"Sixty years old: retirement age. And along with retirement, empty time to fill. Uselessness as a symptom of old age. Is there any truth to this?
Me, old? Absolutely yes: my date of birth, my long-sightedness, my grey hair, my adult children all go to show it. Last week, for the first time ever, someone gave up their seat for me on the tram, and it left me feeling very strange.
In myself, as a rule, I don’t feel old. I haven’t lost my curiosity for the world around me, nor my interest in other people, nor my competitive instinct nor my taste for playing games and solving problems.
I still like interacting with nature, I take joy in encountering it through all five senses, studying it, describing it in speech and writing. All my organs, my limbs, my memory and my imagination are still in working order, and yet I am all too aware of the grave ring of that terrible word I have just written down: 'still.'"
[Stampa Sera, 15 November 1982; now p. 76 in Marco Belpoliti & Robert Gordon. Eds. The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987. Trans. Robert Gordon. New York: The New Press, 2001. (Translation of Conversazioni e interviste 1963–1987 ed. M. Belpoliti, Turin: Einaudi, 1997)]
1919 – 1941
Primo Levi was born in Turin on July 31 in the same house that he was to live his whole life long. His ancestors were Piedmontese Jews who had come from Spain and Provence. Levi described their customs, lifestyles, and ways of speaking in the first chapter of The Periodic Table, but he did not have any personal memories of anyone before his grandparents. His paternal grandfather was a civil engineer who lived in Bene Vagienna in Cuneo Province, where he owned a house and a little farm. He died in 1885. His maternal grandfather was a cloth merchant who died in 1941. His father Cesare (born in 1875) graduated in civil engineering in 1901. He made long business trips abroad to Belgium, France, and Hungary. He married Ester Luzzati (1895-1991) in 1918. Levi recalled his father as an outgoing person, someone modern for his times and a lover of good living and good reading who paid scarce attention to family affairs.
“My father went to temple on Yom Kippur because he was a bit superstitious, but he was friendly with Lombroso, Turin’s positivist physiologist; he attended mediumistic sessions, not because he believed in spirits but so as to have an understanding of what was at the bottom of them.”
(Levi & Regge, 1989)
“We were very different. He was an excellent person. He was not very inclined to follow the career of his father […]. He left me a library, the love of books, and a certain tension of spirit, because of which he began to study English at the age of 64, as well as a certain fuming over the ‘whys.’ He went to a technical secondary school, and then he did engineering, yet he had a spotty cultural background outside of his own field. In any case, he was always trying to fill in these gaps. He read Kant in German. I think he understood little of it, but he insisted on it. He never left anything unobserved […]. He had a tendency – and I don’t know where it came to him – to explore. He was a curious person. This is something I believe I inherited from him.”
Primo’s sister, Anna Maria, was born, a person whom he had a strong bond to all his life.
He attended elementary school and enjoyed decent health. When he finished elementary school, he took private tutoring for a year.
He enrolled in a secondary school, the Ginnasio-Liceo D’Azeglio, a school that was famous for its illustrious teachers and students, many of whom were opponents of Fascism (Augusto Monti, Franco Antonicelli, Umberto Cosmo, Zino Zini, Norberto Bobbio, and many others). The D’Azeglio school had already been “purged” and came across as politically neutral. Levi was a timid and hard-working student. He was interested in chemistry and biology, but was not very interested in history and Italian. He was not a particularly outstanding student, but he never failed any subjects. During his third year at the D’Azeglio, Levi had Cesare Pavese as a teacher for several months.
Levi made friendships that would last for life. He took long vacations in Torre Pellice, Bardonecchia, and Cogne. He began to fall in love with mountaineering.
[Speaking to Tullio Regge] “Your chemical vocation somewhat precedes mine. I began around the age of fourteen…. My father also exerted cautious pressure to orient me in a scientific direction; he too was a bibliophile, bought books at random, and had the passions of an autodidact. On his own he had studied many things, and he continued to study until the end. He had filled the house with strange books, which in part I still have… For me he bought a beautiful Mondadori [a publisher’s] series of popular science, The Microbe Hunters, The Architecture of Things [Concerning the Nature of Things], a first book on genetics that was still in the process of being born – we’re at the beginning of the thirties -, Carrell’s Man the Unknown, which was published by Bompiani, and an Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity, by Wilkins, I think […]. My father hated nature. He had a savage hatred for the countryside, which to him meant staying locked up in the house without ever sticking out his nose, because there were ants, dust, and because it was hot… My father was in love with the center of Turin. He took me there, even if I was reluctant, and he could not understand the fact that I went into the mountains to ski. Tennis, yes, because it wasn’t dangerous and was played within a circumscribed area. But to him the mountains were incomprehensible. He advised me to drink, smoke, go with girls. Now, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I had no girls. There wasn’t much understanding with my father. I was substantially a romantic, and also in chemistry it was the romantic aspect that interested me. I hoped to go very far, to the point of possessing the universe, to understanding the why of things. Now I know that it doesn’t exist, the why of things, at least that’s what I believe, but then I really believed in it. And yet I wasn’t religious; religion said nothing to me, and at bottom also classical culture did not give me much. I suffered it with a certain intolerance, even though I was a good student.
I had a curious sensation: that there was a plot at my expense, that family and school kept something hidden from me, which I went looking for in the places that were reserved for me: for example, chemistry or also astronomy […]. In my time the conspiracy was acclaimed. It was a Gentile conspiracy. I too had an excellent relationship with my Italian teacher, but when she publicly said that literary subjects have a formative value and scientific subjects have only an informative value, my hair stood on end. This confirmed in me the idea that the conspiracy existed. You young Fascist, you young Crocean [follower of philosopher Benedetto Croce], you young men grown up in Italy must not approach the sources of scientific knowledge because they are dangerous […]. I had two or three fourteen - or fifteen -year-old friends and we reciprocally preached these things to each other; we have found the right path, we have found the shortcut, which the school denies us. Even though we digested Greek and Latin diligently, even gladly, since we had fun linguistically, for philological reasons […].
As for my teacher of natural sciences, chemistry was a textbook, and that’s it. It was pages in a book. She had never in her life touched a crystal or a solution. It was knowledge transmitted from teacher to teacher without ever a practical text. There were experiments in class, but they were always the same. They absolutely lacked everything that is inventive in such things […]. He [Primo’s father] hadn’t bought me a telescope, but a microscope with a magnification of 250, which I used to organize a “classical” performance for him, a solution of alum in which you could see the crystals […]. I had a small projector made by Pathé Baby, very low gauge: I would invite my friends and put in a slide instead of film; you could see the crystals grow."
(Levi & Regge, 1989)
He read the Italian translation of Sir William Bragg’s Concerning the Nature of Things (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1925).
“I was captivated by the clear and simple things that it said, and I decided I would become a chemist. Between the lines I divined a great hope: the models on a human scale, the concepts of structures and measurement, reach very far, towards the minute world of atoms, and towards the immense world of the stars; perhaps infinitely far? If so, we live in a comprehensible universe, one accessible to our imagination, and the anguish of the dark recedes before the rapid spread of research.”
(Levi, Roots, 2003)
He graduated from secondary school, but first had to pass a make-up exam in Italian in October.
He then enrolled as chemistry major at the University of Turin’s School of Sciences.
“For me, too, the university experience was liberating. I still remember Professor Ponzio’s first chemistry lesson, from which I got clear, precise, verifiable information, without useless words, expressed in a language that I liked enormously, also from a literary point of view: a definite language, essential. And then the laboratory: every year he included a laboratory session. We spent five hours there; it was a big commitment. An extraordinary experience. In the first place because you worked with your hands, literally, and it was the first time this had happened to me, never mind if you scalded your hands or cut them. It was a return to the origins. The hand is a noble organ, but school, all taken up with the brain, had neglected it. And besides, the laboratory was collegial, a center pf socialization where one really made friends. As a matter of fact, I remained friends with all my laboratory colleagues […].
Making mistakes together is a fundamental experience. One participated fully in the mutual victories and defeats. Quantitative analysis, for example, in which they gave you a bit of powder and were supposed to tell what was in it: not to realize that there was bismuth or to find chrome that wasn’t there were adventures. We gave each other advice, we sympathized with each other. It was also a school of patience, of objectivity, of ingenuity, because the methods they suggested to you to perform an analysis could be improved.”
(Levi & Regge, 1989)
The Fascist government passed its first racial laws, which prevented Jews from attending public schools. However, they allowed students who had already enrolled in the university to finish their studies. Levi associated with groups of anti-Fascist students, both Jewish and non-Jewish. He read Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Laurence Sterne, Franz Werfel, Charles Darwin, and Lev Tolstoy.
“I have read a great deal because I came from a family for whom reading was an innocent and traditional vice, a gratifying habit, a mental exercise, an obligatory and compulsive way of killing time, and a sort of fairy wand bestowing wisdom. My father was always reading three books simultaneously; he read ‘when he sat at home, when he walked by the way, when he lay down and when he got up’ (Deut. 6.7); he ordered from his tailor jackets with large and deep pockets each one of which could hold a book. He had two brothers just as interested in indiscriminate reading”.
(Levi, Roots, 2003)
“The liberation of the university coincided with the trauma of being told: watch out, you are not like the others, indeed you are less worthy than they; you’re avaricious, you’re a stranger, you’re dirty, you’re dangerous, you’re perfidious. I unconsciously reacted by accentuating my commitment to my studies.”
(Levi & Regge, 1989; p. 20)
“The racial laws were a God-send for me, but for others too – the reduction to absurdity of the stupidity of Fascism. By then, the criminal face of Fascism had been forgotten – that of the Matteotti assassination, to make myself clear. What remained to be seen was its silly face […]. In my family Fascism was accepted with some impatience. My father had joined the party unwillingly, yet he put on the black shirt. And I was a balilla and then an avangardista [a boy (8-14 years old) and then a youth in Fascist paramilitary organizations]. I could very well say that the racial laws gave me my free will back, as it did to others.”
(De Rienzo, 1975)
[In response to Germaine Greer, who asked “What is your religion?”] “I have none. Because my parents are Jewish, I constructed a Jewish culture for myself, but very late, after the war. After I got back, I found myself in possession of a supplementary culture and I tried to develop it. But not for religion. It's as if my religious sense had been amputated. I just haven't got one. I have what Freud called the oceanic sense. If you think about the universe at all, you become religious, but I don't have a problem with it… For practical reasons I set about studying Hebraic culture, whether Yiddish or biblical, as well as the way of life of Jews in various parts of the world, but with a detached interest, zoological again. However, the chapter on the culture of my Piedmontese Jewish forebears in The Periodic Table is written with love. I'm profoundly attached to Piedmont. I'm perfectly aware of the defects in the Piedmontese character, because they're my own defects.”
(Greer in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
Levi graduated cum laude from Turin University with perfect marks. His diploma bears the annotation - “of the Jewish race.”
“I received my degree cum laude and I’m convinced that this praise was given me 40 per cent through my own merits and for the rest because the professors, almost all of them vaguely anti-Fascist, had found a way to express their dissent. From my observatory it was very easy to understand whether a professor was a baron, as one says nowadays, or a scientist. But with the exception of one case, all of them were decent men… I should also add that among my fellow students, men and women, there wasn’t one who called me ‘Jew.’ They all saw the racial laws as a stupidity or a cruelty, or both. And, yet, naturally, all of them were members of the GUF (Gruppo Universitario Fascista), the Fascist student organization. Nor was there anyone who gave signs of caution in associating with me.”
(Levi & Regge, 1989)
Levi was to write this 40 years later when he included his old practical organic chemistry text into his personal anthology, The Search for Roots – Ludwig Gattermann, Die Praxis des organischen Chemikers (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1939) [Laboratory Methods of Organic Chemistry, 24th Ed. (London: Macmillan, 1937)]:
“In them [these three pages], something shines through that is more noble than straightforward technical information: it is the authority of one who teaches things because he knows them, and he knows them through having lived them; a sober but firm call to responsibility that I first heard at the age of twenty-two, after sixteen years of study and innumerable books read. The words of the father, then, that awake you from childhood, and which declare you to be an adult sub conditione.”
(Levi, Roots, 2003)
Levi was looking for a job while his father was dying of cancer. He was under a lot of pressure because his family was in dire financial straits. He found a semi-legitimate job in an asbestos mine near Lanzo in Torino Province. He was working off the books, but he was working in a chemistry laboratory. The task that was given him and to which he committed himself enthusiastically was to isolate nickel, an element that occurred in only in very small quantities in the mine’s scrap materials. (See “Nickel,” a chapter in The Periodic Table.)
1942 – 1944
He found a better economic set up for himself in Milan at Wander, a Swiss drug company, where he was assigned to researching for new drugs to fight diabetes. He wrote about this experience in “Phosphorus,” a chapter in The Periodic Table.
When Levi moved to Milan, he took only a few things that he thought were indispensable – “my bicycle, Rabelais, the Macaroneae, Moby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickax, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler and recorder.” (Levi, Periodic Table)
He socialized with a group of friends from Turin.
"In the fall of 1942 there were seven of us friends from Turin, boys and girls, living in Milan, having arrived for different reasons in the large city which the war had rendered inhospitable, our parents – those of us who still had them – had moved to the country to avoid the bombings, and we were living an amply communal life. […] Our ignorance allowed us to live, as when you are in the mountains and your rope is frayed and about to break, but you don’t know it and feel safe.” (This is how he described this time in Periodic Table, pp. 106-07.) There were the architect Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi, Carla Consonni, Silvio Ortona, Ada Della Torre (Primo’s cousin), Vanda Maestro (who was also deported to Auschwitz, where she died), and Emilio Diena. Gentili Tedeschi said afterwards that the young Primo struck him for the quality of his imagination and for the prospects of a solid future as a scientist that he had seen in him. “Primo Levi explained our immaturity very well. We were living in the uncertainty of waiting. Every one of us was surprised by the racial laws, which were passed at a time in our lives when we were very vulnerable. We were finishing the studies that we had been putting everything into and we wanted very much to finish. This is why we lost one year, 1939, a year when we still could have gone abroad. We all ended up stuck there and we were trying to survive and defend what was left of our families.”
In November the Allies landed in North Africa. In December the Russians defended Stalingrad victoriously. Levi and his friends made contact with several exponents of militant anti-fascism and rapidly become fully politicized. Levi joined the clandestine Party of Action [Partito d’Azione].
In July the Fascist government fell and Mussolini was arrested. Levi became active in the network of contacts among the parties that were to make up the National Liberation Committee [Cln, Comitato di liberazione nazionale].
On September 8 the Badoglio [Italian army general who replaced Mussolini] government announced that there would be an armistice. German armed forces occupied north and central Italy. Levi joined a partisan band operating in the Valle d’Aosta [a region northwest of Turin], but he was arrested along with two other companions near Brusson. Many years later in 1980 Levi was to describe these days in a letter he wrote to Paolo Momigliano, president of the Institute for the History of the Resistance in Valle d’Aosta.
“My period as a partisan in the Valle d’Aosta was undoubtedly the most muddled in my career and I don’t like to talk about it on my own. It is a story of well-intentioned but stupid young people and it’s an episode that could very well be put on the shelf among other forgotten things. The allusions I made to this period in The Periodic Table are already enough if not too much.”
Levi was sent to the concentration camp at Carpi-Fòssoli in Modena Province.
“We were being held by the Fascists, who did not treat us badly. They let us write letters, let us receive packages, and swore to us on their 'Fascist faith' that they’d keep us there till the end of the war.”
In February the camp at Fòssoli was taken over by the Germans, who put Levi and the other prisoners – including old people, women, and children – on a train headed for Auschwitz.
The trip lasted five days. Upon their arrival the men were separated from the women and children and sent to barracks number 30.
“There wasn’t just one Auschwitz camp; there were thirty-nine of them. There was the town of Auschwitz, and in it was a concentration camp, and that was Auschwitz properly speaking, or the capital of the system. Down below, two kilometers away, was Birkenau, or Auschwitz Two: here they had the gas chamber; it was a huge concentration camp, divided into some four to six camps. Farther up was the factory, and near the factory was Monowitz, or Auschwitz Three: that’s where I was. This camp belonged to the factory, it had been financed by it. In addition, all around, there were thirty to thirty-five small camps (mines, arms, factories, farms, etc.). The most distant camp was Brno, in Moravia: it was about a hundred kilometers away, as the crow flies, and was under the administration of Auschwitz. In my camp there were about ten thousand of us; in central Auschwitz fifteen or twenty thousand, in Birkenau many more, seventy to eighty thousand; plus another twenty thousand scattered around the little camps, which were all frightful places, mines, where you worked amid cold and hunger; they were punishment camps. But Auschwitz One was the administrative center for all of them, and Birkenau was the extermination camp.”
“The contact I had with Eastern Judaism was traumatic and negative. We were rejected, as Sephardi or in any case as Italian Jews, because we didn’t speak Yiddish, we were doubly foreign, both for the Germans of course because we were Jews and for the other Jews from the East because we were not part of their world, they had not the slightest idea that there was any other kind of Judaism…. As Italian Jews we felt especially defenseless. Along with the Greeks we were the lowest of the low, and in some way we were worse off than the Greeks because they were at least used to discrimination, there was a long history of anti-Semitism in Salonika [Thessaloniki], and many of them were old hands, had developed hard shells through their contacts with other Greeks. But the Italians, so used to being treated as equals of all other Italians, had no shield, we were as naked as eggs without shells.”
(Bravo & Cereja in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“The first days were terrible — for everyone. There is a 'shock', a trauma connected with entrance into a concentration camp which can last five, ten, twenty days. Nearly all the people who died, died during this first phase. Our way of life had changed totally in the space of a few days, especially in the case of us western Jews. Polish and Russian Jews had done some hard training for the Auschwitz experience in the ghettos beforehand, and the shock for them was less severe. For us, the Italian, French and Dutch Jews, it was as if we had been plucked straight from our houses to a concentration camp. But I could feel, along with fear and hunger and exhaustion, an extremely intense need to understand the world around me. To begin with, the language. I know a little German, but I felt I had to know a lot more. I went so far as to take private lessons, paid for with part of my bread ration. I didn't know that I was learning a really vulgar kind of German.”
(Greer in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“The hardest thing to capture was precisely the boredom, the total boredom, the monotony, the lack of events, every single day the same. That is what being in prison feels like, and it generates a curious effect by which the days as you live them seem eternal but as soon as they are over they collapse into instants because they have nothing in them.”
(Vigevani in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“To forgive is not my verb. It has been inflicted on me. All the letters I receive, especially from young and Catholic readers, return to this theme. They ask me if I have forgiven. I think of myself as, in my own way, a just man. I can forgive a man, but not all men; I only feel able to judge case by case. If I had had Eichmann before me, I would have condemned him to death. I do not accept, as some ask me to, a wholesale pardon.”
(Calcagno in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“I became a Jew in Auschwitz. The awareness of feeling that I was different was imposed upon me. Someone, without any reason in the world, had established that I was different and inferior. Out of a natural reaction, in those years I felt different and superior… In this sense Auschwitz gave me something that has remained with me. By making me feel like a Jew, it then called me to claim again a cultural heritage that I had not before possessed.”
(De Rienzo, 1975)
In June Levi was sent to work as manual laborer in a team of masons who had to build a wall. He met a mason from Fossano named Lorenzo Perrone, who worked for an Italian company with a branch at Auschwitz and who could move about moderately freely. Perrone took Levi under his wing and he would let him have a bowl of soup collected from the leftovers of his camp whenever he could. Levi was then transferred to a laboratory because of his background as a chemist.
“The material discomforts, the fatigue, the hunger, the cold, and the thirst that were tormenting our bodies managed paradoxically to distract us from the tremendous unhappiness of our spirits. It was impossible for us to be perfectly unhappy. This is demonstrated by the fact that in the Lager suicide was a quite rare event. Suicide is a philosophical event. It is determined by the faculty of thought. Our urgent daily needs distracted us from thought. We were able to long for death, but we were not able to think of putting ourselves to death. I was near suicide, near the idea of suicide, before and after the Lager, but not inside the Lager.”
(De Rienzo, 1975)
“I really did have a notebook and the notes never amounted to more than twenty lines. I was too afraid, it was extremely dangerous to write. The very fact of writing was suspect, so no, it wasn’t so much the notes, pencil and paper, it was the desire to write them, when I found I had what I needed, the desire to get across to my mother. My sister, my family, the inhuman life I was living through… There was no way of holding on to anything. Except in our memory…
Much later I learned that there was an organized resistance even in Monowitz. At the time, I only had suspicions on two occasions… Many years later I met a French Jewish communist who had been at Monowitz and I recounted the two episodes to him. And he told me, yes, both were explainable, that there was indeed a network of Resistance and of preparation for Resistance which on occasion had a power of life and death. That is, they were able at times to get their hands on the personal files of the camp and to erase or add a name.”
(Bravo & Cereja in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
Levi managed to stay healthy almost as long as he was in the camp, but he got scarlet fever at the exact moment when the Germans were evacuating the camp under the onslaught of the advancing Russians and abandoning the sick to their fate. The other prisoners were moved again to Buchenwald and Mauthausen and almost all of them died.
On the “terrible and decisive” night when the Germans were wavering between killing the prisoners and taking flight, Levi remembered ending up by accident with a book in his hands, one that would have some meaning for him in his activities as a writer, Roger Vercel’s Remorques (Paris: Albin Michel, 1935) [Tug-Boat (London: Chatto & Windus), 1936]. The book narrates the adventures of a salvage tugboat on the high seas and of its captain, Renaud. Levi thought that this was a very relevant topic, but one “that was exploited very little, strangely enough. It was a human adventure in the world of technology.” He was to write this in The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology:
“Perhaps the man of today considers adventure, the Conradian testing, superfluous? If so it would be an unhappy omen. But this book makes us see that adventure is still with us and not only at the ends of the Earth; that a man can show courage and ingenuity even in peaceful enterprises; that the relationship between man and machine is not necessarily one of alienation, but, in fact, can enhance and consolidate the old rapport between man and nature […]. The investigation of paternity is always an uncertain business, but I should not be surprised if my character Libertino Faussone in The Wrench harbored a gene transplanted from Captain Renaud.”
(Levi, Roots, 2003)
“I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritedness. I don't know if this depended on my professional background, or an unsuspected stamina, or on a sound instinct. I never stopped recording the world and people around me, so much that I still have an unbelievably detailed image of them. I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by a curiosity that somebody afterwards did, in fact, deem nothing less than cynical, the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous, but new, monstrously new...”
(Roth in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“I have to say that the experience of Auschwitz was such for me that it swept away any remains of the religious education that I had had… There is Auschwitz and therefore there cannot be God. I don’t find a solution to this dilemma. I look for it , but I don’t find it.”
1945 – 1947
Levi lived in a Soviet transit camp for a few months in Katowice, where he worked as a nurse. In June he began his journey home, which went on and on absurdly until October. Levi and his companions traveled over maze-like routes that took them first into Byelorussia and then finally home to Italy (on October 19) after they had crossed Hungary, the Ukraine, Rumania, and Austria. This is the experience that Levi wrote about in The Truce.
“Family, home, factory are good things in themselves, but they deprived me of something that I still miss: adventure. Destiny decided that I should find adventure in the awful mess of a Europe swept by war.”
(Roth in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
He went through a hard transition back to a life in the devastated Italy of the post-war years. Levi found work at the Duco-Montecatini paint factory in Avigliana near Turin. He was obsessed by the travails he had gone through and wrote If This is a Man feverishly. In any case, he managed to find some solace in his experience of writing.
“I was writing concise and bloody poems, telling the story at breakneck speed, either by talking to people or by writing it down, so much so that gradually a book was later born: by writing I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again, a person like everyone else, neither a martyr nor debased nor a saint, one of those people who form a family and look to the future rather than the past.”
He got engaged to Lucia Morpurgo.
“Before they arrested me I’d already written s short story, of which I have a copy, but I’ve been careful not to publish it. It was a mediocre arabesque, with a little of everything in it […]. Actually in that first story there’s a lot of the natural world, rocks, and plants. Yes, perhaps that’s what I would have written about; I was fascinated by that world. But for me, the experience of the concentration camp has been fundamental. Naturally I wouldn’t do it over again, but still, along with the horror of that experience, which I still feel now, I can’t deny that it’s also had positive results. It seems to me that that was where I learned to know the facts about people […]. I’d been to the university, but I too must say that my real university was Auschwitz. I have the feeling of having been enriched by it, so much so that it took me only a few months to write Survival in Auschwitz [If This is a Man], and I remember writing it without ever faltering.”
“Perhaps, reading, I was unknowingly prepared for writing, just as the eight-month-old fetus remains in the water but is all the while preparing to breathe; perhaps things read here and there came to light again in the pages that I then came to write, but the kernel of my writing does not derive from what I have read.”
(Levi, Roots, 2003)
“For one coming back after an experience, telling the story of a deed is something that is important and complex. It is felt equally as a moral and civic duty – a primal, liberating need – and as a kind of social promotion. A person who has witnessed the Lager feels that he or she is the receptor of a fundamental experience, a witness by right and by force. Such a person is frustrated if his witnessing is not asked for and received. He or she is rewarded if it is.”
“At the time, I tried to write down the most serious, the most weighty, heavy and significant aspects. I didn’t write down … certain conversations, certain discussions with friends and colleagues… There [in If This is a Man] I felt that the note of indignation should prevail: it was testimony, almost juridical in form, as I saw it, a case for the prosecution, not a call for revenge, vendetta, punishment, but an act of witness. So certain subjects felt marginal; for example one of the first stories in Lilit is about the ‘disciple’… Episodes like that, which needed a certain subtlety in the telling, jarred somewhat in the context of If This is a Man. They were, you might say, an octave lower and I only wrote them much later.”
(Bravo & Jalla, 1986)
(Bravo & Cereja in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“The question that is often addressed to me by my readers in high school ('If you hadn’t been in a Lager and hadn’t studied chemistry, would you still have written? And if so, in the same way?') could be given a sensible answer only by taking another Primo Levi who didn’t study chemistry and set out to write. The convalidating proof does not exist. Sometimes, slightly straining the paradox, I’ve written that my model of writing style was the short end-of-the-week report, and to a certain extent this is true. I was struck by a sentence attributed to Fermi, who also found it boring to write compositions in liceo. The only he would have written gladly would have been: describe a two-lira coin. Something like that happens to me: when I have to describe a two-lira coin, I’m quite successful. If I must describe something indefinite, for example a human personality, I’m less successful.”
(Levi & Regge, 1989)
“I had written some stories upon my return from imprisonment. I had written them without realizing that they could have been a book. My friends from the Resistance told me to 'round them out' after they had read them, to make a book out of them. This was back in 1947. I took the manuscript to Einaudi publishers. The book was read over several times. My friend Natalia Ginzburg was the one who had to tell me that they were not interested in it. This was why I tried my luck at Franco Antonicelli’s De Silva publishers. [Maria Vittoria] Malvano, Anita Rho, [Marisa] Zini and [Renzo] Zorzi read it. [The manuscript was entitled The Drowned and the Saved.] Antonicelli chose as title the title of one of my poems, If This is a Man. They published it with a run of 2500 copies. Cajumi reviewed it, together with Calvino’s Path to the Spider’s Nest. It sold 1400 copies. Then, in 1951 De Silva was absorbed by La Nuova Italia publishers. I wanted them to print the book again. They said no. They had 600 copies, which later ended up under the mud in the floods of Florence [in 1966]. So, in 1955 I went back and knocked on Einaudi’s door again. There was an exhibit on the deportations that had aroused interest. And Luciano Foà [general manager and future founder of Adelphi publishers] decided to publish the book […]. It had about 30 pages more than the first version.”
“Without a doubt Primo Levi was very bitter about this. That was the time when his little sister Anna Maria talked to me about this disappointment of her brother’s and had me read the typescript. (She had been a relay-runner [messenger] at our side in the Committee for National Liberation during the resistance and also after.) I read the manuscript, which stirred me from the opening pages on. I spoke to the president of the Cln, Franco Antonicelli. He had recently founded a little but lively publishing house, which he named De Silva after a publisher from the 1500s. It became the biggest success for this publisher, but still a success of limited dimensions […]. Antonicelli’s immediate decision to publish can be remembered as something to be thankful about because this relieved Levi from his justified disappointment and encouraged him to go down the path that he had just started out on.”
(Galante Garrone, 1997)
The book came out as the third title in the series "Biblioteca Leone Ginzburg", “a series of moral and critical documents on contemporary history dedicated to the memory of the martyr Leone Ginzburg.” [Ginzburg was a scholar of Russian literature who had founded the Einaudi publishing house in Turin along with Giulio Einaudi in 1933. He was also an anti-Fascist conspirator and a director of the Partito d’Azione (Party of Action). He was killed by the Nazis in Regina Coeli prison in Rome on February 5, 1944.] If This is a Man had a very simple white jacket with the title in red in rather small letters. Antonicelli prepared a publicity pamphlet to promote the book. The last page had a brief presentation, probably written by Antonicelli himself. “This book is the revelation of a new author. Levi composed his narrative with the simplicity of someone who has balanced his memories according to the trials he has gone through. Yet, his act of witnessing succeeds in being the act a human being and of a literary person at the same time. There is no book in the world about these same tragic experiences that has such artistic value as this book that is being published by De Silva.”
In November 1985, Germaine Greer interviewed Levi for The Literary Magazine. She commented that If This is a Manis was a staggering achievement. Levi reacted in this way:
“I don't know how to answer. For one thing, it's forty years since I wrote it. And in those forty years I've constructed a sort of legend around that book, that I wrote it without a plan, that I wrote it on impulse, that I wrote it without reflecting at all. The other people I've talked to about it accepted the legend. In fact, writing is never spontaneous. Now that I think about it, I can see that this book is full of literature, literature absorbed through the skin, even while I was rejecting it (because I was a bad student of Italian literature). I preferred chemistry. I was bored by lessons in poetic theory, the structure of the novel and all that. When the time came, and I needed to write this book, and I did have a pathological need to write it, I found inside myself a whole 'program'. And it was that literature I'd studied more or less unwillingly, the Dante I'd had to do in high school, the Italian classics and so forth.”
(Greer in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001).
“In that book there is nevertheless a certain distortion of reality, if for nothing else, because the camp at Monowitz was really not similar to the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. Monowitz is located seven kilometers from Auschwitz and was the same thing. Even though I was thinking of writing the authentic story of the concentration camp experience, I was really writing the story of my camp, and only mine. At that time the choosing of prisoners to exterminate was more moderate. They took away ten or fifteen percent of the camp, not forty or ninety percent, as they did at Treblinka. They needed a work force, you understand. It’s all documented – the conflict between the SS, who wanted to kill everybody immediately and the German industries that, for economic reasons and certainly not for humanitarian reasons, said, ‘A worker who dies within a week does not serve us at all. We want workers who resist at least three, six months.’ All of this came out into the light in the Nuremberg trials […]. If this book, which by now is forty years old, keeps on living, the reason is that this testimony is more universal from the point of view of time and space than it may have been in my intentions when I was writing the book.”
“The experience of the Lager cannot be wiped out. It can be overcome, made painless, even made useful like all of life’s experiences, but it cannot be wiped out. It is part of my free moments to keep on insisting on the same question as then: namely, if this is a man or not. The question does not only have to do with the world of war and Nazism, but also with the world of the terrorist, of person who corrupts and lets himself be corrupted, of the bad politician, and of the exploiter. All and all, with all those cases where it comes to us as natural to ask if humanity, that word in its most personal meaning, is to be saved or lost, can be brought back or not.”
He resigned from his job at Duco. He went through a short and frustrating experience in business for himself in partnership with a friend.
September 1947. He married Lucia Morpurgo.
December. Levi accepted a job as laboratory chemist at Siva, a small paint factory located between Turin and its nearby suburb of Settimo Torinese. Within a few years he became the technical manager and then the general manager.
“I entered the paint industry by chance, but I never had very much to do with the general run of paints, varnishes, and lacquers. Our company, immediately after it began, specialized in the production of wire enamels, insulating coatings for copper electrical conductors. At the peak of my career, I numbered among the 30 or 40 specialists in the world in this branch. The animals hanging here on the wall are made out of scrap enameled wire… I don't believe I wasted my time in the factory. My factory militanza - my compulsory and honorable service there - kept me in touch with the world of real things. I acquired other precious experiences that added to and combined with those of Auschwitz.”
(Roth in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
1948 – 1964
Primo’s daughter Lisa Lorenza was born.
Levi began to work with Edizioni Scientifiche Einaudi, a branch of the Einaudi publishing house, upon the invitation of Paolo Boringhieri. Levi did translations and text revisions. He read drafts of manuscripts and gave editorial opinions. His collaboration went on until 1957, when Boringhieri acquired the catalogue of Edizioni Scientifiche and started up a publishing house under his own name.
In a July 16, 1952 meeting of the editorial board Boringhieri proposed that Einaudi publish a new edition of If This is a Man, but the proposal was not adopted because of Giulio Einaudi’s doubts, which he expressed in this way “This fine book by Primo Levi [has already] gone through the hands of two publishers” – i.e. De Silva and La Nuova Italia, which later took it over.
In 1955 Levi insisted again, especially in view of an exhibition on the deportation to the camps held at Palazzo Madama in Turin, which raised a good deal of interest, especially among young people. This time Levi found a receptive listener in Luciano Foà, who was then the general manager of the publisher.
On July 11, 1955 Levi signed a contract for the new edition of If This is a Man in exchange for a one-time payment of 200,000 lire. It was to appear in the moderately-priced “little-library” series (Piccola Biblioteca Scientifico-letteraria), a series targeted for a wide readership mostly among young readers. Its publication was put off until 1958 because of the financial crises Einaudi was going through and the resulting cuts in programming.
Primo’s son Renzo was born. Beginning this year, Levi committed himself to writing the story of his return, which was to become The Truce. He wrote one chapter a month, first working from the notes he made at the time of his homecoming. He had written the first two chapters some time in 1947 and 1948, almost as a continuation of his writing of If This is a Man, as Levi himself said (Paladini, 1987). He did this under the encouragement of Franco Antonicelli and Alessandro Galante Garrone, who kept on encouraging him to put down the stories he used to tell his friends so often and so effectively.
Levi wrote methodically in the evenings, on the weekends, and on the vacations. He did not take one hour of work time away from his job. His life was neatly divided into three parts – his family, the factory, and his writing. He was deeply involved in his activity as a chemist. He made many business trips to Germany and England.
In 1958 the new expanded edition of If This is a Man came out in the Einaudi non-fiction series ("Saggi") with a comment on the jacket by Bruno Munari. The first printing came out with 2000 copies and then there was a re-printing of the same text. In 1959 the book was translated in England and the United States and met with some modest success. In 1961 the French and German translations were published, but Levi complained about the poor quality of the French translation.
In the meantime, Levi wrote other stories at the same time that he was writing The Truce. These were to appear later in Storie naturali – [literally "Natural Histories", "storie" meaning both histories and stories in Italian, some translated in The Sixth Day and Other Tales]. Levi tried to test out the reactions of his readers by publishing them in various periodicals and newspapers, including Il Giorno. He submitted several to Italo Calvino, who wrote his comments about them in a letter to Levi dated November 22, 1961:
“I finally read your stories. Those science-fiction ones, or, better, biological-fantasy ones, always attract me. Your fantastic mechanism that takes off from a genetic-scientific piece of data has a power of intellectual and even poetic evocation, just like the genetic and morphological meanderings of Jean Rostand. Your sense of humor and your aplomb save you very well from the danger that someone usually runs into who uses the shapes of literature for intellectual experiments of this type. Certain of your discoveries are of the first order, like that of the Assyriologist who deciphers the mosaic of the trichinosis worms. The evocation of the origin of the centaurs [the story entitled 'Quaestio de Centauris', published later] has its poetic force, a plausibility that imposes itself on us. (And, really, one would say that writing about centaurs is impossible today, but you have managed to avoid an Anatole-Francian-Walt-Disneyesque pastiche.) Naturally, you still are lacking the sure hand of a writer who has his accomplished stylistic personality, a writer like Borges, who uses the most varied evocations of culture and transforms every invention into something that is exclusively his own – that rarified environment that is like the seal that makes the works of every great writer recognizable. You move in a dimension of intelligent meandering along the borderlines of a scientific-ethical-cultural panorama that should be that of the Europe in which we are living. Maybe I like your stories mostly because they presume that there is a common civilization that is noticeably different than that presumed by so much of Italian literature. And it is that basis of subtle scapigliatura-piemontese provincialism [Piedmontese literary bohemianism, second half of the 19th century] that there is under your stories that gives a special fascination to the minor pieces of the collection, such as the story of the old doctor who is a collector of odors, almost a novella written by a Soldati [Italian author Mario S.] converted to positivism. All in all, this is a direction in which I encourage you to work, but I also urge you to find a position from which things like these could come out with a certain continuity and set up a dialogue with a public that gets to know how to appreciate them.”
“When this function of mine [as witness to important historical events] ran out, I noticed that I couldn’t insist on the autobiographical register and along with this that I was too ‘marked’ to be able to slide into orthodox science fiction. So, it seemed to me that a certain type of science fiction could satisfy the desire to express myself that I was still feeling and could be adapted as a kind of modern allegory. In any case, most of my stories in Storie Naturali were written before the publication of The Truce.”
“The Truce was written 14 years after If This Is a Man: it is a more 'self-conscious' book, more methodical, more literary, the language much more profoundly elaborated. It tells the truth, but a filtered truth. Beforehand, I had recounted each adventure many times, to people at widely different cultural levels (to friends mainly and to high school boys and girls), and I had retouched it en route so as to arouse their most favorable reactions. When If This Is a Man began to achieve some success, and I began to see a future for my writing, I set out to put these adventures on paper. I aimed at having fun in writing and at amusing my prospective readers. Consequently, I gave emphasis to strange, exotic, cheerful episodes - mainly to the Russians seen close up - and I relegated to the first and last pages the mood, as you put it, ‘of mourning and inconsolable despair.’''
(Roth in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
A Canadian radio station produced a radio play of If This is a Man, which Levi appreciated greatly. “Radio Canada informed me that they had made a radio version of If This is a Man, and they sought my advice on some details: soon after, the script and a recorded tape arrived. Never, perhaps, had I received such a welcome gift. Not only had they done such an excellent job, but for me it was a real revelation. The authors of the script, far off in time and space, and whose experience was very different from my own, had brought out of the book everything I had enclosed within it, and something more. It was a spoken meditation, of high technical and dramatic quality and at the same time punctiliously faithful to the reality that had been.” (Levi, 1966)
Levi offered the Italian national network (Rai) an Italian version of the radio play that was different from the Canadian one, in that it developed episodes that were more appropriate but kept the technique of multilingual dialogues.
“At that time I was working in the factory until 5:30 PM and then emigrating with the cast and crew of the Rai [Italian national radio] to Bròzolo, which is a little town in the hills, because they were trying, for the first time, to record outdoors the scenes that were supposed to have taken place outdoors. And Bròzolo was chosen for this reason: because it was one of the few towns in Piedmont where the farmers were still wearing wooden clogs. There we needed a movement of masses of people who were walking with wooden clogs […]. For me it was a very curious way of living through the atmosphere of those times again, feeling them in my very body, because what this radio adaptation presumed to do was to make the multilingual world of the Lager live again. And so there were actors there – actually, non-actor actors, amateurs actors – French men and women, Hungarians, Yiddish-speakers, Poles, and Russians. Now, for me, living in this Babylonia made anew was really a diving back into the atmosphere of those times, with rather penetrating effects on me. On that spot – that is, during the broadcast, during the radio recordings – the rather daring idea was born of making a theatrical version of this. And this version was made using the same criteria.”
In April Einaudi published The Truce in the series entitled "I coralli". The short comment on the inside jacket was written by Italo Calvino. For the jacket featured a Marc Chagall drawing of a little man who seemed to take off in flight over a house, a drawing chosen by Giulio Bollati. The critics received the book very favorably, recognizing the narrative cunning of a writer who defined himself a writer by accident but who had savvy enough to free himself from the mere techniques of memoir writing. Among these reviewers there were Franco Antonicelli for La Stampa, Paolo Milano for L’Espresso, and Giancarlo Vigorelli for Tempo illustrato.
Einaudi’s official candidate for the Strega Literary Award was Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare [Family Sayings. Manchester: Carcanet, 1984], which won over Tommaso Landolfi’s diary Rien va. However, the general consensus of his many so-called “Sunday friends” assured Levi a brilliant third prize.
Meanwhile, the jury of the newly founded Campiello Literary Award based at Venice chose The Truce as one of the five books to be submitted to a panel of 300 readers. The jury included B. Tecchi, G. Comisso, P.A. Quarantotti Gambini, G.A. Cibotto, and M. Prisco. On September 3 The Truce was voted the winner by a large margin at the Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio. In the interviews that followed Levi declared his next ambition.
Levi kept on writing. He wrote several stories with a technological background, working on ideas that come to him in his work in his laboratory and in his factory. These were published in the newspaper Il Giorno and elsewhere.
1965 – 1981
Levi returned to Auschwitz for a Polish memorial ceremony.
“The return was less dramatic than it might have seemed. There was too much hustle-and-bustle, little reflection, everything put right in order, and a lot of official speeches.”
(Levi, from a 1984 interview)
Levi collected his stories into a book entitled Storie naturali under the pen name Damiano Malabaila. He explained why he took these precautions in an editorial comment on the inside jacket that made it easy for the readers to figure out who the real author was:
“I have written about 20 stories and I don’t know if I will write any others. For the most part, I jotted them down quickly, trying to give narrative shape to a little dot of intuition, trying to tell the story in other terms (if they are symbolic, they are symbolic unconsciously) of an intuition that is not very rare nowadays – the perception of an unweaving of the world in which we are living, of a little or a big crack, of a ‘structural defect’ that makes this or that feature of our civilization or of our moral universe vain… In the act of writing these stories I feel a vague sense of guilt, like the guilt of somebody who is committing some petty misdemeanor on purpose. I entered the world of writing, unthinkably, with two books on concentration camps. It is not up to me to judge their worth, but they doubtlessly were serious books dedicated to a serious public. To offer this public a volume of joke-stories, of moral traps – that may very well be amusing but are distancing, cold – isn’t this business fraud, as if I were selling wine in olive-oil bottles? These are the questions I asked myself in the act of writing and publishing these 'natural histories.' And so, I would not publish them if I had not noticed (not immediately, to tell the truth) that a continuity – a bridge – existed between the Lager and these inventions. The Lager, for me, was the biggest of the ‘defects’ – of the distortions – that I had been talking about before, the most threatening of the monsters generated by sleep of reason.”
Levi edited a dramatic version of If This is a Man along with Pieralberto Marchè based on the radio play produced by the Rai. The play was then put on by the Teatro Stabile of Turin.
Levi collected a second series of stories entitled Vizio di forma, published this time under his own name [literally "Structural Defect"; some of these stories were translated in a collection entitled A Tranquil Star]. He introduced a new edition of this book in 1987 in these words.
“This deals with stories tied in with a time that is sadder than the present day for Italy, for the world, and also for me, stories tied in with a vision that is apocalyptic, a vision tending towards rejection and undoing, the same vision that inspired Roberto’s Vacca’s Medioevo prossimo venturo ["The Next Middle Ages to Come"]. Now, the Middle Ages have not come. Nothing fell down and, instead, there are timid signs of a world order founded – if not on reciprocal respect – on reciprocal fear… In this way, the most neglected of my books is living again, the only one that has never been translated, that has never won prizes, and that the critics accepted with their necks crooked away. If I reread it today, I find a good number of instances of naiveté and mistaken perspectives, yet I find some things that are not so bad.”
He took several business trips to the Soviet Union. (See also “Anchovies I” and “Anchovies II” in The Monkey’s Wrench.)
“I was in Togliattigrad [city housing a Soviet auto plant being built with Fiat, named after Italian Communist Party head] and I noticed the esteem with which the Soviets treated our skilled workers. This phenomenon made me curious. Those men sat in the cafeteria with me, elbow to elbow. They represented an enormous technical and human patrimony, but they were destined to remain anonymous because nobody has ever written about them… Maybe The Monkey’s Wrench originated right there in Togliattigrad. It is there that the story is set even though the city is never mentioned explicitly.”
(Levi, from a 1978 interview)
Levi decided to retire and leave the management of Siva, but kept on working for them as a consultant for the next two years.
“I worked in a factory for almost 30 years, and I must admit that there is no incompatibility between being a chemist and being a writer: in fact, there is a mutual reinforcement. But factory life, and particularly factory managing, involves many other matters, far from chemistry: hiring and firing workers; quarreling with the boss, customers and suppliers; coping with accidents; being called to the telephone, even at night or when at a party; dealing with bureaucracy; and many more soul-destroying tasks. This whole trade is brutally incompatible with writing. Consequently I felt hugely relieved when I reached retirement age and could resign, and so renounce my soul number one.”
(Roth in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“As far as my experience goes, I must say that my chemistry, which actually was a ‘low’ chemistry, almost culinary, first of all supplied me with a vast assortment of metaphors. I find myself richer than other writers because for me words like ‘bright,’ ‘dark,’ ‘heavy,’ ‘light,’ and ‘blue’ have a more extensive and more concrete gamut of meanings. For me ‘blue’ is not only the blue of the sky. I have five or six blues at my disposal… I mean to say that I have had in my hands materials that are not of current use, with properties outside the ordinary, that have served to amplify my language precisely in a technical sense. Thus I have at my disposal an inventory of raw materials, of tesserae for writing, somewhat larger than that possessed by someone who does not have a technical background. Moreover, I’ve developed the habit of writing compactly, avoiding the superfluous. Precision and concision, which, so I’m told, are my way of writing, have come to me from my trade as a chemist.”
(Levi & Regge, 1989)
In April Einaudi published The Periodic Table, an autobiography in twenty-one episodes, each one inspired by an element of Mendeleev’s table of the elements.
He collected his poetry into a little book entitled L’osteria di Brema and published by Scheiwiller [literally, "The Inn at Brema", translated as Shema: Collected Poems].
Levi published The Monkey’s Wrench [entitled The Wrench in UK]. It is the story of a skilled worker from Piedmont, a mechanical rigger who goes around the world building pylons, bridges, and oilrigs. The worker tells the story of the encounters, adventures, and problems of his trade.
“The book aims at the re-evaluation of ‘creative’ work or of work itself. In the end, a piece of work can be creative either on the level of the thousand Faussones that exist or on the level of other crafts or of other social levels… Faussone does not exist in flesh and blood, as I have you believe in the book, but he exists. He is a kind of conglomerate of real people that I have gotten to know… Besides an official rhetoric, which is cynical because it exalts work exploitatively – because a medal costs less than a pay increase – a second kind of rhetorical has taken shape. It is not cynical but profoundly stupid, a rhetoric that portrays work as a purely servile expression of man. This rhetoric, besides, clashes directly with a kind of workers’ culture, the culture of Faussone’s, which makes professional competence an indisputable value. I wrote the book because I was fascinated by a virgin story. I wrote it for the language too. Every era and every area has treated its corresponding kinds of language with respect. In the past, even Piedmont has had several kinds of language, but here in Piedmont another kind of Piedmontese-Italian has sprung up in the factories, where new expressions, new vocabulary items, and new metaphors have substituted the previous lexicon, which was the child of an agricultural culture. Now, nobody, it seems to me, has ever recorded this new Piedmontese in a book, a Piedmontese that by now has contaminated the surrounding society. It was a language that was literarily virgin. I wanted to pay homage, also linguistically, to Faussone.”
(Levi, from a 1978 interview)
“While writing the novel, I felt the need to give substance to a controversy among the deaf in relation to literary people, who often – differently from technicians – feel irresponsible for their ‘products.’ A badly built bridge or a defective pair of glasses brings on immediate negative consequences, a novel no.”
In July The Monkey’s Wrench won the Strega Literary Award in Rome.
The French translation of The Monkey’s Wrench was published. Claude Lévi-Strauss commented on it in this way. “It was a real pleasure to read this book because there is nothing more that I love than listening to people talking about work. From this perspective Primo Levi is a sort of ethnographer, a great one. Besides, this book is really fun to read.”
In April Levi visited the oil-drilling platform Castoro sei off the coast of Sicily. He called his experience “ a rare gift for a landlubber like myself.” (See “Thirty Hours on the Castoro sei” in Other People’s Trades.)
Levi prepared a personal anthology for the publisher Einaudi, based on an idea that Giulio Bollati suggested to him. This was a selection of authors that had counted very much in his cultural education or, more simply, that he felt in tune with. The book came out entitled The Search for Roots. Levi wrote this in his preface:
“In short, while writing in the first person is for me, at least in intention, the work of day and conscious lucidity, I am aware that the choice of one’s roots is more nocturnal work, visceral and for the most part unconscious…. I ought rather to make it clear that my own deeper and more lasting loves are the hardest to explain: Belli, Porta, and Conrad. In other cases the deciphering is easier. Professional affinity enters into the game (Bragg, Gattermann, Clarke, Lucretius, and the sinister unknown author of the Astm specification concerning cockroaches), a shared love of travel and adventure (Homer, Rosny, Marco Polo and others), a remote Jewish kinship (Job, Mann, Babel, and Sholem Aleichem), a closer relationship in Celan and Eliot, the personal friendship that I have with Rigoni Stern, D’Arrigo and Langbein, which makes me feel (presumptuously) that their writing is almost in some way my own, and it gives me pleasure to bring their work to those who have not read them.”
(Levi, Roots, 2003).
“My choices surprised even me. For example, my over-laden past, the thing that made me a writer, my past in imprisonment – this is something that does not figure in here. This anthology presents an image of me that is not misshapen, but that is something else.”
(Levi, in an interview)
Going through his old notes, Levi found some notes he had taken down of a story that Emilio Vita Finzi had told him ten years before. In 1945 Finzi was working for a social assistance office on Via Unione in Milan. A group of Russian Jews arrived there who were members of a group of partisans. They had organized themselves in Russia and traveled all across Europe armed and ready for action, only to wind up provisionally in Italy. Levi decided to write a novel based on people like these, but did research for a year before starting his novel.
“What was the research for? To find out the nature of the Jewish resistance movement, to confirm that it was indeed much more important – in scale and moral significance – than is commonly thought. And more than just bands of Jews alone: there were also Soviet groups led by Jewish officers or soldiers. There is substantial Soviet documentation to prove it.”
(Balbi in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“I had made a sort of bet with myself: after so much plain or disguised autobiography, are you, or are you not, a full-fledged writer, capable of constructing a novel, shaping characters, describing landscapes you have never seen? Try it! I intended to amuse myself by writing a ‘Western’ plot set in a landscape uncommon in Italy. I intended to amuse my readers by telling them a substantially optimistic story, a story of hope, even occasionally cheerful, although projected onto a background of massacre. I wished to assault a commonplace still prevailing in Italy: a Jew is a mild person, a scholar (religious or profane), unwarlike, humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever fighting back. It seemed to me a duty to pay homage to those Jews who, in desperate conditions, had found the courage and the skills to resist. I cherished the ambition to be the first (perhaps only) Italian writer to describe the Yiddish world. I intended to 'exploit' my popularity in my country in order to impose upon my readers a book centered on the Ashkenazi civilization, history, language, and frame of mind, all of which are virtually unknown in Italy, except by some sophisticated readers of Joseph Roth [the Austrian novelist who died in 1939], Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Potok and of course yourself [American novelist Philip Roth]. Personally, I am satisfied with this book mainly because I had good fun planning and writing it. For the first and only time in my life as a writer, I had the impression (almost a hallucination) that my characters were alive, around me, behind my back, suggesting spontaneously their feats and their dialogues. The year I spent writing was a happy one, and so, whatever the result, for me this was a liberating book.”
(Roth in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
“There are essentially four themes in my book: memory, pietas, the voyage, and inner story-telling…. Percentage-wise, I would say that the book is 40% humorous and epic, while I would not give more than 20% to the lyric component.”
In November he came out with Lilìt e altri racconti, which gathered together stories written 1975-81. ["Lilith and other stories", some of which (from Part 1) are translated in Moments of Reprieve and (from Parts 2 and 3) in A Tranquil Star].
“I have tried to group them together and, sometimes forcing my point, I have picked out stories for a first grouping, which take up the themes of If This is a Man and The Truce. The second grouping follows Storie naturali and Vizio di forma. And there is third grouping, where the characters are fresh and blood to a certain extent. I hope that each story does its job decorously, which is only that of condensing within a few pages and transmitting to the readers a point of memory, a mood, or even only a discovery.”
“Sometimes, before a blank page, I find myself in a mood that I would say is sabbatical. Then I feel pleasure in writing extravagant things and I cultivate the illusion that my readers feel a corresponding pleasure. It is true that some critics – and many readers – prefer my serious writings. That is their right, but it my right to go over the border, if not for other reasons, as self-compensation, and also because, in general, I like being in the world.”
1982 – 1987
In April If Not Now, When? was published and met with immediate success.
In June the novel won the Viareggio Literary Award and in September the Campiello Award.
Levi visited Auschwitz for the second time.
“There were just a few of us. This time the emotion was deep. For the first time I saw the monument at Birkenau, which was one of the 39 camps at Auschwitz, the one with the gas chambers. The railroad has been preserved. A set of rusty tracks enters the camp and ends at the edge of a kind of void. In front of it is a symbolic train made of blocks of granite. Every block has the name of a country. The monument is this – the track and the blocks. I rediscovered sensations, for example the smell of the place, an innocuous smell. I believe it is the smell of coal.”
In August and September Israel invaded Lebanon. There were the massacres in Palestinian camps at Sabra and Chatila. Levi took a position on this. One example is his interview with Giampaolo Pansa, published in the newspaper La Repubblica of September 24.
“Anyway, yes, anti-Semitism is a beast that is stirring. But this is not a reason that Diaspora Jews can put to Begin. It would not make sense to say to Begin, don’t do what you are doing because you are harming us. There are other, more important objections… There are two, one moral and the other political. The moral objection is the following: not even a war justifies the bloody arrogance shown by Begin and his men. The political objection is just as clear-cut: Israel is rapidly heading towards total isolation. It is a terrible, previously unheard-of fact […]. We must do a number of things. Realize exactly what is going on. Suppress our own impulse towards an emotional solidarity with Israel, so that we can think through coldly the errors of the present Israeli ruling class. Remove this ruling class. Help Israel rediscover its European roots, the balance of its founding fathers, Ben Gurion and Golda Meir. Not that they had spotless records, but who does?”
The French translation of If Not Now, When? was published.
Levi was invited by Giulio Einaudi to translate Kafka’s The Trial for the publisher’s new series Writers Translated by Writers.
“You know I translated The Trial — it was part of a project of translation of writers by other writers. I didn't find it difficult, but it was very painful. I fell ill doing it. I finished the translation in a deep depression that lasted six months. It's a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew.”
(Greer in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001).
“You do not now your own language and you cannot use Italian correctly if you do not know other languages. This is a concrete and tangible experience, absolutely one that one goes through above all by translating.”
Levi translated Claude Lévi-Strauss’s La voie des Masques [The Way of the Masks].
In April 1983 Levi’s translation of The Trial was published. In the June 5 issue of the newspaper, La Stampa, he explained what led him to agree to translate an author that he had no feeling for.
“This love of mine [for Kafka] is ambivalent, something close to fright and rejection. It is something like the feeling I feel for a person who is dear to me and who suffers and asks you for a kind of help that you cannot give him. I do not believe too much in the laughter than Brod talks about. Maybe Kafka laughed when he was telling stories to his friends, at the table or in the beer halls, because people are not always the same as themselves, but certainly he did not laugh writing. His suffering is genuine and continuous. It assaults you and does not ever leave you. You feel like one of his characters, sentenced by a vilifying and inscrutable court, a tentacle-court that invades the city and the world, nesting in slimy attics as well as in the dark solemnity of the cathedral. Or, [you feel like a character] transformed into an insect that is awkward and burdening, unseen by all, desperately alone, obtuse, unable to communicate and to think, by then able only to suffer. We can feel attracted even by somebody who is very different from us exactly because he is different. If it were not like this, writers, readers, and translators would be stratified into rigid castes, like the Indian castes. There would be no connections across fields nor crossover fecundations. Everybody would read only the writers who are their blood relatives. The world would be (or would appear) less varied and new ideas would no longer be born. Now, I love and admire Kafka because he writes in a way that is totally closed off from me. In my writing, in good or in bad, knowingly or not, I have always tended to pass over from the dark to the light. (It seems to me that [author Luigi] Pirandello said this. I don’t know where.) This is like a filter-pump, which sucks in dirty water and expels decanted water, maybe even sterile water. Kafka treads down the path the opposite way. He endlessly unravels the hallucinations that come out of incredibly deep faults in the earth and never filters them. The reader feels them gurgle with germs and spores. They are pregnant with meanings that scald. But we are never helped in tearing the veil or in going behind it to see what it is hiding. Kafka never touches the earth. He never condescends to give us end of Ariadne’s thread.”
Levi translated Lévi-Strauss’s Le Regard éloigné [The View from Afar]. (For issues related to translating, see “On Translating and Being Translated” in Italian in L'altrui mestiere or in English in Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, April 27, 2003.)
In June he met the physicist Tullio Regge in Turin. These conversations were taped and transcribed and then published in December by Edizioni di Comunità under the title Dialogo ["Dialogue", translated as Conversations].
In October he published a collection of poems for Garzanti, entitled Ad ora incerta ("At an Uncertain Hour", translated in Collected Poems, its title taken from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner). The Italian collection contained the 27 poems already published by Scheiwiller in 1975, 34 others that were published in the newspaper La Stampa and various translations (from an anonymous Scottish poet, Heine, and Kipling).
“I am a man who believes very little in poetry and yet I practice it. There is some reason for this. For example, when my verses are published on the third page of La Stampa, I get letters and phone calls from readers who show me their agreement or disagreement. If one of my stories is published, the response is not as lively. I have the impression that poetry in general is becoming a portentous instrument of human contact. Adorno has written that poetry could not be written after Auschwitz, but my experience was the opposite. Back then (1946-47) it seemed to me that poetry was more appropriate than prose for expressing what was weighing me down. Saying poetry, I am not thinking of anything lyrical. In those years, at most I would have reformulated the words of Adorno: after Auschwitz, poetry cannot be written except about Auschwitz.”
Giovanni Tesio asked him if the presence of many plants and animals in his poetic texts was something that he had carried over from his scientific background. Levi answered in these words:
“It is the fruit of an unsatisfied curiosity. On other occasions I quoted the essay where Aldous Huxley says that his novelist must be a zoologist. For me, this unilateral love exists and it is satisfied only in part – this love of nature as a whole and love specifically for the fruschi – as Carlo Levi put it using a term from Lucanian dialect – i.e. for the poor beasts. Among animals there is the enormous and the minuscule, wisdom and folly, generosity and vileness. Every one of them is a metaphor, a hypothesis of all the virtues and of all the vices of all the human beings.”
In November the American edition of The Periodic Table was published to extremely favorable reviews. Saul Bellow’s judgment [which appeared on the cover of the paperback edition] struck an especially significant chord. “The book it is necessary to read next. After a few pages I immersed myself in The Periodic Table gladly and gratefully. There is nothing superfluous here, everything this book contains is essential. It is wonderfully pure and beautifully translated.”
Bellow’s endorsement sparked a long series of translations of various books by Levi in several countries. His work was also reviewed favorably in the New York Times in separate articles by Neal Ascherson, Alvin H. Rosenfeld, and John Gross.
In January he gathered together about 50 pieces that had been published mainly in the newspaper La Stampa and had them published as Other People’s Trades. Italian novelist Italo Calvino commented upon this book as follows. These pieces “respond to his vein as encyclopedist of agile and meticulous curiosities and as moralist of a moral that always starts out from observation […]. The most representative from among the objects of Levi’s encyclopedic attention are words and animals. (Sometimes one could say that he tends to fuse his two passions into a zoological glottology or into an ethology of language.) In his linguistic wanderings what dominate are his pleasant reconstructions of how words deform with use, in the attrition created between dubious etymological rationality and the dismissive rationality of speakers.” (Calvino, 1985)
In February he wrote an introduction to the new paperback edition of Comandante ad Auschwitz. Memoriale autobiografico di Rudolf Höss [Commandant of Auschwitz].
In April he traveled to the United States for a series of encounters and talks at various universities on the occasion of the translation of If Not Now, When? The English translation of his novel included an introduction by Irving Howe. He visited Claremont College near Los Angeles, Bloomington (Indiana), Boston and New York. He described his impressions of his trip in “Among the Peaks of Manhattan,” which appeared in the June 23, 1985 issue of La Stampa [and was anthologized in The Mirror Maker].
During his visit to the United States, Levi was presented mostly to Jewish communities, who preferred to focus on his degree of Judaism. He conceded that the argument for European Jews to settle in Israel and “rebuild” themselves was a powerful one. However, he expressed his reservations about this argument.
“But it was a simplification. If you thought about the actual situation, the objective conditions ... the country wasn't empty for one thing. I had trouble with this in America. I had to give a talk to a group in Brooklyn and for the first time in my life I found myself in front of a totally Jewish audience. All old and all Jewish. I gave my talk, which I'd written in England. I'm not sure how much they grasped, given my terrible accent. As soon as I finished, they started asking questions about Israel and where I stood on the Arab-Israeli conflict. When I started to explain that I thought Israel was a mistake in historical terms, there was uproar and the moderator had to call the meeting to a halt.”
(Greer in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
In April he published The Drowned and the Saved, which is the summation of all his reflections on his concentration camp experiences.
The Monkey’s Wrench (the translation of La chiave a stella) and Moments of Reprieve (a selection from the stories in Lilìt) were published in the United States. The German translation of If Not Now, When? was published.
Levi traveled to London, where he met Philip Roth, and then on to Stockholm.
In September Levi was visited by Philip Roth in Turin, who he had agreed to have a long interview with, to be published in the New York Times Review of Books. The interview was published on October 12 and then translated and published in La Stampa on November 26-27.
On September 21 Levi wrote an article on the issue of the responsibility of scientists in the newspaper La Stampa.
“Whether you are a believer or not, whether a ‘patriot’ or not, if you are given a choice do not let yourself be seduced by material or intellectual interests, but choose from the field that which may render less painful and less dangerous the journey of your contemporaries, and of those who come after you. Don’t hide behind the hypocrisy of neutral science: you are educated enough to be able to evaluate whether from the egg you are hatching will issue a dove or a cobra or a chimera or perhaps nothing at all.”
(“Hatching the Cobra,” The Mirror Maker, 2002)
In November the book-publishing branch of La Stampa collected his contributions to the newspaper from 1977 to 1986 and published an anthology entitled Racconti e saggi [Stories and essays].
A controversy over political revisionism broke out in Germany. Levi commented on this in the January 22 issue La Stampa in an article entitled “The Black Hole of Auschwitz.” His line of reasoning runs like this:
“The current polemic in Germany between those who are inclined to banalize the Nazi massacres (Nolte, Hillgruber) and those who would claim its uniqueness (Habermas and many others) cannot be a matter of indifference to us. The thesis of the former is scarcely new: there have been massacres down the centuries, above all at the beginning of our own century against the ‘class enemy’ in the Soviet Union, and thus near the German borders. Over the course of the Second World War we Germans did no more than adopt a practice that was dreadful, but now well-established: an ‘Asiatic’ practice of massacre, mass deportation, merciless exile to hostile (inhospitable) regions, torture and the splitting up of families. Our only innovation was a technological one: we invented the gas chambers… Now, the Soviets cannot be absolved…. The new German revisionists, then, tend to present Hitler’s massacres as a preventive defense against an ‘Asiatic’ invasion. This seems to me as an extremely fragile thesis… It is true that ‘the Gulag came before Auschwitz’ but we should not forget that the aims of these two infernos were not the same. The first was a massacre between equals; it was not based on racial supremacy, nor did it divide men into the superman and the subhuman; the second was based on an ideology imbued with racism…. Not even the pages of Solzhenitsyn, which quiver with well-justified furor, suggest anything similar to Treblinka or Chelmno, which did not produce work, were not concentration camps, but ‘black holes’ destined for men, women and children guilty of only being Jews…. And I do not see how this ‘innovation’ [gas chambers] could be considered marginal, or be attenuated with an ‘only.’ These were not imitations of ‘Asiatic’ methods, they were decidedly European; the gas was produced by reputable German chemical factories, and it was to German factories that the hair of massacred women was sent, while the gold extracted from the teeth of the dead bodies was destined for German banks. All of this is specifically German, and no German should ever forget it; nor should he forget that in Nazi Germany, and only in Nazi Germany, children and the sick were also sent to an atrocious death in the name of an abstract and ferocious radicalism which has no equivalent in modern times…. If Germany today desires the position which is rightfully hers amongst European nations, she cannot, and must not, whitewash her own past.”
“Traveling isn’t easy for me, for family reasons and also because I’ve internalized all the obstacles and now I find myself resistant to the idea of setting out on the road. Ten years ago it would have been different, I had much more strength and the desire to follow many more thing. Now I’m tired. And I wonder, ‘what’s the point?’ Once, when the translation of a book of mine arrived at home, it was cause for celebration. Now it has no effect. Even revising translations in languages I know – English, French and German; I had a clause put into every contract – has turned into nothing other than boring extra work. You grow immune. Anyway, what can you do, cultural organization is highly random, it works by chance.”
(Di Caro in Belpoliti & Gordon, 2001)
In March The Periodic Table was published in its French and German translations. Levi had surgery done on him.
On April 11 Levi committed suicide at his home in Turin.
“I think that anybody, any human being, is able to do a fundamental piece of work, not necessarily a book… Instead, the people who are able to write a book are only a very small minority; even so, people can do something after all, for example, bring up a child, heal a sick person, or console somebody who is afflicted. I am not ashamed and I will keep on repeating evangelical phrases.”
R. Balbi, Mendel, il consolatore, «la Repubblica», 14 aprile.
A. Barberis, Nasi storti, «Corriere della Sera», 27 aprile.
Bravo e Jalla,1986
La vita offesa. Storia e memoria dei Lager nazisti nei racconti di duecento sopravvissuti, a cura di A. Bravo e D. Jalla, Franco Angeli, Milano.
G. Calcagno, Primo Levi: capire non è perdonare, «La Stampa», 26 luglio.
I. Calvino, I due mestieri di Primo Levi, «la Repubblica», 6 marzo.
Autoritratto di Primo Levi, a cura di F. Camon, Edizioni Nord-Est, Padova.
A. Cattabiani, Quando un operaio specializzato diventa un personaggio letterario, «Il Tempo», 21 gennaio.
De Rienzo, 1975
G. De Rienzo, In un alambicco quanta poesia, «Famiglia cristiana», 20 luglio.
Di Caro, 1987
R. Di Caro, Il necessario e il superfluo, «Piemonte vivo», I, I (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste 1963-1987, a cura di Belpoliti, Einaudi, Torino 1997).
F. Diwan, Sono un ebreo ma non sono mai stato sionista, «Corriere Medico», 3-4 settembre.
Galante Garrone, 1997
A. Galante Garrone, Levi, l’epopea dei vinti, «Il Mattino», 9 febbraio.
G. Greer, Germaine Greer speaks to Primo Levi, «The Literary Magazine», novembre (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
A. Guadagni, Prima del grande buio, «Diario dell'Unità», 2-8 aprile.
B. Kleiner, Bild der Unwíirde und Wiirde des Menschen, «Neue Musikzeitung», agosto-settembre (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
P. Levi, La ricerca delle radici, Einaudi, Torino.
Levi e Regge, 1984
P. Levi e T. Regge, Dialogo, Edizioni di Comunità, Milano (nuova ed., Einaudi, Torino 1987).
G. Nascimbeni, Levi: l'ora incerta poesia, «Corriere della Sera», 28 ottobre (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
N. Orengo, Come ho pubblicato il mio primo libro, «La Stampa», 1 giugno (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
G. Pacchioni, Segrete avventure di eroi involontari, «Il Globo», 13 giugno.
C. Paladini, A colloquio con Primo Levi, in Lavoro, criminalità, alienazione mentale, a cura di P. Sorcinelli, Il Lavoro Editoriale, Ancona.
G. Pansa, «Io, Primo Levi, chiedo le dimissioni di Begin», «la Repubblica», 24 settembre (ora in P. Levi. Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
P. Roth, Salvarsi dall'inferno come Robinson, «La Stampa», 26 novembre e «Il mio western degli ebrei ribelli», ivi, 27 novembre.
S. Strati e F. Pappalardo La Rosa, trasmissione radio Lo specchio del cielo, Rai, Torino 7 gennaio, trascritta in «Riga», 3 (ora in Primo Levi, a cura di M. Belpoliti, Marcos y Marcos, Milano 1997).
G. Tesio, Credo che il mio destino profondo sia la spaccatura, «Nuova Società», 208, 16 gennaio (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
G. Tesio, Le occasioni? La memoria, un ponte, una ragnatela, «Tuttolibri», 17 novembre.
M. Vigevani, Le parole, il ricordo, la speranza, «Bollettino della Comunità israelitica di Milano», XL, 5, maggio (ora in P. Levi, Conversazioni e interviste, cit.).
English-language works cited
Ferdinando Camon. Conversations with Primo Levi. Trans. John Shepley. Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1989. (Translation of Conversazione con Primo Levi)
Marco Belpoliti & Robert Gordon. The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987. Eds. Trans. Robert Gordon. New York: The New Press, 2001. (Translation of Conversazioni e interviste 1963–1987)
Primo Levi. The Mirror Maker. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Abacus, 2002 (1990). (Translation of Racconti e saggi)
Primo Levi. The Periodic Table. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Penguin, 2000. (Translation of Il sistema periodico)
Primo Levi. Other People’s Trades. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: Abacus-sphere, 1991. (Translation of L’altrui mestiere)
Primo Levi & Tullio Regge. Conversations. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. London: I.B Tauris, 1989. (Translation of Dialogo)
Primo Levi. The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology. Trans. Peter Forbes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003. (Translation of La ricerca delle radici)
Primo Levi. The Black Hole of Auschwitz. Ed. Marco Belpoliti. Trans. Sharon Wood. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2005.
(Translation of L’asimmetria e la vita).