Primo Levi 1919–-1987
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila) Italian memoirist, short story writer, essayist, novelist, and poet.
A survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, Levi is best known for his first two books, the Holocaust memoirs Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man; 1947) and La tregua (The Reawakening; 1958). If This Is a Man is generally regarded as the most powerful description of the Nazi camps ever written and, like all of his subsequent work, is noted for its extraordinary equanimity and lack of rancor. Despite the horrors he endured, Levi remained consistently hopeful about humanity, steadfastly refusing to “nourish hatred,” and his work—particularly his short fiction and essays—displays an almost childlike curiosity about living and the processes of life.
Levi was born in Turin, Italy, in 1919. His family was part of a small, highly assimilated middle-class Jewish community, whose roots go back to the sixteenth century. Although all European Jews were affected by anti-Semitism, those in Italy generally did not experience the virulent racism that infected Germany and other European nations until the late 1930s. Levi was twenty when dictator Benito Mussolini and his fascist junta established “racial laws” that called for the official persecution of Italian Jews. Those laws took effect when Levi was in college studying chemistry, the field he believed could unlock the secrets of the universe and bridge the worlds of art and science. In 1943 he joined Justice and Liberty, a band of partisans affiliated with the Italian resistance movement. In December of that year he was arrested as a partisan, and sent to Fossoli, a camp near Modena in northern Italy. In February of 1944, the numerous Jews at Fossoli were sent to Auschwitz. The concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945, and after a long, tortuous journey described in picaresque detail in The Reawakening, Levi returned home to Turin.
Levi subsequently found work in a chemical factory and promptly began writing about his experiences, completing If This Is a Man within two years. Levi retired as a chemist in 1977 to devote himself to writing, and gained international prominence when Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) was published in English in 1984. The widespread praise the book received renewed interest in all of his work and consequently he became internationally renowned as a lecturer and commentator. In 1987, at the height of his fame, Levi died after falling down the stairwell in his four-story apartment building. Italian authorities, as well as many people who knew him, ruled his death a suicide.
In his work, Levi never strayed far from the issues related to his experience of the Holocaust. He sought to extract positive value from the experience and to increase his understanding of the ordeal. In The Reawakening he relates his return home through Eastern Europe and the liberated prisoners' sense of joy and celebration. His insistent faith in humanity is again expressed in Shema (1976), a collection of poems also based on his Holocaust experiences. Levi's early short-story collections Storie naturali (1966) and Vizio di forma (1971), written pseudonymously, describe his postwar experiences as technical director of a paint company in a blend of fantasy, science fiction, and personal reminiscences. In his next collection, The Periodic Table, each story is based on a different chemical element, with each element evoking for him a memory of a person or past event.
Critics note that Levi's body of work is characterized by its sympathetic insight into human nature and its essentially optimistic outlook. In fact, many reviewers perceive his memoirs, stories, and poetry as a lyrical affirmation of life. Levi's interest in science, particularly chemistry, has led several literary critics to speculate on how his writing style was influenced by his career as a chemist. Commentators praise the use of humor in his memoirs and fiction, asserting that it functions to balance his serious reflections in his work. Moreover, many praise his ability to address the major issues of the twentieth century with the objective scrutiny of a scientist, the linguistic grace of a poet, and the profound understanding of a philosopher.
Se questo è un uomo [If This Is a Man; also published as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity] (memoirs) 1947
La tregua [The Reawakening; also published as The Truce: A Survivor's Journey Home from Auschwitz] (memoirs) 1958
Storie naturali [as Damiano Malabaila] (short stories) 1966
Il sistema periodico [The Periodic Table] (short stories) 1975
Shema: Collected Poems of Primo Levi (poetry) 1976
La chiave a stella [The Monkey's Wrench; also published as The Wrench] (novel) 1978
Lilit e altri racconti [Lilith, and Other Stories; also published as Moments of Reprieve] (short stories) 1981
Se non ora, quando? [If Not Now, When?] (novel) 1982
I sommersi e i salvati [The Drowned and the Saved] (essays) 1986
L'altrui mestiere [Other People's Trades] (essays) 1986
Collected Poems (poems) 1989
The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays (essays, short stories) 1990
Opere (essays, poems, and short stories) 1987–1990
The Sixth Day and Other Tales (essays) 1990
Primo Levi with Risa Sodi (interview date 1987)
SOURCE: “An Interview with Primo Levi,” in Partisan Review, Summer, 1987, pp. 355-66.
[In the following interview, Levi reflects on his experience at Auschwitz and its impact on his writing.]
[Risa Sodi]: A recent book by the historian H. Stuart Hughes profiles six Italian Jewish writers, you among them.1 Does it seem a bit strained to you to call all six of you “Jewish writers”?
[Primo Levi]: Yes, in Italy, it is quite difficult to apply a label such as “Jewish writer” or “non-Jewish writer.” In my case, it was the Americans, not the Italians, who first used it. In Italy, I'm known as a writer who is occasionally Jewish. Not in America. The last time I was in America, in 1985, it was as if they had pinned the Magen David on me again! Nonetheless, I don't mind. As far as I'm concerned, it's fairly easy to define me as a Jew because almost all of my books deal with Judaism in one way or another and also because I had the adventure of Auschwitz by dint of being a Jew. Certainly, for a writer like Moravia, for Svevo, or also for Ginzburg, it's extremely difficult to speak of Jewish writers. If Ginzburg weren't a Jew, it would hardly change anything in her books. Bassani, however, is another matter. In fact I remember Hughes calls him “the only real Jew” or “the first real Jew”—I don't quite remember the phrase he uses. As far as I'm concerned, my science fiction books have almost nothing to do with Judaism, and The Monkey's Wrench is not a “Jewish book” either. All the same, I gladly accept the label “Jewish writer.”
At the beginning of I sommersi e i salvati, you quote from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:
Since then, at an uncertain hour, That agony returns; And till my ghastly tale is told This heart within me burns.
After reading that, I wondered, is it ever possible to stop “telling”?
You read the answer in that same book. Some of my friends, dear friends at that, never speak of Auschwitz at all. Others talk about it incessantly, and I'm one of them. I exaggerated a bit when I quoted Coleridge. My heart isn't constantly burning. Many years have passed and, above all, I've written many books on the subject, I've given a huge number of talks in schools and at conferences, and I've talked with a tremendous amount of people. All this has built up a sort of diaphragm, a barrier, so you can say I was really a bit rhetorical in quoting Coleridge.
It's a beautiful passage!
I know! I was struck by it when I first read it. I was struck by this fact in particular: if you remember the scene of the Ancient Mariner, he grabs the weddings guests, who pay him no heed—they have the wedding on their minds—and forces them to listen to his tale. Well, when I had just come back from the camp, I acted in the same way. I had an impelling need to tell this story to whomever at all! I had just gotten a job as a chemist in a little paint factory near Turin, and the workers there considered me something of a harmless kook because I did the exact same thing: I told my story to anyone and everyone, at the drop of a hat, from the plant manager to the yardman, even if they had other things to do—just like the Ancient Mariner. And then I would type into the night (because I also lived in the factory). I typed every night, and this was considered even crazier!
And what was their reaction to your story?
It was … correct. I don't know. They listened, some were even very interested.
Did you tell your story in spite of yourself or with the precise idea that you had to tell it?
I really needed to tell it. Now, if you ask me why I needed to tell it, I'd have a hard time answering you. But I had the feeling that I think Catholics must have when they go to confession: it's a great relief to confess. Or the feeling you have if you're in therapy with a psychoanalyst and by telling your story, you break free of it. But there's more to it than that. A very intelligent friend of mine once said to me, “That period was in Technicolor and the rest of your life has been in black and white.” And that's pretty close to the truth. For example, it's true (and I wrote this in I sommersi e i salvati) that my memory of my imprisonment is much sharper and more detailed than anything before or since. For example, I remember that a few times, even recently, I have run into former prisonmates and, even though I hadn't seen them in forty years, I have been able to recognize them immediately. It happened to me in Israel. I went there knowing that a former prisonmate would meet me at my hotel. Even with all the bustle of people coming and going in the lobby, I picked him out right away. And it even happened to me recently in England. I was there for the publication of Survival in Auschwitz.2 Shortly beforehand, I had received a letter from Bristol, from a family that had read a brief story about a certain Goldbaum in The Periodic Table. They asked me if the person in the book could have been a relative of theirs. I answered that I would be in England soon if they wanted to see me, and so we met. They had a picture of this Goldbaum with them—taken before he was captured, obviously, in 1940. But I recognized him immediately. In fact, it was a shock seeing that photograph, it was really like a blow to the stomach.
It's ironic that the most painful moment of your life has also been the most incisive.
There's no contradiction there, don't you think? It was painful, certainly, but also—and it seems cynical to say so—it was also the most interesting period of my life. It was an adventure too. I'm not the only one who talks like this. As I mentioned, I have many friends here in Italy, Jews and non-Jews, Jewish deportees and non-Jewish deportees. A non-Jewish friend of mine was deported as a partisan when she was only seventeen. She lived her imprisonment at Ravensbrück much as I live mine at Auschwitz. Like me, she conducts a perfectly normal life now. But she also has a selective memory, and that's because she grew up in Ravensbrück. At seventeen, when she first passed through the concentration camp gates, she was just a young country school teacher. At Ravensbrück, she learned French and German; she learned how to live in a collectivity; she learned everything there. She says, “Ravensbrück was my university.”
You say something similar.
Yes, I grew up at Auschwitz. I don't know if it's a virtue, or fortune or something else, but I truly accumulated an enormous amount of material, of notions, of considerations that I have yet to fully sort out.
Were you a reflective person even before going to Auschwitz?
Yes, I was pretty reflective before—in my own way! I was a chemist. A chemist has to be thoughtful or else he's a bad chemist!
I also get the feeling that you're a bit hostile towards psychoanalysis.
In fact, I am! A friend of mine who was arrested with me is now a psychoanalyst in Milan. She wrote me a beautiful letter saying that she liked this book but that her professional conscience didn't. Now, I have to confess that I didn't think much of Bruno Bettelheim's first book.3 It seems to me that his interpretation of imprisonment as regression just isn't valid in general. It's valid for some but for others, like me, it was the exact opposite. So to hold up this theory as a general rule strikes me as unfair. But, more generally speaking, I've read Freud's works and I even like them a lot. He is a great writer and a great poet as well. A man of extraordinary acumen. But the psychoanalysts today leave me cold. They're schematic. Mind you: I'm not a psychotic myself and I've never had any direct experience!
You also mention Liliana Cavani's film The Night Porter in I sommersi e i salvati.
Yes, haven't you seen it?
Yes, I saw it, but I had to walk out halfway through.
It was almost an affront. I couldn't sit through it because of the anger I felt.
Yes, but unfortunately, it's not a bad movie. It's very well made. And Cavani isn't stupid. I know her personally.
You've said that The Night Porter is “beautiful and false.”
Yes, it's beautiful from a technical point of view. And it has some good actors. But it's profoundly false.
Why do you say false?
Most of all because the relationship between the girl and the SS officer is false. Not that these things couldn't have happened. They could even have happened, but they were extremely marginal. The SS had nothing to do with the Lagers. Really, this avalanche of films that has been made. … Cavani's has a certain artistic dignity, but many of them are just trash. A lot of them make it seem as if the concentration camps were sexual gymnasiums where prostitution was the order of the day. I'll grant you that there was prostitution. Himmler himself decided at a certain point (I think in '42) that each Lager should have a brothel. He had two reasons: first of all, he was a moralist, he knew there was homosexuality in the camps, and so he said, “Let's provide them with women so that the men will go with women instead of with other men.” In any case, he didn't have the Jews in mind (who had no need of women anyway). No, he was thinking of the political prisoners and the German criminals. He held it was, well, logical, that they have this brutish outlet. I learned much later that there was even a brothel in my camp, but it was “staffed” with non-Jewish women.
Now, the heap of lies that has been built up around this absurd topic is overwhelming. First of all, the prostitutes were well off and, second of all, they were professionals. They were mostly professional prostitutes who were arrested as such and plied their trade in the camps … and they were envied by all. I know of a Jewish girl who was able to pass as Aryan in order to work as a prostitute. That way, she ate a little more (they were paid in kind), and the clients who, as I said, were well-fed—being political prisoners and common criminals—paid her with butter, oil, bread, sweets and even stockings. There was another reason to encourage prostitution: obviously in those circumstances, the prostitutes and their clients formed deeply emotional bonds, and the clients in particular felt strong ties to these women. They confided their secrets to them—and many of the prostitutes were Gestapo agents.
So the motives involved in camp prostitution were very complex. The cliché of the innocent woman forced to be a “Soldatenhure” (a “soldiers' whore”), condemned to prostitute herself against her will, is absolutely false. It was a different thing altogether. I remember clearly, even after all this time, seeing the SS promenade through the paths of the camp, arm in arm with the prostitutes on Sunday afternoons. The prostitutes were not only their friends, they were often their colleagues.
Your comments remind me of the passage by Italo Svevo that you quote in this book. “When you are near death, death is the last thing on your mind. Your entire being is dedicated to just breathing.”4
No, for common prisoners like me, sex wasn't a problem. It was completely forgotten, even in our dreams.
What do you think of theories that define the Jews as a racial entity?
The question of race is just plain foolishness, pure unreality. Geneticists are seriously exploring the matter now. As a matter of fact, there was a conference on genetic blood-typing just yesterday in Turin. Apparently, there's a method of analyzing blood that gives a window onto the genetic subdivision of the human species, and the results show that the Jews don't belong to any one subdivision. They are a religious and/or cultural unity. But racial? Certainly not. A Yemenite Jew has nothing in common “racially” with a Russian Jew, at least half of whom are Ukranian converts.
Anthropologists say that, genetically, Yemenite Jews resemble Yemenites more than they do Jews from other...
(The entire section is 5152 words.)
Anna Laura Lepschy (review date 1988)
SOURCE: “Questions of Survival,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 1988, p. 520.
[In the following review, Lepschy derides Raymond Rosenthal's translation of The Drowned and the Saved.]
“Explicit recipes for being human”: thus Paul Bailey, in his introduction to the English translation of Primo Levi's last book, I sommersi e i salvati (reviewed in the TLS, October 2, 1987), applies Geoffrey Grigson's definition of Auden's best poetry to the work of Levi. Bailey follows the thread of “being human” through a world of inhumanity and emphasizes the centrality of Levi's belief that “The aims of life are the best defence against death: and not...
(The entire section is 420 words.)
Paul Bailey (review date 1989)
SOURCE: “Genuine Curiosities,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 1, 1989, p. 25.
[In the following essay, Bailey offers a positive review of Other People's Trades.]
This absorbing book [Other People's Trades] is composed of occasional essays contributed by Primo Levi to the Turin newspaper La Stampa between 1964 and 1984. Most columnists are tied to a particular subject (with the exception of that deadly species, the resident humorist), but Levi was free to write about whatever he chose. His fortunate readers were offered instruction and entertainment on a variety of topics: the complex reasons for the leap of the flea, for instance; the notion...
(The entire section is 867 words.)
Peter Hainsworth (review date 1989)
SOURCE: “A Refusal to Forget,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 14, 1989, p. 402.
[In the following review, Hainsworth provides a favorable assessment of Collected Poems.]
Primo Levi wrote a characteristically troubled and self-deflating cover-note for the Italian edition of his collected poems published by Mondadori in 1984. The impulse to compose in verse was, he suggested, something genetically implanted in human beings, something irrational. He himself felt no special awe of poetry and was not particularly proficient at it. All the same, from time to time, “at an uncertain hour” (he was particularly drawn to this phrase from the “Ancient Mariner”,...
(The entire section is 756 words.)
Leonard Michaels (review date 1989)
SOURCE: “Strangers in the Universe,” in New York Times Book Review, May 7, 1989, pp. 14-15.
[In the following review of Other People's Trades, Michaels deems Levi as “original, various, always lucid; there is a pleasing natural consistency to him.”]
Primo Levi's essays collected in Other People's Trades, treat many different subjects; among them are love, chess, poetry, fleas, beetls, wood, snakes, language, Rabelais, fear, frogs, computers, his house in Turin, Italy, and his family. He writes on things that are vast (the cosmos) and things that are minute (paramecia), and on relations between the vast and minute. He is original, various, always...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
Ross Feld (review date 1990)
SOURCE: “Taking Time,” in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1990, pp. 7-15.
[In the following review of Collected Poems, Feld gives an unfavorable assessment of Levi's poetry, maintaining that his “poems still feel to me like a personal indignity he suffered—or at least a dubiety, an unnatural struggle.”]
The heart falls a little to read, in a small essay entitled “On Obscure Writing,” this dismissal by Primo Levi:
The effable is preferable to the ineffable, the human word to the animal whine. It is not by chance that the two least decipherable poets writing in German, Trakl and Celan, both died as suicides. It is...
(The entire section is 3026 words.)
Robert Gordon (review date 1990)
SOURCE: “Prometheus Unperturbed,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 23-29, 1990, p. 1271.
[In the following review, Gordon provides a mixed review of the science-fiction stories comprising The Sixth Day.]
The Sixth Day is a collection of Primo Levi's science-fantasy stories taken from Storie naturali (1966) and Vizio di forma (Formal Defect, reviewed in the TLS of October 2-8, 1987). They explore the sometimes awful, sometimes comic consequences of science's interference with the natural order, and their light inventiveness provides a fascinating counterpoint to the sombre tragedy of Levi's major autobiographical works....
(The entire section is 552 words.)
Ilona Klein (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: “‘Official Science Often Lacks Humility’: Humor, Science and Technology in Levi's Storie Naturali,” in Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi, edited by Susan Tarrow, Center for International Studies, 1990, pp. 112-26.
[In the following essay, Klein analyzes the defining characteristics of Levi's Storie naturali.]
“Nothing, ever, is for free: everything has its price.”
Primo Levi's third book, written under the pseudonym of “Damiano Malabaila,” was published for the first time in the fall of 1966 by Einaudi. Storie naturali is a collection of fifteen short stories which...
(The entire section is 6212 words.)
Constance Markey (review date 1990)
SOURCE: “Italian Fantasies,” in Chicago Tribune Books, July 15, 1990, p. 5.
[In the following essay, Markey contends that Levi's The Sixth Day “can be provocative reading, less for its fiction than for the poignant insight it gives into the agonized soul of an acute observer of 20th-Century man's precarious ‘habit of living.’”]
Many of Primo Levi's American readers will be surprised when they discover that his most recently published work, The Sixth Day and Other Tales, is fiction. Americans know this Italian-Jewish author primarily for Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved, books that present his stark...
(The entire section is 858 words.)
Gabriel Motola (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: “The Varnish-Maker's Dreams,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 98, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 506-14.
[In the following essay, Motola offers a thematic survey of Levi's memoirs, essays, poems, and short fiction.]
A scientific humanist before as well as after Auschwitz, Primo Levi insisted on upholding the Judeo-Christian ideals that we in the West inherit. Whether working as a chemist in a paint factory, or writing poetry or prose, or speaking to a colleague or to an interviewer, Levi never wavered in his belief that only through the objective reality provided by science, mediated by the ethical and moral values of an evolved tradition, can a responsible and just...
(The entire section is 3913 words.)
Kathy Rugoff (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: “Heinrich Böll, Primo Levi, and Saul Friedländer: Portrayals of Self and History,” in Connecticut Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 41-9.
[In the following essay, Rugoff compares Levi's The Periodic Table, Heinrich Böll's What's to Become of the Boy? Or: Something to Do with Books, and Saul Friedländer's When Memory Comes, and contrasts these authors' memoirs with the philosophy of Paul de Man.]
As the literary canon has been reviewed and redefined in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, many discussions of autobiography have been undertaken by various critics, including Paul de Man, the late chair of Comparative Literature...
(The entire section is 5299 words.)
Jonathan Druker (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: “Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved: From Testimony to Historical Judgment,” in Shofar, Vol. 12, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 47-58.
[In the following essay, Druker traces Levi's development as an author.]
This essay traces Primo Levi's gradual development from concentration camp survivor and witness to historical and moral arbiter of the Holocaust. As one long committed to wider public recognition and comprehension of the Holocaust, Levi's perception of his role as a survivor-writer evolved with the passage of time and the historicization of the events. There are dramatic...
(The entire section is 5003 words.)
Jay Losey (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: “From Savage Elements: Epiphany in Primo Levi's Holocaust Writings,” in Journal of European Studies, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1994, pp. 1-21.
[In the following essay, Losey explores Levi's use of epiphany in his work, asserting that his “contribution to the epiphanic mode defies traditional notions of influence.”]
Primo Levi uses a version of modern epiphany originated by Rousseau and Wordsworth in the romantic period, appropriated by Browning and Pater in the Victorian, and refined by Proust, Joyce and Conrad in the modern.1 But Levi's contribution to the epiphanic mode defies traditional notions of influence. The Holocaust marks the end of...
(The entire section is 9735 words.)
Dalya M. Sachs (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: “The Language of Judgment: Primo Levi's Se questo è un uomo,” in MLN, Vol. 110, No. 4, September, 1995, pp. 755-84.
[In the following stylistic analysis of If This Is a Man, Sachs posits that Levi's objective tone forces the readers to make their own judgments.]
“I think there are as many ways of surviving survival as there have been to survive.”
—Philip K., quoted in Holocaust Testimonies
In the 1976 Appendix to an annotated edition of Se questo è un uomo [Author's note: While the English edition of Se questo è un uomo is for the most part a...
(The entire section is 13159 words.)
Robert Gordon (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: “‘Per Mia Fortuna …’: Irony and Ethics in Primo Levi's Writing,” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 92, No. 2, April, 1997, pp. 337-47.
[In the following essay, Gordon examines the different types of irony in Levi's work.]
One of the most persistent problems thrown up by writing and reading about the Holocaust is that of style and its relation to ethics.1 The ungraspable quiddity of the event displaces interpretational energy away from the operations of writing and onto the act of writing itself. To write is an act of bearing witness and of record. It betokens statements such as ‘I am’ and ‘I saw’ and ‘these things were’, and...
(The entire section is 6950 words.)
Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1997)
SOURCE: “Letter from Paris: Ten Years Without Primo Levi,” in Salmagundi, Fall-Winter, 1997, pp. 3-18.
[In the following essay, Todorov discusses the central themes of Levi's work—memory and offense—and reflects on his legacy.]
With the passing of time, Primo Levi has become one of the authors who has influenced me most, and to whom I feel closest. This simple fact never ceases to amaze me, because the reasons for the closeness are by no means clear to me. I am too young to have had a direct experience of Nazism, so no shared experience can explain how I feel. Still, I grew up in a totalitarian country, and this fact, through a mechanism that I can no more...
(The entire section is 6601 words.)
Thane Rosenbaum (essay date 1998)
SOURCE: “Imagining a Life after the Unimaginable,” in New York Times, April 19, 1998, pp. 15-6.
[In the following essay, Rosenbaum offers a positive assessment of the cinematic version of Levi's The Reawakening.]
Take, one Italian chemist; add the sulfurous poison pellets of Zyklon B, the stench of rotting, skeletal corpses, and an entire periodic table of indifference; mix it all together in a flaming petri dish called Auschwitz, and you have a formula that could transform a man of science into a poet of atrocity.
That was the life of Primo Levi, who was best known for the classic literary account of his internment in a Nazi death camp....
(The entire section is 1832 words.)