Study Guide

Carlo Levi

Carlo Levi Essay - Critical Essays

Levi, Carlo

Introduction

Carlo Levi 1902-1975

Italian novelist, memoirist, journalist, and travel writer.

A medical doctor, artist, and author, Levi was considered one of the most promising writers of post-World War II Italy. His best-known work, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (1945; Christ Stopped at Eboli), is a chronicle of Levi's year of exile in Gagliano, one of Italy's poorest regions. The book—considered a travel narrative, memoir, political essay, and anthropological study—catapulted Levi to national prominence in Italy and inspired praise from critics and audiences around the world.

Biographical Information

Levi was born November 29, 1902, in Turin, Italy. In 1924 he received his M.D. from the University of Turin. He served in the Italian military in 1925, and founded the Italian Action Party, an anti-Fascist group that opposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, in 1930. He also established Guistizia e Liberta, an anti-Fascist periodical, in 1931. His political activities resulted in his arrest in 1934; a year later he was exiled to the remote and impoverished village of Gagliano, Lucania. His year in exile provided the material for his study, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which garnered much positive critical attention. After his release from exile, he emigrated to France, but returned to Italy during World War II. He continued his subversive activities and was rearrested in Florence on political charges in 1942. After his release he became editor of Nazione del Popolo and Italia Libera, two anti-Fascist, liberal periodicals. In the 1960s, he served two terms as an independent senator in the Italian senate. An accomplished artist, he had several one-man exhibits of his work in Europe and the United States. Levi died of pneumonia January 4, 1975, in Rome.

Major Works

Christ Stopped at Eboli remains Levi's best known and most highly regarded work. In 1935, exiled for his anti-Fascist activities, Levi spent a year among the peasants in Italy's poorest region. He recorded his experiences, as well as his impressions of the people, their customs, landscape, mythology, and architecture. Christ Stopped at Eboli is regarded as a multi-layered study of a region and its people. His other works also emphasized sociology, history, psychology, and politics. His novel L'Orologio (1948; The Watch) chronicles a few days among intellectuals in Rome shortly after the Italian liberation at the end of World War II. Using the symbol of a watch he inherited from his father, Levi explores the themes of time and man's relation to history. In La doppia notte dei tigli (1959; The Linden Trees), Levi records his impressions from a short trip to postwar Germany. Although the work is categorized as a travel narrative, Levi also strove to analyze the mindset of the German people.

Critical Reception

Today Levi's critical reputation rests on the worldwide success of Christ Stopped at Eboli. When it was published in 1945, it was praised for its compassionate and complex portrayals of the people of the region and their historical, political, and sociological milieu. His ability to provide more than just cursory character sketches earned laudatory reviews in Europe and the United States. There has been critical debate about the genre of Christ Stopped at Eboli; the book has been classified as novel, memoir, diary, sociological essay, anthropological study, and series of sketches. It garnered favorable critical and popular attention, and Levi was viewed as one of Italy's most promising authors in the years after World War II. His subsequent efforts, however, failed to earn such enthusiastic critical reaction.

Principal Works

Cristo si è fermato a Eboli [Christ Stopped at Eboli] (memoirs) 1945

L'Orologio [The Watch] (novel) 1948

Paura della libertà [Of Fear and Freedom] (essays) 1948

Il futuro ha un cuore antico: Viaggio nell' Unione Sovietica (travel essay) 1956

Le parole sono pietre: Tre giornate in Sicilia [Words Are Stones: Impressions of Sicily] (travel essay) 1956

La doppia notte dei tigli [The Linden Trees] (travel essay) 1959

Tutto il miele è finito (travel essay) 1964

Coraggio dei miti: Scritti contemporanei, 1922-1947 (memoirs, journalism, novel, and travel essays) 1975

Criticism

Lawrence Grant White (review date 19 April 1947)

SOURCE: White, Lawrence Grant. “Beyond Civilization.” Saturday Review of Literature 30, no. 16 (19 April 1947): 12.

[In the following positive review of Christ Stopped at Eboli, White contends that Levi “has proved his competence by making a readable and interesting book out of grim and forbidding material.”]

[Christ Stopped at Eboli] is a well-written account, by a sensitive and cultivated anti-fascist, of a year spent as a political exile at Gagliano, a primitive and remote village in Lucania, which forms the ankle of the Italian peninsula. Here civilization had hardly penetrated. The natives said that “Christ stopped at Eboli,” a town in the neighboring province of Campania; and to them, Christ is synonymous with civilization. This explains the obscure meaning of the title.

It was in 1935 that the author, wearing handcuffs, was escorted from the Regina Coeli prison in Rome to Gagliano. With a painter's understanding he describes the stark beauty of the countryside; windswept hills denuded of their once luxuriant forests; white clay pitted with caves in which strange swart people, descendants of some aboriginal Italic race, lived like troglodytes. The intangible characteristics of the locality were hatred, superstition, ignorance, and malaria. There were family feuds dating back to the days of the Bourbons and the Carbonari. The horns of a dragon, slain by a Colonna prince with the timely aid of the local madonna, were venerated in the next village; and the author's housekeeper was a successful witch. The malaria was unchecked by the two incompetent local doctors, who prescribed a harmless white powder sold as quinine by the unlicensed pharmacy.

In such surroundings the author appeared like a visitor from another planet. He had been trained as a physician, and did what he could, without instruments or...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

C. G. Paulding (review date 2 May 1947)

SOURCE: Paulding, C. G. Review of Christ Stopped at Eboli, by Carlos Levi. Commonweal 46, no. 3 (2 May 1947): 72-3.

[In the following favorable review, Paulding applauds the compassionate and evocative portrayal of the peasants of Gagliano found in Christ Stopped at Eboli.]

When the Italians set forth to conquer the world, starting with Ethiopia, they attended to one little detail by requesting Carlo Levi to live very quietly until further notice within the limits of a village called Gagliano, which is in the province of Lucania, a miserably sad, malarial and abandoned region just north of the Gulf of Taranto. It is just north of Calabria which is abandoned...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

David T. Bazelon (review date 24 May 1947)

SOURCE: Bazelon, David T. “Outside of History.” Nation 164 (24 May 1947): 635-36.

[In the following review, Bazelon describes Christ Stopped at Eboli as a “new kind of modern lyricism.”]

Plot is always the essential—even, or perhaps especially, when it is so subdued as to seem negligible or secondary. When moments are big, it is the context that enlarges them. Overtly, Christ Stopped at Eboli is merely sensitive reporting of a year (1935-36) spent in exile by a cultured Italian anti-Fascist. Most of the book consists of description of the daily life and mind of the peasants who live in Gagliano, a village in Lucania, where Christianity—in its...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

G. J. Wood (review date August 1947)

SOURCE: Wood, G. J. “Italian Villages.” Canadian Forum 27, no. 319 (August 1947): 117-18.

[In the following review, Wood deems Christ Stopped at Eboli as a vigorous and colorful account.]

The South of Italy has long been known to tourists as a land of brigands, poverty, and excessive heat. Although the brigands may have declined somewhat in prestige during this century, lured perhaps to those American centres which felt the need of their peculiar talents, the poverty and the uncompromising climate have remained. Into this stark area, with its forbidding mountains and its wretched villages, came Dr. Carlo Levi of Turin, banished thither in 1935 for his...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Siegfried Mandel (review date 25 February 1950)

SOURCE: Mandel, Siegfried. “Pre- & Ant-Christian.” Saturday Review of Literature 33, no. 8 (25 February 1950): 30.

[In the following review, Mandel outlines the major thematic concerns of Of Fear and Freedom.]

Carlo Levi is now known in this country for his brilliant Christ Stopped at Eboli, a sociological, anthropological, and political diary-novel describing Levi's year of exile in a small Southern Italian town because of political activities against Mussolini in 1935. Toward the close of the book he makes a strong distinction between two civilizations—that of the country and that of the city. The former he regards as pre-Christian, the latter as a...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Irwin Edman (review date 3 April 1950)

SOURCE: Edman, Irwin. “Thoughts in the Dark.” New Republic 122 (3 April 1950): 19-20.

[In the following review, Edman offers a negative assessment of Of Fear and Freedom.]

The author of Christ Stopped at Eboli commands the interested attention of anyone who read that wise and touching picture of a remote, oppressed peasant community in the hills of southern Italy. One felt in Levi's admirable vignette of eternal humanity the sensibilities of a poet and something of a seer. Now comes a book, written five years earlier, when the author was living in France. It was at the beginning of World War II; Levi was depressed about the future as well as the present and...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Lawrence Grant White (review date 30 June 1951)

SOURCE: White, Lawrence Grant. “Time and the Man.” Saturday Review of Literature 34, no. 26 (30 June 1951): 8-9.

[In the following review, White maintains that The Watch is a well-written and worthwhile book.]

Carlo Levi, the gifted author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, has written another book about Italy. Its obscure title, The Watch, refers to a graduation present from his father, symbolizing the unity of time and recurring as the subject of a curious dream.

The method used in the two books is similar: the meticulous recording of the author's impressions of scenes and events and the conversations and opinions of the people he...

(The entire section is 836 words.)

Frances Keene (review date 21 July 1951)

SOURCE: Keene, Frances. “One Moment in History.” Nation 173 (21 July 1951): 54-5.

[In the following review, Keene provides a laudatory assessment of The Watch and views it within the context of Levi's oeuvre.]

First of all, of course, this isn't a novel, as the jacket and its blurb would have you believe. It would be a mistake to expect Levi to construct, out of historical incident and personal experience, a technically acceptable work of fiction. So let's get the idea out of the way that The Watch even pretends to be a novel, complete with plot, sub-plot and, if possible, love interest. Then perhaps we can talk fairly about the book.

...

(The entire section is 1541 words.)

Richard Match (review date 30 July 1951)

SOURCE: Match, Richard. “The Captive Instant.” New Republic 125 (30 July 1951): 21.

[In the following review, Match derides the lack of characterization in The Watch.]

On page 68 of The Watch, Carlo Levi (speaking through one of his characters) expresses an opinion about Tolstoy. I quote it here because I think it tells what Levi himself was trying to do in The Watch.

“Tolstoy,” says Levi, “was not a novelist. The huge machines that he used carried him who knows where, but his true value was a different one. … He is the poet of the unique instant, which cannot last nor repeat itself nor change … outside of time, outside of...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Serge Hughes (review date 10 August 1951)

SOURCE: Hughes, Serge. Review of The Watch, by Carlos Levi. Commonweal 54 (10 August 1951): 436-37.

[In the following review, Hughes asserts that The Watch “is one of the most beautiful nostalgic works to have come out of Europe recently.”]

Carlo Levi's new book will never vie with his first novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli, in popularity. It appeals to a more limited number of readers. Where the first novel was brilliantly successful in conveying a fresh poetical interpretation of Italy's perennial problem, the problem of the South, and all of Levi's vision was focused on one place and one people, this second novel lacks both the intensity and...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Delmore Schwartz (review date September-October 1951)

SOURCE: Schwartz, Delmore. “The Miraculous Ayme and Others.” Partisan Review 18, no. 5 (September-October 1951): 575-81.

[In the following review, Schwartz notes the lack of thematic unity in The Watch.]

Many passages in Carlo Levi's The Watch have a wonderful eloquence, vividness, and vigor. Yet the book does not make a whole, and the reader finds himself in the middle of it making a fresh start again and again. This is partly due to the subject, which is panoramic and includes all of Italy soon after the second World War; and it is partly due to Levi's attitude toward his subject. He writes in the first person and in his own literal being as an Italian, a...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Harvey Swados (review date autumn 1951)

SOURCE: Swados, Harvey. “Fiction of Three Countries.” Hudson Review 4, no. 3 (autumn 1951): 467-70.

[In the following excerpt, Swados offers a negative review of The Watch.]

The dust jacket of the new Carlo Levi volume describes it as “a new novel”, which is stretching the term out of recognition, for The Watch is a highly personal memoir of Levi's experiences over a brief period in the early days after the Liberation. If names have been changed, even if incidents have been rearranged and invented in order to dramatize the author's emotional reaction to the time when it looked as though Italy might really be reborn, that is hardly sufficient reason to...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

John H. Secondari (review date 6 September 1958)

SOURCE: Secondari, John H. “Golden Coast and Barren Interior.” Saturday Review 41, no. 36 (6 September 1958): 35.

[In the following review, Secondari comments on Levi's distance from his subject matter and the lack of facts in Words Are Stones.]

As a prophet is least attended in his own home, Carlo Levi is less thought of in Italy than abroad. Certainly much less in Italy than in the United States, where his reputation rests solidly on the impact and success of his wartime Christ Stopped at Eboli. That was possibly the first book to pull back the curtain from the tragic, desert-like, dusty world of the Southern Italian peasant, and allow a foreign audience...

(The entire section is 710 words.)

Milton Rugoff (review date 7 September 1958)

SOURCE: Rugoff, Milton. “Powerful Pictures of Sicily's Peasants.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (7 September 1958): 3.

[In the following review, Rugoff commends Levi's portrayal of the Sicilian people in Words Are Stones.]

Having interpreted southern Italy with extraordinary understanding in Christ Stopped at Eboli, it is not surprising that Carlo Levi should now turn to Sicily. Not that this small collection of reports and impressions is comparable to the earlier book. And yet at its best it displays the same remarkable capacity to see a people with all their past upon them—from the eras of Greek and Saracen, through generations of feudal lords,...

(The entire section is 638 words.)

Joseph G. Harrison (review date 10 November 1958)

SOURCE: Harrison, Joseph G. “Island with Individuality.” Christian Science Monitor 50, no. 294 (10 November 1958): 9.

[In the following review, Harrison calls Words Are Stones “a perceptive and ably written book, which confers a deep insight into a storied but tortured part of the Western world.”]

Each morning I ride to work with a friend who, during and after World War II, traveled widely in a number of African and European countries. In discussing these lands we have found only one point of deep disagreement—our respective views of the island of Sicily. To him, having tramped and ridden the parched roads of the island during the Allied advance,...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Seymour Freidin (review date 11 March 1962)

SOURCE: Freidin, Seymour. “An Italian on His First Visit to Germany.” New York Herald Tribune Book Review (11 March 1962): 6.

[In the following review, Freidin is dismayed by Levi's negative portrayal of Germany and its citizens in The Linden Trees.]

Germany has many scars that go more than skin deep. Gifted, highly sensitive Carlo Levi seems to have run his delicate fingers over them like an expert surgeon. He made his diagnosis before he set out from his homeland, Italy. It was based on what Mr. Levi calls pre-judgment. Some would call it prejudice. The talented Italian writer probably would not disagree if it were put to him that way. He admits he has prejudices...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Elias Cooper (review date 2 June 1962)

SOURCE: Cooper, Elias. “The Eye of a Cyclone.” Nation 194 (2 June 1962): 499-500.

[In the following review of The Linden Trees, Cooper praises Levi's poignant and insightful observations on post-World War II Germany.]

The poet Umberto Saba has said, “After Maidenek all men have in some way been diminished. All of us—executioners and victims—are, and for many more centuries to come will be, much less than we were before.” In The Linden Trees, his narrative of travel in Germany, Carlo Levi agrees with that judgment, but postulates that “even at the extreme edge of the dehumanized a new human moment can come to birth.” It is for that “human...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

R. D. Catani (essay date summer 1979)

SOURCE: Catani, R. D. “Structure and Style as Fundamental Expression: The Works of Carlo Levi and Their Poetic Ideology.” Italica 56, no. 2 (summer 1979): 213-29.

[In the following essay, Catani provides a stylistic analysis of Levi's prose works.]

The resurgence over the last decade in critical studies on Levi has largely been based on a recognition that convictions first expressed theoretically in Paura della libertà (1939) offer a key to a deeper comprehension of his work. As a result, a daunting task of interpretation has been set and undertaken.1 This article will attempt to define and analyze certain processes in the author's prose writings...

(The entire section is 6086 words.)

Lawrence Baldassaro (essay date summer 1995)

SOURCE: Baldassaro, Lawrence. “Paura della libertà: Carlo Levi's Unfinished Preface.” Italica 72, no. 2 (summer 1995): 143-54.

[In the following essay, Baldassaro offers an overview of Paura della libertà, perceiving it as “a watershed moment” in his literary development.]

Long before the Resistance movement evolved into the armed rebellion depicted in neorealist films, Carlo Levi was one of that handful of Italians who challenged the fascist regime armed only with the words they printed in clandestine newspapers and magazines. Levi was only twenty years old when, in 1922, he began his anti-fascist activities by contributing to Piero Gobetti's...

(The entire section is 4997 words.)

David Ward (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Ward, David. “Carlo Levi: From Croce to Vico.” In Antifascisms: Cultural Politics in Italy, 1943-46, pp. 157-91. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ward examines Levi's journalistic and political writings and traces the development of his work.]

PAURA DELLA LIBERTà: CARLO LEVI, RESISTANCE, AND CREATIVITY

Succeeding Alberto Cianca, Carlo Levi was editor of L'Italia Libera (IL) from August 1945 until his resignation in February 1946 in the wake of the split that took place in the Action Party during its first postwar congress in Rome. Previously, while participating in...

(The entire section is 19229 words.)

Mark Friguglietti (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Friguglietti, Mark. “Carlo Levi's Cristo si è fermato a Eboli: An Anthropological Assessment of Lucania.” Annali d'Italianistica 15 (1997): 221-36.

[In the following essay, Friguglietti reads Christ Stopped at Eboli as an anthropological study and focuses on the descriptions and role of architecture in the southern Italian village.]

Lucania, the mountainous region wedged between Campania, Calabria and Apulia, comprises a large percentage of the hinterland of Southern Italy. Insular and remote, Lucania has infrequently attracted the interest of historians and anthropologists. The culture of the people who have inhabited this desolate land for...

(The entire section is 7371 words.)

Guy P. Raffa (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Raffa, Guy P. “Carlo Levi's Sacred Art of Healing.” Annali d'Italianistica 15 (1997): 203-20.

[In the following essay, Raffa explores Levi's anthropological vision in light of the theories of Victor Turner and René Girard.]

Written in 19351, the year of Carlo Levi's exile in Lucania, Charlotte Gower Chapman's Milocca: A Sicilian Village is an anthropological study of a Sicilian village based on the author's fieldwork in 1928-29.2 Modeled on Robert Redfield's Tepoztlan, a Mexican Village (1930), Chapman's Milocca is the “only full-scale Italian village study in existence which was carried out before World War...

(The entire section is 7555 words.)