World Literature

Primo Levi

 

BORN: 1919, Turin, Italy

DIED: 1987, Turin, Italy

NATIONALITY: Italian

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

If This Is a Man (1947)

The Reawakening (1963)

The Periodic Table (1975)

The Drowned and the Saved (1986)

 

 

Primo Levi. Levi, Primo, photograph by Jerry Bauer. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Primo Levi, an Italian chemist and concentration camp survivor, is a writer whose explorations of contemporary morality put him at the forefront of Holocaust literature. He is most often associated with Holocaust writing because of his first two books, If This Is a Man (1947; republished as Survival in Auschwitz, 1961) and The Reawakening (1963). 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. Levi published many other kinds of writing during a forty-year career: occasional and op-ed pieces, poetry, short fiction, and novels. With the objective scrutiny of a scientist, the linguistic grace of a poet, and the profound understanding of a philosopher, Levi confronted the major issues of the twentieth century.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Imprisoned as a Young Man. Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy on July 31, 1919, less than a year after the close of World War I and three years before Benito Mussolini’s Fascist takeover of Italy’s government. He lived most of his life in the spacious apartment on Corso Re Umberto where he grew up. His family was part of a small, highly assimilated middle-class Jewish community, whose roots went back to the sixteenth century. Both his father and grandfather were engineers, and Levi cited his father as the source of his lifelong interests in science and literature. His mother was also an avid reader who devoted herself to raising Primo and his younger sister, Anna Maria.

Skinny, frail, and bright, Levi excelled in both literature and the sciences in high school and opted to pursue the latter. He enrolled in the University of Turin in 1937, at the age of seventeen. While he was studying chemistry, World War II was approaching. Mussolini established racial laws that called for the official persecution of Italian Jews. Levi graduated with honors in 1941, and took a job as a chemist under a false name; the official anti-Semitism severely limited his career options. He and his peers first reacted by withdrawal; as he once wrote: ‘‘We proclaimed ourselves the enemies of Fascism, but actually Fascism had had its effect on us, as on almost all Italians, alienating us and making us superficial, passive and cynical.’’ But as the Nazi party took over northern Italy, Levi could no longer afford to be passive. He joined the partisan fighters in 1943, but his band was poorly trained and illequipped, and on December 13, 1943, it was ambushed by the Fascist militia. Convinced that he would be shot as a partisan, Levi admitted under questioning that he was Jewish.

He was sent to an Italian concentration camp at Fossoli, near Modena. Two months later, German troops sent the Italian Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz. Five hundred of them were immediately gassed to death, and the rest were put to slave labor. For eleven months, Levi worked at a rubber factory in the death camp. Intimates of the author speculate that his innate curiosity about his environment and his training as a dispassionate scientific observer enabled him to overcome despair and keep his spirit intact under dehumanizing conditions. Levi himself attributed his survival to good luck.

If This Is a Man. Release came in January 1945 with the arrival of Allied Russian forces. Levi was one of only three partisans to survive. After a long, tortuous journey—described in detail in The Reawakening—Levi returned home to Turin and found work as a chemist in a paint factory. Though he had not aspired to be a writer before his internment, Levi was compelled to tell the story of the millions who perished. He completed If This Is a Man within two years.

Levi offered the completed manuscript of If This Is a Man to the Turin publishing house of Einaudi, but its editors rejected it, judging that the times were not yet ripe for a Holocaust memoir. An amateur publisher brought the book out in 1947 in a print run of twenty- five hundred copies. In 1958, Einaudi changed its mind and republished the book. This time the work was more successful and awakened intense interest.

A Scientist Writes Fiction. Throughout these years, Levi continued to make his living as a chemist, working at SIVA, a large paint factory in Turin. He became the company’s general manager in 1961 and established himself as an expert in the manufacture of synthetic resins. He also married Lucia Morpurgo, a fellow Italian Jew, and had two children. Meanwhile, he contributed essays and stories to the Turin newspaper La Stampa. In 1963, he published his second book of Holocaust recollections, The Reawakening, which won the Campiello literary award.

This memoir chronicles Levi’s experiences between the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945 and his return to Turin that October. There are two parallel stories: Levi’s slow reawakening from the horrors of Auschwitz, together with the story of his escape from a Soviet Displaced Persons camp, followed by an adventurous journey on foot and by train through war-torn Eastern Europe, and the colorful characters he meets on the way home.

Levi published two collections of short stories, Natural Histories in 1966 and Structural Defect in 1971. Sometimes labeled science fiction, these stories are often metaphysical explorations that combine scientific fact with moral and ethical issues. Levi used the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila, feeling that these works did not fit with his Holocaust writing. Under his own name, he published two works in 1975: a volume of poetry, and The Periodic Table, a work that mixed autobiography, Holocaust memoir, short stories, and science fiction. Many critics view the latter book, which uses Dmitri Mendeleev’s table of chemical elements as its unique organizing principle, as Levi’s masterpiece. Its success convinced Levi to retire from factory life to devote himself to writing.

Late-Career Acclaim. Primo Levi’s two novels demonstrate the range of his abilities. The Monkey’s Wrench (1978), a lighthearted story of a master rigger from Turin, demonstrated that Levi could write fiction with little or no autobiographical component. If Not Now, When? (1982), his only Holocaust novel, concerns a group of spirited, young Eastern European Jewish partisans bound for Palestine to build a Jewish state. Levi sought to honor those Jews who had found the strength and intelligence to actively oppose Nazism and who, in the crucible of combat, discovered a new sense of dignity and purpose. He also hoped to take advantage of his popularity in Italy to entice readers to a book infused with the culture, language, and history of an Eastern European Jewish world they knew virtually nothing about. The novel won two major Italian literary prizes.

The English publication of The Periodic Table in 1984 raised the author’s profile still further. With the renewed interest in his prior works, Levi had become an internationally recognized lecturer. The book that cemented his stature as a Holocaust writer was also his last, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), a series of eight penetrating essays that sum up the Holocaust issues that had occupied him for forty years, including memory, justice, the uses of violence by totalitarian regimes, the role of the intellectual in times of upheaval, and the responsibility of ordinary Germans for the Holocaust.

In 1987, at the height of his fame, Primo Levi fell to his death in the stairway of his apartment building. His death was declared a suicide rather than an accident, but some doubt that verdict. It is clear that Levi suffered from chronic depression, caused in part by his memories of the camps, but questions around his death remain hotly disputed. Regardless of the manner of his death, his written work is a testament to the survival and affirmation of the human spirit.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Levi's famous contemporaries include:

Saul Bellow (1915-2005): Canadian-American novelist and Nobel Prize winner.

Federico Fellini (1920-1993): Italian filmmaker, one of the leading figures in the history of world cinema.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1982): Russian-American writer and biochemist; highly prolific author of both science fiction and popular works of science.

Italo Calvino (1923-1985): Italian novelist and journalist.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982): American science fiction author.

Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991): Polish American novelist, author of the Holocaust classic The Painted Bird (1965).

 

Works in Literary Context

Levi had a very sound literary education; in his youth, he read the works of Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka, and other giants. He had a special affinity for Dante, and scholars such as Risa Sodi have noted the numerous references to The Divine Comedy in Levi’s writings on the Holocaust. Nonetheless, when he began writing down the recollections that grew into If This Is a Man he followed no literary guide; his model was to be found in his scientific training, with its emphasis on dispassionate observation and precision. The best of his work always retained this objectivity and curiosity, almost childlike at times, about the processes of life. The experimental fiction he wrote later reveals the influences of Jack London and Jules Verne.

Diverse Styles. Levi displayed a remarkable range in his writing: from science fiction to meditative essays, from poetry to the picaresque, and from travel literature to autobiography. Nonetheless, it is often difficult to separate Levi’s works into conventional categories of genre, subject, or even style. Some of his strongest works, such as The Periodic Table, are unclassifiable hybrids.

Ethical Inquiry. One common thread running through Levi’s body of work is a concern for the ethical dimensions of modern life. Due to the unusual pairing of the two dominant events in Levi’s life—his career in the sciences and his internment in Auschwitz—a relentless spirit of inquiry, especially inquiry into the nature of good and evil, blazes through his literary output. In dealing with his experience at Auschwitz, Levi examines humanity’s capacity for virtue and evil by portraying both the innocent victims of the Nazis and those who responded to them in despicable ways. Critics agree that even the stories that do not concern the Holocaust deepen the reader’s understanding of humanity in moral crises. Some of his imaginative short stories raise questions about the implications of modern technologies, taking an ambivalent perspective on technical progress. Levi is at his best when identifying and addressing the moral questions raised by political, scientific, or cultural concerns and situations.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The Holocaust recollections of Levi have been likened to a news report from hell. Here are some classic literary visions—fictional as well as factual—of ultimate punishment.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), a novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This book was the first published work depicting the brutality of the Soviet prison camps.

Night (1958), a memoir by Elie Wiesel. One of the classic works of Holocaust literature, it is based on the author's experience in the concentration camps with his father.

No Exit (1944), a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. A man and two women are locked in a small room to irritate each other for eternity, resulting in their realization that ''Hell is other people.''

The Trial (1925), a novel by Franz Kafka. Josef K is arrested, put on trial, and sentenced, but never told the crime of which he is accused.

Inferno from The Divine Comedy (early fourteenth century), an epic poem by Dante Alighieri. The poet Virgil guides Dante through ''the nine circles of hell'' in the central epic poem of the Italian literary tradition.

 

Works in Critical Context

Although Levi had initial difficulties finding an audience for his Auschwitz memoir, his subsequent writings were uniformly successful and admired by critics. If This Is a Man was adapted for theatrical and radio dramatization. This work and its sequel, The Reawakening, were each translated into several languages. Levi became a major literary figure in his home country; five of his books won prestigious Italian literary prizes.

In the English-speaking world, Levi achieved renown after 1984, when publication of The Periodic Table in the United States prompted acclaim by Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow and prominent American book reviewers. All of Levi’s major works were translated into English over the next five years, cementing his stature as a Holocaust writer and thinker at home and abroad.

In terms of overall critical and public interest, Primo Levi’s autobiographical writing receives the lion’s share of attention and acclaim. Critics have praised the impressive range of knowledge, insight, and originality evidenced by his essays, often noting that Levi’s talents transcend his role as a witness of the Holocaust. Some reviewers find his fiction weak in comparison to his nonfiction writings about the Holocaust, although some praise his speculative stories as imaginative vehicles for social commentary arising from Levi’s scientific training. Mirna Cicioni argues that through his diverse literary offerings, Levi sought to build bridges between different fields of human endeavor.

If This Is a Man. Although If This Is a Man had only limited success when it was first published, a later Italian edition of the book led to greater acclaim and translated versions of the book. When it was finally translated and published in English over a decade after its original publication, Alfred Werner of Saturday Review stated, ‘‘After the lapse of a dozen years, it is still overwhelmingly fresh and powerful in English translation, a useful reminder of events we must never forget.’’ David Caute of New Statesman called it ‘‘one of the most remarkable documents I have read.’’ Even the passing of years has not diminished the memoir’s power and importance. Philip Roth, in a posthumous tribute to the author in the Observer in 1987, referred to If This Is a Man as ‘‘one of the century’s truly necessary books.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Summarize the psychological effects of surviving the Nazi camps, as identified in Levi’s Holocaust writings. How would age or gender factor into the psychological effects of the trauma? Does faith enter into the psychological schema at all?

2. Write an essay about Levi’s perspective on science and its relationship to human ethics. Are the two in conflict with one another? Are there certain issues that will undoubtedly raise conflict? Does Levi somehow harmonize science and ethics in a positive light, or indicate how the meshing of the two can go seriously awry?

3. In The Periodic Table, how does Levi use chemical elements to make allegorical statements about the human condition? Why would he use this type of metaphor? Do you think it is an effective allegory? Why or why not?

4. Literary critics continue to debate whether Primo Levi’s death was a suicide or an accident. What issues and motivations do you think underlie this controversy, and how do they affect the critical perception of Levi’s body of work?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.

Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Translated by Steve Cox. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 1999.

Belpoliti, Marco, and Robert Gordon, eds. The Voice of Memory: Primo Levi, Interviews 1961-1987. New York: New Press, 2001.

Camon, Ferdinando. Conversations with Primo Levi. Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro, 1989.

Cicioni, Mirna. Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge. Washington, D.C.: Berg, 1995.

Gordon, Robert S. C. Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Kremer, Roberta S., ed. Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Patruno, Nicholas. Understanding Primo Levi. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

‘‘Primo Levi (1919-).’’ In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 37. Edited by Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Jane E. Neidhardt. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.

‘‘Primo Levi (July 31, 1919-April 11, 1987).’’ In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 50. Edited by Sharon K. Hall. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.

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

Tarrow, Susan R., ed. Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi. Ithaca, N.Y.: Center for International Studies, Cornell University, 1990.

Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi. London: Hutchinson, 2002.

Periodicals

Gambetta, Diego. ‘‘Primo Levi’s Last Moments.’’ Boston Review (Summer 1999): 25.

Roth, Philip. ‘‘A Man Saved by His Skills: An Interview with Primo Levi.’’ New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1986.

Sodi, Risa. ‘‘A Last Talk with Primo Levi.’’ Present Tense 15 (May-June 1988): 40-45.