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Primo Levi (1919-1987)


Italian-Jewish writer and chemist, who first gained fame with his autobiographical story Se questo è un uomo (1947, If This is a Man) of survival in Nazi concentration camps. For the last forty years of his life Levi devoted himself to attempting to deal with the fact that he was not killed in Auschwitz. "The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died," he said. Levi also published poetry, science fiction, essays, and short stories. In 1987, at the age of 67, he killed himself. Italo Calvino called Levi "one of the most important and gifted writers of our time."

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold

As a frog in winter.
(in 'Shemá', Collected Poems, 1988)

Primo Levi was born in Turin into a Jewish middle-class family, the son of Cesare Levi, an engineer, and Ester "Rina" Luzzati; she had been his secretary. His grandmother Bimba was a baroness. She and her entire family had been made barons by Napoleon, because they had supported him economically. As a youth Levi knew very little about Jewishness, but Mussolini's anti-Semitic policy soon taught Levi that it was not ''a cheerful little anomaly'' in a Catholic country.

An underdeveloped, quiet boy, Levi was derided at school for his size. Through cycling and mountain climbing he acquired friends, but according to a biography he did not have any sexual experience before meeting his wife, Lucia, in 1946. Just before the Fascist racial law of 1938 forbade Jews access to academic status, Levi started his chemistry studies at the University of Turin. He graduated first in his class in 1941, the year after Italy had entered World War II as an ally of Germany. During the war Levi wrote for the resistance magazine Giustizia e Libertà.

After the collapse of Mussolini's regime, he tried to contact a partisan group in the north of Italy. Levi was captured in December 1943. "I was twenty-four," Levi wrote in If This Is a Man, "with little wisdom, no experience and a decided tendency ... to live in an unrealistic world of my own, a world inhabited by civilized Cartesian phantoms, by sincere male and bloodless female friendships." He was first interned in a transit camp in Fòssoli, and then, two months later, deported to the camp of Moniwitz-Auschwitz. The number 174517 was tattooed on his left forearm.

From the railroad convoy of 650 people, fifteen men and nine women survived. Levi worked at one of three I.G. Farben laboratories and was spared the gas chambers. The company made synthetic rubber for the Nazi war machine. As a chemist he knew he could safely eat cotton wool and drink paraffin. A non-Jewish guest worker secretly gave him extra helpings of soup. To his friend Jean Samuel he taught Italian by quoting Dante; eating and translating Dante were both keys to survival. Dante remained a constant point of reference throughout Levi's writing. From the Ulysses episode of Inferno he chose a passage, which dealt with the crucial question "What is a man?" Levi's superior in the laboratory, Dr. Ferdinand Mayer, gave him a pair of leather shoes.

Liberated by the Soviets in January 1945, Levi returned to Turin in October. He took up his work as a chemist, living in a stately old building that his family had occupied for three generations. In 1961 Levi became the general manager of a factory producing paints. He retired in 1977 to become a full-time writer. With Hety Schmitt-Maas, whose husband had been a chemist for I.G. Farben, Levi corresponded almost 20 years. She also helped Levi to track down Dr. Meyer and sent him German books and newspaper clippings on Nazism.

His prison recollections Levi wrote in the form of a memoir, Se questo è un uomo, which documented how the camp deprived prisoners of their identity and finally annihilated them. When the major publisher Einaudi rejected the work, it was published by a small house. Ten years later it was reprinted in an enlarged edition. In Italy the book sold over half a million copies, was translated into eight languages and adapted for the theater and radio. Part of the book's impact was based on Levi's sober and precise style. In spite of the brutality to which he was subjected Levi described the terrible events objectively like an observing scientist, but also noted with compassion the heroism in the suffering.

Its sequel, La tregua (1963), portrayed Levi's wanderings in war-torn eastern Europe in Poland, Belorussia, the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Romania. During the journey Levi meets a gallery of colorful, rootless companions in misfortune, among them Mordo Nahum, a Greek, from whom Levi learns that in war you must first think of shoes, then the food. Without shoes you can't go after food. Levi returns home on the last pages of his account, but he has a continual nightmare in which his present life turns out to be a mere illusion and he wakes up with Auschwitz's morning call: "Wstawac". But Levi also uses his experiences as a basis for philosophical meditations, which connects the book to Jorge Semprún's L'écriture ou la vie (1994, Literature or Life), dealing with the return to life after the camp.

"It is not at all an idle matter trying to define what a human being is."

La chiave a stella (1978, The Monkey's Wrench) presented vivid stories told by Libertini Faussone, a construction worker and self-educated philosopher. The writer-chemist listens to him, and records his experiences in different parts of the world. "All kids dream of going into the jungle or the desert of Malaya, and I also had those dreams, only I like to have my dreams come true; otherwise they're like some disease you carry around with you all your life, or like the scar of an operation that, whenever the weather turns damp, it starts aching again."

Among Levi's other works is Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table, 1975), which uses the Russian chemist Mendeleyev's periodical table of elements as the basis of autobiographical meditations. Its 21 pieces are each named after a chemical element. "Every element brings a kind of 'click' for me," Levi wrote. "It triggers a memory." 'Argon' is a homage to the author's Jewish ancestors. 'Vanadium' represents Levi's uncanny encounter with a former official in Auschwitz, Dr. Müller, who was the chief of the laboratory, and 'Zinc', a boring metal, explorers the fascist myth of racial purity. Se non ora, quando? (1982, If Not Now, When?) combined the emergence of Jewish consciousness and documentation of action taken on the Russian front by partisan Jewish groups against retreating Nazi forces. A group of Jewish partisans moves toward Palestine, blows up trains, and rescues victims of concentration camps.

"Two years before the war began, the bell rope broke. It snapped near the top; the stairs were rotten; the bell ringer was an old man, and he was afraid to climb up there and put in a new rope. So after he announced the time by shooting a hunting rifle into the air; one shot, or two or three or four, That went on till the Germans came. They took his gun away from him, and the village was left without any time." (from If Not Now, When?)

Levi died in Turin on April 11, 1987. His death was apparently a suicide - Levi hurled himself down the central stairwell of his home building. Before and after Auschwitz Levi had suffered from depression, but his death was interpreted as a sign that he had not triumphed over his horrible experiences.

In a lecture in 1979 Levi had expressed his deeply pessimistic view of humanity, seeing life as terrible. The last work he completed was the essay collection I sommersi e i salvati (1986), where Levi returned to his belief in the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust. He asked how much of the camp is alive and well in our time, and how long it will remain in our memories. Levi points out that anti-Semitism was part of German culture, not merely a Nazi invention, and sees a paradoxical analogy between victim and oppressor. In the camp system also the oppressed unconsciously strove to identify with their oppressor. Useless violence dehumanises both guards and prisoners. "Before dying the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt," he stated.

For further reading: The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, edited by Robert SC Gordon (2007); The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a biography by Carole Angier (2002); Primo Levi by Ian Thomson (2002); Primo Levi, Tragedy of an Optimist by Myriam Anissimov (1999); Understanding Primo Levi by Nicholas Patruno (1995); Tra Giobbe e i buchi veri by Vania De Luca (1991); At an Uncertain Hour: Primo Levi's War Against Oblivion by Anthony Rudolf (1990); A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz by Risa Sodi (1990); Conversations with Primo Levi by Ferdinando Camon (1989); An Artifical Wilderness by Sven Birkerts (1987); Invito alla lettura di Primo Levi by Fiora Vincenti (1973)

Selected works:

  • Rapporto sull’organizzazione igienico-sanitaria del campo di concentramento per ebrei di Monowitz, November 1946 (in Minerva medica)
    - Auschwitz Report (translated by Judith Woolf, 2006)
  • Se questo è un uomo, 1947
    - If This Is a Man (translated by Stuart Woolf, 1966) / Survival in Auschwitz (translated by Stuart Woolf, 1993)
    - Tällainenko on ihminen (suom. Tapio Hiisivaara, 1962)
    - theatrical version co-authored with Pieralberto Marché, 1966
  • La tregua, 1963
    - The Truce: A Survivor's Journey Home from Auschwitz (translated by Stuart Wood, 1965) / The Reawakening (La tregua): A Liberated Prisoner’s Long March Home Through East Europe (translated by Stuart Woolf, 1965)
    - Aselepo (suom. Irma Koistinen, 2001; kuunnelma, suom. Ari Koskinen, 1981)
    - Film adapatation in 1996, prod. DaZu Film, screenplay Tonino Guerra, Sandro Petraglia, Francesco Rosi, Stefano Rulli, dir. by Francesco Rosi, starring John Turturro, Massimo Ghini, Rade Serbedzija, Teco Celio, Roberto Citran
  • Storie naturali, 1966 (under the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila)
    - The Sixth Day (translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1990)
  • Vizio di forma, 1971
  • L'osteria di Brema, 1975 (republ. as Ad ora incerta, 1984)
    - Shema: Collected Poems of Primo Levi (translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann, 1976) / Collected Poems (translated by Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann, 1988)
  • Il sistema periodico, 1975
    - The Periodic Table (translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1996)
    - Jaksollinen järjestelmä (suom. Aira Buffa, 1988)
  • La chiave a stella, 1978
    - The Monkey's Wrench (translated by Ruth Feldman; William Weaver, 1986) / The Wrench (translated by William Weaver, 1987)
  • Lilìt, e altri racconti, 1981
    - Moments of Reprieve (translated by Ruth Feldman, 1986)
  • La ricerca delle radici. Aantologia personale, 1981
    - The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology (translated by Peter Forbes, 2002)
  • Se non ora, quando?, 1982
    - If Not Now, When? (translated by William Weaver, 1985)
    - Jos ei nyt, niin milloin? (suom. Pirkko Peltonen, 1987)
  • Dialogo, 1984 (with Tullio Regge)
    - Dialogo (tr. Raymond Rosenthal, 1989)
  • Ad ora incerta, 1984
  • L'altrui mestiere, 1985
    - Other People's Trades (translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1989)
  • I sommersi e i salvati, 1986
    - The Drowned and the Saved (translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1988)
    - Hukkuneet ja kuolleet (suom. Riikka Kankkunen, 2009)
  • Racconti e saggi, 1986
    - The Mirror Maker (translated by Raymond Rosenthal, 1989)
  • Opere, 1987-1989 (3 vols.)
  • The Sixth Day, and Other Tales, 1990 (translated by Raymond Rosenthal)
  • I racconti, 1996 (edited by Ernesto Ferrero)
  • Opere, 1997 (2 vols., edited by Marco Belpoliti)
  • Il fabbricante di specchi, 1997 (retitled and expanded edition of Racconti e saggi, 1986)
  • Conversazioni e interviste 1963-87, 1997 (edited by Marco Belpoliti)
    - The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961-1987 (translated by Robert Gordon, 2001)
  • L'ultimo Natale di guerra, 2000 (edited by Marco Belpoliti)
  • L'asimmetria e la vita 1955-87, 2002 (edited by Marco Belpoliti)
  • Tutti i racconti, 2005 (edited by Marco Belpoliti)
  • A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories of Primo Levi, 2007 (translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli)

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