My House

Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal

I have always lived (with involuntary interruptions) in the house where I was born; so my mode of living has not been the result of a choice. I believe that I represent an extreme case of the sedentary person, comparable to certain mollusks, for example limpets, which after a brief larval stage during which they swim about freely, attach themselves to a sea-rock, secrete an outer shell, and stay put for the rest of their lives. This happens more often to people born in the country: for city people like myself it is undoubtedly a rare destiny, which involves peculiar advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps I owe to this static destiny the never satisfied love I harbor for travel, and the frequency with which a journey appears as a topos in many of my books. Certainly after sixty-six years on Corso Re Umberto, I find it difficult to imagine what it would mean to live not just in another country or city but even in another part of Turin.

My house is characterized by a lack of character. It resembles many other quasipatrician houses of the turn of the century, built of brick just before the irresistible advent of reinforced concrete; it is almost bereft of decorations, if one excepts some timid memories of Liberty in the friezes above the windows and the wooden doors that open on the staircases. It is unadorned and functional, inexpressive and solid: it has proven this during the last war, when it went through the bombings, escaping with some slight damage to the window frames and a few scratches which it still bears with the pride that a veteran bears the scars left by his wounds. It has no ambitions, it is a machine for living, it possesses almost everything that is essential for living and almost nothing of the superfluous.

With this house, and with the apartments I live in, I have an unnoticed but profound relationship, such as one has with a person with whom one has lived for a long time; if it were torn down, and if as a result I moved to a more beautiful, more modern, and more comfortable house, I would suffer like an exile, or like a plant that has been transplanted in soil to which it is not accustomed.

I read somewhere the description of one of the devices of mnemonics, that is, the art (cultivated in the past by the learned and scholars and today foolishly abandoned) of exercising and improving the memory. Whoever wants to remember a list of thirty, forty, or more names and then amaze his friends by reciting them even backwards can achieve this if he makes a mental link (that is, invents any sort of connection) between each single name and, in an orderly sequence, a corner of his house; for example, proceeding from the front door to the right and exploring successively all the corners. Then, going over the same itinerary in the imagination, one can reconstruct the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.