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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...

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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)

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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.

(vv. 582-85)

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 countries.

But of course. How complicated is the history of the Jews! How many Jews have converted to Catholicism? And how many non-Jews have converted to Judaism? Aside from the Khasars, there's the story of the French duchy whose duke converted to Judaism around the year 1000, I believe, and brought all his subjects with him. And those weren't the only two cases in history. All during the Middle Ages in many parts of the Mediterranean basin, Jews had a certain prestige and made converts.

In any case, do you consider yourself a member of the Jewish race or the Jewish culture?

I have never bothered myself with questions of racial belonging.

On what then, do you base this fact of “feeling Jewish”?

It's a cultural fact. I can't say that Judaism has been my Pole star. I'm also a chemist and also a writer: there are a lot of things that interest me and Judaism is just one of them. I've been led a bit too, “channeled” I'd say, by my own books. Survival in Auschwitz was read as a book written by a Jewish author—especially abroad, much more than in Italy—and by dint of being called a Jewish writer, I became one! I've already mentioned that I began to wonder if any goyim lived in America. I didn't come across a single one of them! It almost becomes comical. My editor is Jewish, and all his collaborators are Jewish. He introduced me exclusively to illustrious American Jews. I spoke to Jewish audiences. And not just in New York, but everywhere I went. My wife and I began to wonder, where are the others?

Perhaps you were invited to speak to Jewish groups because there's no great interest in remembering the Holocaust outside of the Jewish community.

Perhaps. Interest brings along with it guilt feelings.

I was struck by the letters that the German readers of Survival in Auschwitz wrote to you after the book was translated into German. Many of those letter-writers mentioned the episode of the German guard who wiped his hands on your shirt. Why did that episode in particular strike the Germans?

It was a highly symbolic act and that's why it strikes people—even me. It wasn't a painful act: a blow to the face would have been much more painful. But the fact was that he used me as a dirty rag. Then, and even now, I perceive that as one of the biggest insults I suffered.

What weight did these offenses to your dignity carry?

Well, at the beginning they carried some weight because it was before worse things were to happen. It was a sort of prologue. Then, clearly, we got used to it. They became routine.

What does it mean, morally and spiritually, “to get used to it”?

Simply put, one loses one's humanity. Inurement to life in the camp is the only way to survive, but it also robs you of a part of your humanity. It effects both prisoners and guards. Neither group was more human than the other. With precious few exceptions, the inhumanity of the Nazi system trickled down to even the prisoners.

How does one reacquire one's humanity?

Do you recall the last few pages of Survival in Auschwitz? In it I wrote about how I reacquired a feeling of humanity when a campmate and I were able to help the sick and dying, even though we were sick ourselves. I've maintained a fast friendship with Charles, a Frenchman who helped me; we still write to each other. I've been to see him twice, even though he lives in a remote and hard-to-reach area of France. Our friendship has survived because both he and I had the impression that we were sharing an important adventure: trying to save human lives. Our imprisonment had just ended (though we were still in Auschwitz). We were still deathly ill, but we put together a stove, cooked for ten people, and tried to help them survive just a little longer. We truly had the impression that we were reacquiring our dignity by helping others. And the others felt it too. Those poor sick men, some of them on the brink of death, gave us the extra slices of bread that they couldn't eat. This too was a human act, different from what had gone on before.

Were you always sure you'd survive?

Well, no. No, that was a changeable thing. It varied from day to day. In general, no. Of course I didn't think I'd survive. We all lived in a very unstable state of mind. All it took was one piece of news, one false item. Someone said, “The English have landed in Greece!” and that wasn't true, or “The Polish partisans are right outside the barbed wire!” and it wasn't true either. All it took was something like that to create a wave of optimism … and then it all collapsed.

There was a part of your book that I found very disturbing, and that's the concept of useful and useless violence. Can there really be such a thing as useful violence?

I know this is a difficult argument to explain. I had the impression at Auschwitz that there were two different levels of cruelty. For example, in I sommersi e i salvati, I've written that Raskolnikov's crime, where he kills the old usurer so he won't have to pay his debt, is not a useless crime. He doesn't want suffering or death for the old woman; he wants money and murder is his means. By the same token, Aldo Moro was killed in Italy. The Red Brigrades didn't want to kill someone or inflict suffering on him or his family: they had a political plan. Instead, many of the Nazis' actions reflect nothing but the desire to inflict suffering for the purpose of inflicting suffering—and nothing more. I've mentioned one example, a clamorous example, of the ninety-year-olds in the Jewish nursing home in Venice who were loaded onto trains and taken away to the camps. Wouldn't it have been much more logical to kill them on the spot? I don't know if my interpretation of this event is right, but I see it as a scheme to inflict the maximum possible suffering on them—or else pure stupidity. When an order reads “alle,” everyone, then everyone must be deported. The Nazis took their orders literally and deported everyone. Yes, it's a German characteristic to take orders literally, but as I've said, the Germans weren't made from a different mold than we were. Nothing would have happened to them if they had killed the moribund women on the spot. The guards wouldn't have been punished. But I think they derived a malicious pleasure from deporting them. Since they had been fed an intense propaganda campaign, according to which Jews were nothing more than “Ungezieferen,” harmful animals—vermin, really—we were treated like vermin, like hateful people. There were many who truly hated us and considered it just to make us suffer. There's an episode in The Divine Comedy in which Dante inflicts suffering on one of the damned (I believe it's Bocca degli Abbati).5 The condemned man lies in a gelid lake, his eyes frozen over with ice so thick he can't even weep for his sins. This soul begs Dante, “I'll tell you my story if only you'll remove the ice from my eyes.” Dante has him tell his story and then reneges on his promise, commenting:

I oped them not.
Rudeness was courtesy to such as he.(6)

In other words, it was Dante's duty to be cruel to him. I think something similar happened in Germany. The feeling that Dante, a fervent Catholic, felt toward the damned, who have no further claim to their rights and who must be forced to suffer, was perhaps the Nazis' position with regard to the Jews: they felt they must be forced to endure the maximum possible suffering.7

Towards the end of the book, you recount an episode you also included in Survival in Auschwitz, the story of Elias the dwarf. After being goaded by Elias (the only man, you say, who actually enjoyed life in the camp), you got into a fistfight—the only attempt in your life to “render a blow for a blow.” No match for your tenacious and muscular adversary, Elias pinned you down by the throat, only to let you go when he saw the first signs of approaching unconsciousness. In I sommersi e i salvati, you use this story to introduce your thoughts on justice and who should render justice, and your conclusion is that justice should be left to the “professionals.”

Only because I don't feel I'm capable. Then again, in our civilization, revenge is not allowed, and rightly so.

And yet the desire for revenge is very common.

Yes, the desire for revenge is very common, but to exact revenge is illegal. Now, because of an intrinsic weakness of mine or because of a gap in my upbringing, I'm not capable of acting like Jean Améry.8 Améry says that, under cover of a bombing raid, he punched a Polish prisoner. Later, he was beaten quite badly because of it, but that was part of his moral code, the “Zuruckschlagen,” to render a blow for a blow. I've hinted that Améry probably sentenced himself to death with his “Zuruckschlagen” because he was an extremely polemical man. He was polemical with everyone, including me. I didn't mention this in I sommersi e i salvati, but some of the letters he wrote to a mutual friend of ours were harshly critical of my stand vis-à-vis the Germans. He considered me a “forgiver,” a “Verzeihende.” He wrote a letter saying, “I don't agree with Primo Levi, who tends to forgive everyone a little.” That isn't true.

However, in I sommersi e i salvati you said that on an individual level, you might even be able to forgive.

I'm not exactly sure. Since I'm not a believer, I don't really know what forgiveness is. It's a concept that's outside my world. I don't have the authority to bestow forgiveness. If I were a rabbi, maybe I would; if I were a judge, perhaps. I believe that if someone has committed a crime, he has to pay. It's not up to me to say, “I exempt you from punishment.” The authority does not rest with me.

Do you say so out of anger?

I don't think so, because even when incidents don't involve me directly, like the Italian terrorists, for example, or even with the repented terrorists, I can't bring myself to forgive them. If they committed a crime, then they have to pay because justice doesn't exist if there's no payment. In I sommersi e i salvati, I mentioned the story of the onion—do you remember Dostoevsky's story of the onion? In The Brothers Karamazov, Grušenka tells the story of a hateful old crone who, once in her life, gave a little onion to a beggar. After she dies and goes to Hell, an angel comes down and reaches out to her with a little onion in his hand. She hangs on to it and is thus delivered from Hell. That's a very poetic story, but indefensible. One little onion is not enough. Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz: think of how many little onions he gave away—to his wife, his children, his dog, his horse! He was full of little onions!

When you talk about this need you had, this need to bear witness, you say that the inmates in the Lager who were in a position to have information—the political prisoners—wrote their memoirs as an act of war.

Yes, some certainly did. One of them, Langbein, is a dear friend of mine, a person I highly respect.9 At that time, he was a communist, but he left the party later during the Hungarian uprising. For him, and for many like him, bearing witness to the camps was truly a part of their political battle—the same spirit that was reflected in the Warsaw ghetto historians. Emanuel Ringelblum's diary was not an end unto itself: obviously it was also a political act.10 One of the ways of combatting Nazism was to denounce its crimes.

Was your writing also a political act?

Yes, of course … among other things. First of all, as I've already said—and honestly must say so—writing was a liberating act. I had these things inside of me and I had to get them out. But at the same time, it was also very political.

Is that still true today?

This book is a political book—in its own way. It's a moral book.

Especially since you try to draw parallels between today's moral dilemmas and yesterday's.


What do you think of the Waldheim affair?

I think the American Jews made a mistake because the uproar they caused only played into his hands. I agree with Wiesenthal: in these matters, you have to have the proof at hand. First gather the proof, then make accusations.

It seems that they have the proof.

It seems so, but they're not willing to come forward with it. The Yugoslavs also have proof, but for their own reasons, they're not revealing it either. It was surely a strategic error to threaten to produce convincing evidence and then not release it. I don't think that Waldheim is technically a war criminal. He was just one of 100,000 others like him. He was a lieutenant with some degree of responsibility. He certainly signed some papers. He certainly lied. He couldn't not have known what was happening at Salonika. It was common knowledge. Certainly he knew, so he lied when he said he didn't. He's a grey zoner! He's a man with a very real responsibility, but one that dwells within the greater responsibility of the Nazi machine.

Maybe he also fabricated his own set of truths?

Oh, he didn't need to. He's too lucid to need to fabricate a set of truths, don't you think? He certainly is in possession of documents himself. He knows what he did because he was there. But he's also very astute, and he rightly counted on the solidarity of the Austrian people. I heard a very interesting comment a while back. If in Nixon's day the Watergate affair had been touched off not in the United States but by another country, Nixon might never have resigned. He might have stayed where he was, probably gaining votes. And there would have been talk of a foreign conspiracy, maybe inspired by the Russians!

Have you ever asked yourself what your life would have been like without Auschwitz?

Yes, of course! Not only have I asked myself that question, but everyone else asks me that too! I don't know how to answer. It's as if I asked you, “If you hadn't been born in America, what would you do?” You can't answer that.

Yes, but you had a life before Auschwitz.

Yes, I did. I don't know, but I can make some suppositions. I probably wouldn't have taken up writing, or I would have written who knows what. I was a chemist beforehand—by conviction, mind you! In fact, I worked as a chemist all my life. I think I can take as examples some of my friends who didn't go to Auschwitz and who tranquilly continued in their professions. They started families. I started a family, too; I got married and I had children. If I hadn't gone to Auschwitz, I probably wouldn't have written, or I would have written completely different things—maybe scholarly articles about chemistry. I certainly possessed the capacity to write, I can't deny that. I wasn't born of nothing: I had received a fairly rigid classical education and I already possessed the faculty to write. But I wouldn't have had—how can I explain it?—the “raw material” to become a writer.

Do you concentrate on style in your books?

Now I do; when I wrote Survival in Auschwitz I didn't.

And yet you have a compelling style.

At that time, I didn't pay any attention to style. I wrote Survival in Auschwitz without giving it a second thought: at night, in the lab, on the train, wherever I happened to find myself. But I didn't have much time then—I was also engaged to be married!


  1. H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924-1974 (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1983). The six authors profiled are Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia, Giorgio Bassani, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi and Primo Levi.

  2. Survival in Auschwitz was translated in England under the title If This Is A Man? The original title is Se questo e' un uomo?

  3. Bruno Bettelheim, Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations (Bobbs-Merrill: Indianapolis, 1943).

  4. “Quando si muore si ha ben altro da fare che pensare alla morte. Tutto il suo organismo era dedicato alla respirazione.” Italo Svevo, La coscienza di Zeno (Einaudi: Turin, 1965).

  5. Actually, the character was Fra Alberigo.

  6. E io non lil' apersi/e cortesia fu lui esser villano. (Inferno XXXIII, v. 149-150), translation by Thomas William Parsons.

  7. In I sommersi e i salvati, Levi calls this attitude “Schadenfreude,” “the joy one feels when harm is done a fellow man, nothing less than the joy of deliberately making one's fellow man suffer” (Einaudi: Turin, 1986; p. 85).

  8. Jean Améry, né Hans Meyer, was a German philologist and philosopher, and a thoroughly assimilated Jew. He was tortured by the Gestapo for belonging to the Belgian resistance and then deported to Auschwitz as a Jew, where for a time, Améry and Levi were confined to the same barracks. In 1978, Améry committed suicide. “The Intellectual at Auschwitz,” a chapter of I sommersi e i salvati, considers Améry's story in more detail.

  9. See Hermann Langbein, Die Starkeren: ein Bericht aus Auschwitz und anderen (Bund-Verlag: Koln, 1982).

  10. See Emanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (Schocken Books: New York, 1974).

Anna Laura Lepschy (review date 1988)

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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 only in the Lager”—a belief which renders his suicide the more poignant. As Bailey says, The Drowned and the Saved “is a book in which the questions outnumber the answers, for all Levi's brave attempts to explain the inexplicable”. What sort of society can ideate and execute mass annihilation? What turns individuals into oppressors, into collaborators? What prevents victims from rebelling? What is the role of memory in both oppressors and oppressed? Can “the saved” come to terms with their shame that they were not among “the drowned”? These are questions born of Levi's experiences in Auschwitz, which he feels compelled to extend to the future. It happened once; it can be repeated.

In the final section of the book, in which Levi discusses his correspondence with readers of the German text of If This is a Man, he reveals his concern with translation, following up some very perceptive observations on language, made in his chapter “Communicating”. “I was caught up”, he says, “in the always burning, never untaxing adventure of being translated, of seeing one's thoughts manhandled, refracted, one's painstakingly chosen word transformed or misunderstood, or even invigorated by some unhoped-for resource in the receiving language.” Raymond Rosenthal, his present translator, has remained very faithful to Levi's text, choosing to transport the English reader into Levi's world rather than transforming that world into an English one. This method may present problems, for some terms close to the Italian range from the quasi-acceptable to the suspect, with a few in non-corresponding registers: illuministi is rendered as “illuminist”, coerenti as “coherent”, pronuncia tronca, in the sense of “oxytonic”, as “truncated pronunciation”, provvede, in the sense of “sees to”, as “provides”, istruzione, in the sense of “education”, as “instruction”, folgorante as “fulgurating”, ebete as “hebetudinous”. But perplexity over a handful of forms is a small price to pay for a translation accomplished with the fidelity and respect which the original demands.

Paul Bailey (review date 1989)

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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 that the irritable behaviour of chess-players is akin to that of poets; the strange fact that Manzoni, as pernickety a stylist as Flaubert, is usually inaccurate when describing physical movement. In “Renzo's Fist”, Levi observes that the scene in The Betrothed where Renzo pushes his way through the threatening crowd and escapes “at a gallop, his fist in the air” is simply not plausible. “It is completely unnatural to run while holding one's fist in the air. It is hampering, even for a few steps: it results in a greater waste of time than would be needed to clench and raise the fist a second time.”

In the preface to this collection, Levi calls himself a voyeur and a ficcanaso (a Nosy-Parker), which Raymond Rosenthal translates, curiously, as “kibitzer”. Levi was the best kind of busybody, endlessly curious about the world and its workings. The genuinely curious person will not associate the snake with evil, as the Bible instructs him to. “The snake in the flesh, like all other animals, is not a subject for morality: it is neither good nor bad, it devours and is devoured.” After which, Levi notes that the snake, like the cetaceans “had four limbs which it ‘realised’ it could do without and of which it sometimes preserves the rudiments in its skeleton”. Levi had exceptional qualifications where evil was concerned, and was scornful of those who believe that certain creatures are naturally wicked. To be fearful of snakes is another matter, as he argues in “The Need for Fear”. He himself was terrified of spiders and what they had suggested to his imagination as a child. Yet he acknowledges, even as he records it in memorable detail, the illogicality of his terror.

Clarity and simplicity of expression were virtues Levi admired in other writers. He pays tribute to Pellegrino Artusi, whose Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well he acknowledges as the work of a “pure man who speaks without riddles” because “he knows his subject deeply” and “does not pose as a literary man”. In that same essay, “Why Does One Write?” Levi issues a warning to those who do so in order to free themselves from anguish, as he had done with If This Is a Man. He advises the unhappy future writer “to make an effort to filter his anguish, not to fling it as it is, rough and raw, into the face of the reader: otherwise he risks infecting others without getting rid of it himself”. Levi had taken that risk, and had surmounted it, in a book which, in fact, leaves the cautious reader proud to belong to the human race.

Levi was aware that “perfectly lucid writing presupposes a totally conscious writer, and this does not correspond to reality”. Some mystery is involved in the process of literary creation, and should not be too closely examined. His long career as an industrial chemist had taught him to put names to things and to describe them accurately, but beyond that enviable skill was his own Doppelgänger, his “mute and faceless brother”, whose instincts he had to follow. And yet: “It is not true that the only authentic writing is that which ‘comes from the heart’. … This time-honoured opinion is based on the presupposition that the heart which ‘dictates inside’ is an organ different from that of reason and more noble, and that the language of the heart is the same for everyone, which it is not.” That language is “capricious, contaminated, and as unstable as fashion” and is frequently indecipherable.

Neither the publisher nor the translator provides an explanation for the order in which these essays appear, which is substantially different from that of the Italian edition, chosen—one assumes—by Levi himself. An entire paragraph from “The Skull and the Orchid” has been deleted and Rosenthal is often a heavy-handed translator: he offers “micturating” for “urinating”; “fecundisation” for “fertilization”; phrases, rendered with dogged literalness, such as “the hottest months of juvenile confrontation” make little sense; merlo, a slangterm for “fool” or “dope”, here becomes “wiseguy”, and “agglomerations”, when Levi is really referring to the “crowd” or the “masses”, is particularly infelicitous.

Other People's Trades is a book to return to in the anticipation of pleasure of a bracing intellectual kind. And none of the essays is more pleasurable to read, in the light of Levi's tragic end, than the brief celebration of Rabelais, in which Levi expresses his delight in the wonder of life, in the joy of companionship and laughter, in Rabelais's “amiable scepticism” and the banishment of tears and melancholy.

Peter Hainsworth (review date 1989)

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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”, which in its Italian form, Ad ora incerta, gave him the title for the collection), he had found himself feeling that verse was the best way of expressing a particular image or idea. The sum total of poems was not in fact large—sixty or so original pieces between 1943 and 1984 and a few verse translations (some Heine, a Kipling poem, “The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens”). Still, though it is his prose which really counts, the poems are not so negligible as he claimed.

They do not show much trace of Levi the chemist, but they do throw into relief the tensions of his work—the rational, sceptical attitude towards what cannot be rationally explained, the refusal to forget what it would be simpler not to remember, the preservation of a humane and decorous style in the face of matter which is inhuman and obscene. The power of Levi's last book of reflections on the holocaust, I sommersi e i salvati (1985), depends to a large degree on the way in which he holds at a distance feelings of guilt and isolation, fear of recurrence, doubts about the work of bearing witness to which he had devoted much of his life. In the poems he wrote at about the same time the emotions are more palpably painful, the despair more pervasive.

All the same it is probably easier to be comfortable with these later poems. Though haunted, at least they have recognizable symbols. When Levi portrays himself as a mole (“What's strange about it? I didn't like the sky, / So chose to live alone and in the dark …”) or an agave (“Neither useful nor beautiful, / I boast no pleasing colour or scents”) or a snail (“And pulsing out of your shell, / You savour the shy delights of dubious loves”), we know we are in the familiar world of the poetic. It is the earlier poems, by and large, which pose much more serious problems of “irrationality”, in particular the problem of how to square poetry and Auschwitz. Here is the opening of “Shemà”, dated January 10, 1946, almost as insistent in the English translation as it is in Italian and, from at least one poetic perspective, just about as dull:

You who live secure
In your warm houses,
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Levi never underestimated the gravity of the defeat inflicted on humanist values at Auschwitz: in the name of what resurgence of them is it to be decided that these are good, bad or indifferent lines? Does a favourable verdict mean a sort of literary voyeurism, and disapproval a Mallarméan withdrawal which might be either superhuman or cynical? The poem does not say what remembering means, simply insisting, on pain of being otherwise accursed, that the reader should remember. The poems of Levi which matter (such as “For Adolf Eichmann”, “There were a hundred”, and, of the later poems, “The Survivor”) are like “Shemà” in being all too clear and all too difficult to come to terms with.

Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann have translated all the original poems in Ad ora incerta, together with Levi's notes, though omitting the tetchy and parochial “Pio bove”, and including the uncollected “Memorandum Book”. At times they strike too conversational a note (notably in “Epitaph”, which in Italian is high classical pastiche), but they regularly rise above the neutral translationese into which it would have been easy to fall, generally maintaining something like the forceful sobriety of the original. [Collected Poems] is one of the very few books of English translations from modern Italian poetry which is worth reading.

Leonard Michaels (review date 1989)

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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 lucid; there is a pleasing natural consistency to him. Often, whatever his topic, he is inspired to tell stories and, in the manner of Aesop, he sometimes supplies a moral.

In several essays he arrives at a paradoxical vision.

Here, for example, he remembers his grandmother.

“She was a fragile little woman, who … wore on her face the regal air of the mother of many children, and … the absorbed and timeless expression that emanates from portraits of ancestors in their golden frames. She herself hailed from a vast family of twenty-one brothers, who had been scattered like the seeds of a dandelion in the wind: one was an anarchist and a refugee in France, one had died in the Great War, one was a celebrated rower and neurasthenic, and one (it was told, sotto …, with a shudder), when he was still with his wet nurse, had been devoured in his crib by a pig.”

Fragile and little, Levi's grandmother nevertheless represents a great amount of disparate history, becoming emblematic of existence itself, suggesting not only abundance and unpredictability, but also, in the fate of her brother, a gruesome challenge to human comprehension. This family memoir ends with an exceedingly sensational event. The same is true of Levi's own life. Despite his wide-ranging interests and creative energy, he chose, paradoxically, to commit suicide two years ago, in the house in Turin where he was born and spent most of his life, and which he describes in luxurious detail in the opening essay.

In another piece, Levi, who was a chemist, says that as we have learned more about the heavens, we have discovered that “not only are we not at the center of the cosmos, but we are alien to it: we are a singularity. The universe is strange to us, we are strange in the universe.” A sense of alienation, in different subtle ways, is evident in much of Levi's writing, but particularly in his essays. They allow him to turn anywhere in trying to decipher meaning in the universe and, in the manner that he writes, to give sensuous shape to that meaning. But in many essays, his theme, even when he talks about love, is estrangement.

In the play of Levi's encyclopedic and extraordinarily vital intellect, in the audacity of his argumentation, we enjoy the pleasures of thinking as such, regardless of subject or the rigorous demands of logic. His essays are further distinguished by unique personal qualities—his sweetness, moodiness, charm, poetic sensibility and idiosyncratic brilliance. He says more than once that anyone who chooses to write is inevitably self-revealing. “Writing means laying oneself bare: even the writer of the utmost propriety bares himself.” Especially today, with the sophistication achieved by nearly a century of psychoanalysis, it is impossible to hide ourselves from the gaze of others. Yet “each of us is a bad judge of the things which concern us, of his own character, his virtues and vices, even his own voice and face.”

Levi writes, then, like his great predecessor in the essay, Montaigne, conscious of the mystery we are to ourselves, if not to others. But while Montaigne confidently said, “Nothing human is foreign to me,” having lived before the Holocaust he had no experience of human evil comparable to Levi's. It wouldn't have occurred to him, as it does to Levi, that we have a need for fear. In his discussion of our phobia of snakes, which he puts among largely false fears, Levi wonders if they “help us relegate to the shadows other closer and vaster fears.”

Again unlike Levi, Montaigne had no need to struggle for an optimistic idea of life, though he certainly didn't take a sanguine view of it. He could assume a divine scheme wherein monstrosities in ourselves or nature are reconciled or justified. Levi turns elsewhere for consolation. Reflecting on Rabelais, he declares: “He is close to us, chiefly because in this boundless painter of terrestrial joys we perceive the permanent, firm consciousness matured through many experiences that not all of life is here. It would be difficult to find a single melancholy page in all of his work, and yet Rabelais knows human misery; he is silent about it because, a good physician also when he writes, he does not accept it, he wants to heal it.”

The phrase “not all of life is here” says as much as possible short of reference to divinity. It seems to imply that misery is a personal condition that requires, for healing, the cultivation of a large perspective appropriate to the multitudinous contents of human experience. A Rabelaisian perspective. In contemplation of Levi's death, such a perspective seems insufficient, and one yearns for ancient divinity to help suppress bitterness over the failure of Levi's magnificent efforts to heal.

Ross Feld (review date 1990)

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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 evident that (Celan's) song is tragic and noble, but confusedly so: to penetrate it is a desperate enterprise for the common reader but also for the critic. Celan's obscurity is neither contempt for the reader, nor expressive inadequacy, nor lazy abandonment to the flow of the unconscious: it truly is a reflection of the obscurity of his fate and his generation, and it grows ever denser around the reader, gripping him as in an ice-cold vise, from the raw lucidity of Death Fugue (1945) to the atrocious chaos without a glimmer of light of his last compositions. This darkness grows from page to page until the last inarticulate babble consternates like the rattle of a dying man, and that is just what it is. It attracts us as chasms attract us, but at the same time it also defrauds us of something that should have been said and was not, and so it frustrates and turns us away. I believe that Celan the poet should be meditated upon and pitied rather than imitated. If his is a message, it gets lost in the “background noise”: it is not a communication, it is not a language, or at most it is a dark and truncated language precisely like that of a person who is about to die and is alone. But since we the living are not alone, we must not write as if we were alone. As long as we live, we have a responsibility; we must answer for what we write, word by word, and make sure that every word reaches its target.

The inescapable irony—Levi, despite all the accomplished pellucidity of his works, himself becoming a suicide a few years after this was written—finally is of no special account. What is of striking, discomposing account is the sight of one great master of Holocaust literature taking such bitter swipes at another. Levi's humane ideas about targeted art aren't novel, of course; cover an eye, and the language above might as well have been that of a contemporary critic of Beethoven's late quartets. In his particularly unassailable manner Levi is reexamining—and finding fairly unimprovable—the argument that life, being “indecipherable” (as Levi noted the reality of the Lager most especially to be), imposes on art the redemptive responsibility to be otherwise. Thus for Levi, late Celan by contrast seems too Lagerish, too much the experience, the enslaved mimetic of something from which no comprehensible good could come.

Levi is no reactionary. Nor can there be a suspicion (as there might be with a lesser writer) of subspoken competitiveness. Something else brings him to bear down so passionately on Celan, the other only truly magisterial artist to have been thrown free, alive, of the Nazi univers concentrationnaire. And although naturally it can't be anything but a presumption, there's a sense that what really appalled Levi about Celan was poetry itself.

Levi was himself a part-time poet, publishing 101 pages in 1984 under the title Ad Ora Incerta (Coleridge's “at an uncertain hour”). They are very much modern Italian poems in structure and approach: modest, almost oblique, making their “points” in carefully offhanded, uninsistent, and unpushy ways. A not-quite-lyrical impulse had been made bravely, admirably, to sing:

Si potrebbe scegliere un percorso più assurdo?
In corso San Martino c'è un formicaio
A mezzo metro dai binari del tram,
E proprio sulla battuta della rotaia
Si dipana una lunga schiera bruna,
S'ammusa l'una con l'altra formica
Forse a spiar lor via e lor fortuna.
Insomma, queste stupide sorelle
Ostinate lunatiche operose
Hanno scavato la loro città nella nostra,
Tracciato il loro binario sul nostro,
E vi corrono senza sospetto
Infaticabili dietro i loro tenui commerci
Senza curarsi di
                    Non lo voglio scrivere,
Non voglio scrivere de questa schiera,
Non voglio scrivere di nessuna schiera bruna.

(“Schiera bruna”)

Could one choose a more absurd route?
In Corso San Martino there's an anthill
Half a yard from the streetcar tracks,
Right where the wheels grind by.
A long dark band unravels:
One ant comes face to face with another,
Maybe to spy out the way, their chances.
In short, these stupid sisters,
Super-industrious, stubborn, mad,
Have dug their city right in ours,
Traced their track on top of ours.
They scurry about there, unsuspecting,
Tireless in their tenuous affairs,
Paying no heed to
                    I don't want to write it,
I don't want to write about this band,
Don't want to write about any dark band.

(“Dark Band”)

The mode is that of casual urban notice, almost of chat. Levi's sympathy for the natural and small is made nothing of until he literally refuses to go on. Through restraint (and a reader's awareness of who is writing), ants and their destiny balloon before our eyes into an image of the lineups of the camps. None of it needs to be said outright.

Yet for all this grace, Levi's poems still feel to me like a personal indignity he suffered—or at least a dubiety, an unnatural struggle. Clive James's invaluable piece in The New Yorker in 1988, chastising much of the English translation of Levi's Italian, brings to our attention how very literary a writer Levi was, someone who can be garbled into mere good intentions only if you're not aware how steeped he was in previous Italian literature—especially Dante—as well as in his close reading of Heine. Levi knew, in a sense, too much about poetry; he knew what it could and couldn't do as art in general, as well as in relation to its sister, prose.

Levi seemed especially aware of poetry's knottiest problem, which is with time. One can imagine Levi annotating Adorno's epochal, basso profundo declaration that no poetry is possible after Auschwitz by looking at his watch. How long after? How much time until you can try to distill the camps down to twenty lines? In The Periodic Table he mentions that, after his stay in Auschwitz and return to Italy, he was “writing concise and bloody poems telling the story at breakneck speed …,” a velocity Levi would come to find unmet, shock and drama taking over for understanding. None of these “concise and bloody poems” are to be found in Ad ora incerta. There, Levi's poems are direct, simple, clear, now and again moving but rarely very involving. As often as not, they were published as appendages to the prose works.

By habit Levi did not treat experience thaumaturgically. “Ours,” he writes in The Periodic Table, “are ‘the true experiences of adult life’ of which Pavese spoke: success and failure, to kill the white whale or wreck the ship; one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this—to make mistakes and correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed.” Thanks largely to the eerie equability of The Periodic Table (his most popular and strangest work), we tend to see Levi as he sought to picture himself: a curious and upbeat experimenter—lucky trait and rare defense, considering the hell he would enter and have to live down. Later on in the book he describes how love changed his writing, turning it into “a lucid building … the work of a chemist who weighs and divides, measures and judges on the basis of assured proofs, and strives to answer questions.” This reiterated pride in his chemist's training, in the order it brought to his life and thought, is Levi's most secular aspect, a rationalist rebuttal to the predestination of despair that must have enveloped every single wretch in the Lager. It is this secularist Levi—the chemical and not the alchemical Levi—who mainly does the scorning and pitying of Celan, revolted at what he sees as the Kabbalistic hocus-pocus of Celan's croaked pain. The Italian Jew: bravely, uprightly, slightly saunteringly whistling past the graveyard. The Bukovinian Jew: composing a fiery opera of ice.

To be a scientist in the first place, though, Levi needed to be an innate distinction maker—and this distinction making turned him into a great writer, more than his lab-coated elemental view of things. Such was the enormity of the distinctions he would be eventually called on to witness and endure that a kind of counter-terror ensues, one closer to Celan's than Levi might have liked to think. His final book, The Damned and the Saved, maps Levi's belief that there is no redemption whatsoever for evil—and with the added suggestion that Nazi evil ironically may have given rise to an inversion of its most banal premise: that there might after all be a kind of übermensch—those superior souls being precisely the victims of such catastrophic badness.

This implacably bleak, half-triumphant idea is to be found at the end of his opus, and not necessarily because it took Levi years to come unwillingly to its conclusion. Instead it's the willed denouement of his writing. Levi doesn't burst his truths upon us, poet-style, with a stab of imagery or a cautery of silence; what irked him about Celan was perhaps as much the relentlessness as the “obscurity.” For his own dose of horrific truth-telling and witness, Levi opted instead for a subtle sense of pacing. The psychologies of prose suited him. Even in the slightly too agile Periodic Table, for instance, Levi writes with pain but no disingenuousness about his successful thievery in Auschwitz. He recognizes that what he stole was something thereby denied to someone else; but survival, in Levi's universe, is intimately linked to possession—and possession (of things, of people) is a home province of narrative prose; while distribution (of time, of rhythm, of sense) is poetry's first-line engine.

More basically, Levi's sense of time is just not that of poetry's. His constant subtext is the nature of dormant pain; how time itself is not what prolongs agony but rather masks it. Poetry (and, for that matter, painting) has the opposite effect. Poetry's immanent plate is jammed abruptly at our noses, ex nihilo. Levi's three great memoirs, on the other hand, are an exhibition of intermittency. Able to be read in reverse order of their appearance, the books scramble time while seeming to frustrate a Guernica-like agony-scream. The Periodic Table cubistically relates Levi's bud-life before Auschwitz. The Reawakening tells of the remarkable burden of a freedom made almost meaningless after hell. And then there is the Lager memoir itself, If This Be a Man (Survival at Auschwitz is the American title). Here pain is as much slowly revealed as it is discovered—revealed by someone else a great deal of the time. Levi does not have a poet's rage for self-origination. His best work is marbled with stories told to him. (“I am one of those people to whom many things are told,” he says simply in The Periodic Table. His novel La chiave a stellaThe Monkey's Wrench, in nowhere-close English—is armatured by story-reception somewhat like Camus's The Fall). Stories told to you—even the Big Fierce Story told to you by Experience itself—take time. And in doing so they coincidentally expose how many pockets and traps time owns: not one great ribbon, but instead a kind of treacherous bowel.

Though it doesn't equal in graphic power the last chapters of Survival in Auschwitz, or in prophetic designation the whole of The Damned and the Saved, The Reawakening—Levi's book about his post-Lager journey home to Italy—for me is his most compelling work. After Levi is befriended by, and joins up to travel with, a Polish lawyer—at last a figure of “civilization”—he can't help but loose a torrent of Auschwitz-truth to a knot of Poles he and the lawyer encounter. Levi is shocked then when he hears the lawyer translating selectively for the Polish crowd, going so far as to term Levi not a pent-up post-hell Jew but merely an excitable and embittered Italian political prisoner. When asked by Levi why the milder identification, the lawyer responds: “C'est mieux pour vous. La guerre n'est pas finie.

This is what ad ora incerta signifies. For the hour is uncertain even for the telling: Few writers have been as respectful as Levi when it comes to the tricks time can play on witness. Memory is notoriously fictional. Levi acknowledges that he speaks of what by the time of his writing may be “blurred and stylized memories, often … influenced by information gained from later readings of the stories of others.” Yet exactly those stories of others, the imperfection and personalization of remembered experience, stymie the seeing of time as something with an ironing-out or healing function. “Once again it must be observed, mournfully, that the injury cannot be healed: it extends through time, and the Furies, in whose existence we are forced to believe, not only rack the tormentor (if they do rack him, assisted or not by human punishment), but perpetuate the tormentor's work by denying peace to the tormented.”

One of Levi's great discoveries is that horror, too, obeys duration's laws of postponement and prematurity. “Even if they had paper and pen, the drowned would not have testified because their death had begun before that of their body. Weeks and months before being snuffed out, they had already lost the ability to observe, to remember, to compare and express themselves. We speak in their stead, by proxy.” Levi here refers to the Mussulmen, the “Muslims,” the prisoners so withdrawn from the world that they are dead before their death. His work then goes on to propose (and by his own later suicide to picture) the truth that there are those who die after their death as well.

Death after death is one definition of shame, and as a detective of shame Levi is wholly Celan's equal as a great artist. Levi writes of shame as a kind of nesting of destructions. “Coming out of the darkness, one suffered because of the reacquired consciousness of having been diminished.” Levi refuses to put this down (like Frankl or Bettelheim) to understandable situational neurosis. To him it is more “an atavistic anguish whose echo one hears in the second verse of Genesis: the anguish inscribed in everyone of the “tohu-bohu” of a deserted and empty universe crushed under the spirit of God but from which the spirit of man is absent: not yet born or already extinguished.”

In this precise sense, Celan's poetry must have seemed to Levi shameful, of the “tohu-bohu”:

Ich albere mit meiner Nacht,
wir kapern
was sich hier losriŭ,
lad du mir auch deine
Finsternis auf
die halben, fahrenden
auch sie soll es hören,
von uberhaller,
das unwiderlegbare Echo
jeder Verschattung.
I fool about with my night,
we capture
that tore loose here,
your darkness too
load on to
my halved, voyaging
it too is to hear it
from every direction,
the incontrovertible echo
of every eclipse.

(“Untitled,” translated by Michael Hamburger)

Celan saw poetic language as a “variable key” (“Wechselt dein Schlüssel, wechselt das Wort, / das treiben darf mit den Flocken. / Ja nach dem Wind, der dich forstöŭt, / ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee.” “You vary the key, you vary the word / that is free to drift with the flakes. / What snowball will form round the word / depends on the wind that rebuffs you”), but Levi had no affinity for this. As a manifestation rather than a consideration of shame, this language-wandering struck him as too pure—what is purer, whiter, than ash? Besides, poetry as snowblindly brilliant as Celan's all but shouts of poetry's usual incapability to postpone. Celan is here, then gone in an ever fewer number of lines. A mark of Celan's poetry—what in part makes it so powerful—is its sense of arbitrary stoppage: that if the poem had ceased two lines before its ending as we have it, its margins would have drawn in … and that that too would have been its splendid effect. Vagrant and unremitting language-in-pain is Celan's achievement, yet Levi would remind us that pain is not all spasm. Auschwitz proved to him that there are occasions when the worst physical agony (which is language-proof in any case) seemed a happy punctuation to psychological dehumanization. Survival at Auschwitz ends—its most horrifying pages—with a recital of Levi's last days in the Lager, spent in a sick-ward just before liberation by the Russians. Though in the end, with the diarrhea of the ward's forgotten swimming ankle-deep around him, he is too insensate to welcome freedom, Levi cherished the luck of his body's failure: it had brought him some momentary peace. Luck is one more kind of postponement, what you realize you had after you've had it. In the meantime, all that Levi requires as a preservative is the time it takes to live: “The aims of life are the best defense against death: and not only in the Lager.”

This living through uncertain time is so central to Levi's in every way remarkable “lightness of being” that it isn't surprising we respond to him with a touch of guilty sparkle—with a buoyancy that's not fit response to Paul Celan. The most ironic of all übermenschen, trusting to the organizing powers of story and to memory's gaps and to the stutter of human coping, Levi put all his chips on a life imperfectly lived inside the uncertain tunnel of time itself. Celan the untermensch had none of that faith—needing to leave the whole question of faith to poetry's tense and wavering art.

Robert Gordon (review date 1990)

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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. Nevertheless, many of the underlying concerns of the latter remain valid here. He continues to probe the limits of the human and the humane, by way of acute observation, deduction and hypothesis, so that he could fairly claim that “between the Lager and these inventions, a continuity, a bridge exists: the Lager was for me the greatest of all ‘defects’ … the most threatening of all monsters born of reason”.

In “The Servant” the monster is a literal one, the Golem of Judaic mythology, but, more often, it is man who renders himself monstrous by transgressing implicit natural laws. “Versamina”, for example, describes the catastrophic and ultimately fatal attempts by Kleber, a brilliant chemist, to transform pain into pleasure. Kleber is one of several Promethean inventors in the book who, absorbed by the power of manipulation and creation (or Creation), and unperturbed by problems of morality, innocently court disaster. Their archetype is Mr Simpson of the organization NATCA, tireless foil to the largely autobiographical narrator in several stories, who acknowledges with a sigh his mythological ancestry: “Same old story, right? You invent fire and make a gift of it to mankind, then a vulture gnaws at your liver for eternity.”

Furthermore, as always in Levi, there is an implicit equivalence between scientific and poetic invention. The narrator of “Psychophant” says of the machine of that name, “it didn't matter to me whether it told the truth or lied, but it created from nothing, invented: found, like a poet”. Hence, careful control of language acts as a correlative to the central theme; language too is a tool of power. The parodies of bureaucratic jargon (“The Sixth Day”) or of research reports (“Seen from Afar”), and the stories which deal directly with communication (“The Mnemogogues”, “Full Employment”) reaffirm both the risks and pleasures of the creative impulse.

In Raymond Rosenthal's plain translation, however, some of the pleasures of the original are lost. The English often smacks of hasty transliteration (“He capitulated precipitously”, “a quantity of glands”, “vivifying” for “vivificante”), and even unwitting bathos, as in the choice of “His Own Blacksmith” for “Il fabbro di se stesso”, ignoring the ironic gravitas of the original. While there are few actual errors (“marten” for “marziano”; “Sogna?”, translated as “Does she dream?” rather than “Do you dream?”), there is little sensitivity to the subtleties and modulations of Levi's styles.

Although uneven, these vignettes show Levi thinking with lateral ingenuity, exploring many moral issues, experimenting through fiction. A ludic side to his style, already detectable in The Truce (1963), here comes to the fore, and may disappoint readers who look to him for searing moral authority. But for those open to what Primo Levi's friend and publisher Italo Calvino called “leggerezza” (lightness) in literature, there is much to enjoy in these cautionary tales.

Ilona Klein (essay date 1990)

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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.”

(Storie naturali)

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 represent the beginning of a new course in the author's narrative. After the autobiographical Survival in Auschwitz of 1947 and his second book of 1963 The Reawakening—both dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath—Storie Naturali (“Natural Stories,” not yet published in English)1 represented such a break in the literary pattern established by Levi up to that point, that the author decided to use a pseudonym. As he explained at a later date in an interview, levi did not feel ready in 1966 to see his name associated with “light,” entertaining literature, for so far he had written only about his horrifying experiences in Auschwitz and his long, frustrating odyssey back home. There has been much speculation about the meaning of Levi's nom-de-plume, and interviews with the author have not shed significant light on the matter.2 At first, Levi stated that the name chosen was merely coincidental. Asked by a journalist of the Italian newspaper Il Giorno to interpret the significance of “Damiano Malabaila” for the readership, Levi explained on October 12, 1966 that “Malabaila” is to be interpreted as “evil nurse,” (a distortion of “mala balia”) for nature is turning sour, and after the tragic consequences of racial laws and genocide it can no longer be seen as benevolent. Nature is no longer viewed as compassionate and generous, but rather contaminated by evil, and manipulated by immoral, commercial principles. World War II left “an upside-down world” in its wake, declared the author, “where fair is foul and foul is fair, [where] professors dig with shovels, assassins are supervisors, and hospitals kill” (Tesio, 669). By the time Einaudi reprinted Storie naturali in 1987, Levi's real name had replaced the pseudonym. On the back cover of the book, however, there appeared another clarification for his original nom de plume. Damiano Malabaila had been used because the author saw no connection between the tragic historical events described in Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, and the overall mood of the fifteen short stories in his third book. Later, the connection between past and present became more evident for Levi, who consented to a reprint with his name. Moreover, since some of the fifteen short stories were written or drafted during the same period in which his first two books were being published, this fact offered a line of continuity between Levi's literary documents witnessing the Holocaust and his creations of fantasy. Describing a “perversion” and a “wickedness” of nature and of human nature in the introduction to the 1987 edition of Storie naturali, Levi stated that Nazi crimes were the most abhorrent, the most “threatening of the monsters created by slumbering reason,” a point also reiterated in his later book The Drowned and the Saved.

In this essay I will focus on nine short stories, chosen as a representative sample of Storie naturali. In “Versamina,” Levi treats the question of the unethical use of drugs on people and on animals for pseudo-scientific purposes, “Angelic Butterfly” echoes the horror of Nazi medical experiments in Auschwitz, “Quaestio de Centauris” deals with the power of the psyche and its aggressiveness when reacting to jealousy and pain. In a humorous group of four short stories (“The Versifier,” “Cheap Order,” “Standards of Beauty,” “Retirement”), Levi not only demonstrates his literary versatility and stylistic abilities, but also shows a remarkably accurate, yet pessimistic, foresight into future development of technology. The short play “The Sixth Day” comically portrays confusion arising when conflicting bureaucratic and scientific conditions exist. “Mnemagoghi” (“Things Which Stimulate Memories”) criticizes the traditional fracture between the environment of medicine and general public ignorance concerning scientific experiments. The fifteen short stories deal with imaginary situations in which technology, science or reason have been stretched to their limits, and the sad consequences of such negligence are described. The author's scientific background was put to good use in the creation of these science-fiction short stories. Levi deals with scientific developments which constitute a threat to the survival of mankind; modern-day Prometheus must acknowledge the boundaries of ethics when manipulating technology and science.

In “Versamina,” a central short story of this collection, we read: “Pain cannot be cut out, and must not, because it is our guardian. […] But it cannot be suppressed, or silenced, because it forms a unity with life, it is its caretaker” (124). The title “Versamina” indicates a fictional organic chemical substance which transforms sensations of pain into perceptions of pleasure. The story, which reads as a horrifying nightmare, is set in Austria, ten years after the war, when Jakob Dessauer returns to the Chemical Institute looking for his old time friend, Dr. Kleber, on a dreary, rainy, foggy afternoon. The gloomy, monotonous weather mirrors the dismal and cheerless atmosphere of the Institute. Ironically, Levi observes that chemists do not live long and interesting lives, unlike librarians, archivists, or museum guards who are in charge of preserving historical documents. Indeed, the author divides professions into two categories: those which “destroy” and those which “preserve.” Chemists belong to the former category, for they manipulate and transform nature, and by so doing they obliterate primordial matter. The reasons for these alterations are sometimes unclear, as can be the ultimate research goals. A thread of foolishness never spoils a chemist's work, writes Levi, talking about the protagonist of “Versamina,” Dr. Kleber (114): unethical, senseless experimentation, fostered in foolishness, however, leads the scientist to perfect the drug “versamina.”

Primo Levi the chemist is at ease in this environment: he knows well and writes effectively about the academic, experimental laboratory, with its busy and somewhat frustrated students; its detachment from the outside world; the transformation and manipulation of the external environment. All this he inserts in “Versamina,” adding to the picture gruesome descriptions of experiments on animals with the drug versamina: the case of the German shepherd dog kept alive despite its instinct to die. Levi is most likely raising issues regarding ethics in scientific experimentation on humans as well as on animals. The effects of versamina are similar to those found in cases of alcohol or drug abuse: the brain, no longer capable of registering clear signals from the central nervous system, longs for pleasurable sensations and derives these from harmful components, as the drug assaults the nervous system with false messages. Levi comments: “… nothing ever is for free: every thing has its price” (118). “Versamina” is a story that attacks the immoral use of science, or science for science's sake. Dr. Kleber, the chemist who invented the drug “versamina,” dies after destroying all records of experimentation on people and animals. It is unclear in the story whether he committed suicide, or whether the drug itself killed him.

For a long time, Levi maintained that the fiction in Storie naturali is less profound than his testimony in the two preceding books. However, in these short stories his experience in Auschwitz also surfaces in more or less apparent ways. Clarifying the importance of his Storie naturali in an essay entitled “Beyond Survival,” he wrote in September of 1982:

The content of the stories varies, and they were composed at various times and promptings. Some border on science fiction. Some, however, are linked (perhaps unconsciously) to the midrashic tradition of the parable. In “Angelic Butterfly,” for example, a Nazi scientist discovers that man is merely the larval stage of another animal, the cocoon of the butterfly. He never reaches the moulting stage because he dies too soon. Would moulting perhaps change him into an angel, or into a butterfly? The scientist administers medicines designed to accelerate moulting to a group of prisoners at a Lager. However, they turn not into angels, but into monstrous, horrid birds, incapable of flight. They are then devoured by starving citizens during the days of the battle of Berlin.


“Angelica Farfalla,” (“Angelic Butterfly”) the fourth short story of the collection, takes place three years after the facts described therein.3 The plot builds slowly until all the pieces finally culminate and the narrative mosaic is completed by the words of nineteen-year-old Gertrud Enk, a secondary character. Tormented sounds and pictures of agony saturate the rigid and cold prose. Pseudo-scientific experiments are described, closely resembling those perpetrated by Nazis against Jews, gypsies, and twins in Auschwitz. Though they bear no scientific foundation and are based on depraved brutality, they are considered to be futuristic, explorative, and scientifically useful. The central theme of “Angelica Farfalla” resides in the theory expounded by another character also headquartered in post-war Berlin, the Presbyterian “Colonel”—namely that the fictional, Mephistophelean Professor Leeb embodies the essence of true science, because he searched for the facts, and did not long for success. But in the last paragraph of Levi's story, the Colonel contradicts his previous point of view. On careful reading, there appears to be a connection between the alleged death of Professor Leeb and the disappearance of the Nazi Dr. Mengele. According to the official version given to police, Professor Leeb hanged himself:

“I am persuaded, however, that this isn't true,” says the Colonel, “because men like him give up only when faced with failure, and he, instead, no matter how one judges this dirty deal, has had success. I believe that if we search well, we would find him, and perhaps not too far away; I think there will be talk of Leeb again.”


Many Nazi doctors disappeared after the war, only to be found living a free life in a foreign country, untouched by criminal justice. Even today, the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation is devoted to rooting out the last war criminals yet to be identified because they live under false names. The title, “Angelic Butterfly,” is another reminder of the Nazi Mengele, who was nicknamed the “Angel of Death” in Auschwitz. There is nothing angelic in this short story, and the title deceives the reader, as concentration camp inmates were deceived upon their arrival in the Lager. It is vital that mankind learn from history, that such deceptions never be allowed to occur again.

Another short story, “Quaestio de Centauris,” does not treat physical pain and its effects upon victims, but instead focuses on psychological distress and its destructive consequences. With a very classical beginning in medias res, the first-person narrator offers a seemingly well-documented history of centaurs, told in a solemn language resembling that of Genesis. According to this account of Creation, our world was given life out of primordial chaos. Love between different elements carried life as a result: Levi's imagination runs free, for he humorously describes butterflies as the offspring of flies and flowers, turtles as the descendants of rocks and bullfrogs, seashells as the young of snails and polished stones. A sense of serenity and balance permeates the beginning of the story. Trachi, the two hundred and sixty-year-old centaur, is the hub of all the narrative threads which proceed with linguistic devices characteristic of fables.4 The contrasting tensions between that which is human, the everyday tribulations of mankind, the pain of the diaspora and that which is spiritually superior, the Lord's breath of life, and commitment to Zionism converge in the mythical figure of a centaur. Trachi symbolizes the worldly and the metaphysical, their interacting forces, he possesses intuition and telepathy unknown to humans. Obviously, science cannot explain everything, and the limits of its role and power form the underlying topics of this short story. Levi states that “Official science often lacks humility” (171): mankind may not arbitrarily transform what nature offers, and become its owner. The results may be unknown or irreparable. Through ethical cooperation, science and philosophy together must indicate the limits of knowledge. Science alone is condemned to failure when a non-humanistic approach is taken. The narrator's disregard for the deep love of his old-time friend Trachi for their adolescent neighbor Teresa De Simone forms the climax of the plot. Moreover, the protagonist lacks a clear understanding of his betrayal of Trachi's friendship: just as Francesca, who in canto V of The Inferno tells Dante the Pilgrim that she bears no fault for being in Hell,5 so here the protagonist disclaims responsibility for accepting Teresa's sexual advances. Betrayed by his best friend, the centaur, furious with pain, runs away yearning for violence and destruction. Again, there is a close parallel with another Italian classical masterpiece, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. As Orlando, blinded by anguish and distress, loses all dignity and lashes out in pain like a wounded animal, similarly, Trachi allows instinct to overcome him, and seeking revenge, he rapes a young mare in the same hollow in which the narrator and Teresa consummated their passion. The last pages of the story are dotted with psychological and physical violence. The serenity of the first pages has disappeared, and anguish replaces the pleasant atmosphere of the initial pastoral descriptions. An interesting narrative technique is devised, for the story of Trachi's fury is told in retrospect, as reconstructed through the words of several eye-witnesses: just as the “I narrator” would not bear responsibility for his actions, so he does not assume the weight of telling the story himself, although he knows well what has happened, and why. As Paolo is silent in Francesca's canto, so is the centaur in the latter part of “Quaestio de Centauris.” And so the noble centaur loses out in the end, and science is incapable of curing Trachi's fury. Levi leaves his readers with a bitter taste, and with many questions yet unanswered.

Physical and psychological pain are dealt with very explicitly in the short stories treated above, where all anguish is caused by the scientists' lack of humility: these scientists recognize no ethical boundaries, pushing the limits, regardless of consequences. Levi further develops this theme employing humor instead of dramatic settings in a cycle of short stories, “starring” salesperson Simpson, of NATCA, a Fort Kiddiwanee, Oklahoma-based firm which specializes in patenting futuristic technological inventions. In fact, when Storie naturali was first published in 1966, the inventions described must have appeared futuristic. Today, however, many of these Simpson-NATCA machines have either been devised, or no longer seem to belong to the realm of science fiction. Paradoxically, humor is employed as fulcrum in this cycle of five short stories “Il Versificatore,” “L'ordine a buon mercato,” “La misura della bellezza,” “Pieno impiego,” and “Trattamento di quiescenza.” Although salesman Simpson does not appear as one of the characters in “Alcune applicazioni del Mimete,” it also can be added legitimately to what I call the “Simpson-cycle,” for it is directly connected to one of the Simpson stories.

The events of “Il Versificatore,” (“The Versifier”) a short play, take place in 1960, and the story is narrated a posteriori two years later, with a humorous, surprising end. Readers must bear in mind that while the sixties were a time of great prosperity in the United States, Italy was only starting to reap the first social and economic gains of a new political line in the mid- and late fifties. The protagonist of the story, known as the “Poet,” feels tension between the intellectual freedom and bohemian lifestyle for which he longs and his need for a lucrative job. Immediately, Levi demolishes the myth of poeta-vates, because the versifier machine which the “Poet” buys for his office can compose poetry just as efficiently as any human being, if not better, at the mere turn of a handle. By imitating lyric styles from different epochs, it produces marketable and enjoyable verses. Levi's literary ability is manifest in the story: various poetic forms, compositions with allegorical or didactic scope, dot the story.

“Among batrachians, here's for you the toad,
An ugly yet useful amphibian.
On the banks it hides,
At its sight I tremble and wonder.
Warty are its belly and back,
Yet it devours worms, by gosh!
See how under filthy veils
Virtue often hides.


Perhaps his foresight was correct: even though today no machine can autonomously create coherent texts in poetry and prose, the introduction of word-processors, with fast-computing spellers and grammar correctors already inserted in most programs, may lead in time to machines that will compose as the versificatore does, also taking into consideration poetic parameters, and metric and lyric fashion. In fact, today's poet can no longer afford to be a starving artist, and is practically forced to take advantage of technology in order to stay afloat as an intellectual. In the sixties, the figure of the bohemian intellectual so popular in the nineteenth century had died, for now individuals were politically involved in the progress of society and human rights. Humorously exploiting social stereotypes, Levi lets women resist technology in most of these short stories. For instance, the “Poet's” secretary strongly resists any attempt to learn how to use the versifier machine to her advantage. As a matter of fact, her antagonistic reaction to the machine represents a parody of feminine jealousy. The “Poet” is seen as male-master-boss, and the female secretary is afraid of losing her position to the machine in his entourage. The author seems to enjoy stereotyping characters throughout this collection of short stories, and social role models and expectations are subtly ridiculed. In fact, when the secretary finally is reassured that her role will remain intact even with the machine next to her in the “Poet's” office, she familiarizes herself with its functions, satisfied that her territory has not been invaded.

In the case of the versifier, not only does science threaten to overcome man's inventiveness by appropriating certain human functions, but also risks damaging relationships between human beings, establishing uneven competition between men and machines. Levi admonishes us to keep pace with technology, but not to let it control our lives—technology for men, not men driven by technology at too fast a pace. For instance, the “Poet's” secretary holds a degree in Italian literature and often contributes suggestions to her boss's compositions, in addition to proofing his texts. Nevertheless, she feels threatened by the versifier. Symbolically, this portrays the danger of machines becoming more and more efficient, to the point that no person can feel assured of his or her position in society: machines have replaced people in assembly lines, people are laid off because machines cost less than man-power, technology is fast and efficient. Levi warns us that technology will never replace the beauty and difficulties of human interaction, but may initiate a sad decline in intellectual creativity. The surprise-ending, the epilogue of the play, is humorous, but sarcastic. The “Poet” speaks, facing the audience:

I've owned the versifier for two years now. I can't say that it's already paid for itself, but it has become indispensable to me. It has proven to be very versatile: in addition to relieving me of a great share of my commitments as a poet, it takes care of my book-keeping, payrolls, it notifies me of deadlines and it takes care of my correspondence as well. As a matter of fact, I taught it to compose in prose, and it's very good at it. The text which you have just heard, for instance, is the product of its work.


Why then should the secretary not be paranoid about this versifier?! Will we train machines, and let them write our stories for us?

As mentioned earlier, Primo Levi shows great literary versatility: he is a true humanist, a man deeply interested and well versed in scientific and literary topics. These qualities surface here, for Levi the chemist becomes Levi the poet without any noticeable fracture. He is trained in scientific as well as in literary terminology. Another two poems from the same short story will emphasize the author's skills. In the first instance, the knobs on the versifier machine are set for: title: “Autumn on the Riviera”; metric: hendecasyllables, sonnet; register: elegiac; time: around the beginning of this century.

I like to stroll again along these ancient,
Fresh paths whose pavements are undone,
Heavy with the smell of figs in autumn
And of hidden moss in little hollows.
I follow the blind path of caterpillars,
Trace the secret ways of cats,
Trail footprints of old events,
Of spent achievements, of crazy thoughts,
Of friars, of boastful men, and of grave diggers.
And incorrectly I recall
Memories of fleeting encounters
With heretics and people self-learned.
Two circuits are burned
We're stuck on the rhyme in “-urned”
And so we've become mentally turned.
Come, Mr. Simpson, quickly be concerned
Come to me with instruments atturned
Change the connection burned,
Eight-thousand six-hundred and seventeen numberned.
Fix it, and many thanks earned.


And here is another example, in which no lyric variables are pre-set by the Poet, who lets the machine's fantasy run loose:

Oh, to bring a young woman to bed:
There's nothing better than that, I've been told.
I wouldn't mind trying it out,
It would be a new experience for me:
But for her, poor thing, what a torture!
This frame is too hard
Brass, bronze, cast iron, bakelite:
Reaching out her hand, she finds a bolt;
Puckering up her lips, she finds a metallic brush;
She clutches me at her breast and gets a shock.


Although the author is obviously enjoying his funny, literary exercises, the message is clear: machines and technology can help man, provided men control the machines.

Credit must be given to Levi for his great technological and scientific foresight in 1966. If this is a representative glimpse of what was considered science fiction only twenty-three years ago, then we should all give it serious thought. The self-diagnosis test run by the versifier before producing its poems is astonishingly similar to that of today's computers.

While the first story of the “Simpson cycle” is written as a play, the other short stories are not. In “L'ordine a buon mercato” (“Cheap order”) American salesman Simpson plays with his enticing American accent to encourage sales of the “mimete” machine. Doesn't Europe look to the United States for new technology and machines, anyhow? The “mimete” machine creates, and so does science: it is not a mere matter of imitating nature. The “mimete” will create order from chaos, quite a God-like activity. As a matter of fact, a chemist's main job is also to create order from chaos, as Levi points out in the chapter “Silver,” of The Periodic Table. A chemist must clearly analyze matter, and be able to separate components to return to the original elements of an aggregate. For the “I-narrator” using the “mimete” machine, the principal issues, of course, become efficiency of time and monetary gain. Since bills cannot be reproduced by the “mimete,” the protagonist decides to recreate a batch of diamonds in geometrical progression. The tone of this experiment wavers between scientific reflections and remunerative considerations, and all the while several new diamonds are retrieved from the “mimete” machine amidst a pungent odor similar to a somewhat smelly, newborn baby (84). In his God-like effort, the “I narrator” rests on the seventh day.

Genetic manipulation is another contemporary theme addressed by Levi in Storie naturali, for spiders, women and men are duplicated by the machine, too (“Alcune applicazioni del Mimete”—“Some Applications of the Mimete” is the title of another short story). Scientists, chemists, genetic biologists, medical doctors must be flexible and open-minded when exploring new horizons, and, of course, cost, quantity and quality of production are very important. However, human considerations should be of paramount importance, and never should science obliterate the nature of humanity. As a matter of fact, in this respect salesman Simpson's reaction is very sound, because when the protagonist suggests the possibility of duplicating a human being, Simpson reacts abruptly and negatively, surprising the “I narrator” who cannot understand why Simpson does not want to cooperate in this experiment, thereby breaking the basic business rule “Il cliente ha sempre ragione”—“The customer is always right.” Simpson's “petty moralist scruples” (89) are actually a vox populi which influences and guides (or should influence and guide) contemporary moral ethics in medicine and science. On a daily basis contemporary society faces cases of surrogate motherhood, genetic laboratory manipulation, and vivisection whose inherent weight and consequences must yet be understood and defined. The “I narrator” does not want to accept the fact that these limits exist, and Levi offers the “moral” of the story to his readers: the protagonist is incarcerated for one month in the prison of San Vittore in Milan, and the firm NATCA, producer of the “mimete” machine, writes a disclaimer of responsibility together with the publication of a list of items excluded from duplication, among which are money, art objects, plants, women and men. The lesson? Science and technology are not God, creation from chaos to order is neither human, nor scientific matter; when and if achieved, it must be done with proper humility, so that a God-like role is neither acquired nor encouraged.

Throughout Levi's descriptions of man's battles with or against machines, women appear to be immune to much of the fascination which attracts men to science and technology: from the poet's secretary who is diffident and reticent vis-à-vis the versificatore, to the protagonist's wife in “La misura della bellezza” (“Standards of Beauty”). The latter does not seem to be convinced or enticed by the “beauty meter” machine. When a “beauty meter” machine is calibrated against a husband's picture, his wife is sure to compare all other men to her spouse, thus he and he alone can achieve perfect scores in all variables. Technology, fashion, mass media offer subjective parameters of beauty. In this short story, classical aesthetic parameters have fallen prey to American consumerism. What is this NATCA-firm trying to export to Italy, anyhow? Suddenly, the roles of the “I narrator” and salesman Simpson are inverted: while in “L'ordine a buon mercato,” Simpson refuses to undermine moral standards, and does not support fraudulent use of the “mimete” machine, in “La misura della bellezza” profit rules again, and all sales pitches known to man are employed in order to sell the “beauty meter.” Our standards change continuously, and we are all consumers in a Western society. Some of our needs are induced, others more real. To a large extent we are the result of advertising, efficiency, technology and fashion, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. Technology is driven by market considerations, too. Will people ever be considered equal, no matter what they look like? No matter how well they fare on the “beauty meter?” No matter how many dollars they are worth in the work-force? Not likely, unless our Western society undergoes major changes.

“Trattamento di quiescienza,” (“Retirement”) the last tale of Natural Stories again sees Mr. Simpson interacting with the “I narrator” protagonist. This time the American salesman is experimenting with NATCA's latest invention: TOREC, the “total recorder.” Although the machine has been geared to please American consumers, Mr. Simpson swears on its success in Italy, because the sensations it produces trigger directly the central nervous system which is common to all human beings. Thus, Levi implies that all people, regardless of their nationality, have the same need for and reaction to external stimuli, and that civilization, technology and science play a role in fulfilling these needs. Levi describes tapes to be viewed while wearing a helmet, and his descriptions are astonishingly close to today's videos. Combining visual and auditory stimuli while comfortably sitting in an armchair, the individual with a TOREC machine actually feels the sensations appropriate to the scene he is viewing: for instance he may feel parachuted out of an airplane, or may be transformed into a hawk circling for prey, or a high-school bully looking for trouble. Conceived at first for the sick and the elderly, so that they would not succumb to boredom, the TOREC device turns out to be a means of escaping reality, something to stare at for hours at a time. Unfortunately, this is a familiar situation for many of us.6 The narrator is powerfully successful in describing man's psychological dependence on the TOREC machine, whose tapes have been fully commercialized and categorized under seven different labels: white label “Art and Nature;” red label “Power;” green label “Encounters;” grey label “Epic;” blue label “Super-ego;” yellow label “Mysticism and Religion;” black label “Experimental.” The story “Trattamento di quiescenza” ends on a sad note of dependency on technology: the narrator has the last word, and describes retired salesman Simpson as completely dependent on the black label tapes, visibly and rapidly aging in front of the TOREC machine. This type of intellectual dementia caused by passive acceptance of science and technology is what Levi believed possible in a not too distant future. And sadly enough, we only need peek into a video-games arcade to realize that what Levi predicted is happening all too quickly: illusions created by machines are taking over reality. The world of evasion offered by television, videos, movies, electronic games provides a convenient insulation for those who do not wish to participate actively in the growth of society. Stereotypes are reinforced, social and political isolation grow rapidly. To make the story even more credible, the author uses an effective narrative technique, for as soon as the protagonist wears the TOREC helmet, prose, style, verb tenses and narrative point of view change abruptly, and the reader is suddenly plunged into the reality of the new tape whose different variables must be quickly deciphered. In one instance, a tape is played mistakenly in reverse, so the protagonist—and the reader through him—experiences the sensations of a parachute jump, however not only in slow motion, but in reversed action, from final landing first, to the beginning jump as the last scene: a truly masterful literary description on Levi's part. These leaps of narrative patterns are very effective and require that the reader be an active receptor of the story.

The final message of the “Simpson cycle” is a warning against stretching the advantages of technology and science away from man's needs. When considerations of monetary nature take over philosophical and moral principles, man is left squalidly isolated from fellow human beings, and is no longer interested in historical events. The agnostic Levi quotes from Ecclesiastes 1:18 in the penultimate paragraph of Storie naturali: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow.” Technology can induce dementia, produce boredom, create dependency, or kill mankind, as in the case of atomic bombs: in fact, Levi's novel If Not Now, When? (of 1982) ends with the image of Hiroshima disintegrating in a blast of light and flame.

Not all the short stories in Storie naturali treat inherent dangers of technology and science pushed too far. The short play “Il sesto giorno” (“The Sixth Day”), portrays with humor a council's laborious meeting. The members of the “Committee for the Construction of Man” must decide how best to create “man,” whether he should be amphibian, reptile, bird, mammal, and how best to contain production costs while obtaining the most efficient final product. At the exact moment that the members have finally come to agree that “man” will be a bird-like creature, a memo is received from the “higher ranks” to inform members of the council that “man” actually will be merely “man” and human in nature, and offering no further explanation. This represents Levi's sarcastic comment on all the hours wasted in today's society, with committee meetings, social debates, brainstorming sessions in which we try to find creative solutions to problems, only to be told later that for some bureaucratic reason the committee's recommendations cannot be taken into consideration. Of course, frustration, low morale and resignation permeate the end of “The Sixth Day,” and the council's members accept more or less openly the decision imposed from “above.” And so, misused science and technology do not represent the only potential dangers for man: today, bureaucracy plays its role as well.

However, Levi was well aware of the isolation in which many scientists operate. For example, in the short story entitled “Mnemagoghi” (“Things which Stimulate Memories”), the elderly Dr. Montesanto, MD has discovered a chemical process to create specific smells evoking past personal events and strong sensations associated with them. At first, his young assistant Dr. Morandi is diffident and bored, but later he too becomes actively involved in the experiment and decides to create his own set of chemically evocative smells. Old doctor Montesanto (a funny character, one of those people who much enjoy listening to themselves) searches for spiritual answers, and is convinced that he will find them in memories. His life is isolated and he is incapable of dealing with the present. As with the TOREC machine, also in this case science seems to favor isolation and social disengagement. As young Dr. Morandi becomes more fascinated and more involved in Dr. Montesanto's experiments, the reader notices a deep psychological transformation: by the end of the story, he, too, is another Dr. Montesanto, interested in further researching the topic of artificial recreation of smells as mnemonic stimuli, and more isolated from his friends than at the beginning of the story. His initial suspicions of the older man have disappeared, as Dr. Morandi gradually becomes absorbed by the same scientific interests. The vials of aroma created by the two scientists are secretly hidden and no one else is privy to these experiments. No matter what role is played by science today, it is important that the public always be familiar with ethical and economic considerations facing scientists who must make specific decisions, and that the results of any experiment be made available to whoever wishes to be informed.

We citizens of Western societies believe that artificial inventions, machines, medical experiments should aim at bettering society and bringing well-being to individuals. However, practically, economic factors almost always intervene, and science and technology today are at the mercy of marketing rules. When science and technology can no longer exist ethically and independently, they are bound to fall prey to manipulation, and instead of preventing natural disasters, they actually become a leading cause for pollution, they create social isolation and promote unethical monetary practices. In today's world there are not many “natural stories” left. As citizens, we should widen our critical and political interpretation, so as to make sure that no more TOREC machines are built to insult our students' intelligence; that no more laboratories hire mad Dr. Leebs to carry out futile bio-genetic experiments on human tissue; that no more advertising standards dictate what is beautiful and what is not in our communities.

These are the real dangers which Levi perceived for today's and tomorrow's world. As an effective and secure antidote, he offered an approach to science and technology which favored more human considerations: a humanistic point of view which recommends that the feelings of men and women be taken into account and their needs met first, and that such factors prevail over economic considerations. Only such a humanistic perspective can help preserve the “natural order” of things: it functions as a guideline for situations in which science and technology have succumbed to market demands, and posits a more benign environment for today's Western world.

To read Primo Levi's works is an unforgettable and enlightening experience: his words, never abrasive and never dull, stimulate thoughts and help us comprehend the complexity of today's social and scientific issues. His topics, intricate and elaborate, help bridge the traditional gap between scientific environments and the world of the humanities.


  1. At the moment of this writing, Raymond Rosenthal is working on an English version of Natural Stories. The published translation may or may not contain all the short stories included in Levi's original Italian volume. All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.

  2. Personally, I am running a computerized program searching for meaningful anagrams of “Damiano Malabaila,” and have not yet found acceptable variables. My appreciation goes to George Wright of Loyola College in Maryland who has taken care of the technical aspects of this computer search.

  3. A clear allusion to Dante's lines in the canto of the prideful, Purgatory, X, 121-126: “O proud Christians, wretched and weary, who, sick in mental vision, put trust in backward steps: are you not aware that we are worms, born to form the angelic butterfly that flies unto judgment without defenses?” (Purgatory I, 107).

  4. The symbology of Levi's centaur will become clear some years later, in “Argon,” the first chapter of The Periodic Table.

  5. See Hell, V, 100-06: “Love … seized this one for the fair form that was taken from me. … Love seized me so strongly with delight in him. … Love brought us to one death” (Hell, I, 53. Singleton, 53). According to Francesca's report to Dante, it was “love” and “the book” that she and her lover Paolo were reading that made them become sinful lovers.

  6. It should be kept in mind, however, that in 1966 when this story was first published, Italian TV (“Mamma RAI”) broadcast only from 5.30pm to 11pm, there were only two channels, and all programs were in black and white.

Constance Markey (review date 1990)

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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 first-hand account of life and death inside a Nazi concentration camp. Fewer readers know that in subsequent years Levi also wrote fantastical stories like these.

This unfamiliarity with Levi's fiction (and with his poetry) can be partly explained by the fact that until his death in 1987, little of Levi's later work had been translated. For many of us, therefore, it is only now that we come to know Levi the storyteller.

But what a difference between Levi the storyteller—this new-found Levi, the fablemaker—and the earlier Holocaust chronicler.

Neither World War II nor the Jewish question plays an obvious role in these tales. Furthermore, one would not even suspect Levi the realist to be the author of this book, with its Italian setting and its focus on science fiction.

Instead, two other authors of the bizarre, Tomasso Landolfi and Italo Calvino, would come to mind first, so faithfully has Levi fashioned his stories after theirs. In matters of fiction Levi clearly felt a strong attraction to the Italian avant-garde, with its taste for surrealism and cynical social commentary.

One futuristic tale, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Fridge,” for example, is spookily reminiscent of Landolfi. It recounts the eerie existence of Patricia, who, having won a Berlin competition in cryogenics in 1975 has successfully survived for several generations in a freezer.

Her life, such as it is, consists of periodic thawings for medical checkups, a few birthdays and “occasions of particular interest, such as important planetary expeditions, famous crimes and trials, weddings of royalty or film stars … telluric cataclysms, and the like: in short, everything that deserves to be seen and handed down to the distant future.”

Thus, thanks to modern (and expressly German) technology, Patricia enjoys a life that the author cynically categorizes as “concentrated,” or containing only the “essential … nothing that does not deserve to be lived.” Yet, for all her presumed good fortune, Patricia is not happy. “Freeze and defrost, and freeze and defrost becomes wearying in the long run,” she complains. Tired of it all, she escapes to America seeking a contemporary, “he too in a freezer, naturally.”

This is only the first story to assail our era for what Levi apparently sees as a left-over fascist habit of turning humans into guinea pigs in the name of inhumane progress. Other tales go on to chastise capitalism for its own brand of packaged happiness, its greed for commodities that are either frivolous or immoral.

The protagonist in these stories is Mr. Simpson, an American businessman living in Italy but working for a giant corporation: NATCA, at Fort Kiddiwanee, U. S. A. A character nearly out of Calvino, Mr. Simpson markets any new scientific gimmick bound to provide instant gratification for the purchaser and fast money for the manufacturer.

Some of Simpson's gadgets come closer to truth than fiction. (But this is not surprising if one considers that Levi, after long years as a chemist, knew his science well.)

Nearly marketable, in “Retirement Fund,” are Mr. Simpson's audio tapes, which, a la Disneyworld, reproduce artificially for their purchasers the experiences of “aviators, explorers, scuba divers, seducers or seductresses. …” Simply by putting on a tape, slipping on a helmet and turning up the sound, the thrill-seeking consumer can be plugged into a soccer player or even a Hollywood lover.

Less believable but more unsettling is Mr. Simpson's contraption “the Mimer” in the story “Order on the Cheap.” Advertised as the ultimate in duplicators, at the beginning of the story it only copies inert substances, although it proves ominously capable of replicating not only lizards but people, too.

This sinister little tale and others like it are no doubt intended to make us smile, albeit ruefully. But the humor often falls short. Rich in imagination, Levi is nonetheless uncomfortable with fiction, not to mention comedy. Unlike Calvino, he lacks a light touch, a gift for the tongue in cheek, a talent for puns and pratfalls.

Characterization in Levi is also problematic, and dialogue (at least in this translation) is stilted and unnatural—little more than a vehicle to voice the author's moral indignation at social ills and his existential outrage at a “life [that] does not have purpose” and where “pain always prevails.”

Primo Levi's short stories are best read by keeping an eye on the writer and not on his characters. With his Holocaust writing in mind, 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.”

Gabriel Motola (essay date 1990)

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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 society exist. And the language of poetry, he believed, most succinctly and eloquently expresses the values of a society.

In “The Canto of Ulysses” from Se questo è un uomo (translated literally in England as If This Is a Man but in the United States presented as Survival in Auschwitz), Levi describes how he struggled to remember certain lines from Dante's Inferno so he could recite them to a fellow prisoner. So important were those lines to him that in exchange for them he would have given up one day's ration of soup. The description of his struggle to recall those poetic lines is so poignant because it reveals to Levi himself that the struggle, not its success or failure, is proof that, despite all the brutalization and humiliation he has witnessed and himself suffered, he is, within the tradition of his culture and civilization, still a man.

In his own slim volume of poetry he continues that tradition. Influenced most by Dante, Levi also read and alluded to Latin, German, and French poets as well as to such English poets as Coleridge and Eliot. Comprised of two sections, Shemà (translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann) and At an Uncertain Hour (translated by Ruth Feldman), Collected Poems contains some sixty-five short poems written over forty years.

Filled with desolate and despairing imagery, the tone weary and spent, as is true of Survival in Auschwitz, his early poems reflect the indelible trauma of the concentration camp. And, as was true of his early prose from the same period as his earliest poems, Levi was fulfilling his obligation while satisfying his own emotional need. Published in 1947, Survival in Auschwitz was begun in October 1945 and completed in 1946; in the six months between 28 December 1945 and 28 June 1946, he wrote fourteen poems. Since that number comprises nearly a quarter of the entire Collected Poems, it is clear that as much as poetry was integral to his life, writing it fulfilled more of an emotional or psychological need than a creative one. Whether consciously or not, however, Levi did explore in his poems themes that he was to develop more fully in some of his major works. The two poems used as epigraphs to Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, written sixteen years apart, were written within one day of each other in January 1946.

Dated 10 January 1946, “Shemà” stood as epigraph to Stuart Woolf's translation of Survival in Auschwitz from which the original title If This Is a Man is derived. And though Woolf's translations of “Shemà” and “Reveille,” written 11 January 1946 and used as epigraph to The Reawakening, differ slightly in wording and syllabication from the Feldman-Swann translations, the over-all effect of both translations has the same power and immediacy largely because of the stark imagery of unrelieved despair of the original. And while both poems can well stand alone on their poetic merits, as can most in the collection, their inclusion in this text allows us a glimpse into what was then the tortured mind of one who tried to make sense of the insensible through his re-creation of it. Levi wrote in the preface to Survival in Auschwitz in 1957 when it was first reissued in Italy: “The need to tell our story … had taken on for us … the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs. The book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation.”

So it is with his poems written at this time, but the poetry has of necessity an allusive and more deliberately contrived character than does his prose work since the constraints of the poetic line and meter make for a more deliberate literary construction. For instance the editors' notes to the third and fourth poems in the collection, written within a week of each other in early January 1946, reveal allusions to Siegfried Sassoon, to Inferno and Purgatorio, and to The Waste Land.

Of all contemporary poets the one who apparently most influenced Levi's view of the twentieth century and to whom he consequently most alludes is Eliot. Except for his anti-Semitism it is not hard to see why Eliot would so appeal to Levi: both men had been greatly influenced by Dante, who was also their favorite poet; both believed that to participate in society one must apprehend the tradition which formed the ideals to which the citizen must subscribe; and while Eliot depicted the twentieth century as a cultural and moral wasteland, Levi experienced it as such in its most heinous form.

Citing Catullus on the diurnal return of the sun in contrast to man's “unending night,” Levi in “Sunset at Fòssoli”—the title intensifies the bleakness of the poem's imagery—impassively relates “through barbed wire” his own impending doom. In Fòssoli, from where prisoners were deported, in his case to Auschwitz, Levi feels “the words of the old poet / Tear at my flesh.” Thus in eight lines (a two-thousand-year-old Latin poem, rather than the imprisoning barbed wire, “tearing” at his flesh) Levi shows how he has fulfilled the social and cultural contract which, in a moral and ethical society, would have secured him a safe haven. Through employing allusion, synesthesia, and imagery, Levi constructs poems whose acute complexity belies their brevity.

Most of the poems are permeated by allusions to his concentration-camp experience, but others proclaim his love for his wife, others are filled with humor, and still others refer to his work as a scientist and a writer. Between the composition of each poem, as he apparently begins to live the normal life of head of a household and chief chemist in a paint factory, there is an increasing time span—as much as two or three years, or sometimes much longer. Despite the lapses, however, there is no diminution in intensity or skill in the poems.

In August of 1970 Levi wrote “In the Beginning.” This poem contains the germ of his philosophical and structural view of the world, which he would develop more fully in the concluding and climactic chapter of his masterpiece, The Periodic Table (1975).

At first satirizing man's paltry struggle with time, the poem goes on to reveal the common heritage, which may provide both “mockery and consolation,” that man shares with all that exists on earth and throughout the universe:

There was a ball of flame, solitary, eternal,
Our common father and our executioner.
.....From that one spasm everything was born:
.....Everything anyone has ever thought,
The eyes of every woman we have loved,
Suns by the thousands
And this hand that writes.

The concluding line of the poem is so strikingly similar to the concluding words of The Periodic Table that the indebtedness of the latter to the former is inescapable. Just as the poem tells us that the Big Bang was responsible for all things, including “this hand that writes,” so the final words of the book reveal that an atom of carbon which “is in charge of my writing … guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”

Like his literary-scientific forebears, including Pliny and Galileo, Primo Levi has drawn from his life of science the analogous reasoning and linguistic precision that enrich his writing. And in finding analogues between man and his universe, Levi affirms the homogeneity of all. In “Pearl Oyster,” written in September 1983, Levi employs a striking personification. He makes the speaker an oyster who describes the similarities it has with man while complaining that man fails to see in the oyster any affinity at all:

I'm more like you than you imagine,
Condemned to secrete, secrete
Tears, sperm, mother-of-pearl and pearls.
Like you, if a splinter injures my mantle,
Day after day I cover it over silently.

Thus, like the poem itself, like other products of Levi's pain, the splinter or ache in man as in oyster may paradoxically yield a gem.

Filled with an independent power and vitality, a richness of surprising metaphor and startling imagery, this slim volume of poetry is of great value to the reader of Primo Levi's prose, providing a window into a mind alternately tormented by the unbearable memories of a malignant and solitary world and inspired by the scientific certainty of the kinship of all within the cosmos. While sure that all material things in the universe share a common heritage, he is equally sure of a less scientifically verifiable tenet: poetry is a human need. In predicting his hope of the rebirth of rhyme in poetry in “Rhyming on the Counterattack,” an essay in The Mirror Maker, he states that “all of us are born poets.”

Like those of its predecessor, Other People's Trades, the pieces in The Mirror Maker, written over a twenty-five-year period, were culled from the pages of La Stampa. While the earlier collection remains a richer and fuller one, more substantial and more informative about Levi's life and his philosophy, this collection yields further proof of Levi's extraordinary ability to probe the human condition in its myriad guises. The inclusion in The Mirror Maker (1989) of the initial publication dates of the stories and essays is a significant improvement over the editing of Other People's Trades, which lacks these details. Unfortunately the reader cannot determine who had ultimate control over the inclusion of the pieces and their arrangement.

Because of the introduction (“Premise”) written by Primo Levi, you get the impression that the contents were arranged by the author himself or with his approval. Levi's introduction is dated October 1986, but some of the pieces collected from La Stampa were first published in early 1987. Let us hope that in future editions of The Mirror Maker the choices made by Levi and those made by the editor or publisher will be clearly shown as well as the dates of first publication.

Levi's most engaging stories and essays remain those that address ethical and moral questions raised by political considerations and by his literary readings and scientific studies. The tension in “Through the Walls,” one of the most complex stories in the book, is created by the conflicting demands of metaphysics and science. Memnone, an alchemist, has been imprisoned for many years because he refuses to recant what he knows to be true: matter is not infinitely divisible and atoms do exist.

He devises a diet that ultimately enables him to pass his body through the stone walls of the prison. But because his body has lost its corporeity his feet now sink into the ground and the stone paths. With difficulty he reaches his old lover, Hecate. He and his theory have been vindicated. But instead of taking the proper nourishment his weakened body needs, he is carried away by desire and embraces Hecate, only to sink into her: “He again experienced the dizziness that had seized him while he was moving through the stone: no longer irritating now but delicious and mortal. He dragged the woman along with him into a perpetual night of impossibility.”

The passion of the man is such that he unwittingly trades one prison for another: the stone walls of the dungeon for the soft flesh of the woman. This is not to say, however, that Levi placed the restraints of logic above the passion of love. What he feared was unbridled passion unmediated by loving kindness, as his satirical and humorous piece “The Ant's Wedding” illustrates. After saying she has laid a million and a half eggs despite being only fourteen years old and having made love only once, the queen ant says: “When food is scarce and eggs are too many, there is no room for moralism. We eat the eggs and I'm the first. … They are nutritious. … So what: Without logic there is no government.”

Although it lacks the metaphysical complexity of “Through the Walls” and the allegorical satire of “The Ant's Wedding,” “Force Majeure” is nevertheless the most powerful and most disturbing story in the collection. Published in July 1986, the story recalls the experiences Levi suffered more than forty years earlier. The protagonist, identified simply as M., doubtless in tribute to Kafka, is a slight, bespectacled, bookish man who has an appointment with a library manager in an unfamiliar section of town. In order to reach his destination, M. must pass through an alley which is blocked by a powerful sailor who beats and humiliates M.—“who until then had lived a normal life strewn with joys, irritations and sorrows, successes and failures perceived a sensation he had never experienced before, that of persecution, force majeure, absolute impotence, without escape or remedy.” Levi concludes the story with M. setting out “for his appointment, knowing that he would never be the same man as before.”

In the newly issued volume that combines Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening (Summit Books, 1986) Primo Levi wrote an afterword. There he says that his experiences in Auschwitz did not leave him with “any violent or dolorous emotions. On the contrary … the sum total is clearly positive: in its totality, this past has made me richer and surer.”

Written at approximately the same time, these antithetical notions seem difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. Having experienced “absolute impotence,” M. “would never be the same man as before” seems to contradict categorically Levi's assertion that “this past has made me richer and surer.” What must be borne in mind, however, is that Levi, on the one hand, was viewing the past as well as the future through a keen intellect influenced by scientific objectivity. Thus, even such a past, when filtered through the reasoning mind, may recollect in tranquility experiences which can make one “richer and surer.” On the other hand, when the experiences are stirred up rather than recollected, when they are felt again and again, as they must be in defenseless dreams of the night or in the re-created stories and poems that roil the unconscious, then the “absolute impotence” constantly felt in his soul is a constant reminder “that he would never be the same man as before.” Paradoxically this almost unresolvable stress between his emotion and his intellect largely provides the tension that informs and enriches his work.

In the essays, as is true of his writings in general, a few subjects dominate: his distress at what he perceived was Germany's refusal to acknowledge its guilt as well as his defense of the actions of the Jews during the war; his views of literature and of science. He is most eloquent when, whether acknowledged or not, his connection to the subject is personal.

Near the conclusion of Survival in Auschwitz Levi wrote that after the inmates were forced to view the hanging by the Germans of the last man who had taken part in a revolt, they were “oppressed by shame.” At the beginning of The Reawakening, written sixteen years later, recounting the final days in Auschwitz, Levi describes the reactions of the Russians as they were entering the camp: “They seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by … that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage: the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man experiences at another man's crime, the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist.”

Twenty years after The Reawakening, in “Translating Kafka,” Levi writes:

Joseph K. … is ashamed of having struggled with the tribunal of the cathedral. … Of having wasted his life in petty office jealousies, false loves, sick timidities, static and obsessive tasks. Of existing when by now he should no longer exist: of not having found the strength to do away with himself when all was lost, before the two clownish bearers of death called on him, but in this shame I sense another component that I know [emphasis added]: Joseph K., at the end of his anguished journey, experiences shame because there exists this occult, corrupt tribunal that pervades everything surrounding him. … It is composed of men and made by men, and Joseph K. with the knife already planted in his heart is ashamed of being a man.

What he described most fully in “Shame,” the title of the third chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, his last major work (published in Italy in 1986), is the very shame Levi himself suffered for being formed of the same base material as those who comprise the “corrupt tribunal.” But that shame was countered by the pride he took in having evolved from the same species that produced a Pliny and a Dante, a Galileo and an Einstein. In Dialogo, the account of “two or three recording sessions” between Primo Levi and Tullio Regge, that pride is evident. A prominent physicist who teaches at the University of Turin, Regge provides an informative if disjointed introduction to the brief work, throughout which appears the enthusiastic respect, charged by their love of science, the two men have for each other.

The dialogue begins when Regge, who is not Jewish, mentions his recent study of Hebrew. They are immediately engaged in the Talmud, linguistics, mathematics, computers, and chemistry. They discover that their fathers were responsible for their becoming omnivorous learners since both fathers were largely self-taught. Having much in common, as did their famous sons after them, the fathers both loved books, hated nature, loved the city.

Among other things Levi reveals that science has provided him “an inventory of raw materials, of tesserae for writing. … Precision and concision … have come to me from my trade as a chemist. And so has the habit of objectivity, of not letting myself be easily deceived by appearances.”

While Dialogo is largely taken up with scientific matters, Ferdinando Camon's Conversations with Primo Levi contains general biographical and philosophical information in interviews begun in 1982 and concluded in May 1986. Owing to outlandish claims that Camon makes in his preface and in the afterword to the American edition, such as “Levi himself was little known … and seldom interviewed” and that Levi fell rather than jumped to his death, an uncertain cloud is cast over Camon's editorial abilities. Regge, for instance, mentions in his introduction that although their discussion was one of the “few recorded occasions in which [Levi] spoke about science …, there are many recordings concerning his life and literary works.” I interviewed Levi in 1985 in his home, where he diffidently alluded to the fact that he was often interviewed. But because Camon states that “the final draft of the dialogue bears a significant number of changes, in Primo Levi's handwriting, and all of them without exception have been observed,” and since such an edited document by Levi himself is rare, perhaps unique, the book is of value.

We learn, for instance, that paradoxically it is Levi who defends the Germans, who he believes were forced by Hitler to be racist, while Camon is the harsher judge. We also learn that when Levi confessed to being a Jew to his Italian captors he did so not only because of the threats of the Italian Fascists but also because “the element of fatigue came into it. … And at the end there was also an element of pride: I would have been sorry if it hadn't come out that I, a very inept partisan … was a Jew—to show that even the Jews can make up their minds to fight back.” Writing Survival in Auschwitz relieved him because doing so “was equivalent to lying down on Freud's couch.” He goes on to explain that he had several attacks of depression since his internment in the concentration camp: “I'm not sure if they go back to that experience, because they come with different labels, from one to the next. … I went through one just recently, a stupid fit of depression, for very little reason: I had a small operation on my foot, and this made me think that I'd suddenly got old.”

Despite his not believing in God—“There is Auschwitz and so there cannot be God”—he was culturally a Jew because of the passage of the Italian racial laws in 1938 and of his having been in Auschwitz: “This dual experience … stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate. At this point I'm a Jew, they've sewn the star of David on me and not only on my clothes.”

One of the last essays in The Mirror Maker is “The Spider's Secret.” In it Levi wrote of his lifelong fascination with “producing varnishes.” The essay is devoted to the process of solidification of liquids, similar to how varnish is made, by such creatures as caterpillars in building their cocoons or spiders in weaving their webs. “No chemist has yet succeeded in reproducing so elegant, simple and clean a process. We have surpassed and violated nature in many fields,” he concludes, “but we still have much to learn from nature.” As interesting as are his discussions of both the natural and physical sciences, the most intriguing sentence of the essay if not of the whole book is one he fails to develop. It comes in the first paragraph: “It seems to me … strange that varnishes are displacing Auschwitz in the ‘ground floor’ of my memory: I realize this from my dreams, from which the Lager has by now disappeared and in which, with increasing frequency, I am faced with a varnish maker's problem that I cannot solve.”

A varnish is used to protect, to gloss over, to seal in whatever must not be exposed to the elements. If in fact varnish was displacing Auschwitz in his memory, if in fact the Lager had disappeared from his dreams and in its place was the “varnish maker's problem” that could not be solved, then one interpretation for what he terms as strange is that the varnish itself was covering but not displacing Auschwitz, concealing the Lager but not making it disappear. Whatever pain or frustration or depression Primo Levi was experiencing in the final months of his life, it seemed too strong finally for even the varnish to contain.

From his poetry and his prose, from the interview and the dialogue, a sharply focused picture of Primo Levi emerges: he is the twentieth-century victim who refuses to feel sorry for himself for having been in the camps or to see himself as a hero for having survived them, who depicts with relentless and unforgiving clarity those responsible by their actions or by their inactions for the destruction and humiliation of their fellow human beings. He is also the twentieth-century man who through his cultural and scientific awareness takes pride in man's achievement and progress, who knows that the fate of the earth is bound up in man's ultimate acceptance of his responsibility to all its creatures—who after all are made of the same materials as man himself.

Kathy Rugoff (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5299

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 at Yale. Toward the end of his career, but in keeping with his focus upon a text's linguistic inconsistencies as opposed to the construct of an interpretation of it or of the author's intention, de Man argues in “Autobiography as De-facement” that autobiography “lends itself poorly to generic definition” and that it may be considered to be “a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts” (920-921). Consequently what many scholars would view as autobiographical narrative, de Man identifies instead as a text which is nonreferential, disclosing simply a fictive “I.” The “I” is defined by the text, and the text is not defined by the author's personal identity. References to time and place are also fictions; they comprise a text's linguistic landscape of tropes and figures: The moment of the text, he claims “is not primarily a situation or an event that can be located in a history, but … it is the manifestation, on the level of the referent, of a linguistic structure” (922).

Ironically, while de Man suggests that he is freeing so-called autobiographies from limited notions of them in traditional discussions, his treatment imposes its own restrictions: an author's autonomy is lost and his or her views, experiences, and observations have nothing to do with fact. In addition, the authority of history becomes devalued. Thus, de Man's argument represents a position that is diametrically opposed to the one held by scholars of the Holocaust who sift through autobiographical accounts, diaries, and memoirs in an attempt to uncover the past and to understand the history of the period. Although de Man's view of language and text is based on the insight that language is separated from nature and the world, it was through language that fascist leaders first won elections, then controlled consciousness, and finally committed mass murder. Many of the autobiographical accounts of life in Europe during the Second World War manifest an individual's struggle to maintain or reclaim his or her sense of self. These accounts reflect his or her sense of language and its efficacy.

Published within a few years of each other in the late seventies and early eighties, Heinrich Böll's What's to Become of the Boy? or: Something to Do With Books, Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, and Saul Friedländer's When Memory Comes present each author's life in Nazi Europe during his youth. Opposing de Man's perspective, I believe that these narratives not only reflect the authors' experiences, which are significant, but also assert the strength of the individual in the face of crushing historical events. Furthermore, one might argue that Paul de Man's view of language and autobiography may relate to his own life, which was also spent in Europe during the Second World War.

Although scholars view the history of this period from a variety of vantage points, it has an undeniable relationship to major current political decisions. Forty-five years after the war, Europe is in the throes of redefining the boundaries drawn up by the Allies after the defeat of the Axis powers, so that the rise and fall of Germany has had a role in the course of events for almost half a century. Since the late sixties, however, countless essays and books have been devoted to the dark years between 1938 and 1945. That historians and sociologists have viewed this period in terms of the rise of totalitarianism, the course of military power, and the act of genocide is not surprising.

That references to the Nazi era would appear in essays by innovative literary theorists of our time, such as Jonathan Culler, Jacques Derrida, and Geoffrey Hartman, however, may be surprising. In 1987, four years after his death, it was learned that de Man, a highly admired colleague, a brilliant theorist and advocate of deconstruction, had written dozens of articles for pro-Nazi publications in Belgium during the war. Thus history insinuated itself and prompted a heated discussion concerning de Man. His colleagues debated in both scholarly and popular journals, including Critical Inquiry, Modern Language Notes, The New York Review of Books, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Republic, and The Nation. Even in posthumous publications of de Man's collected essays and in collected essays on de Man, scholars attempt to defend him.

For example, Hartman in “Looking Back on Paul de Man” in Reading de Man Reading shows how de Man's view of language contradicts the implicit assumptions that ground a fascist world view and concept of language. Lindsay Waters, on the other hand, in a preface to de Man's Critical Writings, 1953-1978, attempts to mitigate his anti-Semitic remarks by placing them within an historical context, a period that was marked by excessive nationalism. Consequently, it is ironic that de Man's central argument addressed the characteristics of language in a text rather than its expression of personal opinion or experience.

He argued, for example, in “Autobiography as De-facement” in 1979 that “We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?” (920). Since the actual life of a writer is meaningless to de Man, it is ironic that details in his own life have come under discussion. Who could have predicted that, several years after de Man published this article, the issue of the relationship between his writing and life would arise in discussions by critics who share his views on literature and language and have helped chart the course of deconstruction? I believe, moreover, that to address de Man's theory requires a consideration of the texts and contexts of his writing and his life; they inform one another.

I approach the writing of de Man's contemporaries—Böll, Levi, and Friedländer—in the same way, and I find their autobiographical accounts to be revealing of both the historical period and the development of each as a writer. Although the experience of a Catholic youth in Germany, a Jewish student in Italy, and a Czechoslovakian Jewish child in France differ during the prewar and war years of the thirties and forties, the three accounts convey profound feelings of isolation and alienation; they also reveal a preoccupation with the nature of memory and perception. These accounts are referential; they chart the response of each writer to his environment, a Europe devoted to the obliteration of the individual.

The organizing principle and dominant images of the memoirs, however, are highly individualized; they suggest the impact of fascism on the life of each author and reflect the psychology of his response. Böll's What's to Become of the Boy? or: Something to Do With Books—published in 1981 and in English translation in 1984, a year before his death—is a witty, self-conscious chronological account of his school years from 1933 to 1937. Levi's The Periodic Table—published in 1975 and in English translation in 1984, three years before his suicide—is a meditation on his experiences as a chemistry student and subsequently as a chemist for a company in Milan and still later for his captors in Auschwitz. On another level Levi explores the meaning of fascism; and finally, through a series of images and metaphors, he ponders nothing less than the meaning of human experience in general. Friedländer's When Memory Comes—published in 1978 and in English translation a year later—is a fragmented personal essay which moves back and forth between the wrenching childhood recollections of his separation from his parents in Europe and his much later observations on the political situation of Israel in the late seventies.

The early confrontation with a Europe under siege proved to have a major impact on the intellectual life of each writer. Böll, who was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht and fought reluctantly on the German side, wrote of the effects of war on German soldiers and families in novels such as The Train was on Time (1949, English tr. 1956) and Acquainted with the Night (1953, tr. 1954). In the late fifties he published satiric short stories on postwar German complacency, including Dr. Murke's Collected Silences, and Other Satires (1958, tr. 1963) and long novels such as Billiards at Half Past Nine (1959, tr. 1961), which treats life in Germany from the years preceding the First World War through Hitler's rule and the postwar period. Generally considered one of Germany's finest social and cultural critics, Böll was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972. His novels, plays, and essays consider the insanity of war, the dehumanization of the individual in materialistic cultures, the corruption of Catholicism, and the disquieting expedience of Church leaders during the Second World War. These themes are also explored in What's to Become of the Boy and are doubtless associated with his years spent in Cologne during Hitler's rise to power.

Levi was born in 1919, two years after Böll. He managed to graduate in chemistry from the University of Turin in 1941 after the racial laws barring Jews from the universities had gone into effect. Before the Nazis invaded Italy, he worked briefly for a pharmaceutical company, but he was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Three years later he published Survival in Auschwitz, the Nazi Assault on Humanity (1947), appearing in English under the title If This Is a Man in 1959. In later years he published other accounts as well as novels, stories, and poems including If Not Now, When? (1982, tr. 1985) and Moments of Reprieve (1981, tr. 1986), which treat the fate of the Jews in wartime Europe. The Periodic Table, which reveals Levi's profound reflection, shares the objectivity of the earlier accounts and the originality of his later poetry and fiction. It was accorded major attention and received high praise.

Born in 1932, Saul Friedländer had his life disrupted by the rise of fascism when he was much younger than Böll and Levi. Like other Jews in Europe, his childhood was marked by tragedy but unlike many, he was spared deportation and death. He was shuffled about from one home to another, from one school to another, and from one country to another. After the war he emigrated to Israel and became a professor of history. The Nazi period is the subject of his studies, including Prelude to Downfall: Hitler and the United States (1963, tr. 1967), Pius XII and the Third Reich (1964, tr. 1966), History and Psychoanalysis (1975, tr. 1978), and A Conflict of Memories?: The New German Debates about the “Final Solution” (1988). Thus Friedländer, Böll, and Levi wrote book after book exploring the enigma of a cultured civilization that went awry. Doubtless, their memories as youths were not to be easily dissipated.

The German novelist portrays life in prewar Cologne in What's to Be Done With the Boy? In eighteen short chapters, Böll describes his days in school, his early recollections of Nazi brutality, his family's response to fascism, and his own youthful responses to the Nazis. He looks back on his youth unemotionally. As the title suggests, the account is marked by irony and wit.

From the outset, Böll freely admits that his account is limited and even flawed. He is also not sentimental in the least about his past, and he is detached not only from the memories but also from their written expression. What's to be Done with the Boy begins:

On January 30, 1933, I was fifteen years and six weeks old, and almost exactly four years later, on February 6, 1937, when I was nineteen years and seven weeks old, I graduated from high school with a ‘Certificate of Maturity.’ This certificate contains two errors: my date of birth is incorrect, and my choice of career—‘book trade’—was altered by the school principal, without consulting me, to ‘publishing,’ I have no idea why.


He goes on to say that these errors make him regard all particulars with “some skepticism” (3). The error permits him to “entertain a certain doubt as to whether” he is “really the person who is certified thereon as mature. Might the document refer to someone else? If so, to whom? This little game also allows me to consider the possibility that the entire document may be invalid” (3). In this peculiarly modest opening, Böll places an initial blow against the bulwark of German accuracy and precision; it foreshadows his criticism of the Nazis and also reveals the extent of his alienation from the social and political institutions that engulfed his childhood.

To some extent he is also alienated from his past. In the first chapter he confesses to “a justifiable mistrust” of memory. He says, “All this happened forty-eight to forty-four years ago, and I have no notes or jottings to resort to; they were burned or blown to bits in an attic … in Cologne. Moreover, I am no longer sure of how some of my personal experiences synchronize with historical events” (4-5). Thus, the highly respected author renders his own account suspect and views himself as a boy with something like mild amusement. “The man of sixty-three smiles down upon the boy of fifteen,” says Böll, “but the boy of fifteen does not smile up at the man of sixty-three, and it is here, in this unilateral perspective which is not matched by a corresponding perspective on the part of the fifteen-year-old, that we must expect to find a source of error” (8). Nevertheless, he goes on to recount the impact of the Hitler years on his family life and school years.

Young Böll had influenza when Hitler came to power, and relating fascism to a disease, he adds wryly that the influenza epidemic was “given insufficient consideration in analyses of Hitler's seizure of power” (8). He also notes that he had a serious sinus condition that remained with him until he was an American prisoner of war; after his capture, the condition never returned. Böll asks, “Was it really Nazi-induced? It may well have been, for I was also allergic to the Nazis” (45). His parents also detested the fascists, but remarked about it only in private since many of their neighbors embraced Hitler's rhetoric. Böll points out that he was educated in two worlds: in the relatively calm environment of his school and in the violence of the streets.

Whereas other writers describe the period in powerful images of Gestapo brutality, Böll simply says, “Who was that woman screaming on Achter-Gässchen, who [was] that man screaming on Landsberg-Strasse, who on Rosen-Strasse?” “Perhaps,” he continues, “it is not in school but on our way to school that we learn lessons for life” (13). Another lesson he learns outside of school concerns the hypocrisy of the Church. The official recognition by the Vatican of the Nazis taught the young Böll a lesson contradictory to his Catholic indoctrination, and this dealt a lasting blow to his commitment to Catholicism. Although they were critical of the Church, his parents hoped that he would become a priest or at least a student of theology. They held onto their Catholicism because it represented an alternative to the Protestant bias of the Nazis, and Böll himself recalls being pleased when a Catholic and a black became Olympic champions.

Böll found escape from the depressing and terrifying world of fascism in an occasional bicycle ride, which gave him a sense of freedom, especially since only Nazi youth sponsored events were permitted. On a bicycle he was independent, a “‘traveler without luggage’,” so that as he puts it, “totalitarianism was not yet quite complete” (41). Revolted by the mobs of young boys who joined the Nazi Youth, the future novelist fled to the world of Dostoyevski, Mauriac, Dickens, Balzac, and Remarque and he read them with an insatiable appetite.

What's to Become of the Boy is open-ended, and Böll's response to fascist Germany is understated. The account suggests, however, that his personal hostility to the mentality of the Nazis did something to him as a boy, and indeed it had to do with books: it made him turn not only to the world of books but eventually to expressing his views in his own books. The mature novelist looks back at his adolescence as a kind of limbo. Unlike the Jews, his family was not persecuted by the Nazis, yet his parents detested their government, their world. Böll's strongest statement is early in the book. He says that the Nazis “revolted me, repelled me on every level of my existence: conscious and instinctive, aesthetic and political” (4). He refers to the Nazis and “their” era. The book could be titled, “What was the Youth to do?” He resigned himself to his fate, fought in the army, and spent the rest of his life writing books on life in twentieth-century Germany.

Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, on the other hand, is a highly metaphorical chronicle of the Jewish chemist's schooling and work as a chemist before and during the war. The nineteen chapters are named after the Mendeleevian elements from Argon to Carbon. Each chapter associates the characteristics of a particular chemical element with aspects of the author's experience and initiates a meditation on the meaning of human endeavor. The Periodic Table is not a discursive narrative; it is a subtle excursus into the consciousness of a man who witnessed death daily and was nearly killed himself. It was luck and Levi's usefulness as a chemist to the Nazis that saved his life, but it was his love for chemistry that spared him psychological despair in Auschwitz.

Perhaps Levi was able to write The Periodic Table with its graceful novelistic weave of images and symbols because thirty years earlier he had given a stark account of physical deprivation in Survival in Auschwitz. The early account, with its short chapters relating Levi's experience and observations on human responses to atrocity, is somewhat fragmented. But several passages prefigure the artistic vision that was later realized in The Periodic Table. In addition, a chapter called “The Canto of Ulysses” suggests that the beauty of literature—the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic world created by words—helped govern Levi's interior life as he endured endless days and nights of pure agony.

In The Periodic Table, however, Levi devotes little space to the trials of the slave worker. As a chemist he had spent his life identifying and analyzing the elements that compose a particular substance. The text of the later autobiographical account discloses his conscious knowledge of the world around him and his subconscious awareness of himself as a Jew. The author couches his experiences with Nazi racism through metaphor. That encounter, unlike an object or chemical element, resists definition; the meaning of Levi's experience, however, is suggested through metaphors as they are woven into the texture of a narrative, one that is governed by memory and association; while the images assume a major role in the plot of The Periodic Table, their meanings emerge from the historical context of the narrative.

Thus Levi points out that “Argon,” which opens the memoir, is one of the inert or alien gases. Little is known about these gases, and some of the characteristics attributed to them are not always valid. In one of the few direct comparisons made in the book, he says, “The little that I know about my ancestors presents many similarities to these gases,” and he continues,

But there is no doubt that they were inert in their inner spirits, inclined to disinterested speculation, witty discourses, elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion. It can hardly be by chance that all the deeds attributed to them … have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.


But his ancestors were not inert in that they fled from Catholic Spain in the late fifteenth century and settled in the Italian Piedmont. The remainder of the first chapter describes the expressions of vicious anti-Semitism in his father's childhood and the more recent ones perpetuated by the S.S. Levi also discusses the language of his alienated people, and describes the Hebrew incorporated into the Piedmontese dialect of his family. The language was a defense against a hostile world of Gentiles.

The two central facts of Levi's life are the Nazis' hatred for the Jews and his expertise in chemistry. Each chapter ponders the strange relationship between his ethnic identity as a Jew and his professional identity as a chemist. Historical facts and personal events are fused in Levi's imagery as he gracefully considers the meaning of major historical issues such as anti-Semitism within the context of the chronological unfolding of events in his life.

For example, in “Zinc” he describes an assignment he had had as a student, which was to prepare zinc sulfate. For zinc to respond to an acid and change to zinc sulfate, an additional substance must be added. Levi observes, “One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.” He continues, “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them …” (33-34). Later in the chapter, describing his attraction to another student, a non-Jewish woman with whom he could not associate because of the racial laws, Levi observes, “I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard” (35).

The final chapter “Carbon” is a further elaboration of the theme of purity. Carbon dioxide, which constitutes the “raw material of life, the permanent store upon which all that grows draws … is not one of the principal components of air but rather a ridiculous remnant, an ‘impurity’” (228). The author goes on to point out how vain national leaders and generals are when they pride themselves on their power when in fact all of life is dependent on the presence of carbon dioxide which constitutes only three hundredths of a percent of the air we breathe. Thus, Levi does not attempt to explain the Nazis' rise to power or their world devoted to death; rather, he shows how humanity, with its wars and dictators, is inconsequential in the context of a larger world.

Like Böll, Levi is detached and unemotional, but unlike the German novelist, he is not self-conscious about or preoccupied with the narrative self. Indeed, the chemist makes a series of observations on the elements which are metaphorically associated with his experiences as a Jewish student in Turin and as an inmate in Auschwitz. Like Böll he reaches no definitive conclusions; he ends his memoir with a poetic image of his own hand writing, directed by cells responding to molecules and their elemental composition. Levi, separated from his family and stripped of his individuality in Auschwitz, survived because he was a chemist. In this account, he considers fascism in the terms of chemistry. The natural laws of chemistry, the molecular components of the earth, are Levi's certainty in a Europe that he had to witness: a place ruled by madmen and their systems for reducing millions of human beings to ash.

Saul Friedländer's When Memory Comes was also written in the seventies. While it recounts his experience as a child whom his parents out of desperation sent away for his own safety, it also presents the adult Friedländer's attempt to reconstruct his past and to recover the identity of a little boy who had no idea what was happening to him or why; he was even renamed as he was moved from guardian to guardian and from school to school.

Although Pavel Friedländer's parents were assimilated Jews, that did not spare the family from grave danger. In the course of his childhood, the young Friedländer was moved from one boarding school and boarding home to another. When he was six and Czechoslovakia fell to Hitler, the family fled to Paris and his name was changed from Pavel to Paul. For a time he was reunited with his parents, but was again separated from them when France was invaded. Shortly before his parents were turned over to the Germans, they had convinced a Catholic friend to take care of him. She decided to send Friedländer, now renamed Paul-Henri Ferland, to one of the strictest Catholic schools in France, the school of Saint-Béranger. In 1946, at the age of fourteen, as he was preparing to enter the seminary, a priest revealed to him his parents' death in Auschwitz. This was his first knowledge of the Holocaust. Within a short time, he boarded a ship bound for Palestine and changed his name from Paul to the Hebrew Shaul and later to Saul.

His trauma in childhood and hurt in adolescence, when he learned what happened to his parents, are suggested by the chronological fragmentation of the memoir. In addition, the author explores the relationship between the identity of self and the role of memory: Friedländer is preoccupied with his perceptions and illusive memories as a child as opposed to what he would later realize as an adult about his own world and the larger world around him. When Memory Comes portrays the iron link between historical circumstance and personal history in the life of a man who became a historian. The account begins, “I was born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power” (3); it concludes with his journey to the newly formed state of Israel. Between these two historical events, the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel, he interweaves the fragments of his childhood experiences, journal entries on the history of Israel since the sixties, and personal observations on life in Israel.

Like Böll, Friedländer expresses uncertainty about his memory but for different reasons. Early in the book he writes,

When did I feel the first tremors of what was going on around me—when did I feel the stable peaceful world of my earliest years begin to shift? I could not say exactly, for I think the inner upheavals that preceded the events that made history were later integrated with these latter to form an indissoluble whole. Inner upheavals: the fear of being abandoned, and successive encounters with death.


This memoir is an attempt, in part, to piece together the shards of his past, a childhood lost in the chaos of a brutal world's onslaught; it is an attempt to reconstruct the self. A secondary theme is his effort to identify Israel's place in the context of history and in the current world picture; Friedländer's private history merges with the larger world history of modern Israel, a place of refuge for the Jews.

The title, When Memory Comes, is taken from a passage in Gustav Meyrink's book on the Golem legend, the medieval tale of a rabbi who brings a huge clay figure to life in order to protect the Jews from the Gentiles. The quotation reads, “When knowledge comes, memory comes too, little by little. Knowledge and memory are one and the same thing” (2). Throughout the memoir, Friedländer muses on his irrationally selective memory. For example he refers to “The extraordinary mechanism of memory” wherein “the unbearable is effaced or, rather, sinks below the surface, while the banal comes to the fore” (79). He is also mildly ashamed that he felt happy at inappropriate times. In one instance, after several children in a Jewish school had been taken away by the Nazis, the younger ones including Friedländer were taken to the forest to hide; he remembers enjoying being outdoors and feeling “a sense of well-being” in the warm breeze.

The writer, himself a father, tries to retrieve, understand, and come to terms with his past, his orphanhood. In When Memory Comes, Friedländer, like Böll and Levi, reaches no sense of closure; but unlike them, his own past remains fragmented and is not to be ordered by the wit in Böll's account or by the symbolism in Levi's. It may be significant that Friedländer was much younger than the other writers when his life met with disaster. Although Friedländer the historian is able through his research to document and interpret world history, Friedländer the man cannot decipher his own past.

The memoirs of Böll, Levi, and Friedländer are a response to the personal history of each writer. In addition, the mode of presentation and the recurrent images in the texts reflect the intellectual and psychological orientation of each of these authors: that of a man who spent his life criticizing German culture in his novels; that of a chemist who wrote accounts of his experiences in the concentration camps and in Europe after the war; and that of an historian who has devoted himself to the Nazi period. How can we separate these autobiographies from their authors? Conversely, when we consider Paul de Man's description of autobiography as “De-facement,” that may be indicative of his view of his own life. In light of de Man's critical theory, which lays bare the ideology of discourse, how are his anti-Semitic statements to be viewed? Since he left no memoirs, one might conclude that he did not wish to reread or rewrite the text of his days in occupied Belgium.

De Man's discourse addresses the Ideal, instead. It is difficult to refute his argument that “To the extent that language is figure (or metaphor, or prosopopeia [a figure in which an absent or dead person is represented as present]) it is indeed not the thing itself but the representation, the picture of the thing and, as such, it is silent, mute as pictures are mute.” In addition, he claims that “Language, as trope, is always privative” (930). Consequently, from de Man's perspective, “the restoration of mortality by autobiography (the prosopopeia of the voice and the name) deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores” (930).

His contemporaries Böll, Levi, and Friedländer, however, attempt to communicate their experience in spite of the limitations of language. They contribute to our notion of the collective history of Europe through their personal versions of it. Thus these memoirs, written within a few years of each other, are graceful assertions of human dignity in response to the monolithic fascist enterprise.

Works Cited

Böll, Heinrich. What's to Become of the Boy? Or: Something to Do With Books. Trans. Leila Vennewitz. New York: Knopf, 1984.

De Man, Paul. “Autobiography as De-facement.” Modern Language Notes, 94 (1979): 919-30.

———. Critical Writings, 1953-1978. Ed. Lindsay Waters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Friedländer, Saul. When Memory Comes. Trans. Helen R. Lane. New York: Avon, 1980.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “Looking Back on Paul de Man.” Reading de Man Reading. Eds. Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 3-24.

Levi, Primo. The Periodic Table. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken, 1984.

Jonathan Druker (essay date 1994)

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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 differences in content and rhetorical structure between his early and late Holocaust texts which raise important questions about the relationship of survivor writing to post-Holocaust history. What effect does evolving historical perception, an intellectualized form of memory, have on the process of writing about the Holocaust? And how, if at all, do survivor-writers like Levi, as opposed to professional historians, respond to the illegitimate but nonetheless menacing challenges of Holocaust revisionism?1 In the following discussion of Levi's two most important Holocaust works, I hope to offer some preliminary answers to these questions.

Levi's first book, Survival in Auschwitz, is a memoir describing a brutal year in captivity from February 1944 to January 1945. Written in 1946, immediately after the end of the War and at a time when the details and dimensions of the Holocaust were not widely known, Survival in Auschwitz is an unadorned, emotionally restrained recitation of the facts. The book adheres to the details of Levi's own experience, avoiding secondhand information and unsupported generalizations about the larger meanings of the events. There is the occasional philosophical or moral meditation, often moving, but always brief, always subordinate to the narration of the actual happenings. Written in 1985, The Drowned and the Saved is a product of our era, a time when the Holocaust is often cast as the central moment of our century. This book, his last, is an intense meditation on the moral and historical significance of the events he described so precisely in his first. He offers the reader closely reasoned assessments of the participants' motives and moral responsibilities as well as an analysis of the Holocaust's place in human history. As strongly as Survival in Auschwitz strives for credibility in the face of the incredible, The Drowned and the Saved [hereafter abbreviated DS] seeks to articulate the Holocaust's importance for today and tomorrow. In its entirety, Levi's Holocaust writing, so different in these two volumes which frame his literary career like bookends, may be divided into two distinct phases: testimony and judgment. In commenting upon the texts in greater detail, I aim to identify the stylistic and rhetorical strategies that characterize each phase, as well as to discover the divergent objectives these strategies are meant to achieve.

The type of critical investigation of Holocaust writing I am proposing may have the effect of separating the texts from the experiences that prompted the survivors to write in the first place. We must be vigilant, therefore, to see that literary analysis does not obscure the reality these works attempt to represent, even though in our efforts to understand their functioning we have no choice but to approach the texts with the tools of criticism. Speaking of survivor testimony, Levi himself remarked: “Beyond the pity and indignation these recollections provoke, they should also be read with a critical eye” (DS, p. 16).2

Before going any further, I am compelled to address briefly the pervasive notion that Levi's alleged suicide has profound consequences for the meaning of his texts. Some critics even go so far as to say that his suicide constitutes a resoundingly negative self-critique.3 This point of view not only undermines Levi's works by measuring their success in a narrowly biographical context, but also implies that silence will necessarily drown out speech in the face of the Holocaust's presumed ineffability. Since the question of why or even whether Levi took his own life remains in dispute, I take a more cautious approach to the problem of his untimely death and its link to his writings in the analysis that follows.


The manner in which Levi commences the preface to Survival in Auschwitz [hereafter abbreviated as SA] establishes a tone characteristic of the entire narrative.

It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German Government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labor, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals.

(SA, p. 5)

This first sentence announces Levi's intention—substantially fulfilled, in my opinion—to offer an objective-sounding account of his camp experience, told without self-pity and the wails of rage that would be, under the circumstances, so completely justified. Speaking without deliberate irony, he describes the historical circumstances (his “good fortune”) that made possible his return from the camp and allowed him to write the book we have in hand. Moreover, Levi's measured, restrained prose, here and throughout the book, is designed to fulfill a deeply rooted desire: to be heard, to be believed. For many survivors of the Holocaust, the fear of not being believed is as deep as it is reasonable. Who would believe the enormity of this genocide, who would believe that such irrational and terrible acts were carried out with such extreme rationality and efficiency, who would believe that millions died in the heart of Europe, the most civilized continent on Earth? Even the Nazis felt confident that they, and not their victims, would “be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers.”4

In Survival in Auschwitz Levi writes of a recurring dream that haunted his nights in the camp: he has returned home only to find that no one listens to his incredible story.

It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people, and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I were not there. My sister looks at me, gets up and goes away without a word. A desolating grief is now born in me …

(SA, p. 54).

Making the events of the Holocaust sound plausible, a difficulty profoundly understood by the survivors even before their liberation, is especially urgent when, as Levi tells us, many inmates wanted “to survive with the precise purpose of recounting the things [they] had witnessed and endured” (The Reawakening [hereafter abbreviated as R,] p. 217). By what means may the survivor-writer convince the reader of the unimaginable, in what voice, with what words? Certainly, there is no single solution. To the contrary, a multiplicity of individual approaches, each one unique, forms a mosaic of the Holocaust far more detailed than any individual account could hope to be. Still, some testimonies carry more historical weight than others because they stress detail and chronology over the expression of pain, fear, and spiritual emptiness. They strive to describe the irrational with as much clarity and reason as can be mustered: this is the type of memoir that Levi has written. To be sure, he speaks eloquently of the terror, of the shame, but he does not allow these sentiments to dominate his account, preferring instead a more dispassionate, credible tone, preferring not to lose the reader's trust.

Elie Wiesel reaches to the core of the survivor-writer's dilemma when he states: “To be believable, [survivors'] tales had to tell less than the truth.”5 Levi, too, understands that testifying effectively involves careful choices, that it means telling only part of the story. Many years after writing Survival in Auschwitz, he explained the nature of his choices.

When describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overly emotional; only in this way does the witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge. You, my readers, are the judges.

(R, p. 196)6

At times Levi stresses his personal motives for writing Survival in Auschwitz. Telling his story is a form of “interior liberation” (SA, p. 6) because it expels some part of the guilt and shame from which he and all survivors suffer. The citation above, however, offers insight into his public motives: he desires to serve the cause of justice, and this means accepting the survivor's painful obligation to bear witness while resisting the temptation to act as judge and jury as well. It is not that Levi feels fatally biased or incapable of rendering explicit judgments on his victimizers, but he avoids doing so in order to preserve the “apparent” objectivity of his testimony.7

I place the word “apparent” in quotations because all discourse, including Levi's, is constructed from subjective experience. Critics have noted—correctly, I think—that Levi's training as a chemist brings a scientific rigor to his prose. Still, all writers work through an intangible process in choosing and shaping the details they recount. Levi himself recognizes the fallacy of total objectivity: above he states frankly that he “deliberately assumed” a calm voice; he surmises that his account would be more credible if it “sounded objective.” Though Levi accepts the possibility of multiple interpretations of experience, he believed that there is a single reality, that there is an objective truth of the Holocaust, just as there is for all natural phenomena. Nevertheless, he accepts the inability of any single individual to know the whole truth or any language to express it fully. Therefore, Levi does not believe that his testimony is more truthful than another survivor's sincere account; rather, his effort has been to make “the tragic world of Auschwitz” as intelligible as possible, even if this requires diminishing the true intensity of the events. Despite this moderation, I think we learn a great deal from Levi about the experience of Auschwitz. Reading carefully we also begin to recognize the rhetorical strategies that lend survivor accounts greater credibility.

In expunging the “lamenting tones of the victim” from his testimony, Levi seeks credibility according to Wiesel's dictum, that is, by telling less rather than more. Of course Levi, too, is a victim, but he speaks of his experience with a certain detachment that allows him to render the atrocious details with precision. He speaks in a tone, in other words, that is in dramatic contrast to the terrors he is describing. To readers familiar with a wide variety of Holocaust literature, Levi's voice may seem too detached, too logical, to capture anything close to the essence of the death camps. One such reader is Cynthia Ozick, who states:

The advantage, for many of Levi's readers, has been—dare one say this?—a curious peacefulness: the consequence of the famous “detachment”. … Of the scribes of the Holocaust, Levi appears to be the one who troubles the least, least wounds, least implicates, the reader … [his] books are, given their subject matter, easiest to take.8

Ozick has a valid point: detachment can be a way for both the writer and the reader to avoid the worst and most significant aspects of the Holocaust. Yet, Levi's dispassionate voice does not make his version of Auschwitz more palatable; on the contrary, with its precision and restraint, it enforces the facts of atrocity so persuasively that even the most skeptical reader fails to escape them.

When, in 1959, Levi learned that his memoir would be translated into German and published in Germany, he understood for the first time one of his less conscious motives for writing the book: to persuade those who have the least incentive to believe, the Germans themselves.

When I heard of the contract everything changed and became clear to me: yes, I had written the book in Italian, for Italians, for my children, for those who did not know, for those who did not want to know, those who were not yet born, those who willing or not, had assented to the offense; but its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed like a gun, were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded.

(DS, p. 168)9

And we know, in fact, that Levi's memoir has been widely read in Germany. In the final chapter of The Drowned and the Saved he offers excerpts from several personal letters sent to him by his German readers. Some of these individuals are unrepentant; others have been tremendously moved by the forceful, unflinching style of Survival in Auschwitz, a narrative that Levi hoped would impact like a gun blast. Without the detachment that unsettles Ozick (“peacefulness” is certainly not the right word), I dare say that Levi's voice would not have been heard in Germany, exactly where his message was and still is, if we take into account recent events there, most urgently needed.

Levi has given credibility—only one of many possible emphases in survivor testimony—the highest priority in his account, and has done so with remarkable efficacy. When asserting that the Holocaust never happened, the crudest of the so-called revisionists must undermine the power of Levi's words and those of so many other survivors. I think it is safe to say that these pseudo-historians have failed to convince open-minded individuals, and it is precisely this failure which leads me to the second phase of Levi's career: judgment.


In the preface to The Drowned and the Saved, Levi explains that the Nazis did everything possible to see that the Holocaust remained a secret. Indeed, the first reports during the War that a slaughter of enormous proportions was in progress were not believed. Yet, over a period of years, the voices of the survivors, documents left by the perpetrators, and masses of physical evidence convinced the world that this genocide had occurred. Naturally, the David Dukes will always choose to believe the Revisionists' claim that Auschwitz never existed. Fact has no place in their anti-Jewish agenda, nor can it be used to change their minds about the Holocaust. They are, at present, a marginal few, and we can only hope that they remain so.

A more troubling trend beginning in the 1980s is what is sometimes called “relativism,” the point of view advanced with some subtlety by serious German historians like Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber.10 While admitting that the Holocaust occurred, these historians maintain that it was not exceptional in any respect, and that many “relatively” similar slaughters have taken place around the world in recent memory. Nazi massacres were no worse than the Bolshevik massacres, they argue, and the concentration camps were no worse than the gulags. Most shocking is the attempt by some of these scholars to present the German slaughters in Eastern Europe as a preventive defense against an expected Soviet invasion.

One of Levi's motives for writing The Drowned and the Saved is to respond generally, if not specifically, to the Relativists' interpretations. From the outset, he makes it clear that he will resist any normalization of the Holocaust.

Notwithstanding the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the shame of the gulags, the useless and bloody Vietnam War, the Cambodian self-genocide, the desaparecidos of Argentina, … the Nazi concentration camp system still remains an unicum, both in its extent and its quality. At no place or time has one seen a phenomenon so unexpected and so complex: never have so many human lives been extinguished in so short a time, and with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism, and cruelty.

(DS, p. 21)

While Levi's assessment of the Holocaust's uniqueness is both compelling and concise, I am more interested, for the moment, in the way this statement signals the passage from his first phase to his second, that is, from testimony to judgment. In Survival in Auschwitz the Holocaust's uniqueness is not at issue for two reasons: first, in 1946 no one had a broad enough perspective to understand the dimensions of the disaster; second, Levi would not have wanted to risk claiming too much authority for himself by judging the broader implications of such recent events. In 1985, however, he speaks in earnest of the legacy of genocide. While survivor-status lends passion to his voice, the authority to offer such analyses derives as much from long meditation and study of Holocaust history as from personal experience. At the same time, he does not claim to speak from the perspective of a professional historian, or with the same objectives. “I do not intend,” he writes, “nor would I have been able, to do a historian's work, that is, exhaustively examine the sources” (DS, p. 21). Though Levi's interpretations in The Drowned and the Saved rely on the work of others, it is hard to imagine a more eloquent or forceful discussion of the Holocaust's contemporary significance.

To address the issue of the Holocaust's place in our history, to pass judgments on it, in other words, Levi adopts a rhetorical strategy radically different from the one employed in his first book. Survival in Auschwitz, a first-person, autobiographical narration ordered more or less chronologically, is structured as a traditional legal testimony designed to elicit the facts. The Drowned and the Saved, a collection of essays arranged by topic, seeks to interpret the moral and historical implications of these facts. Though Levi employs an occasional personal anecdote in the essays, most of his argumentation is grounded in the great body of Holocaust scholarship. “[This book],” he writes, “contains more considerations than memories, lingers more willingly on the state of affairs such as it is now than on the retroactive chronicle” (DS, p. 35). Thus, with a contemporary vantage point, he sets about offering precise and measured judgments on the past actions of the Holocaust participants. These evaluations are made neither easily nor with an evident sense of moral superiority. “For me judging is painful” (DS, p. 196), Levi confesses. Still, he refuses to shirk this solemn obligation, remarking at an earlier point in his career: “I do not want to, nor can I, evade the duty which every man has, that of making a judgment and formulating an opinion” (R, p. 208).

Perhaps the survivors, Levi's own group, are the most difficult to judge. In the camps they occupied what he terms “the gray zone”: they were victims, but since most of them survived by taking advantage of other prisoners, they were also victimizers. Thus, Levi concludes, survival was not in every case a vindication of human endurance and human nobility. “Every survivor is to be helped and pitied, but not all of their acts should be set forth as examples” (DS, p. 20). His notion that the concentration camp system exploited human weakness to turn prisoner against prisoner undermines the idealized view of survival proposed by other writers such as Terrence Des Pres.11

While Levi's point of view on the subject of collaboration remains substantially unchanged from his first book to his last, at the end of his career he offers more definitive judgments on entire groups of prisoners. He would “lightheartedly absolve … prisoners without rank [and] low-ranking functionaries” (DS, p. 44). But he admits that judging the higher-ranking prisoners such as the Kapos is more difficult: although members of Auschwitz's privileged classes were often the most violent and murderous individuals, a few of them were political opponents of the Third Reich and used their privilege to undermine the camp system (DS, p. 45). In regard to the Sonderkommandos, of which he knew very little as a prisoner, Levi wisely abstains from offering judgment on those who themselves suffered so much. “I ask that we meditate on the story of ‘the crematorium ravens’ with pity and rigor, but that judgment of them be suspended” (DS, p. 60). Even his requesting that we abstain from judgment is to exercise a kind of moral and historical authority.

In judging the Germans who carried out the work of genocide, Levi uncompromisingly insists that under Totalitarianism individuals still have the ability to make moral choices. He vigorously defends this position in a reply to one of his German correspondents.

I might remind you that nothing obligated German industrialists to hire famished slaves if not for their profit; that no one forced the Topf Company (flourishing today in Wiesbaden) to build the enormous multiple crematoria in the Lagers; that perhaps the SS did receive orders to kill the Jews, but enrollment in the SS was voluntary.

(DS, p. 179)

Levi recognizes the coercive power of institutions, but his interpretation of the history consistently focuses on individual responsibility. Citing the case of a German who treated him humanely while in captivity, Levi states, “if anomalous Germans, capable of such modest courage, had been more numerous, that time's history and today's geography would be different” (DS, p. 170). Individual responsibility, he argues, is the last and most important deterrent to future genocides.

Although Levi accepts that neither historical analysis nor human justice can reverse such monstrous crimes or repair millions of shattered lives, he is nonetheless convinced of the value of intellectual and ethical engagement with the Holocaust. These activities cannot alter the past, but they can refresh the images of atrocity and the sense of shock for those who most urgently need to understand: the future generations. If the German people function as the ideal reader for Survival in Auschwitz, it is to the young that Levi addresses The Drowned and the Saved. At the book's conclusion he writes:

For us to speak with the young becomes ever more difficult. We see it as a duty and, at the same time, as a risk: the risk of appearing anachronistic, of not being listened to. We must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experiences, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental, unexpected event.

(DS, p. 199)

“Fundamental”: this, in a word, is Levi's judgment of the Holocaust. The urgency of his message, of which his personal experience forms only a small part, impels him to speak despite the risk that his voice will fall on deaf ears. As a “captive of history” (If Not Now, When?, p. 4 [hereafter abbreviated as INNW]), to use Irving Howe's phrase, he has no choice.


A thorough discussion of how Levi's other writings fit into the categories of testimony and judgment exceeds the scope of this essay, but even a concise review of The Reawakening and The Periodic Table, his two other non-fiction works touching on the Holocaust, suggests that my scheme retains its efficacy beyond Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved. If Levi's first and last books form the chronological and analytic poles of our discussion, it should not surprise us to find that his mid-career writings are a mixture of apparently objective description and incisive judgment. In The Reawakening, completed in 1962, Levi describes the nine months following his liberation from Auschwitz with the same detached precision found in his first book, but he also begins to investigate the long-term legacy of survival, or, in other words, to weigh the consequences of the Holocaust. In The Periodic Table, completed in 1975, a few more details of Levi's camp experience are revealed in the chapter titled “Vandanium,” but the writer's main purpose here is to analyze the behavior and assess the guilt of a German chemist who had contact with Levi at Auschwitz but did little to help him. Letters between the two men form large portions of the text, creating a dialogue in which each attempts to make sense of the now distant events. With this technique, adopted again in The Drowned and the Saved to a similar effect, the past is brought into focus by the interpretive lens of the present.

With these brief remarks on The Reawakening and The Periodic Table, I mean to strengthen my argument that Levi's perspective underwent a gradual shift from witness to historical and moral arbiter of the Holocaust in the course of his literary career, a shift so definitive that it held no possibility of reversal. The importance that Levi attached late in life to the debate over the Holocaust's historical significance may be measured by the fact that his last public writing was a very pointed rebuttal—the only direct one he ever made—of the relativists' arguments.12 His article in the Turin newspaper La Stampa, published on January 22, 1987, less than three months before his untimely death, has been translated and titled in English “The Dispute Among German Historians,” in reference to the much-used German term Historikerstreit, “the historians' dispute.”13 The original and frightening Italian title more accurately reflects the article's palpable intensity: “Buco nero di Auschwitz” or “The Black Hole of Auschwitz,” an allusion to those anomalous places in the cosmos from which nothing escapes, not even light. Using this scientific metaphor, Levi easily undermines the spurious argument that Hitler's efficient annihilation camps were no worse than the Soviet gulags: practically no one escaped the black holes of Treblinka and Chelmno, Levi reminds us, whereas mortality was a criminal “by-product” but never the primary purpose of the gulags. After a searing refutation of other relativists' positions, Levi confirms his view of the Holocaust's fundamental historical importance, concluding: “If today's Germany sets store by the place to which she is entitled among European nations, she cannot and must not whitewash her past” (MM, [Mirror Maker] p. 166).

Holocaust survivors have had the enormous burden of revealing the dark side of humanity, the side none of us confronts willingly. Yet as the passing of time continues to silence their voices and to facilitate the historicization of the events, survivors will play a lesser role in the Holocaust's interpretation. By the end of his career, Levi had thoroughly fulfilled the survivor's obligation to testify; what remained for him, and will forever remain, is to interpret the mute facts. This task will soon be left to artists, historians, and others, but not to the survivors themselves, whose era is drawing to a close.


  1. For thorough, up-to-date discussions of the history and current trends of revisionism, see both Deborah E. Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Free Press, 1993), and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

  2. Levi's translated works and interviews are designated herein with the following abbreviations: The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1988) (= DS); Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Macmillan 1961) (= SA); The Reawakening, trans. Stuart Woolf, “Afterword” trans. Ruth Feldman (New York: Macmillan, 1987) (= R); Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, trans. John Shepley (Marlboro, VT: Marlboro Press, 1989) (= C); The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1989) (= MM); If Not Now, When?, trans. William Weaver, Introduction by Irving Howe (New York: Summit Books, 1985) (= INNW); The Periodic Table, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1984). I have occasionally corrected the English translations for accuracy.

  3. See, for example, Cynthia Ozick, “Primo Levi's Suicide Note” in Metaphor and Memory (New York: Random House, 1991).

  4. Simon Wiesenthal, The Murders Among Us, ed. Joseph Wechsberg (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967). Cited in DS, p. 12.

  5. “A Plea for the Survivors,” in A Jew Today (New York: Vantage, 1979), p. 236. Others have recognized the problems involved in representing the Holocaust. Aharon Appelfeld's point of view differs somewhat from Wiesel's, but is equally useful in helping us to read Levi's survivor account: “By its nature, when it comes to describing reality, art always demands a certain intensification, for many and various reasons. However, that is not the case with the Holocaust. Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology. Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human realm” (“After the Holocaust” in Writing and the Holocaust, ed. Berel Lang [New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988], p. 92).

  6. Levi reconfirmed his feelings in the following statement made near the end of his life: “It's true that I refrained from formulating judgments in Survival in Auschwitz. I did so deliberately, because it seemed to me inopportune, not to say importunate, on the part of the witness, namely myself, to take the place of the judge” (C, p. 13).

  7. In his Auschwitz memoir Levi writes that he “judges” the Kapo Alex for wiping a greasy hand on his shoulder but offers nothing specific about what this judgment is (SA, p. 98). While in The Drowned and the Saved, the same incident, if mentioned, would have prompted a detailed discussion, here Levi immediately returns to his narrative of the events.

  8. “Primo Levi's Suicide Note,” pp. 39, 40, 41.

  9. Levi recalls a similar desire to confront the Germans in The Reawakening. “We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us; we felt an urgent need to settle our accounts, to ask, explain and comment, … Did they know about Auschwitz, about the silent daily massacre, a step away from their doors? … If they did not, they ought, as a sacred duty, to listen, to learn everything, immediately, from us, from me” (p. 190).

  10. For a concise discussion of the works of Nolte, Hillgruber and others see Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust, pp. 209-222.

  11. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

  12. For a catalogue of passing references to revisionism in Levi's works, see Enzo Collotti, “Leggendo il revisionismo in Primo Levi,” Belfagor 44 (1989), pp. 98-102.

  13. The article is included in The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, pp. 161-68. Nearly all of the key texts of the Historikerstreit are reprinted in translation in James Knowlton and Truett Cates, trans., Forever in the Shadow of Hitler?: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit, the Controversy Concerning the Singularity of the Holocaust (Atlantic Heights, NJ: Humanities Press, 1993).

Jay Losey (essay date 1994)

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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 Western civilization, and Levi uses the epiphanic mode not to eulogize this civilization but to convey his response to the Holocaust: ‘for me the experience of the concentration camp has been fundamental.’2 His response, according to Irving Howe, displays ‘moral poise: I mean a strength of remembrance that leads Levi into despair and then at least partly beyond it …’.3 Levi seeks to affirm personal meaning despite, as he says in L'altrui mestiere (Other People's Trades), ‘a pure return to barbarism’ that defines the twentieth century (:24). Levi's autobiographical confession that he keeps writing about the Holocaust because he cannot help it may serve as his definition of the epiphanic mode:

Well, it has been observed by psychologists that the survivors of traumatic events are divided into two well-defined groups: those who repress their past en bloc, and those whose memory of the offence persists, as though carved in stone, prevailing over all previous or subsequent experiences. Now, not by choice but by nature, I belong to the second group. Of my two years of life outside the law [in Poland and Russia] I have not forgotten a single thing. Without any deliberate effort, memory continues to restore to me events, faces, words, sensations, as if at that time my mind had gone through a period of exalted receptivity, during which not a detail was lost.4

Levi cites the commonplace details—‘events, faces, words, sensations’—that trigger his memory. These details are all essential to Levi's epiphanic mode, which he refers to as ‘a period of exalted receptivity’.

The concept of Levi's experience being ‘carved in stone’ reveals the self-professed accuracy of his memory. The crucial admission that Levi does not recall his experience by rational means but by non-rational means (‘not by choice but by nature’) indicates the presence of epiphany in his writing. And although a few critics have referred to the epiphanic mode in analysing concentration camp literature, no one has adequately explained its function. Terrence Des Pres refers to an incident in Eugenia Ginzburg's Journey Into the Whirlwind as being ‘like a Joycean epiphany, [revealing] in a moment the shattering of personal life under Stalin’.5 Lawrence Langer cites an incident from Pierre Gascar's Season of the Dead that ‘… approaches (though it does not yet quite reach) the intensity of an epiphany’ when a group of prisoners can distinguish only the yellow star of David on a corpse.6 And Risa Sodi refers to the Ulysses epiosde in Se questo è un uomo in which Levi recites lines from the Inferno to a fellow prisoner, culminating in his ‘… momentary epiphany [that] comes crashing down around him as the cooks officially announce the day's soup’.7 I intend to explain how Levi uses the epiphanic mode to shape non-rational material: his Lager experience.

For the epiphanist to shape non-rational material and convey experience he must rely on language. Levi acknowledges his own painstaking search for precise language: ‘It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter.’8 This desire to employ precise language underscores his belief that the effort to communicate, to find a common language, creates an allegiance among the prisoners.9 In his first work, Se questo è un uomo (translated as If This Is a Man in England and as Survival in Auschwitz in America), Levi laments his inability to recall the ‘plain, outspoken words’ of a prisoner, Steinlauf, but recalls their meaning:

… that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization.


Steinlauf's willingness to communicate, to use language to instruct/warn Levi, the new prisoner, enables him to make a connection between language and civilization, silence and savageness. Through language Levi literally discovers how to wage war against savageness. And ordering language enables Levi to recreate the mystery of his experience. Using the epiphanic mode, Levi demonstrates his ability to render experience accurately, to remember details, to select the right word, and to transform his experience in the reader's imagination.10

The concept of memory being likened to stone and of experience being likened to images carved into stone also appears in a story in Lilit e altri racconti (Moments of Reprieve). When the Lager SS maliciously put up a notice stating that camp prisoners may write letters home, Levi decides to take advantage of the opportunity, not because he believes the letter will be posted but because he will be able momentarily to forget his pain and hunger:

It was a matter of weighing each word so that it would convey the maximum of information to the improbable recipient and, at the same time, would not appear suspect to the probable censor. Having to write in German added to the difficulty. … I did not know many terms, exactly those needed to express feelings. I felt inept, as if I had to carve that letter in stone.


Levi carves experiences and events into his memory; his obsession to recall accurately his experience indicates the importance of memory to the epiphanic mode. In his final memoir, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), Levi admits that his ‘personal memories’ have ‘somewhat faded’ forty years after his imprisonment, but he adds they are ‘unaffected’ by passing time.11 His memory may be ‘unaffected,’ but the issue, as always, is accurately conveying experiences and events. For Levi, ‘It is easier to deny entry to a memory than to free oneself from it after it has been recorded’ (:31).

Levi also distinguishes between ‘unconsciously stylized’ memoirs and his own, which contain ‘genuine memory’, an indication that he aesthetically shapes his experience to convey meaning (:71). Since I argue that Levi uses the epiphanic mode to shape his Holocaust writings, I acknowledge the counter-argument put forth by Alvin Rosenfeld, George Steiner and others that such writing defies aesthetic considerations. In The Survivor Des Pres conveys this tension when he asserts that ‘… the great majority of books and documents by survivors are not consciously formal or deliberately shaped. Their testimony is in no way “literary”, and yet everywhere great and terrible metaphors are embedded in events described’ (Survivor: 175). Any written account presents Holocaust survivors with aesthetic concerns; how they deal with these concerns in telling their story will influence the understanding of readers. The need to bear witness is overpowering for survivors; but without the aesthetic means to render their experience, according to Levi, survivors may miss conveying its meaning.

To be sure, Levi's epiphanies are disturbing and may even grate on readers. As Irving Howe puts it, ‘Can we really say that in reading a memoir or novel about the Holocaust, or in seeing a film such as Shoah, we gain the pleasure, or catharsis, that is customarily associated with the aesthetic transaction?’12 Howe identifies the main difficulty of analysing Holocaust literature. An ‘aesthetic transaction’ always takes place between writer and readers. The writer may describe barbaric acts and bestial conduct while dramatizing the attempts of victims to defy barbarity and bestiality. This ‘aesthetic transaction’ is inevitable, given the pledge of Holocaust survivors to bear witness. Thomas Mann comes closest to explaining this subtle interplay between writer and readers: ‘The mystery of language is a great one; the responsibility for a language and for its purity is of a symbolic and spiritual kind; this responsibility does not have merely an aesthetic sense. The responsibility for language is, in essence, human responsibility’.13 The ‘aesthetic sense,’ a hallmark of epiphany, enables Levi to magnify ‘human responsibility’.

In Se questo è un uomo, Levi reveals the savageness of his experience by aesthetically shaping it. He does so, for example, while depicting his stay in ‘Ka-Be’, the camp infirmary, to recover from a foot injury. Thinking of the other injured prisoners in ‘Ka-Be’, Levi suddenly recalls the German word ‘Heimweh’, which means ‘longing for one's home’ (:49). This non-rational association produces a startling insight: his suffering is not only caused by the Nazis but also by his own remarkable memory: ‘We know where we come from; the memories of the world outside crowd our sleeping and our waking hours, we become aware, with amazement, that we have forgotten nothing, every memory evoked rises in front of us painfully clear’ (:49). Long after the Russian army liberates the camp, Levi wishes he could expunge his memories, but confesses in La tregua (translated as The Truce in England and as The Reawakening in America) that ‘the scars of the outrage would remain’ with him ‘for ever …’.14 Again, paradoxically, Levi indicates that without specific associations of time and place, he is unable to recall his experience: ‘We spent ten days at Slutsk [in Russia near Minsk]. They were empty days, without encounters, without events to anchor the memory’ (:113). Whether considered as encounters or events, Levi not only relies on memory as a storehouse for experience but also depends upon specific associations of time and place to recall the original experience.

For the epiphanic mode to succeed, the perceiver—whether in a memoir or novel—must have a remarkable memory and a capacity to transform experience into meaning. In his novel Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), Levi chronicles the adventures of a group of Jewish partisans. Mendel, whose name (Menachem) means consoler, is the novel's protagonist and Levi's spokesman. In a section of the novel that corresponds to the time of Levi's actual liberation from Auschwitz in January 1945, Mendel remembers the people he has encountered during his journey through Russia, Poland and Italy towards Palestine. Of his reliance on autobiography, Levi indicates in L'altrui mestiere that ‘[j]ust as it is impossible to transform a real person into a character, that is, fashion an objective undistorted biography of him, so it is impossible to perform the reverse operation, to coin a character without pouring into it not only your moods as the author but also fragments of people you have met or of other characters’ (:131). But unlike Levi, who emerges as a clear, distinct figure in the five memoirs and as the writer-chemist in La chiave a stella (The Monkey's Wrench), Mendel is unable to rely on memory as a storehouse of experience:

Crammed with memories, and at once filled with forgetting: his memories, even recent ones, were faded, they had hazy outlines, they overlapped in this effort of his [to remember], as if someone were making drawings on the blackboard, then only half erasing them, before making new ones on top of the old. … Perhaps memory is like a bucket; if you want to cram into it more fruit than it will hold, the fruit is crushed.15

Levi likens Mendel's experience to a palimpsest, to a blackboard whose legibility is indecipherable. Characters like Mendel, David Denby argues, are unsuccessful: ‘Levi needs to be a character himself in order to anchor his profoundest impressions of other people’; Levi's epiphanic mode is most successful when he relies on his memory to convey, in Denby's words, ‘his profoundest impressions’.16 In his preface to Lilit e altri racconti, Levi also indicates that for the epiphanic mode to succeed it must refer to actual events: ‘the episodes on which I have built each of these stories actually did take place, and the characters did exist …’ (:11).

But Se non ora, quando? is crucial in understanding Levi's epiphanic mode because throughout the novel he experiments with time. His experiment with narrative time, another hallmark of epiphany, enables him to show the timelessness of his experience. He transforms it in the imagination of his readers. For Levi, time has two distinct applications. He employs objective or chronological time to set off each chapter, giving the novel a straightforward temporal sequence; but he utilizes subjective or durational time to depict his characters' thoughts and actions.17 Ironically, Mendel is a watchmender; however, the first words of the novel alert readers to the superfluity of objective time: ‘In my village there weren't many clocks. One on the church steeple, but it had stopped years and years ago, maybe during the Revolution. I never saw it working, and my father said he hadn't either’ (:19).18 Levi may have picked up this distinction between chronological and durational time from Bergson. Indeed, Levi incorporates Bergsonian duration into his narratives. What matters is not the length of an impression but its intensity.

In Se questo è un uomo, Levi distinguishes between two types of subjective time: compressed time and elongated time. Compressed time refers to the flashing of memories, ‘still so near in time and space’ (:12), as Levi puts it, which may be likened to the myth of the drowning man who relives his entire life in a matter of seconds. Although the duration of an impression may be brief, its intensity has a lasting impact on the perceiver. Elongated time, on the other hand, comes closest to Bergson's notion of duration. In the Lager, Levi feels time passing ‘drop by drop’ and compares the slowness of passing time to being imprisoned in hell (:18). By using these two types of subjective time, Levi vivifies the anguish of his Lager experience.

Language, memory, and subjective time are all crucial components of the epiphanic process; Levi, ever the chemist, is painstakingly accurate in his mixture of these components. The final component, his vision of the Holocaust, makes Levi a unique practitioner of the epiphanic mode. The pervasiveness of epiphany in Levi's memoirs indicates that language may penetrate readers, may create a bond, and allow them to experience imaginatively a descent into hell. But because language cannot adequately express ‘the demolition of a man’, Levi asserts in Se questo è un uomo he relied on ‘intuition’ not only to improve his chances of survival but also to avoid having ‘to think’ (:22, 32). As he says in I sommersi e i salvati, “‘not trying to understand” … was the first wise dictum one had to learn in the Lager’ (:142). In this way, he exploits the non-rational attributes of the epiphanic mode to render his experience.


Distinguishing between compressed and elongated time may also serve as a way to identify the two main types of epiphany Levi employs in his writing. Compressed time denotes spontaneity, the flashing of intuition, the instantaneous apprehension of meaning. This rendering of subjective time corresponds to what may be called present epiphany: the brief duration between the specific event and its meaning immediately apprehended. The second type of epiphany, closely associated with elongated time, occurs when a specific event is impressed on the perceiver's memory and, through an association of time and place, is recalled at some future time. This future event can trigger the perceiver's memory of the original event, not in itself epiphanic, thus causing him to transform his experience. This second type may be called delayed epiphany. These types of epiphany enable Levi to show the hubris of the most diabolic experiment ever conducted: genocide. Since science seeks to further human understanding, Levi is acutely aware of the abyss between the Nazi genocidal experiment and the quest for knowledge; in Se questo è un uomo, he indicates that ‘… the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment’ (:79). Although Levi offers a radical critique of science, he affirms his profession by applying its methods to convey his experience.

In Se questo è un uomo, Levi discovers in a present epiphany a will to live he never knew existed. This discovery marks a turning point in his life at Auschwitz, illustrating once again the interrelation of experience and revelation. Physically and mentally beaten, he is selected by Jean, the Pikolo or ‘messenger-clerk’ of the Chemical Kommando, to help pick up the midday meal of watery soup (:99). On the way, he discovers that Jean is an accomplished linguist, fluent in German, and would like to learn Italian. Levi decides to teach him immediately and is not sure why the Commedia pops into his head: ‘Who is Dante? What is the Comedy? That curious sensation of novelty one feels if one tries to explain briefly what is the Divine Comedy. How the Inferno is divided up, what are its punishments. Virgil is Reason, Beatrice is Theology’ (:102). Levi desperately tries to translate Dante's Italian into French, a language he cannot speak well. And although he cannot remember some lines that appear in Inferno XXVI, he does recall the celebrated words Ulysses uses to coax his men into undertaking their final voyage: ‘Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance / Your mettle was not made; you were made men, / To follow after knowledge and excellence’ (:103). These words create a spiritual inspiration which he signifies by writing, ‘For a moment I forgot who I am and where I am’ [‘ho dimenticato chi sono e dove sono’] (:103). But Levi grasps the irony of Ulysses' quest after infinite knowledge; as he says elsewhere, ‘our human condition … is opposed to everything infinite’ (:13). Triggered by reciting Dante's lines on Ulysses, Levi senses that language, however garbled, enables him to create a human bond with Jean.

Although Jean does not acknowledge Levi's encoded language, he nonetheless begs Levi to repeat Ulysses' words. As the two arrive to pick up the soup, Levi wants to tell him ‘about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today …’ (:105). Through his experience, Levi grasps the meaning of his imprisonment. Like Ulysses, he and the other prisoners are moving towards death, unable to arrest time and their fate. As a prisoner, he may decide for himself whether to become a Muselmann, one of the drowned, or an organizer, one of the saved (see: 82). Remembering the lines from Inferno XXVI triggers Levi's epiphanic insight, as suggested by the phrase ‘a flash of intuition’. As Lynn Gunzberg asserts, ‘In the Lager a violent end to life is almost inevitable; thus Ulysses’ lesson is all the more urgent. Time is short—in the camp slang “never” is expressed as “Morgen fruh” (“Tomorrow morning early”)—and while one can one must disprove all expectations: think, feel, be a man.’19 And yet this epiphany has a disturbing effect on Levi; in relation to a year of horror and profound futility, it reveals only a glimmer of hope. Such a moment may sustain Levi's will to live, but not indefinitely.

Like Joyce, who records epiphanies in which he dramatizes an overheard utterance, Levi also records epiphanies in which an utterance may put him in a sensitized condition—a hallmark of present epiphany. Returning from work one day, Levi and his inseparable friend Alberto talk ‘about work, or our comrades, or the bread or the cold’ (:131). During this particular night march, Levi and Alberto look forward to eating some soup ‘Italian civilian workers’ have been giving them (:131). To transport the soup, they use a ‘menaschka’ or bucket-shaped pot. Levi adds that ‘[b]esides the material advantages [getting extra soup], it carries with it a perceptible improvement in our social standing’ (:131). Levi dwells on his relative comfort not only to show how he has adapted to the harshness of the Lager but also to dramatize his will to survive. Upon their arrival, the prisoners assemble in the main square of Buna-Monowitz (the Arbeitslager of Auschwitz) to watch an execution. Even when ‘the condemned man’ appears before the prisoners, Levi seems indifferent to the ceremony: ‘I have already watched thirteen hangings since I entered the camp’ (:134).

But this hanging is extraordinary because the prisoner had a role in the October 1944 revolt at Birkenau, during which one of the crematoriums had been destroyed.20 After one German recounts the resister's crime and denounces him, another German, one with a ‘raucous voice’, shouts to the assembled prisoners, “‘Habt ihr verstanden?” Have you understood?’ (:135). Levi likens the prisoners' answer, ‘Jawohl’, to a ‘collective voice’ somehow apart from those who have uttered it. Levi's apathy, however, is instantly transformed by the resister's utterance: ‘… everyone heard the cry of the doomed man, it pierced through the old thick barriers of inertia and submissiveness, it struck the living core of man in each of us: “Kamaraden, ich bin der Letzte!” (“Comrades, I am the last one!”)’ (:135; my italics). Transfixed by the cry, Levi turns it into a testament of the resister's indomitable spirit: ‘I wish I could say that from the midst of us, an abject flock, a voice rose, a murmur, a sign of assent. But nothing happened’ (:135). I disagree with Risa Sodi when she says, ‘That there was no reaction from the “abject flock” before him only proved the prisoner's point: he was the last among them, the last “man”.’21 Given the circumstances, open revolt would have been pointless. Levi suggests that being a man is also a function of cunning.

The resister's cry—‘Kamaraden, ich bin der Letzte!’—produces Levi's sensitized condition, one in which his ‘core’ has been reached. The Germans think they have succeeded in destroying the prisoners' will to resist: ‘Here we are, docile under your gaze; from our side you have nothing more to fear; no acts of violence, no words of defiance, not even a look of judgment’ (:136). But some prisoners do resist. Levi realizes that by adapting himself to imprisonment, he has helped the tormentors do their job more efficiently. Nonetheless, he recalls Steinlauf's belief that the Häftlinge must defend the only power they have left: ‘the power to refuse our consent’ [‘la facolta di negare il nostro consenso’] (:36). This insight bolsters Levi's will to resist. Forty years later, Levi mentions this episode in I sommersi e i salvati, another indication of its transforming power: ‘I spoke about this [resisting] … Survival in Auschwitz, where I described the public hanging of a resistor before a terrified and apathetic crowd of prisoners. This is a thought that then just barely grazed us, but that returned “afterward”: you too could have, you certainly should have’ (:77). By associating the ‘collective voice’ of the ‘terrified and apathetic’ prisoners and the defiant cry of the resister, Levi indicates that the resister's cry transformed his apathy and forced him to participate in the life of the Lager.22

In Se questo è un uomo, Levi asserts that he refuses to resist openly because he feels incapable of doing so: ‘I know that I am not made of the stuff of those who resist, I am too civilized, I still think too much, I use myself up at work’ (:94). As a result of this belief, Levi decides to improve his chances of survival by applying for a chemist's position. In a present epiphany shaped like the one in the Ulysses episode, Levi dramatizes an encounter between himself and a German civilian, Dr Pannwitz, the head of the chemistry laboratory. In order to receive the position, he must take an oral exam administered by Pannwitz. Levi alerts readers to the importance of the episode by referring to his own non-rational response, produced by the shock that he actually took this exam in the autumn of 1944: ‘Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened’ (:94). But like ‘Oedipus in front of the Sphinx’, he knows that his survival may depend upon answering Pannwitz's questions (:96).

Although Levi has not mastered German, he knows enough to converse with Pannwitz. When Levi states his credentials (‘I took my degree at Turin in 1941, summa cum laude’), he has ‘the definite sensation of not being believed, of not believing it [himself]’ (:97). Dramatizing the contrast between himself and Pannwitz, one dirty and covered with sores and the other clean and robust, Levi forces himself to concentrate on Pannwitz's questions by relying on his remarkable memory and intelligence:

I am he, the B.Sc. of Turin, in fact, at this particular moment it is impossible to doubt my identity with him, as my reservoir of knowledge of organic chemistry, even after so long an inertia, responds at request with unexpected docility. And even more, this sense of lucid elation, this excitement which I feel warm in my veins, I recognize it, it is the fever of examinations, my fever of my examinations, that spontaneous mobilization of all my logical faculties and all my knowledge. …


By employing epiphanic language, Levi underscores the blending of past and present time. His former self, now almost forgotten in the Lager, is recalled through the agency of memory; he remembers chemical formulas and his thesis, entitled ‘Measurements of dielectrical constants’, with ‘unexpected docility’. Levi himself acknowledges the transforming power of his experience when he adds, ‘As I gradually realize it, I seem to grow in stature’ (:97). But Levi senses an unequal relationship between himself and Pannwitz. Two scientists engaging in scientific discourse should affirm their humanity; in this episode, however, Levi reverses the meaning of the Ulysses episode and dramatizes the failure of human interaction.23 Still, by answering Pannwitz's riddle, he, like Oedipus, has saved his life.

Pannwitz, a Sphinx-like figure, dominates Levi's memory of Auschwitz. After being appointed by Pannwitz to work as a ‘specialist’ in the chemical lab, Levi records an incident in Lilit e altri racconti that shatters his stereotype of Germans. He dramatizes the incident by contrasting the ‘fanatical Nazi’ Pannwitz to a lab technician, ‘a girl named Frau Mayer’ (:89-90). While producing ethyl acetate one day, Levi finds himself in a bind when the water, absolutely essential in mixing acetic acid and ethyl alcohol, stops running. To prevent it from returning to the refrigerating tube, heated by the ethyl acetate vapor, he first pumps distilled water into the refrigerator and then adds snow to the pail of distilled water. At that moment, Pannwitz enters the lab, looks ‘suspiciously’ at his ‘makeshift installation’ and leaves (:90). Although the incident appears inconclusive, almost meaningless, Levi includes it to enrich the subsequent incident involving Frau Mayer.

While working in the same lab a few days later, Levi performs a menial task and, after completing it, is approached by Frau Mayer, who asks if he will fix her bicycle (:90). Weighing the ‘sociological implications’ of her ‘neutral request’ (an infraction of Lager regulations), he accepts it because she promises food as payment. In contrast to Pannwitz, Frau Mayer displays ordinary human courtesy, as revealed by her payment and greeting:

I made the repair, and Frau Mayer, in great secrecy, gave me a hardboiled egg and four lumps of sugar. Don't misunderstand; given the situation and the going rates, it was a more than generous reward. As she furtively slipped me the packet, she whispered something that gave me a lot to think about: ‘Christmas will soon be here.’ Obvious words, absurd actually when addressed to a Jewish prisoner; certainly they were intended to mean something else, something no German at that time would have dared to put into words.


Levi imagines that the whispered greeting is an encoded message, one he enables readers to infer: ‘The war will soon be over’. Frau Mayer's greeting triggers his epiphanic insight: at least one German displays compassion. Levi contextualizes the incident by adding, ‘In telling this story after forty years, I'm not trying to make excuses for Nazi Germany. One human German does not whitewash the innumerable inhuman or indifferent ones, but it does have the merit of breaking a stereotype’ (:92).


Whereas Levi employs present epiphanies to dramatize the immediate apprehension of meaning, he employs delayed epiphanies to show how two unrelated events may also yield meaning. In a delayed epiphany, the latter event triggers the memory of the former. Levi sprinkles this type of epiphany throughout his memoirs, as he indicates in ‘Beyond Survival’, an autobiographical essay. Reviewing his work, he explains his method in Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table): ‘The book is divided into 21 “moments”, each of which takes its title and subject matter from one of the chemical elements.’24 One of the ‘moments’, entitled ‘Vanadium’, not only provides an example of delayed epiphany but also reveals Levi's tendency to refrain from judgment while bearing witness. When his Italian firm receives ‘a shipment of resin for varnishes’, Levi discovers that the resin, under certain circumstances, will not dry properly when mixed with lampblack, an agent in paint (:212). The supplier is a descendant of I. G. Farben, the rocket propulsion and munitions giant of the Nazis. (I. G. Farben operated the Buna-Monowitz factory, in which Levi worked during the last three months of his imprisonment.25) After writing ‘a well-mannered letter of protest’ to the German firm, Levi receives a ‘long and pedantic’ answer from its official representative (:212). After another exchange of polite letters, he notices that both letters he receives have been ‘signed by the same Doktor L. Müller’ (:213). In the second letter, Müller instructs Levi to add ‘0.1 percent of vanadium naphthenate—an additive’ to the resin to make it dry properly (:213). Humorously, Levi writes that ‘if the effect was confirmed, [Müller's] observation could avoid for both parties the annoyances and hazards of an international dispute’ (:213).

Although the dispute between two officials ends, the story of two men who in fact had been acquaintances in another time resumes. The German name Müller is common, as Levi says, ‘like Molinari in Italy or Miller in English’ (:213); but ‘the heavy, lumbering phrasing’ (:213) of the two pedantic letters disturbs him:

… and then, all of a sudden, there rose before my eyes a detail of the last letter which had escaped me: it was not a typing mistake, it was repeated twice; it said ‘naptenate’, not ‘naphthenate’ as it should be. Now I conserve pathologically precise memories of my encounters in that by now remote world [the Lager]: well, that other Müller too, in an unforgotten lab full of freezing cold, hope, and fear, used to say ‘beta-Naptylamin’ instead of ‘beta-Naphthylamin’.


Seeing the misspelled word in a letter in 1967 causes Levi to remember a German civilian named Müller, who worked in the Buna-Monowitz laboratory in late 1944 and who mispronounced the word ‘naphthylamin’. He intuitively connects the two scientific words, one misspelled and the other mispronounced in precisely the same fashion. The letter triggers his memory of the original conversation with Müller, at that time a civilian employee of I. G. Farben.

Müller is a shadowy figure in Se questo è un uomo. Dr Pannwitz, the head of the laboratory and Müller's superior, dominates Levi's memory. But about those three months working in the laboratory, Levi asserts in Lilit e altri racconti that ‘… with the passing of the years these memories do not fade, nor do they thin out’ (:88). In the Vanadium episode, he recalls Müller's speaking to him on several occasions: once about the proper dosage of ‘Naptylamin’, once about the length of his beard, and once about his receiving an additional shave each week and a pair of leather shoes, an invaluable commodity in the Lager (:214). During this last encounter, he also remembers a question Müller posed: ‘“Why do you look so perturbed?” I, who at that time thought in German, had said to myself, “Der Mann hat keine Ahnung” (This fellow hasn't got an inkling)’ (:214). After the war, his desire to meet one of his persecutors became an obsession: ‘The encounter I looked forward to with so much intensity as to dream of it (in German) at night, was an encounter with one of them down there, who had disposed of us …’ (:215). Seizing his opportunity, he writes to Müller and, fantastically, ‘Yes, the Müller of Buna was indeed he’ (:216). As a result of associating a misspelled word with a mispronounced word, Levi vividly recalls specific details of an encounter that occurred decades earlier.

Levi discovers through his delayed epiphany that, in his words, ‘I did not feel capable of representing the dead of Auschwitz, nor did it seem to me sensible to see in Müller the representative of the butchers' (:218). After reading a German translation of Se questo è un uomo, Müller sends him an eight-page letter and a photograph: ‘The face was that face: grown old and at the same time ennobled by a skillful photographer; I could hear him again high above me pronounce those words of distracted and momentary compassion: “why do you look so perturbed?”’ (:218). He does not feel hatred for Müller; in fact, his response is so ambivalent that he cannot put his actual feelings into words. Instead, he paraphrases Müller's letter and remarks that ‘every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed’ (:223). At the end of the episode, Levi indicates that, during a phone conversation and at the insistence of Müller, they plan to meet at the Italian Riviera. But the meeting never takes place: ‘Eight days later I received from Mrs Müller the announcement of the unexpected death of Doktor Lothar Müller in his sixtieth year of life’ (:223).

In ‘A Mystery in the Lager’, an autobiographical essay in Terza pagina: Racconti e saggi (The Mirror Maker), Levi presents a delayed epiphany that oddly relates to the Vanadium episode and that occurred approximately forty years after his imprisonment—a remarkable testament to the self-professed accuracy of his memory. Through the correspondence with Müller, Levi receives additional proof that Müller had been his former boss. While he suspects that Müller could have read Se questo è un uomo (or any other memoir) and claimed to have known him in the Lager, he receives unmistakable proof when Müller asks ‘for personal news about Goldbaum [a Kapo of the Chemical Kommando], whom certainly no book had mentioned’.26 Levi remembers a few details about Goldbaum: he doubled as a Kapo and a musician in the Lager's band, proudly displayed his ‘almost clean striped pajamas’, and played favourites with Dutch prisoners (:66). Levi passes this information along to Müller, adding that ‘Goldbaum had died during the prisoners' terrible transfer march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald’ in January 1945 (:67). By including the exchange between himself and Müller in Il sistema periodico, Levi dramatizes his ambivalent response to a former tormentor. For the transformation to occur, the epiphanist must provide specific details associated with the original experience. Levi provides these details—Goldbaum's name and conversations with Müller—and integrates them into the latter experience, thereby triggering his epiphanic insight. By aesthetically shaping the experience, Levi produces a dramatic, riveting episode.

Shortly after Il sistema periodico was published in England, Levi received ‘a complicated letter’ from a family wondering if their relative, Gerhard Goldbaum, might have been the Goldbaum referred to in the Vanadium episode (Terza pagina: 67). Levi finds such a possibility remote, but recalls in Terza pagina, among other details, that Goldbaum ‘had been a physicist who specialized in sound’, and who, like himself, had been ‘assigned to an acoustics laboratory’ in the Buna factory (:68). Agreeing to meet the ‘Z_____s’ family in London, he is shown ‘two photographs of Gerhard snapped around 1939’ (:69). While looking at the photos, he identifies the Goldbaum of the photos as the one of the Lager: ‘I experienced a kind of bedazzlement; at a distance of almost half a century that was the face, it coincided perfectly with the one that I, without knowing it, bore imprinted in the pathological memory I preserve of that period’ (:69). In this episode, Levi indicates that the original event—knowing Goldbaum in the Lager—is not in itself epiphanic; rather, the latter event—seeing the photos of Goldbaum—triggers his memory, causing him to collapse time and space. Through the word ‘pathological’, he underscores the sorrow of recalling his encounters with Goldbaum in the Lager and wonders that his memory—the agency through which he knows himself—should be a source of sorrow.

Levi discovers that despite the lapse of nearly ‘half a century’ his experience of the Lager is indelibly ‘imprinted’ on his memory and his sorrow undiminished. He dramatizes the episode by invoking the language of epiphany (‘bedazzlement’) and its non-rational attribute (‘without knowing it’). In this way, he enables readers to participate in the episode by creating a dramatic context and imaginatively transforming it. Moreover, he affirms the overpowering effect of his epiphany by likening himself to one of Borges's characters: ‘at times, but only for what concerns Auschwitz, I feel I am the brother of Ireneo Funes, “el memorioso …”’ (:69). Like Funes, he discovers the curse of having a remarkable memory. But, as he admits in Il sistema periodico, this remarkable memory also makes writing necessary, suggesting its curative effect: ‘It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper …’ [‘E quella che in questo istante, fuori da un labirintico intreccio di sì e di no, fa sì che la mia mano corna in un certo cammino sulla carta …’] (:232-3).

In the Vanadium and Goldbaum episodes, Levi transforms two events that occurred decades apart. But objective time has no bearing on the frequency or intensity of a delayed epiphany; the two events may be separated by days, months or years. In La tregua, for example, Levi dramatizes an incident that occurred during his repatriation to Italy. In Starye Dorogi (near Minsk), while working as a doctor's assistant, he meets a ‘submissive and absent’ woman and takes notice of her because she speaks with ‘gentle Tuscan inflections’ (:147). Hearing her speak triggers his memory: ‘I had certainly met her somewhere, but not at Starye Dorogi. I felt an evanescent sensation of an overlap, of a transposition, of a marked inversion of relationships, which however I was unable to define’ (:147). He stresses not only the non-rational attributes of epiphany (‘unable to define’) but also its instantaneousness (‘evanescent sensation of an overlap’). This encounter causes him to ransack his memory for an explanation. But striving to discover the cause of his ‘sensation’ only produces ‘a knot of intense feelings’, ones impossible to disentangle (:147). Puzzled, he continues talking to the woman, preparing himself unknowingly for an explanation. After he asks the woman if she needs any additional help, she replies, ‘I don't need anything, I shall go now’ (:147). Levi instantaneously remembers the woman, an insight triggered by listening to her ‘gentle Tuscan inflections’: ‘Flora! The nebulous memory abruptly took shape, coagulated into a precise, definite picture, rich in retrospective details of time and place, colours, states of mind, atmosphere, smells’ (:147). Like the ‘Boy of Winander’ episode in Wordsworth's Prelude, the episode with Flora depends on sound. Levi responds to the inflections in Flora's voice, which in turn produces a ‘definite picture’. He indicates that the latter event, hearing Flora speak, triggers his memory of the original event, one ‘rich in retrospective details’. Moreover, he reveals the importance of not only hearing but also seeing, smelling and tasting to the epiphanic mode. For Wordsworth and Levi, memory functions as an extension of sensation. In this instance, his ‘nebulous memory abruptly [takes] shape’ because he relies on hearing to blend two separate events. As in the Vanadium and Goldbaum episodes, the Flora episode has its origin in the Lager, reinforcing Levi's observation that the concentration camp provided him with a fundamental experience.

Whereas the Flora episode involves two events separated by one year, its duration seems interminable. As Levi observes in Se questo è un uomo, ‘… the units of time always have a value, which increases in ratio to the strength of the internal resources of the person living through them’ (:107). Whether the two events occur in rapid succession or decades apart, Levi indicates that durational time controls his memory of the events, thereby preparing him for an insight that might not have occurred without such a transformation. But Levi also includes a type of delayed epiphany that closely resembles a dream. In this special type of delayed epiphany, the original event is not in itself epiphanic; but the event is nonetheless so overwhelming that it reappears at unexpected times, such as when Levi works or relaxes with family and friends. Levi dramatizes the original event by referring to its haphazard reappearance. In this way, the latter event does not serve to trigger Levi's memory of the original; rather, the memory is transposed on to the latter event.

Levi concludes La tregua with this special type of delayed epiphany. He refers to it as ‘a dream full of horror’ and whose appearance is at intervals ‘sometimes frequent, sometimes longer’ (:193). The ‘definite sensation of an impending threat’ is so pervasive that ‘as the dream proceeds, slowly or brutally, each time in a different way, everything collapses and disintegrates’ around him (:193). Like Joyce's dream epiphanies, Levi's gathers a frightening momentum, becoming ‘more intense and more precise’ (:193). Despite the variety of disguised beginnings to the dream, it has a fixed ending, as suggested by Levi's epiphanic language:

Now everything has changed to chaos; I am alone in the centre of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, ‘Wstawàc’ [Wstawać].


In his rendering of the dream, Levi emphasizes time by reversing the expected sequence: the Lager should be ‘a brief pause’ and his life before and after should be ‘all the rest’. He dramatizes the Lager experience by invoking durational time. And while the chronological sequence may last no longer than it would to utter ‘the dawn command of Auschwitz’, Levi's dream may imaginatively coincide with the duration of his stay in the Lager.

If Levi had reproduced only the dream, he would have provided a riveting episode, not an epiphany; but he provides a context for the dream, thereby enabling him to transform it. As in the previous delayed epiphanies, two events are essential for the transformation to occur. What makes the dream episode distinctive, however, is its repetitiveness. In ‘Our Nights’, a chapter in Se questo è un uomo, Levi recounts the interminable sufferings of the Häftlinge, whether awake or asleep. Despite the terror of the nights, the hour of reveille is even more terrible. Long before dawn, prisoners hear the camp bell ringing, watch the night guard switch on the light, and listen to ‘the daily condemnation: … “Wstavàc”’ [Wstawać] (:56). Because the moment of waking is so painful for the prisoners, the night guard utters the Polish word in a ‘quiet and subdued voice’: ‘Like a stone the foreign word falls to the bottom of every soul. “Get up”: the illusory barrier of the warm blankets, the thin armour of sleep, the nightly evasion with its very torments drops to pieces around us, and we find ourselves mercilessly awake, exposed to insult, atrociously naked and vulnerable’ (:57). As in the dream, the original event causes Levi anguish; he is ‘naked and vulnerable’. While in Auschwitz, he dreamed about returning home and recounting his remarkable story to family and friends; but his listeners are ‘completely indifferent’, refusing to listen (:54). After being repatriated Levi incorporates the original event into his dream, thereby revealing the anguish of his experience. Levi bears witness, tells the story, so that he—and not his listeners—might be freed from the nightmarish and sinister dream.27 In a conversation with Ferdinando Camon, Levi underscores this need to write about his Auschwitz experience: ‘I have the feeling of being enriched by it [imprisonment], so much so that it took me only a few months to write Survival in Auschwitz, and I remember writing it without ever faltering’ (:61). The nightmarish dream serves not only as the dramatic ending of La tregua but also as a climactic episode in Se questo è un uomo—the two works which form the core of his Holocaust memoirs.28

In his Holocaust memoirs, Levi employs modern epiphany in order to show how experience, however savage, can yield significant meaning. Although Levi dramatizes experience through his painstaking application of language, memory and subjective time, he nonetheless creates the illusion that his epiphanies are spontaneous. His language establishes the interrelation of experience and insight. In fact, he displays a Wordsworthian tendency to employ supercharged language, a language that replicates the sight, sound, taste and smell of the original experience. As a result of his Holocaust experience, Levi also may have considered unadorned, scientific language an antidote to violence; as he says in I sommersi e i salvati: ‘It is an obvious observation that where violence is inflicted on man it is also inflicted on language’ (:97). Throughout his writing, he strives to repair the violence inflicted on him by employing scientific language to convey his suffering.29 Elsewhere, he says he has a ‘habit of weighing words’: ‘before using a word one must investigate its scope and its linguistic area.’30 But because of the subject—the Nazi concentration and death camps—this scientific language becomes visceral in the epiphanic transformation.

For Levi, the memory of genocide, barbarity and savageness persist. I have shown how Levi's remarkable memory, both a curse and a comfort, enables him to plunge readers into the hellish world of the Holocaust. But Levi must inevitably suffer while conveying the meaning of that experience. In I sommersi e i salvati, he refers to the perpetual suffering he endured: ‘… the injury cannot be healed: it extends through time, and the Furies, in whose existence we are forced to believe, not only rack the tormentor …, but perpetuate the tormentor's work by denying peace to the tormented’ (:24-5). The reference to the Furies both marks his pain and reveals its persistence. To master this pain, Levi, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, tells his story at an uncertain hour. The fact that he wrote five Holocaust memoirs testifies to the significance of his Lager experience. This experience constitutes the ‘aesthetic transaction’ between Levi and his readers, a transaction he considers the paradigm of civilized human interaction. To the end, Levi rejected silence and used language to communicate with an imagined audience. He dwells on savage elements to remind readers that a post-Holocaust civilization must remember Auschwitz, must engrave its meaning not in stone but in consciousness. Accepting this responsibility, Levi implies, makes us human. It is in the desire to display his own humanity that Levi reaches us. The effect is not only aesthetic but also moral.


  1. Levi acknowledges his debt to Conrad in The Monkey's Wrench, trans. William Weaver (New York: Summit Books, 1986); first published as La chiave a stella (Turin: Einaudi, 1978). In an afterword to this novel, he quotes from Conrad's Typhoon. In it, Conrad uses the epiphanic mode to show how Captain MacWhirr relies on non-rational means to see his crew through a violent storm. In an interview, Levi referred to his Auschwitz experience as a paradoxical ‘godsend’: ‘But then one could say the same about my great hero Conrad: would he have been a great writer without the sea?’ (Ian Thompson, ‘Primo Levi in Conversation with Ian Thompson’, PN Review, xiv, no. 2 [1987], 18). Joyce also influences Levi's technique more than his themes. Like Joyce, who concludes A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with a series of diary entries, Levi uses diary entries entitled ‘The Story of Ten Days’ to end Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1961); first published as Se questo è un uomo (Turin: Einaudi, 1958). In an essay on Rabelais, Levi likens the manner of the Renaissance writer to the manner ‘so evident in Sterne and Joyce, of writing “as you please”, without codes or precepts, following the thread of imagination …’ (Other People's Trades, trans. Raymond Rosenthal [New York: Summit Books, 1989], 136; first published as L'altrui mestiere [Turin: Einaudi, 1985]). Further citations from The Monkey's Wrench, Survival in Auschwitz, and Other People's Trades are included parenthetically in the text.

  2. Ferdinando Camon, Conversations with Primo Levi, trans. John Shepley (Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro Press, 1989), 60; first published as Autoritratto di Primo Levi (Padua: Edizioni Nord-Est, 1987). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text.

  3. Irving Howe, ‘Introduction’, If Not Now, When?, by Primo Levi (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 8. For an account of what Howe means by ‘moral poise’ and its relevance to Holocaust literature, see his provocative essay, ‘Writing and the Holocaust’, New Republic, cxcv, no. 17 (27 October 1986), 27-39. My concern is not with the meaning of the Holocaust but with the way in which Levi conveys his experience.

  4. Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve, trans. Ruth Feldman (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 10-11; first published as Lilit e altri racconti (Turin: Einaudi, 1981). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text.

  5. Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 174.

  6. Lawrence Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), 61.

  7. Risa Sodi, A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz (New York: Peter Lang, 1990), 69.

  8. Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), 153; first published as Il sistema periodico (Turin: Einaudi, 1975). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text.

  9. Mirna Cicioni identifies Levi's abiding love of language as being rooted in his Jewish identity: ‘Throughout his writings … a strong linguistic consciousness manifests itself in reference to or discussions of the lexical structures and etymologies of several languages, including the dialects of Piedmont. Although Levi never explicitly traced his language consciousness back to his Jewish origins, it is in fact partly a general cultural trait of Diaspora Jews, partly a result of his Auschwitz experience, and partly connected with another basic trait of Jewish identity: love and respect for learning’ (‘Bridges of Knowledge: Re-Reading Primo Levi’, Spunti e ricerche 3 [1987], 66-7).

  10. Unlike Levi, however, some notable contemporary writers—such as John Barth, Jorge Borges and Thomas Pynchon—have found the influence of Joyce and Conrad too decisive and have explored new fictional methods to distance themselves from their influential precursors. One of these new methods enables the writer to dramatize a character's experience while denying its meaning. Barth uses the word ‘cosmopsis’ to depict characters suffering from total vision, unable to ‘terminate the moment’ (The End of the Road [New York: Bantam Books, 1969], 74). Barth parodies the epiphanic mode by denying his characters the opportunity to understand their experience. Pynchon differs from Barth in that he creates characters who understand their experience but who cannot transform it. Fausto II records in a journal his adventures on Malta during WWII. In an encounter with Elena, a former lover traumatized by the war, Fausto longs for a sign of her return to life. He believes Elena provides such a sign when she energetically responds to a flock of gulls filling the sky. Instead, he realizes ‘there had been nothing. … [T]here are no epiphanies on Malta this season, no moments of truth’ (V. [New York: Bantam Books, 1964], 316). For Barth and Pynchon, the machine and the bomb have made the epiphanic mode obsolete. For an overview of these new fictional methods, see Barth's ‘The Literature of Exhaustion’, Atlantic Monthly, ccxix (March 1967), 29-34.

  11. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 35; first published as I sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Einaudi, 1986). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text.

  12. Howe, ‘Writing and the Holocaust’, 29.

  13. George Steiner, ‘The Hollow Miracle’, Language and Silence (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 102.

  14. Primo Levi, The Reawakening, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1965), 2; first published as La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1963). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text.

  15. Primo Levi, If Not Now, When?, trans. William Weaver (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 270-1; first published as Se non ora, quando? (Turin: Einaudi, 1982). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text.

  16. David Denby, ‘The Humanist and the Holocaust’, New Republic, cxcv, no. 4 (28 July 1986), 33. In an otherwise incisive essay of Levi and his work, Denby is unaware of Levi's reliance on the epiphanic mode: ‘He lacks fierceness, anguish, a taste for extremity. He has little drive toward self-examination and none toward self-laceration, no interest in exhuming his soul in all its perversities’ (:28).

  17. Georges Poulet, Studies in Human Time, trans. Elliott Coleman (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979).

  18. Levi's fictional example of a ‘stopped’ or broken clock on a ‘church steeple’ is reminiscent of the clock painted on the (fictionalized) train station facade at Treblinka. In In the Fields of Treblinka, Rachel Auerbach refers to this ‘deliberate mystification … of the authorities’ to deceive arriving transports: ‘Painted on the lower walls of the barracks were baggage-check windows, ticket windows and a large clock, all just like a stage set’ (Rpt. in The Death Camp Treblinka: A Documentary, ed. Alexander Donat [New York: Holocaust Library, 1979], 29-30). Because Levi carefully studied Holocaust literature, he would have known this fact about Treblinka.

  19. Lynn M. Gunzberg, ‘Down Among the Dead Men: Levi and Dante in Hell’, Modern Language Studies, xvi, no. 1 (Winter 1986), 23. In I sommersi e i salvati, Levi refers to this incident as perhaps one that saved him: ‘After forty years I am reading in Survival in Auschwitz the chapter entitled “The Canto of Ulysses”. It is one of the few episodes whose authenticity I have been able to verify (it is a reassuring operation: after a span of time … one can doubt one's memory) because my interlocutor of that time, Jean Samuel, is one of the book's few surviving characters’ (:139).

  20. For a first-hand account of the Birkenau revolt in October 1944 and its aftermath, see Filip Müller, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers, ed. and trans. Susanne Flatauer (New York: Stein & Day, 1979).

  21. Risa Sodi, A Dante of Our Time, 43.

  22. Levi comments on this paradox: ‘Inurement to life in the camp is the only way to survive, but it also robs you of a part of your humanity’. Risa Sodi, ‘An Interview With Primo Levi’, Partisan Review, liv, no. 3 (1987), 361.

  23. Lawrence R. Schehr offers a persuasive critique of the limitations of scientific discourse: ‘Levi must … explain what words mean after the Holocaust, after all has been destroyed that had made sense before the advent of Mussolini and Hitler. In order to accomplish his task, Levi posits a triple discourse of science, literature, and politics. Separately, together, dialectically, and oppositionally, these three discourses will seek to explain what no one single discourse can explain’ (‘Levi's Strenuous Clarity’, Italica, lxvi, no. 4 [Winter 1989], 431).

  24. Primo Levi, ‘Beyond Survival’, trans. Gail Soffer, Prooftexts, iv (1984), 10.

  25. Hannah Arendt provides a chilling analysis of the collusion between the Nazis and the industrialists: ‘Apart from the not very important industrial enterprises of the S.S., such famous German firms as I. G. Farben, the Krupp Werke, and Siemens-Schuckert Werke had established plants in Auschwitz as well as near the Lublin death camps. Co-operation between the S.S. and the businessmen was excellent; Hoss of Auschwitz [camp commandant] testified to the very cordial social relations with the I. G. Farben representatives. As for working conditions, the idea was clearly to kill through labor; according to Hilberg [in The Destruction of the European Jews], at least twenty-five thousand of the approximately thirty-five thousand Jews who worked for one of the I. G. Farben plants died’ (Eichrnann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil [New York: Viking Press, 1963], 73-4).

  26. Primo Levi, The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), 67; first published as Terza pagina: Racconti e saggi (Turin: La Stampa, 1986). Further citations are included parenthetically in the text. The word Kapo refers to the leader of a group of prisoners. As Levi observes in I sommersi e i salvati, some prisoners fought tenaciously to become Kapos because they could expect to receive certain privileges: ‘Kapos: the German term derives directly from the Italian capo, and the truncated pronunciation, introduced by the French prisoners, spread only many years later …’ (:45). For an overview of the Kapos' role, see the essay entitled ‘The Gray Zone’.

  27. Levi also recounts this dream and subsequent need to bear witness in the poem ‘Reveille’ (Collected Poems, trans. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann [London: Faber & Faber, 1988], 10). For an analysis of Levi's poetry, especially the poems composed immediately after his liberation, see Gabriel Motola, ‘The varnish-maker's dreams’, Sewanee Review, xcviii, no. 3 (Summer 1990), 506-14. For responses to Levi's suicide, see William Styron, ‘Why Primo Levi Need Not Have Died’, New York Times, 19 December 1988, A17, and Cynthia Ozick, ‘The Suicide Note’, New Republic, cxcviii, no. 12 (21 March 1988), 32-6.

  28. In her insightful essay, Meredith Tax asserts that ‘Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening are the central books in [Levi's] canon; the others revolve around them and are, in a sense, commentaries’ (‘Speak, Memory’, Village Voice Literary Supplement, March 1986, 11). In an afterword to La tregua, Levi himself indicates that the Lager provided a reason to write: ‘if I had not lived the Auschwitz experience, I probably would have never written anything. I would not have had the motivation, the incentive, to write’ (:216).

  29. As Sander L. Gilman notes, ‘No “Larger jargon” for Levi. He knew the collapse of language in the camps first-hand. Rather, he attempted to create in his fictive work a new, intact language in which to embed the memories he had had as a Jew’ (‘To Quote Primo Levi: “Redest keyn jiddisch, bist nit kejn jid” [“If you don't speak Yiddish, you're not a Jew”]’, Prooftexts, ix: 2 [May 1989], 140). Levi fashions ‘a new, intact language’ through his use of the epiphanic mode.

  30. Primo Levi and Tullio Regge, Dialogo, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 60.

Dalya M. Sachs (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13159

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 subtle and sensitive translation, the title by which Levi's work is presently known, Survival in Auschwitz, bears no relationship to the original, and is, moreover, a travesty of it. Se questo è un uomo was originally published in English with the exact equivalent of the Italian: If This Is a Man.] intended for use in Italian schools, Primo Levi assembled a list of questions which had been posed to him repeatedly throughout the decades following the book's initial publication, either in readers' letters or by students at the innumerable lectures he gave throughout Italy. Reasoning that the consistency with which he was asked certain questions was a reflection either of the inadequacy or the opacity of parts of Se questo è un uomo, Levi published his replies, point by point, in order to respond to a “justifiable and logical curiosity” that somehow had not been satisfactorily answered by the book itself. He places the following as the first of those eight questions: “In your book, there are no expressions of hatred for the Germans, no malice, no yearning for vengeance. Have you pardoned them?”1

Levi first offers a personal psychological explanation:

By nature, I am not prone to hatred. I consider it a bestial and primitive emotion, and I prefer instead that, as far as possible, my actions and thoughts be based on reason; because of this, I have never harbored hatred, in the sense of a primal urge for revenge, for suffering to be inflicted upon my real or presumed enemies, or for personal vendetta.2

But later, Levi draws on quite different types of explanation for his tone, and instead of a psychological motivation, he invokes a narratological strategy for the absence of any “expressions of hatred”:

… in writing this book, I deliberately took on the calm and sober language of a witness, not the plaintive tone of a victim nor the outrage of an avenger: I thought that my words would be most believable and useful the more they appeared to be objective and the less they sounded fervent. Only in this way does a witness fulfill his function, which is to prepare the ground for the judges. The judges are all of you.3

That perhaps his personality and sensibility are exemplified in the tone—as yet only defined as an absence of something (hatred, malice, and vengeance)—tells us about the origin and particulars of the text, but this autobiographical solution is in some sense tautological, given the autobiographical genesis of the text itself (such a solution proposes that the text is not one of “hatred, malice and vengeance” because the mind which organized and transcribed its experience is not one of “hatred, malice and vengeance”). The first part of Levi's answer is rendered no less valid, but it is an answer whose justification and proof is evidenced in the events, descriptions and narration of the text itself.

But the second part of Levi's response speaks of stylization, of the presumed effect on the readers of certain writerly decisions and techniques. The first reply explains the cause of the tone; the second acknowledges the attempt to create a certain effect with it: he wanted to be heard, and he wanted to put the readers in a certain position through his “calm and sober language of a witness.” This language is intended to be “believable and useful.”

The very fact that Levi wrote this as a response to questions he has received in response to his book shows that indeed he has been heard (if not always believed), so his techniques did achieve at least some of their desired ends. But to understand this effect—namely, this absence of anger in sensibility and technique—we need to define what is created in place of anger. Only then can we return to the second part of Levi's reply, both to see what the implications of this effect are, beyond positing the readers as judges, and to begin to frame a response to the questions Levi's work forces us to confront.

In the attempt to label the tone that takes the place of anger in Se questo è un uomo, it may be salutary to keep in mind Robert Musil's understanding that “there is no total solution, but only a series of particular ones,” because Se questo è un uomo resists any overarching generic categorization. The difficulty of placing Levi's work firmly within a single, identifiable genre is displayed well in the remarks of a typical critic like Lynn M. Gunzberg, who offers this shifting definition of Se questo è un uomo: “one cannot approach Se questo è un uomo as if it were fiction. Rather, it is a memoir which reads like a novel, with a kind of novella … at the end.”4 The terms which Gunzberg associates with Se questo è un uomo, memoir, novel, and novella, imply different structures, indeed, seemingly mutually exclusive ones. A memoir might be said to be true history, whereas a novel is necessarily fictional, even though it might be organized as a memoir. But Levi's book does not function with a single structure at its foundation: Gunzberg is correct, but far from exhaustive, because still more genres could be added to the list: it is testimony (Levi himself often refers to this text as such), commentary, and essayism, too. Each of these genres is an element of Levi's book, but, intertwined as they are, they combine to form something other and new.

The multiplicity of generic definitions of the text is emblematic of the diversity of techniques which inform it. This is not simply a memoir, because we do not follow the events of a life chronologically, but move back and forth among entirely different temporal strata; nor is it understandable solely in terms of an essay because it is dense with much testimony and narration, dialogue and anecdote. In order to be heard, to be “credibile ed utile,” Levi draws on and blends these genres, creating a book whose tone is not angry, but instead seeks, through a synthesis of different technical narrative modes and an amalgamation of temporalities, to understand more about human life and behavior, to record the ambivalence of an individual's physical and intellectual survival, and to implicate the readers in that ambivalence. Levi was himself aware of these structural complexities right from the beginning, as he makes clear in the 1947 preface to the original edition:

I recognize, and ask indulgence for, the structural defects of the book. Its origins go back, not indeed in practice, but as an idea, an intention, to the days in the Lager. … The book has been written to satisfy [the] need … first and foremost … [for] interior liberation. Hence its fragmentary character: the chapters have been written not in a logical succession, but in order of urgency.5

Notwithstanding this disclaimer about its formal weaknesses, the book is not so much “fragmentary” as it is a synthesis of genres and the voices and temporalities on which they are patterned. Moreover, the “structural defects” to which Levi refers seem hardly to be defects (and in fact, one wonders whether Levi called them “defects” in earnest or with a sense of irony) but are instead the residue of the “urgency” with which Levi needed to make sense of the “days in the Lager,” in order to achieve an “internal liberation.” What Levi claims is not a “logical succession” is, on the contrary, preeminently logical, since the “order of urgency” provided the motive for making sense of, as well as the product of coming to understand, the “days in the Lager.”


“Grammar does not possess a final tense.”

—Italo Svevo, “An Old Man's Confessions”

No single genre or voice, no pre-established structure, would have allowed for the variety of experiences and analyses that inform Levi's response to the implicit questions of his title: Se questo è un uomo. I say questions in the plural deliberately because the grammatical structure of the title is incomplete and therefore inconclusive: it is a fragment, a clause which implies a conclusion to the proposition “if this is a man.” Because Levi does not provide one, the reader can imagine any phrase to complete the one Levi has proposed, and this is exactly what Levi wants: not that readers append the “right” conclusion or even that they actually append a conclusion at all, but that they become “participants” in the ethical dilemmas voiced by the text.6 The title also allows for these dilemmas to transcend the time and space of their genesis because it is disturbingly timeless itself: there is no mention of the specific historical moment that led to Levi's writing, nor does a second clause arrive with which we could situate the present tense use of the verb “to be,” which instead remains unqualified and leaves the reader suspended in an inconclusive temporality, faced with an ambiguous challenge.

This “temporal inconclusiveness” is fundamental to Levi's project and is echoed in the structure of the entire text. First of all, the book does not move from beginning to end in a strictly chronological way; rather, the Preface and seventeen chapters divide the story into thematic considerations, linked anecdotes, each chapter structured as a kind of vignette crystallizing one or a group of elements in both the dismantling of personality and its reconstitution. The movement among certain thematically unified vignettes is one of the techniques whereby Levi recreates the overwhelmingly bewildering confusion experienced by those deported to concentration camps, because the ignorance of the newcomers is reintroduced with each of the opening four chapters, “The Journey,” “On the Bottom,” “Initiation,” and “Ka-Be.” Within this already fragmentary structure is yet another device which further undermines the simple telling of a tale in chronological order: every chapter-vignette contains at least two temporalities; no chapter functions exclusively in the past of the event or in the present of the time of writing. The tense shifts within each chapter are almost always indications of generic change, such as the first person singular present tense being used as the diary-like tone of memoir; the past tense, when set in opposition to the present, is usually used for the testimonial/witness mode, and underlines the survival of the narrator; the present tense is also used to express reflections made at the time of writing which form a kind of essayistic response to the events and details of the narration itself.

One of the effects of these temporal changes is that Levi defictionalizes the text whose diary-like tone of narration captures us precisely with the authority of its storytelling voice, but thereby risks suggesting a false genre, i.e., fiction, for the events here recorded. The interruption of a voice which can explain events that were indecipherable to Levi at the time he was first deported to Auschwitz lets us know the simple, but crucial, detail that he survived. In the first chapter, “Il Viaggio,” Levi narrates the train ride, using the imperfect tense and remote past (the story-telling tenses par excellence), but while doing so, he moves back and forth in time between the unfolding of the train ride, his knowledge of what was actually happening (a knowledge he acquired only subsequent to the train ride itself), and the aftermath of the Holocaust (only four people from his train car survived: “Among the forty-five people in my wagon only four saw their homes again; and it was by far the most fortunate wagon”7 [p. 13]). Just after this temporal breach in which Levi suspends the action of his narration in order to comment on it from the vantage point of a time future to that moment—a future which presupposes Levi's survival—he returns to the temporality of the journey itself, narrating the next line with the imperfect: “We were suffering from thirst and cold.”8

Only here, when Levi resumes the narration of events, he assumes the first person plural as a narrative voice. Much of Se questo è un uomo is narrated in the first person plural, and Levi uses it both to convey that he was only one of an immense mass of victims and to give voice to those who, unlike him, did not live to bear witness to the experience. But this is also a “we” that extends beyond the specific group whose experience it articulates. It is a “we” which implicates the reader in its collectivity, one which grammatically submerges us in, rather than distances us from, the exhausted disorientation tormenting the passengers of the deportation train. When the train arrives in Auschwitz, we already know that the narrator will survive/has survived what awaits, but by the use of the plural “we” as the mode of narration here, we the readers are forced to follow the same path of tense ignorance which the deportees faced. No prescient voice, no “I” who survived, enters the narrative to alleviate our confusion, just as no benevolent, omniscient guide presented himself to the prisoners on the arrival platform at Auschwitz:

The climax came suddenly. The door opened with a crash, and the dark echoed with outlandish orders in that curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millenial anger. A vast platform appeared before us, lit up by reflectors. A little beyond it, a row of lorries. Then everything was silent again. Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train.

(p. 15)9

Since one of the many elements to which Levi often attributes his survival was his rudimentary but expanding proficiency in German, a language he learned for research purposes during his university years and that eventually enabled him, while in the Lager, to understand much of the German he heard (bastardized German that it was), it is significant that he chooses here to relate the events as they appeared to him at the time. He “waits” for someone else to translate the command: “Someone translated: we had to climb down with our luggage and deposit it alongside the train.” Levi does not single himself out by using the “I” of the first person narrator here, but places himself among the crowd with “we.”

Later, after the passengers are forced to divide into groups of women, children and older men on the one hand, and healthy men on the other, Levi again transcribes both the ignorance of the newly arrived deportees among whom he is included, and the horrific awareness of what then occured:

What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply. Today, however, we know that in that rapid and summary choice each one of us had been judged capable or not of working for the Reich …

(p. 15)10

The “we” of the first sentence (“we could establish neither then nor later”) shows Levi as participant and is comprehensive; but the second “we” (“Today, however, we know that …”) issues from a later date and a far more limited group—it is as though the second “we” echoes with the absence of all those who composed the first.

This kind of double temporal horizon pervades the text and creates a pathway along which the events of the past come into contact with the knowledge and judgment of the present. There are times when the events of the past reach the present and disturb its safety, as for example, when Levi interrupts his transcription of thoughts about the chemistry exam, “And now I also know that I can save myself if I become a Specialist, and that I will become a Specialist if I pass a chemistry examination,” to register the disparity between his pragmatic decisions undertaken to survive the Lager, and his recounting in the present what now seem violent absurdities, “Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.” (p. 94)11 Not only does this moment reinforce the fact that the man who took the chemistry exam in Auschwitz is the same man who is “[sitting] at a table” bearing witness, it is also a fact which the Levi who is writing needs to reinforce with his emphatic word choices: “I myself” (“io stesso,”) and repetitions: “Today, at this very moment” (“oggi, questo vero oggi”) in order to demarcate the past from the present while still recognizing his role and identity in both.

But beyond this “double horizon” in which past and present (the “present” of the book's composition) are blurred into and tinged by each other, there lies another device of temporal multiplicity which is less noticeable at first because it is so integral to the narration and does not originate in a post-war period: Levi vacillates between different periods of his internment at Auschwitz, juxtaposing discrete time-frames in the description of single episodes and in the construction of individual chapters. After describing the entry into Auschwitz, in “On the Bottom,” that is to say, after having been shaved, stripped and given prison-clothes, Levi first remarks: “each of us remained in his own corner, and we didn't dare to lift our eyes to look at one another.”12 This observation appertains to the time of arrival in Auschwitz; it expresses the perceptions of the Levi who then recognizes himself for the first time as part of an unrecognizable mass of quasi-men, “And here we are, transformed into the phantoms glimpsed yesterday evening.”13 But then he turns from narrating events to profferring a commentary on them—a commentary which shows an understanding of his condition and its ramifications that exceeds the boundaries of event-narration:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.

(p. 22)14

What Levi expresses here is not so much the condition in which he found himself, but a reflection on that condition. And it is not insignificant that it is exactly at the moment when he acknowledges the impotence of language in the face of what Adorno called man's “degradation into a bundle of functions,”15 in other words, at the moment he realizes that “our language lacks words to express this offence,” that Levi makes an attempt to verbalize the characteristics of that condition. Precisely this reaction: a forcing into language of what seems the inexpressible horror of the Nazi attempt to “demolish a man,” is what distinguishes Levi from the truly “demolished” (or, in Levi's own terminology, the “drowned” [“i sommersi”]). But in the following sentence, Levi describes (whether it is to tell the reader or himself) what will happen next, and discloses what will be needed to survive, using the future tense. “They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”16 The use of the future tense here can be explained either as a trace of Levi's later knowledge of Auschwitz and the strategies of survival he conceived there, or as a demonstration of his decision to observe and understand, to find the strength necessary to preserve his identity.

In the following paragraph, Levi seems to open a parenthetical series of ideas, leaving frozen in time the specific historical scene he had inhabited a sentence before by introducing in the present tense a discussion of how human identity is made up of the “value [and] meaning … enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person.”17 Because Levi phrases these observations in the present tense, with the first person plural and then the impersonal voice, they assume a value not only in the specific historical context from which “even the smallest of our daily habits” are absent, but also in the author's present (of writing), and in our own.

These things [the hundred possessions] are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we would immediately find others to substitute for the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories. … Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs …

(p. 23)18

Levi draws on the potency of the present tense and the universality of the impersonal construction, and he thereby arouses the identification of the reader. Levi brings the privation of Auschwitz to bear on the present in a way which would not be possible if he had used a tense consonant with the temporality of his experience there. Such a passage would perhaps touch the sympathy of readers, but would not necessarily show them that they, too, are bound by the same need for “daily habits” whose absence is central to the enterprise of annihilation. If these observations had been phrased within the same temporality, with the narrative continuity that the “we” voice would have conferred, they would describe only what those people had just lost; imagine, for example, if Levi had written these passages with the inflections of the past or imperfect tense: “We were then men who had been deprived of everyone we loved, and at the same time, of our houses, our habits, our clothes, in short, of everything we had possessed: we were hollow men, reduced to suffering and needs. …” Such a construction would limit the force of his words to the event they define because it would be less a reflection on being human than a narration of recent past events and a description circumscribed by a particular moment in history. Instead, we are forced to imagine ourselves, our own “hundred possessions,” when we read, “These things are a part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we would immediately find others to substitute for the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.” The present conditional tense “we would immediately find” (“subito … ritroveremmo”) dehistoricizes the description of what makes for the annihilation of a man, imports the contours of being “on the bottom” into the reader's space, and we conjure up the images of our own creations and possessions, our signs of having a memory, a history and a legacy.

These kinds of temporal and voice shifts also show us one of the most important implications of Levi's decision to begin writing19 while in the Lager. Because he relates and thereby catalogs events as he experienced them at the time, and then moves to other genres and voices to offer commentary on how individuals (others as well as himself) behaved as they did, understood or did not understand their circumstances, we become aware of Levi's decision to become a witness to the event through the very techniques that relate its vicissitudes. We see how this impulse to understand his condition, his reactions to it, and those of the others is fundamental to his survival, since it is by understanding things which others are unable to, that he says he survives. Hence, the impulse to understand which distinguishes his personality generates the revelations of his understanding which in turn structure the book's metamorphoses from one genre into another.

When Levi next resumes the narration of events, he goes back to a present tense, first person singular voice (which quickly becomes a plural, we-voice) that registers one of the first of the Nazis' excisings of identity—the tattoo performed on the deportees: “Häftling: I have learnt that I am a Häftling. My number is 174517 …” (p. 21).20 For the first four pages, Levi's narration shows him uninitiated; the reader watches him, or rather, follows alongside him (the narration here is in the first person plural) as “this first long day of limbo draws to its end.” (p. 25)21 The incomprehension of these hours is highlighted by the fact that they are recounted in the present tense. At first, Levi explains that

the entire process of introduction to what was for us a new order took place in a grotesque and sarcastic manner. When the tattooing operation was finished, they shut us in a vacant hut. The bunks are made, but we are severely forbidden to touch or sit on them: so we wander around aimlessly for half the day in the limited space available, still tormented by the parching thirst of the journey.

(p. 240)22

Passages like these present a “we” who are disoriented, who know only what “we” are not allowed, but do not know why. The present tense here acts much like a voice-narration to a documentary film, relating what the scenes are showing as the events transpire, except that with our imaginations as the “projection screen,” there is less distance between the reader and the “we” of the text than there would be if the figures of the deportees were rendered palpable by virtue of appearing on a screen in front of a viewer, as opposed to inside the imagination of a reader. So we inhabit the landscape and wonder along with this “we” voice when it asks: “Will they give us something to drink?” (p. 25)23 And we register with a corresponding resigned disbelief that the answer is “No, they place us in line again, they lead us to a huge square which takes up the centre of the camp and they arrange us meticulously in squads. Then nothing happens for another hour: it seems that we are waiting for someone.” (p. 25)24

Yet after another page and a half, the remainder of this chapter is devoted to the description of the Lager: its schedule, its geography, its rules, its functioning. All of these details are beyond the scope of Levi's experience at the chronological period correlate with his arrival in Auschwitz. It would require at least a month interned in the Lager to know that “One Sunday in every two is a regular working day; on the so-called holiday Sundays, instead of working at Buna, one works normally on the upkeep of the Lager, so that days of real rest are extremely rare.” (p. 31)25 Many paragraphs in this section of “On the Bottom” begin with an announcement in the first person plural of what “we” now know, what “we” have learned about the world of the Lager, and sometimes every sentence is inaugurated with nearly identical expressions. One paragraph opens, “We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap around our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad our jacket against the cold.” (p. 28)26 And the next echoes the construction of the first: “We have learnt, on the other hand, that everything can be stolen, in fact is automatically stolen as soon as attention is relaxed; and to avoid this, we had to learn the art of sleeping with our head on a bundle made up of our jacket and containing all our belongings, from the bowl to the shoes.” (pp. 28-9)27 The repetition of phrases like “we have learnt” (for example, the phrases, “we, too, know,” “we already know” and “we had soon learned” all appear on a single page)28 deliberately highlights the idea of learning the Lager; and the comprehensiveness of the description of understood-aspects-of-Lager-life itself shows Levi's determination to learn what it takes to survive, because in order to be able to transcribe what seems an encyclopedic summary of the Lager's particulars, Levi has to have observed, survived, and classified all the organized inhumanities he summarizes.

The fusion of temporalities and movement among voices coalesce in this chapter, and indeed, in most of the chapters of Se questo è un uomo, to create what sounds virtually like a handbook to survival in Auschwitz,29 a guide which shows and tells what one needs (and I myself use the present tense, impersonal voice deliberately) to comprehend, or at least be aware of, if one wants to improve the chances of preserving one's identity: “to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” In “Ka-Be,” one of the chapters that is most consistent, most monological in its tense structure, the future still intrudes, the intermediary temporal level of Levi's voice of experience in the Lager is called upon, so to speak, by the Levi who is still ignorant and floundering. When he is about to enter Ka-Be he says:

someone came and took away my bowl, spoon, beret and gloves. The others laughed. Didn't I know that I had to hide them or leave them with someone, or best of all sell them, as they cannot be taken into Ka-Be?

(p. 42)30

This observation demands a later knowledge of events than he possessed at the time, demands experience of Ka-Be, and hence, of course, survival of it, but what is new is that by phrasing the knowledge that comes with greater experience as though it were generated by the minds of other inmates, Levi “cedes” to the perceptions of others (much as he does in I sommersi e i salvati [The Drowned and the Saved] by quoting from the memoirs of the Austrian-Jewish survivor Jean Améry, At the Mind's Limits, as well as from the letters of responses by German readers of Se questo è un uomo). And in “The Drowned and the Saved,” a chapter framed on both ends by the reflections of the present in a kind of essayistic format, Levi again shifts outside his own experience, charting four incarnations of the “saved” (Schepschel, Alfred L., Elias, and Henri). He becomes a kind of omniscient narrator of these men's experience, and precisely by ceding to their stories in the telling of his own, by incorporating their voices into his own learning process, Levi goes beyond the singularity of his own experience in two different temporalities: in the past tense of Levi's Lager days he comes to understand his own circumstance and create his own survival by observing others with meticulous and analytic carefulness; in the present of writing (itself a dubious temporality since, as we know, he began the manuscript while in the Lager, but at least in this chapter his observing intelligence seems to issue from the post-War period) this same stratagem offers Levi a forum in which to speculate and search for theorems not only of survival, but of human nature in general, and his own being in particular. Levi's scientific mind, that of a trained chemist, served him both during and after the experience, as he reminds us (and himself?) in the Preface with locutions reminiscent of the scientific method: “[This book] has not been written in order to formulate new accusations; it should be able, rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind.”31

And what Levi does for himself with these literary devices, he invites his readers to experience in themselves as well, using still another set of slight linguistic shifts, as, for example, when he writes, “At the Market [Levi uses “Borsa,” the Italian equivalent of “Stock Exchange”], you can find specialists in kitchen thefts, their jackets swollen with strange bulges.” (p. 72)32 Turning to the second person singular in the present tense can be seen, on the one hand, as a simple address to the reader, but precisely because this is situated in a literary work, the address takes on the force that readers expect of and grant to omniscient narrators. That is to say, much as when we read the confidences of, for example, a Balzacian narrator as he outlines the hollow hierarchy and disingenuous practices of the Parisians and provincials who populate his books, we read a line like “At the Market you can find …” and almost subconsciously feel an alliance with the narrator, as though we can stand next to him, following him around as his privileged guests on this tour of his subject.

My choice of analogies here is by no means arbitrary, since the chapter from which this line is excerpted is “Al di qua del bene e del male,” Levi's guide to the “economy” of the Lager, “economy” in its fullest sense, indeed, in its Balzacian sense: the commodification of human activities and human desires in terms of their “value” in Balzac's Paris becomes the marketplace of human need whose stakes are human lives in Levi's Lager. The impulse to catalog and thereby understand all the components of this “economy,” so central to Balzac's Comédie Humaine, is crucial to Levi's entire project and it informs both his survival and transcription of Auschwitz. And, like the Balzacian narrator, Levi invites the readers to judge what he observed and has written in the text even though it emanates from a specific place and time in the past, as though they, too, were in attendance in Auschwitz or as though Auschwitz and its economy were converging on their present. As Gian-Paolo Biasin emphasizes in his lucid study of Se questo è un uomo, “Levi, while outlining the precise mechanisms of the economic system of the Lager, never forgets for a moment the moral side of it.”33 Later in the same chapter, still more explicitly demanding the readers' ethical involvement, Levi writes,

We would now like to invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words ‘good,’ and ‘evil,’ ‘just,’ and ‘unjust’; let each one judge, on the basis of the picture we have outlined and of the examples given above, how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.

(p. 78)34

Throughout the book the almost covert (because so integrated) devices of shifting voices, temporalities and genres have created a sense of inclusiveness: a chorus of voices seem to generate the text from different temporal registers: no voices or times are exempt. But here Levi turns from the text to address the reader directly, and in so doing he reaches out beyond the double temporal horizon of a later knowledge in Auschwitz by which we know both that he wants to learn how to survive and that he is doing so; this direct address reaches into a post-War temporality in which Levi has survived and we thus become involved in the Lager world by virtue of our identification with voices of narration that originate after the War. Levi's text moves beyond these two into yet another temporality: the non-finite time of a reader's present, the indeterminate space of a reader's self-understanding and ethical judgment. Thus, Levi's work lacks “a final tense,” or rather, it refuses to have one.


“We don't choose a moral response, we construct one.”

—Michael Frayn, Constructions35

In a world of symbolism, Levi resists the paradox that says that everything in Auschwitz is endowed with an aura of intentionality despite its so-called meaninglessness. A rejection of the symbolic should not seem so surprising in this context given the specific qualities of the symbolism involved: the Nazis imposed—by design and occasionally by default—a set of symbolisms contrived to dehumanize and subsequently “prove” the inhumanity of those they imprisoned and murdered, but the symbolism could only be effective if both sides acted in accord with its meanings. Levi understood that the symbolisms of Auschwitz—the tattoo, the roll-call, the eradication of privacy, etc.—could only function if they were not thought about, because, in this case, to think about the symbol is to destroy it, since thinking is human, defines human-ness. Part of Levi's learning how to survive depended precisely upon his human intellect: the decision to become a witness to the event, which we saw in his uses of tense and voice, meant that Levi was constantly observing and organizing those observations, assimilating what he experienced into a compendium of reflections on human-ness. In so doing, he transcends the symbols which even those who strenuously object to the Nazi dehumanization of Jews unwittingly uphold when they critique Levi's writing (itself a survival mechanism) for the intellectual resistance it manifests. In a recent essay published in History and Memory, Dominick LaCapra, a history professor, writes with astonishing presumptuousness, “it may also be useful to quote Levi on silence, for his words are instructive despite their dubious indebtedness to a largely unexamined tradition of high culture, overly analytic rationality, teleological assumptions and restrictive humanism.”36 By repudiating the very qualities that enabled Levi to assert his private identity and general humanity, LaCapra's assessment not only misunderstands the profound, perhaps even radical, openness of Levi's writing, but it would seem also to prefer the dehumanization of the victim as a condition of his survival. (So, whereas the Nazis depended upon the dehumanization of their victims in order to carry out systematic murder, LaCapra's judgment of the Nazis collaborates in their symbolism without questioning its untenability). For Levi, humanism is anything but “restrictive,” as is clear if we look to the terms he uses throughout Se questo è un uomo: even when he writes “… we have reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so” (p. 22), it is highly significant that Levi still refers to this as a human condition, and he can do so because to relate events and record history (i.e., communication and memory) are the foundation of any kind of human culture, not just, as LaCapra would have it, of “a largely unexamined tradition of high culture.”

The recklessness of reservations like LaCapra's contrasts with and is discredited by the advantages (or perhaps the necessity) of a sensibility of tenacious humanism like Levi's. In what Levi chooses to narrate, he rejects the Lager as a non-human existence; he writes about it in terms which assimilate it to human, civilized experience. Levi's urge to understand, which the structure of the narration presupposes and ultimately summons its readers to reproduce, is profoundly correlate with another of the most distinct and perhaps surprising elements of Levi's book: the ability and tendency to choose the exceptionally good or lucky experiences in or about the Lager as the ones to relate, as the ones to learn from, and as indictment. The extraordinarily holistic view which Levi's work embodies is not just an intermittent quality; it is present right from the opening words of the Preface: “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944. …” (p. 5)37 That the first words of a Holocaust testimony/book should begin with the idea of the narrator's “good fortune,” seems oxymoronic, but instead, it is indispensable to an intellectual resistance not only of the Nazis and Auschwitz, but of any facile mythologization of victimhood. Levi subverts the model to which so many writers of the Holocaust (whether survivors or not) subscribe. As Michael Bernstein explains,

… Levi [completely] reverses customary judgments about the Camps. If the by now conventional claim is that Auschwitz, because of its brutality and ruthlessness, represents a uniquely authoritative testing-place of human beings, Levi actually implies that its exceptional nature makes the Lager an unreliable “laboratory.”38

By choosing the exceptionally “good” day, experience, or point of view, Levi brings the extra-ordinary world of the Lager into a language of the ordinary. Learning the name of their destination is “Auschwitz” is shown to us as a moment of relief for the passengers of the deportation train because, while it held no significance for them, the fact that they knew a name was a comfort because a name “at least implied some place on this earth.” (p. 13)39

Many of the episodes Levi relates are “ordinary,” small moments (there are strikingly few descriptions of his own pain, an absence which is all the more meaningful when we consider Levi's work in comparison not only to the “typical” Holocaust survivor's literature, but to that of an intellectual “equal” like Améry, whose book is predicated upon and returns constantly to address the torture he underwent as a political prisoner of the Nazis.) Levi's style of narration is prosaic, not elegiac, and the metaphoric language and structure he applies to the Lager (the “economy” of the Lager), all make the Lager recognizable, show the human responses and ways of behaving and surviving in the Lager. For example, in the midst of the bureaucratic horror of “Ka-Be,” Levi succeeds “miraculously [in taking off] my shoes and rags without losing any of them, without letting my bowl and gloves be stolen, without losing my balance,” (p. 41)40 and later in “The Work,” he records with surprise that his initiative to team up with one of the stronger, taller men (Resnyk) for the “unloading of cast-iron cylinders … sleepers” (supports, affixed in the ground, that keep railroad rails in place) not only succeeds, but works out better than he had hoped:

I will try and place myself with Resnyk; he seems a good worker and being taller will support the greater part of the weight. I know that it is the natural order of events that Resnyk refuse me with disdain and form a pair with another more robust individual. … Instead Resnyk accepts, and even more, lifts up the sleeper by himself and rests it on my right shoulder with care. …

(p. 60)41

The following chapter title itself epitomizes the tendency to integrate the exceptional into a language of normal experience: “A Good Day.” This is another seemingly oxymoronic phrase, but Levi points out that because the sun came out a bit stronger, and there was extra food, the benefit was that “For a few hours we can be unhappy in the manner of free men.” (p. 69)42 Levi thus defines as good whatever reaffirms his human-ness, and singularity is what he must focus on since it is the scarcest of commodities in the “economy” of the Lager. Levi even articulates this philosophy explicitly towards the end of the book:

It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy.

(p. 119)43

This ability to recognize the element of luck (“It is lucky” or “è fortuna”) inherent in the singularity of a “good” episode, to be able to maintain the conviction, in Auschwitz and after it, that “no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis” (p. 79),44 finds its corollary in Levi's understanding that neither victimhood nor survival can be reduced to a formula. Both are the result of a convergence of fortuitous circumstances whose causes are less important than our scrupulous attention to understanding how the fact of the circumstances modifies both our perception of human society and the construction of our own moral response to it.

For Levi, the construction of a moral response began simultaneously with the period of his Lager internment: by writing while in Auschwitz, that is to say, by turning the attempted destruction of his identity into a literary work informed by the need to understand, Levi uses art to reinstall order, to reconstruct human-ness. But in this process, Levi brings his own world, his canon and history, to bear on the experience of Auschwitz precisely in order to understand Auschwitz not as excluded from, but in terms of, the world. When Levi explains the Lager by analogy with certain cultural or literary/artistic models, (such as the Bible, Dante, Machiavelli, Manzoni), he not only reinforces his own identity, he situates the Lager in the ambiguous temporality denoted by the title, Se questo è un uomo, and forces it into a kind of dialogue with the works that he cites and the ethical dramas which unfold there.

After using the “we” voice for the temporality of the Lager throughout most of the book, Levi reverts to a narrative voice in the first person singular in the chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” and by the sheer force of the pronoun, establishes the epiphany of identity which this episode records. Calling on the same verbal expression he used in “On the Bottom” to describe the revelation of a collective offense for which “our language lacks words” (p. 22), Levi relates the thoughts racing through his mind as he tries to recreate a human bond both with his past, and with his Lager companion (Pikolo), through the recitation of Dante's poetry. The “demolition of a man” described in “On the Bottom,” stands out for the particularity of its temporal emphasis: “In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us.” (p. 22) That dismantling of human-ness is reassembled in an equally “prophetic” moment after Levi attempts to explain the lines of The Divine Comedy devoted to Odysseus's story of his own death:

I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this “as pleased Another” before it is too late; tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of understanding, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today. …

(pp. 104-105)45

It is not only that poetry is a human expression involving recurrent patterns and structures which compels Levi's overwhelming, momentary recognition and recovery of order amidst the chaos of Auschwitz; nor is it just that this is the poetry of an Italian (i.e., a compatriot of Levi, a reminder of his background), or that the passage he is trying to recite here is from Inferno—the Cantica whose title seems to have come to life in the creation of Auschwitz. The very lines he tries to recall and reproduce are those of Odysseus narrating his own destruction, narrating on behalf of his companions who have no voice, bearing witness to his own impulse to understand the limits of human endeavor—all in the perfect terza rima that Dante's attentive genius provides. Thus, Levi's attempt to narrate the composition of a man in art—a character who, in that literary work, and with his pagan world-view, was narrating his demolition at the hands of the gods—is the inverse of the dehumanization and decimation of men in real life which Levi has been rendering in organized structures through the art of his writing. Odysseus drowns from wanting to understand something beyond human boundaries, (he is literally “drowned”/“sommerso” when he dies in Dante's poem: “Infin che ‘l mar fu sopra noi rinchiuso”46 and he needs Dante's attention to give his testimony a formal existence. Levi, struggling to understand and survive a condition at the very limits of humanness, draws on the solidity of literary representation both to re-establish a continuity with the past and to formalize his role as fulcrum between the present and the future, as narrator of “this exceptional human state” of which “[it would be good] to retain some memory.” (my translation)47 The urge to explain to another human consciousness the relationship between the literary demolition of a man which is simultaneously an artistic, formal reconstruction, and the reality of the Lager, is also what informs Levi's effort to narrate Se questo è un uomo—an effort marked by the complexity of representing a past whose upheavals continue to violate the present.


“This book means to contribute to the clarification of some aspects of the Lager phenomenon which still appear obscure. It also sets itself a more ambitious goal, to try to answer the most urgent question, the question which torments all those who have happened to read our accounts: How much of the concentration camp world is dead and will not return, like slavery and the dueling code? How much is back or is coming back? What can each of us do so that in this world pregnant with threats at least this threat will be nullified?”

—Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (1986)48

If we remember one of Levi's earliest realizations about the Lager, that “our language lacks words to express this offence,” and that words like “hunger” and “cold” do not begin to approximate in meaning what the prisoners of the Lager experienced, then the supposition that there is an absence of “hatred, malice, and a yearning for vengeance,” can be answered with the explanation that these words, and the feelings they represent, are not adequate expressions or responses to the Lager, either. To have served as witness to Auschwitz and provided testimony with Se questo è un uomo, in whose tone one does not find “expressions of hatred for the Germans, no malice, no yearning for vengeance,” brings to the present the very inadequacy of language in the face of the reality Levi survived. For Levi, the comprehensiveness of his response to the Lager in Se questo è un uomo is still not sufficient; the problems and questions opened by that text risk—precisely because the text itself is finite—being inadequate responses as well. Because Levi has no finite language with which to erect a permanent crystallization of all that the Holocaust was and means, he has to reframe and rephrase the questions and problems of Se questo è un uomo in light of time's passage to clarify (“the clarification of some aspects”) what time has distorted or made dim.

For the same reasons that Se questo è un uomo elicits a self-questioning among readers and listeners, it summons Levi back to re-evaluate his own observations, to respond to his earlier response in the form of his 1987 book, I sommersi e i salvati. The form of this text is perhaps still more uncategorizable than its predecessor; in its continuous re-evaluations it uses much more commentary, and refers to many more cultural and artistic citations, as much from the distant as from the recent past (for example, John Donne and Italo Svevo), as much from high culture as from popular art forms (for example, Dante and Antonioni's Deserto Rosso). Levi re-narrates what was already rendered in Se questo è un uomo (like the finding of the waterpipe whose contents he shared with Alberto: only now Levi includes the detail that there was a witness to the episode, one who still inspires remorse in Levi because he did not share the trickle of water with him, too). Here again, Levi yields deliberately to the involvement of others so that their voices and judgments make up part of his text and engage his need to scrutinize the reactions of others in order to understand his own. Levi incorporates the responses of other writers and readers to the event and its legacy (he creates a dialogue with Améry's response to the Holocaust in At the Mind's Limits, and he includes the dialogues opened by the German readers when they wrote to him after reading his first book). Thus, it is not just the historical event which is written, but its historical ramifications, its effect on people's consciousnesses, the developments from and responses to the event and its literary, philosophical representations.

At the time of the events, there was a need to write as a survival mechanism and later as a type of rehabilitation because of all the ameliorative functions of writing (the usefulness of observing and ordering the experience, positing a stable identity, and enabling judgment through multiple temporalities and voices). There was also a need to perpetuate the analyses of the past in the re-analyses which the present affords: because time has passed, Levi's re-analyses implicate memory and thematize it: memory becomes another mediating factor which Levi must address (and implicitly he asks his readers to address it as well). In the first chapter of I sommersi e i salvati, “The Memory of the Offense,” Levi writes that

An apology is in order. This very book is drenched in memory; what's more, a distant memory. Thus it draws from a suspect source and must be protected against itself. So here then: it contains more considerations than memories, lingers more willingly on the state of affairs such as it is now than on the retroactive chronicle.

(The Drowned and the Saved, p. 35)49

The element of memory in the project of reformulating events and judging their implications on both the past and present transforms the text from being a narrative of “old” events (“a retroactive chronicle”), into new, fuller understandings of the remembered event. And precisely because time has passed, memory intercedes and adds to the refiguring of the event by incorporating the “fate” of the event; by asking, “how has history treated the Lager?” the Lager is reinscribed in the present, in “the state of affairs such as it is now.”

In 1976 Levi explained that in writing Se questo è un uomo he wanted to “prepare the ground for the judges. The judges are all of you.”50 But the act of writing I sommersi e i salvati also seems to be Levi's answer to his own unresolved questions about Se questo è un uomo, his attempt to judge his own moral constructions and self-understanding. He seems to be asking himself: Why is it important, and is it necessary, is it accurate, for my literary choices to be as they are in Se questo è un uomo?

Like Montaigne in his constantly re-written, re-thought and revised Essais, Levi wants first and foremost to probe his own consciousness in order to be able to define and perhaps understand human-ness. To test that human-ness against one's own personality and existence is to maintain an appreciation for the limitations of any single expression of judgment or understanding because one's self exists in the mutable contours of time and space, is ramified by each, and thus can serve as the closest model for an evaluation of “external” historical events. In “Of Experience,” Montaigne explains,

I would rather be an authority on myself than on Cicero. In the experience I have of myself I find enough to make me wise, if I were a good scholar. He who calls back to mind the excesses of his past anger, and how far this fever carried him away, sees the ugliness of this passion better than in Aristotle, and conceives a more justified hatred for it. He who remembers the evils he has undergone, and those that have threatened him, and the slight causes that have changed him from one state to another, prepares himself in that way for future changes and for recognizing his condition.51

It is in themselves that both Montaigne and Levi make their judgments, not only of events, but of the meaning of those events. Much as Montaigne explores his inner contradictions by incorporating the texts with which he feels himself in dialogue and by citing the events and anecdotes of distant and recent history, Levi does not resolve the contradictions and ambiguities raised by the Holocaust and the memory and representation of it (his own memory/representation as well as those of others); he recognizes and internalizes them, and thereby resists the “oversimplifications” of final responses against which he cautions us. (The Drowned and the Saved, p. 20).

The analogy which Levi formulates to explain his ambivalence about memory is the example on which I will close my own analyses, because the analogy embodies what I think are some of the most central facets of Levi's exceptional humanism, and at the same time it explains in a particularly vivid way why Levi's writing does not exhibit the “anger” whose absence has puzzled so many readers. In what amounts to a disclaimer which echoes Levi's 1947 statement that Se questo è un uomo contained certain “structural defects,” Levi throws into question the structure he uses to generate I sommersi e i salvati, and then offers a psychological explanation of his motive by citing its inverse in Dante:

It has been noticed … that many survivors of wars or other complex and traumatic experiences tend unconsciously to filter their memory: summoning them up among themselves or telling them to third persons, they prefer to dwell on moments of respite, on grotesque, strange, or relaxed intermezzos, and to skim over the most painful episodes, which are not called up willingly from the reservoir of memory and therefore with time tend to mist over, to lose their contours. The behavior of Count Ugolino is psychologically credible when he becomes reticent about telling Dante of his terrible death; he agrees to do so not out of acquiescence but only out of a feeling of posthumous revenge against his eternal enemy. When we say, “I will never forget that,” referring to some event which has profoundly wounded us but has not left in us or around us a material trace or a permanent void, we are foolhardy: in “civilian” life we gladly forget the details of a serious illness from which we have recovered, or those of a successful surgical operation.

(pp. 32-33)52

In Inferno, Ugolino only agrees to speak to Dante at the thought that his story will harm his enemy, the Archbishop Ruggieri: “But if my words are to be seed that may bear fruit of infamy to the traitor whom I gnaw, you shall see me speak and weep together.”53 Levi's choosing as analogous to his own basis for narration Ugolino's narration of his death—a narration whose motive could well be defined as one of “hatred, malice and a yearning for revenge”—shows the fruitlessness of an angry testimony. Ugolino's words are wholly impotent: he is in the frozen, eternally immutable pit of Inferno; there can be no vendetta, but only a perpetual violence of anger. Dostoyevsky, who understood this kind of sensibility so well, asserts that “Lamentations comfort only by lacerating the heart still more. Such grief does not desire consolation. It feeds on the sense of its hopelessness. Lamentations spring only from the constant craving to reopen the wound.”54 Instead of either keeping a wound constantly open and festering (this is exactly what Levi takes exception to in Améry's work), or ignoring the wound “of a serious illness from which we have recovered, or those of a successful surgical operation,” Levi's absence of “expressions of hatred, malice, and a yearning for revenge” gives his writing a resonance in the present. And that resonance is not limited to future reflections on the Holocaust, but extends to any survivors “of wars or other complex and traumatic experiences.”

Yet even though Levi rejects the motive for Ugolino's narration, he both understands it (“[it] is psychologically credible”) and finds it somehow similar enough to his own impulses to warrant including it here. And this choice is emblematic of Levi's ability to understand (or at least try to understand) the larger picture in which he is a component. Levi never offers only positive models, or models just like himself: he writes of “the drowned” as well as “the saved”; of the immorality of certain victims of the Holocaust as well as the “admirable” features of their oppressors (Note Levi's uncanny ability to see both sides of a situation, as, for example, when he describes the innate national characteristics of his former persecutors: “In the Lagers oppression was of extreme proportions and enforced with the renowned and in other fields praiseworthy German efficiency” [The Drowned and the Saved, p. 160]).55 Ugolino, a “peccatore” (“sinner”) in Dante's terminology (but not a “drowned one” [“sommerso”] in Levi's)—that is to say, one who committed the crime, not the victim of it, is conceived of by Levi as having the same psychological reaction to memory as the victims (of the Holocaust in particular, but of any victim, as Levi's language makes clear).

Levi's writing, and its absence of “hatred, malice, and a yearning for vengeance,” attests to his construction of a rigorous morality of an entirely secular, humanistic standard. No divinity or the transcendent certainties of the answers it could provide have any part in Levi's world of personal responsibility: “One cannot say that each turn follows from a single why: simplifications are proper only for textbooks; the whys can be many, entangled with one another or unknowable, if not actually nonexistent. No historian or epistemologist has yet proven that history is a deterministic process.” (The Drowned and the Saved, p. 150)56 And like Walter Benjamin, whose understanding of history and storytelling Levi's thinking mirrors here, Levi realized, and his writing shows, that the story of the Lager needs to be retold and embellished by other voices and in other times in order to remain a vital part of the cultural imagination from which it stems. Because, otherwise, as Benjamin cautions, “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.”57


  1. Primo Levi, “Appendix to the annotated edition of Se questo è un uomo,” my translation. The original Italian, “Nel Suo libro non si trovano espressioni di odio nei confronti dei tedeschi, né rancore, né desiderio di vendetta. Li ha perdonati?” can be found in “Appendice per l'edizione scolastica di Se questo è un uomo,” printed in Primo Levi, Opere, Volume Primo (Torino: Einaudi, 1987) p. 186. All references to Levi's works in the original Italian will be cited in the notes, following the bibliographic information on the English edition of the text. The Italian will appear in the notes, and page numbers refer to this edition.

  2. “… come mia indole personale, non sono facile all'odio. Lo ritengo un sentimento animalesco e rozzo, e preferisco che invece le mie azioni e i miei pensieri, nel limite del possibile, nascano dalla ragione; per questo motivo, non ho mai coltivato entro me stesso l'odio come desiderio primitivo di rivalsa, di sofferenza inflitta al mio nemico vero o presunto, di vendetta privata.” (Levi, Opere, p. 186)

  3. “… nello scrivere questo libro, ho assunto deliberatamente il linguaggio pacato e sobrio del testimone, non quello lamentevole della vittima né quello irato del vendicatore: pensavo che la mia parola sarebbe stata tanto più credibile ed utile quanto più apparisse obiettiva e quanto meno suonasse appassionata; solo così il testimone in giudizio adempie alla sua funzione, che è quella di preparare il terreno al giudice. I giudici siete voi.” (Opere, p. 187)

  4. Lynn M. Gunzberg, “Nuotando altrimenti che nel Serchio: Dante as vademecum for Primo Levi,” in Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi, ed. Susan Tarrow (Western Societies Program, Occasional Paper No. 25, Center for International Studies, Cornell University, 1990), p. 82.

  5. Primo Levi, “Author's Preface” to Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Giulio Einaudi editore (NY: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 5-6. All citations in English refer to this edition, unless otherwise noted, and will hereafter be included in the body of the essay. “Mi rendo conto e chiedo venia dei difetti strutturali del libro. Se non di fatto, come intenzione e come concezione esso è nato fin dai giorni di Lager. … il libro è stato scritto per soddisfazione … in primo luogo … a scopo di liberazione interiore. Di qui il suo carattere frammentario: i capitoli sono stati scritti non in successione logica ma per ordine di urgenza.” (Levi, Opere, pp. 3-4)

  6. Levi writes, “The need to tell ‘the rest,’ to make ‘the rest’ participate in it [the days in the Lager], had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our elementary needs.” (Levi, pp. 5-6) The Italian text reads: “Il bisogno di raccontare agli “altri,” di fare gli “altri” partecipi, aveva assunto fra noi, prima della liberazione e dopo, il carattere di un impulso immediato e violento, tanto da rivaleggiare con gli altri bisogni elementari.” (Opere, p. 4)

  7. “Fra le quarantacinque persone del mio vagone, quattro soltanto hanno rivisto le loro case; e fu di gran lunga il vagone più fortunato.” (Opere, p. 10)

  8. I have provided the translation here because the translation in the Macmillan edition, “We suffered from thirst and cold,” does not convey the force of the imperfect tense of the Italian: “Soffrivamo per la sete e il freddo.” (Opere, p. 10).

  9. “Venne a un tratto lo scioglimento. La portiera fu aperta con fragore, il buio echeggiò di ordini stranieri, e di quei barbarici latrati dei tedeschi quando comandano, che sembrano dar vento a una rabbia vecchia di secoli. Ci apparve una vasta banchina illuminata da riflettori. Poco oltre, una fila di autocarri. Poi tutto tacque di nuovo. Qualcuno tradusse: bisognava scendere coi bagagli, e depositare questi lungo il treno.” (Opere, p. 12)

  10. “Quello che accadde degli altri, delle donne, dei bambini, dei vecchi, noi non potemmo stabilire allora né dopo: la notte li inghiottì, puramente e semplicemente. Oggi però sappiamo che in quella scelta rapida e sommaria, di ognuno di noi era stato giudicato se potesse o no lavorare utilmente per il Reich …” (Opere, pp. 12-13)

  11. “Ed ora so anche che mi salverò se diventerò Specialista, e diventerò Specialista se supererò un esame di chimica. Oggi, questo vero oggi in cui sto seduto a un tavolo e scrivo, io stesso non sono convinto che queste cose sono realmente accadute.” (Opere, p. 106)

  12. Here again I have not used the Macmillan edition's translation because it mistranslates the tense Levi chose, using the present instead of the past, for “ciascuno è rimasto nel suo angolo, e non abbiamo osato levare gli occhi l'uno sull'altro.” (Opere, p. 20)

  13. I have added the phrase “And here we are,” to the English translation, which begins simply “we are transformed …” in order not to give the text a conclusive temporality. In Italian, the sentence is actually a fragment, there is no verb, only a past participle (“transformed”): “Eccoci transformati nei fantasmi intravisti ieri sera.” (Opere, p. 20)

  14. “Allora per la prima volta ci siamo accorti che la nostra lingua manca di parole per esprimere questa offesa, la demolizione di un uomo. In un attimo, con intuizione quasi profetica, la realtà ci si è rivelata: siamo arrivati sul fondo. Più giu di così non si può andare: condizione umana più misera non c'è, e non è pensabile. Nulla più è nostro: ci hanno tolto gli abiti, le scarpe, anche i capelli; se parleremo, non ci ascolteranno, e se ci ascoltassero, non ci capirebbero.” (Opere, p. 20)

  15. Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1973) p. 68.

  16. “Ci toglieranno anche il nome: e se vorremo conservarlo, dovremo trovare in noi la forza di farlo, di fare sì che dietro al nome, qualcosa ancora di noi, di noi quali eravamo, rimanga.” (Opere, p. 20).

  17. “… valore [e] significato … racchiuso anche nelle più piccole nostre abitudini quotidiane.” (Opere, p. 20)

  18. I have modified the English translation, substituting “we would immediately find” for what appears in the Macmillan edition as “we find,” in order to be faithful to Levi's tense structure (he uses the present conditional tense: “ritroveremmo): “Queste cose [i cento oggetti nostri] sono parte di noi, quasi come membra del nostro corpo; né è pensabile di venirne privati, nel nostro mondo, ché subito ritroveremmo altri a sostituire i vecchi, altri oggetti che sono nostri in quanto custodi e suscitatori di memorie nostre. … Si immagini ora un uomo a cui, insieme con le persone amate, vengano tolti la sua casa, le sue abitudini, i suoi abiti, tutti infine, letteralmente tutto quanto possiede: sarà un uomo vuoto, ridotto a sofferenza e bisogno …” (Opere, p. 20)

  19. In the chapter, “Die drei Leute vom Labor,” Levi indicates that he was already writing what became the text of Se questo è un uomo during his captivity in Auschwitz:

    “… non appena, al mattino, io mi sottraggo alla rabbia del vento e varco la soglia del laboratoria, ecco al mio fianco la compagna di tutti i miei momenti di tregua, del Ka-Be e delle domeniche di riposo: la pena del ricordarsi, il vecchio feroce struggimento di sentirsi uomo, che mi assalta come un cane all'istante in cui la coscienza esce dal buoio. Allora prendo la matita e il quaderno, e scrivo quello che non saprei dire a nessuno.” (p. 146)

    “… in the morning, I hardly escape the raging wind and cross the doorstep of the laboratory when I find at my side the comrade of all my peaceful moments, of Ka-Be, of the rest-Sundays—the pain of remembering, the old ferocious longing to feel myself a man, which attacks me like a dog the moment my conscience comes out of the gloom. Then I take my pencil and notebook and write what I would never dare tell anyone.”

    (p. 128).

  20. Häftling: ho imparato che io sono uno Häftling. Il mio nome è 174 517.” (Opere, p. 21)

  21. “questa prima lunghissima giornata di antinferno volge al termine.” (Opere, p. 23)

  22. “l'intero processo d'inserimento in questo ordine per noi nuovi avviene in chiave grottesca e sarcastica. Finita l'operazione del tatuaggio, ci hanno chiusi in una baracca dove non c'è nessuno. Le cuccette sono rifatte, ma ci hanno severamente proibito di toccarle e di sedervi sopra: così ci aggiriamo senza scopo per metà della giornata nel breve spazio disponibile, ancora tormentati dalla sete furiosa del viaggio.” (Opere, p. 22)

  23. “Ci daranno da bere?” (Opere, p. 23)

  24. “No, ci mettono ancora una volta in fila, ci conducono in un vasto piazzale che occupa il centro del campo, e ci dispongono meticolosamente inquadrati. Poi non accade più nulla per un'altra ora: sembra che si aspetti qualcuno.” (Opere, p. 23)

  25. “Una domenica ogni due è regolare giorno lavorativo; nelle domeniche cosidette festive, invece di lavorare in Buna si lavora di solito alla manutenzione del Lager, in modo che i giorni di effettivo riposo sono estremamente rari.” (Opere, p. 30)

  26. “Abbiamo imparato che tutto serve; il fil di ferro, per legarsi le scarpe; gli stracci, per ricavarne pezze da piedi; la carta, per imbottirsi (abusivamente) la giacca contro il freddo.” (Opere, p. 27)

  27. “Abbiamo imparato che d'altronde tutto può venire rubato, anzi, viene automaticamente rubato non appena l'attenzione si rilassa; e per evitarlo abbiamo dovuto apprendere l'arte di dormire col capo su un fagotto fatto con la giacca, e contenente tutto il nostro avere, dalla gamella alle scarpe.” (Opere, p. 27)

  28. “abbiamo appreso,” “anche noi adesso sappiamo,” and “conosciamo già” (Opere, p. 27)

  29. And this would perhaps be the only way that the English translation's title, Survival in Auschwitz, could be justified. But the earnestness of the mis-titling, rather than illuminating this element which is so central to Levi's entire project: i.e., learning to survive and transcribing the exigencies of that survival, reveals instead the serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Levi's text on the part of the American publisher (catering, no doubt, to an American marketplace in which the catch-phrases of horror are the best marketing tools to boost sales).

  30. mi [hanno] portato via gamella cucchiaio berretto e guanti. Gli altri hanno riso, non sapevo che dovevo nascondergli o affidarli a qualcuno, o meglio di tutto venderli, e che in Ka-Be non si possono portare? (Opere, p. 43)

  31. “Esso non è stato scritto allo scopo di formulare nuovi capi d'accusa; potrà piuttosto fornire documenti per uno studio pacato di alcuni aspetti dell'animo umano.” (Opere, p. 3)

  32. “Puoi trovare in Borsa gli specializzati in furti alla cucina, con le giacche sollevate da misteriosi rigonfi.” (Opere, p. 80)

  33. Gian-Paolo Biasin, The Flavors of Modernity (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 140. For a fine discussion of the representation of hunger as both a physical and a moral/intellectual category, see Biasin's chapter “Our Daily Bread,” on pp. 128-142 of The Flavors of Modernity.

  34. “Vorremmo ora invitare il lettore a riflettere, che cosa potessero significare in Lager le nostre parole ‘bene’ e ‘male,’ ‘giusto’ e ‘ingiusto;’ giudichi ognuno, in base al quadro che abbiamo delineato e agli esempi sopra esposti, quanto del nostro comune mondo morale potesse sussistere al di qua del filo spinato.” (Opere, p. 87)

  35. Michael Frayn, Constructions (London: Wildwood House, 1974), Number 205, no pagination.

  36. Dominick LaCapra, “The Personal, the Political and the Textual: Paul de Man as Object of Transference,” in History & Memory, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1992, p. 15.

  37. “Per mia fortuna, sono stato deportato ad Auschwitz solo nel 1944 …” (Opere, p. 3)

  38. Michael A. Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, p. 90)

  39. “doveva pur corrispondere a un luogo di questa terra.” (Opere, p. 10)

  40. “… miracolosamente a togliermi le scarpe e gli stracci senza perdere gli uni né le altre, senza farmi rubare la gamella né i guanti, e sensa perdere l'equilibrio,” (Opere, p. 42)

  41. “Proverò a mettermi in coppia con Resnyk, che pare un buon lavoratore, e inoltre, essendo di alta statura, verrà a sopportare la maggior part del peso. So che è nell'ordine che Resnyk mi rifiuti con disprezzo, e si metta in coppia con un altro individuo più robusto … Invece no: Resnyk accetta, non solo, ma solleva da solo la traversina a me e l'appoggia sulla spalla destra con precauzione …” (Opere, p. 65)

  42. “Per qualche ora possiamo essere infelici alla maniera degli uomini liberi.” (Opere, p. 76)

  43. “È fortuna che oggi non tira vento. Strano, in qualche modo si ha sempre l'impressione di essere fortunati, che una qualche circostanza, magari infinitesima, ci trattenga sull'orlo della disperazione e ci conceda di vivere. Piove ma non tira vento.” (Opere, p. 135)

  44. “nessuna umana esperienza è vuota di valori,” (Opere, p. 88)

  45. “Trattengo Pikolo, è assolutamente necesario e urgente che ascolti, che comprenda questo ‘come altrui piacque,’ prima che sia troppo tardi, domani lui o io possiamo essere morti, o non vederci mai più, devo dirgli, spiegargli del Medioevo, del così umano e necessario e pure inaspettato anacronismo, e altro ancora, qualcosa di gigantesco che io stesso ho visto ora soltanto, nell'intuizione di un attimo, forse il perché del nostro destino, del nostro essere oggi qui. …” (Opere p. 118)

  46. Anna Chodakiewicz, a colleague who was an early and perceptive reader of this essay, pointed out to me the subtle detail that Odysseus's death can be seen as a result not only of his relentless adventurism, but also of the god's (Poseidon's) betrayal of him, and this abandonment perhaps parallels Levi's sense of a broken contract among humans, as though the “chosen people,” having been induced to cross the Red Sea, were submerged under it by a retraction of the divine miracle.

  47. “questa eccezionale condizione umana [di cui sia bene che] rimanga qualche memoria.” (Opere, p. 88)

  48. Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (NY: Vintage Books, 1989) pp. 20-21. Future references to this work will be cited in the body of the essay. The Italian reads: “Questo libro intende contribuire a chiarire alcuni aspetti del fenomeno Lager che ancora appaiono oscuri. Si propone anche un fine più ambizioso; vorrebbe rispondere alla domanda più urgente, alla domanda che angoscia tutti coloro che hanno avuto occasione di leggere i nostri racconti: quanto del mondo concentrazionario è morto e non rintornerà più, come la schiavitù ed il codice dei duelli? quanto è tornato o sta tornando? che cosa può fare ognuno di noi, perché in questo mondo gravido di minacce, almeno questa minaccia venga vanificata?” (Opere, p. 661)

  49. “Un apologia è d'obbligo. Questo stesso libro è intriso di memoria: per di più, di una memoria lontana. Attinge dunque ad una fonte sospetta, e deve essere difeso contro se stesso. Ecco: contiene più considerazioni che ricordi, si sofferma più volontieri sullo stato delle cose qual è oggi che non sulla cronaca retroattiva.” (Opere, p. 673)

  50. My translation from the “Appendice,” in Opere, p. 187.

  51. Michel de Montaigne, “De L'expérience,” trans. Donald M. Frame as “Of Experience,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1957), p. 822. The original French reads: “J'aymerois mieux m'entendre bien en moy qu'en Ciceron. De l'experience que j'ay de moy, je trouve assez de quoy me faire sage, si j'estoy bon escholier. Qui remet en sa memoire l'excez de sa cholere passée, et jusques où cette fièvre l'emporta, voit la laideur de cette passion mieux que dans Aristote, et en conçoit une haine plus juste. Qui se souvient des maux qu'il a couru, de ce qui l'ont menassé, des legeres occasions qui l'ont remué d'un estat à autre, se prepare par là aux mutations futures et à la recognoissance de sa condition” (Essais [Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1979] III:13, p. 284.

  52. “È stato notato … che molti reduci da guerre o altre esperienze complesse e traumatiche tendono a filtrare inconsapevolmente i loro ricordi: rievocandoli fra loro, o raccontandoli a terzi, preferiscono soffermarsi sulle tregue, sui momenti di respiro, sugli intermezzi grotteschi o strani o distesi, e sorvolare sugli episodi più dolorosi. Questi ultimi non vengono richiamati volontieri dal serbatoio della memoria, e perciò tendono ad annebbiarsi col tempo, a perdere i loro contorni. È psicologicamente credibile il comportamento del Conte Ugolino, che prova ritegno nel raccontare a Dante la sua morte tremenda, e si induce a farlo non per accondiscendenza, ma solo per vendetta postuma contro il suo eterno nemico. Quando diciamo “non lo dimenticherò mai più” riferendoci a qualche evento che ci ha feriti profondamente, ma che non ha lasciato in noi o intorno a noi une traccia materiale o un'assenza permanente, siamo avventati: anche nella vita “civile,” dimentichiamo volontieri i particolari di una malattia grave da cui siamo guariti, o di un'operazione chirurgica riuscita bene.” (Opere, p. 671)

  53. Dante, Inferno, Canto XXXIII:7-9: “Ma se le mie parole esser dien seme / che frutti infamia al traditor ch’i’ rodo, / parlare e lagrimar vedrai insieme.” The English translation is Charles Singleton's from Inferno (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1970), p. 349.

  54. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, ed. R. E. Matlaw, trans. Constance Garnett and R. E. Matlaw (NY: Norton, 1976), p. 40.

  55. “L'oppressione nei Lager era di misura estrema, ed era condotta con la nota, ed in altri campi encomiabile, efficienza tedesca.” (Opere, p. 784)

  56. “Non è detto che ogni svolta segue da un solo perché: le semplificazioni sono buone solo per i testi scolastici, i perché possono essere molti, confusi fra loro, o inconoscibili, se non addirittura inesistenti. Nessuno storico o epistemologo ha ancora dimostrato che la storia umana sia un processo deterministico.” (Opere, p. 775)

  57. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 255.

Robert Gordon (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6950

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 thus assigns to writing a powerful quality of material presence that in itself is prior to and defies stylistic analysis. In a more general sense also, to write is to assert one's humanity in the act of describing its stripping away. Primo Levi's writing clearly partakes of these meanings on an intensely personal level, as his constant return to the refrain of the Ancient Mariner,2 and the very title and structure of his Se questo è un uomo demonstrate.3 With only a flawed vocabulary to describe these events, writing itself takes on the moral burden and the moral content of coming to terms with the Holocaust, and the particular stylistic qualities of any one utterance are as if supplementary to its primary, monumental ‘being there’. An act of writing has no style as such. It often follows that the most acclaimed texts of this kind are those that give off self-effacing, neutral and transparent effects. For example, Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust. The Jewish Tragedy (London: Collins, 1986) aspires to this styleless quality, providing a relentless record of events, names, numbers and chronologies without any explicit attempt to explain them. There might also be a quasi-spiritual dimension to such an act, famously described by George Steiner in an essay on Chaim Kaplan's Warsaw Diary4 and Elie Wiesel's La Nuit (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1958);

As in some Borges fable, the only completely decent ‘review’ […] would be to re-copy the book, line by line, pausing at the names of the dead and the names of the children as the orthodox scribe pauses, when recopying the Bible, at the hallowed name of God. Until we know many of the words by heart (knowledge deeper than mind) and could repeat a few at the break of morning to remind ourselves that we live after, that the end of the day may bring inhuman trial or a remembrance stranger than death.5

Levi's writings on his experiences in Auschwitz, perhaps even more than most survivor's written testimony, have built their immense reputation and popularity on just this sort of self-effacing quality of style. His writing has been variously and persistently praised as unemotional, scientific, lucid, detached, unembroidered, and so on.6 His voice has the muted intelligence of the observer who records but does not project inwards his experience. His work is a compendium of character vignettes, a diverse human gallery of victims, in which the writer plays down his own importance. Levi himself acknowledges as much when describing his relationship with Mordo Nahum in La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1963): ‘Perché il greco raccontasse queste cose a me, perché si confessasse a me non è chiaro. Forse davanti a me, cosí straniero, si sentiva ancora solo, e il suo discorso era un monologo’ (I, 257 [further references are to vols. I, II or III of Levi’s Opere]). A central moral strength of the work thus lies in its giving a place and a voice to these individuals. But there is a sense in which this is not an adequate account of how Levi's writing works, nor perhaps of why his popularity has been so striking and general. Two caveats come to mind. First (although this is not my primary interest here), it is seriously flawed as an account of his prose style. Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo has analysed at length the syntactic and lexical patterns of Levi's work, and shown how the lucid, unfettered prose that many, perhaps aided by translations, have discerned, is largely mythology.7 Indeed, in some ways, the defining characteristic of his style is its somewhat laboured, rather formal aspect which creates an interesting, fertile distance between the narrative voice and its medium.8 Secondly, as must be inevitable with such a monumental approach to writing, it stops short of the subtle, half-hidden, but persistent qualities of Levi's writing which not only make his voice a powerfully personal and intimate one, but which also allow for the moral dimension of his work to go well beyond the act of writing, and of giving voice, to encompass and grow out of the actual weft of his written language.9 One of the essential vehicles for this intrinsic or organic ethical dimension to Levi's writing, its irony, provides the primary focus of this article.

The key to Levi's direct, but subtle use of irony is set by the opening words of the preface to Se questo è un uomo: ‘Per mia fortuna, sono stato deportato ad Auschwitz solo nel 1944 […]’ (I, 3). The literal truth of the statement is unimpeachable, since, as he goes on to explain, the shortage of manpower in Germany at the time led the Nazis to extend the average life of camp inmates, and hence gave young prisoners like Levi at least a slim chance of survival. However, the boldness of the opening (what fortune is it to be deported to Auschwitz?) lies in its immediate broadening, through irony, of the canvas against which his story will be painted. The irony of the phrase ‘per mia fortuna’ forces us to rebuild our expectations and perceptions of the experience of deportation by undermining our tendency to conflate or generalize individual and contingent experiences of suffering. With those three words, then, we are already projected into the grey zone that Levi will explore with forceful acuity in I sommersi e i salvati,10 and we are already led, by the merest turn of phrase, to a heightened sensitivity towards the subtle gradations of the individual's position in historical events. A similar acute awareness of distinctions, this time between different forms of writing and their relationship to lived experience, is to be found in the poignant mock-formulaic closing statement of the preface: ‘Mi pare superfluo aggiungere che nessuno dei fatti è inventato’ (I, 4).11

Irony is notoriously difficult to classify and wide-ranging in its potential application, but something of the pattern of these first two ironies can be found underpinning large parts of Levi's writing. His work is shot through with rhetorical checks and balances, self-conscious interruptions, and nods and winks to the reader, or to some larger outside force such as fate or history, and all these are built on irony. The ironic tone to his writing is a key factor in creating his somewhat oblique, semi-detached perspective on experience and on his own narrative creations. But the implications of his use of irony go well beyond their foundation in questions of tone. To describe its particular qualities and dynamic, one can turn to the descriptive model given in one of the most sober and meticulous accounts of irony, Wayne Booth's A Rhetoric of Irony.12 Booth occupies a particular position in the extensive field of theories of irony, and his account chimes well with Levi's own instinct for sobriety and wit and his impulse towards the moral. In particular, Levi would seem to share Booth's reservations about over-enthusiastic modernist ironists and theorists of irony, who see all irony as somehow subversive, ambiguous, endlessly deferring meaning, and resolution, ‘opening out vistas of chaos’ (Booth, p. ix). For Booth, irony has most often been ‘intended, but covert, stable and localized’ (p. 7); that is, ‘that once a reconstruction of meaning has been made [after the literal meaning has been demolished], the reader is not then invited to undermine it with further demolitions and reconstructions […]. It does not say, “There is no truth”’ (p. 6). In these cases, a single, specific meaning substitutes for the literal once irony becomes apparent, but the process of arriving at it is none the less sophisticated for having an endpoint. Booth sets great store by two consequences of this stable process, both of which are powerfully applicable to Levi. First, it can produce a form of knowledge, on the one hand through its Socratic acknowledgement of the limits of the knowable (pp. 274-75), and on the other hand through the potential falsifiability of this kind of ironic speech act (pp. 14-19). Secondly, and as a consequence of the production of knowledge, it creates strong bonds of community through the process of ‘reconstructing’ out of irony. Describing his own working model of the reconstructive process, on pages 10-12, Booth notes:

I see that it completes a more astonishing communal achievement than most accounts have recognized. Its complexities are, after all, shared: the whole thing cannot work at all unless both parties to the exchange have confidence that they are moving together in identical patterns. The wonder of it is not that it should go awry as often as it does, but that it should ever succeed.

(p. 13)13

Levi too, in the ethically charged context of his Holocaust experience, forges an ironic perspective that enables him to move beyond literal reproduction, to reconstruction of a community and a constrained form of knowledge. This perspective is in large part founded on contrasts or apparent discrepancies of language use or meaning, which alert and invite the reader to an unspoken quality of response, opening up a new trajectory of possible understanding. These contrasts are very often set in relief by instances of simple, ironic turns of phrase, but more important, they partake of a broad ironic quality in and of themselves owing to their questioning juxtaposition of differences. The tension in the contrasts consists in a sort of potential energy, and the overturning or expanding of received associations which the resolution of the contrasts entails is a (re)cognitive enactment of that potential, and this act of bridging the gap creates a bond of community between reader and writer. Furthermore, where Booth's irony depends for its effect on sets of shared assumptions between reader and writer, the very core of Levi's ironic perspective is the validity of such shared assumptions when confronted with the experience of Auschwitz. In other words, he ironizes one of the key mechanisms of irony itself. Thus he not only creates community through irony and uses community to create irony, but also uses irony to set out a trajectory of communal ethical evolution. He broadens and qualifies and illuminates those shared assumptions, figuring a path to new (or, rather, refined) knowledge. The primary ethical value and function of irony, in Levi and perhaps elsewhere also, is contained within this dual cognitive and communal impulse. Three particularly prevalent types of ironic statement in his writing can be taken to illustrate this duality.

The most persistent type of explicit, verbal irony, which forms the foundations of its broader, more articulated ironic perspective, has its vehicle in his classificatory impulse (see Mengaldo, ‘Introduzione’, Opere, III, xviii-xxiii) and its form in a broadly zeugmatic or even oxymoronic juxtaposition of terms: for example Cesare, one of the brightest characters of La tregua, is described in these abundant terms: ‘Cesare era un figlio del sole, un amico di tutto il mondo, non conosceva né odio né disprezzo, era vario come il cielo, festoso, furbo e ingenuo, temerario e cauto, molto ignorante, molto innocente e molto civile’ (I, 286). This is a strikingly rich illustration of Levi's stylistic exuberance, cast in a rolling, rhythmically varied, leavened prose, instances of which recur in even his most sober writing. Mengaldo describes this aspect of his style as ‘abbondante, a festoni’ (III, xix). Its playfulness and lightness of touch, however, should not disguise its governing impulse, which is to make manifest the contradictory and complex variety of human character. It has, in other words, a cognitive function, and in this respect it is the seed-bed for Levi's cognitive irony. The characterization of Cesare is at its most obviously ironic in its final oxymoronic contrasts (‘furbo e ingenuo’, and so on), but these represent only the climax of a process of homing in on the best epithets to capture his individual human qualities. That process is one of the keys to the ethical subtlety of Levi's style: as he writes he sculpts a profile that carefully assembles the contradictory, multi-faceted, and ironic nature of character. Furthermore, in the descriptive, cognitive process, Levi himself, as well as Cesare, comes alive, in the struggle to encompass his memories and perceptions in language, and to anchor his experience in communicable terms. At times, mechanisms of this kind, often through only a single complementary or contrasting pair of adjectives (Mengaldo, III, xx-xxi, lxxiv-lxxv), work to elucidate and subtly analyse the immense aporia of the camp world. At other times, they play on words and rhythms, on witticisms and light turns of phrase that acquire by analogy, if not in their own right, an imprint of the same evolving struggle to move, as Levi puts it in the essay ‘Tradurre Kafka’, when describing his general writing practice, ‘dall'oscuro al chiaro’ (III, 920).

A second type of irony works on a larger, structural scale, and in Se questo è un uomo it is founded on the ironic contraposition of two sets of values and customs: that of ‘common sense’ (literally the perceptions of experience common to reader and writer) and that of the uncommon camp world. At times the contrast is a direct and terrifying one of mutual exclusion: what pertains here (paradigmatically what is human) does not pertain there, and language is often the kernel of such division:

Vorremmo ora invitare il lettore a riflettere, che cosa potessero significare in Lager le nostre parole ‘bene’ e ‘male’, ‘giusto’ e ‘ingiusto’: giudichi ognuno, in base al quadro che abbiamo delineato e agli esempi sopra esposti, quanto del nostro comune mondo morale potesse sussistere al di qua del filo spinato.14

But even here, where the indirect question invites a response that acknowledges the absolute inadequacy of common sense, the invitation to reflect hints at the ironic (that is, communal and cognitive) energy behind the contrast. The process of reflection forces us to a collective refinement of our understanding of the ethical terms on offer, despite the ultimate invalidity of the polar comparison of there and here. And, of course, Levi often casts his ironist's eye over his canvas where comparison is not quite invalid, seeing both similarity and difference between here and there, carefully extracting the parallel lines and the intersections, and questioning the totality of any absolute division. Again the very process of writing out and thinking through the contrast contains within itself distinctive ethical implications.

This ethical process is typically inaugurated when Levi interrupts his anecdotal narrative of his everyday experience in the camp to offer what seems a diversion into the statement of vague and general common assumptions. As he works his way back from the apparently self-evident truths of those assumptions to his own unfathomable present reality (or vice versa),15 he leads us both to question and to value the stability of those truths and to understand in a limited, partial (ironic) way an aspect of the experience of the Lager. One of the most direct examples of this comes at the opening of the seventh chapter of Se questo è un uomo, ‘Una buona giornata’:

La persuasione che la vita ha uno scopo è radicata in ogni fibra di uomo, è una proprietà della sostanza umana. Gli uomini liberi danno a questo scopo molti nomi, e sulla sua natura molto pensano e discutono: ma per noi la questione è piú semplice.

Oggi e qui, il nostro scopo è di arrivare a primavera. Di altro, ora, non ci curiamo.

(I, 70)

The chapter goes on to relate a pause in the otherworldly suffering of normal days in the camp, as the sun shines and a store of fifty litres of extra soup is discovered. Levi traces precisely the partial return to the sensations of ‘uomini liberi’, to feelings of warmth and to a sense of the future (‘Das Schlimmste ist vorüber’, according to Ziegler (I, 70)), however illusory this may be. The whole becomes a poignant meditation on human nature and its boundaries, lived out in the characters and experiences of the chapter, by way of an interrogation of the terms of that opening meditation. A meaning to life is both an object of yearning for Levi and the others in the camp and a noble mirage for Levi the survivor, mocked by inhumanity. The threads of the chapter are tied together in its final sentences, which confirm and amplify the reversals and profound ironies thrown up by such common assertions and unexpected moments:

Poiché siamo tutti, almeno per qualche ora, sazi, cosí non sorgono litigi, ci sentiamo buoni, il Kapo non si induce a picchiarci, e siamo capaci di pensare alle nostre madri e alle nostre mogli, il che di solito non accade. Per qualche ora, possiamo essere infelici alla maniera degli uomini liberi.

(I, 76)

In ‘Una buona giornata’, the whole chapter, then, is constructed around the paths of this ironic interrogation. Indeed, it could be argued that such interrogation represents the dominant structural principle underpinning the chapters of Se questo è uomo, and much of Levi's basic writing units elsewhere, whether they be essays, stories or articles for ‘terze pagine’. There is another striking example in the chapter of Il sistema periodico entitled ‘Cerio’ (I, 558-65), where an assertion of the unfathomable difference between here and there at once illuminates the reality of experience in Auschwitz, and poses implicit ethical questions about actions here and there growing out of that difference. The story told in ‘Cerio’ is of Levi and Alberto's chance discovery of a hidden source of an iron-cerium alloy, and their plan to make lighters out of it to sell and thus boost their chances of survival in the last weeks of the war. In retrospect Levi realizes that they risked their lives at every stage of their enterprise, with no guarantee of success:

Si esita sempre a giudicare le azioni temerarie, proprie od altrui, dopo che queste sono andate a buon fine: forse non erano dunque abbastanza temerarie? O forse è vero che esiste un Dio che protegge i bambini, gli stolti e gli ebbri? O forse […]? Ma noi non ci ponemmo allora queste domande: il Lager ci aveva donato una folle famigliarità col pericolo e con la morte, e rischiare il capestro per mangiare di piú ci sembrava una scelta logica, anzi ovvia.

(I, 564)

Here Levi performs a sort of sleight of hand. The questions are posed and then removed, but their residue remains. They are built on almost folkloric or instinctual conceptions of cause and effect, which cannot apply to the present situation. But their illogicality, their tendency to rely on slippages of meaning (here in the two usages of ‘temerarie’), find an echo in the unknown, macabre world of ‘allora’, with its own illogicality and its own, often fatal slippages of meaning.

The structural type of irony echoes and explains a more general impulse in Levi's work to dwell on moments of transition and transformation: these include the processes of dehumanization in the opening chapters of Se questo è un uomo, but also the torture of the reawakening of humanity (and thus of shame, or desire, or memory) after the Germans have left (end of Se questo è un uomo; La tregua; I sommersi e i salvati); the grey zones of suffering, the moments of reprieve, the chemically or humanly hybrid. All these liminal moments or objects of interest that pepper Levi's writing, and derive from and determine the very texture of his writing, are moments of irony.

The third type of irony that characterizes his writing only confirms this pattern of difficulty, division, and interpenetration, realized in knowledge. This third type can be termed metonymic irony: the specific or individual stands in for, qualifies, or corrects, and analyses the general. Levi's faith in the exemplum of each human life or particular action is most apparent in his consistent fascination with the individual characters he encounters, with the gallery of vignettes which makes up his entire œuvre. His narratorial position is always intimately human and interlocutory, another factor in the intense community between him and his reader. From this position, his way of writing again embodies or inscribes an ethical position and gives itself rein to enact as well as describe that ethics. His style is a constant negotiation between the individual case and a very cautious and ironized version of general experience or received opinion. In a sense, his power as an ethical writer, and as a writer of testimony, lies in the constant implicit attention in his work to the problems involved in speaking for oneself and for more than one self; to the problem of working out who ‘noi’ is. As the chapter ‘Comunicazione’ in I sommersi e i salvati (I, 720-34 (pp. 720-21)) makes clear, it is a problem of which he refuses to make paradoxical play, and which he refuses to leave unresolved. Hence, although it might seem at first sight alien to his impulse towards the particular and the contingent, Levi is not averse to adapting his facility in sketching character to fashion poignant emblems of general conditions. Perhaps the two most powerfully drawn character-emblems of this kind are the ‘figlio della morte’, the speechless, doomed child Hurbinek in La tregua (I, 226-28), and Müller, the ex-Buna civilian chemist, whom Levi encounters by chance professionally years later, as related in ‘Vanadio’ (Il sistema periodico, I, 628-40). But one could adduce any number of other characters in this regard: it is a further freedom afforded the reader by Levi's narrative abundance to orient himself or herself towards characters in a more or less emblematic reading.

The individuals in Levi's world almost always have metonymic potential, but are not reduced to metonyms; they are partly representative, but representative precisely because each is unique. The profound ethical impact of this moving between the poles of the general and the particular is most apparent in an account, in the chapter entitled ‘La zona grigia’ in I sommersi e i salvati, of a horrifying episode amongst the Sonderkommandos, told by a Hungarian doctor who worked in the camp, Miklos Nyiszli.16 A young woman is found still alive after a gassing. The Sonderkommandos are profoundly disturbed by this absolutely exceptional challenge both to their horrific but necessary blindness to human life, and to the system, which cannot allow exceptions: ‘Non ha capito, ma ha visto; perciò deve morire’ (I, 692).17 In telling this profoundly disturbing story, Levi crafts an extraordinary language of hesitation, generalization, literary echo, of historic presents, rhetorical questions, and free indirect speech to follow through the experience and some of its implications. It is worth quoting at length, since the passage's circuitous style in itself poses the ethical question of how to deal with the exception, the moment of discontinuity, the particular or individual: that is, how to be ‘noi’, as victims or readers, how to be a ‘Mitmensch’, or ‘co-uomo’:

[…] sul pavimento trovano una giovane ancora viva. L'evento è eccezionale, unico; forse i corpi umani le hanno fatto barriera intorno, hanno sequestrato un sacco d'aria che è rimasta respirabile. Gli uomini sono perplessi; la morte è il loro mestiere di ogni ora, la morte è una consuetudine, poiché, appunto, ‘si impazzisce il primo giorno oppure ci si abitua’, ma quella donna è viva. La nascondono, la riscaldano, le portano brodo di carne, la interrogano: la ragazza ha sedici anni, non si orienta nello spazio né nel tempo, non sa dov'è, ha percorso senza capire la trafila del treno sigillato, della brutale selezione preliminare, della spogliazione, dell'ingresso nella camera da cui nessuno è mai uscito vivo. Non ha capito, ma ha visto; perciò deve morire, e gli uomini della Squadra lo sanno, cosí come sanno di dover morire essi stessi e per la stessa ragione. Ma questi schiavi abbrutiti dall'alcool e dalla strage quotidiana sono trasformati; davanti a loro non c'è piú la massa anonima, il fiume di gente spaventata, attonita, che scende dai vagoni; c'è una persona.

Come non ricordare ‘l'insolito rispetto’ e l'esitazione del ‘turpe monatto’ davanti al caso singolo, davanti alla bambina Cecilia morta di peste, che, nei Promessi sposi, la madre rifiuta di lasciar buttar sul carro confusa tra gli altri morti? Fatti come questi stupiscono, perché contrastano con l'immagine che alberghiamo in noi dell'uomo concorde con se stesso, coerente, monolitico; e non dovrebbe stupire, perché tale l'uomo non è. Pietà e brutalità possono coesistere, nello stesso individuo e nello stesso momento, contro ogni logica; e del resto, la pietà stessa sfugge alla logica. Non esiste proporzionalità tra la pietà che proviamo e l'estensione del dolore da cui la pietà è suscitata: una singola Anna Frank desta più commozione delle miriadi che soffrirono come lei, ma la cui immagine è rimasta in ombra. Forse è necessario che sia cosí; se dovessimo e potessimo soffrire le sofferenze di tutti, non potremmo vivere. Forse solo ai santi è concesso il terribile dono della pietà verso i molti; ai monatti, a quelli della Squadra Speciale, ed a noi tutti, non resta, nel migliore dei casi, che la pietà saltuaria indirizzata al singolo, al Mitmensch, al co-uomo: all'essere umano di carne e sangue che sta davanti a noi, alla portata dei nostri sensi provvidenzialmente miopi.

Viene chiamato un medico. […] sopraggiunge Muhsfeld, uno dei militi SS […] esita, poi decide: no, la ragazza deve morire […].

(I, 691-92)

Much of Levi's prose, with its awkward leaps and unresolved closings, its jumps and incisions, could be reread in the light of this example, as a studied means of opening up this kind of ironic enquiry through and as part of the experience of reading.

Underpinning this third form, and indeed all Levi's ironic writing, is a persistent hostility to absolutes of any kind, to systems and to deterministic foundations as sources of knowledge. His truths, such as they are, are hard won by the strenuous labour of reason and experience combined, and they are small-scale, contingent and wholly founded on lived experience. They embody a concrete, novelistic learning about the world, of the kind intimated by Martha Nussbaum:

Teaching and learning do not simply involve the learning of rules and principles. A large part of learning takes place in the concrete. This experiential learning, in turn, requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action. [… Henry] James plausibly suggests that novels exemplify and offer such learning.

(Love's Knowledge, p. 44)

In the ‘Appendice’ to the 1976 edition of Se questo è un uomo, where Levi attempts to collate his answers to the most commonly asked questions about his book and his experiences in Auschwitz, he sets out a warning against other more seductive purveyors of truths not won through such anchored processes:

Poiché è difficile distinguere i profeti veri dai falsi, è bene avere in sospetto tutti i profeti; è meglio rinunciare alle verità rivelate, anche se ci esaltano per la loro semplicità e il loro splendore, anche se le troviamo comode perché si acquistano gratis. E' meglio accontentarsi di altre verità piú modeste e meno entusiasmanti, quelle che si acquistano faticosamente, a poco a poco, senza scorciatoie, con lo studio, la discussione e il ragionamento, e che possono essere verificate e dimostrate.

(I, 210; see also ‘Premessa’ to Racconti e saggi, III, 833)

Within this credo is a combination of two key elements in Levi's working/living method: his chemistry, in the need to experiment, observe, and prove, and his Conradian ‘misurarsi’, in the faith in work and wit pitted against the problems of living which he explores most strikingly throughout his most extraordinary book La chiave a stella (Turin: Einaudi, 1978, now in Opere, II, 3-181), and in a remarkable character in Il sistema periodico, Sandro (‘Ferro’, I, 462-73).18 Sandro's instinctive ‘attenzione ironica’ deflates the naive young Levi's rhetorical faith in chemistry, promising in the perils and exhilarations of mountain-climbing19 a struggle based on lived experience and wit, not on systems: the poetry and pedagogy of experience and action is set against the mirage of poetry Levi finds in the Periodic Table (‘aveva perfino le rime!’ (I, 466)). As he learned very early in his chemical studies, impurity for the chemist, as for any of us, is the stuff of life, and purity, absolutes, pure vice, and pure virtue are ‘detestabil[i]’ (I, 459). Levi's irony is above all a pragmatist's irony.

The ethical focus of Se questo è un uomo, and by extension of all Levi's work, is already clear in the declared aim of its preface to ‘fornire documenti per uno studio pacato di alcuni aspetti dell'animo umano’ (I, 3). That declaration posits an ethical enquiry, but one that is as yet not undertaken: the book is simply to be its raw material, and the enquiry is to be ours, as well as his in later works. His responses to the extremes and the norms of experience, and his way of encompassing those responses in writing, set out an ethical field by virtue of an ironic perspective some of whose aspects have been described above. The nature of the bond thereby created between writer or text and reader may be illuminated by reference to the ethics of writing narrative in general. Above, the account of irony given by Wayne Booth was adduced as an appropriate model for reading Levi's irony, emphasizing as it does the potential for the attainment of knowledge through a stable acknowledgment of the latter's limits. In a later book, The Company We Keep,20 Booth develops the ethical aspect of his work on irony (and much else) into an ‘ethics of fiction’ in which the act of reading creates a bond between reader and (implied) author that is akin to a bond of friendship. Levi's ability to make friends out of his readers (as he did with so many of the characters who people his books, including many so radically different to him, such as Mordo Nahum and Faussone) is astonishing and has been widely experienced and noted.21 He carves out an intimacy with his reader that guides and accompanies any reading of his work. The subtlety, variability, and eclecticism which make up the ironic weft of his writing are some of the dominant vehicles for the creation of that bond of friendship. And the figuring of friendship in Levi's writing can be extended to take in his own attitude to books and to reading. In his presentation of his anthology of favourite books, La ricerca delle radici, he slips with ease among books, authors, and people, speaking of each in terms of companionship and friendship, of rich, varied, and contingent human contact:

si eleggono i libri che ci accompagneranno per la vita

non ho sposato quegli autori perché avevano quelle determinate virtú; li ho incontrati per opera di fortuna

Rabelais (a cui sono fedele da quarant'anni […])

le inimicize sono inesplicabili quanto le amicizie: confesso di aver letto Balzac e Dostoevskij per dovere, tardi

In altri casi […] non ho fatto il passo decisivo per pigrizia, per pregiudizio o per mancanza di tempo. Se lo avessi fatto, mi sarei forse procurato un nuovo amico […].

(La ricerca delle radici, pp. ix-xi)

It is not insignificant that in that collection, comic or ironic writers (Job, Rabelais, Swift, Belli, Carlo Porta, Thomas Mann, Sholem Aleichem) play a central role, grouped under the line of interpretation Levi tellingly labels ‘la salvazione del riso’ (p. 3). The bonds of friendship, born of laughter, which such texts provide mirror the bonds of friendship, born of horror, which his memorial writing forges in us. The familiar judicial metaphors of testimony and judgment used not only to examine the Holocaust but also by consequence to define the relationship between survivors and the rest of us, can be seen as in some way superseded by more human vocabularies such as that of friendship.

Levi's irony is cognitive and communal. It relies on shared experience to broaden and hone an understanding of both shared and exceptional experience. It distinguishes and carefully clarifies, without offering single definitive answers to the problems it poses. It also shows itself, and its author, in the processes of perception, making us follow its adjustments in the course of its events, of its writing down and thinking through, and of its reading through. The very rhythm or duration of his writing creates irony and opens up ethical fields. Irony also then sets limits to those fields, and thus to the texts' cognitive and communicative faculties, but it knows that the negotiation of a sense for saying ‘we’ is always possible, indeed necessary.22 Despite the hideous cruelty and the insurmountable difficulties of its subject, Levi's writing organically displays an ethical position in which cruelty is precluded, in which darkness moves into light through sensitivity and clarity. Such a sensitivity to the texture of ethical questions, and analogously to the infinitesimal gradations of irony, is both the prerequisite and the projected end of Levi's writing.

Two deceptively simple phrases from Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, quoted and discussed by Nussbaum (Love's Knowledge, pp. 85, 148-67), capture precisely the scale, the profound generosity and the alert acuity in Levi, and reflect the subtlety of what has been outlined above: his writing is ‘finely aware and richly responsible’, his voice that of ‘a person on whom nothing is lost’.


  1. On the problems of Holocaust literature in general, see Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975); Alvin H. Rosenfeld, A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980); James Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). References to Levi's work, unless otherwise noted, are to volume and page number of Primo Levi, Opere, 3 vols (Turin: Einaudi, 1987-90).

  2. For Levi's use of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and its refrain ‘Since then, at an uncertain hour, / That agony returns: / And till my ghastly tale is told / This heart within me burns’, see the poem ‘Il superstite’ (Opere, II, 581); the title of his collected poetry Ad ora incerta (Milan: Garzanti, 1984, now in Opere, II, 521-607); the epigraph to I sommersi e i salvati (Turin: Einaudi, 1986, now in Opere, I, 651); the description of his state of mind as a writer immediately after his return from the war, in ‘Cromio’ (Il sistema periodico (Turin: Einaudi, 1975), in Opere, I, 570-72); and the appearance of the Mariner as a character preserved in the fantastic literary theme-park of ‘Nel parco’ (Vizio di forma (Turin: Einaudi, 1971), in Opere, III, 295-305 [298]).

  3. The telling construction of the title of Se questo è un uomo (Turin: De Silva, 1947) is itself indicative. Its demonstrative ‘questo’, its present ‘è’ and its emphatically open and negative indirect interrogative ‘se’; these all integrate suggestively connotations of the book as correlative of its author's surviving humanity with its step-by-step diegesis of the dismantling of humanity in the author and in the wide range of other characters who populate the text. ‘Questo’ is thus both ‘this representational form’, ‘this individual author reduced to nothing’ and, ‘every victim’ or ‘everyman’. Although the direct source is Levi's own rewritten version of the Jewish Shemà prayer (I, 1, and II, 529), the iconographic tradition this formulation echoes and taps into is that of the Ecce homo.

  4. Scroll of Agony. The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, trans. and ed. by Abraham I. Katsh (London: Hamilton, 1966).

  5. George Steiner, ‘Postscript’, in Language and Silence (London: Faber & Faber, 1985), pp. 180-93 (p. 193).

  6. It is rare to find any writing on Levi that does not include such epithets. See, for example, Edouard Roditi, ‘The Jewish Contribution to Post-War Italian Literature’, Jewish Quarterly, 28.1 (1980), 20-23 (pp. 20-21); Stuart Woolf, ‘Primo Levi, Drowning and Surviving’, Jewish Quarterly, 34.3 (1987), 6-9 (p. 7); Clive James, ‘Last Will and Testament’, New Yorker, 23 May 1988, pp. 86-92 (p. 88).

  7. See Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo, ‘Introduzione. Lingua e scrittura in Levi’, in Opere, III, vii-lxxxii.

  8. Cesare Cases has analysed, with particular reference to Levi's early work, the ‘residuo scolastico’ in certain archaic or over-formal usages, such as ‘quivi’ (‘L'ordine delle cose e l'ordine delle parole’, L'indice dei libri del mese, 4.10 (December 1987), 25-31, and Patrie lettere (Turin: Einaudi, 1987), pp. 137-50).

  9. A powerful and important statement on the ethical substance of literary style, its potential to ask questions and approach problems of ethics in a way not open to traditional philosophical discourse, is made in Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). See in particular the essay ‘Form and Content: Philosophy and Literature’, pp. 3-53.

  10. I, 674-703. In I sommersi e i salvati, Levi returns several times to the same formula, often underlining its ironic quality: for example, ‘Per nostra paradossale fortuna (ma esito a scrivere quella parola in questo contesto)’, I, 740; see also I, 654, 760, 767. In general, his irony comes not by stealth but through open and, if necessary, underscored declaration.

  11. Alberto Cavaglion sees in this formula a veiled and rare reference in Levi to current literary debates in Italy surrounding the neo-realist movement and its interest in reportage (Primo Levi e ‘Se questo è un uomo’ (Turin: Loescher, 1993), pp. 20-21).

  12. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974; see also Douglas Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen, 1969).

  13. On reconstruction, see also Booth, pp. 33-47, 233-76. On irony and knowledge, see Booth, pp. 14-19. In some recent theoretical work on irony there has been a significant return to the potential for ethical communities created by and creating irony: see, for example, Gary Handwerk, Irony and Ethics in Narrative: From Schlegel to Lacan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); Linda Hutcheon, Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), who echoes Booth on community in her chapter ‘The Miracle of Ironic Communication’ (pp. 89-101; see also pp. 44-56); Richard Rorty, Irony, Contingency and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  14. ‘Al di qua del bene e del male’, Se questo è un uomo, Opere, I, 87, and compare I, 126-27. The importance of language as an aspect of Levi's experience and analysis of Auschwitz, and as an object of interest, study, and creativity throughout his work, cannot be overemphasized: see, for example, Cavaglion, passim; Adam Epstein, ‘Primo Levi and the Language of Atrocity’, Bulletin of the Society for Italian Studies, 20 (1987), 31-38; Sander L. Gilman, ‘To Quote Primo Levi: “If You Don't Speak Yiddish, You're Not a Jew”’, in his Inscribing the Other (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), pp. 293-316.

  15. Mengaldo notes that the single most prevalent stylistic feature of Se questo è un uomo is its use of the ‘present historic’ tense to site the events and experiences in a present which binds writer and reader (III, xli); see also Cavaglion, pp. 70-73.

  16. Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, trans. by Tibère Kremer and Richard Seaver (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest, 1960).

  17. It is worth noting in passing how telling this lapidary statement is for the meaning and form of testimony, which is precisely a seeing (with its potential corollary, a recounting), and not an hermeneutic unravelling. The thought process into which Levi projects himself in this painful exercise in free indirect speech thus envisages the Nazi system of killing as, precisely, a destruction of testimony, or what he calls elsewhere ‘[una] guerra contro la memoria’ (I, 670). This is, in part at least, what Rosenfeld (see note I above) means by ‘a double dying’. What is striking in Levi's ethics is his refusal to take on the third term in the statement (‘non ha capito’) by offering a pretence of understanding or judgment of the event (see I, 87, 187). In this he bears fascinating comparison with Claude Lanzmann's film Shoah (1985). On testimony, see Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge, 1992), passim (on Shoah, see pp. 204-83).

  18. For Levi's use of Conrad, see, for example, La ricerca delle radici (Turin: Einaudi, 1981), pp. 70-82, III; Opere, II, 183; III, 300.

  19. On mountain-climbing as an influence on Levi's work, see Cavaglion, pp. 54-56.

  20. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988). A step in this direction is already to be found in A Rhetoric of Irony: see pp. 13-14. Guido Almansi, L'amica ironia (Milan: Garzanti, 1986) makes the same link between irony and friendship, but Almansi is a reveller in irony's infinite, ludic ambiguity. His hostility to Manzoni's irony as flat and pedantically moralistic, would, I suspect, be applied to Levi as well. Levi's appreciation of Manzoni is apparent, even as he, pedantically perhaps, picks him up for a rare lapse in descriptive precision in ‘Il pugno di Renzo’ (L'altrui mestiere (Turin: Einaudi, 1985), in Opere, III, 659-64).

  21. Paul Bailey notes: ‘Primo Levi seems to me to be one of that select band of writers with whom it is possible to sustain a lasting friendship. One can turn to him for advice and help’ (introduction to the English edition of I sommersi e i salvati: The Drowned and the Saved, trans. by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Joseph, 1988), p. x). Peter Gilbert says: ‘[on hearing of Levi s death] I was overcome with a profound sense of loss. It was as if someone I had been close to for years had just died’ (‘A Letter for Primo Levi’, Jewish Quarterly, 34.3 (1987), 10-12). For a fuller treatment of the theme, see my article ‘Primo Levi: On Friendship’, in Sguardi sull Italia, ed. by Gino Bedani and others (Leeds: Society for Italian Studies Occasional Papers), forthcoming.

  22. On the problem of carving out a community by setting a meaning for the pronoun ‘we’, see Richard Rorty's discussion of so-called ‘we-intentions’ and ‘we-practices’, as the basis for an ironist, pragmatic ethics, in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, pp. 54-65 and passim.

Tzvetan Todorov (essay date 1997)

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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 analyze than ignore, has brought about in me a visceral concern with the question of good and evil, in particular in its political guise. This need led me, in turn, to seek a new humanism; on that path I encountered Primo Levi, and I have tried to absorb a few of his lessons.

If I had to reduce to its essentials the humanist thinking I find in Levi's books—but also in several other contemporary writers, such as the French author Romain Gary—I would retain two theses, each of which is perhaps banal in itself, but draws strength from the presence of the other. The first is the recognition of all the horror of which humans beings are capable. Humanism in this case does not consist in the least in the cult of man, either in general or in particular, nor in any faith in man's noble nature. No, for the starting point here is Auschwitz, the greatest proof this century has provided of the evil men can visit upon one another. The second thesis is an affirmation of the possibility of good, a good that takes man in his concrete, individual identity, as the ultimate end. It thus renounces the substitution for man of a supernatural being such as God; or, conversely, the substitution of subhuman forces like the laws of life; or yet again, that of the abstract values men choose, values like prosperity, revolution, or purity, and looming beyond them, the laws of History. How are we to reconcile this loss of illusions about man on the one hand with maintaining man as the goal of our actions on the other? This, then, is the challenge modern humanism, a humanism after Auschwitz and Kolyma, must meet.

Still, I don't wish to approach Levi's thought within this philosophical framework, but rather via one of his more specific, central themes, designated by the terms of memory and offense, after the title of the first chapter of The Drowned and the Saved. As we know, Levi's final book offers no new testimony about his experience; rather, it is a meditation on Auschwitz distilled over the forty years that separated him from it. In the first chapter, with the simplicity and clarity so characteristic of the rest of the book, Levi develops two ideas. The first is that memory is always imperfect. We do not use it in a disinterested way, but more often than not to protect ourselves from the past. It is therefore neither faithful nor worthy of confidence. We rearrange the past according to our own interest, and in keeping with prevailing stereotypes. The second idea introduces a nuance: the memories of prisoners and those of their guards can not be treated in the same way. To express this in a way that is not in Levi but that seems to me to epitomize his thinking, I would say that former prisoners have the right to forget, while former guards have instead the obligation to remember. Only in this way can the latter acknowledge the existence of their crimes; even if they don't expiate them they can at least begin to regret them. In this way too, former prisoners can find peace. These observations and distinctions seem incontestable to me; I can only acquiesce. I would simply like to add a few thoughts grouped around the terms of memory and offense, in an attempt to make explicit what Levi only suggests.

If our recollection of the past is not as faithful as we might wish, it's because our memory is not a separate mechanism, completely isolated from our other activities, something that we could replace with the poorly-named “memory” of a computer. There is of course a sense in which I could say that I am (and I am no more than) whatever I represent at this specific moment, the perfect identity between me and myself, my body and my brain, here and now. But in another, less commonplace sense, this coincidence between me and myself is a mere illusion. I am always much more than I seem, for I extend far beyond myself in both space and time. I am not simply me, here, because others are a part of me, and I am made of my encounters and exchanges with them. And I am not simply me, now, for my past constitutes my identity. To reveal to me that this past is quite different than I believed, or on the contrary to forbid me to put aside parts of it so as to live happily are actions that challenge not just an isolated compartment of my being, but my very identity. I can not just allow such things to happen; to exercise control over them is thus in the very logic of things.

Let us also dwell a bit more here on Levi's second proposition, which no one would think of disputing, that we do not place the same demands on guards and prisoners. In other words, we do not make a uniform demand that everyone remember, but rather a differentiated one, according to the roles played in the past by our present-day interlocutors, or by those who identify with them because they belong to the same group. Let me rephrase: we could say that the preservation of the past is not good in itself; it is only good as a function of a system of roles and actions. What do these consist of, in concrete terms?

A few examples: Levi himself suggests that if memory is too painful for a former inmate, there is no reason to seek to maintain a constant awareness of it. Such a conclusion is often reached by those who describe their own experiences, or by psychologists and therapists. This negative effect of memory maintained is apparently not the only one. One thinks inevitably about another of memory's harmful uses, that of finding in an offense one has experienced the reason for an offense one then inflicts. We don't have to go as far back as Romeo and Juliet, those victims of family vendetta, to recall the revanchist, bellicose discourse of those who paved the way in France for the slaughter of the First World War, whose outcome, so unfavorable to the Germans, fed the mentality leading to the Second. Nor can we forget the massacres so regularly chronicled in the media of Irish Catholics and Protestants, of Israelis and Palestinians, of Tutsis and Hutus. If memory leads to bloodshed, perhaps forgetting is better.

The spirit of revenge does not exhaust the possibilities of the less-than-commendable uses of memory by former victims. One can also have once been a victim and later an assassin, and all the more easily if the context is different. In France in 1958, when the memories of World War Two and its atrocities were still fresh, the generalized use of torture in Algeria had already begun. The parallel did not escape contemporary witnesses (as it did not escape Levi). In his postface to Henri Alleg's La Question, Sartre wrote that “in 1943 on the rue Lauriston [the Gestapo headquarters in Paris], French people cried out in anguish and in pain, and all of France heard them. The outcome of the war was uncertain and we did not wish to think of the future. Only one thing seemed to us entirely impossible: that we would ever make men cry out in our name. But as the saying goes, ‘impossible is not French’: in Algiers in 1958 people are regularly and systematically tortured, everyone knows it, and no one says a thing.” In La Traversée du mal, Germaine Tillion, former resistant and Ravensbrück deportee, recalls how “at that time, in Algeria in 1957, there were practices that were those of Nazism, the same Nazism I execrated and fought with all my heart.” So much for “impossible is not French.” But let's not oversimplify: the inability to draw the appropriate lessons from the past, even when the past is clearly known, is by no means a specifically French characteristic. There is probably no country in the world where the memory of genocide is as keen as in Israel. For all that, can we say of Israel that its policies have been above reproach with regard to the rights of others to existence and to dignity?

The former victim is, obviously, not the only one who has trouble drawing the right lesson from his experience of the past. Nothing guarantees that today's assassins won't be inspired in turn by earlier executioners. When the genocide of the Jews was being decided, Hitler is said to have remarked: “Who still remembers the genocide of the Armenians?” Rather than seeing in this a warning not to proceed with his crime, he found in it the certainty that he could move with all impunity, like the now forgotten Enver Pacha, who has disappeared from the list of the great criminals against humanity. Hitler had a good memory, but does he deserve any praise for it? Without wanting to put on the same footing acts which are morally and politically incomparable, aren't we sometimes irritated by the ceaseless reminders by veterans and past heroes of their exploits of old? Reminders that are all the more superfluous when they prevent their authors from seeing that injustices still persist in the present?

There is little point in continuing the list: a moment's attentive focus is sufficient for us to agree that every use of memory, every evocation of the past is not necessarily good. The question is, how do we determine which are good? The foregoing examples seem to me to suggest a way that one might express in the form of a maxim, in imitation of the moralists of the Classical era (think of La Rochefoucauld's “We are always strong enough to bear the suffering of others”): this time, “we learn nothing from the errors of others.” I say “we” here to designate a collective entity, a people, a class, the group in which we participate, and with which we identify. To return to my example, I don't believe the French learned anything from the accounts of crimes perpetrated by the Germans. If the French, who were victims in 1944, could become assassins in 1958, it is precisely because in 1944 they were on the opposite side from the executioners. Though the scenario remains analogous, the fact of playing a new role prevents us from learning anything from prior experience.

Similarly, I am skeptical about the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C., not in any absolute sense, but as an instrument for the education of the American people. What can knowledge of crimes committed by the Nazis half a century ago teach today's Americans on a tourist visit to Washington? It can only confirm them in their good conscience: they can tell themselves that they never committed such crimes; what's more, they helped defeat this hideous enemy. The result would be quite different if a museum dedicated to the extermination of the Indians or to the enslavement of Blacks stood on the same spot. The very identity of the United States as a nation rests upon these two great crimes whose after-effects are still felt in American daily life today, in the form of the cult of violence and in the transformation of cities into juxtaposed, hostile ghettos. Examining our own responsibilities can help us change; administering moral lessons to others has never improved anyone.

I would like to elaborate in more specific terms upon this initial intuition. Notice first that each account of the past involves heroes and villains, positive and negative characters; second, that the historian (or the critic, the philosopher or, simply, the narrator) enters into an identificatory relationship with one of these roles and invites his readers or his viewers to do the same. What, more specifically, are these roles? An act that is not morally neutral can go in the direction of good or of evil, and it involves at least two protagonists, the active agent and the passive. This allows us to distinguish four principal roles found in any historical account involving values: I can have been the benefactor or the beneficiary of the act, just as I can have been the malefactor or the victim. At first sight, only two of the roles, benefactor or malefactor, are clearly delineated in terms of values, whereas the other two, beneficiary and victim, remain neutral because of their passivity. In fact, however, the latter roles can have moral connotations in their turn, by the strength of their relationship to the primary roles. To be the beneficiary of an act is a far less glorious situation than to be its agent, for the situation itself is defined by an instance of powerlessness. To be the victim of a misdeed is clearly more respectable than to be its author. It is easy to recognize two major types of historical narrative: in one, the hero sings the triumph of a people; in the other, the victim reports their suffering.

Two of these roles, then, are favorable to the narrating self: the hero-benefactor, and the innocent victim; and two are not: the malefactor and the passive beneficiary. If, when the past of our group is invoked, we identify with the positive figures, we find direct gratification in attributing the edifying roles to ourselves. And the same is true if, in parallel, we place others in the role of the helpless beneficiaries of a heroic action, or in the role of the evil-doers. But the situation is quite different if the roles are reversed. To evoke the fact that “my people” could have been the agents of evil, or the passive recipients of the heroic exploits of others brings me no direct benefit. And yet, it is only in this way that I place the happiness of others and my own perfection, to paraphrase Kant, above my interest, and that I thus commit myself to moral action. In other words, there is no possible moral benefit for the subject if the evocation of the past consists in assuming the leading role (as either hero or victim), but only if, on the contrary, by recalling the past we attain an awareness of the weaknesses or erring ways of our own group. As we shall see, this precaution regarding the uses of the past, if partly inadequate, does however allow us an initial, cursory locator. We understand why it is important for a former criminal to remember his actions and to conceive of them as evil, and why victims or heroes do not need constantly to recall their suffering or exploits, as long as they have regained personal equilibrium by recovering the past.

Let us move now to Levi's second term, offense, and first ask ourselves what kind of public reaction it ought to arouse. Primo Levi was particularly clear on this point. His position can be presented as a double rejection leading to a positive affirmation: neither forgiveness nor vengeance, but justice. No forgiveness: “I have no tendency to forgive,” he writes in The Drowned and the Saved; “I have never forgiven any of my old enemies, no more than I feel disposed to forgive their imitators … because I know of no human act that can erase a crime.” No vengeance: “Vengeance doesn't interest me; … I am comfortable that others, professionals, take charge of hangings, the working of justice.”1 What are the reasons for this choice?

First, we can only forgive something we have ourselves experienced. How could I presume to pardon an offense someone else has suffered? For this reason, murder—and genocide is mass murder—is unforgivable by definition. Those close to the victim can decide not to pursue the murderer with their hatred, but they can not substitute themselves for the person who has lost a life. One has the impression that forgiveness is most useful to the person who grants it, so that he or she might be able to live on in peace. But we do not have the right to turn the victims into instruments yet again. Judicial pardon—amnesty—is equally unacceptable if it occurs before formal judgment and involves acts as serious as murder, torture, deportation or enslavement. This amounts to suspending the very idea of justice in the name of factors deemed to be superior to it, such as societal peace. Before turning the page on past crimes, we must read it, as the ex-president of Bulgaria and former dissident Jelu Jelev used to say.

Forgiveness is a personal choice, but crime spills beyond the private realm. If the fault, the offense, the crime have taken place, they have not simply injured the individual who was the victim, they have broken or at least disturbed the social order itself, which implies the idea of justice and retribution. When one individual forgives another, it means he has decided not to hold the offense suffered against the offender; but that does not repair the damage that has been done to the social order.

On the other hand, the temptation of revenge is no less debatable. One would have to say that these days vengeance does not have a good reputation, and that it is always clothed in a demand for justice, as, for example, in the recent case of HIV-contaminated blood in France. The parents of victims who contracted AIDS in this way demanded that the responsible administrators be convicted of murder, so that the pain of their sentence would at least come close to what the victims had suffered. Now, the difference between justice and vengeance is two-fold. First, vengeance consists of responding to an individual act by another, theoretically comparable, individual act: you have killed my son, I shall kill yours. Justice, on the other hand, brings the individual act face to face with the generality of law. The anonymity of the judges, the police, the magistrate stands opposite the very particular identity of the avenger. Vengeance, like forgiveness, is personal; justice is not, the law knows no individual. At the same time, the sentence is not shaped by the crime, but is proportionate to other sentences, and is of necessity part of a system instead of being directly motivated. An act of justice repairs the break in the social order, confirms the validity of law (whether written, or, as in the case of crimes against humanity, implied) and thereby, of the very existence of the social order. It does not necessarily compensate for the offense the individual has suffered.

Vengeance, as Levi remarks, settles nothing; it adds new violence to old violence. But this addition does not stop the violence. On the contrary, it only prepares the way for new explosions of violence in the future. “Violence engenders only more violence,” Levi writes, “with the motion of a pendulum that increases rather than abates over time.” Justice must contend instead with abstraction and depersonalization, but it is the only chance we have to diminish the violence. What is important is not that justice be more or less severe, it is simply that justice exist.

The punishment of the offense is but one aspect of the question the offense itself raises. Another is linked to the judgment brought to bear upon the offense. The second chapter of The Drowned and the Saved is entitled “The Gray Zone,” a term Levi invented to designate first of all those who could not simply be classified as guards or inmates. In fact, in the Lagers and in the Gulags, the guards of the upper echelon, whether SS or KGB, secured for themselves the assistance of numerous prisoners whom they raised above the masses, even as they kept them far beneath themselves. These were the kapos, habitually recruited among the common law criminals, the technical or medical personnel, the specialized workers, or those responsible for particular tasks. Such individuals belong to two categories at once. With great differences among them, they are both inmates and guards. But Levi uses “gray zone” in yet a broader sense. He reports of an SS man named Muhsfeld, who was generally pitilessly cruel, that one day he exhibited a moment's compassion for one of his victims: “This unique instant of pity, immediately erased, is certainly insufficient to absolve Muhsfeld, but it is enough to place him too in the gray zone, if only at the very edge of the margin.” On the other hand, even those who remained simple detainees were not exempt from the petty egotistical acts that harmed their neighbors; they too belong in the gray zone, although at the opposite edge. In other words, this zone includes at least in part all the inhabitants of the camp.

I hasten to remove any possible misunderstanding about such a conclusion. What Levi implies without always saying so explicitly, is that we have to situate and examine human actions both on a judicial and an anthropological (or psychological) plane. Neither must be omitted in favor of the other. The maintenance of a judicial plane implies that we must always be considered free agents, and thus responsible for our actions. In this sense, there can be no possible confusion of executioners and victims. Levi objects vehemently to those who seem to confuse the two, quoting for example the film-maker Liliana Cavani:2 “We are all victims or murderers, and we accept these roles voluntarily.” Levi protests: “I don't know … if a murderer lurks in my bowels, but I do know that I have been a guiltless victim, not a murderer. And I know that murderers have existed … and that to confuse them with their victims is a moral disease, an aesthetic affectation, or the sinister sign of complicity.”

That we are all made of the same clay does not mean we can ignore the abyss that separates the potential from the act. Doubtless, we are all selfish, but we don't all become racists, and among the racists themselves, in all Europe only the Germans went as far as racial extermination. In abstraction, all men are capable of the same evil; concrete human beings are not so, however. For they have not lived the same lives; their capacity for love, for compassion, for moral judgment has been cultivated, has blossomed, or, on the contrary, has been stifled and has disappeared. Such is the difference between Pola Lifszyc, who willingly boarded the train to Treblinka to accompany her mother there, and Franz Stangl, who presided over the activities of the same extermination camp by trying to busy himself with the means of his action while repressing its goals. Certain humans can kill and torture; others can not. For this reason, we will avoid speaking of the banality of evil. Not only is the evil committed by Eichmann or Stangl not banal, the men themselves, at the moment when they decide to put thousands of others to death, are not at all banal any longer. The difference between bad and good men exists, and therefore it is in fact a decisive difference that justifies the effort for education and public action to which Levi remained attached throughout his life. If men are similar, events are unique. And history is made up of events which we must contemplate and judge.

Yet to remain only at the level of legal and moral responsibility is not enough either. We must acknowledge that we belong in the gray zone and examine the consequences, for as Romain Gary said, “as long as we do not recognize that inhumanity is a human thing, we will linger in a pious lie.” From this new perspective, even if we do not entirely lose our autonomy as subjects, we can acknowledge that there is no longer a break between the self and others (because others are within us and we live through them), nor between the extreme evil of the camps and genocide, and the daily evil so familiar to us all. We very much need this double perspective, and we are quite able to be, in turn, justice seekers towards individuals or advocates for the human race. In this way, Levi rejects the division of all humankind into two mutually exclusive categories, and teaches us to go beyond manicheism.

We are now ready to delve more deeply into his specific position. The moral education of an individual involves several steps. The first consists in the very acquisition of the distinction between good and evil, to which the young child accedes through the love of which he is the object among his relations. If this first step is not completed, ethical indifference and radical relativism of all values are the result. The second stage consists in the discovery that “I” or “we” are not necessarily the incarnation of everything good, nor others always worse than we. It prods us to surmount our egocentrism. Then and only then can a third stage begin, even if those who attain it are few in number. During this stage, one gives up any idea of an exclusive and definitive division of good and evil, but without ever ceasing to distinguish between them. And here the struggle, the combat is no longer against relativism, nor egotism, but manicheism. Primo Levi embodies this very attitude.

We can see why, in this context, Levi seems to us so different from so many authors and public figures in this century, from those who regularly evoke in their speeches some recent catastrophe. These authors recognize good and evil, of course; but their purpose is to insure some privilege for themselves or the group they represent, either because they heroically overcame this evil, or because they were its victims. Some among them manage to get past this limitation, and then loose their thunder upon their own group; in a parallel with the prophets of old, they scourge their people for living in sin: the German for whom Germans are the worst people of the Earth; the American for whom the history of the United States is an uninterrupted succession of imperialist aggression and racial injustice. This pitiless critic is the keeper of moral values, the one who shows the straight path to others, and who possesses the privilege of virtue. But for all that, he is not free of egocentrism. His “we are all guilty” implies “but I, less than others, for saying so.”

Next to these stentorian moralists, who draw from the exploits, misfortunes or crimes of their people the certainty that they are right, Primo Levi seems the embodiment of humility: he doesn't vociferate; indeed, he whispers. He weighs the alternatives, for and against, reminds us of the exceptions, seeks the reasons for his own reactions. He does not propose sensational explanations for the facts of the past, nor does he adopt the tone of a prophet with a direct line to the sacred. In the face of things most extreme, he remains human, all too human. And when he speaks of evil, the source of the offense, it is never to point the finger of the accuser at others, but to look more deeply, more attentively, more pitilessly at himself.

In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi recounts in detail the story of Chaim Rumkowski, president of the Lodz ghetto. Rumkowski became intoxicated with the ludicrous power the Nazis granted him, and attempted to behave almost like a sovereign, which, given the atrocious living conditions in the ghetto, was grotesque and derisory. But rather than mock Rumkowski, or wax indignant, Levi engages in a meditation on the corrupting effects of power on all who exercise it. Rumkowski was unable to resist; but are we any stronger than he? “How would each of us behave if driven by necessity and at the same time lured by seduction?” The finger of accusation has turned back on the author: Rumkowski's tragedy is our own. Like him, “we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not, we all come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto … and that close by the train is waiting.”

A few pages later, Levi recounts an episode from his own experience. On a day of great thirst, he found a little water and shared it with his closest friend, but not with anyone else. Reflecting after the fact upon this “us-ism,” an egotism extended to those close to us, he does not seek to berate himself. Not only would anyone else behave as he did, but he didn't hurt anyone, he didn't kill anyone. And yet this minimal episode is enough to introduce in him “the shadow of a suspicion: that each man is his brother's Cain, that each of us has usurped his neighbor's place and lived in his stead.”

For a man endowed with a moral conscience, this is a frightening conclusion. Is there really no barrier between evil and myself? Evil is extreme, none of us is safe from it: the juxtaposition of these two statements is enough to lead to despair even the best intentioned persons. But are we talking about the same evil? Levi scrutinized with great attention and perhaps even anguish the place where this limit might have appeared. The answer to this question was not just important in the abstract for him, but also in maintaining his own existence. The dilemma can be expressed as follows: either a radical evil or only a banal evil exists; the radical evil we commit for its own sake, “to serve the devil,” as the Christian might say. It is the evil that prompts a man to chop the body of a child in pieces, to torture unto death. This radical evil is not known to all men, nor present at all times. The banal evil is a common, ordinary evil whose source is preferring oneself to others, as Cain did with Abel. And in certain extreme circumstances like war, totalitarian or military dictatorships, natural disasters, this ordinary evil can have extraordinary consequences. The hypothesis of the devil is no longer necessary.

Levi focuses on this duality in the chapter entitled “Useless Violence.” Useful violence is all too common. If I can't achieve my goals peacefully, and feel I am strong enough, I have recourse to violence. Evil in this case is no more than a brutal means, a convenient shortcut leading to my own good or that of my community. But Levi also observes in the universe of the camps all sorts of acts that seem to illustrate “useless” violence. Why were latrines not provided in the cattle cars used to transport the detainees to the camps, nor the merest provision of water? Why was nudity so often imposed on the inmates? Why deprive them of spoons so that they had to lap their soup like dogs? Why the endless roll calls? Why demand that the “beds” be made and remade until perfect? Why bring the dying into the camps at all, when they would die within a few days anyway? Why impose futile work on the prisoners? Why consider human beings a mere reservoir of raw materials: metals, fibers and phosphates, when, alive, they could produce a much greater value?

What is at stake in such a question is easy to comprehend; if we can demonstrate that such violence is really useless, then the evil is of a radically different type than the one we are familiar with, and a wall rises between it and us. If not, we risk finding that evil within us. Levi hesitates before answering, and doesn't decide. Yet each time, by examining what he describes, he is forced to allow that an action which at first sight seemed “useless” recovers a rationale at a different level. Dehumanising the prisoners was logical, because the starting premise was that they were less than human. Making the enemy suffer was logical because it allowed us to consolidate our force and superiority. Requiring obedience for absurd orders was logical because it proved that submission need not seek any justification. Demonstrating superior force was logical because the goal of the whole operation was to achieve absolute superiority. In a word, if we allow that attending to one's own good is logical and useful, we must not be surprised by our “joy in our neighbor's misfortune.”

Levi likes to quote John Donne's famous verse: “No man is an island.” What happens to others matters directly to us. This truth finds a horrible application here: I contribute to my self-affirmation by raising myself up, and in giving myself pleasure, but also in lowering others and making them suffer. Mankind is a whole, and the measure of human beings is relative: the nothingness of others is my greatness. The knowledge and reality of their misfortune contributes directly to my good fortune, unless I consider those others as an extension of myself, as my family, my near and dear, and in that case their misfortune immediately becomes mine. Thus, good and evil are nourished at the same source, that continuity between me and others, between us and others. I rejoice in their good fortune, in their misfortune for the same reason, which is that they are not really separate from me. The only difference is in the nature of the relationship prevailing between me and them. I rejoice in their misfortune when I compare myself to them, but remain estranged from them. I rejoice in their good fortune when I experience them as an extension of myself. I suffer from their misfortune through contiguity, I rejoice in it because we are alike.

Can we hope that one day this state of affairs will change? And what can we do to contribute to such a change? Speaking of the attitude of Jean Améry, another well-known former inmate, and recalling that Améry had chosen to “trade blows,” Levi comments skeptically: “Those who ‘trade blows’ with the entire world … are sure to be defeated.” Levi himself had chosen a different path, the path of reason and discussion, but is the defeat of someone who trades arguments with the entire world any less certain? One can and must continue to fight, but without counting on success. All roads are closed. We can understand then why Liana Millu, the former inmate of Birkenau whom Levi had befriended, found more and more pain in Levi's eyes with the passing years. His first book, Survival in Auschwitz, spoke of a particular evil; his last, The Drowned and the Saved, observes that evil has insidiously settled everywhere.

But once again, are we talking about the same evil, yesterday's and today's? History is always singular, exact repetition is impossible, and for at least a generation in Europe the memory of past crimes hinders the return of the same. For Levi, this is small consolation. The next crime will don a slightly different garb so as not to be recognized, and the trick will work. We don't see fascism anymore, so nationalism and religious fanaticism don't seem dangerous to us. The next crime won't take place in the same country, but a few thousand or a few hundred kilometers away. The next crime will have different victims, different assassins, sometimes even former victims who have become assassins. Levi is forced to admit that Auschwitz has served no purpose, humanity's damning history follows its course.

In April of 1994, fifty years after Auschwitz, and seven years after Levi's death, the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus began, which would leave at least 800,000 people dead. In her eyewitness account (La mort ne veut pas de moi: Death Does Not Want Me), Yolande Mukagasana describes the massacres that touched her own family and then states: “Whoever does not want to know anything about the calvary of the Rwandan people is the accomplice of the assassins. The world will only give up violence when it has agreed to study its need for violence.” She doesn't ask much of us, she doesn't ask us to become judge or jury, nor to take sides, just to take the trouble to read and to hear. But this is not nothing. Extreme evil is frequent and ordinary evil all-present. Universal combat is impossible, but so is universal compassion, except for saints. “If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live,” writes Levi. Whoever is tempted by saintliness risks losing his life. To keep our lives, we choose the objects of our compassion at random, pitying some, forgetting the others.

This was a very hard truth for Levi to accept. His forty-year reflection about Auschwitz taught him that beyond the direct culpability of a certain number of individuals, what was most responsible for the catastrophe was the indifference and the passivity of the German population as a whole. That, with a few exceptions, they chose to ignore everything for as long as possible, and when it no longer was, they chose not to rise up against the evil. How can we face our own willful ignorance, our own choice of inaction today? Do we not become the new accomplices of the next disasters, different but no less devastating than the previous ones? The distinction between potential and act is no longer of much use here. If, in the name of efficiency, we limit our action to the sphere of our family and friends, we can hope (even with no guarantee) that that action will be victorious. But then we risk imitating the Germans of the war years. If we decide to extend that sphere to an entire country, or to all of humanity, how can we avoid the sense of failure? We seem to have a choice only between guilt and despair, a choice that can lead to the renunciation of life.

The lesson Levi draws from his meditation is a desperate one, and yet his reader emerges strengthened from the pages that lead up to it. By what miracle? Light streams from the very manner in which Levi conducts his research. No shouting, no loud proclamations, the scrupulous choice of words, the exclusive reliance on rational argument, the subordination of intellectual comfort to the search for truth and justice. The light does not come from the world Levi describes and analyses; it comes from Levi himself. That men such as he have existed and resisted the contamination of evil could in turn become a source of encouragement for us all. Primo Levi, or the desperate fighter: both terms in this expression are important. It is because he would not be satisfied with the inescapable but bitter conclusions that he is especially precious to us today.


  1. Quotations from The Drowned and the Saved are taken from Raymond Rosenthal's translation from the Italian for the American edition, New York: Summit Books, 1986. (Translator's note).

  2. Director of the controversial film: The Night Porter. (Translator's note).

Thane Rosenbaum (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1832

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. Survival in Auschwitz, which was published in 1947. After being liberated from the camp, Levi had eventually returned to his home in Turin, Italy, where he became a conscience of the nation, an icon of the international human rights movement and the author of many books and essays. In 1987, at the age of 67, he ended his life by suicide.

Now, more than 50 years after Auschwitz and more than a decade after Levi's death, his journey home is the subject of a feature film. The Truce, directed by Francesco Rosi of Italy and starring John Turturro as Levi. The film, which opens on Friday, is based on The Reawakening (the title of the book in Italian is La Tregua, or The Truce), a 1983 sequel memoir that begins with Levi's liberation from the camp and tracks his courageous return to Turin (The Periodic Table, a third volume of autobiographical reflections on his experience at Auschwitz, was published in 1984.)

“Many films have been made about the Holocaust,” said Mr. Rosi, who filmed The Truce in Ukraine, in English, with a supporting cast made up largely of Italians and Ukrainians, “but they are never about combining the tragedy with the vitality of a man's reawakening and the slow process of reclaiming his life.”

Which perhaps explains why Mr. Rosi adapted The Reawakening rather than Survival in Auschwitz. The idea of taking the pages of a literary masterpiece, putting them onto celluliod frames and winding the visual result through a projector is, of course, nothing new. The novels of Jane Austen, Henry James and Edith Wharton have made this a dream decade for costume and set designers. But these were writers of fiction and they weren't writing about Auschwitz, which is not a proper setting for Technicolor spectacle. In The Truce, the scenes of the camp are brief, in flashback and in black and white, as if to underscore that Auschwitz stands apart—a place without tone or texture, a place where the usual moral vocabulary fails.

“I never considered making a film of Survival in Auschwitz, because it can't be done,” said Mr. Rosi, who is best known to American audiences for Illustrious Corpses (1976), Christ Stopped at Ebolt (1979) and Three Brothers (1981). “It would be a sacrilege. With ‘The Truce,’ the audience gets some sense of what happened, but through the filter of literature and with a story that a camera can show.”

While The Truce may be a feel-good sequel to a horror film that cannot be made, the movie nevertheless seemed haunted in its own inception. It took Mr. Rosi five years to be able to begin production, and the filming took 20 weeks. The weather never cooperated. The isolation and stark landscape of Ukraine were hard on the crew members, many of whom became homesick. The cinematographer, Pasqualino de Santis, died before the film was finished.

“I'm not superstitious, but maybe this is what happens when you dig up things and fool around with ghosts,” said Mr. Turturro, who lost more than 30 pounds in the interest of authenticity.

“When I first saw the camp,” he continued, referring to a re-creation of Auschwitz in Ukraine, “I was wearing the striped uniform and the wooden clogs, and my legs went weak. I was very shaken. When you're behind the barbed wire, you feel the impossibility of understanding the experience because you know that you are ultimately free.”

For both the director and the film's star, The Truce became a sort of obsession, a commitment to giving Levi's picturesque words a new artistic life.

“A week before his death, I spoke with him and asked if I could make a film of The Truce.” Mr. Rosi recalled, referring to Levi. “He told me that I brought light to him in a dark moment. The Truce always reminded him of the joyousness of life, and how important it is to smile and to love. But to succeed with this film, both Levi and I realized that I was taking a risk, and he took it with me.”

And what was that risk? “The film had to balance the grotesque with all that is beautiful about life,” Mr. Rosi explained. “It also had to be respectful of the Holocaust and faithful to Levi's memoir.”

To that end, Mr. Turturro occasionally speaks Levi's words in voice-over. He does so in dialogue, too, making statements like these: “We come from a place where one forgets passion”; “God cannot exist if Auschwitz exists”; “The worst thing that they did was to crush our souls, our capacity for compassion, filling the void with hatred, even toward each other.”

Mr. Rosi's adaptation takes one controversial turn in a scene in which a train filled with survivors pulls into Munich and a German soldier, upon seeing Levi dressed in his camp uniform, kneels down in repentance. In the book, Levi is ignored.

“I felt the need to represent the accepting of responsibility by showing this gesture from a German,” Mr. Rosi said. “I didn't mean it to look like a pardoning, or to alleviate German guilt, because nobody can do that. But I want to believe that at least one German would have made this kind of gesture.”

Ironically, neither Mr. Rosi nor Mr. Turturro cared much for films about the Holocaust until they collaborated on The Truce. “I felt that these films were always filled with too much emotion, too histrionic, too much was being discharged in the performance,” said Mr. Turturro. “Instead, I think they should implode, more like a documentary. That's why I've always been more interested in how the Holocaust happened, or what happened after.”

The fact that The Truce takes place just after the Holocaust makes it not only watchable but also unusual, important and subject to interpretation beyond standard film criticism. The film begins with a scene of Russian soldiers on horseback, liberating Auschwitz. Levi and a group of survivors are now free, but to do what? Having lived through a time of unmediated madness they must now put aside the regimen of survival and reacquaint themselves with the pleasures and simpler pains of ordinary life. And they also have to find the strength to go home.

Although made by an Italian director, The Truce in many ways has the feel of an American road movie, featuring a group of people on something of a mythical journey—not escaping home but headed toward it, yet ambivalent about what awaits them when they finally arrive. With the Holocaust as backdrop, however, home can't be found by following a straight line. Instead, for Levi and his fellow survivors, the journey is plagued by detour and indirection as they make their way through the villages and resettlement camps and along the abandoned train tracks of Central Europe.

“With Levi, it's not about his experience, but how he brings you along with him,” Mr. Turturro said. “He's a great tour guide and a master of simple details. My job was to be as understated as possible and to let the audience observe a man who was himself an observer.”

Unlike most Holocaust survivors, however, Primo Levi had something to go back to. His home was intact, and in the film his mother and sister are there to embrace him upon his return. This ending suits the overall mood of The Truce, with its emphasis on Levi's re-entry into the world and the reawakening of his humanity. But no matter how well-intentioned The Truce is, many viewers will leave the film with a misleadingly romantic impression of what it meant to exit Auschwitz.

Most survivors remained in displaced-persons camps, with no where to go, and with no one waiting for them anywhere. Home, if it existed at all, was too emblematic of death. Most Germans gave no indication of being sorry. And Levi, of course, eventually killed himself, bringing into question whether he reconciled his survival with the horror of what he had witnessed—whether his return to the daily sensations of life ever did truly heal him.

Part of this difficulty of interpretation lies in the fact that, as literature, The Reawakening provides more of a sense of the complex divide between hope and despair than a two-hour film can ever do. But this difficulty is also related to a particular artistic conception, and perhaps to wishful thinking.

Because Levi led a productive life for more than four decades after Auschwitz, there is a temptation for Mr. Rosi—and for all of us who cherish Levi's memory—to look past his despair and instead dwell on the more heroic, positive aspects of his story. “The fact that he suffered from depression and ultimately committed suicide doesn't change the fact he came back to life after Auschwitz,” insisted Mr. Rosi.

But the grim tale of the Holocaust didn't end with Auschwitz, and Levi, of course, was not alone in being a notable writer and survivor who committed suicide. Also in this category are Paul Celan, Jean Améry, Piotr Rawicz, Bruno Bettelheim, Jerzy Kosinski and Tadeusz Borowski.

“No matter how resplendent their worldly achievements, no matter how great the acclaim,” said Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, the book that recently led to renewed conversations about the Holocaust, “these could only mask the survivors' scars, which at any moment could break open, exposing the festering wounds.”

True, in Levi's case, the dark emotions of a Holocaust survivor did coexist beside the imperatives of life. He learned how to laugh again, and how to listen to music; he was aroused by sexual feelings; he rediscovered nature and ventured out of the loneliness of exile. And as portrayed by Mr. Turturro, he does a pretty good imitation of a hen.

Yet ultimately, the most revealing scene in The Truce is one that shows that after Auschwitz, liberation could lead only to a partial reawakening to life. Levi observes children rolling naked and playfully on a grass field but then recalls another group of children being herded into a gas chamber—one second walking, the next second smoke, their laughter stilled forever.

Additional coverage of Levi's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 33, 61, 70; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 37, 50; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 177; Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 12.

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Primo Levi World Literature Analysis