There are writers, a few of them, who stir an immediate personal response. You need only read a few of their pages and you know right off that an unspoken, subterranean kinship will blossom. Usually it’s not the writers’ opinions or subjects that really grip you, it’s the tone of voice, perhaps a lilt of wry sincerity or a murmur of reflectiveness.
For me, the Italian Jewish memoirist and novelist Primo Levi is such a writer. I stand at some distance from his culture and even more from his experience—he is a survivor of Auschwitz—yet when I read his books I feel a sense of exhilarating closeness. I want to start holding imaginary conversations, as if Primo Levi and I were friends who have known each other for years.
In his native Italy Primo Levi has a considerable reputation, but here in America his books have still not reached a sufficiently large public. There are the familiar reasons: delays in translation, a recent shift in American taste to a narrow self-involvement that cuts out a good many foreign writers. But there’s another and more complex reason. Levi is associated with Holocaust literature, and some people feel they have taken in as much of this writing as they need to or can bear. Others, more justifiably, are dismayed by the vulgarizations to which public discourse on the Holocaust has recently been subjected and therefore prefer to keep away from writings on this theme.
Real as all these barriers are, we should find ways of dismantling or evading them, for Levi is a writer of integrity, seriousness, and charm. He is also a writer molded and marked by our century. He knows—can it really be a matter for dispute?—that he has lived through the most terrible decades in the history of mankind. Writers burdened with this awareness cannot pretend to “understand” Auschwitz and the Gulag. But they know, especially those who are survivors of the concentration camps, that they must live with an experience that has scarred them forever. Repeatedly and often compulsively, they return to their subject—even as, I feel certain, they wince at the shoddy rhetoric it evokes from publicists and politicians. The writers of whom I speak have no choice: they are captives of history, they write from their need.
So somber a fate can hardly have been anticipated for the young Primo Levi, born in 1919 to a cultivated middle-class Jewish family in Turin. The Italian Jewish community is the oldest in Europe and has behind it notable religious and literary traditions. By the time, however, that Levi entered adolescence, the Jews were being increasingly assimilated into Italian society, often into the professional and intellectual classes. Some Italian Jews kept a fragile tie to their past, a filament of memory with Jewish traditions and learning, if not with Judaism as a religion. At least some Jewish families held on to fragments of the Hebrew language and its linked rituals and customs. At the age of thirteen Primo…
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Copyright © 1985 Irving Howe