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Primo Levi’s Handrail

In response to:

How Did Primo Levi Die?: An Exchange from the December 17, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Replying to a New York Review reader who encourages him to read my 1999 essay “Primo Levi’s Last Moments,” Tim Parks describes the essay as “an extended exercise in wishful thinking”: since many believe that Primo Levi committed suicide, Parks believes it too, and thunders haughtily away at my dissenting account [Letters, NYR, December 17, 2015].

I have no wish for one outcome rather than another—it makes no difference to the value of Levi’s work. But a cool examination of the evidence shows that suicide is not beyond reasonable doubt. The event unfolded in minutes: on her daily mail-delivery round the concierge rings the bell of his apartment; Levi collects the mail and goes back into the apartment; after a few minutes, he tells the nurse looking after his mother to mind the phone while he is going out again looking for the concierge. He exits the apartment and falls into the stairwell.

He may have snapped out of normality and chosen in a split second to end his life, or he may have fallen leaning forward looking for the concierge. There were no witnesses, no suicide note. He was suffering from spells of dizziness due to medication he was taking. The bannister was low enough to reach Levi’s navel, and for him not to have had to climb it to fall down—the incredulous Parks can go and check for himself.

The biographers’ conclusion that it was suicide is based on who Levi was rather than on facts. They search Levi’s mind in pursuit of motives—he had been in Auschwitz, he carried the unbearable burden of being the witness to the greatest evil, he was depressed, someone heard his wife say that this is what he said he would always do…True, but that does not prove anything. An example of how confused speculations are passed off as evidence is offered by Parks himself. He complains that I omit to mention a short story that would show that Levi was “in favor of suicide.” In it Levi “sympathetically describes a remote tribe who refuse a drug that will put an end to an epidemic of suicides.”

Parks here conflates support for the freedom of taking one’s life with support for taking it; imputes to the author the ideas of his characters; and even if Levi had been “in favor of suicide,” whatever that means, what would that prove? The story was published in 1971 and, Parks writes, “interestingly republished shortly before the suicide in 1987.” Interestingly indeed, but rather as a sign that Parks likes to deliver innuendos rather than evidence.

Parks gets my arguments wrong but at least he spells my name correctly and such welcome publicity may lead some readers to read my 1999 article and decide for themselves how convincing they find the biographies. This should prevent, a little longer, an unwarranted closure from solidifying under the ponderous weight of literary interpretations and group-think. Why is it so hard to bear the burden of doubt?

Diego Gambetta
Florence, Italy

Tim Parks replies:

I will spare the reader a long list of easy rebuttals and Gambetta the inventory of his evasions and distortions to focus on the essential evidence that caused police, judges, all Levi’s family, and most of his friends (not to mention his publishers, biographers, and the eventual organizers of the Primo Levi Foundation) to reach the rapid conclusion that Levi must have killed himself: the height of the handrail. This, as building regulations required, was 3’2″ (96.5 cm).

Present building regulations in Europe require that handrail height be between 90 and 100 cm. In the US, handrail height is given as between 34 and 38 inches (86 to 97 cm). Levi was a small man (5’5″), hence the rail was proportionally high for him, well over half his height. Indeed, a handrail at navel height is a high handrail. Readers wishing to experiment without anxiety can try such a rail at ground level. They will find, as I did, that one has to climb to get to the other side. It is impossible to “fall” over it.

This is not speculation; we have building regulations for handrails to avoid the accident Gambetta imagines. It is speculation to say there was no suicide note since there were rumors of a note that the family did not release. I have no difficulty dealing with the burden of doubt in that regard. In any event, statistics suggest that only around one suicide in four leaves a note. Any impartial reader reading any of the biographies will find that the psychological context overwhelmingly supports the court’s official verdict. As to Gambetta’s choice to remain out on a limb, one can only speculate.