Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi, by Victor Brombert

Robin Feuer Miller on an analysis of writers’ perceptions of death

October 3, 2013

Victor Brombert’s new book seemed to present a perfect choice for summer beach reading. Vertical Seurat-like figures, whether they are standing on the sand or in the sea, always seem to be pondering and gazing at both eternity and the inevitable fact of their own mortality. I would read this book, I decided, while surrounded by contemplative beachgoers, a changeable sea and a dome of shifting clouds. Perfect Cape Cod, end-of-summer reading when there is a slight chill despite the strong sunlight, and the birds are already heading south.

Brombert begins with his childhood and the death of a beloved canary and quickly proceeds, along a widening autobiographical trajectory, to the death of his sister Nora and the deaths of his parents, to war, to the death camp in Auschwitz, to the visceral fear he experienced as a soldier at Omaha Beach. Beloved things become alien and feared, whether it is the one enlarged pore he notices on his dead father’s face or the “trains I so loved in my childhood, and continue to love in their remembered glory” which enter into “sinister associations” with wartime Europe. He begins, under the influence of André Malraux, to understand that in the face of encroaching death it is “art and the love of art” that allow us “to negate our nothingness”. Towards the end of the book he argues convincingly that “literature commemorates what death has undone”.

This short book overflows with references to a multitude of writers: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Dante, Pascal, Montaigne, Dostoevsky, to name a very few. But it centres, in its eight chapters, on Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, Giorgio Bassani, J. M. Coetzee and Primo Levi. It is clear that Brombert, a fine scholar and critic, is also an inspiring teacher. These chapters at times recall the two famous volumes of Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on literature and, as such, will prove useful to students and teachers.

The whiff of the classroom contained in these pages is both the strength and the weakness of this book. Chapter after chapter makes the case for the ways in which art and bearing witness can somehow encompass, frame and make bearable the inevitability of death. Yet readers may find themselves struggling to find a “take-away”, a nugget of wisdom with which to fortify their musings on mortality: too often it is necessary to have read the works to which Brombert alludes to appreciate the comparisons and insights offered here. More close readings of pertinent passages and more of an effort to show these extraordinary writers in a kind of dialogue with one another would have enhanced the book.

Any general reader who picks up a volume entitled Musings on Mortality is surely searching for something even larger than a literary analysis of a group of works by distinguished writers. Even with the writers whose works I knew well, I had to struggle to keep the thread of the ongoing argument of each chapter. Moreover, by the time I came to a more contemporary writer such as Coetzee, or even Woolf, I wanted to read, for example, about links to Tolstoy. Such interweavings, however brief, would have been welcome. Finally, nowhere is there a working definition of mortality for the reader to cling to; we learn what mortality is not – it is not simply death. But had Brombert at the outset underlined the ways in which mortality encompasses both the living who are subject to death and death itself, he would have helped the reader to gain a kind of traction or purchase.

The moments when Brombert engages in autobiographical reminiscence or tells anecdotes about his students are delightful and instructive. In the chapter on Coetzee, he describes a student who was unable to read the assigned novel. In a gentle voice he explained: “I am from Texas, Sir. From a Baptist background. This book is so full of violence, so full of sin. It fills my mind with bad thoughts.” Taken aback, Brombert must find a “sound argument” to answer the student. Even more questions arise when his students read Primo Levi. “Some of the students – and not only Jewish students – were disturbed that, in describing the hell of the extermination camp, Primo Levi chose to devote an entire chapter to a canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy.” Again, Brombert’s efforts to respond to their objections lead to some of the most interesting reflections on mortality in his book. Many lecturers find themselves in similar situations. It is important to reflect upon them.

Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi

By Victor Brombert
University of Chicago Press, 200pp, £17.00
ISBN 9780226062358
Published 6 October 2013

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