Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054
Carlo Levi (LAY-vee), a writer who has been called both one of the most poetic and one of the most humane of twentieth century literary figures, was born on November 29, 1902, in Turin, Italy. Turin was, when Levi was young, a stronghold of nascent Italian socialism and of resistance to the spread of Fascism. His childhood was uneventful and fairly conventional. Levi spent his formative years absorbing the beauty of the countryside of northwestern Italy surrounding his native town. He also did well at absorbing knowledge and finished high school at the age of seventeen. After high school, Levi began to study medicine at the University of Turin, finishing his studies at the age of twenty-two in 1924. While a student, Levi was also politically active. He joined the Ordine Nouvo, a Communist youth organization, and was active in the mounting resistance to Benito Mussolini’s Fascists.
Levi began to paint without ever really having planned to become a painter. He submitted a portrait he had painted to the Quadriennale of modern art in Turin in 1923, and the picture was not only accepted but also singled out for great critical praise. He was invited back the next year and went on to become one of Italy’s great modern painters. It is interesting to note that a man who has become known outside Italy for his writings identified himself primarily as a painter, and his canvases command high prices. Levi also continued his political and anti-Fascist activities. In the early 1930’s he was arrested several times but was always eventually released. In 1935, however, he was arrested again. This time, he was sentenced to internal exile in the deep south of Italy. He was sent to the province of Lucania, first to the village of Grassano, and soon after, to the village of Galliano. The time he spent in Lucania, especially in Galliano, was to provide inspirational fuel for both Levi the painter and, eventually, Levi the writer.
For Levi, the city intellectual and freedom fighter, the encounter with rural backwardness was a culture shock. Initially he did nothing but lament his lost freedom and hate his new social environment. Still, he began to take an interest in the suffering of the peasants, who were now his sole human company, and he came to appreciate their unlimited patience in the face of what one biographer has called an “ancient suffering” and the constant battle for basic, physical survival. Levi immersed himself in the peasant culture; he used his skills as a doctor to cure them of diseases, and he came to have a deep emotional attachment to them. Years later, Levi wrote his famous Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his experiences in Lucania, but it was not his first book. During a relatively short period spent in a Fascist prison, he started writing a diary. At first, he intended it to be only for himself. He changed his mind, however, after seeing how tremendously successful Christ Stopped at Eboli was. The diary came out under the title Of Fear and Freedom and holds some clues to Levi’s later writings. In this book he crystallizes his ideas of liberty, of autonomy, and of human dignity. He also introduces a topic that is to be repeated in Christ Stopped at Eboli: the question of the nature of time. The prison experience and, later, the timelessness of life in Galliano made Levi realize that the concept of time itself is tenuous: The past does not have any physical reality, nor does the future, and the present is threadbare and constantly fleeing.
Levi was allowed to leave Lucania as part of a general amnesty after the Italian victory in Ethiopia and Mussolini’s declaration of the Fascist Empire. He left Italy to live in Paris, where he was in 1939, when the Germans occupied France. Levi, both Jewish and subversive, escaped and went to Bretagne, where he wrote Of Fear and Freedom. In 1941 Levi returned to Italy, and in 1943, he started writing Christ Stopped at Eboli. The book was finished in 1944, was published in 1945, and became an immediate success. It is one of the most popular books ever written in Italian. It has gone through more than twenty Italian editions and has been translated into most of the world’s languages. With this book came fame and recognition for Levi, and he became editor of a Rome newspaper and later a senator for the Communist Party. He was a cultural institution in Italy until his death in Rome in 1975.
Christ Stopped at Eboli has puzzled critics deeply. They have found it hard to label. Is it a novel, a prose poem, a book of personal memories, or a scholarly work? It is hard to categorize. It is probably all the above and a work of ethnology as well. The book is beautifully written, rich in its descriptions of Lucania, its nature, animals, and people. The title refers to something Levi heard the Galliano peasants say: Christ stopped at Eboli, which is north of Lucania. It means that civilization never came to Lucania, that the individual soul, hope for a better future, and the connection between cause and effect never came to the peasants of Lucania. They regarded themselves as animals. Levi captures the eternal suffering of these people whom history forgot, and he argues their case, and that of others like them, in his book.
Levi’s other books include the novel The Watch. This work is, in a certain sense, although set differently, a continuation of Christ Stopped at Eboli. Levi also wrote a number of travel books, about the Soviet Union, Germany, Sardinia, and Sicily. The travel books are all deeply poetic and permeated by a willingness to understand another culture on its own terms and an attempt to distill its social, psychological, and moral essence. Levi has been called a one-book author, which is not a fair judgment. His books after Christ Stopped at Eboli are all beautifully written and important. The problem is not so much with his later works as with the first one: It is so unusual, so startling, and has such deeply felt empathy for the human condition that it will remain one of a kind, a work that will catapult its author’s name into a future in which he hardly even believed.