As I have just mentioned, Robert Gordon (of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge), the editor of Verso's newly published edition of Auschwitz Report, responded to Jonathan Beckman's "shrill assault" on that book in a letter in yesterday's Observer. The letter, as is usual, was edited for the newspaper. Here it is in full:
Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi and Leonardo De Benedetti (published by Verso and edited by myself) is an extraordinary historical document from 1945-6, which describes in appalling medical detail the conditions in the Monowitz satellite camp of Auschwitz, where its two authors were imprisoned. Unfortunately, Jonathan Beckman’s intemperate review of the volume (Observer, 8 Oct) is such a mish-mash of bald errors, pompous arrogations and sheer confusions that it is hard to spot the single serious point that lies behind it, a point about history, literature and our notions of authorship.
To deal first with the errors. Beckman fumes against the publisher’s ‘unforgiveable’ use of an image of Levi’s ‘distinctive bottle-lensed glasses’ on the book’s cover. I am not quite certain why such an image would constitute so grave a breach of good taste, but, the point is moot: the glasses are not Levi’s – they rather mutely evoke the thousands of belongings stolen by the SS from victims destined to disappear. Worse, Beckman suggests that Levi never witnessed the selections in the camps of what he calls ‘invalids’, when the weakest and sickest were picked out and sent to the gas chambers. In fact, Levi’s 1947 masterpiece If this is a Man – written in exactly the same weeks and months as he and De Benedetti were preparing their report – contains some of the most powerful pages ever written on precisely those terrible ‘selections’, which Levi experienced and chronicled as few others. More vaguely, Beckman implies that Levi had only a minor, almost irrelevant role to play in writing and publishing the Auschwitz Report in 1946, and that it is therefore dishonest to publish it as a work by Levi. Yet none of the evidence Beckman produces to back up this assumption (such as the alphabetical ordering of the authors’ names in its first publication) suggests anything other than a genuinely co-authored report. As I discuss in the introduction to Auschwitz Report Levi’s role was, in fact, substantial: as such it is a work of considerable literary and historical interest. And it certainly does not warrant Beckman’s shrill assault on the book’s publishers.
Beckman, rather like Jonathan Aitken once did, assumes the mantle of arbiter of the true, calling for ‘absolute fidelity to truth’ and adherence to Levi’s own standards of ‘rigour’. His slips rather belie his apparently noble cause, as does his suprisingly benign description of the Nazi medical structures, when he does touch on the content of the report: to describe Levi and De Benedetti as ‘survivors of [Nazi] medical care’ hardly captures the reality of what they suffered, nor the true purpose of the report. The rhetoric is breathless and unrelenting, though: he accuses Verso of ‘dolling’ up the work, ‘desperately swelling it’ to book length (as if short books were somehow immoral), ‘piggybacking’ on Levi’s fame; the introduction is ‘spurious and crass’, although no good reason is given. Further, the book was, Beckman says, swelled by pieces in the postscript, but these do exactly what Beckman complains elsewhere the book doesn’t do enough of: that is, give Leonardo De Benedetti his due. They contain two moving tributes by Levi to his life-long friend De Benedetti.
Here we come to the serious crux of the matter: how to treat the ‘other’ author. Levi’s name – and Beckman has measured it – is apparently five times larger than De Benedetti’s on the front cover (although not on the inner cover, nor on the contents page, nor at the head of the report itself) and he appears as having written the report ‘with’ Levi. Yet, as we’ve seen, they shared more or less equal authorship of the report. Is this publication strategy immoral or hypocritical? In 1946, perhaps, there was no reason to give Levi top billing. But, now, nearly 20 years after Levi’s death, when he is established as one of the truly great voices of 20th-century literature and testimony, how disingenuous is it to pretend that he doesn’t belong above the title line, and above his co-author? It’s a tricky decision to make, one I discussed with Verso, and one without a black-and-white answer. The report is a fascinating and important historical document, but how many would read it without Levi’s name prominently attached?
Commerce comes into the picture, no doubt, but so too do canonization and history. Sigmund Freud’s complete works include Studies in Hysteria, a work co-authored by Josef Breuer. The Two Noble Kinsmen is by a pair of playwrights, called, in alphabetical order, John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. No prizes for guessing who gets first billing between the two. It would be interesting to discuss, calmly, the rights and wrongs of relegating the likes of Breuer, Fletcher and De Benedetti out of their alphabetical places and into the shadows of their more famous co-authors; and whether or not we would have heard of them at all, otherwise. We could discuss how, even with the Holocaust, documents can exist as simultaneously part of history and part of literary history, as both of then and of now. The historical document, Auschwitz Report, was by ‘Dr. Leonardo de Benedetti (physician) and Dr. Primo Levi (chemist)’; but Auschwitz Report takes its place in literary history also, as the work in which Primo Levi’s lifetime of writing about Auschwitz began.