On the Unlikely Transformation of a Young, Bourgeois Fascist
The Life and Times of Luce D'Eramo, Author of Deviation
The novel Deviation, by Luce D’Eramo, published by Mondadori in 1979 and reissued by Feltrinelli in 2012, is the story of the author’s experiences as a volunteer worker in the Nazi labor camps in Germany during World War II, as well as her attempts to make sense of that “parenthesis” in her life during the decades that followed. Begun several years after her return to Italy in 1945, the book was not completed and published until more than 30 years later. Categorized as fiction, the text may also be viewed as autobiography, narrative nonfiction, a memoir, a testimonial, a Bildungsroman, and a psychoanalytical probe into the reasons certain of the author’s memories were repressed.
Though the events that inspired the novel took place within a relatively short span of time (1944–1945), they played a very prominent, determining role over the ensuing course of the author’s life. The biographical facts can be summarized as follows: Luce D’Eramo (née Lucette Mangione) was born in Reims, France. The daughter of Italian parents, she lived in France until the age of 14, when her family returned to Italy in 1938. From a bourgeois Fascist family (her father was a government official in the Republic of Salò and her mother had served as a voluntary secretary of the Italian Fascio in Paris), she enrolled in the Faculty of Letters at the Sapienza University of Rome and was a member of GUF (Association of Fascist Students). At age 18, rendered uncertain by the collapse of Fascism and her ideals, she left home to volunteer in the German labor camps (Lagers) to disprove what she believed were lies being told about Nazi-Fascism, and to determine the truth firsthand. The encounter changed her, leading to a desire to shed her identity as the privileged daughter of a Fascist bureaucrat; discarding her documents, she voluntarily slipped into a group of deportees being sent to Dachau, from which she escaped in October 1944. These experiences, narrated in the book, culminate with a devastating accident on February 27, 1945, in Mainz: while Luce was helping to rescue the wounded buried under the rubble of a bombed building, a wall collapsed on her, leaving her permanently paralyzed. In 1946 she married Pacifico D’Eramo and they moved to Rome; their son, Marco, was born in 1947. Though the marriage ended in separation years later, Luce went on to make a life for herself and her son, obtaining a doctorate with a thesis on Kant, and earning a living by writing dissertations and tutoring university students and exam candidates.
The autobiographical elements in the novel are plain: the experiences of the protagonist, Lucia (alternately called Lucie, Luzi, or Lùszia), a young Italian girl from a bourgeois Fascist family, retrace those of the author. Confronted with the reality of the labor camps, her journey becomes a harrowing, surreal experience told with great emotional intensity, at once a testament, a cry of alarm, and a tale of self-discovery. In the story, D’Eramo has Lucia say, “Sometimes when you go astray and touch bottom, you finally come out on the other side.” With Lucia, D’Eramo revisits a course of development and transformation that was her own, and which involved a shift of consciousness as it looked squarely into the face of evil and horror in the world. Nadia Fusini, in her introduction to Feltrinelli’s 2012 edition of Deviation, entitled “Resilience, a Virtue,” refers to an “abnormality of living” that was certainly known to Luce D’Eramo, in whose difficult times the very ideas of “regulations” and “rules” were subject to perversion and distortion. Those who had to conform to them could not help but “deviate,” and in the course of that “deviation” experience the depths of horror wherein all “rectitude” is lost.
The novel’s consequent “deviations” result in an account that does not—cannot—proceed in a straight line. Bia Sarasini, writing about Luce D’Eramo in the essay “Se scrivere è un viaggio nel tempo,” points out that, rather than a linear account, Deviation is a complex narrative construction of an alteration of awareness, achieved through a display of streams of consciousness and very different linguistic registers—all to accompany the writer and the reader through the abyss and out to the other side. The registers and verb persons change and the chronological order is necessarily shuffled. The story, like the memories themselves, comes out in fits and starts, as a result
of a series of repressions and setbacks. At times the narrative voice finds memory less than trustworthy and struggles to get the story straight. In Part IV, she explains: “In fact, nearly a lifetime went by, in which only fragmented memories of the camps and hospitals emerged, and always in very specific circumstances—a forced choice on the part of my consciousness—which cluster around only two periods: the years ’53–54 and ’60–61.” The “specific circumstances” refer to the period when her marriage started to dissolve (1953) and the year she landed in Villa della Pace (1960), a home for the disabled. In both situations she felt trapped. It is not surprising that, confined by a hurtful marital bond, she turned to memories of her earlier, unparalyzed, liberated self:
That’s the context in which I resurrected the buried German experience for the first time. A time when it seemed to me I needed to make a clean break with my present life . . . Unable to run away as I’d done then, held captive by paralysis, by fever, by drugs, by the betrayals, and by my jealousy, what else could I do but look for a less imprisoned version of myself? It was natural for me to recall the escape from Dachau, in October ’44 . . .
Years later, after a time of living on her own with her young son, she again finds herself in the position of receiving assistance, a role she feels society has forced on her with its insistence on viewing her as an invalid:
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 invalid . . . there is always someone who asks, “What! You live alone?” in a mournful voice. “What if you were to fall?” . . .
I’d returned to my proper place, to the role of aid recipient that society had assigned me. At age 35, I found myself back where I started; what’s more, loaded with debt . . .
The first chapters of the book, which constitute Part I, “Escape from the Lagers,” were written around the same time: “Thomasbräu” in 1953 and “Asylum at Dachau” in 1954. “As Long as the Head Lives,” which makes up Part II, “Beneath the Rubble,” followed in 1961. It then took a number of years more for “In the Ch 89,” which makes up Part III, “First Arrival in the Third Reich”; and Part IV, “The Deviation,” to be completed, in 1975 and 1977, respectively. Parts I and II, which cover the experiences in Thomasbräu and Dachau as well as the accident and its aftermath, are narrated in the first person: “In the Dachau concentration camp I was part of the crew assigned to . . . ,” and “Until I went to the concentration camp, I wasn’t even aware that there was another camp not far away,” and “That day I was sure I would die.” Part III goes back to when Lucia first arrived in the Lager; though it starts off in the first person, it abruptly shifts to the third: “The first few days, Lucia felt relieved: life in a camp was less harsh than what it was rumored to be.”
Why the shift in Part III? Since it was written more than 20 years later than the early chapters, the woman writing at that point in time was no longer the same person, and therefore the girl she sees in some old photos both is and is not her.
Gradually I had developed a curious image of myself. I thought I’d been a slender girl, with delicate wrists and ankles, who had gone through hell without changing her appearance . . .
If I recalled scenes of anger or terror, I pictured myself as a small, restrained figure amid a mob of frenzied people. . .
But the face that appears in the photograph of a factory badge and on the last fake ID card that was issued to me in Mainz, before the wall collapsed on my back, is a different one: a sturdy face, heavier, not given to dreams . . . there is a willfulness discernible in the downward turn of the tight lips, in the dark eyes staring starkly at the lens.
She distances herself from that girl, referring to herself as “l’italiana”: “The girl had a mental image of herself that she had carried with her from Italy and did not see how she had become . . .”
Part IV returns to the first person: “but the sense of estrangement between herself and the other whom she’s become grows wider, as though time had hollowed out impassable trenches,” Fusini writes. The narrator is determined to bring the disparity between her present self and the earlier girl to light: “There is a fact that I evaded. By so often saying that I had been deported to Dachau, I ended up believing it. But it’s not true.” In this section the narration becomes more introspective. Explaining why she had formerly repressed certain memories, D’Eramo seems to be trying to make sense of her actions, indeed to question the wisdom of them:
And, constrained by the irrelevance of my paralyzed body, I recognized my limitation in the very air I breathed, measuring the vanity of the rancor that had driven me to join the deportees in Verona, and to escape from Dachau in order to convince my fellow internees that one did not have to bow one’s head. And for what? To end up in a wheelchair.
She attempts to clarify why in the hospital, after the accident, her body shattered, she had tried to counteract the damage:
I didn’t know where to turn, what with my broken ribs, exposed back, burned skin, split forehead, useless organs, so I poured my whole heart into foolish inanities, as compensation, in the need to matter in some way, futilely, superficially, to endure the blow, to loosen the hold of that body that immobilized me and kept me alive.
In the novel, Lucia’s deviations or turning points assume various forms. There is the deviation from an idealized fascism, with its attendant disillusionment, coupled with the self-doubt that maybe she hasn’t really gone over to the other side: “You still don’t condemn Fascism,” her friend Martine tells her; “you find extenuating circumstances for it as opposed to Nazism.” There is the deviation from accepted values by which perversion, in the Lagers, comes to seem normal rather than aberrant. There is the subsequent deviation that leads Lucia to reject her privileged class status and strive to adopt new values of solidarity, identifying with the victims, the Untermenschen or subhumans, rather than the masters. There is the deviation by which she loses her fear of those who give orders, realizing that they are not at all superior to those they command; indeed the jailers themselves are subhuman: “If I accused the Nazis of dehumanizing us foreigners, whom should I blame for the dehumanization of the Nazis?” And finally there
is the most personal deviation of all, the accident that renders her body broken and useless, forcing her to rely on an agile mind to counter the paralysis of her legs.
D’Eramo’s efforts to achieve accuracy and fidelity in order to arrive at the truth about her “deviation”—that of sloughing off the constricting snakeskin of her social class—remain determined, despite the advice offered to her by the writer Elio Vittorini: “You must free yourself from the oppression of memory,” she tells us he wrote to her in 1957. Yet memory proves to be fluid: shifting sands that constantly rearrange themselves. As Oliver Sacks writes in Hallucinations: “We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” Because the connection with the past is unstable and volatile, as Fusini suggests, any reconciliation between becoming and being, between past and present, seems impossible. Consequently, Deviation resists any ultimate resolution of its series of memories and occurrences. At a certain point the author herself is tempted to give up the attempt to understand why she blocked out certain past events. Her “snake” tells her soothingly:
“If things are really as you fear, from a compositional point of view you can only rejoice: you don’t have to understand the repression—your search fails, and that’s that. You even have a nice conclusion: you reveal to the reader that the story of your deviation was a dream in which your imagination enacted one of the most tenacious (and vain) aspirations of all mortals, the eternal human dream of correcting the past.”
She admits to being enticed: “It was such a relief to be able to wrap up not only my wartime Germany but my entire complicated life that I almost followed that poetic diversion.” In the end, however, she remains resolute: “I won’t be like Don Quixote (I thought), who at the end of his life repudiated his knighthood: I was insane, I was insane, he said, now I’m sensible. I’ve known for some time who I am: a woman who’s always told herself imaginary stories . . .”“Deviation resists any ultimate resolution of its series of memories and occurrences. At a certain point the author herself is tempted to give up the attempt to understand why she blocked out certain past events.”
The metaphor of the snakeskin becomes more prevalent in the latter part of the book. The snake represents the temptation to revert to her origins, to her privileged social status, and to abandon her comrades and their struggle—to abandon her social conscience. At one point the author admits: “I spent half my life playing hide-and-seek with myself.” Her wavering and oscillations were there early on, in the Lagers, but the Lucie in the camps hadn’t been aware of them:
I had later become aware of the contradiction, for one thing because my relations with my fellow Lager mates had improved, but this oscillation had existed: I wanted to be a worker, while letting people know who I was, thereby deep down laying the ground for the consideration due to my bourgeois circumstances. The fear I subsequently had of reverting to that temptation—using class privilege to save myself from the fate of vulnerable commoners—and wanting to throw away my papers so as to put myself in a similarly helpless position, is even more understandable. But, in this light, the fact that after Dachau and Thomasbräu I got myself hired at Siemens in Munich, again using my real name, is no longer just the boldness of a 19-year-old carried away by her impregnability: it’s you popping up again, Mr. Snake, as though I was unconsciously holding on to the possibility of resorting to high places.
Only years later is she able to pinpoint for certain where and when the snake had first tightened its coils around her:
But it was there, in Dachau, that the snake had unquestionably settled in, when Lucia had chosen a solitary path of rebellion, which lasted 30 years . . . She’d fled from Verona but also from Dachau: from her privileged status but also from the fate common to those on the other side, who have no means of getting out, who lack the psychological resources that stemmed from her class and allowed her to address the guards uncaringly.
Ultimately she is able to see the reason for the decades-long repression of her memories:
. . . deep inside I was secretly aware that it was I who had failed. Simply because the class leap in Dachau had been so extreme, the terror of it so violent, that it drove me to take refuge in oblivion. Actually acknowledging it, however? Never! The lady couldn’t admit to her failures, she made others pay for them. The lady understood human frailties so she relativized everything so as not to really side with those beneath her, with whom she declared herself to be so sympathetic. She felt different from the people of her bourgeois class solely because she criticized their conformist lifestyle no matter how they were defined (right or left), while continuing in fact—though with her fruitless reservations—to live like them herself.
In the end one can’t help but agree with Fusini that Deviation is not Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” On the contrary, it is more like a raw expression of what Wordsworth termed the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that give rise to the emotion that lies at the heart of poetry.[*] It is this quality that led the writer Goliarda Sapienza, a contemporary of D’Eramo, to describe the narrative voice in Deviation as “a nocturnal monologue of a saxophone with brief . . . sunny notes of a clarinet driven to maximum heights of tenderness . . . touching tenuous nerve chords.” [†] Sapienza thought highly of D’Eramo’s work, even saying that it would “force me to reread [Primo Levi’s] If This Is a Man and [André Schwarz-Bart’s] The Last of the Just to prove what I suspect. That is, that Luce’s book is the most relevant on that theme, the harshest, most in-depth account of the Nazi experience, the most uncompromising and courageous.”[*]
As I read Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation I found myself thinking of Dante’s journey through the abyss. Led by his determined guide, Virgil, the poet is able to climb out of the depths, to finally emerge a riveder le stelle,[†] to see again the stars. It strikes me that in Deviation, D’Eramo is Dante and Virgil at one and the same time. When Lucia leaves home to go and serve as a volunteer worker at the IG Farben in Frankfurt-Höchst, she effectively enters the gate to Hades, calling to mind the famous inscription LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, BOI CH’ENTRATE, “abandon all hope, ye who enter here,”[‡] making Luce-Lucia both the pilgrim journeying through the netherworld (the younger Lucia) and the cicerone (the later woman) leading herself and that earlier girl out to the other side. Since she had literally gone through hell, D’Eramo’s passage is transformational.
[*] William Wordsworth, “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” in Prefaces and Prologues, The Harvard Classics, vol. 39 (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909–14).
[†] From an unpublished letter dated April 5, 1979; quoted with the kind permission of Sapienza’s
husband, Angelo Pellegrino.
[*] Goliarda Sapienza, Il vizio di parlare a me stessa (Turin: Einaudi, 2011), p. 89.
[†] Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Inferno XXXIV:139.
[‡] Ibid., Inferno III:9, trans. John Ciardi.