Primo Levi Essay - Critical Essays

Primo Levi Long Fiction Analysis

Most of Primo Levi’s work (with the exception of The Monkey’s Wrench) can be placed within the genre of Holocaust literature. As a survivor of Auschwitz, Levi blended personal reminiscence and reflection to depict his major preoccupation, the unfathomable horror that was the Holocaust. Almost totally devoid of self-pity, Levi reserved his concern for others. He never indulged in luridness or melodrama. Rather, his tone is clear, straightforward, and moderate—his passion, muted. Although his writing deals with the deepest of human emotions and feelings, it remains restrained in a manner that makes for a quiet intensity, which is only emphasized by his subtle (if somewhat startling) humor. Through his unflinching and careful use of detail, he presents a picture of human degradation. Despite the bleakness inherent in Levi’s usual subjects, however, his portrayal leads not to bitterness but, astoundingly, to a compelling affirmation of life, to a sense of faith in humanity, to a compassionate understanding of both victims and victimizers, and, finally, to a powerful and moving vision of the dignity of humankind.

The Monkey’s Wrench

Although Levi’s first piece of long fiction, The Monkey’s Wrench, represents a divergence from his usual concerns (and therefore is lighter and even more amusing in tone), it still reflects Levi’s life experiences, and Levi himself is one of the main characters. This work has been widely classified as a novel. In actuality, however, The Monkey’s Wrench defies classification, being a combination of autobiography and long and short fiction. Indeed, in an interview with Philip Roth, Levi implied that he did not consider The Monkey’s Wrench to be a novel. The work is, perhaps, best regarded as a collection of short stories linked by a narrative situation: The unnamed narrator/writer, who represents Levi, for the most part listens to and records stories related by Faussone, theprotagonist and Levi’s self-styled alter ego. This frame automatically emphasizes the complex relationship between storyteller and listener, between writer and reader.

In the street-smart, cocky, energetic Faussone, Levi created one of his most fully realized characters. An itinerant steelworker, Faussone (like Levi and the narrator) comes from Turin. In seemingly artless monologues, Faussone articulates his devotion to work, a passion he shares with the narrator, who finds, “If we except those miraculous and isolated moments fate can bestow on a man, loving your work (unfortunately, the privilege of a few) represents the best, most concrete approximation of happiness on earth.” In fact, the central metaphor of the novel has to do with the relationship between life and work, whether the comparison is to rigging, to chemistry, or to writing.

Like Levi, the narrator is a chemist (a paint specialist) and author from Turin. Just as Levi became a full-time writer in 1977, the narrator (who, in describing his writing generally alternates between the languages of rigging and of chemistry) relates his last adventure as a chemist and marks his impending transition: With nostalgia, but without misgivings, I would choose another roadthe road of the teller of stories. My own storiesthen other people’s storieshis [Faussone’s], for was possible that, having spent more than thirty years sewing together long...

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