A Matter of Writing Life and Death

December 1, 2002 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: AcademiaThe Clash Of CivilizationsTory

A Matter of Writing Life and Death

Mini Teaser: Primo Levi's biographers offer no improvement on the original, whose unabridged voice we need to heed more than ever.

by Author(s): Michael P. McDonald

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.

Until his early twenties, Levi had little reason to reflect upon his roots. Like most Italian Jews, he considered himself an integral part of the society, and with good reason: Jews had been present in Italy since before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. Of more immediate relevance, more than one-third of Italian Jewish adults were members of the Fascist Party.1 All this changed with the introduction of the racial laws in September 1938. From that point forward, as Mussolini "irrevocably yoked his carnival chariot to Hitler's funeral hearse", in the bitingly apt words of Elsa Morante, Levi began to take an interest in Jewish culture.

In September 1943, following the fall of the Fascist regime, the Germans created the puppet government known as the Republic of Salò and installed Mussolini, whom they had rescued from prison, at its head. Civil war broke out in Italy and, with the German army in control of much of central and northern Italy, the ethnic cleansing began. Nearly 6,400 Italian Jews (out of a population of 45,000) were deported, mainly to the camps of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Mauthausen.

According to his postwar military papers, Levi joined a small Resistance group stationed in the Aosta region north of Turin on October 1, 1943. Unfortunately, he took up arms at a time when the partisan movement lacked organization and was easily infiltrated. A Fascist agent betrayed Levi's band, which was captured in the first anti-Fascist round up in Occupied Italy. Levi was 24 years old when he was seized and, after declaring himself to be Jewish, shipped to Auschwitz in a cattle car. Of the 650 people who traveled with him only 24 returned home.

The average life expectancy in the auxiliary work camp of the sprawling Auschwitz complex to which Levi was sent was three months. But thanks to luck, friendship and a driving need to understand and to testify, Levi, who became Häftling (prisoner) 174517, survived his ordeal for eleven months, from February 1944 to January 1945. He returned to his apartment in Turin wearing the uniform of his Red Army liberators in October 1945.

Sixteen weeks after his homecoming, Levi began the book for which he is most famous, Se questo è un uomo ("If this is a Man", which appears in its American translation under the unbefitting title of Survival in Auschwitz), an account of his experiences in the anus mundi of Auschwitz. After being rejected out of hand by several large publishing houses, a small press issued the book to critical and public indifference in 1947. In the meantime, once reintegrated into postwar life, Levi married and began work for a local paint company. In June 1958, as the 20th anniversary of Mussolini's race laws approached, the prestigious Turin publishing house of Einaudi agreed to republish Se questo è un uomo. This event, and the much warmer reception the book received the second time around, encouraged Levi to return to writing. In 1963 Einaudi published La tregua ("The Truce", published in the United States as The Reawakening), Levi's colorful account of his picaresque odyssey home from Auschwitz. The book's overwhelmingly positive critical reception and impressive sales marked the beginning of his fame in Italy. Over the next decade, Levi wrote at night after ten hour workdays, and gained increasing visibility as a writer of the first rank.

Levi's best known books include La chiave a stella ("The Star-Shaped Key", published in English as The Monkey's Wrench), a fictional account of a Piedmontese crane-rigger who travels the world as a skilled worker; Se non ora, quando? (If not now, when?), a novel about Jewish partisans during World War II in Eastern Europe; and, of course, Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table), the autobiographical collection of stories that boosted his international reputation, especially in the United States. Levi became a regular contributor to La Stampa in the early 1960s, which enabled him to write short articles and essays, in the manner of Orwell's "As I Please" columns, on all manner of subjects that interested him. In 1975 he took early retirement to be able to write full-time.

Levi's last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), published in 1986, one year before his death, is perhaps the most incisive of all his Holocaust works. It is in several ways a continuation of Se questo è un uomo, but it allies the rigorous descriptive prose of that initial work with a deeper meditation on the complex, often ambiguous relationships between oppressor and victim in the Nazi death camps. That same year rumors began to circulate of Levi's soon receiving the Nobel prize. Instead, the world was shocked to read on April 11, 1987 that Primo Levi had died at the age of 68 after falling 15 meters head-first down the stairwell of his apartment building onto a marble floor. Although some thought it an accident, a Turin court and most of those closest to Levi believed otherwise.

Primo Levi has already told us a great deal about his life in his publications and interviews. Is there any need for biographies? Not really. Apart from his internment at Auschwitz and his return home, Levi lived an unremarkable life. To learn about those two great experiences, and how he reacted to them, one has only to read him. But the fact of his apparent suicide created a mystery and, in the 15 years since Levi's death, has provided ample justification for biographers to travel to Turin to untangle it.

Three monumental biographies of Levi's life are currently available in English. The first, Myriam Anissimov's 452-page Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, appeared in 1999. Rightly criticized for the uninspired way in which it surrounded paraphrases of what Levi wrote with large, undigested chunks of general material dealing with Italian Jewry, the Fascist race laws and the postwar Italian boom, it was inevitable that other biographers (or, as Joyce would have it, "biografiends") would follow. Enter Carole Angier and Ian Thomson, whose large, off-putting housebricks of books-what Italians would call mattoni-have both appeared this year. Due credit should be given to their respective publishing houses for confirming (as if further proof were necessary) the decline of editing practices; either tome could have been condensed by a third or more without losing anything much, if at all, of substance.

The books have a good deal in common: Both took ten years to write and are the product of hundreds of interviews. (Thomson actually met Levi a year prior to his death; Angier never did.) Both give the reader a feel for what Turin, that most un-Italian of the peninsula's great cities, is like. Both agree that Levi was a mother's boy (Thomson: he had a "diffident, feminine nature"; Angier: he was "full of male self-doubts") whose "low spirits" as an adolescent later developed into a recurrent depressive illness. In addition to sharing a congruent view of Levi's underlying personal insecurities, both biographers rely upon similar leitmotifs to bind their narratives together. For example, they each maintain that, throughout his life, Levi sought out extroverted, rugged friends who could supply the other half of what was missing in his own make-up. Regrettably, however, both writers, particularly Angier, cannot seem to resist the boring biographical game of "gotcha." If Levi has not been entirely accurate (as they see it) in his depiction of a person or event, one or the other is sure to point out the discrepancy, no matter how trivial. Levi, of course, was perfectly aware that the best a writer can hope for, no matter how scrupulous his use of language, is to recount events or situations in a true but necessarily "filtered" way.

Essay Types: Book Review