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Carlo Levi (1902-1975)


Italian writer, journalist, artist, and doctor, whose first documentary novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), became an international sensation and introduced the trend toward social realism in post-war Italian literature. Although Levi's masterpiece was set in the times of Fascist oppression before World War II, it still has not lost its broad appeal. The book did much to make the world understand the situation of the regions south of Rome, which have long been exploited for economic or political reasons.

"Christ did stop at Eboli, where the road and the railway leave the coast of Salerno and turn into the desolate reaches of Lucania. Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history. Christ never came, just as the Romans never came, content to garrison the highways without penetrating the mountains and forests, not the Greeks, who flourished beside the Gulf of Taranto. None of the pioneers of Western civilization brought here his sense of the passage of time, his deification of the State or that ceaseless activity which feeds upon itself. None has come to this land except as an enemy, a conqueror, or a visitor devoid of understanding." (from Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year)

Carlo Levi was born in Turin into an upper middle-class family. His mother was the sister of Claudio Treves, one of the leaders of the Italian Socialist Party. After studying medicine at the University of Turin he became a  practising  physician. During his earliest formative years, Levi came into contact with socialist ideology. From 1922 he began to contribute to Pietro Gobetti's review La Rivoluzione Liberale, a bastion of intransigent antifascism, which was closed in 1925 on the orders of Mussolini. After abandoning his medical career, Levi devoted himself  to painting and politics. In 1930 Levi joined the social reform movement 'Giustizia e Libertà.' Its other members included Carlo Rosselli and Primo Levi.

As a Jew and for his antifascist activities Levi was exiled from 1935 to 1936 in two isolated villages in the province of Lucania, where his house is now a tourist attraction. The years of his banishment Levi spent in fruitful activity – he continued as a painter and worked as physician to the villagers. Upon his release he went to France, where he lived until 1941.

In 1939 there appeared Levi's essay 'Paura della libertá,' a meditation which constitutes an impassionate demonstration of the coercive irrationality of dictatorship. During World War II, Levi took part in the Resistance. He joined the Partito d'Azione and Central Committee of the National Liberation movement. In Tuscany he edited La Nazione del Popolo and in Rome L'Italia Libera, the mouthpiece of the Action Party. While hiding in Florence in a room for several months in order to avoid deportation as a Jew by the retreating Nazis, Levi wrote Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, an extension of his meditation.

On one level Levi chronicled his own life in the village Gagliano, Lucana, and on the other he gives a gallery of portraits of individuals, such as the Fascist mayor, Giulia, who had more than a dozen pregnancies with more than a dozen men, and the town crier. The narrator, a doctor, is living there as a political prisoner, to learn obedience. He is occasionally allowed to visit Eboli, the central town of the region. He helps people who are suffering from malaria, and sees their daily struggle under totalitarianism. Through his sister he also receives medicine, and witnesses how the hard conditions drive people to emigrate to the United States. When Italy's war against Abyssinia was drawing to its close in 1936, the narrator's detention ends. The documentary report on the archaic life in a society cut off from civilization is skillfully developed into a work of conscious literary art. As a result of his observations Levi appeals for a new order in which the south would assume a form of autonomy from Rome. "The individual and the State coincide in theory, they must be made to coincide in practice," Levi wrote in the book.

After the war in 1946 Levi ran unsuccessfully for Constituent Assembly. He continued exhibiting his paintingts and contributed to major Italian publications, including the Turin daily La Stampa. As a painter he sought to express arcane reality. In the late 1940s the American translator William Weaver arrived in Rome and became friends with a number of writers, among them Carlo Levi, and made their work known in the United States.

The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg met Levi in the early 1960s in Rome, where Levi lived near the Pincio park. He painted Ehrenburg's portrait. "He appears lazy and walks slowly," noted Ehrenburg, but he was impressed how much this seemingly slow author had published, and also painted in his atelier. When they were discussing the concept of eternity, Levi absentmindedly stopped in the middle of a busy street. Ehrenburh managed to persuade a policeman not to fine him.

Levi's commitment to the lot of victims pervaded his work as an editor and journalist, and he was also active in politics. From the 1950s onwards he produced a series of books based on his travels.  Il futuro ha un cuore antico (1956) was an account of his experiences in Russia, but rather than to write about the reality of the Soviet life he portrayed the country as a place where ideals could be realized. The Linden Trees (1962) dealt with post-war Germany and examines the roots of a society that tolerated the rise of Nazism. In 1963 Levi signed an appeal to Italian government to keep Italy out of nuclear arms industry. He was elected in the same year to the Senate as Independent in lists of the Italian Communist Party, serving there until his death on January 4, 1975. Levi never married.

Though Levi's first novel gained a huge success, and made him one of the leaders of Neo-realism, he wrote other important non-fiction works. In Of Fear and Freedom (1946) he proclaimed intellectual freedom despite an inherent human dread of it. L'Orologio (1950) was set in the disillusioned period after the war. "Now, after seven years of pain and slaughter, the wind had fallen, but the old leaves still could not return to their branches and the cities looked like naked woods, waiting under a modest sun for the haphazard flowering of new buds." The protagonist works in Rome for a newspaper. He is summoned to Naples to visit the sickbed of a favorite uncle. His friends, family and partisan comrades are all trying to cope with post-war society, the confusion, bitter acceptance of loss after the Liberation, action and hope. L'Orologio was translated into English as The Watch. "Few books have so sorely needed a firm editor," wrote a reviewer in Time. The watch of the title was an Omega.

For further reading: The Voices of Carlo Levi, ed. by Joseph Farrell (2007); Carlo Levi e Umberto Saba: storia di un'amicizia by? Silvana Ghiazza (2002); 'Introduction' by Wiliam Weawer in Open City: Seven Writers in Post War Rome, ed. by William Weaver and Kristina Olson (1999); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Carlo Levi by M. Baldassaro (1998); Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943-46 by David Ward (1996); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); 'Structure and Style as Fundamental Expression' by R.D. Catani, in Italica, 56 (1979, pp. 213-29); 'Carlo Levi: The Essayist as a Novelist' by S. Pacifici in The Modern Italian Novel (1979); Galleria XVII 3-6 (special Levi issue, May-December 1967); The Tradition of the New by H. Rosenberg (1959) - See also: Pier Paolo Pasolini; other famous writers and physicians: Anton Chekhov, Axel Munthe

Selected works:

  • Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, 1945
    - Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year (translated by F. Frenaye, 1947)
    - Jumalan selän takana (suom. Helka Hiisku, 1956)
    - film 1979, dir. by Francesco Rosi, screenplay by F. Rosi, Tonino Guerra, starring Gian Maria Volonte, Alain Cuny, Paolo Bonacelli, Lea Massari, Irene Papas. "An attractively faithful account of a book which was part personal statement, part local color. Non-Italians will be unable to extract the full flavor." (from Halliwell's Film Guide by Leslie Halliwell, 1988)
  • Paura della libertà, 1946
    - Of Fear and Freedom (translated by Adolphe Gourevitch, 1950, rev. ed. 2008)
  • L'Orologio, 1950
    - The Watch (translated by J. Farrar, 1951; see also: Open City: Seven Writers in Postwar Rome: Ignazio Silone, Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, Carlo Emili, ed. by William Weaver and Kristina Olson, 1999)
  • Le parole sono pietre, 1955
    - Words Are Stones: Impressions of Sicily (translated by A. Davidson, 1958)
  • Il futuro ha un cuore antico: viaggio nell’Unione Sovietica, 1956
  • La doppia notte dei tigli, 1959
    - The Linden Trees (US title; translated by J.M. Bernstein, 1962) / The Two-Fold Night: A Narrative Of Travel In Germany (UK title; translated by Joseph M. Bernstein, 1962)
  • Un volto che ci somiglia, 1960
  • 20 pitture di Carlo Levi, 1929-1935, 1962 (ed. by Antonio Del Guercio)
  • Tutto il miele è finito, 1964
  • Carlo Levi: mostra antologica, 1974
  • Contadini e luigini, 1975 (ed. by Leonardo Sacco)
  • Coraggio dei miti, 1975 (ed. by G. De Donato)
  • La doppia notte dei tigli, 1975
  • Carlo Levi 1928-1937, 1977 (ed. by Mario De Micheli)
  • Quaderno a cancelli, 1979
  • Carlo Levi: disegni 1920-1935, 1980
  • L’altro mondo è il Mezzogiorno, 1980 (2nd ed., ed. by Leonardo Sacco)
  • Carlo Levi e la Lucania: dipinti del confino 1935-1936, 1990
  • Poesie inedite: 1934-1946, 1990 (ed. by Giovanni Spadolini and Rita Levi Montalcini)
  • Lettere e disegni: 1922-1936
  • È questo il "carcer tetro"?: lettere dal carcere 1934-1935, 1991 (ed. by Daniela Ferraro)
  • Noi esistiamo: poesie inedite, 1991 (foreword by Francesco De Lorenzo)
  • Bosco di Eva, 1993 (ed. by  P. Penili)
  • Carissimo Puck: lettere d’amore e di vita (1945-1969), 1994
  • Acquerelli di Carlo Levi per il film Pietro Micca, 1997 (ed. by Paolo Bertetto)
  • Bambino del 7 luglio : dal neofascismo ai fatti di Reggio Emilia (1952-61), 1997 (ed. by Sandro Gerbi, introduction by Giovanni De Luna)
  • Le mille patrie: uomini, fatti, paesi d’Italia, 2000 (ed. by Gigliola De Donato)
  • Temi e luoghi della pittura di Carlo Levi, 1999 (introduction by Pia Vivarelli)
  • Scritti politici, 2001 (ed. by David Bidussa)
  • Lo specchio: scritti di critica d’arte, 2001 (ed. by Pia Vivarelli)
  • Prima e dopo le parole: scritti e discorsi sulla letteratura, 2001 (ed. by Gigliola De Donato and Rosalba Galvagno)
  • Roma fuggitiva: una città e i suoi dintorni, 2002 (ed. by Gigliola De Donato)
    - Fleeting Rome: In Search of La Dolce Vita (translated by Tony Shugaar, 2004)
  • Carlo Levi inedito: con 40 disegni della cecità, 2002 (ed. by Donato Sperduto)
  • Le tracce della memoria, 2002 (ed. by Maria Pagliara)
  • Discorsi parlamentari, 2003
  • Il pianeta senza confini: prose di viaggio, 2003 ed. by Vanna Zaccaro)
    - Essays on India (translated by Antony Shugaar, foreword by Anita Desai, 2007)
  • Contro la guerra: Carlo Levi al popolo di Bari, 2003 (ed. by Domenico Rodolfo)
  • Un dolente amore per la vita: conversazioni radiofoniche e interviste, 2003 (ed. by Luigi M. Lombardi Satriani and Letizia Bindi)
  • Il dovere dei tempi: prose politiche e civili, 2004 (ed. by Luisa Montevecchi)
  • Le ragioni dei topi: storie di animali, 2004 (ed. by Gigliola De Donato)
  • Carlo Levi: "Siamo liberati": cinquanta opere dalla Resistenza alla Repubblica, 2005 (ed. by Guido Sacerdoti)  
  • La strana idea di battersi per la libertà: dai giornali della Liberazione (1944-1946), 2005 (ed. by Filippo Benfante)
  • Carlo Levi: pitture del confino e ritratti, 2006
  • Carlo Levi e Roma: il respiro della città: Roma, Musei di Villa Torlonia-Casino dei Principi, 27 febbraio-15 giugno 2008, 2008 (ed. by Daniela Fonti)
  • Poesie, 2009 (ed. by Silvana Ghiazza)

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