How Did Primo Levi Die?

In response to:

The Mystery of Primo Levi from the November 5, 2015 issue

Primo Levi, Turin, 1985; photograph by René Burri
Magnum PhotosPrimo Levi, Turin, 1985; photograph by René Burri

To the Editors:

Tim Parks’s engaging review of The Complete Works of Primo Levi [NYR, November 5] is satisfying on a number of levels, but I was disheartened to see the piece bookended by the “suicide.” Parks’s phrase that Levi “threw himself down the stairwell to his death” is not, in any case, an accurate way to describe a tumble over a railing. But the larger issue is that thoughtful and important people close to Levi, who first thought it was a suicide, have reconsidered the event. These people include his cardiologist and friend David Mendel, his lifelong friend Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini, and Fernando Camon. Levi was in a whirl of activities—he’d scheduled an interview for the following Monday, he was considering the presidency of the publishing house Einaudi, he’d just submitted a novel, and that very morning he mailed a plan-filled letter. Add to that the tight dimensions of the stairwell, a railing lower than his waist, recovery from surgery (lowered blood pressure), the number of people who survived Auschwitz and did not kill themselves, and a number of other factors, and the suicide doesn’t make sense.

It has been a useful symbol for critics and other writers to hold on to as they imagine the why and how, but it is grossly unfair to the man and to his work. If this crutch is removed, his material can be examined in fresh light—an examination that he deserves.

I hope the editors of The New York Review will help discourage the story, which, in the cycling of Internet sites, already holds a terrifically strong grip. I would strongly urge you to see this 1999 essay, “Primo Levi’s Last Moments” by Diego Gambetta.

Carolyn Lieberg
Washington, D.C.

Tim Parks replies:

“1987—April 11: Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”

I quote not from a rogue website but from the author chronology provided in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, the book under review. These words, in turn, are a translation of the chronology prepared by Il Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi in Turin, the most authoritative source of information on Levi; they were actually written by Ernesto Ferrero, for many years Levi’s editor at Einaudi, a close friend who knew the author well and spoke to him regularly right through to the end.

The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Annissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a “tumble over a railing” in a Turin apartment block. The Turin law court that heard the evidence surrounding the death agreed and gave its verdict accordingly. In any event it is unthinkable that Levi, a cautious man, would have brought up children and maintained his infirm mother in a building where one could simply tumble over bannisters.

Diego Gambetta’s Boston Review article, to which Carolyn Lieberg refers me, is an extended exercise in wishful thinking, sometimes disingenuous (as when it claims, for example, that the biographies do not back up their claim that the death was suicide, or omits to mention the family’s immediate acceptance of the suicide verdict, or suggests that the height of the railing was abnormally low), sometimes plain wrong, as when it claims that Levi never wrote in favor of suicide. In the story “Heading West” (published in 1971, but interestingly republished shortly before the suicide in 1987), he sympathetically describes a remote tribe who refuse a drug that will put an end to an epidemic of suicides. The chief of the tribe writes, and they are the final words of the story, that the tribe’s members “prefer freedom to drugs, and death to illusion.” Freedom is always a positive word for Levi.

As early as 1959 Levi had written to his German translator, Heinz Reidt, that “suicide is an act of will, a free decision.” In 1981 when Levi’s German teacher, Hanns Engert, hanged himself, Levi was asked to sign a petition claiming it was murder. But the evidence was so overwhelming that he refused: “Hanns killed himself,” he said. “Suicide is a right we all have.”

This brings us to the moral issue at stake here. Levi was a sworn enemy of denial in all its forms. In If This Is a Man he is dismayed when at Auschwitz his friend Alberto convinces himself that his father, just “selected,” will not actually be sent to the gas chambers. It is a renunciation of reality, of sanity. Later, he would be equally dismayed that Alberto’s parents continued to deny the obvious truth that their son had died in the march away from Auschwitz, preferring to believe that he was somehow safe and well in Russia. In The Drowned and the Saved Levi attacks all attempts to find solace in pieties and “convenient truths,” in particular the notion that Auschwitz victims, himself included, were somehow sanctified by their experience, their courage and goodness becoming almost a consolation for the awfulness of what had happened: “It is disingenuous, absurd and historically false,” he writes, “to argue that a hellish system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims.”

Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity. He was not obliged to his readers to behave in a reassuring way or protect the illusions they had built around his person. “In my work I have portrayed myself…as…well-balanced,” he remarked. “However, I’m not well-balanced at all. I go through long periods of imbalance.”

Whatever his reasons for doing what he did, and clearly in the last months of his life he oscillated between deep depression and rare moments of enthusiasm for new projects, Levi was a free man, exercising “a right we all have.” “He’s done what he’d always said he’d do” were reportedly his wife’s words on returning home to discover what had happened.


Primo Levi.jpg
Studio PericoliTullio Pericoli: Primo Levi, 2014

Can one ever know “too much” about a writer?

Take the delicate case of Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor who combined the careers of writer and professional chemist. Until recently I had only read Levi’s three most renowned works, his two great war memoirs, If This Is a Man and The Truce, and then The Periodic Table, a series of autobiographical pieces exploring the author’s relationships in the light of his work as a chemist. My response—many years ago—was in line with that of most of the articles I had read on the author, which tend to hagiography. The story of Auschwitz in If This Is a Man is so overwhelming, Levi’s humanity and healthy bewilderment in the face of the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi camps so resolute and right that one cannot help but admire the book. The Truce, in contrast, is full of positive energy and optimism, describing Levi’s experiences in Russian refugee camps after Auschwitz and up to the moment of his repatriation and return to his home town of Turin, while The Periodic Table is clearly the work of an older, more determinedly sophisticated writer. Neal Ascherson’s 1985 review in The New York Review sets out the typical reader reaction: “a wonderful store of irony, of humor and observation,” Ascherson calls it, coming out of Levi’s work not as “a supervisor … in some enormous multi-national concern, but a struggling freelance chemist….a sort of packman-chemist, an alchemist on the road.

How different things begin to look when one tackles the almost three thousand pages of The Collected Works and browses the long chronology of Levi’s life offered in the first of these three hefty volumes, as I have just done for a review essay.

The first surprise is the dates: If This Is a Man (1947), The Truce (1963), The Periodic Table (1975). What was Levi doing in the years in between? On the road with his chemistry? No, from 1948 to 1975 he worked for the same locally-based paint and chemical company, first as a chemist, then as technical director and later (when he was writing The Periodic Table) as general manager. So Ascherson had got an entirely skewed and romanticized view of Levi’s working life. But this was hardly his fault. It’s the view The Periodic Table suggests. So was Levi unhappy, one wonders, with his long managerial career?

The next curiosity is that while there are no publications in the eighteen years between the first two books, between The Truce and The Periodic Table there are two collections of short stories that no one ever mentions: Natural Histories (1966) and Flaw of Form (1975). Reading through them, I’m astonished at the fall-off in performance. It’s not that they are badly written, but there is a frivolity, a childishness almost, that strives for but never quite achieves comedy. Essentially, these are science fiction pieces in which the twin fears of sexual experience and invasive impersonal power structures play out in a wide variety of paranoid fantasies, but without the urgency or commitment that might really involve us. They are, as it were, at once frightened and complacent. “Little transgressions,” Levi called them. Why was he writing this stuff?

The question pushed me to look at a proper biography. Obscurely, I felt that if I could understand the inspiration behind the short stories, I might learn something new about the memoirs. Here again there were surprises. Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life (2003) offers a wealth of facts, some of the most important of which are not in the chronology offered by the new Collected Works. For example, a number of the details in the three auto¬biographical works are distorted or invented. Thomson lists these details and I pondered them. It seemed that Levi tended to make his close companions less cultured and educated, but more vital and enterprising, than they actually were, such that they become foils for the cautious and highly educated Levi; they are not as smart as he is, but admirably courageous, and above all free. However, doing this involved inventing details that the people in question found insulting, or just plain false.

What is most surprising in the biography, though, and barely hinted at in The Collected Works, is the intense monotony and eventually chronic unhappiness of Levi’s domestic life, his deep depressions and profound pessimism. Aside from the two-year parenthesis that was Auschwitz and the Russian refugee camps, he spent his whole life in the same Turin apartment in the company of his mother, to whom he was intensely attached. After the war, the still virgin Levi married in very short order the virgin Lucia Morpurgo, but rather than set her up in a new home, Levi brought her, against her wishes, into the apartment with his mother and sister, bringing up two children in an atmosphere fraught with frustration and resentment. Meantime, Levi, who desperately wished to leave his office job for a literary career but feared he wouldn’t make it, spent much of his free time corresponding with Auschwitz survivors and establishing intimate but non-sexual relations with other women, and in general, stayed out of his home absolutely as much as possible.

But is this information “important” or even useful when we read a great book like If This Is a Man? Though his mother was absolutely central to Levi’s life, she barely gets a mention in his autobiographical work, nor is there any projection of her that one can see in the fiction. Surely the book is the book is the book and that’s that. The rest, gossip.

None of us can read a story without relating it to the knowledge and experience we bring to it. When we read Levi’s memoir our reaction is conditioned by what we already know about the Holocaust, about fascism, about Judaism. The story stands in relation to the things we know. That, after all, is the main reason for including a life chronology at the beginning of The Collected Works; the facts of the life condition, or inform, our response. Returning to the celebrated works equipped with the rich context of the extended biography, I began to notice things I hadn’t really seen before. “If, from inside the Lager,” Levi writes at one point of If This Is a Man, “a message could have seeped out to free men, it would have been this: Be sure not to tolerate in your own homes what is inflicted on us here.”

What can Levi mean? Surely not that there may be beatings and gas chambers and forced labor in our homes. The comment comes immediately after a reflection that the deprivations of Auschwitz have forced him to acknowledge how little he really lived when he was a free man. Is Levi suggesting that one’s manhood can be challenged as profoundly in the domestic environment as in the camps? Toward the end of The Truce, with Levi now in sight of home after his long travels, he offers a reflection that at once explains the book’s curious title and throws the whole narrative into a new perspective:

We knew that on the thresholds of our homes, for good or for ill, a trial awaited us, and we anticipated it with fear. … Soon, even tomorrow, we would have to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us. … Although the months just passed, of wandering at the edge of civilization, were harsh, they now seemed to us a truce, an interlude of unlimited openness, a providential gift of destiny, never to be repeated.

Never to be repeated! Writing almost twenty years after that truce, Levi appears to be telling us that this had been his one experience of real freedom. A page later the book ends with the author safely home, but dreaming that he is again back “in the Lager, and nothing outside the Lager was true.” Home and the camps are bizarrely superimposed.

Realizing only now how frequently notions of freedom and imprisonment occur throughout Levi’s work, I began to suspect that the small changes to the facts that Levi makes in his memoirs are driven by a desire for freedom. His commitment to bearing witness to the truth of Auschwitz was becoming a kind of straitjacket, something people expected of him, imposed almost. He was also expected to behave in a proper fashion, receiving warnings from the Turin synagogue when it became known he was flirting with a woman journalist. Was writing about the imprisonment of Auschwitz becoming itself a kind of prison? The short stories are largely frivolous perhaps because Levi yearned for the freedom of frivolity; many of those who knew him report his occasionally infantile behavior (“My impression was of a child trapped in a man’s body,” said one close associate). But the short stories did not bring him the respect that the memoirs did and Levi wanted both the freedom and the respect.

In the later works it’s easy to see Levi searching in every way for a freedom of expression that will nevertheless carry the weight of the memoir; the books, that is, become part of his search for a modus vivendi, one that will allow him both to stay home with mother and feel courageous and free and be respected and admired. This is particularly the case with If Not Now, When? Levi’s only novel, where an alter ego in the guise of a Russian Jew becomes an anti-Nazi partisan, successfully fighting and killing and seducing women, being simultaneously, as it were, free and good, committed to the right cause but not trapped in it. This is wishful thinking and in fact the story is unconvincing from start to finish.

The picture of this man deeply conflicted between the imperatives of freedom and the fear of disappointing his nearest and dearest inevitably influences the way I come to his last book, written in the early Eighties. Levi’s mother was now an invalid. His wife’s mother was blind. Whenever he left home for a day or two he was extremely anxious about them. He was on anti-depressants. Philip Roth, the writer Fulvio Tomizza, and the great German publisher Michael Kruger all found Levi “pathetic,” even “excruciatingly pathetic.”

It was in this miserable atmosphere, in his sixties now, that Levi turned away from the freedoms he had been looking for in fiction and went back to Auschwitz, this time in a moral essay of ferocious reflection, without any suspect details. The book is called The Drowned and the Saved and is remarkable for its sense of exasperation, its masochism almost. As I note in my review, Levi sometimes seems more determined to insist that Auschwitz survivors were degraded and contaminated and that all “the best” inevitably died, than to explore the psyche of the Nazi torturers. He seeks, that is, in every way to break down the consoling image of the sanctified survivor, the image he himself had become trapped in.

It is hard not to feel how this stands in relation to Levi’s domestic situation and general feeling of entrapment. He goes back to Auschwitz as so many of his readers wanted, but claims the freedom to tell them things they don’t want to hear. Meanwhile he was frequently referring to his mother and mother in law as “the drowned” and “like Auschwitz victims,” a comparison that made any “betrayal” (putting his mother in a home, for example) unthinkable, while simultaneously confirming that Levi himself felt he was somehow still in prison.

Nothing of what I said here diminishes Levi or his writing. Great works come out of great psychological intensity, in his case great suffering, great frustration. Why insist, then, in offering a sanitized, optimistic version of an author’s life, as if his work might be the less if we acknowledged his difficulties? Isn’t this, in the end, precisely the kind of denial that Levi fought against? Even the way the chronology of The Collected Works acknowledges Levi’s suicide is anodyne and vague, as if hoping the fact might go away: “April 11 [1987] Levi dies, a suicide, in his apartment building in Turin.”

In fact, Levi threw himself down the stairwell of the building he had lived in all his life. “Suicide is an act of will, a free decision,” he had written years before to his German translator. “Either you die or your mother dies,” the editor Agnese Incisa, a Jewish female friend of Levi’s, put it to him a few days before his death. In any work of fiction the symbolism of Levi’s suicide would be clear enough and amply commented. The household becomes the instrument of death; using it to kill himself he simultaneously frees himself from its imprisoning grip. It was the drama he had never quite put in his books.

Sergio del Grande/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty ImagesPrimo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

Primo Levi was born in 1919 on the fourth floor of an “undistinguished” apartment block in Turin and aside from “involuntary interruptions” continued to live there in the company of his mother until in 1987 he threw himself down the stairwell to his death. The longest interruption was from September 1943 to October 1945 and would provide Levi with the core material for his writing career: it involved three months on the fringe of the partisan resistance to the German occupation, two months in a Fascist internment camp, eleven months in Auschwitz, and a further nine in various Russian refugee camps.

In 1946, aged twenty-seven, despite working full-time as a chemist, Levi completed his account of his time in a concentration camp. Now widely considered a masterpiece, If This Is a Man was turned down by Turin’s main publishing house, Einaudi, in the person of Natalia Ginzburg, herself a Jew whose husband had died in a Fascist prison. It was also rejected by five other publishers. Why?

Even before his return, Levi had been overwhelmed by the need to tell what had happened. Prior to Auschwitz he had not felt that Jewishness was central to his identity. Like most Italian Jews, the Levis had long been assimilated with little to distinguish them from other Italians. The introduction of the Race Laws in 1938, which discriminated against Jews in public education and excluded them from regular employment, thus created a predicament for Levi that went far beyond the problem of completing his degree in chemistry and finding a job. It was a threat to his identity. Who was he if not an ordinary Italian like his fellow students? The question “what is a man?” that would echo throughout his work was never an abstract consideration but a matter of personal urgency.

Until September 1943 it had been possible for Levi to live in “willful blindness,” to get around the rules, graduate, and find work unofficially; but with the Italian capitulation to the Allies and the German occupation of Italy this was no longer an option. Jews were being rounded up. Many were fleeing to the Americas. Levi’s insecurity at this time was compounded by the death of his father in 1942, making Primo, at twenty-three, responsible for the well-being of his mother and younger sister. His father had been something of a womanizer whose betrayals of their mother were common knowledge.

Here too there was a question of manhood: Levi himself had yet to have anything more than “bloodless female friendships,” was believed by his companions to be terrified of women, and feared that he was “condemned to a perpetual male solitude.” He nursed his self-esteem with adventurous chemistry experiments and arduous mountain climbing in the Alps above Turin, and it was to the mountains that he fled in September 1943, taking his mother and sister with him and renting rooms in a small resort hotel near the Swiss border.

Was he a Jew on the run or a partisan? The Swiss border was closed. German forces were approaching. The would-be rebels with whom Levi eventually associated were poorly organized and quickly infiltrated by a Fascist spy; the only shots fired in anger were those that served to execute two younger members of the band who had gone on a drinking and looting spree that put the safety of the others at risk. How far Levi was involved in this killing is largely the subject of Sergio Luzzatto’s mistitled new book, Primo Levi’s Resistance.1 There was no resistance. To Levi’s dismay his sister had taken his mother from the hotel on December 1 to find refuge back in Piedmont. On December 9 the two undisciplined band members were dispatched with shots to the back. By the time Levi was arrested on December 13 he was utterly demoralized and disoriented. Warned that to confess to being a partisan would mean certain death, he opted for the lesser evil of admitting his Jewishness.

The reader coming to If This Is a Man today brings with him a great deal of knowledge about the Holocaust and in most cases is free of any direct personal involvement in the war. Readers in Turin in 1947 were not so well informed and their own intense war experiences were very much on their minds. The book opens, in first person, with a curious mixture of coolness and portentousness. “I cultivated a moderate and abstract sense of rebellion,” Levi remarks, and declares that given his half-heartedness as a partisan the “sequence of events” leading to his arrest were “justified.” The tone changes abruptly when he talks about the collective experience, in the internment camp, of being told that all Jews were to be dispatched to Germany the following day:

Night came, and it was such a night one knew that human eyes would not witness it and survive…. Many things were then said and done among us; but of these it is better that no memory remain.

Today it is easy to imagine the young Levi searching for a voice, a manner, that would allow him to tell his tale without being overwhelmed by it and at the same time compel the reader’s attention. Prior to studying chemistry he had been educated at a prestigious liceo classico in Turin; he knew his Dante and Manzoni and brought frequent references from them to his text, to enrich it, to get across a sense of extremity and profundity. But having lived through twenty years of fascism the literary establishment in postwar Turin were sworn enemies of all grandiloquence, which they tended to associate with inauthenticity; in their defense it has to be said that If This Is a Man is most powerful when it is most straightforward.

The difficulty in finding a voice for what had happened was intimately linked to the experience itself and the question of what it means to be human. Many inmates of Auschwitz, Levi tells us, experienced the same dream: they would be back home trying to tell their story—the hunger, the cold, the beatings, the selections—but all too soon they would realize that their loved ones were not listening. “They are completely indifferent…as if I were not there.”

Why this refusal to listen? The worst aspect of the camp, Levi tells us, was that it “was a great machine to reduce us to beasts.” The victim was systematically brought down morally to the level of his torturers. Prisoners were encouraged to fight one another, for the possession of a spoon, for sufficient space to sleep, to get the easier jobs, to avoid emptying the slop cans:

One had to…strangle all dignity and kill all conscience, to enter the arena as a beast against other beasts…. Many were the ways devised and put into practice by us in order not to die…. All implied a grueling struggle of one against all….

To give up this struggle was to become an obvious candidate for the gas chamber, one of

an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to truly suffer. One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death….

In her introduction to this three-volume collection of Levi’s works, Toni Morrison remarks how “the triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.” These are heartening words but they are not true. Rather Levi tells us about human identity crushed and corrupted by unspeakable evil; his work is powerful because it squares up to that reality. “The personages in these pages are not men,” he tells us; everybody in the camp, torturers and tortured alike, was “paradoxically united in a common inner desolation.”

To tell this harrowing story was to confess to one’s own degradation. It wasn’t attractive. This anguish explains the strange shifts of tone throughout If This Is a Man, in particular the moments when Levi addresses us defensively with the didactic “we”:

We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words “good” and “evil,” “just” and “unjust”; let each judge,…how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.

The rejections of his book must have come to Levi as confirmation of his recurrent nightmares. Fortunately in the meantime there was love. Levi had started dating Lucia Morpurgo in early 1946. She was a year younger than he; both were virgins. Crucially, Lucia was happy to listen to Levi’s story in all its terrible detail. “I felt myself become a man again,” he later wrote. Eventually his memoir was published by a tiny publishing house in October 1947, a month after Levi and Lucia had married.

René Burri/Magnum PhotosPrimo Levi, Turin, 1985

Levi had been cautious, diligent, and prone to depression before his deportation and continued to be so after his return. Anxious about money, he quickly found a job as a chemist, briefly allowed himself to be seduced away from it into a freelance enterprise with a fearless friend, then in 1948, with his wife pregnant, he knuckled down to serious long-term employment with SIVA, a paint and chemical factory. Whether out of genuine financial difficulties or because he was in thrall to his mother, he did not move out of the family home but brought his wife to live there, against her will. Arguments, incomprehension, and resentments ensued.

On the other hand, Levi was quite changed. Auschwitz had humiliated and degraded him, but it had taught him a great deal; he was “more mature and stronger.” After the Germans had abandoned the camp he and other inmates had behaved with great resourcefulness to stay alive until the Russians arrived. During the long return through various refugee camps he had practiced all his newly learned survival skills. So if the experience had initially stripped him of his manhood, it eventually led to a new confidence.

Writing about Auschwitz he had published a book; talking about Auschwitz he had found a wife. His identity was now inextricably bound up with Auschwitz and for the remainder of his life Levi would spend a great deal of time tracking down people he had known there and corresponding at length with survivors. His children Lisa Lorenza and Renzo were both named after the Italian worker Lorenzo Perrone, who had regularly brought Levi food at Auschwitz and thus helped to save his life. It was “our finest hour,” he would say of the last days at the camp. He referred to Auschwitz as his “university,” an “adventure,” a “rite of passage.”

It was in this more positive mood in 1961, with recognition now growing for his first book, that Levi at last began to write a sequel. The Truce thus opens with the last days in Auschwitz, then tells of the confusion and vitality of refugee camps in Poland and the Ukraine, followed by an interminably roundabout return to Italy by train. The tone is immediately more literary than If This Is a Man:

In those days and in those places…a high wind blew over the face of the Earth: the world around us seemed to have returned to a primal Chaos, and was swarming with deformed, defective, abnormal human examples; and each of them was tossing about, in blind or deliberate motion, anxiously searching for his own place, his own sphere, as the cosmogonies of the ancients say, poetically, of the particles of the four elements.

The pleasure of The Truce lies in Levi’s account of his returning health and the dramatis personae of idiosyncratic companions and extravagant Russian soldiers involved in every kind of ruse, scam, and jam. In particular there is Cesare,

a child of the sun, a friend of the whole world. He didn’t know hatred or scorn, he was as varying as the sky, joyful, sly, and ingenuous, reckless and cautious, very ignorant, very innocent, and very civilized.

Supremely shrewd, Cesare will buy, “fix,” and resell absolutely anything—broken pens, ragged shirts, fish bloated with injections of water—always at a profit, and make love to any woman who crosses his path. However, the tone of The Truce is so charmingly literary and some of the stories so far-fetched that the reader begins to wonder how much is documentary and how much fiction. In fact, though recognizably based on a certain Lello Perugia, Cesare’s antics are very much inflated, sometimes invented, and Perugia was furious with the way he had been presented. It would have been a “much more important” book, Perugia protested, if Levi had “got [his] facts right.”

Why did Levi do this? There had already been some curious fact-twisting in If This Is a Man. Here a close friend, Alberto Dalla Volta, is described as having no German, a crucial factor in the struggle for survival at Auschwitz, when in fact his German was excellent, far better than Levi’s. In his meticulously researched biography Ian Thomson glosses this with the remark that “Levi, like most writers, made life seem more interesting than it is.”2 Leaving aside whether we agree with this, it’s hard to see how describing Alberto as less well educated than he was or, in a later book, speaking of another dead friend as coming from a “peasant” family when he didn’t could enhance our interest in works that command our attention above all for their documentary status.

Two impulses seem to be at work. Thomson notes Levi’s tendency to form friendships with men less intellectual than himself, but also less fearful, more energetic, and extrovert. There was a tradeoff: the timid Levi could enjoy mountaineering adventures and female company beside his lively companions while they benefited from his superior knowledge. Many of the “changes” in these books shift the relationships described toward this preferred model, Levi’s close associates becoming at once more animated and less cultured than perhaps they were. Throughout The Truce, Levi seems to be the only sober figure hanging back from a wild postwar promiscuity, at one point declining an invitation to indulge himself with “twenty large girls…blond, rosy creatures, with…placid, bovine faces.”

Related to these descriptions of joyously uninhibited companions was Levi’s lifelong thirst for freedom and difficulty achieving it. Work at SIVA soon became a prison. With the constant tension between wife and mother, home was also a prison. The Truce takes its title from the reflection, in the closing pages, that the interlude between Auschwitz and the return to responsible life in Turin had been, for all its harshness, a period of respite and freedom, of “unlimited openness,” before the need once again “to join battle, against still unknown enemies, within and outside us.” The memoir closes with Levi at home but dreaming that he is back in Auschwitz and that nothing is real outside the oppression of imprisonment.

Levi was committed to bearing witness, but lifelong adhesion to the same appalling story is constricting. In a later work he speaks of a man who pesters him with a manifestly fabricated version of his war heroics; but Levi admits to envying the “boundless freedom of invention, of one who has broken down the barriers and is now master of constructing the past that most pleases him.”

After completing The Truce Levi allowed himself the liberty of writing Natural Histories, a series of lighthearted sci-fi stories published to general critical disappointment in 1966. Each piece offers a smart idea, ironic and potentially alarmist—a society duped into believing that people need to wear heavy armor to avoid a deadly virus, a telephone network that develops its own intelligence and makes and interrupts calls as it pleases, a country where the duties of literary censorship are assigned to barnyard hens.

What is striking about all Levi’s fiction is that despite the frequent references to sexual problems—a female spider discussing her consumption of males, a wise centaur torn apart by sexual desire who experiences “in the form of anxiety and tremulous tension” any sexual encounter that occurs in his vicinity—there is no attempt to dramatize however obliquely or discreetly what might have been the reality of Levi’s domestic life, or to explore the many intimate but sexless friendships he was now in the habit of forming with women. To one of these friends, the German Hety Schmitt-Maas, Levi would confess his frustration with marriage and sense of entrapment, but nothing of this emerges in the fiction. The better stories in the later and looser collections are always returns to the wartime period and Auschwitz.

Another story collection, Flaw of Form, followed Natural Histories, before Levi returned to memoir in 1975 with The Periodic Table. The breakthrough here was to use his experience and knowledge as a chemist to provide the frame or cover for intriguing explorations of earlier relationships. Each chapter recalls some episode that features a different chemical substance whose qualities are allowed to take on a quiet symbolism. In a Fascist jail Levi speaks to a man who worked panning for gold, not just in order to sell it, but for the love of engraving and hammering it, and above all “to live free”; a job that involves extracting phosphorous from plants brings Levi into contact with the charming Giulia, who despite her imminent marriage may or may not be a possible lover; a problem with a paint that won’t dry due to defective materials from a German supplier brings Levi into contact with the chemist who supervised his work in Auschwitz.

Crucial to The Periodic Table is that Levi knows everything about chemistry and we know very little. Many of the situations are presented as puzzles that Levi solves or sometimes fails to solve, but always with a wry panache. Again and again the material world appears as a canny guardian of secrets, requiring patience, caution, practicality, and knowledge, but not in the end intractable. By comparison human relationships are even more mysterious and definitely less susceptible to the qualities Levi displays. He is unable to challenge the flirtatious Giulia, afraid of meeting the Auschwitz chemist and disturbed that the man seems to be asking him for a forgiveness he is not ready to grant.

Levi had been concerned that his books might be admired more for their wartime witness than their literary achievement. The brilliance of The Periodic Table settled any doubts about his writerly credentials, though again there were complaints of distortion. In particular, it was not true that Levi had come into contact with the German chemist through his work; he had tracked his man down through Hety Schmitt-Maas, who was upset by how negatively Levi presented him in his book, since the German had been one of the few to give him some help at the camp.

With the success of The Periodic Table, Levi finally felt sufficiently confident to resign from SIVA. He was fifty-eight. Free from routine responsibilities, he produced in quick succession The Wrench (1978) and If Not Now, When? (1982). Both draw on the writer’s special knowledge for their authority and both present themselves as fiction, free from the constraints of bearing witness. In the short stories of The Wrench Tino Faussone, a hugely energetic, incorrigibly womanizing engineer, intensely familiar with pylons, rigs, boilers, and the like, tells the more intellectual narrator of his adventures around the globe with every kind of dramatic technical problem. Having complained of his own thirty years of “forced labor,” Levi now celebrated work, or at least work as experienced by one of his typical foils, a man of boundless energy and freedom who basks in the sure knowledge of his immense practical competence.

If Not Now, When?, Levi’s only novel, covers the same time period and territory as The Truce, telling the story of a Russian Jew who joins a band of Jewish partisans to fight the Germans; they make their way to Italy whence they hope to move on to Palestine and the nascent state of Israel. In Primo Levi’s Resistance Sergio Luzzatto observes how much this novel draws on Levi’s own unhappy partisan experience, transforming it into something effective and triumphant. The hero, Mendel, a watchmaker, a man who can mend a radio and is prone to philosophic reflection (“Mendel is me,” Levi said in an interview), boldly bears arms, engages in any number of skirmishes, finds himself a woman, then betrays her with another (though he now immediately feels trapped and threatened by her), and even executes a spy:

Ulybin handed the rifle to Mendel, without a word.

“You want me to…?” Mendel stammered.

“Go on, yeshiva bocher,” Ulybin said. “He can’t walk, and if they find him, he’ll talk….”

Mendel felt bitter saliva fill his mouth. He took a few steps back, aimed carefully, and fired.

Levi had spent much time researching Yiddish Eastern Europe and the exploits of Jewish resistance fighters whose war efforts he wished to celebrate. “It’s important that there be Jewish partisans,” Mendel observes: “only if I kill a German will I manage to persuade other Germans that I am a man.” However, the novel’s dialogue comes across as wooden, the action is hardly credible, and those who knew Levi’s previous work could not fail to see elements of fantasy and wishful thinking. Shortly after the book was published, Israel invaded Lebanon and Levi found himself alternately praised and criticized for promoting militant Zionism, something that could not have been further from his mind.

Constantly afraid that he would run out of subject matter or succumb to Alzheimer’s, Levi stepped up production in his later years. Some two thirds of the almost three thousand pages of The Complete Works were written after he left his managerial job. Most of the writing was made up of articles and stories published in the Turin newspaper La Stampa and then poems that plumb Levi’s darker moods: spared the duty of providing narrative content, the poems make for stronger reading than the stories. On the occasion of his wife’s sixtieth birthday he wrote her this gloomy message:

Be patient, my impatient lady,
Pulverized and macerated, flayed,
Who flay yourself a little every day…
Please, accept these fourteen lines;
They’re my rough way of telling you you’re loved,
And that I wouldn’t be in the world without you.

A year later he wrote “Arachne,” spoken by a female spider who weaves a web from “a thousand spinning teats”:

I’ll sit in the center
And wait for a male to come,
Suspicious but drunk with desire,
To fill my stomach and my womb…

Terrified of spiders since earliest childhood, Levi made a huge copper spider and hung it on his balcony. Warned by the Jewish community that people were gossiping about his relationship with a certain woman journalist, he immediately refrained from seeing her. He visited hundreds of schools to talk about Auschwitz yet protested that he didn’t want to be labeled as a Jewish writer. Yearning to travel, he complained that his women prevented him from “going anywhere.” His mother had never given him a “single kiss or caress,” he confided to a journalist in 1982. “I’ve known some Jewish sons,” remarked Philip Roth after meeting him, “but Levi’s filial duty and devotion was stronger than anything I’d ever seen. There was a pathetic edge to it.” Levi was on antidepressants.

It was in this unhappy state that Levi chose to return to his core material in The Drowned and the Saved (1986), a book that must rank as one of the most powerful and upsetting attempts at moral analysis ever undertaken. The story of Auschwitz, Levi begins, “has been written almost exclusively by people who, like me, did not plumb the depths. The ones who did never returned, or if they did their capacity for observation was paralyzed by pain and incomprehension.” “Those who were ‘saved’ in the camps were not the best of us”; rather they “were the worst: the egotists, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators…. The best all died.”

In unsparing detail Levi draws on other concentration camp memoirs to consider the facts in all their complexity and awfulness. The Sonderkommandos, he remarks, were “an extreme case of collaboration,” Jews induced to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, “remove the corpses…extract gold teeth from their jaws; shear off the women’s hair.” Again and again the surreal collective cruelty of the Nazi regime is examined in relation to its effect on its victims; the constant denuding of victims, the crazy obsession with bed-making and roll calls, the habit of forcing inmates to defecate in the open and very close to each other, and so on.

At every point, Levi’s enemy is denial in all its forms. “The intrinsic horror of this human condition…has imposed a kind of constraint on all testimony,” he warns. On both sides of the divide people don’t want to remember, they exploit slippages in memory to establish a comfort zone, and artists offer portrayals that aestheticize or indulge in consolatory pieties. The whole book conveys a sense of the enormity of the task of keeping alive the truth of just how evil Auschwitz was.

No sooner had Levi committed suicide in 1987 than attempts were being made to defend his work from his life, his death rather, as if admirers were afraid that by killing himself he might have undermined the positive side of his witness. This is largely the subject of Berel Lang’s Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life,3 which considers the interminable speculation about whether Levi’s motives for suicide had more to do with Auschwitz or his chronic domestic unhappiness.

Whatever the truth, the views Lang records tell us more about the speculators’ own anxieties than about Levi. Levi’s best writing was about his life, about questions of freedom and survival, so it is inevitable that once we are aware of his suicide, it will always be there when we read him. On the other hand it is hard to see why this should detract from his remarkable achievement, if only because there is no place in his writing, at least that I can find, where Levi suggests that life is likely to end well, nothing that his suicide, as it were, contradicts. If anything the contrary.

In response to:

The Courage of the Elementary from the May 20, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to call attention to two mistakes made by Mr. Tony Judt in his long review of my biography of Primo Levi [NYR, May 29].

The Italian translation of my book has not yet been published. It is planned for next fall, and so cannot have been the subject of mixed reviews, as Mr. Judt claimed in his article. Several articles have been written in Italy on the French version of my book (among others by Cesare Cases, René de Ceccatty, Hector Bianciotti, and Fabio Gambaro in L’Espresso) and they were favorable, except the one in La Rivista dei Libri, co-published by The New York Review. Contrary to what Mr. Judt wrote, the French critics have been unanimously favorable (in Le Monde, L’Express, Le Figaro, Télérama, Le Nouvel Observateur, Libération).

Much of the information in the article that you published was taken from my book, as well the drawing of Primo Levi by his friend Mr. Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi, who kindly loaned it to me.

In fact, some Italian critics have reproached me for revealing that Natalia Ginzburg gave a negative opinion of Levi’s first manuscript when she was adviser to the publishing house of Einaudi and also for revealing that her successors turned the manuscript down for more than eleven years, during which time they published Robert Antelme’s The Human Race. Unfortunately this is the truth. At the time, Levi’s text was not considered important in literary circles but only as testimony.

These Italian critics and Tony Judt have taken advantage of the small mistakes (in names and dates) appearing in the original French edition of my book in order to deny me (“a stranger to the Italian world”) the right to write about Levi. These mistakes were the publisher’s who, despite my many warnings, prepared the manuscript too hastily. It was reprinted within two weeks, and many of the mistakes were corrected, and Livre de Poche’s paperback version has almost no mistakes.

I should point out that the English and American versions are much shorter than the original, and that the forthcoming translations in German, Italian, and Japanese will present the full, original text of my book.

Myriam Anissimov
Paris, France

Tony Judt: replies:

The Italian edition of Myriam Anissimov’s book has yet to appear; I stand corrected. But Ms. Anissimov protests too much. Since she concedes in her letter that her book was full of mistakes, and even warns us that the new paperback edition is not entirely free of them (which I didn’t know), I don’t understand why she takes such offense at my allusion to the matter. And if, as she claims, Italian critics have exploited these mistakes to “deny” her the right to write about Levi, she can hardly be surprised to find me describing their response as “mixed.” As it happens I have not seen any critic so much as hint that Levi was privileged terrain, off-limits to outsiders; but I do recall at least one utterly devastating review (Domenico Scarpa, in La Rivista dei Libri, April 1997, pp. 41-43) that called attention to Anissimov’s many, many errors.
Ms. Anissimov did not “reveal” that it was Natalia Ginzburg who recommended rejection of Levi’s first book; this was quite widely known, not least to Levi himself. (See Opere, Vol. 1 [Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1997], p. lxxxiii, where Ginzburg is cited by Levi in this connection.) Einaudi’s long hesitation before finally publishing Levi in 1958 has also been discussed in print (I cited the accounts by Giulio Einaudi and Levi in my review). What Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist does reveal is the author’s uncertain grasp of its subject and his context—perhaps that is why some doubt has been expressed as to Ms. Anissimov’s suitability as a biographer of Levi. If Ms. Anissimov is so very sensitive to such criticism it may be that French reviewing practice has accustomed her to an easier ride—though she should know that the welcome accorded her book in Paris represented belated amends for previous French neglect of Primo Levi himself; she thus benefited from the reflected glow of her subject’s improved local standing. As to my part in all this, Ms. Anissimov may rest assured that I have no wish to deny her access to Levi or anything else—I’m an outsider here myself. But I can read Anissimov, I can read Levi, and I can see for myself that the one does not do the other justice. That’s just my opinion, of course, but I’m confirmed in it by Ms. Anissimov’s letter.



Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, in the apartment where he would live for most of his life and where he killed himself in April 1987. 1 Like many Jewish families in the region, the Levis had moved from the Piedmontese countryside to Turin in the previous generation, and were culturally assimilated. Primo grew up under Fascism, but it was only with the imposition of the Race Laws, in 1938, that this had any direct impact upon him. He studied chemistry at the university in Turin, with the help of a sympathetic professor who took him on notwithstanding the regulations excluding Jews, and afterward found work of a sort in various establishments willing to take on a Jewish chemist in spite of his “race.”

With the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, everything changed. For a brief, confusing interlude Italy lay suspended between the Allies, who had occupied Sicily and the far south, and the Germans, who had not yet invaded from the north. But in September the Italian occupying army in France straggled back through Turin, “a defeated flock” in Levi’s words, followed shortly after by the inevitable Germans, “the gray-green serpent of Nazi divisions on the streets of Milan and Turin.” Many of Levi’s Jewish contemporaries from Turin were already involved in the resistance movement Giustizia e Libertà (whose local leadership, until his arrest, had included “my illustrious namesake” Carlo Levi, the future author of Christ Stopped at Eboli), and after the German invasion Primo Levi joined them. He spent three months with the armed resistance in the foothills of the Alps before his group was betrayed to the Fascist militia and captured on December 13, 1943.2

Levi, who declared his Jewish identity, was sent to the transit camp at Fossoli di Carpi and thence, on February 22, 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz with 649 other Jews, of whom twenty-three would survive. Upon arrival Levi was stamped number 174517 and selected for Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where he worked at the synthetic rubber plant owned by I.G. Farben and operated for them by the SS. He stayed at Auschwitz until the camp was abandoned by the Germans in January 1945 and liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27. For the next nine months he was swept from Katowice, in Galicia, through Byelorussia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and finally home to Turin in a picaresque, involuntary odyssey described in La tregua (The Reawakening).

Once back in Turin he took up the reins of his “monochrome” life, following the twenty-month “Technicolor” interlude of Auschwitz and after. Driven by an “absolute, pathological narrative charge”3 he wrote Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), a record of his experiences in Auschwitz. The book found hardly any readers when it appeared in 1947. Primo Levi then abandoned writing, married, and began work for SIVA, a local paint company where he became a specialist, and international authority, on synthetic wire enamels. In 1958 the prestigious Turin publishing house Einaudi republished his book, and—encouraged by its relative success—Levi wrote La tregua, its sequel, which appeared in 1963. Over the next decades Levi gained increasing success and visibility as a writer, publishing Il sistema periodico (The Periodic Table) and La chiave a stella (The Monkey’s Wrench), two collections of short pieces; Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?), a novel about Jewish resistance in wartime Europe; Lilit e altri racconti (Moments of Reprieve), further recollections and vignettes of his camp experience; a variety of essays and poems; and regular contributions to the culture pages of La Stampa, the Turin daily. In 1975 he left SIVA and devoted himself to writing full-time. His last book, I sommersi e i salvati (The Drowned and the Saved), was published in 1986, the year before his death. A small esplanade in front of the Turin synagogue on Via Pio V was named after him in April 1996.4

The fate of Levi’s books, in Italian and in translation, is instructive. When he took Se questo è un uomo to Einaudi in 1946 it was rejected out of hand by the publisher’s (anonymous) reader, Natalia Ginzburg, herself from a prominent Turinese Jewish family. Many years later Giulio Einaudi claimed to have no knowledge of the reasons for the book’s rejection; Levi himself laconically ascribed it to “an inattentive reader.”5 At that time, and for some years to come, it was Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, not Auschwitz, that stood for the horror of Nazism; the emphasis on political deportees rather than racial ones conformed better to reassuring postwar accounts of wartime national resistance. Levi’s book was published in just 2,500 copies by a small press, owned by a former local resistance leader (ironically, in a series dedicated to the Jewish resistance hero and martyr Leone Ginzburg, Natalia Ginzburg’s husband). Many copies of the book were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there twenty years later.

La tregua did better. Published in April 1963, it came in third in the national Strega Prize competition that year (behind Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare…), brought renewed attention to his first book, and began Levi’s rise to national prominence and, eventually, critical acclaim. But his foreign audience was slow in coming. Stuart Woolf’s translation of Se questo è un uomo was published in Britain in 1959 as If This Is a Man, but sold only a few hundred copies. The US version, with the title Survival in Auschwitz (which captures the subject but misses the point), did not begin to sell well until the success of The Periodic Table twenty years later. La tregua was published here under the misleadingly optimistic title The Reawakening, whereas the original Italian suggests “Truce” or “Respite”; it is clear as the book ends that for Levi his months of wandering in the eastern marches of Europe were a kind of “time out” between Auschwitz-as-experience and Auschwitz-as-memory. The book closes with the dawn command of Auschwitz, “Get up!”—“Wstawach!

German translations followed in time, and Levi eventually gained an audience in the Federal Republic. French publishers, however, avoided Levi for many years. When Les Temps Modernes published extracts from Se questo è un uomo, in May 1961, it was under the title “J’étais un homme” (“I was a man”), which comes close to inverting the sense of the book. Gallimard, the most prestigious of the French publishing houses, for a long time resisted buying anything by Levi; only after his death did his work, and his significance, begin to gain recognition in France. There, as elsewhere, the importance of Levi’s first book only came clearly into focus with the (in some countries posthumous) appearance of his last, The Drowned and the Saved. Like his subject, Primo Levi remained at least partially inaudible for many years.

In one sense, Primo Levi has little to offer a biographer. He lived an unremarkable professional and private life, save for twenty months, and he used his many books and essays to narrate and depict the life that he did lead. If you want to know what he did, what he thought, and how he felt, you have only to read him. As a result, any retelling of his “life and works” risks ending in a self-defeating effort to reorder and paraphrase Levi’s own writings. And that is just what Myriam Anissimov has done in her new account of Levi, which has already appeared in French and Italian to mixed reviews. Some mistakes of fact in the Italian and French editions have been cleared up, and the English translation, while unexciting, is readable and contains much information. But Anissimov’s prose is uninspired and mechanical. Her lengthy narrative of his life is a choppy mix of long excerpts and rewordings from Levi himself interspersed with clunky and inadequate summaries of “context”: Italian Jewry, Fascist race laws, the postwar Italian boom, 1968 in Turin, and the publishing history of his books. Some of the background material seems to have been inserted at random, as though the author had come upon a misplaced file card and inserted its contents, then and there, into the text.

Worse, the author somehow fails to explain to the reader just why Primo Levi is so very interesting. She alludes to the distinctive quality of his prose style and is rightly critical of reviewers and specialists for their failure to appreciate him; but she has little feel for just those features of Levi’s writings that make him stand out, both in contemporary Italian literature and in Holocaust memoirs. An ironist and a humorist who travels playfully back and forward across an extended keyboard of themes, tones, and topics, Primo Levi is presented in this account as an optimistic, assimilated Italian Jew brought low by the tragedy of Auschwitz. This is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses, Levi’s favorite literary figure and alter ego, as an old soldier on his way back from the wars who encounters a few problems en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.6


Primo Levi had various identities and allegiances. Their overlapping multiplicity did not trouble him—though it frustrated his Italian critics and perplexes some of his readers in the American Jewish community—and he felt no conflict among them. In the first place, he was Italian, and proud of it. Despite the country’s embarrassing faults, he took pride in it:

It often happens these days that you hear people say they’re ashamed of being Italian. In fact we have good reasons to be ashamed: first and foremost, of not having been able to produce a political class that represents us and, on the contrary, tolerating for thirty years one that does not. On the other hand, we have virtues of which we are unaware, and we do not realize how rare they are in Europe and in the world.7

Like most Italians, though, Levi was first of all from somewhere more circumscribed—in his case, Piedmont. This is a curious place, a small corner of northwest Italy squeezed up against the Alps; the homeland of the Savoy royal family, Italian laicism, and, in Turin, its austere, serious capital city, the headquarters of Fiat. Parts of what used to be Piedmontese territory are now French, and the local dialect is permeated with French or almost-French words and phrases. Levi, like most Piedmontese, was immensely proud of his region of origin, and that sentiment suffuses his writings. The “dazzling beauty” of its mountains, lakes, and woods is referred to more than once—for Levi was an enthusiastic amateur climber and much of Piedmont is Alpine or pre-Alpine terrain. The distinctive dialect of the region plays a part in Levi’s writing—as it did in his life, for Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer from Fossano who saved him in Auschwitz, was recognized there by Levi thanks to his Piedmontese speech. A number of the characters in Levi’s writings use local dialect, and in both The Monkey’s Wrench and The Periodic Table he apologizes for the difficulty of capturing the cadences of their conversation in the written word.8

The Piedmontese are famously reserved, restrained, private: in short, “un-Italian.” Italo Calvino wrote of the “Piedmontese eccentricity” in Levi’s “science fiction” tales; Levi, who thought that he was credited with altogether too much wisdom by his readers, was nonetheless willing to concede that he did possess the distinctive quality of “moderation…that is a Piedmontese virtue.” And his roots in Turin, “a mysterious city for the rest of Italy,” played a part in his fate, too. The Turinese, he writes, don’t leave: “It is well known that people from Turin transplanted to Milan do not strike root, or at least do it badly.” Should his family have got away while they could—to somewhere else in Italy, to Switzerland, to the Americas? Not only would it have been difficult and expensive, and required more initiative than he or his family possessed, but the very idea of leaving home did not cross their minds: “Piedmont was our true country, the one in which we recognized ourselves.”9

The constraint and correctness of Primo Levi’s Piedmont are duplicated and reinforced by his vocation, the “sober rigor” of chemistry. The decision to study science was shaped in part, under Fascism, by the fact that it “smelled” good—in contrast to history or literary criticism, warped and degraded by ideological or nationalist pressure. But Levi the student was also drawn to the chemist’s calling:

The nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter…. I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility.

Moreover, the chemist must perforce describe the world as it is, and the precision and simplicity of this requirement seems to have conformed closely to Levi’s own distaste for gloss, for commentary, for excess of any kind. “I still remember Professor Ponzio’s first chemistry lesson, from which I got clear, precise, verifiable information, without useless words, expressed in a language that I liked enormously, also from a literary point of view: a definite language, essential.”10

In chemistry, moreover (as in climbing), a mistake matters—a point made with casual emphasis in the story “Potassium,” where the young apprentice chemist Levi mistakes potassium for its near neighbor sodium and sets off an unexpected reaction:

One must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade” [emphasis added].11

Chemicals appear frequently in Levi’s writing, and not just in The Periodic Table. Sometimes they are subjects in their own right, sometimes they serve as metaphors for human behavior, occasionally as illuminating analogies. Dr. Gottlieb, in The Reawakening, is described as emanating intelligence and cunning “like energy from radium.” But the impact of his training upon his writing is most obvious in Levi’s distinctive style. It has a taut, tight, distilled quality; contrasted with the florid, experimental, syntactically involuted writing of some of his contemporaries and commentators, it has the appeal of medieval plainsong. This was no accident—“I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile.”12

In an essay “On Obscure Writing,” Levi castigates those who can’t write in a straightforward way: “It is not true that disorder is required in order to describe disorder; it is not true that chaos on the written page is the best symbol of the extreme chaos to which we are fated: I hold this to be a characteristic error of our insecure century.” And in an open letter, “To a Young Reader,” Levi reminds his audience that textual clarity should never be mistaken for unsophisticated thinking. Levi’s style did not endear him to professional critics; until the late Seventies “in the eyes of critics he remained an appealing, worthy, but uninfluential outsider in the world of literature.”13

Levi’s style is not just simple, it is unerringly precise; he modeled Survival in Auschwitz on the weekly production report used in factories. All of that book and some of his other writing is in an urgent, imperative present tense, telling the reader what must be known: “It has to be realized that cloth is lacking in the Lager.” The force of Levi’s testimony, like the appeal of his stories, comes from this earthy, concrete specificity. When men left Ka-Be (the “infirmary” of Auschwitz III) their pants fell down, they had no buttons, their shoes hurt: “Death begins with the shoes….” The very density of the detail, the point-by-point reconstruction of how men worked and how they died—this is what gives the narrative its power and its credibility.14

The same is true of Levi’s many accounts of individuals, which glide imperceptibly forward from description to analogy, from analogy to juxtaposition and thence to judgment. Of “the Moor,” one of the Italians at Auschwitz, he writes: “It was quite clear that he was possessed by a desperate senile madness; but there was a greatness in his madness, a force and a barbaric dignity, the trampled dignity of beasts in a cage, the dignity that redeemed Capaneus and Caliban.” Of ruined Munich, where Levi wandered the streets when his train stopped on its interminable journey back to Italy: “I felt I was moving among throngs of insolvent debtors, as if everybody owed me something, and refused to pay.” Of “Cesare” (Lello Perugia, his Italian companion on the journey home): “Very ignorant, very innocent and very civilized.” In The Periodic Table Levi writes that “today I know that it is a hopeless task to try to dress a man in words, make him live again on the printed page.” But he does.15

It is the detail in Levi’s writing that is doing the narrative work, and the moral work too. Like Albert Camus, he has a feel for the “thingness” of experience. He was well aware that this could cause discomfort to some modern readers. In The Monkey’s Wrench he is gently ironic as he heaps on the technical description: since there just are no synonyms, the reader “must be brave, use his imagination or consult a dictionary. It may be useful for him anyway, since we live in a world of molecules and ball-bearings.” The emphasis on work in many of his stories was no accident—a number of the writers and novels he most admired deal explicitly with the honor and autonomy that come from skilled labor; “Faussone,” the composite protagonist of The Monkey’s Wrench, is a Conradian character drawn in part on Renaud, the skipper in Roger Vercel’s novel Remorques, which Levi openly acknowledged as one of his influences. Levi himself identified with skilled work, saying “I’ve always been a rigger-chemist.” In “The Bridge” he goes further and explicitly states that being good at your job and taking pleasure from it constitutes if not the highest, then at least “the most accessible form of freedom.”16 The cynical inscription over the gates of Auschwitz held a special resonance for Primo Levi: he truly believed that work makes you free.


Primo Levi was Piedmontese, a chemist, a writer—and a Jew. Were it not for Hitler, this last would have been a matter of near indifference to him. Jews in Italy had been present since before the destruction of the Second Temple (in 70 AD); and with the exception of the Roman Jews, whose ghetto had only been abolished upon the liberation of Rome in 1870, they were virtually assimilated into the general population. Even the Sephardic Jews of Piedmont, relatively “recent” arrivals, could trace their origins to the fifteenth-century expulsions from Spain (as their names, often drawn from the towns in France where they had lived en route to Italy, suggest), while the earliest recorded permission for Jews to settle in Turin dates from 1424. There had indeed been a ghetto system in Piedmont, established in the early eighteenth century (rather late by European standards), and the Savoyard monarchy was not always benevolent toward the Jews. But following the emancipation decrees of March 1848 their situation rapidly improved, and with the coming of liberal Italy Jews entered without difficulty into the mainstream of Turinese and Italian life. The country had a Jewish prime minister, and Rome a Jewish mayor, before 1914. There were Jewish generals in the army, fifty of them during World War I. Even the Fascist Party had a significant share of the Jewish population among its members (and a Jewish finance minister as late as 1932).

To be sure, there was anti-Semitism—especially in Trieste, where it was inherited from Austrian rule. And however cynical or even ambivalent Mussolini himself felt about the Race Laws, these cut deep into the self-confidence of the Italian Jews. But the significant Jewish presence in the Italian anti-Fascist resistance owed more to deep traditions of free-thinking liberalism than to any sense of Jewish victimhood. In any case, there were not many Jews. Even by West European standards the Jewish population of Italy was small: just 33,000 in a population of nearly 35 million in 1911, increased to 57,000 by 1938, thanks to the annexation of Trieste, new “racial” definitions, and the presence of some 10,000 foreign Jewish refugees from Nazism. The largest concentration of Jews was to be found in Rome (about 12,000 in the 1931 census); there were fewer than 4,000 in Turin, where they made up about 0.5 percent of the local population. 17

The Jews of Italy suffered badly during the eighteen months of German occupation, though not as badly as Jews elsewhere. Nearly seven thousand Italian Jews died in deportation; but the rest survived the war, a better rate than in most of the rest of Europe. In part this is because the Holocaust came late to Italy (not that this helped the Jews of Hungary); in part because the Jews of Italy were so scattered and well integrated; and in some measure because they found support and sustenance among their fellow Italians, with the usual dishonorable exceptions. From Turin, just 245 Jews were deported, most to Auschwitz: twenty-one returned after the war, Primo Levi among them.18

Thanks to the war, Primo Levi’s Jewishness moved to the center of his being: “This dual experience, the racial laws and the extermination camp, 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.” This was in part a result of his encounter for the first time with other Jews—the Libyan Jews at Fossoli (exhibiting “a grief that was new for us”) and the Ashkenazim in Auschwitz. Jewishness posed difficulties for Levi, and not just because he had no religion; his concern with work, with Homo faber—man the maker—made him peculiarly sensitive to the etiolated, overintellectual qualities of Jewish life: “If man is a maker, we were not men: we knew this and suffered from it.” It also explains his initial enthusiasm for the Zionist project in its innocent, agrarian incarnation. But the very difference of Jews was also their virtue. In “Zinc” he sang the praises of “impurity,” in metals and in life, the impurity which the Fascists so abhor with their longing for sameness, that impurity “which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life…. I too am Jewish…. I am the impurity that makes the zinc react.”19

Levi found it embarrassing and constricting to be treated “just as a Jew,” as he was by many in the US; predictably he has been criticized by some in the American Jewish community for the insufficiencies and partial quality of his Jewish identity.20 But he was not inhibited about writing and speaking as a survivor, bearing witness and obeying the distinctively Jewish exhortation to remember. All of his writing is shadowed by his experience in Auschwitz—you cannot read anything by Levi without prior knowledge of that experience, for he assumes it in the reader and expects it. His first and last books are devoted to it. In The Periodic Table it is omnipresent, even in stories unrelated to that past, but which at unexpected moments suddenly twist back to it. In The Monkey’s Wrench the point is made explicitly, following his explanation to Faussone of the story of Tiresias: “In distant times I, too, had got involved with Gods quarreling among themselves; I, too, had encountered snakes in my path, and that encounter had changed my condition, giving me a strange power of speech.”21

As a survivor, Levi’s trajectory was quite representative. At first, people didn’t want to listen to him—Italians “felt purified by the great wave of the anti-Fascist crusade, by participation in the Resistance and its victorious outcome.”22 Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, had a comparable experience—

I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps…. They used to say, “For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,” and so I remained quiet for a long time.

In 1955 Levi noted that it had become “indelicate” to speak of the camps—“One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure.” Thus was confirmed the terrible, anticipatory dream of the victims, during and after the camps: that no one would listen, and if they listened they wouldn’t believe.23

Once people did start to listen, and believe, the other obsession of the survivor began to eat away at Levi—the shame, and guilt, of survival itself, made worse in his case by the embarrassment of fame. Why should he, Levi, have survived? Had he made compromises that others had refused? Had others died in his place? The questions are absurd, but they crowd in upon Levi’s later writings, obscurely at first, openly toward the end. In the poem “Il superstite” (“The Survivor,” February 1984), their implications are explicit:

Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.

The guilt of the survivor—for surviving, for failing to convey the depths of others’ suffering, for not devoting every waking hour to testimony and recall—is the triumphant legacy of the SS, the reason why, in Nedo Fiano’s words, “At bottom I would say that I never completely left the camp.”24

The shame of not being dead, “thanks to a privilege you haven’t earned,” is tied to Levi’s central concern and the title of his first book: What does it mean to reduce a person to “an emaciated man, with head drooped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen”? Levi, like other surviving witnesses, was ashamed of what he had seen, of what others had done; he felt “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….” That, too, is how he explained the death of Lorenzo Perrone, the bricklayer working outside Auschwitz who had saved him but had been unable to live, as the years passed, with the memory of what he had seen: “He, who was not a survivor, had died of the survivors’ disease.”25

As a survivor, then, Levi was tragically typical; as a witness to the Holocaust he was not. Like all such witnesses, of course, he wrote both to record what had happened and to free himself from it (and was driven forward by the sense that he was doomed to fail on both counts). And like all survivors, his testimony is by definition partial: “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses…. We are…an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications, or their attributes or their good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it, or they returned mute.”26 In Levi’s case he survived Auschwitz through good health (until the end, when his fortuitous sickness kept him in the infirmary and off the final death march), some knowledge of German, his qualifications as a chemist, which gave him indoor work during the final winter, and simple luck. Others have similar stories.

Levi knew little of the political organization among some of the prisoners. He did not benefit from protekcja, privileges and favor from other prisoners. His view of the camp as an accumulation of isolated “monads,” rather than a community of victims, is contested by others (though not by all). But it is not for these reasons that Levi is a distinctive and unique witness to the Holocaust, perhaps the most important. It is because he writes in a different key from the rest; his testimony has a fourth dimension lacking in anything else I have read on this subject. Tadeusz Borowski is cynical, despairing. Jean Améry is angry, vengeful. Elie Wiesel is spiritual and reflective. Jorge Semprun is alternately analytical and literary. Levi’s account is complex, sensitive, composed. It is usually “cooler” than the other memoirs—which is why, when it does suddenly grow warm and glow with the energy of suppressed anger, it is the most devastating of them all.27

Where some have tried to draw meaning from the Holocaust, and others have denied there is any, Levi is more subtle. On the one hand, he saw no special “meaning” in the camps, no lesson to be learned, no moral to be drawn. He was revolted at the notion, suggested to him by a friend, that he had survived for some transcendental purpose, been “chosen” to testify. The romantic idea that suffering ennobles, that the very extremeness of the camp experience casts light on quotidian existence by stripping away illusion and convention, struck him as an empty obscenity; he was too clearheaded to be seduced by the thought that the Final Solution represented the logical or necessary outcome of modernity, or rationality, or technology.

Indeed, he was increasingly drawn to pessimism. The revival of “revisionism,” the denial of the gas chambers, depressed him intensely and toward the end of his life he began to doubt the use of testimony, feeling the “weariness of a man who kept on having to repeat the same thing.” The near-pornographic exploitation of human suffering—in Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter, for example—brought him close to despair. His only resource to ward off the enemies of memory was words. But “the trade of clothing facts in words,” he wrote, “is bound by its very nature to fail.”28

And yet there was something to be gleaned from the camps: “No human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis….” The offense against humanity was ineradicable and could return—indeed, it is never absent. But in his first book and his last, Levi has something—not redemptive, but essential—to say about the human condition. In “The Gray Zone,” the most important chapter of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi brings into focus a theme he has intimated in various earlier works: the infinite gradations of responsibility, human weakness, and moral ambivalence that have to be understood if we are to avoid the pitfall of dividing everything and everybody into tidy poles: resisters and collaborators, guilty and innocent, good and evil. Chaim Rumkowski, the “king” of the Lodz ghetto, was part of “a vast zone of gray consciences that stands between the great men of evil and the pure victims.” So was “Dr. Müller,” Levi’s overseer in the Auschwitz chemical laboratory and future correspondent: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.”29

Just as it is too reassuringly simple to treat the camps as a metaphor for life, thereby according to the SS a posthumous victory, so we should not compartmentalize Auschwitz as a black hole from which no human light can emerge. The importance of language—that we can communicate and we must communicate, that language is vital to humanity and the deprivation of language the first step to the destruction of a man—was enforced within the camp (words were replaced by blows—“that was how we knew we were no longer men”); but it can be applied outside. For life outside is beautiful, as Levi notes in Survival in Auschwitz, and human identity is multifold, and evil does exist and goodness too, and much in between. There is no meaning in all this, but it is true and has to be known and made known.30

Levi’s dispassionate capacity to contain and acknowledge apparently contradictory propositions frustrated some of his critics, who accused him of failing to condemn his tormentors, of remaining altogether too detached and composed. And the idea of a “gray zone” worried some who saw in it a failure to exercise judgment, to draw an absolute moral distinction between the murderers and their victims. Levi resisted this criticism. It is true that his early writings were deliberately cool and analytical, avoiding the worst horrors lest readers prove incredulous—“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.” And Levi certainly preferred the role of witness to that of judge, as he would write many years later. But the judgments, albeit implicit, are always there.31

To Jean Améry, who suggested that Levi was a “forgiver,” he replied that “forgiveness is not a word of mine.” But then, as he acknowledged, his experience had been different from that of Améry, an Austrian Jew in the Belgian resistance who was captured and tortured before being sent to Auschwitz (and who would take his own life in 1978). Levi was no less obsessed with the Germans, but sought, he insisted, to understand them, to ask how they could do what they had done. Yet Améry’s suggestion was pertinent, and it speaks to the astonishing exercise of self-control in Levi’s writings; for there can be no doubt that he had very, very strong feelings indeed about Germans, and these began to come out toward the end of his life. In Survival in Auschwitz there are already references to “the curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command which seems to give vent to a millennial anger.” Germans are addressed in the vocative—“You Germans you have succeeded.” And there are hints of collective condemnation: “What else could they do? They are Germans. This way of behaviour is not meditated and deliberate, but follows from their nature and from the destiny they have chosen.”32

By the time he came to write The Drowned and the Saved, Levi was less inhibited. Survival achieved its goal, he claims, when it was finally translated into German. “Its true recipients, those against whom the book was aimed like a gun, were they, the Germans. Now the gun was loaded.” Later he writes that the “true crime, the collective, general crime of almost all Germans of that time, was that of lacking the courage to speak.” And the book ends with an unambiguous accusation of collective responsibility against those Germans, “the great majority” who followed Hitler, were swept away in his defeat, and have “been rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.” And while he was careful to insist that blanket stereotyping of Germans both was unjust and explained nothing, Levi took pains to emphasize again and again the specificity of the Holocaust, even when compared to the crimes of other dictators or the Soviet camps.33

Primo Levi, then, could judge and he could hate. But he resisted both temptations; the very space that he preserved between the horrors he had witnessed and the tone he used to describe them substitutes for moral evaluation. And, as Czeslaw Milosz wrote of Albert Camus, “he had the courage to make the elementary points.” The clarity with which he stripped down his account of the essence of Evil, and the reasons why that account will endure and why, in spite of Levi’s fears, the SS will not be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers, are exemplified in this excerpt from The Reawakening, where Levi is describing the last days of a child who had somehow survived in Auschwitz until the Russians arrived:

Hurbinek was a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz. He looked about three years old, no one knew anything of him, he could not speak and he had no name; that curious name, Hurbinek, had been given to him by us, perhaps by one of the women who had interpreted with those syllables one of the inarticulate sounds that the baby let out now and again. He was paralysed from the waist down, with atrophied legs, thin as sticks; but his eyes, lost in his triangular and wasted face, flashed terribly alive, full of demand, assertion, of the will to break loose, to shatter the tomb of his dumbness. The speech he lacked, which no one had bothered to teach him, the need of speech charged his stare with explosive urgency: it was a stare both savage and human, even mature, a judgement, which none of us could support, so heavy was it with force and anguish….

During the night we listened carefully: …from Hurbinek’s corner there occasionally came a sound, a word. It was not, admittedly, always exactly the same word, but it was certainly an articulated word; or better, several slightly different articulated words, experimental variations on a theme, on a root, perhaps on a name.

Hurbinek, who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.34


Justice to Primo Levi August 12, 1999


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