Book Review: Deviation by Luce D’Eramo
A republishing of an important book by a brilliant writer that shows the biographical form at its best. Shakespeare’s quip, “No legacy is so rich as honesty” is proven in D’Eramo’s astounding work.
Odd indeed is a book in which the protagonist escapes into a German camp. This is exactly what Lucia, the main character of Deviation does, a decision intensified by both the fact that the main character Lucia is Luce D’Eramo and this her account of her years mainly around the end of WWII.
Lucia, has heard about German camps but she is skeptical and so she wishes to find out for herself. It’s a long nightmare. Once free she returns to Verona and as if her former experiences in captivity were not enough she stares down and then confronts members of the SS who are brutally herding civilians along the street. The result: They point a gun at her and demand,
“in a soft voice that did not shatter the early-morning stillness: ‘Join the column at once or we’ll kill you all. On the count of three. Eins zwo …’ ”
Lucia furtively discards her identity documents, joins the civilians, and is put on a train to a Dachau labor camp. I say to myself again, this is fiction, right? No, this is biography. So then I ask, who is this author, who makes such audacious decisions in life, and she answers a matter of factly,
“I’ve known for some time who I am: a woman who’s always told imaginary stories.”
Italian writer Lucy D’Eramo was born in Reims in 1925, returned to Italy in 1938, and in 1943 went to Bassano del Grappa in Northern Italy. Here her father worked as an undersecretary to the minister of propaganda for the Italian air force in the Republic of Salò, a puppet state led by Mussolini and supported in part by Italian fascist loyalists. I’ll talk about her war years in a moment, but first a bit more about D’Eramo to demonstrate her impulsivity arose in consort with her erudition. She spoke numerous languages, went on to obtain her higher degrees in literature including a her doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation focused on Kant’s Critique of Judgement. She became friends with Italian writer Ignazio Silone and she became known for her critical study of his writing work. She married, had a son, she divorced. I normally shun biographies, but her accounts are so rich, so chock full of events, so simultaneously gritty and dreamy, so beautifully written that her book becomes the exception to my rule. In comparison I find works in a similar style, Knausgaard’s My Life, or Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment for example, to be much less deeply reflective.
Deviation was D’Eramo’s third novel, or technically it was her second if we don’t include Finché la testa vive, translated to As Long as the Head Lives that was published separately in 1964 and then later included in Deviation as a stand alone chapter. The author worked on the entire book from 1953 and 1976. The first section of the book recounts Lucia’s time at the work camp, the second is a book in itself, a jump forward in time to Mainz where in attempting to help rescue a worker buried in the rubble of a building Lucia had her back broken by a collapsing floor. Lucia is permanently paralyzed. As Long as the Head Lives is the most refined part of the book with generous and seamless writing that makes for compelling reading. Part three again jumps back in time to the camps, and in the final section D’Eramo reflects on her previous experiences and reflections. It’s out of order but so aren’t memories.
The book opens in media res as Lucia speaks of the ease of escaping from Dachau and of remaining in Dachau as the bombs crash compulsively around the barracks. The events are monstrous but they do not take on the monumental weight of her later reflections. It is through D’Eramo’s reflections, her deviations, that she impresses upon us the burden of her search, to locate the intentions that prompted her actions. Yet this is not easy. Her memories are a cloudy mirror, and as she rocks the mirror this way and that nuances are revealed. She grows impatient when she can’t remember exact moments and angry when she later discovers she’d forgotten a fact. Late in the book when going through the contents of a file the author discovers letters her mother had written to her while she was at the Pfaffenwiese camp. D’eramo deduces they were in the bag she tossed aside at her arrest by the SS letters, which must have been returned to her mother. Yet again D’Eramo adjusts her lens when reflecting on prior events. In remembering, D’Eramo seems to believe that it is possible to compartmentalize the brain, as it is possible for her to compartmentalize the body; she views herself as imprisoned by both her body and her mind, thus both may be subject to critique when they don’t fulfill her demands.
D’Eramo takes for granted the fact she was imprisoned by the German state within the walls of the camps, but she comes ultimately realize, albeit slowly, that she was also imprisoned by fascism. She wanted perhaps to disprove the rhetoric surrounding the German camps and found in reality a fear, control, brutality, and mendacity inherent in the fascist, ultranationalist state.
In all instances the author is not held back in her beliefs. She rails against injustice at every level and from every authority. For example, she organizes a strike at the IG Farben camp to the bewilderment of her son. He cannot understand why she undertakes an action that anyone can see is doomed to failure. He asks,
“Do did you think you could succeed?”
“I don’t know. But we saw that we could at least try.”
“Sure that much at least,” he said hastily, but it was as if he’d missed the essential point. His fourteen-year-old baby face remained saddened.
“Now I think that he couldn’t stand the idea that our action was doomed to failure….[I] worried that my account might have made my story seem like little more than an impulsive act that had amounted to nothing, one of those myths of the past that every parent crows about and that are of no interest to their children.” (page 296).
We wonder about this too. We ask the author, why did you voluntarily go to the camps. Why did you organize the strike? Isn’t it futile to use a feather to fight a sledgehammer? But we are not Luce D’Eramo. We know neither her fearlessness nor her fortitude. We do not share her recklessness, her genius, her courage, or her awareness. Furthermore, she knows better than we do what it is to fight a rebellion of body and mind is on a daily basis. D’Eramo seeks cause and effect. She strives to understand event and aftermath. The only thing holding her back is her mind, the seeking of exact memories becomes a game of mental hide and seek. She writes, worrying that she has unwittingly succumbed to social stereotypes of a paraplegic,
“This for me was the ultimate confirmation that my memory block had been linked to the struggle against the social pressures that wanted to confine me to the role of an invalid.” (page 298)
Deviation is a form of evocative autoethnography, in which the author uses a reflexive methodology to explore her own experiences. She does not relate her experiences to larger social views or nor does she connect theoretical and societal ideas. Readers won’t gain an understanding of Italian fascism nor the reasons D’Eramo was prompted to initially accept it and later deny it. I respect this approach. The author provides us with the cool eye of distant consideration combined with a severe interrogation of her memories and such larger considerations would be stylistically out of place.
That said, her political views do emerge. While in the work camps Lucia frequently aligns with the most oppressed in a working situation, a view that most likely was formed during Italy’s period of working class strikes, when Mussolini came into power, and we see what seems to be the influence of the idea that economic classes could work together to create a more productive society. Then following her experiences at the camps, her economic ideals become suspect as she recognized the Nazi state was ultimately subordinate to the economic power of capitalism.
“I didn’t understand that a war isn’t enough to overthrow a social structure unless the elements of its dissolution are already contained within it. Is that what I was afraid to say, hiding behind the shield of paralysis?” (p. 309).
Memories are a form of wonderment for D’Eramo and for us; however the author does not wish for a veil of time. Rather, she continually refocuses her telescopic lens. She enforces a reexamination her memories in order to bring about clearer pictures of the scenes and her motives. In doing so she deviates. Her deviations are her history of dodging norms and attitudes. Her deviations are her digressions, as she attempts to clairfy. Fake news wasn’t a term back then as it is now, but she seems to detest the recognition that all memories are to a degree fake news as facts are twisted by a less than perfect mind, the dilution of details by time, and the self unwittingly situating itself in the larger social milieu that flows like a river.
This is what she seems to have discovered too. The war ended. Her world changed. Against a background of Italy’s new economic reality the May 1968 protests and the calls for Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! had arrived in Rome. Eventually she reflects,
“What struck in my craw were the social circumstances that enable certain people to pass through the history of their time unscathed, while others find themselves bearing the full weight of it on their backs.” (p. 308).
Geesh, what a phrase to use. This is D’Eramo’s final deviation, her recognition that the shift after the war to a more progressive culture causes her to question and ultimately change her own beliefs.
Through-line questions such as exactly why D’Ermao so impulsively chose to engage in such shocking circumstances, given that she had the option not to, are never really resolved. Such is experience, such is the eliptlcality of poetic digression. We reflect, we admire, we rue, we re-remember. What do we choose in life? What imprisons us? What do we escape into? What liberates us? For the humanity found in her ongoing grappling with these questions D’Eramo offers us this book with the sigh, “I no longer had any hope of making my subjective self line up with my objective self.” (p. 323). We are fortunate she did not. Deviation is astonishing.