The third Primo Levi lecture was given by Stefano Bartezzaghi, essayist, journalist, and Professor of Semiotics of the Enigma at the IULM, Milan, on October 26, 2011, at the Primo Levi Lecture Hall of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Turin to a large audience including two classes of the secondary school, Liceo Classico Cavour, in Turin.
His lecture, entitled Una telefonata con Primo Levi / A phone conversation with Primo Levi, has been published by Einaudi in April 2012.
“A written book must be a telephone that works.” When Primo Levi said these words during a conversation on the radio, he revealed but one of the many symptoms of his interest in human communication. There is nothing that could be termed “linguistic” that was able to escape the keen gaze of this writer-chemist. There were etymologies and puzzles, such as palindromes and riddles. There were various kinds of jargon, from that of the laboratory to that of the Lager. There were poetry machines and computer networks that he was able to conjure up before their time. Among all the “other people’s trades” that Levi had cultivated, that of the linguist was certainly one of main ones. Whether a page of Levi’s deals with folk etymologies, idioms in dialect or in Yiddish, or with frightening commands in German or Polish, it is a page in a score of orchestrated voices, tones, registers, and volumes, followed from time to time by perfect silences that work like rests written by an expert composer, silences that are almost as resonant as the sounds themselves and, very often, even more meaningful.
Whenever he introduces us to a character, Primo Levi never fails to tell us how many languages he or she speaks, and how he speaks it. Whenever he relates any word that is a little special, he gives us a definition that includes its meaning, its “denotation,” as well as its “accessory ideas,” its “connotation.” He defines whatever there is scrupulously. He coins words for every one of his inventions with wry happiness – machines, animals, characters, pharmaceuticals, or worlds. Levi the linguist and semiologist is someone who takes interest in the ways that we can make sense out of what does not make sense, the ways we can express what we cannot express and climb what cannot be climbed. In fact, Bartezzaghi discovers that what cannot be climbed – the inaccessible, in Italian, L’IMPERVIO – is a perfect anagram of PRIMO LEVI. Yet, besides being a perfect anagram, does “inaccessibility” really correspond to the character of this writer and witness?
Primo Levi does not stop at telling us what is easy to say clearly and concisely. He gets himself into trouble, like an Alpine climber that is drawn by “bear meat” and by a climb that is steeper and riskier than others. That anagram does not describe him. Rather, PRIMO LEVI: L’IMPERVIO is what he is taking on. It is what fights against being entirely gone down. It is the path that winds around the mountain of things that have not yet been said but that it is human to insist on wanting to express and communicate.
Stefano Bartezzaghi adds a rich group of essays to his A phone conversation with Primo Levi, essays which shed light on the various facets of Levi’s linguistic prism. There are other encounters with Primo Levi that follow each other closely, beginning with a text by Giampaolo Dossena that appears in print for the first time in its full version. Dossena was Levi’s conversation partner for their exercises with palindromes and riddles. There is an essay on the triangular relationship – Levi, Calvino and Queneau – as well as an essay on a further similarity of Levi and Queneau in relation to Libertino Faussone, the main character and apprentice narrator of The Monkey’s Wrench. There is a dialogue that is imaginary but filled with the subtle strength of truth between Levi and David Foster Wallace, who are walking together down an Elysian Lungo Po, Turin’s riverside path. Bartezzaghi concludes his book with a brief essay entitled “Primo Levi, still,” whose protagonist is the adverb ancora, “still.”
In his writings and in his encounters with other writers (direct, indirect or imaginary: Bartezzaghi invents one with David Foster Wallace), Levi the linguist and semiologist is always fascinated by the ways we can give meaning to the meaningless, express the inexpressible, scale the impassable.
On the occasion of the Turin International Book Fair, May 11th 2012 was presented A phone call with Primo Levi, the book by Stefano Bartezzaghi taken from the third Primo Levi Lecture and published by Einaudi in a bilingual Italian / English edition.