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.