Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002), 898 pp., $40.
Ian Thomson, Primo Levi (London: Hutchinson, 2002), 624 pp., £25.
Primo Levi (1919-87) was a largely autobiographical writer who, in addition to being a chemist, led a third career as a public witness to the Nazi atrocities at Auschwitz. The facts of his life, much like his prose, are simple and straightforward.
Levi was born in Turin on July 31, 1919 and, with two exceptions (work in Milan at the outset of the Second World War and his imprisonment at Auschwitz), he lived in the same apartment his entire life. His family came from the Piedmont countryside, having moved to Turin near the turn of the century. Levi's parents were both culturally assimilated Jews and the prevailing tone in the household was one of irreligion. The family was well off and Levi grew up amid affluence and comfort, in every respect a typical ragazzo borghese italiano.
Levi attended the Liceo Massimo D'Azeglio, a secondary school noted for its academic excellence, along with the scions of Turin's bourgeoisie. Children of Levi's generation received a rigorous classical education and, from an early age, Levi was an indefatigable bookworm, what the Italians call a violino. But rather than seek a career in the humanities, Levi chose chemistry when he enrolled at the University of Turin in 1937. Because he had entered a year before the enactment of the Fascist racial laws, which, along with other restrictions, prohibited Italian Jews from attending public schools, he was allowed to complete his studies. He was graduated summa cum laude in 1941 and later in life became an international authority on synthetic wire enamels.