Can one ever know “too much” about a writer?
Take the delicate case of Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who combined the careers of writer and professional chemist. Until recently I had only read Levi’s three most renowned works, his two great war memoirs, If This Is a Man and The Truce, and then The Periodic Table, a series of autobiographical pieces exploring the author’s relationships in the light of his work as a chemist. My response—many years ago—was in line with that of most of the articles I had read on the author, which tend to hagiography. The story of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man is so overwhelming, Levi’s humanity and healthy bewilderment in the face of the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi camps so resolute and right that one cannot help but admire the book. The Truce, in contrast, is full of positive energy and optimism, describing Levi’s experiences in Russian refugee camps after Auschwitz and up to the moment of his repatriation and return to his home town of Turin, while The Periodic Table is clearly the work of an older, more determinedly sophisticated writer. Neal Ascherson’s 1985 review in The New York Review sets out the typical reader reaction: “a wonderful store of irony, of humor and observation,” Ascherson calls it, coming out of Levi’s work not as “a supervisor … in some enormous multi-national concern, but a struggling freelance chemist….a sort of packman-chemist, an alchemist on the road.
How different things begin to look when one tackles the almost three thousand pages of The Collected Works and browses the long chronology of Levi’s life offered in the first of these three hefty volumes, as I have just done for a review essay.
The first surprise is the dates: If This Is a Man (1947), The Truce (1963), The Periodic Table (1975). What was Levi doing in the years in between? On the road with his chemistry? No, from 1948 to 1975 he worked for the same locally-based paint and chemical company, first as a chemist, then as technical director and later (when he was writing The Periodic Table) as general manager. So Ascherson had got an entirely skewed and romanticized view of Levi’s working life. But this was hardly his fault. It’s the view The Periodic Table suggests. So was Levi unhappy, one wonders, with his long managerial career?
The next curiosity is that while there are no publications in the eighteen years between the first two books, between The Truce and The Periodic Table there are two collections of short stories that no one ever mentions: Natural Histories (1966) and Flaw of Form (1975). Reading through them, I’m astonished at the fall-off in performance. It’s not that they are badly written, but there is a frivolity, a childishness almost, that strives for but never quite achieves comedy. Essentially, these are science fiction pieces in which the twin fears of sexual experience and invasive impersonal power structures play out in a wide variety of paranoid fantasies, but without the urgency or commitment that might really involve us. They are, as it were, at once frightened and complacent. “Little transgressions,” Levi called them. Why was he writing this stuff?
The question pushed me to look at a proper biography. Obscurely, I felt that if I could understand the inspiration behind the short stories, I might learn something new about the memoirs. Here again there were surprises. Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life (2003) offers a wealth of facts, some of the most important of which are not in the chronology offered by the new Collected Works. For example, a number of the details in the three auto¬biographical works are distorted or invented. Thomson lists these details and I pondered them. It seemed that Levi tended to make his close companions less cultured and educated, but more vital and enterprising, than they actually were, such that they become foils for the cautious and highly educated Levi; they are not as smart as he is, but admirably courageous, and above all free. However, doing this involved inventing details that the people in question found insulting, or just plain false.
What is most surprising in the biography, though, and barely hinted at in The Collected Works, is the intense monotony and eventually chronic unhappiness of Levi’s domestic life, his deep depressions and profound pessimism. Aside from the two-year parenthesis that was Auschwitz and the Russian refugee camps, he spent his whole life in the same Turin apartment in the company of his mother, to whom he was intensely attached. After the war, the still virgin Levi married in very short order the virgin Lucia Morpurgo, but rather than set her up in a new home, Levi brought her, against her wishes, into the apartment with his mother and sister, bringing up two children in an atmosphere fraught with frustration and resentment. Meantime, Levi, who desperately wished to leave his office job for a literary career but feared he wouldn’t make it, spent much of his free time corresponding with Auschwitz survivors and establishing intimate but non-sexual relations with other women, and in general, stayed out of his home absolutely as much as possible.
But is this information “important” or even useful when we read a great book like If This Is a Man? Though his mother was absolutely central to Levi’s life, she barely gets a mention in his autobiographical work, nor is there any projection of her that one can see in the fiction. Surely the book is the book is the book and that’s that. The rest, gossip.
None of us can read a story without relating it to the knowledge and experience we bring to it. When we read Levi’s memoir our reaction is conditioned by what we already know about the Holocaust, about fascism, about Judaism. The story stands in relation to the things we know. That, after all, is the main reason for including a life chronology at the beginning of The Collected Works; the facts of the life condition, or inform, our response. Returning to the celebrated works equipped with the rich context of the extended biography, I began to notice things I hadn’t really seen before. “If, from inside the Lager,” Levi writes at one point of If This Is a Man, “a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: Be sure not to tolerate in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.”
What can Levi mean? Surely not that there may be beatings and gas chambers and forced labor in our homes. The comment comes immediately after a reflection that the deprivations of Auschwitz have forced him to acknowledge how little he really lived when he was a free man. Is Levi suggesting that one’s manhood can be challenged as profoundly in the domestic environment as in the camps? Toward the end of The Truce, with Levi now in sight of home after his long travels, he offers a reflection that at once explains the book’s curious title and throws the whole narrative into a new perspective:
We knew that on the thresholds of our homes, for good or for ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear. … Soon, even tomorrow, we would have to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us. … Although the months just passed, of wandering at the edge of civilization, were harsh, they now seemed to us a truce, an interlude of unlimited openness, a providential gift of destiny, never to be repeated.
Never to be repeated! Writing almost twenty years after that truce, Levi appears to be telling us that this had been his one experience of real freedom. A page later the book ends with the author safely home, but dreaming that he is again back “in the Lager, and nothing outside the Lager was true.” Home and the camps are bizarrely superimposed.
Realizing only now how frequently notions of freedom and imprisonment occur throughout Levi’s work, I began to suspect that the small changes to the facts that Levi makes in his memoirs are driven by a desire for freedom. His commitment to bearing witness to the truth of Auschwitz was becoming a kind of straitjacket, something people expected of him, imposed almost. He was also expected to behave in a proper fashion, receiving warnings from the Turin synagogue when it became known he was flirting with a woman journalist. Was writing about the imprisonment of Auschwitz becoming itself a kind of prison? The short stories are largely frivolous perhaps because Levi yearned for the freedom of frivolity; many of those who knew him report his occasionally infantile behavior (“My impression was of a child trapped in a man’s body,” said one close associate). But the short stories did not bring him the respect that the memoirs did and Levi wanted both the freedom and the respect.
In the later works it’s easy to see Levi searching in every way for a freedom of expression that will nevertheless carry the weight of the memoir; the books, that is, become part of his search for a modus vivendi, one that will allow him both to stay home with mother and feel courageous and free and be respected and admired. This is particularly the case with If Not Now, When? Levi’s only novel, where an alter ego in the guise of a Russian Jew becomes an anti-Nazi partisan, successfully fighting and killing and seducing women, being simultaneously, as it were, free and good, committed to the right cause but not trapped in it. This is wishful thinking and in fact the story is unconvincing from start to finish.
The picture of this man deeply conflicted between the imperatives of freedom and the fear of disappointing his nearest and dearest inevitably influences the way I come to his last book, written in the early Eighties. Levi’s mother was now an invalid. His wife’s mother was blind. Whenever he left home for a day or two he was extremely anxious about them. He was on anti-depressants. Philip Roth, the writer Fulvio Tomizza, and the great German publisher Michael Kruger all found Levi “pathetic,” even “excruciatingly pathetic.”
It was in this miserable atmosphere, in his sixties now, that Levi turned away from the freedoms he had been looking for in fiction and went back to Auschwitz, this time in a moral essay of ferocious reflection, without any suspect details. The book is called The Drowned and the Saved and is remarkable for its sense of exasperation, its masochism almost. As I note in my review, Levi sometimes seems more determined to insist that Auschwitz survivors were degraded and contaminated and that all “the best” inevitably died, than to explore the psyche of the Nazi torturers. He seeks, that is, in every way to break down the consoling image of the sanctified survivor, the image he himself had become trapped in.
It is hard not to feel how this stands in relation to Levi’s domestic situation and general feeling of entrapment. He goes back to Auschwitz as so many of his readers wanted, but claims the freedom to tell them things they don’t want to hear. Meanwhile he was frequently referring to his mother and mother in law as “the drowned” and “like Auschwitz victims,” a comparison that made any “betrayal” (putting his mother in a home, for example) unthinkable, while simultaneously confirming that Levi himself felt he was somehow still in prison.
Nothing of what I said here diminishes Levi or his writing. Great works come out of great psychological intensity, in his case great suffering, great frustration. Why insist, then, in offering a sanitized, optimistic version of an author’s life, as if his work might be the less if we acknowledged his difficulties? Isn’t this, in the end, precisely the kind of denial that Levi fought against? Even the way the chronology of The Collected Works acknowledges Levi’s suicide is anodyne and vague, as if hoping the fact might go away: “April 11  Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”
In fact, Levi threw himself down the stairwell of the building he had lived in all his life. “Suicide is an act of will, a free decision,” he had written years before to his German translator. “Either you die or your mother dies,” the editor Agnese Incisa, a Jewish female friend of Levi’s, put it to him a few days before his death. In any work of fiction the symbolism of Levi’s suicide would be clear enough and amply commented. The household becomes the instrument of death; using it to kill himself he simultaneously frees himself from its imprisoning grip. It was the drama he had never quite put in his books.