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The Courage of the Elementary


Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, in the apartment where he would live for most of his life and where he killed himself in April 1987. 1 Like many Jewish families in the region, the Levis had moved from the Piedmontese countryside to Turin in the previous generation, and were culturally assimilated. Primo grew up under Fascism, but it was only with the imposition of the Race Laws, in 1938, that this had any direct impact upon him. He studied chemistry at the university in Turin, with the help of a sympathetic professor who took him on notwithstanding the regulations excluding Jews, and afterward found work of a sort in various establishments willing to take on a Jewish chemist in spite of his “race.”

With the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, everything changed. For a brief, confusing interlude Italy lay suspended between the Allies, who had occupied Sicily and the far south, and the Germans, who had not yet invaded from the north. But in September the Italian occupying army in France straggled back through Turin, “a defeated flock” in Levi’s words, followed shortly after by the inevitable Germans, “the gray-green serpent of Nazi divisions on the streets of Milan and Turin.” Many of Levi’s Jewish contemporaries from Turin were already involved in the resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (whose local leadership, until his arrest, had included “my illustrious namesake” Carlo Levi, the future author of Christ Stopped at Eboli), and after the German invasion Primo Levi joined them. He spent three months with the armed resistance in the foothills of the Alps before his group was betrayed to the Fascist militia and captured on December 13, 1943.2

Levi, who declared his Jewish identity, was sent to the transit camp at Fossoli di Carpi and thence, on February 22, 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz with 649 other Jews, of whom twenty-three would survive. Upon arrival Levi was stamped number 174517 and selected for Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where he worked at the synthetic rubber plant owned by I.G. Farben and operated for them by the SS. He stayed at Auschwitz until the camp was abandoned by the Germans in January 1945 and liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27. For the next nine months he was swept from Katowice, in Galicia, through Byelorussia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and finally home to Turin in a picaresque, involuntary odyssey described in La tregua (The Reawakening).

Once back in Turin he took up the reins of his “monochrome” life, following the twenty-month “Technicolor” interlude of Auschwitz and after. Driven by an “absolute, pathological narrative charge”3 he wrote Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), a record of his experiences in Auschwitz. The book found hardly any readers when it appeared in 1947. Primo Levi then abandoned writing, married, and began work for SIVA, a local paint company where he became a specialist, and international authority, on synthetic wire enamels. In 1958 the prestigious Turin publishing house Einaudi republished his book, and—encouraged by its relative success—Levi wrote La tregua, its sequel, which appeared in 1963. Over the next decades Levi gained increasing success and visibility as a writer, publishing Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) and La chiave a stella (The Monkey’s Wrench), two collections of short pieces; Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), a novel about Jewish resistance in wartime Europe; Lilit e altri racconti (Moments of Reprieve), further recollections and vignettes of his camp experience; a variety of essays and poems; and regular contributions to the culture pages of La Stampa, the Turin daily. In 1975 he left SIVA and devoted himself to writing full-time. His last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), was published in 1986, the year before his death. A small esplanade in front of the Turin synagogue on Via Pio V was named after him in April 1996.4

The fate of Levi’s books, in Italian and in translation, is instructive. When he took Se questo è un uomo to Einaudi in 1946 it was rejected out of hand by the publisher’s (anonymous) reader, Natalia Ginzburg, herself from a prominent Turinese Jewish family. Many years later Giulio Einaudi claimed to have no knowledge of the reasons for the book’s rejection; Levi himself laconically ascribed it to “an inattentive reader.”5 At that time, and for some years to come, it was Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, not Auschwitz, that stood for the horror of Nazism; the emphasis on political deportees rather than racial ones conformed better to reassuring postwar accounts of wartime national resistance. Levi’s book was published in just 2,500 copies by a small press, owned by a former local resistance leader (ironically, in a series dedicated to the Jewish resistance hero and martyr Leone Ginzburg, Natalia Ginzburg’s husband). Many copies of the book were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there twenty years later.

La tregua did better. Published in April 1963, it came in third in the national Strega Prize competition that year (behind Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare…), brought renewed attention to his first book, and began Levi’s rise to national prominence and, eventually, critical acclaim. But his foreign audience was slow in coming. Stuart Woolf’s translation of Se questo è un uomo was published in Britain in 1959 as If This Is a Man, but sold only a few hundred copies. The US version, with the title Survival in Auschwitz (which captures the subject but misses the point), did not begin to sell well until the success of The Periodic Table twenty years later. La tregua was published here under the misleadingly optimistic title The Reawakening, whereas the original Italian suggests “Truce” or “Respite”; it is clear as the book ends that for Levi his months of wandering in the eastern marches of Europe were a kind of “time out” between Auschwitz-as-experience and Auschwitz-as-memory. The book closes with the dawn command of Auschwitz, “Get up!”—“Wstawach!

German translations followed in time, and Levi eventually gained an audience in the Federal Republic. French publishers, however, avoided Levi for many years. When Les Temps Modernes published extracts from Se questo è un uomo, in May 1961, it was under the title “J’étais un homme” (“I was a man”), which comes close to inverting the sense of the book. Gallimard, the most prestigious of the French publishing houses, for a long time resisted buying anything by Levi; only after his death did his work, and his significance, begin to gain recognition in France. There, as elsewhere, the importance of Levi’s first book only came clearly into focus with the (in some countries posthumous) appearance of his last, The Drowned and the Saved. Like his subject, Primo Levi remained at least partially inaudible for many years.

In one sense, Primo Levi has little to offer a biographer. He lived an unremarkable professional and private life, save for twenty months, and he used his many books and essays to narrate and depict the life that he did lead. If you want to know what he did, what he thought, and how he felt, you have only to read him. As a result, any retelling of his “life and works” risks ending in a self-defeating effort to reorder and paraphrase Levi’s own writings. And that is just what Myriam Anissimov has done in her new account of Levi, which has already appeared in French and Italian to mixed reviews. Some mistakes of fact in the Italian and French editions have been cleared up, and the English translation, while unexciting, is readable and contains much information. But Anissimov’s prose is uninspired and mechanical. Her lengthy narrative of his life is a choppy mix of long excerpts and rewordings from Levi himself interspersed with clunky and inadequate summaries of “context”: Italian Jewry, Fascist race laws, the postwar Italian boom, 1968 in Turin, and the publishing history of his books. Some of the background material seems to have been inserted at random, as though the author had come upon a misplaced file card and inserted its contents, then and there, into the text.

Worse, the author somehow fails to explain to the reader just why Primo Levi is so very interesting. She alludes to the distinctive quality of his prose style and is rightly critical of reviewers and specialists for their failure to appreciate him; but she has little feel for just those features of Levi’s writings that make him stand out, both in contemporary Italian literature and in Holocaust memoirs. An ironist and a humorist who travels playfully back and forward across an extended keyboard of themes, tones, and topics, Primo Levi is presented in this account as an optimistic, assimilated Italian Jew brought low by the tragedy of Auschwitz. This is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses, Levi’s favorite literary figure and alter ego, as an old soldier on his way back from the wars who encounters a few problems en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.6


Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community—and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it:

It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.7

Like most Italians, though, Levi was first of all from somewhere more circumscribed—in his case, Piedmont. This is a curious place, a small corner of northwest Italy squeezed up against the Alps; the homeland of the Savoy royal family, Italian laicism, and, in Turin, its austere, serious capital city, the headquarters of Fiat. Parts of what used to be Piedmontese territory are now French, and the local dialect is permeated with French or almost-French words and phrases. Levi, like most Piedmontese, was immensely proud of his region of origin, and that sentiment suffuses his writings. The “dazzling beauty” of its mountains, lakes, and woods is referred to more than once—for Levi was an enthusiastic amateur climber and much of Piedmont is Alpine or pre-Alpine terrain. The distinctive dialect of the region plays a part in Levi’s writing—as it did in his life, for Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer from Fossano who saved him in Auschwitz, was recognized there by Levi thanks to his Piedmontese speech. A number of the characters in Levi’s writings use local dialect, and in both The Monkey’s Wrench and The Periodic Table he apologizes for the difficulty of capturing the cadences of their conversation in the written word.8

  1. 1

    Levi left no suicide note, but he was known to be depressed. His death is widely regarded as deliberate, but some uncertainty remains.

  2. 2

    I soldati passavano come un gregge disfatto,” Levi in La Repubblica, September 7, 1983, quoted in Claudio Pavone, Una Guerra Civile: Saggio storico sulla moralità nella Resistenza (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1991), p. 16. See also “Gold,” in Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1984), p. 130; “Arsenic,” in The Periodic Table, p. 170.

  3. 3

    See Levi’s interview with Risa Sodi in Partisan Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (1987), p. 356; and Giuseppe Grassano, Primo Levi, Il Castoro (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1981), quoted in Myriam Anissimov, Primo Levi, p. 257.

  4. 4

    The main works by Levi in English are Survival in Auschwitz (first published by the Orion Press, 1959); The Reawak- ening (Touchstone, 1995); The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1984); The Monkey’s Wrench (Penguin, 1995); If Not Now, When? (Penguin, 1995); Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (Penguin, 1995); The Mirror Maker (London: Abacus, 1997); The Drowned and the Saved (Vintage, 1989); Other People’s Trades (Summit, 1989).

  5. 5

    See Giulio Einaudi, “Primo Levi e la casa editrice Einaudi,” in Pietro Frassica, editor, Primo Levi as Witness (Florence: Casalini Libri, 1990), pp. 31-43; and Levi in Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi (Marlboro Press, 1989), published in Italian as Autoritratto di Primo Levi (Padua: Edizioni Nord-Est, 1987), p. 51.

  6. 6

    The only sustained element of metaphor, or at least of literary indulgence, in Levi’s writing is the repeated allusion to the odyssey of Ulysses. The mnemonic significance in Survival in Auschwitz of the Canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno is famous:

    Think of your breed: for brutish ignorance

    Your mettle was not made; you were made men,

    To follow after knowledge and excellence.

    But Ulysses is everywhere—after the showers, when the Blockälteste, “like Polyphemus,” touches everyone to see if they are wet; in the Katowice camp, where Russian soldiers “took pleasure in food and wine, like Ulysses’ companions after the ship had been pulled ashore”; in the “cyclopean, cone-shaped gorge” where Levi searched for nickel; and in an infinity of allusions of style and form, notably in the invocation of lost companions, drowned and saved alike. See Survi-val in Auschwitz, pp. 103, 133; The Reawakening, p. 60; “Nickel,” in The Periodic Table, p. 64. See also the thoughtful chapter by Victor Brombert, “Primo Levi and the Canto of Ulysses,” in In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature 1830-1980 (University of Chicago Press, 1999), pp. 115-138.

  7. 7

    The Story of Avrom,” in Moments of Reprieve, p. 81. Among the Italian virtues that Levi prized highly was a relative unconcern for national or ethnic difference: “‘Italy is an odd country,’ Chaim said…’but one thing is certain, in Italy foreigners aren’t enemies. You’d think the Italians are more enemies to one another than to foreigners…it’s strange, but it’s true.”’ (If Not Now, When?, p. 323).

  8. 8

    In the story “Arsenic” Levi is quite specific about one character, the client who comes to seek chemical analysis of some poisoned sugar: he spoke “excellent Piedmontese with witty Astian tones” (The Periodic Table, p. 170). Asti is a small town just forty miles from Turin, distant enough to give its speech a multitude of subtle local identifying marks of its own.

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