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An intellectual at Mauthausen: Aldo Bizzarri between essay, fiction (and cinema)

Un intellectuel à Mauthausen : Aldo Bizzarri entre essai, roman (et cinéma)
Un intelletuale a Mauthausen: Aldo Bizzarri tra saggio, romanzo (e cinema)
Robert S. C. Gordon

Résumés

Cet article offre une vue d’ensemble et une analyse des écrits concentrationnaires d’Aldo Bizzarri, déporté politique italien détenu dans le camp de concentration de Mauthausen durant la période 1944-1945. Bizzarri a connu une carrière variée comme écrivain, essayiste et attaché culturel avant la déportation, puis comme journaliste et comme écrivain après la guerre. Il a écrit deux livres importants sur ses expériences à Mauthausen et a également collaboré à la réalisation d’un film qui se déroule dans un camp de concentration. L’article développe l’hypothèse selon laquelle ces différents travaux donneraient à voir une expérimentation formelle tout à fait caractéristique de ces premières tentatives, dont le but était de trouver une forme d’expression apte à représenter le phénomène du camp et de la violence génocidaire nazie.

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  • 1 Influential studies include A. Wieviorka L’ère du témoin, Paris, Plon, 1998; J. Winter, “Notes on (...)
  • 2 On non-realist paradigms for Holocaust representation, see e.g. J. Adams, Magic Realism in Holocau (...)
  • 3 D. Rousset, L’univers concentrationnaire, Paris, Éditions du Pavois, 1946.
  • 4 See the catalogue A. Bravo and D. Jalla eds., Una misura onesta: gli scritti di memoria della depo (...)
  • 5 P. Levi, Se questo è un uomo, in Id., Opere complete, M. Belpoliti ed., Turin, Einaudi, 2017, vol. (...)
  • 6 On this phase of writing, see notes in ibid., pp. 1449ff.

11. Our understanding of the literature of the concentration camps has for a long time been constrained by certain dominant categories and labels such as “memory” or “testimony”, and alongside them by certain modes of writing, such as documentary realism, memoir or reportage, as the assumed default for recounting the horrors of the Nazi genocides and the appalling gamut of violence of the Lager system1. These dominant categories and modes have been variously and interestingly destabilized and undermined by the generations writing at the turn of the new millennium, in a perhaps inevitable effect of distancing following the disappearance of the first-hand generations of “witness-writers”2. It is also the case, however – and in some respects this constitutes a more illuminating exception to the rule in its implications for the history of the literature of suffering and survival – that there was a rich phase of written response to the Lager, in Italy as across Europe, that emerged before the hegemony of the witness and of realism was established; a phase in the mid-to-late 1940s in which a kaleidoscopic spectrum of possibility – including, but not exhausted by the voice of the witness – characterized early responses of camp survivors, who turned to the written word as a means to capture and transmit the dark realities and lived perceptions of what David Rousset had already capaciously labelled the univers concentrationnaire3. In the Italian case, the immediate post-war years of 1945 to 1948 saw the publication of over 50 little-read texts on the camps by former deportees or reduci – Jews, anti-Fascists, military internees, forced labourers – and, if a portion of these might be subsumed under the later standardized category of first-person, prose, testimonial memoir, a cluster of them did not fit the standard, taking on instead forms as various as poetry, fiction (novel or short story), essay, diary, history, or indeed hybrids of these4. Even Primo Levi, who in this as in so many other respects serves as a pioneer and model for later developments, and who might seem powerfully to propose the model of the witness through his first and greatest work Se questo è un uomo (1947), in reality presents fascinating strands of evidence to the contrary. It is striking to note that Levi’s clarion call to the vocation of the witness, enounced by his “Prussian” character Steinlauf in the chapter “Iniziazione” in Se questo – “noi bestie non dobbiamo diventare; […] anche in questo luogo si può sopravvivere, e perciò si deve voler sopravvivere, per raccontare, per portare testimonianza”5 – was in fact absent from the 1947 edition, the chapter having been added in its entirety for the 1958 Einaudi second edition of the text, at precisely the later moment when the figure of the witness was beginning to take emblematic shape. Furthermore, as recent biographical and critical work on Levi has highlighted, Levi was intensely at work during 1945-1948 not only on the composition of Se questo è un uomo, but also on poems, short stories (science, war, fantasy stories), letters, lists, maps and diagrams, diary pages, lab reports and medical papers6. The work of the survivor included witness and memory work, in other words, but was by no means subsumed by it, contrary to what a posteriori reconstructions of the “witness tradition” might suggest.

  • 7 Another case of an author of two books on the camps, one fiction, one reportage, in the mid-1940s, (...)
  • 8 A. Bizzarri, Mauthausen città ermetica, Rome, OET, 1946; republished, F. Cereja ed., Turin, Il seg (...)

2This essay uses a single case-study to explore the methods and implications of “other” modes of early representation and response to the Lager. The case-study is a striking and largely neglected figure in the panorama of concentration camp literature, a survivor of Mauthausen, an author and intellectual who, exceptionally7, penned not one but two significant and strikingly different books in 1946-1947, each of which chronicled the Lager in non-testimonial, third-person modes, analytical and literary respectively; and who went on also to contribute, in a minor but significant way, to the earliest Italian treatment of the Nazi concentration camps on film, here too in what looks to present-day posterity like an inapposite form – the melodramatic fiction film – rather than the later standards of the documentary or the sober history film. The author in question was Aldo Bizzarri (1907-1953) and we shall examine in turn his biography as a literary intellectual and thinker, his two key books related to Mauthausen – the essay Mauthausen città ermetica (1946) and the novel Proibito vivere (1947)8 – and his work on the film L’ebreo errante (dir. Goffredo Alessandrini, 1948).

  • 9 Biographical and critical work on Bizzarri is very scarce: I have drawn on E. Ronconi ed., Diziona (...)
  • 10 A. Bizzarri, La traccia nel sole, Milan, G. Agnelli, 1929.

32. Aldo Bizzarri was born in 1907 and his biography before 1944 can be divided into two aspects and phases9, that of a young, indeed precocious literary intellectual in the 1920s intersecting with some of the most dynamic literary currents of the moment; and that of a more mature international cultural operator from the mid-1930s onwards, working abroad for the Fascist state in its cultural institutes in Europe and Latin America. Like many cultural figures of his generation, then, Bizzarri gravitated around and tacked close to the regime and its cultural circles, sharing some of its nationalist values, thought and activism, without quite emerging as an unequivocal ideological adherent. He was part of the 900 group around Massimo Bontempelli in the 1920s, close to contemporaries such as Alberto Moravia, and Gian Gaspare Napolitano; with the latter, he founded a short-lived literary journal I lupi (1928). Several of the group, including Paola Masino and Margherita Sarfatti, planned to write novels for an imprint of the review 900; but only Moravia completed the task and his would eventually appear in 1929 with another publisher, Alpes, under the title Gli indifferenti. Bizzarri published several short stories and also a novel of his own, entitled La traccia nel sole10.

  • 11 Id., Origini e caratteri dello Stato nuovo portoghese, Milan, Istituto per gli studi di politica i (...)
  • 12 F. Cereja in A. Bizzarri, Mauthausen città ermetica, op. cit., 2003, pp. 122-123.

4During the early 1930s, Bizzarri lectured in universities in the history of political thought and from 1934 spent the better part of a decade in postings as director of “Istituti di cultura italiana” in Santiago (Chile), Rennes, Lisbon and finally Budapest. During this period, there are traces of activity in the form of public lectures and essays, covering figures ranging from Dante to Vico, Pisacane to Cuoco, and local magazines produced under his aegis, as well as occasional pieces for newspapers including Corriere della Sera, commenting on his current country of residence. In Portugal, he also published a substantial book of political theory on Salazar’s “Estado novo” government, established in 1932, which showed strong affinities with Fascist corporativism11. Cereja notes in this work a significant contribution to a debate within Fascist political thought, but also a rejection of a drift towards a Nazi conception of state morality (or amorality) with its hostility towards the rule of law12.

  • 13 This paragraph draws on Bizzarri’s own account in Mauthausen città ermetica, op. cit., 2003, p. 11 (...)
  • 14 L. Sorrentino, Sognare a Mauthausen, Milan, Bompiani, 1978.

5Bizzarri was arrested by the Gestapo in Budapest on 30 March 1944. The Nazi occupation of Hungary was completed only days before, on 19 March, thus it seems likely the Bizzarri was taken in a rapid early phase of suppression of potential enemies and resisters, although neither his own account of his arrest in a note to Mauthausen città ermetica, nor other biographical material gives any concrete indication of subversive activity on Bizzarri’s part, beyond an association with a former ally now viewed with suspicion13. Following days in Fö-utca prison in central Buda and Landzendorf camp in Austria, he reached Mauthausen on 20 May as a “red triangle” political prisoner, number 66270. In the camp, he was assigned to (relatively) light labour and was close to a varied group of Italian and international fellow prisoners, several of whom shaped his thinking and shifting politics, and materially helped him to survive the horrific ordeal of the Lager. Several of these figures reappear, explicitly named or lightly fictionalized, in his two Mauthausen books and he himself appears in at least one memoir by a fellow prisoner, Lamberti Sorrentino14. The camp was liberated on 3-6 May 1945, although Bizzarri only left on 22 May.

  • 15 A. Bizzarri, “Come si torna in Italia” (1945), now in Id. Il problema è la persona, 1945-1952, Mil (...)

6Bizzarri described his return journey to Italy in a short article in Risorgimento liberale published in August 1945, entitled “Come si torna in Italia”, most likely his first piece of writing on his camp experience. In it, he vividly evokes the tragicomic chaos of post-war Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, the maelstrom of people and nationalities (Moroccans, Germans, Americans, British etc) and the long days of frustration and delay before he and companions take matters into their own hands and stow away on an English military convoy to complete the final few hours’ journey to Rome15.

  • 16 See E. Forcella, “Italian intellectuals and international policy”, International Spectator, vol. I (...)
  • 17 He examined a wide range of figures from Zweig, Huxley, Koestler and Poe to Lukacs, Gramsci, Malin (...)
  • 18 M. Bardini, “Elsa Morante e il cinema: L’isola di Arturo di Damiano Damiani”, Cuadernos de Filolog (...)
  • 19 See the notice “Aldo Bizzarri”, Corriere della Sera, 23 May 1953.

7A flurry of work on his wartime experiences and the camps followed – the two books of 1946 and 1947 – and these ran in parallel with the beginning of a final phase in Bizzarri’s life and career, between 1945 and 1953, which saw him active as a respected journalist, cultural operator and intellectual. He showed signs of political engagement, signing a manifesto against the monarchy during the 1946 referendum period16, but seems to have remained relatively apolitical, loosely non-aligned if close to liberal circles thereafter. He wrote regularly for Pannunzio’s influential and innovative Il Mondo, reviewing books and writing on social questions; he was a contributor to several other publications, among others Città libera, Risgorgimento liberale, Fiera letteraria, Il giornale, L’Italia che scrive, where he wrote on literature and political thought17; he made steps into films, for example collaborating on the screenplay of Pietro Germi’s In nome della legge (1949), as well as Alessandrini’s film; and he became a regular cinema reviewer for RAI radio, alternating for a period with Elsa Morante18. All these activities were cut short by his early death, at the age of only 45, ostensibly by illness19, but his date of death is striking: 22 May 1953, the eighth anniversary exactly of his final day at Mauthausen.

  • 20 E. Rondena (op. cit., p. 94) compares this work to G. Pajetta, Mauthausen, Milan, Picardi, 1946. O (...)

83. Bizzarri’s formation and biography show him to be a relatively unusual figure in the spectrum of concentration-camp survivor-writers: unlike most, he was an intellectual, with a solid and developed literary and also political-philosophical background, as well as little sign of significant anti-Fascist views (besides certain reservations regarding Nazism), at least before deportation. These strands are quite apparent from the placing and the form of his two books, his film work and his essays on the camps after the war, starting with the most conceptually articulated and analytical of them, the 1946 volume Mauthausen città ermetica20.

  • 21 E. Rondena, op. cit. p. 89 n. G. Debenedetti, 16 ottobre 1943, Rome, OET, 1945.

9Elena Rondena notes that the publisher of Mauthausen città ermetica, OET (Organizzazione editoriale tipografica), here under the imprint Edizioni Polilibraria, published “edizioni scolastiche e di cultura generale”, but this range included several works on the war and the Resistance, most notably, Giacomo Debenedetti’s 16 ottobre 194321. Bizzarri’s book appeared in 1946, but the book’s conclusion ends with the mark “Roma, settembre 1945” (p. 115), suggesting the book was written over the summer following Bizzarri’s return. The structure of the book is in itself indicative, divided into ten core chapters, framed by paratextual material in the form of a “Premessa” (pp. 5-8), “Conclusione” (pp. 109-115, all in italics) and “Nota giustificativa” (p. 117). These provide important framing personal material and also an overarching perspective that both governs the core chapters and also in some sense permits Bizzarri to stand back in the rest of the book and present an impersonal “documentary” account. As the “Nota giustificativa” comments: “Questo libro è un documentario che trascende di molto la vicenda personale di chi ha sentito il dovere di scriverlo” (p. 117), before going on to give brief data on his arrest, dates and numbers (his cell numbers in Budapest; his barrack numbers in Mauthausen, as well as his prisoner number). He then names (as he also does in the “Premessa”) a series of fellow-prisoners who are cited as direct sources of all the information he did not acquire first-hand, including for precision’s sake their postal addresses in Rovereto, Brno and Prague. Such notes of pedantry in information and sources, mixed with personal data and statements of trust and friendship, point to a certain sober anxiety shared with that of the witness – will I be believed? can my evidence be corroborated? – which is transposed into the medium of the essay of the rest of the book, with its need for objectivity, evidential sources and demonstrable accuracy.

10The “Conclusione” is also revealing: it opens on an intimate personal note of trauma: “Scrivere questo volumetto è stato per l’autore come liberarsi da un incubo: una catarsi per la memoria ossessionata…” (p. 109), but goes on to reaffirm his vow to write above all a sober documentary work. Following reflections on (German) national character and a rejection of this as an explanation of the camps, the conclusion reasserts the political nature of the problem of Nazism: “non è stato un capriccio di delinquenti e di pazzi […] ma il supremo fiore di un sistema politico” (p. 112; and cf. p. 115). It is this system he attempts to synthesize and describe, a production of a conception of the State (p. 113) and a relegation of the notion of man to an irrelevance, neither subject nor purpose (“…in cui l’Uomo non è più il soggetto e il fine del sistema politico”, p. 114), echoing the aspect of Bizzarri’s formation in political thought.

11The “Premessa”, finally, contains a long list of over 50 names of fellow victims of many nationalities (Spanish, Czech, French, Belgian, Yugoslav, Hungarian, Greek, Italian and unnamed Dutch, Polish, Russian), but Bizzarri makes a point of deciding to name all living victims, instead of the mass of the dead (“ciascuno di noi [vivi] ne ha lasciati [di compagni morti] nove dietro di sé”, p. 6), since the dead are too many and the offence, “la mostruosa dimensione del matririo subito”, far too great to contain in a dedicatory list. Again, paired with the anxiety of truth and evidence, this sensitivity to naming the dead and the living powerfully echoes a central concern of both testimonial and evidentiary writing, but also problematizes it as it does so.

12Around this list, Bizzarri’s preface offers further insightful framing: it uses the metaphor of propaganda imagery, which deliberately distorts and heightens, to suggest instead that his eye will be flat and neutral, characterized by “la più scarna nudità” (p. 5). Eschewing all forms of personal display or memory, he offers instead a study of a system:

mettere in luce, traverso un tessuto di fatti esemplari, le idee, dare una sintesi del “sistema” per l’epurazione europea che in Mauthausen raggiungeva la sua espressione, se non più ampia, certo più spietata di perfezione diabolica. (p. 6)

13The preface also reflects on the consequences of such a crime, unheard of in human history; on the instinct for vengeance on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of dead; on the need for a punishment that would not merely be a base imitation of the original Nazi crime. Instead, Bizzarri evokes his own and his companions’ view that the persecutors should be killed in the simplest way possible, the camps themselves destroyed, and a simple monument erected in their place (pp. 7-8).

14In pulling back from the human instinct for revenge in his preface, Bizzarri is proposing analysis as his tool of preference, setting the terms for understanding the Lager by using a Vichian figure to position it:

dirittamente fuori dei confini dell’umanità come avrebbe detto Vico […] una trasgressione sacrilega dei limiti dell’umano, uno spaventoso abbassamento morale dell’uomo, un regresso verso la più fonda e disperata barbarie. (pp. 6, 8)

15And indeed, echoing the echo of Vico, the opening core chapter of the book is entitled “Oltre i confini dell’umano”, in which the sequential trajectory of the typical prisoner – starting with arrival at the camp gates, the rollcall in the Appelplatz – is made to coincide with a parallel conceptual-moral trajectory beyond the human (the resonance with Levi, as well as with several other survivor-writers, is striking), descending into torture, violence, terror, slave labour, hunger and (almost) certain death. The chapters that follow examine in sequence the so-called “political office” where a select few passed on arrival (2. “Soste dinanzi al portone”), the defining principles of the perverse and inverted natural and moral order of camps life of, and its key protagonists, the kapos and the SS (3. “Le chiavi e i protagonisti”), a typical day (4. “Una giornata”), the infamous slave labour quarry (5. “La cava di pietre”), the camp hospital (6. “La colpa di essere ammalati”), the system of corruption (7. “Terrore e corruzione: ‘organizzare’”), the camp prison, site of horrific torture (8. “La prigione della prigione”), the gas chamber and crematorium (9. “Si esce dal camino del crematorio”), and finally the chaos of the end of the camp (10. “La città si dissolve”).

16These chapters are all dense with the experiences of those named prisoners and the collective, with vivid anecdotes, terrible scenes and voices, often with notes of wry sarcasm or perplexity (e.g. “Primo invito al suicidio? In ogni modo non sarebbe stato l’ultimo”, p. 39); but they centre most consistently on a reflective thread, and a set of governing metaphors to render and interrogate the Lager “system”. One of these is the limit of the human, as noted, and this is developed in animal metaphors: the prisoners as “gregge” (p. 15), as “bestie da macello” (p. 35), or, in an image drawn not from Vico but from Kafka, as “verme” (p. 29).

17Another pair of Bizzarri’s governing analytical metaphors are combined with force in the book’s title: the model of the “city” or city-state, in so far as Mauthausen is shown to operate as a perverse civic “system” – of governance, law, morality, economy and value, all inverted and perverted in the extreme, whence Bizzarri’s conviction of the political basis of his explanation; and the recurrent image of the “hermetically” sealed-off universe – “fuori del mondo” (p. 92), hellish, impenetrable and unmoveable, cut off also from meaning, utility, logic (or from our conception of such things) – which forms the spatial-conceptual foundation of the Lager, with its violent thresholds and transitions, and opaque practices:

Che senso ha questa storia? […] La risposta è nessun senso, nessuna ragione. È cosí tutto a Mauthausen […] cercare un vero filo conduttore, una logica delle cose è veramente vana impresa. Mauthasen, per chi l’ha vissuto, resta il regno dell’arbirtrio, dell’assoluta gratuità, di una lucida follia. Ivi tutto poteva accadere, tutto senza che ci fosse un perché. Unico sfondo fisso, dietro il cangiante assurdo quotidiano, la morte. (pp. 87-88; emphasis in the original)

184. The dominion of death becomes the governing mood and metaphor, starting from the title, for Bizzarri’s densely literary work of narrative fiction on Mauthausen, and companion to Mauthausen città ermetica, Proibito vivere.

  • 22 Alberto e Arnoldo Mondadori, Aldo Palazzeschi, Carteggio 1938-1974, L. Diafani ed., Rome, Edizioni (...)
  • 23 Between 1946 and 1957, the Arianna imprint also published other significant works on the concentra (...)

19Proibito vivere. Romanzo was printed and published in August 1947. Unlike its companion volume, it appeared with a leading publisher, Mondadori, under the elegant imprint of one its most historically significant series, Lo Specchio, founded in 1940 by Alberto Mondadori. Mondadori was already a highly successful publisher of both commercial and “serious” books and popular magazines during the Fascist period, shrewdly negotiating a pathway through the regime’s strictures. Bizzarri had published stories in their illustrated magazine Tempo in the early 1940s22. The publisher relaunched itself initially from Verona after 1945, with new series and reconfigurations of established lines, including Lo Specchio. The series would in due course specialise in poetry (“I poeti dello Specchio” included Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Saba, Sinisgalli, Montale), but in the mid-1940s it was still also publishing important works of prose narrative (e.g. Manzini, Bernari, Buzzati, Bontempelli). In an interesting signal of precisely the kind of questions around blurred genre boundaries between literature, memory and history that Bizzarri’s work poses for Holocaust writing, Proibito vivere appeared with the standard cover text and mission statement for the Specchio series on its inner flap (“essere specchio della più viva produzione letteraria italiana dei nostri giorni”); and also, on the back cover, with the statement for another series, founded in 1946, Arianna, dedicated to “la memoria […] diari e memorie ed epistolari di uomini immersi nella mischia della Storia, attori e testimoni dei suoi complessi avvenimenti23.

  • 24 Early in the book, one character, Valdemar, talks of an Italy where “in antico s’usava riunirsi in (...)

20The book itself takes an interesting and interestingly strained form. It is markedly distinct from Mauthausen città ermetica for its structural split between fiction and reality, for its unsual juxtaposition of the concentration camp setting with an apparently detached body of short narrative fiction. The fiction that is collated here is of an expressionist kind familiar to Bizzarri from the 1920-1930s, but the collation explicitly echoes centuries-old Italian novella and frame-narrative traditions24. Mondadori’s editors were well aware of the strain, as is evident from the strident “defence” of the work mounted in the blurb on the back cover flap:

Proibito vivere […] non è tuttavia un diario o un breviario e, per quanto si definisca un romanzo, non è nemmeno un vero e proprio romanzo […]. Nato per diretta generazione dalla realtà più atroce, giunge tuttavia al fantastico, alla trasfigurazione allucinata […] Non ostante questa diversità dei piani, Proibito vivere è tutt’altro che un’opera disorganica e frammentaria: è al contrario integrale emanazione quasi medianica dell’esperienza incancellabile, ed insieme liberazione psichica ed artistica […].

  • 25 E. Rondena (p. 187 n.) notes that several of these names and nationalities map closely onto those (...)

21A cosmopolitan group of eight political prisoners in a concentration camp in 1944 (Mauthausen is never named) – all to some degree intellectuals like Bizzarri, some veterans, some more recent arrivals: Manuel (Spanish), Pietro (Italian), Jean (French), Maurice (Belgian), Valdemar (Dutch), Zarko (Jugoslav), Costantino (Greek), Frantisek (Czech)25 – gather on successive Sundays. One proposes they tell each other stories – fictions, not their own true life-stories as they are no longer people; not of the future as none of them has a future, but instead inventions from the past. Each week, one is assigned to tell a tale, set out on the page as a distinct short story: each text is given a story title, accompanied by the formula “Ricostruzione del racconto di […]”. In the frame narrative around each story, the group discusses variously the week in the camp, gossip and rumours about the war, the stories they have heard and their meanings, their intimate thoughts and fears, and the world of humiliation, death and violence that surrounds them. If Boccaccio’s brigata were protected from the plague in their isolation, however, Bizzarri’s are not: week on week, their number diminishes steadily, from eight to only three, as companions variously are deported elsewhere (Zarko and Valdemar, p. 103), killed (Jean, p. 123), disappear (Maurice, p. 149) or fall fatally sick (Costantino, p. 167).

  • 26 There are also multiple links to Bizzarri’s journalism and essays in Il problema è la persona: for (...)

22Besides the inevitable recurrence of multiple features of camp life between Mauthausen città ermetica and Proibito vivere, there are clear lines and spots of connection between the conceptual apparatus and imagery of the former and the dialogue-driven narrative of the latter. Examples include the idea of the nonsense or no-sense of the camp system (“[la] mancanza assoluta di un ‘senso’”, p. 144); the perception of a boundary (“confine”, p. 117) crossed beyond the realm of the human, beyond the world of history (“fuori del mondo”, p. 144); the camp as a form of collective man-made violence unheard of in human history (“l’orrido collettivo e scientificamente organizzato”, p. 138); the moral problem of revenge (pp. 181-182); the image of the prisoner as a “verme” (“può un verme fare testimonianza?”, p. 202)26. In particular, Proibito vivere shows a supple adaptation to the instruments of narrative and the literary in its development of these threads. Characters evolve and are given voices, fragments of past histories in and out of the Lager emerge, as do shifting moods and temperaments; but they stand above all as citizens of the “hermetic” world of the camp, understood largely through metaphors already posited in Mauthausen città ermetica and here re-imagined through dialogue and literary transposition.

  • 27 I. Silone, Fontamara, in Id., Romanzi e saggi, vol. I: 1927-1944, B. Falcetto ed., Milan, Mondador (...)

23The governing title metaphor – an echo of Silone’s famous critique of Fascism in Fontamara as a place where “sono proibiti tutti i ragionamenti27 – is played out across multiple registers and iterations, as the group comment in tones, both solemn and ironic, on the structuring laws of prescription of the camp: it is forbidden (“proibito”), variously, to write, to think, to dream, to get bored, to get sick, to pray, until, in a sort of summa and culmination, the principle of the title is re-enunciated in full force: “‘Qui ti tolgono la vita’ […] ‘Forse perché è proibito vivere’” (p. 117; cf. pp. 16, 141).

24As this sequence of prohibitions suggests, the frame dialogue is studiedly circular and repetitive, turning over as the weeks pass and following the grain of character, memory and suffering, to tie the book as a whole together. The men obsess in particular over the broken temporality of the now, outside of history, the near definitive absence of a future and the fragile dream of survival (even in a shipwreck, a few might survive) and the shards of memory of the past, of the “real” world. And it is this dimension of temporality, only briefly treated in Mauthausen città ermetica, that connects the frame world to the somewhat awkwardly inserted short stories, to their patterns of time and their chronotopes.

25The seven stories told by the group are intended as diversions from the hideous reality around them, but they are constantly drawn into tortured analogy with the Lager, by the frame discussions and by the reader, through their oblique but shared universal motifs – travel, family, childhood and old age, friendship, fear, love, memory and death – and the touches of affect they produce. They are all stories embedded in the world of “before”, in normal human lives, but which are upturned, rescaled, distorted and perverted in meaning and resonance when recalled from the Lager setting. They vary studiedly in tone and voice, in literary style, as though Bizzarri were trying his hand at an anthology of modes of writing (like the game Calvino played in his Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore…), as if he is testing out avant la lettre an Adornian question of the function of literature in the face of genocide; of literature as such, not yet the sub-genre of the literature of the Holocaust, not yet testimony. Proibito vivere is ambivalent in this as in other respects: the stories are in some sense too displaced, the attempt to salve the groups’ suffering through stories futile; but the way they touch chords with the group, the way they strangely persist and are entangled with the narrators’ states of mind, their past experiences and formations, perhaps paradoxically suggest that such storytelling is more urgent than ever in such a place.

  • 28 See T. Pepe, “La doppia traccia: itinerari della rappresentazione del genocidio ebraico nella poes (...)

26Two further structural kinks complicate and problematize the non-testimonial function of the literary in Proibito vivere: poetry and (as noted on the cover flap) the fantastic. The former enters the work through the compelling figure of Costantino, who echoes the Decameron’s Dioneo, the storyteller who cannot follow the brigata rules and who in some sense expresses the essence the work. Costantino finds himself unable to tell diverting stories of the past and instead of an eighth story he offers the group his mournful poems: 15 in all across the book, representing a hidden early cycle of Holocaust poetry in Italian28. They are poems of the present, composed in the here-and-now of the camp, by turns descriptive and lyrical, visionary and enigmatic, dark, vivid, exalted, prophetic. They become another oblique thread tying the stories and the group together to their present reality, and tying literary form to these too. The dimension of the fantastic or allegory, in contrast, enters Bizzarri’s book in a disturbing shift of mode in the final chapter, when the storytelling is ostensibly over. Pietro – the Italian of the group and the one perhaps closest to Bizzarri – is now alone, beaten, shackled, witness to a horrific massacre (which closely echoes a real event described in Mauthausen città ermetica) and close to death when he is visited by a demon, “il Maligno”, named for Dante’s Alichino (p. 204). The Devil mocks Pietro and predicts an apocalyptic future for a mankind that has outdone Satan himself in constructing the Lager, the immense “Feticcio” (p. 210) or totem of blind belief behind it, which he triumphantly claims, will return in a new form even if Mauthausen will soon come to an end.

  • 29 Exceptions include the explanation of the coloured triangles on prison uniforms, but this is neutr (...)

275. It is entirely characteristic of the immediate post-war moment, when the phenomenon now known as the Shoah merged loosely with wider perceptions of Nazi violence that Bizzarri hardly ever specifically mentions Jewish prisoners or victims, in his two books or his journalism29. He was, however, obliquely involved in one of the very earliest – and more than somewhat unachieved – attempts to narrate and fictionalize the genocide of Europe’s Jews: Goffredo Alessandrini’s 1948 film L’ebreo errante. Although no record exists of the precise nature and extent of Bizzarri’s contribution, it is fascinating nevertheless to set this alongside his other work of the 1940s as yet another instance of an early, persistent and unresolved effort to forge an idiom in which to express the Lager.

  • 30 For further analysis of this film, see R. S. C. Gordon, “Production, myth and misprision in early (...)

28The film is a retelling of the myth of the Wandering Jew, grafted onto a melodramatic story of impossible love and sacrifice. Its first half flits from Biblical Jerusalem, to 1930s Frankfurt, to Paris during the war, whilst its second half follows its protagonist Matteo (Vittorio Gassman) as he is deported to an unnamed concentration camp and eventually to his death and martyrdom, to save his fellow Jews and redeem him from Christ’s curse30. The opening credits include the following unusual attribution: “Ambientazione campo concentramento: Aldo Bizzarri”. And it is at least plausible to suggest that Bizzarri’s contribution helped create the striking (if qualified) level of accuracy and realism in the presentation of the concentration camp setting, especially given the contrast this draws with the rest of the film, which is relatively thin and artificial in setting and tone. Extended and repeated sequences depict with some power the camp layout, from arrival to the barracks to the central square known as the Appelplatz, where rollcalls, public punishments and executions took place, also described in Mauthausen città ermetica in some detail. Although the grotesque extremes of the violence in Bizzarri’s books and in his experience are not depicted in their full horror on screen, there are several grim deaths, suicides and beatings, as well as public executions, which echo several moments in his written accounts. Most notably there is a lengthy depiction of a quarry, with its steep inclines and back-breaking labour and multiple daily victims, a signal feature of the Mauthausen camp described in the fifth chapter “La cava di pietre” (and indeed in every witness account and history of Mauthausen). The location of the camp in Alessandrini’s film is ambiguous in several respects, not least since the diegesis places the unnamed camp in Poland not Austria, which has led reviewers and critics to assume it is Auschwitz; but it is clear that Bizzarri’s knowledge of Mauthausen is merging here with other camps, both documented or imagined, and with Alessandrini’s and his writers’ melodramatic imaginations. The finale of the film centres on an unlikely heroic rebellion and escape from the quarry, led by Matteo and his fellows; but it is at least worth noting that Bizzarri takes time in Mauthausen città ermetica to describes in some detail, and rather pointedly, the revolt in the notorious Barrack 20, as a sign that revolt was indeed on rare occasion possible.

29More than anything else, Bizzarri’s role as a consultant on L’ebreo errante speaks of a complex process that his work of the 1940s richly illustrates and that this essay has been exploring using him as a minor case-study; a process of nascent, early embedding of the concentration camp phenomenon into and across the post-war cultural landscape in Italy, its history and its valency for now uncertain, just as its form of cultural expression was still deeply unstable. Like Levi, Bizzarri modulated and transposed his experiences into many different forms and idioms, into reviews and essays, articles, film work and journalism, but also and remarkably into substantial, lucid and in several respects unusual, as well as strikingly early, book publications, for both a minor local publisher and a leading national imprint. He thus sits on a serious of borderlines, often in what retrospectively looks like awkward or inapt, but highly symptomatic ways – a Fascist or at least a Fascist-leaning cultural voice and sometime cultural diplomat turned persecuted victim and defender of the human and the democratic; a littérateur turning the tools of literary fiction and lyric poetry to the dark reality of torture; a thinker and intellectual confronted with the most brutal and extreme form of base aggression; a journalist and cultural operator, working for RAI and for glossy magazines, who was also a harbinger of the most sobering and serious of moral messages from history. Bizzarri’s name is not one that has lasted nor been canonized as a voice in the literature of the Holocaust or of the concentration camps. But perhaps precisely for that reason – in a way that is harder to achieve in the case of Levi, for example – we can use him as a sort of device for time-travel, to embed ourselves again in that fluid early moment of representation and response to the Holocaust, before the modes of testimony and memory became de rigueur.

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Notes

1 Influential studies include A. Wieviorka L’ère du témoin, Paris, Plon, 1998; J. Winter, “Notes on the memory boom”, in D. Bell ed., Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship between Past and Present, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 54-73.

2 On non-realist paradigms for Holocaust representation, see e.g. J. Adams, Magic Realism in Holocaust Literature: Troping the Traumatic Real, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; K. Brackney, “Remembering ‘Planet Auschwitz’ during the Cold War”, Representations, vol. CXLIV, no. 1, 2018, pp. 124-153.

3 D. Rousset, L’univers concentrationnaire, Paris, Éditions du Pavois, 1946.

4 See the catalogue A. Bravo and D. Jalla eds., Una misura onesta: gli scritti di memoria della deportazione dall’Italia 1944-1993, Milan, Franco Angeli, 1994. On the different genres of such writing, see E. Rondena, La letteratura concentrazionaria: opere di autori italiani deportati sotto il nazifascismo, Novara, Interlinea, 2013.

5 P. Levi, Se questo è un uomo, in Id., Opere complete, M. Belpoliti ed., Turin, Einaudi, 2017, vol. I, p. 165 (emphasis added).

6 On this phase of writing, see notes in ibid., pp. 1449ff.

7 Another case of an author of two books on the camps, one fiction, one reportage, in the mid-1940s, was Giancarlo Ottani: G. Ottani, I campi della morte, Milan, Perinetti Casoni, 1945; Id., Un popolo piange, Milan, Giovene, 1945.

8 A. Bizzarri, Mauthausen città ermetica, Rome, OET, 1946; republished, F. Cereja ed., Turin, Il segnalibro, 2003; Id., Proibito vivere, Verona, Mondadori, 1947.

9 Biographical and critical work on Bizzarri is very scarce: I have drawn on E. Ronconi ed., Dizionario della letteratura italiana contemporanea, Florence, Vallecchi, 1973, vol. I, p. 133; F. Cereja in A. Bizzarri, Mauthausen città ermetica, op. cit., 2003, pp. vii-xiii, 121-128; E. Rondena, op. cit., pp. 89-84, 187-194, 257.

10 A. Bizzarri, La traccia nel sole, Milan, G. Agnelli, 1929.

11 Id., Origini e caratteri dello Stato nuovo portoghese, Milan, Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale, 1941. For examples of his newpapers and journal articles, see “Allarme inglese sull’Atlantico”, Corriere della Sera, 4 August 1940; “Lisbona si è liberata della ‘tutela’ britannica”, Corriere della Sera, 16 August 1940; “America ‘Latina’?”, Critica fascista, vol. XVIII, 22 September 1940, pp. 372-373.

12 F. Cereja in A. Bizzarri, Mauthausen città ermetica, op. cit., 2003, pp. 122-123.

13 This paragraph draws on Bizzarri’s own account in Mauthausen città ermetica, op. cit., 2003, p. 117.

14 L. Sorrentino, Sognare a Mauthausen, Milan, Bompiani, 1978.

15 A. Bizzarri, “Come si torna in Italia” (1945), now in Id. Il problema è la persona, 1945-1952, Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1966, pp. 74-78.

16 See E. Forcella, “Italian intellectuals and international policy”, International Spectator, vol. II, no. 2, 1967, pp. 113-138 (p. 133).

17 He examined a wide range of figures from Zweig, Huxley, Koestler and Poe to Lukacs, Gramsci, Malinowski and Deshaies. Several have direct pertinence to Bizzarri’s reflections on the morality and politics of violence in the Lager. A selection was published posthumously, together with the full text of Mauthausen città ermetica, in A. Bizzarri, Il problema è la persona, op. cit. One piece not included there and not republished since was his review of Se questo è un uomo, in L’Italia che scrive, vol. XXXI, April 1948, pp. 77-78 (I am grateful to Charles Leavitt for this reference).

18 M. Bardini, “Elsa Morante e il cinema: L’isola di Arturo di Damiano Damiani”, Cuadernos de Filología Italiana, vol. XXI, 2014, pp. 11-29 (p. 14).

19 See the notice “Aldo Bizzarri”, Corriere della Sera, 23 May 1953.

20 E. Rondena (op. cit., p. 94) compares this work to G. Pajetta, Mauthausen, Milan, Picardi, 1946. Other factual accounts and early histories from the mid-1940s included: G. Ottani, Un popolo piange, op. cit.; E. Momigliano, Storia tragica e grottesca del razzismo fascista, Milan, Mondadori, 1946.

21 E. Rondena, op. cit. p. 89 n. G. Debenedetti, 16 ottobre 1943, Rome, OET, 1945.

22 Alberto e Arnoldo Mondadori, Aldo Palazzeschi, Carteggio 1938-1974, L. Diafani ed., Rome, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2007, p. xxxix.

23 Between 1946 and 1957, the Arianna imprint also published other significant works on the concentration camps, including Ernst Wiechert, La selva dei morti (1947), Ester Joffe Israel’s Vagone piombato (1949), and a second edition of Liana Millu’s Il fumo di Birkenau (1957; 1st edition 1947).

24 Early in the book, one character, Valdemar, talks of an Italy where “in antico s’usava riunirsi in brigate a raccontar storie, e ne nacque un genere letterario” (p. 19). Others literary evocations include Pellico’s Le mie prigioni (p. 20), Villon’s Ballade des pendus (p. 163), and, in the book’s mordant epigraph, Cervantes (“Ningún camino hay malo, como se acabe, si no es el que va a la horca”).

25 E. Rondena (p. 187 n.) notes that several of these names and nationalities map closely onto those listed as Bizzarri’s real camp companions in Mauthausen città ermetica.

26 There are also multiple links to Bizzarri’s journalism and essays in Il problema è la persona: for example, comments on hypocrisy in the novel (p. 117) are directly reprised in “Due vizi” (1948), an essay in praise of hypocrisy and laziness, in Il problema è la persona, op. cit., pp. 97-99.

27 I. Silone, Fontamara, in Id., Romanzi e saggi, vol. I: 1927-1944, B. Falcetto ed., Milan, Mondadori, 1988, p. 89.

28 See T. Pepe, “La doppia traccia: itinerari della rappresentazione del genocidio ebraico nella poesia italiana del Novecento (Quasimodo, Sereni, Levi, Bruck)”, in S. Destefani ed., Da Primo Levi ai figli dei «salvati», incursioni critiche nella letteratura italiana della Shoah dal Dopoguerra ai giorni nostri, Florence, Giuntina, 2017, pp. 107-127.

29 Exceptions include the explanation of the coloured triangles on prison uniforms, but this is neutrally informative: “(Gli ebrei d’ogni paese aveveno in più il solito segno giallo)”, A. Bizzarri, Mauthausen città ermetica, op. cit., 2003, p. 31.

30 For further analysis of this film, see R. S. C. Gordon, “Production, myth and misprision in early Holocaust cinema: L’ebreo errante (Goffredo Alessandrini, 1948)”, in L. Klinkhammer ed., Cinema as a Political Media: Germany and Italy, 1945-1950, Rome, DHI (forthcoming).

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Robert S. C. Gordon, « An intellectual at Mauthausen: Aldo Bizzarri between essay, fiction (and cinema) », Laboratoire italien [En ligne], 24 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 juin 2020, consulté le 30 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/laboratoireitalien/4521 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/laboratoireitalien.4521

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Auteur

Robert S. C. Gordon

Université de Cambridge • Robert Gordon est Serena Professor en italien à l’université de Cambridge. Il a publié de nombreux ouvrages sur la mémoire et la culture de la Shoah en Italie et sur l’œuvre de Primo Levi. Parmi ses publications, on peut citer : Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues : From Testimony to Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2001 ; édition italienne chez Carocci, 2003) ; l’édition anglaise du Rapporto su Auschwitz de Primo Levi et Leonardo de Benedetti (Auschwitz Report, Verso, 2006) ; The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010 (Stanford University Press, 2012 ; édition italienne chez Bollati Boringhieri, 2013) ; Holocaust Intersections: Genocide and Visual Culture at the New Millennium (édité avec A. Bangert et L. Saxton, Legenda, 2013) ; Innesti: Primo Levi e i libri altrui (édité avec G. Cinelli, Peter Lang, 2020).

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