Levi, Primo 1919–1987

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Levi, Primo 1919–1987

(Damiano Malabaila)

PERSONAL: Born July 31, 1919, in Turin, Italy; died from a fall during an apparent suicide attempt, April 11, 1987, in Turin, Italy; son of Cesare (a civil engineer) and Ester (Luzzati) Levi; married Lucia Morpurgo (a teacher), September 8, 1947; children: Lisa, Renzo. Education: University of Turin, B.S. (summa cum laude), 1941. Religion: Jewish.

CAREER: Chemist and author. SIVA (manufacturing company), Settimo, Turin, Italy, technical executive, 1948–77. Wartime service: Partisan in Italian Resistance, 1943; imprisoned in Auschwitz concentration camp, 1943–45.

AWARDS, HONORS: Premio Campiello (Venice, Italy), 1963, for La Tregua, and 1982, for Se non ora, quando?; Premio Bagutta (Milan, Italy), 1967, for Sto-rie Naturali; Premio Strega (Rome literary prize), 1979, for La chiave stella; Premio Viareggio, 1982, for Se non ora, quando?; co-recipient (with Saul Bellow) of Kenneth B. Smilen fiction award, Jewish Museum (New York, NY), 1985; Present Tense/Joel H. Cavior literary award, 1986, for The Periodic Table.


Se questo e un uomo, F. de Silva (Turin, Italy), 1947, fifteenth edition, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1975, translation published as If This Is a Man, Orion Press (New York, NY), 1959, published as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, Collier (New York, NY), 1961 (also see below), new edition, 1966, published as If This Is a Man, Bodley Head (London, England), 1966.

La tregua, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1958, eighth edition, 1965, translation published as The Reawakening (also see below), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1965, published as The Truce: A Survivor's Journey Home from Auschwitz, Bodley Head (London, England), 1965.

(Under pseudonym Damiano Malabaila) Storie naturali (short-story collection), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1967, translation published in The Sixth Day and Other Tales, 1990.

(With Carlo Quartucci) Intervista Aziendale (radio script), Radiotelevisione Italiana, 1968.

Vizio di forma (short-story collection), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1971, translation published in The Sixth Day and Other Tales, 1990.

Il sistema periodico, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1975, translation by Raymond Rosenthal published as The Periodic Table, Schocken (New York, NY), 1984.

Abruzzo forte e gentile: Impressioni d'occhio e di cuore, edited by Virgilio Orsini, Di Cioccio (Sulmona, Italy), 1976.

Shema: Collected Poems, Menard (London, England), 1976.

La chiave a stella (novel), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1978, translation by William Weaver published as The Monkey's Wrench, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986.

(Editor) La ricerca della radici: antologia personale, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1981, translation by Peter Forbes published as The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, Allen Lane (London, England), 2001, Ivan R. Dee (Chicago, IL), 2002.

Lilit e altri racconti (short-story collection), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1981, translation by Ruth Feldman published as Moments of Reprieve, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986.

Se non ora, quando? (novel), Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1982, translation by William Weaver published as If Not Now, When?, introduction by Irving Howe, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1985.

(Translator) Franz Kafka, Il processo, 1983.

L'altrui mestiere, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1985, translation by Raymond Rosenthal published as Other People's Trades, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1989.

Sommersi e i salvati, 1986, translation by Raymond Rosenthal published as The Drowned and the Saved, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1988.

Survival in Auschwitz [and] The Reawakening: Two Memoirs, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986.

Racconti e saggi, La Stampa (Turin, Italy), 1986, translation by Raymond Rosenthal published as The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, Schocken (New York, NY), 1989.

Autoritratto di Primo Levi, Garzanti (Milan, Italy), 1987.

The Collected Poems of Primo Levi, translation by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann, Faber & Faber (Winchester, MA), 1988.

(With Tullio Regge) Dialogo, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1989.

The Sixth Day, and Other Tales (includes Storie natu-rali and Visio di Forma), translation by Raymond Rosenthal, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1990.

Conversazione con Primo Levi, Garzanti (Milano, Italy), 1991.

L'ultimo Natale di guerra (short-story collection), edited by Marco Belpoliti, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 2000.

The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961–1987, edited by Marco Belpoliti and Robert Gordon, translation by Robert Gordon, New Press (New York, NY), 2001.

L'asimmetria e la vita: articoli e saggi, 1955–1987 (personal narrative), edited by Marco Belpoliti, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: The suicide of Italian author Primo Levi at age sixty-eight was more than a shocking event. It was a definitive gesture by one of modern history's witnesses, a writer who had reportedly grown increasingly despondent over the fading significance of the Holocaust from generation to generation. Levi—an Italian Jew and concentration-camp survivor—was considered one of the premier chroniclers of the hellish conditions endured by his people during World War II, and his 1947 work Se questo e un uomo, translated into English as If This Is a Man and Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, remains one of the most compelling accounts of the Nazi legacy.

In a profile of Levi for New Republic, David Denby noted that the writer was the product of a family "with substantial roots in the tolerant soil of northern Italy. Thoroughly assimilated, Levi's family, like most Italian Jews, did not speak Yiddish but an eccentric and seemingly contradictory mixture of the Piedmontese dialect … and bits of Hebrew." Trained as a chemist, Levi found his career goals restricted by Italy's emerging Fascist government. With war looming in the late 1930s, Levi and his peers reacted by withdrawal.

When Germany's Nazi troops took over Italy, Levi could no longer afford to be passive. He joined the partisans in 1943, a move that, as Levi later wrote in The Periodic Table, was doomed to failure: "We were cold and hungry, the most disarmed partisans in the Piedmont, and probably the most unprepared." Betrayed and arrested, Levi revealed his Jewish heritage to his interrogators, "partly out of fatigue, but partly out of a sudden surge … of haughty pride." He was sentenced to Auschwitz concentration camp.

As a Haftling—a prisoner—with the number 174517 tattooed on his arm, Levi was set to work at a rubber factory connected with the concentration camp. He spent a year at labor, experiencing firsthand the definitive catastrophe of twentieth-century humanity. Release came in January of 1945 with the arrival of Soviet Army tanks. Levi was one of only three Italian partisans to survive.

Though he had not aspired to be a writer before his internment, Levi was compelled to tell the story of the millions who perished. In 1947 he published Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. This work, according to American Journal of Sociology contributor W.J. Cahnman, is "literally a report from hell: the detached, scientific, unearthly story of a man who descended to the nether word at Auschwitz and returned to the land of the living." Indeed, the themes of this book have been compared by some scholars to Dante's depiction of hell in his epic The Inferno. Survival, in Levi's experience, means learning from prisoners shrewd in the ways of accommodation and appropriation in the prison camps. In Denby's view, Levi "becomes almost vivacious in describing these schemes, the complexity of which … can be startling. The inmates of Auschwitz … had no chance of surviving if they merely obeyed the rules and ate what was given them."

In the end, Survival in Auschwitz "turns out to be, of all things, a book about the forms of civilization," declared Denby. "Levi describes the system of death and survival in the camp but he also presents a variety of relationships—economic, spiritual, fraternal and even cultural—that can only be called the contours of a social world." Indeed, Levi's "lack of personal bitterness is almost unnatural, especially when it is realised that he wrote so soon after the German retreat brought him his freedom," noted G.F. Seddon in the Manchester, England Guardian. "Levi's more outstanding virtue is his compassionate understanding of how in these conditions men cease to be men, either give up the struggle or in devious ways win it, usually at the expense of their fellow men." In an interview with a Los Angeles Times contributor, Levi defended his scientific approach to recounting the horrors of the Holocaust: "It was my duty not to behave as a victim, not to wail and weep, but to be a witness, to give readers material for judgment. This is Divine Law, to be a witness, not to overstate or distort but to deliver and furnish facts. The final judge is the reader."

Sergio Pacifici pointed out in Saturday Review that, like Survival in Auschwitz, Levi's The Reawakening, which chronicles the author's return to Italy, is more than an intimate and accurate diary. "It is a plea for self-restraint and generosity in human relations that may well be heeded in our own critical times," Pacifici said. "Levi's lucid and wise reflections on the nature of man deserve more than a mere hearing. The Reawakening must take its honored place next to Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli, Andre Schwartz-Bart's The Last of the Just, and The Diary of Anne Frank."

After the successful publication of his first two memoirs, Levi continued to write about the Jewish Holocaust in a variety of works, including two award winning novels, La chiave a stella—published in English as The Monkey's Wrench—and Se non ora, quando?—translated as If Not Now, When? Toward the mid-1980s, however, Levi became progressively despondent over what he felt was a general disregard for the immense suffering and loss Jews had experienced during World War II. For reasons not clearly understood, Levi ended his life in 1987 when he jumped down a stairwell in his native town of Turin, Italy. Levi's friend, Italian newspaper editor Lorenzo Mundo, told Steve Kellerman of New York Times that, during the months preceding his death, Levi "would come to visit me and his face looked so discouraged and helpless. He kept saying he was tired, physically and mentally. And he was terribly pessimistic about the destiny of the world and the fate of the spirit of man."

Following Levi's death a number of his works were translated into English, among them The Collected Poems of Primo Levi, The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, The Sixth Day and Other Tales, Other People's Trades, and The Drowned and the Saved.

Other People's Trades presents over forty essays on a variety of diverse scientific and personal subjects ranging from insect behaviors to computers to the patterns of human memory. Critics have praised the impressive range of knowledge, insight, and originality evidenced by these essays, often noting that the volume provides insight into Levi as a talented writer apart from his role as a witness of the Holocaust. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in New York Times noted that "the prevalent themes of these essays are the behavior of matter, its independence of human desires and the extent to which we project our fears onto the behavior of animals that are more or less indifferent to us." Leonard Michaels, writing in New York Times Book Review, emphasized the sense of alienation that characterizes Levi's contemplation of the universe and humankind's relationship to the cosmos.

The Sixth Day and Other Tales surprised many readers who were familiar with Levi's nonfiction; the volume contains fantastical short fables that reveal the influence of futurism and surrealism. Writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, Constance Markey argued that Levi's fiction is weak in comparison with his nonfiction writings about the Holocaust. She commented, "Rich in imagination, Levi is nonetheless uncomfortable with fiction, not to mention comedy." Richard Eder noted in Los Angeles Times the limitations of Levi's short fiction, but also praised the stories as imaginative vehicles of social commentary that suggest both the influence of Levi's experience of the Holocaust and his scientific training. The Mirror Maker combines both essays and stories, many of which Levi wrote during the last twenty years of his life for the Turin newspaper La Stampa. Like Other People's Trades, the volume focuses on a variety of scientific topics and also contains stories that reveal Levi's interest in science fiction and the fantastic. Discussing The Mirror Maker in Sewanee Review, Gabriel Motola commented that "Levi's most engaging stories and essays remain those that address ethical and moral questions raised by political considerations and by his literary readings and scientific studies."

The Voice of Memory, Interviews 1961–1987 includes thirty-six newspaper, journal, radio, and telvision interviews given by Levi. In addition to discussions about the Holocaust, these interviews also cover many of Levi's other interests. A translation of a 1981 work, The Search for Roots is an anthology of thirty short excerpt from various works Levi collected and edited. Writers represented include Homer, Jonathan Swift, and T.S. Eliot. As noted by Gene Shaw in Library Journal, the excerpts focus on four primary themes that interested Levi: "salvation through laughter, our unjust suffering, our stature as human beings, and salvation through knowledge." Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, commented that "Most readers will be less interested in the selections themselves than in what Levi says about each of them and what they reveal about his life."

Levi's possible suicide remains the subject of speculative discussion, and many critics have examined his later writings in hopes of finding evidence of the author's motivation to kill himself. Critics such as Isa Kapp and Michiko Kakutani, for example, have perceived a note of darkness and pessimism concerning the human condition in some of the later pieces included in The Mirror Maker. Kapp, writing in New York Times Book Review, suggested that "Levi had many reasons for faith in humanity, for feeling himself lucky. Yet perhaps he imagined that the impact of his warnings, of his moral force, was evaporating." Richard Eder, writing in Los Angeles Times Book Review, noted that Levi "wrote of life as an immortal principle, not an immortal possession. The stubborn radiance of his notion of what it means to be human is universally accessible but individually transient. It is because the mortal Levi, with whatever depressions and despairs he may have possessed, could write as he did that what he wrote is so valuable."



Camon, Ferdinando, Conversations with Primo Levi, Marlboro Press (Marlboro, VT), 1989.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 37, 1986, Volume 50, 1988.

Hughes, H. Stuart, Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924–1974, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1983, pp. 55-85.

Levi, Primo, The Periodic Table, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.

Patruno, Nicholas, Understanding Primo Levi, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1995.

Rosenfeld, Alvin H., A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1980, pp. 37-61.

Rudolf, Anthony, At an Uncertain Hour: Primo Levi's War against Oblivion, Menard (London, England), 1990.

Short Story Criticism, Volume 12, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Sodi, Risa B., A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1990.

Thomson, Ian, Primo Levi: A Life, Holt (New York, NY), 2003.


American Journal of Sociology, May, 1960, W.J. Cah-nman, review of Survival in Auschwitz, pp. 638-639.

American Scholar, winter, 1990, p. 142.

Booklist, January 1, 2002, George Cohen, review of The Voice of Memory, Interviews 1961–1987, p. 901; April 15, 2002, Hazel Rochman review of The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, p. 1376.

Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1965, p. 9.

Commentary, October, 1985, pp. 41-47.

Georgia Review, summer, 1986, pp. 576-579.

Guardian (Manchester, England), April 22, 1960; February 12, 1965.

Hudson Review, summer, 1986, pp. 329-333.

Isis, June, 1986, pp. 330-332.

Library Journal, May 1, 2002, Gene Shaw, review of The Search for Roots, p. 102.

Listener, April 14, 1977, pp. 491-492.

London Review of Books, December 19, 1985, p. 23.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, p. 11; June 17, 1990, p. 3; May 14, 1993, p. 8.

Nation, August 3-10, 1985, pp. 86-88.

New Leader, November 26, 1984, pp. 16-17.

New Republic, July 28, 1986, pp. 27-33; May 11, 1987, p. 42.

New Statesman, March 19, 1960, p. 410; August 20, 1971, pp. 245-46.

New Statesman & Society, October 19, 1990, p. 32.

New Yorker, May 11, 1987, pp. 31-32.

New York Review of Books, January 17, 1985, pp. 8, 10; March 28, 1985, pp. 14-17.

New York Times, November 29, 1984, p. C21; April 12, 1987, p. 42; May 22, 1989, p. C18; December 12, 1989, p. C23; August 7, 1999, Diego Gambetta, "Primo Levi's Plunge: A Case against Suicide," p. A15.

New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1965, p. 85; December 23, 1984, p. 9; October 12, 1986, pp. 1, 40-41; July 5, 1987, p. 5; May 7, 1989, p. 14; February 4, 1990, p. 15.

Observer (London, England), January 26, 1965; December 21, 1986, p. 21; April 19, 1987, p. 23; October 22, 1989, p. 49; November 11, 1990, p. 67.

Partisan Review, winter, 1989, pp. 21-23.

PN Review, Volume 14, number 1, 1987, pp. 15-19.

Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1985, p. 151; May 11, 1990, p. 246.

Saturday Review, January 2, 1960, p. 23; May 15, 1965.

Scientific American, February, 1985, pp. 23, 27.

Sewanee Review, summer, 1990, Gabriel Motola, review of The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, pp. 506-514.

Stand, summer, 1991, pp. 74-83.

Technology Review, April, 1990, p. 77.

Tel Aviv Review, winter, 1990, pp. 149-165.

Times Literary Supplement, April 15, 1960; December 3, 1982; March 9, 1990, p. 248; November 23, 1990, p. 1271.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 5, 1990, Constance Markey, review of The Sixth Day and Other Tales.

Vanity Fair, January, 1988, pp. 78-84, 94.

Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1986, pp. 10-14.

Washington Post Book World, December 30, 1984, p. 7; May 19, 1985, pp. 3, 14.

World Literature Today, winter, 1977, p. 75; winter, 1983, pp. 83-84; spring, 1983, pp. 265-266.



Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1987.

Cincinnati Post, April 14, 1987.

Detroit Free Press, April 12, 1987.

Fresno Bee, April 12, 1987.

International Herald Tribune, April 13, 1987.

Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1987.

New York Daily News, April 12, 1987.

New York Times, April 12, 1987; April 14, 1987.

Time, April 20, 1987.

Times (London, England), April 13, 1987.

Wall Street Journal, April 13, 1987.

Washington Post, April 12, 1987.