' In the face of his father's decision to accept Fascist discrimination, and in the face of the self-hatred of his homosexual friend Fadigati, who drowns himself in a river, thus internalizing the hatred of the society that surrounds him, he asserts his difference and his exile, and in doing so rejects inequality."
'Remains of a Catastrophe'
According to Parussa, the tension that Jankélévitch pinpoints between wanting to be equal and different is not just a source of freedom, but also a matter of responsibility. In Jankélévitch's opinion, this tension depends upon an "en-plus," something additional that cannot be precisely described. This en-plus doesn't have anything to do with religion, which many Jews don't practice, nor does it have to do with race, whose existence is denied by these four writers, nor on nationality. Rather, it has something to do with a shared, ancient history.
Writes Parussa: "Echoes of this historical, escatological depth can be found in the images that Natalia Ginzburg uses in The Things We Used to Say to describe the unbreakable bond between members of her family. To her their sayings are familiar and recognizable even in a dark cave thanks to their inexplicable depth, to their being like hieroglyphics from an ancient past that still carry significance in the present and whose ultimate meaning can always be postponed and renewed with the passing of time. There is also an echo of this depth in Bassani's definition of Judaism, in The Garden of the Finzi Continis, as 'something intimate': an indefinable and almost imperceptible bond between himself and Alberto and Micol Finzi-Contini; or in the imperfection described by Primo Levi in The Periodic Table: 'the grain of salt or mustard' that 'makes the zinc react' — almost an indirect reference to Jankélévitch's description of the en-plus as the 'additional impurity that prevents the Jew from being a pure man in the chemical sense of the word pure (as when I say a pure Frenchman, a pure Russian).' "
According to Parussa, the en-plus, in this sense, is not just the bedrock of the freedom these authors draw from (and with it look to the future), but also the foundation of a responsibility to the past. As Levi points out in a famous section of The Drowned and the Saved, the very presence of survivors reminds us all of those who did not make it. And, continues Parussa, "since those who survived are not necessarily the best ones — but just those who did not drown by means of prevarication, skill or simple luck — then perhaps, Levi concludes, survivors are not the true witnesses of the past; if this is so, then who are we who remain? The remnant recalls what has been lost and is missing; it is the tangible memory of that loss and that absence, and, as such, it recalls the impossibility of a full identity."
As Parussa puts it, after Levi, the survivors are just the "remains of a catastrophe." They have no particular defining quality, except perhaps "having the possibility, and the responsibility, of recounting their fate" and the fate of those who had once accompanied them. This act of remembering — by bearing witness to what was irredeemably lost in the catastrophe — is how Jewish history, in Parussa's formulation, takes on the "peculiar character" of active memory.
These are some of the major themes tackled by the writers Parussa examines — and just how each examines them is recounted in the challenging foray into critical thinking that is Writing as Freedom, Writing as Testimony.