As I was reading Deviation, Anne Milano Appel’s English translation of Luce D’Eramo’s 1979 novel, I found myself increasingly surprised at the relatively minor position to which Luce D’Eramo and her masterful book have been relegated in the Italian literary canon. The novel is, on the surface level, formally straightforward, consisting of four parts that are each clearly connected to D’Eramo’s biography: her life working in a labor camp as a fervently Fascist volunteer, a political reawakening that leads to her internment in a concentration camp, and ultimately the process of learning how to navigate postwar life in the wake of wartime injuries that left her paralyzed. D’Eramo weaves these episodes together with meditations on memory and self-perception in life-writing as she unpacks the shift from her original Fascist ideology, connected to her bourgeois origins, to the eye-opening experiences of life in the camps.
The titular deviation, as Appel points out in her translator’s note, is multiform: the protagonist’s deviation from an idealized Fascism; the ubiquitous deviation and perversion of life in the camps; and, above all, a temporal deviation within the narrative of the text itself. In fact, the four parts are in chronological order as they were written in the author’s lifetime (between 1953 and 1976), but not in chronological order according to the narrative: the novel starts with her escape from Dachau, and only in part three does it deviate from its linear course to investigate the events leading up to her internment in Dachau.
D’Eramo uses this doubling back technique as a way of reframing (in a way, rewriting) what came before, excavating her memories and her previous expositions of those memories. Such a process brings out one of the most intriguing aspects of D’Eramo’s work: the way she plays with what French critic Philippe Lejeune termed the autobiographical pact, the reader’s faith in the veracity of the author’s life-writing. Parts one and two establish the idea that this book is an autobiography: it is written in the first person, the protagonist’s name corresponds more or less to the author’s name, and the facts described can be at least approximately mapped onto what we know of the author’s life. However, in part three and especially part four, the autobiographical frame suggested to the reader in parts one and two begins to undergo a process of deconstruction, and the autobiographical pact begins to break down. Part three, for instance, is mostly written in the third person; in part four, instead, the author returns to the first person and frequently addresses the reader as she begins to pick apart and call into question what she wrote in the first two parts. Through these addresses, D’Eramo draws the reader into her process of memory re- and deconstruction and reestablishes the work’s autobiographical aspects; at the same time, she destabilizes the autobiographical pact and her authority as author and life-writer by giving the reader a glimpse into the ways that she herself questions her own memory.
Deviation constitutes an invaluable insight on memory, trauma, and repression in the context of life-writing; it is also a significant contribution to both Holocaust literature, and Appel’s English translation is long overdue. Her nuanced translator’s note provides the novel with a useful frame, and her translation fully embraces the contradictions and subtleties of the original while also preserving the tone of intimacy between writer and reader that D’Eramo cultivates. Ultimately,
Appel presents English readers with a skillful rendering of a text whose delicate parsing of trauma and memory is as pertinent in our contemporary context as it was when Deviation was first published.
Photo courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.