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Associated with Holocaust literature, Primo Levi (LAY-vee) was a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and poet, although he is known primarily for his memoirs. These include Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity , 1961)...

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Associated with Holocaust literature, Primo Levi (LAY-vee) was a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and poet, although he is known primarily for his memoirs. These include Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959; revised as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, 1961) and La tregua (1963; The Reawakening, 1965). Levi himself, in a preface, characterizes his collection of stories Moments of Reprieve (1986) as a record of experiences left out of If This Is a Man and The Reawakening. (Most of these autobiographical short stories were previously published in 1981 in Lilit e altri racconti.) Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984), a collection of autobiographical pieces unified by its organization according to the chemical elements, mixes traditional genres. Levi’s poems about his experiences during the Holocaust are collected in Shema: Collected Poems (1976). Additional poems are collected in L’osteria di Brema (1975). His early pseudonymous short-story collections Storie naturali (1966) and Vizio di forma (1971) combine autobiography, science fiction, and fantasy to describe his experiences after the war. Levi’s essays are collected in La ricerca della radici (1981; The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, 2001).

Achievements

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An Italian Jew who survived the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, Primo Levi is widely acclaimed as a fictional, historical, and autobiographical chronicler of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Highly praised by such important writers as Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Studs Terkel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, Levi’s work is distinguished by the author’s attempt to understand his wartime experiences and by a compassionate, sensitive, and astonishingly optimistic view of humanity. Levi’s epigraph for The Periodic Table is a Yiddish saying: “Troubles overcome are good to tell.” Levi’s works are ample proof of the proverb, his life a testament of the resilience of the human spirit. In recognition of his many achievements, Levi won Italy’s prestigious Premio Bagutta, Viareggio, Strega, and Campiello literary prizes.

Discussion Topics

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Discuss the spiritual aspects of Primo Levi’s writing with respect to his sense of himself as Jewish but neither observant nor doctrinal.

Consider the ways in which Levi’s writing style effectively conveys his fascination with the worlds of scientific certainty and human fallibility.

Trace the rise in Levi’s reputation from the initial publication of If This Is a Man to his final volumes and account for its shifts and alterations.

How does Levi balance the positive and negative aspects of technology in his work?

What are the particular qualities of If This Is a Man that have made it still stunning after the appearance of many other Holocaust memoirs?

Bibliography

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Angier, Carole. The Double Bond. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Translated by Steve Cox. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1999. An extensive study on Levi. Includes bibliography and index.

Cicioni, Mirna. Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge. Oxford, England: Berg, 1995. This is a good general introduction to Levi’s work. Because of Levi’s family’s reluctance to release biographical information about the writer, Cicioni has few biographical details to work with, but she does a fine job of outlining his life. An inclusive bibliography lists primary and secondary materials written in English as well as foreign-language publications.

Gordon, Robert S. C. Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Addresses Levi’s transition from survivor to philosopher and ethicist. Bibliography and index.

Homer, Frederic D. Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Addresses Levi’s philosophy, social and political views, and his place in Holocaust history. Includes bibliography and index.

Langer, Lawrence. The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975. Contains a discussion of Levi in the context of Holocaust literature, by one of the subject’s principal authorities.

Magavern, Sam. Primo Levi’s Universe: A Writer’s Journey. New York: Macmillan, 2009. The details of Levi’s personal life are divulged here, including his imprisonment in Auschwitz, his marriage, his love affairs, and his depression. This multi-faceted portrait reveals how his writing and his personal life were inseparable.

Patruno, Nicholas. Understanding Primo Levi. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. A good, introductory full-length study. Includes biographical and critical analysis, bibliography, and index.

Rudolf, Anthony. At an Uncertain Hour: Primo Levi’s War Against Oblivion. Berkeley, Calif.: The Menard Press, 1990. This brief (fifty-six-page) homage to Levi by one of his publishers recycles some of Rudolf’s earlier reviews and articles on Levi and includes a short bibliography.

Sodi, Risa B. A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Sodi’s book is an academic exercise detailing the influence of Dante on Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Drowned and the Saved. Sodi makes liberal use of interviews in which Levi addresses the ethical concerns of other contemporary figures such as Sigmund Freud and Rudolf Hess.

Tarrow, Susan R., ed. Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. Contains several essays on Levi’s fiction and on his relationship to the Holocaust and its literature.

Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi: A Life. New York: Holt, 2003. A close examination of Levi, largely achieved through interviews with contemporaries of Levi. Valuable for its historical sensitivity.

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