Words In-Depth

The Worlds of Primo Levi. A Strenuous Clarity

The title

Known worldwide as a witness of the Shoah, Primo Levi was a many-faceted writer who was able to take on the most varied literary genres – from essays to theater, from novels to poetry. He treated his readers to extraordinary stories ranging from reality to science fiction and told the story of his experience as a chemist, a sort of rigger of molecules, in The Periodic Table. A careful observer of contemporary society, he narrated the adventures of the skilled laborer Tino Faussone playing his trade.

The Worlds of Primo Levi – the title that the Studies Center chose – was meant to allude to the many characteristics of a personality with many interests. The subtitle – A Strenuous Clarity – places the emphasis on his constant search for the most effective forms of communication both on the linguistic and intellectual level. His search for his clarity is the unifying factor of all the contexts of Primo Levi’s activities. The expression, “a strenuous clarity” is found in the story, “Potassium” in The Periodic Table, where Levi writes, “at the origin of physics lay the strenuous clarity of the West – Archimedes and Euclid.” In this way, a fragment from Primo Levi’s writings defines a quality of the author more than any other expression – the search for linguistic precision, narrative objectivity, and documentary exactness, which are all present in all his writings and interviews.

Carbonio  / Carbon   

Primo Levi had dreamed about writing “Carbon,” the story that was to conclude The Periodic Table, from the time when he was working as a chemist in the laboratory of the Wander factory in Crescenzago. It was in 1943 and the future writer “fantasized about writing the saga of an atom of carbon, to make people understand the solemn poetry known only by chemists, of chlorophyll photosynthesis” (“Gold”). In the Lager he told this fantasy to the same fellow prisoner, the Pikolo, for whom he translated the canto of Ulysses in Dante’s Divine Comedy into French. “Carbon” can ideally be considered Primo Levi’s literary testament. In fact, here we can find an epitome of Levi’s original style and a complete inventory of the topics that he cared about the most. Every single word can be read as a keyword that allows us to enter a precise area of the literary universes that he gave life to.  For this reason, the Studies Center chose this story as the initial encounter of the exhibit. The tables illustrated by Yosuke Taki at the entrance give us a portrait of Levi that is different than what we expect and, after the initial surprise, invite visitors to explore the various worlds of the writer.

In “Carbon” readers encounter a series of words that can function as “vocabulary entries” in a dictionary. They transmit a network of allusions inside the works of Primo Levi. The entries in question are meant to link to the various thematic sections of the exhibit. Some of the entries can allude to more than one section because Levi used them in many different senses as he exploited the wide range of their semantic spectra. Other entries, on the other hand, cover a more narrow semantic area and are specific to single sections.

The information sheets grouped here are meant to serve as an instrument for teachers in the liberal arts who want to go deeper into these topics with their classes. They can help students do personalized research on language in general and, in particular, on Levi’s use of the language. Each sheet contains an introduction with the main meanings of each word and its occurrences in Levi’s works. As the edition of reference in Italian, we used Levi’s two-volume Opere edited by Marco Belpoliti (Torino: Einaudi, 1997). In English, we used the standard published translations of his works to date (Summer, 2015).