“It is not at all an idle matter trying to define what a human being is.” So Primo Levi writes in L’atrui mestiere (1985; Other People’s Trades). The larger and more intimate implications of this occupation form the basis for most of Levi’s work.
Levi began his writing life as an essayist with Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man), frequently described as a memoir, but really a series of linked essays describing his experience as a prisoner of Auschwitz during World War II, and analyzing a set of moral questions that arose from the unmediated culpability of his German captors and the Darwinian survival strategies of the inmates. Prior to his capture with the anti-fascist resistance in the Turin hills, Levi was beginning a career as a chemist. He tells us he had no literary pretensions before his experience at Auschwitz, though clearly he was welleducated and highly literate. The essay “Il canto di Ulisse” (“The Canto of Ulysses”) in If This Is a Man is a virtual collage of literary allusion in which Levi displays—as he elsewhere discusses—the fact that the accoutrements of civilization, which were a burden and disadvantage in the Lagers (concentration camps), also occasionally helped to remind him of his continuing existence as a human being: “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” “The Canto of Ulysses” is a tour de force, a major 20th-century essay, in its combination of the halting pain of first-person reminiscence, strategic quotation, fragmentary arrangement, and subtle attention to the interconnection of linguistic, literary, and moral considerations.
Levi frequently presents himself as a “witness” whose training in the sciences aids the scrupulous objectivity of his testimony. Indeed, a rigorous sense of logic and attention to detail runs through all of his work. Formally, this is perhaps most clear in Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table), a sequence of essays and stories organized by the elements, which have metaphorical or actual meaning in each piece. “Cerio” (“Cereum”), for example, ostensibly describes Levi and his friend Alberto’s construction of lighter flints out of rods of cereum, an activity which purchased Levi two months of life in the Lager’s black market. But as usual with Levi, the description of life in the camp is the largest subject within which complex subtextual material swirls. He begins “Cereum” with a sense of memory’s mutability: “At a distance of thirty years I find it difficult to reconstruct the sort of human being that corresponded, in November 1944, to my name
or, better, to my number: 174517,” and proceeds to write a version of the friendship essay about the moral integrity of Alberto, ending darkly, even absurdly with the knowledge that Alberto’s death was perversely bartered back in Italy: “Alberto did not return, and not a trace remains of him; after the end of the war a man from his town, half visionary and half crook, lived for a number of years on the money he made telling his mother false consolatory tales about him.”
Levi committed suicide in 1987, his post-Holocaust battles for meaning and testimony exhausted by his sense that the Holocaust was already diminishing into a contextually compromised historicism. The last work he completed before death was the essay collection I sommersi e i salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saved—also the title of the middle, literally central essay of If This Is a Man), which unifies the thematic complexities that marked his work from the beginning. In the earlier essay, Levi ponders the conundrums that inform all his work: how we are served by memory, and whether “it is necessary or good to retain any memory of this [the Lager’s] exceptional human state”; the meaning of “two particularly well-differentiated categories among men—the saved and the drowned,” and how these categories both can and cannot elucidate moral meaning outside of the concentration camp; the limits and possibilities of language for distorting and salvaging experience beyond ordinary limits. Here, as elsewhere, there is extraordinary tension in Levi’s work between the logical, rational, supposedly “objective” though morally essential processes of preserving memories of the camp, and the taxonomic (Levi is always fond of taxonomies) subjectivity he creates: Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias Lindzin, and Henri are the “saved” for whom Levi cannot conceal a deep distaste, despite his insistence on the moral qualification of evaluating the behavior of the victimized, broken men. And poignantly, Levi, too, is one of the “saved” for whom, as one moves through the essays, intellectual lucidity takes on the violence of a nightmare, a kind of hyperrationality which both undermines itself and threatens madness. His allusions to Dante’s Inferno, therefore, seem horrifyingly appropriate in the summoning of pain both of and beyond this world. How does one understand a world in which “The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died” (“La vergogna” [“Shame”])? Perhaps this is possible through a sometimes pathetically small sense that the victory of man’s darkest impulses was incomplete. Certainly, Levi’s consolations are never theological.
He rejects any spiritually redemptive reading of the Holocaust since this tends to proffer a moral reading of survival. In a stunning moment at the end of “Ottobre 1944” in If This Is a Man, Levi reacts to Kuhn’s prayer of thanks for not having been selected for the gas chamber and crematorium: “If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.” Hell can never be the best of all possible worlds.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi makes one last attempt to clarify his life’s writing, and the essays in the collection reflect 40 years of refined and reconsidered humanistic assays into the experience of the Holocaust, the “concentrationary reality,” as Levi calls it in “La zona grigia” (“The Gray Zone”). In The Drowned and the Saved Levi affirms his belief in the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust, while not completely separating or elevating it above subsequent horrors in Cambodia or South Africa. There are dangers in denying both the experience of history and the history of personal experience. Levi warns us that “Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.” Levi is a furious cautionary whose sense of urgency poses a sometimes faint glimmer of hope balancing against jeremiadic despair. If, for Levi, our language can only grope to contain and explain horror, the essay is an important site for linguistic exploration, encompassing individual memory, cultural and historical testimony, formal, aesthetic, and moral possibility.
While the Holocaust was Levi’s central and informing subject, he also wrote essays that venture lyrically into the natural world and childhood (“Tornare a scuola” [1985; “Going Back to School”], “‘Le più liete creature del mondo’” [1985; “The Most Joyful Creatures in the World’”], “Il fondaco del nonno” [1985; “Grandfather’s Store”]), literary essays (“François Rabelais” , “Scrivere un romanzo” [1985; “On Writing a Novel”], “Tradurre Kafka” [1983; “Translating Kafka”], “Dello scrivere oscuro” [1985;
“On Obscure Writing”]), and the more general familiar essay (“Contro il dotore” [1985; “Against Pain”], “Bisogno di paura” [1985; “The Need for Fear”], “Del pettegolezzo” [1986; “About Gossip”]).
At their best, Levi’s essays contain a philosophical intensity that might be compared to Walter Benjamin, but with a scientist’s eye and a more singular, if complicated, sense of purpose.
Born 31 July 1919 in Turin. Studied at the University of Turin, degree in chemistry, 1941. Took part in the Italian Resistance during World War II, but was captured and held in Fossoli, then at Auschwitz concentration camp, 1944–45; returned to Italy, 1945.
Industrial chemist, SIVA, Turin, 1945–47. Married Lucia Morpurgo, 1947: one son and one daughter. Contributor, La Stampa (The Press). Awards: Campiello Prize, 1963, 1982;
Bagutta Prize, 1967; Prato Prize, 1975; Strega Prize, 1979; Viareggio Prize, 1982;
Kenneth B.Smilen Award, 1985. Died (suicide) in Turin, 11 April 1987.
Essays and Related Prose
Se questo è un uomo, 1947; as If This Is a Man, 1960, and as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961, translated by Stuart Woolf
Il sistema periodico, 1975; as The Periodic Table, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1984
L’altrui mestiere, 1985; as Other People’s Trades, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1989
Racconti e saggi, 1986; as The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1989
I sommersi e i salvati, 1986; as The Drowned and the Saved, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1988
Other writings: collections of stories (including La chiave a stella [The Monkey Wrench], 1978; Lilít e altri racconti [Moments of Reprieve], 1981), the narrative Se non ora, quando? (1982; If Not Now, When?), and poetry.
Collected works edition: Opere, 3 vols., 1987–90.
Giffuni, Cathe, “An English Bibliography of the Writings of Primo Levi,” Bulletin of Bibliography 50, no. 3 (1993):213–21
Birkerts, Sven, An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-Century Literature, New York: Morrow, 1987
Böll, Heinrich, “Primo Levi and Saul Friedlander: Portrayals of Self and History,” Connecticut Review 13, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 41–49
Camon, Ferdinando, Conversations with Primo Levi, Marlboro, Vermont: Marlboro Press, 1989
De Luca, Vania, Tra Giobbe e i buchi veri: Le radici ebraiche dell’opera di Primo Levi, Naples: Istituto Grafico Editoriale Italiano, 1991
Eberstadt, F., “Reading Primo Levi,” Commentary (October 1985)
Epstein, Adam, “Primo Levi and the Language of Atrocity,” Bulletin of the Society for Italian Studies: A Journal for Teachers of Italian in Higher Education 20 (1987):31– 38
Gilliland, Gail, “Self and Other: Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood and Primo Levi’s
Se questo è un uomo as Dialogic Texts,” Comparative Literature Studies 29, no. 2 (1992): 183–209
Lowin, J., “Primo Levi’s Unorthodox Judaism,” Jewish Book Annual 45 (1987–88)
Patruno, Nicholas, Understanding Primo Levi, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995
Risk, Mirna, “Razionalità e coscenza etica di Primo Levi,” Italian Studies 34 (1979):122– 31
Rudolf, Anthony, At an Uncertain Hour: Primo Levi’s War Against Oblivion, London: Menard Press, 1990
Sodi, Risa, “The Memory of Justice: Primo Levi and Auschwitz,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 4, no. i (1989): 89–104
Sodi, Risa, A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz, New York: Lang, 1990
Sodi, Risa, “Primo Levi,” in Jewish Profiles: Great Jewish Personalities and Institutions of the Twentieth Century, edited by Murray Polner, Northvale, New Jersey: Aronson, 1991
Styron, William, “Why Primo Levi Need Not Have Died,” New York Times, 19 December 1988
Tesio, Giovanni, “Primo Levi,” Rassegna di Varia Umanità 34 (1979):657–76
Vincenti, Fiora, Invito alla lettura di Primo Levi, Milan: Mursia, 1973
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