The strength of this biography lies in placing Levinas’ life and philosophy in context: the context of his life as a naturalised French citizen, the context of living as a Jew in Europe before, during and after the Holocaust, the context of the phenomenological movement and the various intellectual circles in which Levinas participated, and finally the context of a dialogue between Judaism and philosophy. Malka’s research is both extensive and penetrating, and his firsthand accounts of engagements with Levinas demonstrate his perspicacity. The weakness of the book, however, stems from the very thing that makes it strong. Malka sometimes, particularly in the first section, gets bogged down in details. The first couple of chapters are a dry mass of facts about Levinas’ early life and the environment into which he was born. So much is squeezed into this early part that attention is not always paid to drawing out the essentials of a particular historical event or making explicit the relevance of a comment in a particular testimony. There are also stretches of the text that read more like working notes than a woven, fluid narrative (e.g., Chapter 5, where one finds a catalogue of testimonials without any real transition between them). This greatly improves as the book goes on, however, particularly in chapters that deal with a single testimony such as the wonderful interview with Derrida in the chapter on his relationship with Levinas. The dryness of the early chapters is a small price to pay for the whole of the work. The picture that Malka paints of Levinas throughout the course of the book is made vivid by the varying and plentiful testimonials that he pulls together, and the connections he draws between the different events in Levinas’ life provide depth to the account of his character.
While a sophisticated reader unfamiliar with Levinas’ writing could no doubt profitably read this biography, it is likely more rewarding for the familiar reader. Malka assumes acquaintance with Levinas’ work and builds from there. He very occasionally makes explicit reference to Levinasian philosophical terms and for the most part is concerned with making the picture of the man whole. In this Malka is extremely successful and it, of course, has direct bearing on our understanding of Levinas’ philosophy. As Malka notes, when Levinas’ children speak about him, his work and life bleed together as if “these were inextricably mingled and one of them could not be mentioned without the other one being automatically evoked.” This harmony of movement is characteristic of Levinas. What becomes clear throughout the book is the necessity of Levinas’ Judaism for his philosophy and of his philosophy for his Judaism. As Malka writes, this is an “infinite dialogue” in which “the two worlds touch and sustain each other without merging.”
Cathy Maloney reviews Salomon Malka's Emmanuel Levinas: His Life and Legacy over on the Canadian Society for Continental Philosophy blog (review from back in January 2010; book has just landed with me and looks excellent.)