The Reception of Primo Levi in Sweden
On January 24 2013 the first Swedish edition of The Drowned and the Saved / De förlorade och de räddade was presented at the Italian Cultural Institute of Stockholm. It was translated by Barbro Andersson and published by Albert Bonniers, the most important literary publisher in Sweden. The text is part of a trilogy, Tre böcker [three books], which includes reprints of If This is a Man and The Truce. These were first published in Sweden by the same publisher in 1988 and 1991 with translations by Ingrid Börge. Göran Rosenberg wrote an introduction for the trilogy. A journalist and writer born into a Polish Jewish family, his book, A Short Stop on the Way to Auschwitz, tells the story of his parents, concentration-camp survivors and earned him the Augustpriset, the most important literary award for novels written in Swedish.
The event was attended by an audience composed half of Swedes and half of Italian residents of Sweden. The Institute’s new director, Sergio Scapin, who took office in December 2012, replaced Paolo Grossi, who had promoted this initiative before the end of his tenure. Scapin introduced the two speakers, International Primo Levi Studies Center Director Fabio Levi and Jane Nystedt, Professor Emeritus of the University of Stockholm, where she had taught Italian for many years. Professor Nystedt wrote articles about Primo Levi’s style, especially, and about his reception in Sweden, articles that appeared both in newspapers and in scholarly journals.
Fabio Levi illustrated the structure of the work, focusing on topics such as communication in an alienating and deafening context like the concentration camp and the gratuitousness of violence. He commented on Primo Levi’s increasing difficulty in keeping on communicating the experience of the destruction of the human being to the newer generations. Jane Nystedt went over the publishing history of Levi’s works in Sweden, not without some sharp comments about the time it took to get The Drowned and the Saved published, even though the topics it brought up had already been circulating in Swedish cultural discussions, thanks to the book’s translations into other languages.1Cfr. S. Finnström, “Inget bistånd är neutralt” [No aid policy is neutral], Svenska Dagbladet, 12/12/2008, p.14.
The literary critic Kaj Schueler dedicated a long article on Primo Levi on the occasion of the publication of the trilogy in Swedish. As he reminded us, interest in the literature of the Holocaust was rather late to develop in Sweden.2More generally, it was noted how the interest in contemporary history had long been weak in Sweden, at least until the end of the 20th century Cfr. K. Salomon, “Blir vi bättre av att lära oss mer?” [Does knowing more make us better?] Svenska Dagbladet, 30/01/2000, p.18. Even so, the trial of Adolf Eichmann played a decisive role in commanding the attention of public opinion on this topic at the beginning of the 1960s. Primo Levi appeared in the Swedish media for the first time only in 1969, when Göran Börge dedicated one of a number of articles in a series focused on new Italian literature on If This is a Man. A literary critic, writer, and lover of Italian culture and Primo Levi’s works,3Göran Börge, husband of Ingrid Börge, died on October 1 2012. Cfr. K. Schueler, “Göran Börge,” SvenskaDagbladet, 03/10/2012, p.27. he recommend its translation into Swedish, a recommendation that went unheeded those years.4Cfr. K. Schuelen, “Viss litteratur är viktigare än annan” [Some literature is more important than others], Svenska Dagbladet, 27/01/2013, p. 20, http://www.svd.se/kultur/understrecket/viss-litteratur-ar-viktigare-an-annan_7860208.svd.
Many years were to pass before any work of Levi’s was translated into Swedish. In fact, when If Not Now, When? came out in 1986 (published by Bonniers), Levi traveled to Stockholm for the launching of the book, which was presented at the Italian Cultural Institute. The circumstances of Levi’s death in 1987 received very limited attention. Nevertheless, the publication of If This is a Man a year later (1988) was more of a high-profile event. In those years, the book won over the Swedish public as one that “had to be given to every secondary school student”6“33 kritiker (inklusive Ankan) väljer årets böcker” [33 critics (including “The Duck”) choose this year’s books], Expressen, 21/12/1991, p. 4; the critic who chose Levi was Peter Cornell. and as “a masterpiece of the literature about something that cannot be grasped entirely.”7A. Carina, “Berättelse som slår ett slag rätt i veka livet” [A story is a blow to the heart], Göteborgs-Posten, 14/07/1996, p.33.
A translation of The Truce was published in 1991. A few years later its adaptation into a film by Francesco Rosi achieved a good level of success. Both its ethical message and its style were appreciated: “One cannot but be impressed by his literary performance as well as his human attitude, his total absence of a spirit of vindictiveness.8G. Gleichmann, “Långt farväl från Auschwitz,” Expressen, 06/05/1991, p. 4.
Bonniers published The Periodic Table in 1993, also translated by Ingrid Börge, which helped Swedish readers to get to know Levi’s passion for chemistry more closely. As was written in one review,
Chemistry was clear, univocal, and verifiable in every one of its elements. Beyond the vital intellectual nourishment it gave, chemistry also functioned as a counterweight to the lies of Fascism. Levi looked at the periodic table as pure poetry.
By 1997, ten years after his death, Levi, who was then considered one of the great figures in Italian literature, managed more than ever to attract the attention of Swedish media. Radio dramas were created drawing from The Truce and The Periodic Table. Periodicals like Riga and Ordfront dedicated special features on Levi and even television programs offered comments on his life and works.10Cfr. G. Börge, “Primo Levi uppmärksammas som aldrig förr” [Primo Levi arouses our attention more than ever], Svenska Dagbladet, 18/04/1997, p.24. Even Conversations with Primo Levi, which was published in 1998, received ample attention in the Swedish media.11This is the conversation with Ferdinando Camon. Cfr. R. Tornborg, “En fråga som aldrig får svar” [A question that never received an asnwer], Svenska Dagbladet, 11/01/1999, p.12.
In the light of this, it is no surprise that a special evening, January 30 2000, was dedicated to Levi and to “narrating what cannot be narrated” at the Forum of Culture, moderated by Elie Wiesel.12Cfr. Ö. Abrahamsson, “Primo Levi på Forum” [Primo Levi at the Forum], Dagens Nyheter, 01/02/2000, p.2. The event was part of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust with Lionel Jospin and Gerhard Schröder13Cfr. K. Salomon, “Blir vi bättre,” cit. among its participants. A few months later in October the dramatic monologueIf This is a Man debuted, directed by Lars Norén, one of the greatest Swedish dramatists, and starring Michael Nyqvist.14Cfr. H.I. Hanson, “Sann återgivning av Levis bok” [A faithful representation of Levi’s book], Svenska Dagbladet, 09/10/2000,p. 13. The monologue, which was also staged in Oslo, was presented again in 200715Cfr. TT Spektra (press agency), “Nyqvist jobbar med Norén”[Nyqvist works with Norén], 14/08/2007. and 2009. In 2009 there was another director, Göran Stangertz, and another actor, Michalis Koutsogiannakis. In this year a great deal of controversy arose when Björn Melander, the director who first took the assignment, resigned in protest of the Israeli repression of the Palestinians in the Gaza strip.16Melander’s decision provoked harsh reactions; see T. Kaplan, “Finns det någon som kan förklara?”[Is there anything that can give us an explanation?], Kvällsposten, 25/01/2009, p.40 and A. Pleijel, “Dunkla krav på Israels storsinthet” [An ambiguous appeal for Israel’s magnanimity], Svenska Dagbladet, 06/03/2009, p. 8 (Culture Section).
By the beginning of the 2000s, literature about the Holocaust had achieved its recognition even in Sweden17Cfr. K. Heinemann, Det självupplevda lockar en väldigt stor läsekrets [What was experienced personally captues a very large number of readers], Hallands Nyheter, 31/10/2003, p. 22 and Levi was recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest exponent of this genre,18Cfr. G. Klein, “Var nazisterna föregångare i kampen mot cancer?” [Were the Nazis the precursors of the fight against cancer?], Svenska Dagbladet, 17/08/1999, p.12. in that he was often grouped with Imre Kertész, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner defined at “the Hungarian Primo Levi.”19Cfr. P. Landin, “Nobelpristagaren Imre Kertész skriver om sitt Budapest” [Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész writes about his Budapest], Dagens Nyheter, 13/10/2002,p. 2. Articles regularly cited Levi as an example and a support when dealing with a whole range of topics: historical memory, both of the Holocaust and other events;20E.g., L. Linderborg, “50 år efter Auschwitz - och vad händer?” [50 years after Auschwitz – and what is happening?], 27/01/1995, p. 5; “En del av vår erfarenhet. Femtioårsminnet av Auschwitz är en hyllning - ...av offren - och ger en varning [A piece of our history. The 50th anniversary of Auschwitz is a tribute – by its victims – and a warning], (unsigned), Dagens Nyheter, 27/12/1995, p. 2; J. Jakubowski, “Det är en strid om minnet!” [There is a struggle against memory!] Nerikes Allehanda, 26/01/2000,p. 31; G. Byström, “Skillnaden mellan minne och historia,” Göteborgs-Posten, 19/12/2009, p.82. the relationship between literature and history21Cfr. R. Fjellström, “Så skapar litteraturen sin sanning om Förintelsen,” Dagens Nyheter, 24/01/2013, p.8, Section: Culture. ; the denouncement of contemporary horrors like the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia,22Cfr.T. Jonas, “Rasande tango i Sarajevo” [Enraged tango at Sarajevo], Göteborgs-Posten, 20/05/1996, p. 40. and the preoccupation and indignation over the resurgence of Fascism in Italy.23Cfr., by the writer, published also in it., T. Lappalainen, “Mussolinis arvtagare” [The heir of Mussolini], Aftonbladet, 03/01/1995, p.5, and, by the influential political commentator O. Svenning, “Att banalisera fascismen” [Banalizing fascism], Aftonbladet, 03/06/1996, p.2 and “Har EU verkligen plats för Persson och Berlusconi?” [Does the EU really have room for Persson and Berlusconi?], Aftonbladet, 11/05/2003, p.2.
In 2012 the Italian Cultural Institute of Stockholm gave helped extend the recognition of Levi when it published a translation of Ad ora incerta e altre poesie / Collected Poems, by Roger Fjellström and Louise Kahan.
As pointed out above, the publishing event of 2013 was the release of the first Swedish edition of The Drowned and the Saved, which was hailed by critics and intellectuals as well-deserved compensation for a lack of consideration that had lasted too long. After the limited public reception of The Periodic Table and Conversations with Primo Levi the publisher Bonniers “had tenaciously refused to publish the text in Swedish despite the fact that many were insisting on it.” This is why The Drowned and the Saved reached its public with a 27-year delay.25Cfr. A. Nordin, “Behovet att berätta upphör aldrig” [There is never any end to the need to tell stories], Kyrkans Tidning, 24/01/2013, pp.16-17.
There were some who pointed out that the figure and the works of Primo Levi deserved a broader presentation than the one that was written in the trilogy. In fact, it would be a good idea to make an intellectual biography of the writer available in Swedish, even a schematic one. There was some criticism that one of the words used to translate the title was not strong enough.26The word used to translate sommersi/the drowned was förlorade, literally the lost. According to the polical commentator Olle Svenning, who knows Italian well, drunknade would have been a more fitting term. Svenning then takes up again the the pairing of Levi and Dante, which had already been pointed out a number of times in the Swedish media. Cfr. O. Svenning, “Ur skärselden” [Outside of purgatory], Landskrona Posten, 27/01/2013, pp.42-43 (http://hd.se/kultur/boken/2013/01/27/ur-skarselden/). Nevertheless, the idea of gathering together the three books into one volume was considered worthwhile by all because reading the three texts together can provide readers with a better understanding of the concentration camps that what could be culled from the reading of one book alone.27Cfr. Kaj Schueler, Viss litteratur cit.
The publication of the trilogy was noted and commented on in very many newspapers, both national and local.28The trilogy was voted for weeks as the best the newly published book by the literaty critics of the Dagens Nyheter, the most authoritative Swedish newspaper. “Dagens Nyheters kritiker listar de bästa nya böckerna,” Dagens Nyheter, 16/02/2013, p.8, Section: Culture. It became an opportunity for an homage to Levi’s works as a whole within the context of a debate that ensued on the occasion of the Day of Remembrance over how worthwhile Holocaust witness literature is as a historical source.29Also see H. Nordenhök, “Han blev vittne till massmord” [He became a witness of genocide], Aftonbladet, 09/02/2013, p.4, Section: Culture (http://www.aftonbladet.se/kultur/bokrecensioner/article16200819.ab), which emphasizes how the approach of The Drowned and the Saved – as opposed to the more strictly literary approach of If This is a Man and The Truce -- is more polemic because it rose out of a need (the refutation of revisionism and the rejection of oblivion) and out of a different era; Ö. Abrahamsson, “Vittneslitteraturens olika nivåer av sanning” [The various levels of truth in the literary works of the witnesses),Kristianstadsbladet, 25/01/2013, p.23, Section: Culture, and B. Wiman, “Förintelsen får inte förvandlas från erfarenhet till estetik” [The Holocaust cannot be turned into an aesthetic experience], Dagens Nyheter”, 27/01/2013, p.2, Section: Culture. On the occasion of the book presentation at the Italian Cultural Institute of Stockholm, the Primo Levi Center set up contacts with the Italian Section of the Department of French, Italian, and Classical Languages at the University of Stockholm, the Hugo Valentine Center at the University of Uppsala, and the Forum for Living History / Forum för Levande Historia. In the wake of this renewed interest in Levi’s works, we are looking forward to these Swedish institutions’ encouraging and supporting discussion on Levi’s contribution to the historical debate on the gray zone of the Holocaust.