Primo Levi would seem a curious subject for a biography, considering how excessively reticent, almost secretive, he was about his personal life, but as Carole Angier notes in her preface, for her as a writer, reserve intrigues—and the extreme reserve exhibited by her subject intrigued her extremely. In spite of her intrigue, however, Angier had to overcome not only Levi’s reticence but also his family’s high wall of reserve and privacy—made even higher, she discovered, by the traditional diffidence of Turinese—and the tragedy of his death by suicide. As biographer, therefore, Angier found herself confronting a peculiar dilemma, hence the title of her book which she borrowed from Levi’s last, incomplete novel: Il doppio legame. In Italian, the phrase has a double meaning: the double bonding in chemistry and the double bind in psychology, “a crippling conflict between contradictory or unfulfillable requirements, which you can neither escape nor win.” Angier appropriated both meanings in order to take her biography into the personal and inward sides of Primo Levi. To do this, she structured her book on two levels, a rationally known, testable one and an irrational one, felt and imagined. In the end, Angier admits she does not know which turned out to be the more truthful and revealing of her subject, although finally the latter came to seem to her to be of greater significance.
Primo Levi was born on July 31, 1919, on the third floor at Corso De Umberto 75 in a house owned by his mother and in which, except for a year in Milan and one in Auschwitz, he lived for all of his sixty-seven years. His father, Cesare, was an industrial engineer and his mother, Rina, was a typical Italian housewife and mother. His sister, Anna Maria, was born a year and a half later. Although both sides of his family had been observant Jews, Primo’s parents had ceased to be religious, as had most Italian Jews who were indebted to the Enlightenment ideas that had freed them to live in a predominantly Christian world. Nevertheless, Primo was bar mitzvahed and for a brief period in his early teens he became intensely involved with his Jewishness; later in life, during the period of persecution by both the Italian and German fascists, he would again become acutely aware of his cultural and religious heritage.
Primo was a slight child, serious and shy, very unlike his sister, who was lively and outgoing. In spite of their differing personalities, she became his closest childhood companion. Primo’s schooling started inauspiciously. During his primary years he was frequently absent because of various illnesses, which contributed to the impression that he was somewhat frail, an impression belied by his obvious strength of both body and will that allowed him to survive his experience at Auschwitz. As he progressed through the Italian educational system, he began to flourish, and by the time he attended the Gimnasio Liceo Massimo D’Azeglio, one of the best classical grammar schools in Turin, his intelligence and seriousness made him a model student. He also gradually overcame his shyness, enough at least to develop a number of lasting friendships among his schoolmates. At university, where he was allowed to indulge his passion for chemistry, he blossomed.
Levi’s university experience allowed him to exploit his natural intellectual gifts, but Italy’s anti-Jewish laws exerted enormous pressures. Jews could not fail a single examination, and they were forbidden to change their areas of interest, so when he grew disillusioned with chemistry and wanted to change to physics, he could not. As he was to write later, this restriction condemned him to a life as a technician rather than as a true research scientist. Angier demurs, suggesting that he chose not to pursue research, and that is what opened the world of letters for him. Levi secured a job as a chemist after graduation, largely because most of the non-Jewish chemists were in the military. His first job was at the mines of Balangero, north of Turin, where he worked on the extraction of nickel. He moved to Milan in July, 1942, to work for a Swiss company, a job that ceased with the armistice in September, 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies.
The euphoria that followed the collapse of Mussolini’s government was curtailed when the Germans invaded Italy and set up Il Duce as the puppet dictator of the Republic of Salo. The occupation of northern Italy placed Turin and its environs under Nazi control, and unlike the Italian fascists, the Germans strictly enforced the racial laws. Levi, out of a job, joined the partisans—who had already attracted many Italian Jews, some of them his friends—in the Val D’Aosta, and throughout the fall of 1943 and into the new year, he ran guns for the resistance. Then he was picked up by the Gestapo and transported to Fossoli, a central staging point for Italian Jews. The...
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