In response to:
The Courage of the Elementary from the May 20, 1999 issue
To the Editors:
I would like to call attention to two mistakes made by Mr. Tony Judt in his long review of my biography of Primo Levi [NYR, May 29].
The Italian translation of my book has not yet been published. It is planned for next fall, and so cannot have been the subject of mixed reviews, as Mr. Judt claimed in his article. Several articles have been written in Italy on the French version of my book (among others by Cesare Cases, René de Ceccatty, Hector Bianciotti, and Fabio Gambaro in L’Espresso) and they were favorable, except the one in La Rivista dei Libri, co-published by The New York Review. Contrary to what Mr. Judt wrote, the French critics have been unanimously favorable (in Le Monde, L’Express, Le Figaro, Télérama, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération).
Much of the information in the article that you published was taken from my book, as well the drawing of Primo Levi by his friend Mr. Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi, who kindly loaned it to me.
In fact, some Italian critics have reproached me for revealing that Natalia Ginzburg gave a negative opinion of Levi’s first manuscript when she was adviser to the publishing house of Einaudi and also for revealing that her successors turned the manuscript down for more than eleven years, during which time they published Robert Antelme’s The Human Race. Unfortunately this is the truth. At the time, Levi’s text was not considered important in literary circles but only as testimony.
These Italian critics and Tony Judt have taken advantage of the small mistakes (in names and dates) appearing in the original French edition of my book in order to deny me (“a stranger to the Italian world”) the right to write about Levi. These mistakes were the publisher’s who, despite my many warnings, prepared the manuscript too hastily. It was reprinted within two weeks, and many of the mistakes were corrected, and Livre de Poche’s paperback version has almost no mistakes.
I should point out that the English and American versions are much shorter than the original, and that the forthcoming translations in German, Italian, and Japanese will present the full, original text of my book.
Tony Judt: replies:
The Italian edition of Myriam Anissimov’s book has yet to appear; I stand corrected. But Ms. Anissimov protests too much. Since she concedes in her letter that her book was full of mistakes, and even warns us that the new paperback edition is not entirely free of them (which I didn’t know), I don’t understand why she takes such offense at my allusion to the matter. And if, as she claims, Italian critics have exploited these mistakes to “deny” her the right to write about Levi, she can hardly be surprised to find me describing their response as “mixed.” As it happens I have not seen any critic so much as hint that Levi was privileged terrain, off-limits to outsiders; but I do recall at least one utterly devastating review (Domenico Scarpa, in La Rivista dei Libri, April 1997, pp. 41-43) that called attention to Anissimov’s many, many errors.
Ms. Anissimov did not “reveal” that it was Natalia Ginzburg who recommended rejection of Levi’s first book; this was quite widely known, not least to Levi himself. (See Opere, Vol. 1 [Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1997], p. lxxxiii, where Ginzburg is cited by Levi in this connection.) Einaudi’s long hesitation before finally publishing Levi in 1958 has also been discussed in print (I cited the accounts by Giulio Einaudi and Levi in my review). What Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist does reveal is the author’s uncertain grasp of its subject and his context—perhaps that is why some doubt has been expressed as to Ms. Anissimov’s suitability as a biographer of Levi. If Ms. Anissimov is so very sensitive to such criticism it may be that French reviewing practice has accustomed her to an easier ride—though she should know that the welcome accorded her book in Paris represented belated amends for previous French neglect of Primo Levi himself; she thus benefited from the reflected glow of her subject’s improved local standing. As to my part in all this, Ms. Anissimov may rest assured that I have no wish to deny her access to Levi or anything else—I’m an outsider here myself. But I can read Anissimov, I can read Levi, and I can see for myself that the one does not do the other justice. That’s just my opinion, of course, but I’m confirmed in it by Ms. Anissimov’s letter.
August 12, 1999