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Posts Tagged ‘Primo Levi’

The HSC is an endurance event and the Trials are the last corner before the finish line. Most students probably have at least one internal assessment (my guess is for Module C) remaining but, for the other modules and the AoS, all that’s left is two exam responses: the Trials and the HSC. Studying at this stage should consist firstly, of making summaries and, secondly, of writing practice responses.

The first part of any summary should be an annotated copy of the module rubric. You can use key words from the rubric or the ETA’s aspects of belonging as subheadings. Choose the ones that are relevant to your texts, but make sure that you have a good range to work with. Under the subheadings, list quotes from your texts (both prescribed and related) with an analysis of the techniques and an explanation of how the quote/technique relate to the aspect of belonging.

For example:

belonging in historical contexts

“beauty” and “truth” in ‘I died for beauty’ by Emily Dickinson are literary allusions to the Romantic poet, John Keats. This connects the persona, who feels isolated from her own context, to a tradition of poets.

“the night of Europe” is Primo Levi’s metaphor for the spread of fascism in his own historical context. He feels isolated because he is Jewish but finds a sense of belonging through his “comradeship” with Sandro. This term is used specifically for its political connotations, as the communist Sandro is an antidote to the otherwise pervasive fascism.

A simpler way to approach this would be:

belonging in historical contexts

‘I died for beauty’ – ED. “beauty” “truth” – literary allusion to Keats. Belonging to poetic tradition.

‘Iron’ – Primo Levi. “night of Europe” – metaphor for fascism. “comradeship” – political connotations. Belonging through friendship.

REMEMBER THAT BELONGING ALWAYS IMPLIES NOT BELONGING

belonging to place

‘I had been hungry all the years’ – ED. “Nature’s dining room” – personifiction – persona feels more at home with nature than in human society.

‘Iron’ – PL.  “a new communion with the earth and sky” – biblical allusion – similar to but also contrasting with ED. Primo and Sandro belong in the mountains, away from the politics.

Even thought the BOS seems to be moving towards specifying ONE related text in the Area of Study response, it is worthwhile having at least TWO thoroughly prepared. Your summary should be around three pages long. The real value of a summary lies in the making of it but it can also be a kind of security blanket, something for you to clutch onto the night before an exam.

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‘Iron’ by Primo Levi
Related Text Analysis


‘Iron’ is a biographical essay by twentieth century Italian-Jewish chemist and writer, Primo Levi and forms part of his greater work The Periodic Table. It chronicles his developing friendship with a fellow chemist and outsider during a time when fascism was spreading, like a cancer, across Europe.
Levi pictures fascism using a variety of metaphors including “the night of Europe”, a disease, and a “grumous dew” with a terrible “stench”. In contrast, Chemistry and the scientific method are pictured as “white”, something “from which a emanated a good smell, dry and clean” and “an antidote”.
Within this safe but ever narrowing world where rationalism triumphs over propaganda, Levi meets Sandro, who he describes as “blasphemous”, “laconic” and “sarcastic”. Sandro is a “loner”, “the quiet one”. Levi, too, is an outsider but not by choice: “the laws against the Jews had been proclaimed…following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well.” The allusion here is to the ostracisms and proscriptions of the Jewish people across the centuries, an horrific tradition beginning in Egypt’s biblical past four thousand years earlier.
In an attempt to capture Sandro’s personality—which remains “elusive, untamed”—and their friendship, Levi engages two seemingly contradictory central metaphors: the elements of their chemical studies and the wild but pastoral scenery of the Piedmont region. Sandro is “made of iron” (hence the title of the essay) but also “cat with whom one could live for decades without ever being permitted to penetrate its sacred pelt”. Their friendship is “cation and anion” (a mixing of positive and negative ions) but also something personified and wild, “a comradeship was born”.
It is only when the action moves from the lab to the wilderness that this conflict is resolved. Matter, personified as “Mother” and “teacher” is not to be found in the lab but in the “true, authentic, timeless Urstoff, the rocks and ice of the nearby mountains”. This appropriation of the German word for element empowers Levi’s writing, his use of language, like the wilderness, is outside the control of fascism. It is here in this “island”, this “elsewhere” that Sandro finds “his place”, “a new communion with the earth and sky”. The use of Christian allusion within what is consistently pictured as a pagan setting serves to devalue and mock the colleagues who “were civil people…but withdrew” with their “dozing consciences”. The mocking tone is broadened to include the whole of Italy, “the small time pirate”.
In contrast to those who warrant Levi’s derision, Sandro is spoken of with a respect bordering, at times, on awe. As well as being “made of iron”, Sandro is a paradox, displaying “sinister hilarity” and “splendid bad faith”. He becomes not only Levi’s comrade but also his teacher preparing them both for “an iron future, drawing closer month by month”. The “iron” in Levi’s future is surviving Auschwitz, for which his treks with Sandro helped prepare him. But “they didn’t help Sandro, or not for long”. At the end of the essay Levi anchors the almost mythological Sandro to history, “Sandro Delmastro, the first man to be killed fighting in the Resistance with the Action Party’s Piedmontese Military Command”.
Levi’s chronicle of a significant but short friendship between two outsiders is also a struggle—like the chemist “fencing” with the elements—to “dress” his “elusive” friend and their friendship in words. Ironically, although Sandro was “not the sort of person you can tell stories about”, stories are all that remain, “nothing but words”.

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I have been thinking about which texts I would use for this Area of Study. I have been intermittently reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Intermittently because of its heartbreaking nature. I need other texts with lighter subject matter in between bouts of pure grief and the deeper joy that comes after. It is a wonderful but also a difficult text. Dave’s interior monologues as his mother dies are pure agony to read because they are so realistic. His easy going relationship with his younger brother swings between self indulgence and intense concern. I won’t write any more about this book because I don’t think I can analyse its eclectic techniques effectively within the confines of the Area of Study.

A shorter text which I think will work well is Primo Levi’s Iron, Potassium, Nickel. It, too, is a memoir, chronicling Levi’s experiences from working at the Chemical Institute in Italy, through the exploitation of his skills by his enemies, to his seeing out the war in a concentration camp. The other text I’m thinking of is one of Shaun Tan’s picture book. The Arrival would be good, but so would The Red Tree, The Lost Thing or Tales from Outer Suburbia. The images from the Belonging WebQuest is an excellent place to get started with an analysis of Shaun Tan’s work and I’ve really enjoyed exploring it.

An unusual suggestion which came up during a search I was doing yesterday is The St Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. The aspect of Belonging being portrayed is shared experience, in this case; war.

Being Shakespeare, this has lots of great language techniques to analyse, which is what I’m looking for in a related text.

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