Primo Levi World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3464

The moral force of If This Is a Man and the unique style and insight of The Periodic Table suggest that Primo Levi twice found a subject and form so perfectly suited to his style and sensibility that this convergence of author and material resulted in the production of two...

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The moral force of If This Is a Man and the unique style and insight of The Periodic Table suggest that Primo Levi twice found a subject and form so perfectly suited to his style and sensibility that this convergence of author and material resulted in the production of two works whose creation was especially fortuitous. However, both of these books were born out of necessity. For If This Is a Man, it was the necessity of circumstance, as Levi felt that he must write about his experience in Auschwitz; for The Periodic Table, it was the necessity of inward reflection, as Levi came to realize that he was meant to write about the linkage of scientific scrutiny and its metaphorical resonance for revealing human character.

However, in spite of the enduring power of both of these books and the singular nature of each of them, to understand their strengths, Levi’s life as a writer and a scientist must be seen as the intertwining of two disciplines, which developed concurrently and which he insisted were not incompatible. As he would often say to people who expressed surprise that he was both a chemist and a writer, it was because he was a chemist that he wrote. Still, from 1947 to 1958, he wrote only intermittently. His pattern of thinking in terms of written expression throughout his life did not come into full focus until the publication in 2007 of A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories of Primo Levi (that is, unpublished in the United States), which revealed how much he had thought in literary terms while he was earning a living as a working chemist.

One limiting factor was Levi’s statements that after Auschwitz he had a need to tell what had happened—to “bear witness” in the now classic formulation—so strong that it was like “an immediate and violent impulse.” After finding his way back to Turin, he felt impelled to relate to acquaintances, friends, and family members moments of his imprisonment and to make notes about it on almost any available scrap or fragment of paper. He did this for sixteen weeks before launching the manuscript of If This Is a Man, which was written “in order of urgency.” However, as he later admitted, “the work of tightening up is more studied, and more recent,” as is clear from the differences between the initial publication in 1947 and the revised edition of 1958. If This Is a Man appeared when the full extent of the Holocaust was essentially unknown, and Levi was aware of the shock and horror that would accompany the revelation of what the Nazis had done. Consequently, his immediate concern was to avoid the overly emotional and to write with the careful, scrupulous exactitude of the true scientist determined to be accurate. For this reason, he prized directness and clarity and avoided adornments of style or hyperbole, seeing that the use of rhetorical devices to maximize dramatic impact was unnecessary and even destructive to his intentions. As he wrote, “My model (or, if you prefer, my style) was that of the ’weekly report’ commonly used in factories; it must be precise, concise, and written in a language comprehensible to everybody in the industrial hierarchy.” However, this was not the totality of his personality, and the stories in A Tranquil Star indicate the range of his imagination, as does an examination of the ways in which he fictionalized the people who he included in various books, perhaps most notably The Periodic Table. His audience was both the “industrial hierarchy” of his peers and everyone else who was not equipped or inclined to think like a rational, trained scientist.

It is his more playful, less somber, sensitively emotional qualities that emerge in his stories and poems. As serious as he was as a scientist searching for a verifiable truth, and as determined as he was as an industrial chemist working on specific problems requiring applicable solutions, he was also fascinated by the “other” worlds he could explore in speculative fiction. His 1966 volume Storie naturali, attributed to “Damiano Malabaila” (“evil nurse” in Piedmontese dialect), is an ironic projection of the disparity between the ambitious claims of technologists and the reality of the frustrations humans encounter when actually using these devices, satirizing the priests of scientific prophecy for their misplaced confidence.

As writer Anita Desai contends, the stories in A Tranquil Star are directed by the ancient human query, “What if?” The story “Nel parco” (1971; “In the Park”) has the delicious conceit of a kind of theme park for literary characters, including “Leopold Bloom, Kim, Moll Flanders, and Holden Caulfield,” who “can’t stand one another.” Conspicuously, there are unidentifiable characters with no face, who “don’t last long. They are unsuccessful characters. . . . They disappear in the space of a few months.” This turns out to be the fate of the protagonist. The theme of impermanence is common to the stories, as in “The Magic Paint,” which makes a person invulnerable, but comes off while bathing. Similarly, “The Fugitive” depicts a poet who writes the poem of his life, but cannot make it permanent because the copier fails, the copy paper disappears, and the poem seems to develop limbs and releases itself from the page. The mood of these stories is somewhat melancholic, though aspects of Rabelaisian extravagance tend to resist sadness.

Levi’s novel If Not Now, When? was criticized for static characters, melodramatic situations, and a shallow understanding of Yiddish culture. In his stories, however, Levi, unencumbered by any previous concepts of form, discovered his own manner of narration. The stories rarely have a tight conclusion, seeming to continue after the initiating action has effectively ended, a speculative future awaiting the characters.

His poems, which were composed throughout his life, are a register of his deep, abiding interest in language itself. The opening chapter of The Periodic Table, “Argon,” is, among other things, an investigation of the linguistic transformations that took place as Levi’s family moved from a Spanish region to Italy’s Piedmont. In an interview in 1972, Levi said, “Poetry is a mysterious necessity through all ages, all generations, and all human civilizations. It is a powerful language, natural and artificial at the same time, whose origins are more ancient than those of prose.” His own poetry permitted the entrance of emotion and instinct into the appealingly reasonable vision of a humane, sensitive man, as he understood that the method of the scientist was not sufficient for an examination of the psychological foundations of human behavior. The poems that Levi wrote are designed to have the riveting power of heightened language; he placed poems at the beginning of his most important books, like his version of the prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, set before the first chapter of If This Is a Man: “ I commend these words to you./ Carve them in your heart.”

The opening poem of L’osteria di Brema, his first poetry collection, carries a mood of resignation following intense experience resembling the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer (c. 1000). The poem represents a man “like an extinguished flame,” who “fears nothing, hopes nothing, expects nothing,/ But stares fixedly at the sun,” a kind of postapocalyptic reflection by one who has seen a vision too awful to forget.

Levi chose a lyric mode less frequently, but his insistence on a Jewish identify without an acceptance of a deity led to the injunction in “Gedale’s Song”:

We are the sons of David, the stubborns of Masada,Each of us carries in his pocket the stoneThat shattered Goliath’s forehead.Brothers, way from the Europe of the graves:We will climb together toward the landWhere we shall be men among men.

The optimistic echoes of the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”), and the spirit of Zionism prior to the founding of Israel are evident here. An exuberance not typical in his writing occurs in a celebration of vitality in “Cuore di legno” (“Wooden Heart”), where he playfully personifies a chestnut tree as a symbol of natural strength:

My next-door neighbor is robust;It’s a horse-chestnut tree in Corso Re Umberto:My age, but doesn’t look it.

The trials of existence are overcome, as the poem concludes:

Under the bark hang dead chysalisesThat will never be butterflies.Still, in its sluggish wooden heartIt feels, savors the seasons’ return.

The aspects of a self-portrait are apparent, as is the poet’s pleasure in the familiar. The poem demonstrates Levi’s inclination toward the positive, even as he carried the burden of speaking for all those lost in the Holocaust. As he ranged over the three decades of his productive life in The Periodic Table, his pride in his scientific powers and his capacity for shaping language into a new element with special properties are combined in that book, which gave him the greatest pleasure to write. The Periodic Table is his strongest proof that the chemist and the writer were part of a conjunction of attributes rather than conflicting calls to his essential self.

If This Is a Man

First published: Se questo è un uomo, 1947 (English translation, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961)

Type of work: Nonfiction

Levi’s account of the ten months he was incarcerated in the Nazi death camp in Poland.

The passage of time, the context of history, and even a familiarity with the awful facts of the Holocaust cannot shield the reader from or lessen the impact of Levi’s incarceration in what he called Il buco neri—The Black Hole—of Auschwitz. As he told writer Philip Roth in a revealing interview the year before his death, he wrote If This Is a Man, “struggling to explain to others, and to myself, the events I had been involved in.”

The gripping, heartbreaking intensity of his re-creation of the human-fashioned hell that Levi, using a purposely paradoxical term, said he was “lucky” enough to enter, has the force of Walt Whitman’s proclamation about living through a world of degradation and death: “I was the man; I suffered; I was there.” Levi’s “luck” was part of the random process that enabled him to survive, not dependent on individual virtue or merit. “I have seen the survival of shrewd people and silly people, the brave and the cowardly, ’thinkers’ and madmen,” Levi maintained. In addition, he described his time in Auschwitz as “in technicolor,” the remainder of his life in “black and white,” declaring that “I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritness” as he strove to understand “an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.”

The title chosen by Collier Books, the American publisher, Survival in Auschwitz, was an understandably commercial attempt to reach an audience, but it completely missed the point of Levi’s choice. What he wanted to express was his naturalist’s curiosity about the human beings who had built the death camp, who operated it, and who lived and died there. When he arrived, Levi was stunned by the nightmare world; in keeping with his scientist’s orientation, after his identity has been reduced to a number inscribed on his arm, he begins a search for meaning, persisting in asking “Why?” even after a guard replies, “Hier ist kein warum, which Levi understands as “There is no why here.” For a rational scientist, there is always an explanation, so amid the absurd and initially incomprehensible brutality of the concentration camp, Levi continues to try to understand why some live, some die, and why people behave and react as they do.

Amid the fear and pain, Levi’s mind is keenly alert, to the point that he can analyze and reflect on himself as a specimen in a hideous experiment, noting physical signs of deterioration or recovery like indices on a laboratory chart. Similarly, conventional measures of time become pointless. Events like the beginning of air raids, the approach of the Russian army, and the incredible good fortune of being selected to work in a laboratory are not taken as signs of progress toward survival but as things in themselves, “the gift of good fortune to be enjoyed as intensely as possible and at once.”

When Levi was released as the Germans fled from the Russian advance, he was as stunned by his survival as he had been by the staggering events of his arrival. “It is a miracle that I am alive,” he wrote, but added, “It is not that I thank Providence, because if there really was a Providence, Auschwitz and Birkenau would never have existed.” As Levi’s biographer, Myriam Anissimov, explains, “With scrupulous honesty, he always spoke solely about what he himself had seen, but his voice was raised in the name of all of those—he called them ’the true witnesses’—whom the Lager [concentration camp] submerged.” His mentor, Professor Dallaporta, told him he “must write all this down,” confirming his own feeling that he “returned from the camps with an absolute, pathological narrative charge.”

It was all the more impressive, then, that his narrative is marked by composure without lessening its impact. The always sharp, observant eye of the scientist recorded the physical phenomena that the writer brought to vivid life in the evocative detail of a masterful stylist. The shy, decent man, who understood that an individual’s personal survival always took precedence, never lost a sense of other people. The last sentence of the book contains the hope and humanity that was not crushed by the Holocaust. Referring to his friend Charles, he says, “We have exchanged long letters and I hope to see him again one day.”

The Periodic Table

First published: Il sistema periodico, 1975 (English translation, 1984)

Type of work: Nonfiction

A personal history organized by a linkage between people and the basic elements of the tangible world that Levi knew intimately through his work as a chemist.

Nearly thirty years after Levi had stepped out of the hell of Auschwitz, he felt that he was ready to write The Periodic Table, an imaginative map of the world that he loved. In an instance of inspiration, he planned a kind of memoir with interludes of fantasy in which elements arranged on the periodic table would operate as emblems of the personality traits of people who had mattered to him. The originality of his conception is evident, but he was working in an archetypal tradition that includes the medieval European idea of a man controlled by various “humors” based on different organs of the body.

His friend, Italo Calvino, called the book “a moral biography,” since Levi celebrated the work he did as a chemist as a counter to the hideous parody of valuable work encapsulated in the notorious sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, Arbeit macht frei (work makes one free). At the start, Levi set his own motto, a Yiddish proverb, Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu derseylin (troubles overcome are good to tell).

The book is composed of twenty-one chapters, each one under the heading of a particular element. The first one, “Argon,” is a capsule history of Levi’s family, a reclaiming of the heritage that the Nazis tried to wipe out. It establishes a tone of genial expectancy as Levi fondly recalls how a hybrid language developed from a convergence of Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish, as his family adjusted to the particularities of a new habitation. The metaphor that informs the chapter is the reluctance of inert gases to combine or change.

The direction of the narrative is controlled by the demands and challenges of working with the natural substances that a chemical engineer encounters, while the substance of the narrative is developed through an exploration of the inner consciousness of the people who dealt with these challenges. As Levi writes about Lanza, who is heating a boiler to distill sulfur, “the dance of thoughts and images” in his mind runs parallel to his careful attention to the pressure in the boiler. Shifting the perspective from Lanza’s consciousness to the narrator as amiable guide, Levi advises, “On your feet, Lanza, we have arrived at 180 degrees.” This is the way Levi keeps the reader involved with the people who are under scrutiny.

The chapters loosely follow Levi’s own experiences, from his first contact with Hydrogen as a novice experimenter, to his life as a young chemistry student in “Zinc,” to his meeting with a man of Iron who became a treasured friend. Then follows an interlude conceived as fable in which Lead and Mercury operate as allegories of involvement in which fixity and transmutation define character. Levi’s capture by the Germans is dealt with in “Gold,” the precious substance standing for the opportunities of life itself, and in “Cerium,” which depicts his use of his knowledge of compounds to procure a commodity that could be traded for food that kept him alive at Auschwitz.

After several chapters covering his exploits as an industrial chemist, “Vanadium” takes Levi back to his imprisonment, as he begins a correspondence with a German industrialist who, he discerns, was the man who managed the laboratory where he labored in Auschwitz. There is no resolution or satisfaction from this exchange, but no rancor either. In an extraordinary final chapter, “Carbon,” Levi traces the transformation of a carbon atom from its bondage in limestone through a series of changes to become a part of Levi’s mind, where it literally energizes the hand that writes the words, “to impress on the paper, this dot, here, this one,” a vital record of life that is a tribute to the continuance, in the face of hazard and peril, of the human soul and spirit.

The Drowned and the Saved

First published: I sommesi e i salvati, 1986 (English translation, 1988)

Type of work: Essays

Levi’s retrospective assessment of his experiences and their meaning, including some lessons to build on and the judgment that his life validates.

Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved is the distillation of his experiences with the Holocaust, from his capture by the Germans to his eminence as a commentator on that tragic episode in human history. His essential theme in The Drowned and the Saved—a title he had used for one of the chapters of If This Is a Man-—is how to measure the ways people dealt with the horrors of the Nazi program of genocide during its operation and since that time.

The title is designed to lead into an examination of what it meant to be saved in a spiritual context, since some who survived physically were lost in a moral sense, while some who died had by the example of their lives reached a level of salvation, which Levi celebrates. He concluded the book with letters he had received from German citizens in an effort to summarize and reconcile his own recollections of the Holocaust with the extensive historical studies that appeared since his first book, as well as with responses from Germans living at the time and from generations born after the war. In conjunction with this, Levi was determined to prevent the reoccurrence of anything like Auschwitz by making it impossible to forget or suppress the facts, by protecting and preserving memory without limiting discussion, by resisting those who tried to distort or shape a historical record for their own purposes, and by attempting to penetrate as far as possible the depths of the human psyche to try to understand how people could behave as terribly as they did.

Beyond the recapitulation of experience, it is his exploration of human motivation and insights illuminating character that make the chapters of the book so compelling. His lucid, vibrant, supple writing style—expertly conveyed by Raymond Rosenthal’s translation—establishes a voice that instills confidence, inviting the reader to follow on a dreadful journey in the company of a man who can be trusted to tell the truth, to offer whatever enlightenment is possible, and who never loses a humane sense of compassion, even when casting judgment.

At the center of the narrative is the chapter called “The Gray Zone,” which considers the range of response of all those brought by the Germans to what he calls, with appropriately coarse terminology, the anus mundi, the “ultimate drainage site of the German universe.” Around this central chapter are variants of the title’s primary division, depending on such determinants as whether people chose to speak or remain silent (“Communicating”), to rely on or refute religion (“Useless Violence”), or to conform to or defy expectations (“Stereotypes”). In each case, the primary separation is confounded and complicated by Levi’s subtle introduction of distinctions, which compel increasingly more complex contemplation. When he renders judgment about the Holocaust, it feels earned and appropriate.

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Primo Levi Long Fiction Analysis


Levi, Primo