Levi, Primo 1919-1987 (Damiano Malabaila)

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Levi, Primo 1919-1987 (Damiano Malabaila)


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 Levi; married Lucia Morpurgo (a teacher), September 8, 1947; children: Lisa, Renzo. Education: University of Turin, B.S. (summa cum laude), 1941. Religion: Jewish.


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.


Premio Campiello (Venice, Italy), 1963, for La Tregua, and 1982, for Se non ora, quando?; Premio Bagutta (Milan, Italy), 1967, for Storie Naturali; Premio Strega (Rome literary prize), 1979, for La Chiave a stella; Premio Viareggio, 1982, for Se non ora, quando?; corecipient (with Saul Bellow) of Kenneth B. Smilen fiction award, Jewish Museum (New York, NY), 1985; Present Tense/Joel H. Cavior literary award, 1986, and "Best Science Book Ever" citation, Royal Institution (London, England), both for The Periodic Table.


Se questo e un uomo, F. de Silva (Turin, Italy), 1947, 15th 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.

La Tregua, Einaudi (Turin, Italy), 1958, 8th edition, 1965, translation published as The Reawakening (also see below), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1965, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1993, 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 as 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; title means "Lilith and other Stories"), 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 (London, England), 1988.

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

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

I Racconti, introduction by Ernesto Ferrero, Einaudi (Torino, Italy), 1996.

Conversazioni E Interviste: 1963-1987 (title means "Conversations and Interviews"), edited by Marco Belpoliti, G. Einaudi (Torino, Italy), 1997.

Il Fabbricante Di Specchi: Racconti E Saggi, La Stampa (Torino, Italy), 1997.

Opere, edited by Marco Belpoliti, introduction by Daniele del Giudice, G. Einaudi (Torino, Italy), 1997.

Primo Levi Per L'ANED, L'ANED Per Primo Levi, introduction by Bruno Vasari, edited by Alberto Cavaglion, F. Angeli (Milan, Italy), 1997.

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.

The Black Hole of Auschwitz, edited by Marco Belpoliti, translated by Sharon Wood, Polity Press (Cambridge, England), 2005.

(With Leonardo De Benedetti) Auschwitz Report, edited by Robert S.C. Gordon, Verso (New York, NY), 2006.

A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2007.

Levi's Report On Auschwitz was translated into English by Judith Wolf.


Poems from Ad Ora Incerta were adapted for music as Ad Ora Incerta: Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi: 1994, Novello (London, England), 1994; poems from Shema were adapted for music as Shema = Hear: Five Poems of Primo Levi: for Soprano, Flute, Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Transcontinental Music (New York, NY), 1994; other poems have been adapted for music as Ad ora incerta: Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi, by Simon Bainbridge, Novello (London, England), 1994.


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 the 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 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."

Sergio Pacifici pointed out in the 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 wrote. "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.

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 the 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 the 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. 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: A Personal Anthology 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 the 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: "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 the 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."

Levi's works have continued to be translated and published in the United States. The Black Hole of Auschwitz, published in 2005, is a collection of some of the author's shorter essays, newspaper columns, and introductions to books. Walter Reich, writing in the Weekly Standard, commented that these writings are "marked by elegance, originality, and startling insights." Reich went on to note in the same review: "Even in this small collection, Levi's range is astonishing." As expected, the pieces primarily focus on the Nazis and their efforts to exterminate the Jews, as well as how Jews responded to this effort and the ability of some to survive the German concentration camps.

A document first published in 1946 for Russian authorities and published in 2006, Auschwitz Report is by Levi and Leonardo De Benedetti, a physician and fellow concentration camp survivor. The report includes the first-ever English publication of an eyewitness account of the atrocities committed at Buna-Monowitz, which was part of the Auschwitz camp system. Noting that some of the beliefs in the document have subsequently been proven untrue, a Publishers Weekly contributor nevertheless noted: "This is an important addition to Holocaust literature." H. Scott Silverman, writing in the Library Journal, commented that "the report's sting and historical significance … mean that it belongs in most academic and public libraries."

In 2007, A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories was published in English. Containing seventeen short stories written between 1949 and 1986, the "collection showcases both his playfulness and grave seriousness in its clean, precise style," wrote Travis Fristoe in the Library Journal. Among the stories are "Gladiators," a tale of prisoners who battle cars in order to have their sentences commuted, and "Buffet Dinner," which focuses on social anxiety through a story about a kangaroo invited to dinner. A Kirkus Reviews contributor referred to the stories as containing "the infinite and the ineffable, portrayed with singular wit and charm." Mary Fitzgerald, writing in the New Statesman, commented: "Throughout, Levi's outlook is thoughtful, quirky and wry. He captured arresting … images in … [an] understated and delicate style."

Most reviewers also commented on the fact that, whatever the stories may seem to be on the surface in A Tranquil Star they are often symbolic of the Holocaust. For example, New York Times Book Review contributor Jonathan Rosen noted one such story: "The possibility of transcendent evil is felt with great force in "The Molecule's Defiance" (1980), a seemingly straightforward account of a night at a factory that grows sinister when a vast batch of resin forms a single monster-molecule and bursts free of its container." Rosen went on to explain: "The palpable dread comes not from the fear of an explosion or the loss of a night's work or the expectation of reprimand that dogs the chemist on duty, but from a kind of moral sickness, a sense that evil has sunk into the very molecular structure of the world."



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

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

Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

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

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, 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 Scholar, winter, 1990, review of Other People's Trades, p. 142.

Atlantic, February, 1988, review of The Drowned and the Saved, p. 86.

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.

Commentary, October, 1985, reviews of Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, The Periodic Table, Lilith and other Stories (Lilit e altri racconti), and If Not Now, When?, pp. 41-47.

Georgia Review, summer, 1986, review of The Periodic Table, pp. 576-579.

Hudson Review, summer, 1986, reviews of The Periodic Table and If Not Now, When?, pp. 329-333.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2007, review of A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, p. 189.

Library Journal, May 1, 2002, Gene Shaw, review of The Search for Roots, p. 102; October 1, 2006, Scott H. Silverman, review of Auschwitz Report, p. 89; May 1, 2007, Travis Fristoe, review of A Tranquil Star, p. 77.

Listener, April 14, 1977, review of Shema: Collected Poems, pp. 491-492.

New Leader, November 26, 1984, Betty Falkenberg, review of The Periodic Table, pp. 16-17.

New Republic, July 28, 1986, reviews of Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, Moments ofReprieve, and If Not Now, When?, and David Denby, "The Humanist and the Holocaust: The Poised Art of Primo Levi," pp. 27-33; May 11, 1987, p. 42.

New Statesman, May 7, 2007, Mary Fitzgerald, "Nature's Triumph" (review of A Tranquil Star), p. 73.

New Yorker, May 11, 1987, "Notes and Comments (Primo Levi, Italian Writer and Chemist) (The Talk of the Town)," pp. 31-32.

New York Review of Books, January 17, 1985, Neal Ascherson, review of The Periodic Table, pp. 8, 10; March 28, 1985, Irving Howe, "How to Write about the Holocaust," pp. 14-17.

New York Times, November 29, 1984, John Gross, review of The Periodic Table, p. C21; May 22, 1989, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Other People's Trades, p. C18; December 12, 1989, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Mirror Maker: Stories and Essays, p. C23; August 7, 1999, Diego Gambetta, "Primo Levi's Plunge: A Case against Suicide," p. A15.

New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1984, Alvin H. Rosenfeld, review of The Periodic Table, p. 9; October 12, 1986, Alfred Kazin, review of The Monkey's Wrench, pp. 1, 40-41; July 5, 1987, Alexander Stille, "Primo Levi: Reconciling the Man and the Writer," p. 5; May 7, 1989, Leonard Michaels, review of Other People's Trades, p. 14; February 4, 1990, Isa Kapp, review of The Mirror Maker, p. 15; May 27, 2007, Jonathan Rosen, review of A Tranquil Star, p. 14.

People Weekly, May 12, 1986, Harriet Shapiro, review of Moments of Reprieve, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1985, review of If Not Now, When?, p. 151; May 11, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Sixth Day and Other Tales, p. 246; August 14, 2006, review of Auschwitz Report, p. 192.

Saturday Review, May 15, 1965, Sergio Pacifici, review of The Reawakening, p. 28.

Scientific American, February, 1985, Philip Morrison, review of The Periodic Table, pp. 23, 27.

Spectator, October 21, 2006, Carole Angier, review of Auschwitz Report; May 5, 2007, Robert S.C. Gordon, "Fantasy with a Moral Base."

Stand, spring, 1991, reviews of The Sixth Day and Other Tales, Other People's Trades, and The Mirror Maker, pp. 74-83.

Time, December 28, 1987, R.Z. Sheppard, review of The Drowned and the Saved, p. 65.

Times Literary Supplement, April 15, 1960, M.H. Fisher, review of If This Is a Man, p. 239, Anna Laura Lepschy, review of Se non ora, quando?, p. 1345; December 3, 1982; March 9, 1990, Hugh Denman, review of The Mirror Maker, p. 248; November 23, 1990, Robert Gordon, review of The Sixth Day and Other Tales, p. 1271.

Voice Literary Supplement, March, 1986, reviews of Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, The Periodic Table, Moments of Reprieve, and If Not Now, When?, pp. 10-14.

Washington Monthly, April, 1988, Charles Montgomery, review of The Drowned and the Saved, p. 58.

Weekly Standard, February 5, 2007, Walter Reich, review of The Black Hole of Auschwitz.

Whole Earth Review, fall, 1989, J. Baldwin, review of The Drowned and the Saved.


Pegasos,http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ (September 10, 2007), biography of author.



Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1987, Lynn O'Shaughnesssy, "Holocaust Chronicler Primo Levi Dies in Fall on Stairs," p. 3.

New York Times, April 12, 1987, John Tagliabue, "Primo Levi, Author of the Holocaust, Is Found Dead," p. 42.

Time, April 20, 1987, "Died. Primo Levi," p. 64.