Interview with Marco Belpoliti

Primo Levi, Opere complete, 2 vol. Torino: Einaudi, 2016. Marco Belpoliti interviewed by Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi.

The new edition of Opere complete, the complete works of Primo Levi in Italian, is in the bookstores. The two volumes totaling more than 3000 pages, large-format hardcovers in the typical Einaudi white jackets, sell together. This is an editorial endeavor that Einaudi has dedicated to the author who is its most widely known not only in Italy but also the world. The two volumes have various novelties aside from an apparatus of text notes edited by Marco Belpoliti, the Levi scholar who had edited the previous 1997 edition of Opere. We have asked him a series of questions about this work.


Opere complete, a new edition of the “complete works” of Primo Levi, has been published by Einaudi in November, 2016. The publisher and editor are the same, and the title is almost the same as Opere, “Works”, published in 1997. It took a little less than twenty years to add an extra adjective. What does this extra word, complete , imply?

I edited three volumes that came out in the decade following Levi’s death: Conversazioni e interviste [Conversations and Interviews]; L’ultimo Natale di Guerra [The Last Christmas of War], a collection of previously scattered stories; and L’asimmetria e la vita [Asymmetry and Life], a paperback selection of miscellaneous writings that had appeared in Opere in 1997. Two other volumes have come out recently: Così fu Auschwitz [This Was Auschwitz], edited by Fabio Levi and Domenico Scarpa, which brings together miscellaneous texts and depositions; and Ranocchi sulla Luna [Frogs on the Moon], edited by Ernesto Ferrero, a collection dedicated to animals. Ranocchi presents a selection of writings already published in Opere in 1997, but is useful for people who had not known Levi’s passion for animals. Levi’s work was constantly in progress ever since the time of the first edition of If This is a Man in 1947. Likewise, his work has come into sharper and sharper critical and editorial focus over the past twenty years. In the new edition of his works there are the radio adaptations of If This is a Man and The Truce, the stage adaptation of If This is a Man, anastatic reprints of his university thesis (and sub-thesis), and at least 16 lost texts that have been recovered thanks to the precious work of the Centro studi as well as the highly significant notes Levi wrote for the school editions of his three works. Nevertheless, the real innovation consists in the 200 pages of text notes that I prepared for this edition. Most of these notes are new. I was able to take advantage of twenty more years of research conducted since 1997, my own and that of others. Above all, I was able to work on the typescripts of the first works of Levi that had not been available in the past. Now that the Einaudi Archives have been put in order, they are. They open up many new perspectives on the history of his texts, especially of If This is a Man and The Truce, on how Levi wrote these two books and successive ones. Many variants have come to light, to get an idea of the Levi method.


So, does this edition really have everything? Is there other material that could not be published?

The “new” texts that appear in the book come partially from the Einaudi Archives, partially from the research of several people working under the aegis of the Centro studi Primo Levi, and partially from chance discoveries. There is nothing from Primo Levi’s personal archives, nothing from his folders or portfolios, which he painstakingly kept in order. There are none of the letters that he received from Germans after the German edition of If This is a Man came out in the 1960s and there are none of his responses. These letters were have become a separate book that he wanted to put together in the 1960s. Levi had proposal this project to Einaudi, but it refused, as we know. A little sampling of this material can be found in “Letters from Germans”, a chapter in The Drowned and the Saved. Lastly, there are not any of the four or perhaps more completed short stories that were to be included in his last book, which he was drafting in 1987 under the title, though uncertain, Il doppio legame [The Double Bond]. Despite its still provisional title, the chapters in this book that I was able to read were very beautiful. It is an epistolary novel in which the protagonist addresses a gentlewoman and tells her stories from everyday chemistry, for example how an egg becomes hardboiled, but he also tells her details in his personal life history. It is a kind of novelized autobiography that brings the autobiographical writings of Italo Calvino to mind, those we know under the title The Road to San Giovanni, where several short stories of Calvino’s “autobiography without an I” are collected. The stories of Primo Levi are a kind of Periodic Table written by an elderly man. We hope that we can read them collected in a book sooner or later. There are other things in those papers that Levi preserved with a certain preciseness. So, these complete works are works in progress, as I said before. Nevertheless, they make up most of his works, and they have been published. It is a lot of material and that is important.


A whole lot of material has been added to that in first edition. Some is new, some unpublished and some not available before now. Was this material really unknown?

The first edition included over 400 pages that had previously been “lost” – newspaper articles, short stories, poems, and essays. We called them Pagine sparse – loose pages. Now that we have searched the archives again, inquired among Levi’s friends, and checked periodicals, another batch of material has emerged. There are interesting texts. Yet, they are ones that only stand beside the major works because it is there that Levi expresses himself at his highest level. Often the brief and scattered writings, many of which Levi never collected in books, consist in interviews tied in with current events, or partial outlines of larger topics, scattered stories, and some poems. These are interesting works that can shed light on some aspects of his works, but I think that these pages will not end up being decisive for readers. Meanwhile, researchers and scholars will find material to support their own research and blaze the path for the research of others. We should realize that the Levi who is lesser known is the Levi of his major books. Isn’t it strange? Yet, everything has not been read, and not been read by everybody.


How can we judge Levi’s work today, especially in the light of this new edition?

Levi is a complex writer. So, it takes us more time to understand him, but also has made him less susceptible to passing fashions. In fact, it is not easy to take on his works. I think that this is main thing that we have become aware of in these twenty years that have passed since the last edition of his works. His writings call for time and patience. His work is an enormous deposit of facts, intuitions, studies, fields of knowledge, ideas, research projects, hypotheses and many other things. In 1997, the first turn of events took place. This took Levi to a different dimension: he became not only a witness but also a writer. We should realize that, by then, various readers had already noticed this for a long time, beginning with readers who were not experts, but his was a realization that spread here and there, not a generally accepted conviction. The 1997 edition of his works gave readers a chance to get a more complete vision of everything, putting the writer alongside the witness. At that point, we could no longer ignore the power of his literary work and we had to put the two things together. Young scholars, an entire generation of them, were able to work out a richer insight into the author of If This is a Man and The Truce, books that had remained his most well known works, whereas works like Other People’s TradesAt an Uncertain HourThe Search for Roots had been read very seldom. The Search for Roots was included as part of his works in 1997 and only by the skin of its teeth, in small print in an appendix. The publisher did not recognize it as one of his books to be included in the chronological order of the Opere. Nevertheless, it is his perfect self-portrait. It is not even present among the translated writings recently edited in the United States by Ann Goldstein. Another example of a new entry in the 1997 Opere is the so-called Auschwitz Report, which was discovered by Alberto Cavaglion. It has be re-published as a separate volume recently and consequently can be read as evidence of the beginnings of Levi’s writings as a witness-bearer.


So, are these works that were published in November really complete?

No, the interviews are still missing. They are extraordinary material because Levi was a talker, a fascinating oral narrator. They will become the third volume of the Opere. I have been working on them over the last few months and they will come out next year. Now that you can see his television interviews on YouTube and, above all, hear them, you can notice that Levi has a way with words, words that are not like those of oral narrators, narrators of fairy tales or tales of chivalry. When he speaks, it seems that he is drawing the words he is saying from a book. It seems that they are already in print, and that he is reading them. Instead, he is improvising, but in a very elegant and almost perfect way. Over the years, I have collected the interviews that have appeared in newspapers and periodicals and there are short volumes of conversations. I already put together a book in 1997 with his principal interviews, but now I am thinking of offering a wider sampling, even though I do not yet know how many pages these will amount to. Even making a judicious choice, you could publish a book of over 700 pages of conversations that are not repetitive at all. He often says the same things, but he says them in different ways; or he adds some details or specifics that are not in his books, or he makes interesting reflections. He talks about everything, but he always does this competently, seriously and profoundly. Then there are the letters, beginning with those to his German translator, Heinz Riedt, which have circulated in photocopies for a while now. Recently I saw them in the hands of a journalist from Trentino who had written an article on Levi’s German teacher at the Goethe Institut in Turin, whom Levi had apparently given them to. There are extraordinary and very beautiful letters to Hety Schmitt-Maass, the German correspondent that he wrote to for two decades and whom I talked about in my book, Primo Levi di fronte e di profilo [Levi face-to-face and in profile], which came out last year. Then there are also his letters to friends far and near and to his translators and reviewers. All this amounts to an extraordinary assortment of letters that, when they are collected, they will serve to enrich his image and lead us discover an extraordinary humanity.


Can the work done for the 1997 Opere and the second edition of 2016 be considered philological?

In my editor’s note of twenty years ago, I wrote something very clearly and I have repeated it today in the new note that introduces the Opere complete: this is not a philological edition and cannot be one. We would need to have the complete manuscripts and typescripts of Levi, which are not yet available and which are still contained in his folders and portfolios. Thus we would be able to find out how he worked. However, I believe I can say that between the time of the 1997 edition and today many things have become evident, as I have pointed our in my notes of “narrative philology”. We can see how he worked on If This is a Man, starting out from the first draft of papers that he sent to Anna Yona, his cousin living in America – 10 of the 17 complete chapters. Then there are the handwritten notebooks of his first book, which Giovanni Tesio was able to look at. The only trace of them is in one of his essays, where he pointed out the new parts that Levi introduced in the 1958 Einaudi edition. Then Tesio kept the handwritten notebook of The Truce that Levi had given him for his research. So far, there has not been any scholar who has been able to use this notebook. I could not even look at it. Neither could I use for this 2016 edition. In any case, I worked on the typescript of The Truce that Levi handed in to Einaudi, where we can see many corrections in the form of sheets of paper glued over pages of previous drafts, along with a good number of variants, cancellations, and words written over. I was able to read the parts deleted in the typescript handed in to Einaudi. In this way, I traced how Levi had worked on his second book. My notes are written in a way that even non-expert readers can follow the romance-in-progress of his books. I would like to add one important thing. It really should not be taken for granted that philological work on Levi’s writings is what a writer like him needs, one who was so connected with the concentration-camp experience. The findings of philological studies about authors who have worked with many corrections and variants even more than Levi did – authors who often are strictly literary figures – have turned out to be rather excessive and heavy, good for scholars but not for readers.


The Opere complete amounts to almost 3,500 pages, including the critical apparatus. If you had to point out a way into Primo Levi, would it be among the pages that had already been available in the past or among those that appear for the first time? What would you suggest?

The way into Levi is through the 1947 edition of If This is a Man. Levi had just come back from Auschwitz and begun to write If This is a Man without any precise index, chapter by chapter, like the stories he already told to his friends in conversation. Levi’s invention of himself as a writer is outlined in the text notes in the 1997 Opere. These are narrative notes, not philological ones in the strict sense, as I have already said. Levi’s work on the drafting of his first book appears to have been more complex and intricate that Levi himself declared or admitted to in the past. This shows how we are dealing with an authentic writer, not just a witness who writes down on paper what he or she experienced or saw in a direct way without any mediation. Levi worked on his material a lot and in an original way. He wanted to be a writer and not only merely a witness. He said this but he was not really believed and now in the new text notes, most of which I have written purposely for these two volumes, his work as a writer is focused on even more. Thus his readers can see how Levi worked with editions and variants between the time of the 1947 edition and the 1958 one. For these new notes, I used the “typescript” of the 1958 edition of If This is a Man. Levi had give Einaudi a copy of the 1947 edition published by De Silva, the one he had given to his wife (with a dedication written in red pencil on the first pages). He added typewritten pages to it as well as little strips of paper, variants and additions. This was an interesting way of working on an old text without having to retype everything.  It was not only a choice of economizing on time and space but it was also his personal way of adding new passages. (He also deleted passages, but he did this less often.) These are additions that correspond to a gradual sharpening of focus, re-emergence of memories, and perfecting of details and there are fundamental additions among these. It is important that Einaudi finally had accepted to publish the 1947 edition as the opening of the first volume and not as an appendix. Readers can finally get to know the first work of the young ex-deportee from Turin. It is the same book, but not the same book. The second way in is through The Periodic Table, a book that all of his work hinges on. In this book Levi focuses on the second source of his work as a writer – chemistry and then work. It is here that we can find one of the keys for understanding Levi. In the notes to this text I have tried to get into his mind as a writer empathetically in order to understand how he had resolved the “crisis” in writing that had gripped him after his first two books and his story collections. All four of these books were part of his baggage as a writer ever since 1946. With this book, founded on the periodic table of the elements, he re-invented himself as a writer. He did this for the second time. It could not be taken for granted that he would do this, but he did it. And he did it very well. He tried to show how a complex writer like himself could re-invent himself many, many times. Until now, we have always dwelled on his continuity as a writer, but there is also a discontinuity, which is just as fascinating, intelligent, and inventive.


Are there aspects of Levi that have sill not been studied enough?

I recently organized a conference with Mario Barenghi on Primo Levi as ethologist and anthropologist, two important approaches that were investigated better thanks to this opportunity. However, there are still many things to study about the “polyhedron-Levi”. There have been many books dedicated to his relationship with science and technology. I’m thinking, for example, about Mario Porro’s excellent writings. Nevertheless, we still need to get a clearer view of his approach to chemistry, perhaps examining the brief reports that Levi wrote at Siva at the end of a workweek and that Levi himself said were an important model for him for the development of his prose. However, how many chemists who know their craft well also have the literary tools to do this? And also, conversely, how many literary critics know enough of chemistry to grasp the importance of his statements in The Periodic Table and The Wrench as well about the assembly of molecules? Primo Levi was complex and this explains the difficulty of reading his work even though as a writer it is extremely evident: he is clear and effective. Often it is enough to read his pages carefully as millions of people do around the world. There is one last thing that may be the most important for the future. We have shown a writer who made his testimony effective and who wrote narrative books besides those of testimony proper, a real writer. After this, we need to take the writer back to the field of testimony. In other words, we have to understand how testimony and literature relate to each other and what it means to “round out” the stories, as Levi himself said. I am talking about a topic that is not easy and is often considered “scandalous” but essential: the relationship between literary invention and testimony, the use of fiction to bear witness. Mario Barenghi said it well in a Levi Lecture: we believe Primo Levi because he is a writer.  Now we have to explain what this means. This will open up a new field in literature too and will give a new basis for truth in testimony itself. This is the task of criticism in the future, a task precious for Levi but also for us.

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