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"Literature absorbed through the skin" : intertextuality in Primo Levi’s If this is a man Reynolds, Isla

Abstract

Despite Levi's claim that "reason, art, and poetry are no help in deciphering a place in which they are banned," literary references litter his memoirs which aim to elucidate and explain the experience of the concentration camp both for the reader and for Levi himself (DS 142). However, simple allegorical comparison does not result in this explanation; indeed Levi's use of literary referents tends to complicate rather than clarify his experience of the Lager. By using Dante's Divine Comedy as an intertext, Levi introduces a variety of possible, often antagonistic, interpretations of his own memoir. This coexistence of different readings allows Levi to avoid reducing the Lager to a single definitive signified, and therefore pre-empts any possibility of rationalizing the Holocaust in terms of literary or cultural tropes.This multiplicity also ultimately demonstrates the difficulties faced by any attempt, whether literary or otherwise, to represent a past experience, especially one that involves such atrocity. However, rather than submitting to the problems inherent to language, Levi is aware of the diversity of interpretations introduced through intertextuality and uses this multiplicity to attempt the difficult task of representing the Lager without reducing the horror or consequence of the experience. By illustrating the inadequacy of The Divine Comedy as a referent, Levi indicates the enormity of his experience without reducing it to a deficient linguistic description. The complex intertextual networks which produce the comparison between Dante and Levi also undermine it and in doing so demonstrate the ultimately impenetrable nature of the Lager as an actual event, while still delineating its presence and significance.

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