BORN: 1919, Turin, Italy
DIED: 1987, Turin, Italy
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry
If This Is a Man (1947)
The Reawakening (1963)
The Periodic Table (1975)
The Drowned and the Saved (1986)
Primo Levi, an Italian chemist and concentration camp survivor, is a writer whose explorations of contemporary morality put him at the forefront of Holocaust literature. He is most often associated with Holocaust writing because of his first two books, If This Is a Man (1947; republished as Survival in Auschwitz, 1961) and The Reawakening (1963). If This Is a Man is generally regarded as the most powerful description of the Nazi camps ever written and, like all of his subsequent work, is noted for its extraordinary equanimity and lack of rancor. Levi published many other kinds of writing during a forty-year career: occasional and op-ed pieces, poetry, short fiction, and novels. With the objective scrutiny of a scientist, the linguistic grace of a poet, and the profound understanding of a philosopher, Levi confronted the major issues of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Imprisoned as a Young Man Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy on July 31, 1919, less than a year after the close of World War I and three years before Benito Mussolini's Fascist takeover of Italy's government. He lived most of his life in the spacious apartment on Corso Re Umberto where he grew up. His family was part of a small, highly assimilated middle-class Jewish community, whose roots went back to the sixteenth century. Both his father and grandfather were engineers, and Levi cited his father as the source of his lifelong interests in science and literature. His mother was also an avid reader who devoted herself to raising Primo and his younger sister, Anna Maria.
Skinny, frail, and bright, Levi excelled in both literature and the sciences in high school and opted to pursue the latter. He enrolled in the University of Turin in 1937, at the age of seventeen. While he was studying chemistry, World War II was approaching. Mussolini established racial laws that called for the official persecution of Italian Jews. Levi graduated with honors in 1941, and took a job as a chemist under a false name; the official anti-Semitism severely limited his career options. He and his peers first reacted by withdrawal; as he once wrote: “We proclaimed ourselves the enemies of Fascism, but actually Fascism had had its effect on us, as on almost all Italians, alienating us and making us superficial, passive and cynical.” But as the Nazi party took over northern Italy, Levi could no longer afford to be passive. He joined the partisan fighters in 1943, but his band was poorly trained and ill-equipped, and on December 13, 1943, it was ambushed by the Fascist militia. Convinced that he would be shot as a partisan, Levi admitted under questioning that he was Jewish.
He was sent to an Italian concentration camp at Fossoli, near Modena. Two months later, German troops sent the Italian Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz. Five hundred of them were immediately gassed to death, and the rest were put to slave labor. For eleven months, Levi worked at a rubber factory in the death camp. Intimates of the author speculate that his innate curiosity about his environment and his training as a dispassionate scientific observer enabled him to overcome despair and keep his spirit intact under dehumanizing conditions. Levi himself attributed his survival to good luck.
If This Is a Man Release came in January 1945 with the arrival of Allied Russian forces. Levi was one of only three partisans to survive. After a long, tortuous journey—described in detail in The Reawakening—Levi returned home to Turin and found work as a chemist in a paint factory. Though he had not aspired to be a writer before his internment, Levi was compelled to tell the story of the millions who perished. He completed If This Is a Man within two years.
Levi offered the completed manuscript of If This Is a Man to the Turin publishing house of Einaudi, but its editors rejected it, judging that the times were not yet ripe for a Holocaust memoir. An amateur publisher brought the book out in 1947 in a print run of twenty-five hundred copies. In 1958, Einaudi changed its mind and republished the book. This time the work was more successful and awakened intense interest.
A Scientist Writes Fiction Throughout these years, Levi continued to make his living as a chemist, working at SIVA, a large paint factory in Turin. He became the company's general manager in 1961 and established himself as an expert in the manufacture of synthetic resins. He also married Lucia Morpurgo, a fellow Italian Jew, and had two children. Meanwhile, he contributed essays and stories to the Turin newspaper La Stampa. In 1963, he published his second book of Holocaust recollections, The Reawakening, which won the Campiello literary award.
This memoir chronicles Levi's experiences between the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945 and his return to Turin that October. There are two parallel stories: Levi's slow reawakening from the horrors of Auschwitz, together with the story of his escape from a Soviet Displaced Persons camp, followed by an adventurous journey on foot and by train through war-torn Eastern Europe, and the colorful characters he meets on the way home.
Levi published two collections of short stories, Natural Histories in 1966 and Structural Defect in 1971. Sometimes labeled science fiction, these stories are often metaphysical explorations that combine scientific fact with moral and ethical issues. Levi used the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila, feeling that these works did not fit with his Holocaust writing. Under his own name, he published two works in 1975: a volume of poetry, and The Periodic Table, a work that mixed autobiography, Holocaust memoir, short stories, and science fiction. Many critics view the latter book, which uses Dmitri Mendeleev's table of chemical elements as its unique organizing principle, as Levi's masterpiece. Its success convinced Levi to retire from factory life to devote himself to writing.
Late-Career Acclaim Primo Levi's two novels demonstrate the range of his abilities. The Monkey's Wrench (1978), a lighthearted story of a master rigger from Turin, demonstrated that Levi could write fiction with little or no autobiographical component. If Not Now, When? (1982), his only Holocaust novel, concerns a group of spirited, young Eastern European Jewish partisans bound for Palestine to build a Jewish state. Levi sought to honor those Jews who had found the strength and intelligence to actively oppose Nazism and who, in the crucible of combat, discovered a new sense of dignity and purpose. He also hoped to take advantage of his popularity in Italy to entice readers to a book infused with the culture, language, and history of an Eastern European Jewish world they knew virtually nothing about. The novel won two major Italian literary prizes.
The English publication of The Periodic Table in 1984 raised the author's profile still further. With the renewed interest in his prior works, Levi had become an internationally recognized lecturer. The book that cemented his stature as a Holocaust writer was also his last, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), a series of eight penetrating essays that sum up the Holocaust issues that had occupied him for forty years, including memory, justice, the uses of violence by totalitarian regimes, the role of the intellectual in times of upheaval, and the responsibility of ordinary Germans for the Holocaust.
In 1987, at the height of his fame, Primo Levi fell to his death in the stairway of his apartment building. His death was declared a suicide rather than an accident, but some doubt that verdict. It is clear that Levi suffered from chronic depression, caused in part by his memories of the camps, but questions around his death remain hotly disputed. Regardless of the manner of his death, his written work is a testament to the survival and affirmation of the human spirit.
Works in Literary Context
Levi had a very sound literary education; in his youth, he read the works of Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka, and other giants. He had a special affinity for Dante, and scholars such as Risa Sodi have noted the numerous references to The Divine Comedy in Levi's writings on the Holocaust. Nonetheless, when he began writing down the recollections that grew into If This Is a Man he followed no literary guide; his model was to be found in his scientific training, with its emphasis on dispassionate observation and precision. The best of his work always retained this objectivity and curiosity, almost childlike at times, about the processes of life. The experimental fiction he wrote later reveals the influences of Jack London and Jules Verne.
Diverse Styles Levi displayed a remarkable range in his writing: from science fiction to meditative essays, from poetry to the picaresque, and from travel literature to autobiography. Nonetheless, it is often difficult to separate Levi's works into conventional categories of genre, subject, or even style. Some of his strongest works, such as The Periodic Table, are unclassifiable hybrids.
Ethical Inquiry One common thread running through Levi's body of work is a concern for the ethical dimensions of modern life. Due to the unusual pairing of the two dominant events in Levi's life—his career in the sciences and his internment in Auschwitz—a relentless spirit of inquiry, especially inquiry into the nature of good and evil, blazes through his literary output. In dealing with his experience at Auschwitz, Levi examines humanity's capacity for virtue and evil by portraying both the innocent victims of the Nazis and those who responded to them in despicable ways. Critics agree that even the stories that do not concern the Holocaust deepen the reader's understanding of humanity in moral crises. Some of his imaginative short stories raise questions about the implications of modern technologies, taking an ambivalent perspective on technical progress. Levi is at his best when identifying and addressing the moral questions raised by political, scientific, or cultural concerns and situations.
Works in Critical Context
Although Levi had initial difficulties finding an audience for his Auschwitz memoir, his subsequent writings were uniformly successful and admired by critics. If This Is a Man was adapted for theatrical and radio dramatization. This work and its sequel, The Reawakening, were each translated into several languages. Levi became a major literary figure in his home country; five of his books won prestigious Italian literary prizes.
In the English-speaking world, Levi achieved renown after 1984, when publication of The Periodic Table in the United States prompted acclaim by Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow and prominent American book reviewers. All of Levi's major works were translated into English over the next five years, cementing his stature as a Holocaust writer and thinker at home and abroad.
In terms of overall critical and public interest, Primo Levi's autobiographical writing receives the lion's share of attention and acclaim. Critics have praised the impressive range of knowledge, insight, and originality evidenced by his essays, often noting that Levi's talents transcend his role as a witness of the Holocaust. Some reviewers find his fiction weak in comparison to his nonfiction writings about the Holocaust, although some praise his speculative stories as imaginative vehicles for social commentary arising from Levi's scientific training. Mirna Cicioni argues that through his diverse literary offerings, Levi sought to build bridges between different fields of human endeavor.
If This Is a Man Although If This Is a Man had only limited success when it was first published, a later Italian edition of the book led to greater acclaim and translated versions of the book. When it was finally translated and published in English over a decade after its original publication, Alfred Werner of Saturday Review stated, “After the lapse of a dozen years, it is still overwhelmingly fresh and powerful in English translation, a useful reminder of events we must never forget.” David Caute of New Statesman called it “one of the most remarkable documents I have read.” Even the passing of years has not diminished the memoir's power and importance. Philip Roth, in a posthumous tribute to the author in the Observer in 1987, referred to If This Is a Man as “one of the century's truly necessary books.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Levi's famous contemporaries include:
Saul Bellow (1915–2005): Canadian-American novelist and Nobel Prize winner.
Federico Fellini (1920–1993): Italian filmmaker, one of the leading figures in the history of world cinema.
Isaac Asimov (1920–1982): Russian-American writer and biochemist; highly prolific author of both science fiction and popular works of science.
Italo Calvino (1923–1985): Italian novelist and journalist.
Philip K. Dick (1928–1982): American science fiction author.
Jerzy Kosinski (1933–1991): Polish American novelist, author of the Holocaust classic The Painted Bird (1965).
Responses to Literature
- Summarize the psychological effects of surviving the Nazi camps, as identified in Levi's Holocaust writings. How would age or gender factor into the psychological effects of the trauma? Does faith enter into the psychological schema at all?
- Write an essay about Levi's perspective on science and its relationship to human ethics. Are the two in conflict with one another? Are there certain issues that will undoubtedly raise conflict? Does Levi somehow harmonize science and ethics in a positive light, or indicate how the meshing of the two can go seriously awry?
- In The Periodic Table, how does Levi use chemical elements to make allegorical statements about the human condition? Why would he use this type of metaphor? Do you think it is an effective allegory? Why or why not?
- Literary critics continue to debate whether Primo Levi's death was a suicide or an accident. What issues and motivations do you think underlie this controversy, and how do they affect the critical perception of Levi's body of work?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Holocaust recollections of Levi have been likened to a news report from hell. Here are some classic literary visions—fictional as well as factual—of ultimate punishment.
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), a novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This book was the first published work depicting the brutality of the Soviet prison camps.
Night (1958), a memoir by Elie Wiesel. One of the classic works of Holocaust literature, it is based on the author's experience in the concentration camps with his father.
No Exit (1944), a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. A man and two women are locked in a small room to irritate each other for eternity, resulting in their realization that “Hell is other people.”
The Trial (1925), a novel by Franz Kafka. Josef K is arrested, put on trial, and sentenced, but never told the crime of which he is accused.
Inferno from The Divine Comedy (early fourteenth century), an epic poem by Dante Alighieri. The poet Virgil guides Dante through “the nine circles of hell” in the central epic poem of the Italian literary tradition.
Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.
Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Translated by Steve Cox. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 1999.
Belpoliti, Marco, and Robert Gordon, eds. The Voice of Memory: Primo Levi, Interviews 1961–1987. New York: New Press, 2001.
Camon, Ferdinando. Conversations with Primo Levi. Marlboro, Vt.: Marlboro, 1989.
Cicioni, Mirna. Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge. Washington, D.C.: Berg, 1995.
Gordon, Robert S. C. Primo Levi's Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kremer, Roberta S., ed. Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.
Patruno, Nicholas. Understanding Primo Levi. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
“Primo Levi (1919–).” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 37. Edited by Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Jane E. Neidhardt. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986.
“Primo Levi (July 31, 1919–April 11, 1987).” In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 50. Edited by Sharon K. Hall. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.
Sodi, Risa. A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.
Tarrow, Susan R., ed. Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi. Ithaca, N.Y.: Center for International Studies, Cornell University, 1990.
Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi. London: Hutchinson, 2002.
Gambetta, Diego. “Primo Levi's Last Moments.” Boston Review (Summer 1999): 25.
Roth, Philip. “A Man Saved by His Skills: An Interview with Primo Levi.” New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1986.
Sodi, Risa. “A Last Talk with Primo Levi.” Present Tense 15 (May–June 1988): 40–45.
Pseudonym: Damiano Malabaila. Nationality: Italian. Born: Turin, 31 July 1919. Education: University of Turin, 1937-41, B.S. in chemistry (summa cum laude) 1941. Family: Married Lucia Morpurgo in 1947; one daughter and one son. Career: Worked under a false name as a chemist in northern Italy, 1941-43; partisan, Italian resistence, 1943; betrayed by informer and captured, 1943; worked in a rubber factory while imprisoned in Auschwitz, 1944-45; technical executive, SIVA (paints, enamels, synthetic resins), Settimo, 1948-77. Awards: Campiello literary prize (Venice), 1963, for La tregua, and 1982, for Se non ora, quando?; Bagutta literary prize (Milan), 1967, for Storie naturali; Prato prize for resistance, 1975; Strega literary prize (Rome), 1979, for La chiave a stella; Viareggio literary prize, 1982, for Se non ora, quando?; co-recipient, with Saul Bellow, Kenneth B. Smilen fiction award from the Jewish Museum in New York, 1985; Present Tense/Joel H. Cavior literary award, 1986, for The Periodic Table.Died: Probably suicide, 11 April 1987.
Opere (3 vols.):
Volume primo: Se questo é un uomo; La tregua; Il sistema periodico; I sommersi e i salvati. 1987.
Volume secondo: Romanzi e poesie. 1988.
Volume terzo: Racconti e saggi. 1990.
Opere (2 vols.), edited by Marco Belpoliti. 1997.
Se questo é un uomo. 1947; as If This Is a Man, 1959; as Survival in Auschwitz, 1986.
La tregua. 1963; as The Reawakening, 1965; as The Truce: A Survivor's Journey Home from Auschwitz, 1965.
Il sistema periodico. 1975; as The Periodic Table, 1984.
Lilít, e altri racconti. 1981; as Moments of Reprieve, 1986.
I sommersi e i salvati. 1986; as The Drowned and the Saved, 1988.
La chiave a stella. 1978; as The Monkey's Wrench, 1986.
Se non ora, quando? 1982; as If Not Now, When?, 1985.
Storie naturali (as Damiano Malabaila). 1966.
Vizio di forma. 1971.
The Sixth Day and Other Tales. 1990.
L'osteria di Brema. 1975; translated as Shema, 1976.
Ad ora incerta. 1984.
The Collected Poems of Primo Levi. 1988.
Intervista Aziendale, with Carlo Quartucci (radio play). 1968.
Abruzzo forte e gentile: Impressioni d'occhio e di cuore, edited by Virgilio Orsini. 1976.
La ricerca delle radici: Antologia personale 1981; as The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, 2001.
Dialogo, with Tullio Regge. 1984; translated as Dialogo, 1989; as Conversations, 1989.
L'ultimo natale di guerra. 1984.
L'altrui mestiere (essays). 1985; as Other People's Trades, 1989.
Racconti e saggi. 1986; revised edition, as Il fabbricante di specchi: racconti e saggi, 1997; as The Mirror Maker: Short Stories and Essays, 1989.
Translator, Il processo, by Franz Kafka. 1983.*
"An English Bibliography of the Writings of Primo Levi" by Cathe Giffuni, in Bulletin of Bibliography, 50(3), September 1993, pp. 213-21.
Conversations with Primo Levi by Ferdinando Camon, translated by John Shepley, 1989; At an Uncertain Hour: Primo Levi's War against Oblivion by Anthony Rudolf, 1990; A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz by Risa B. Sodi, 1990; Reason and Light: Essays on Primo Levi, edited by Susan Tarrow, 1990; Understanding Primo Levi by Nicholas Patruno, 1995; Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge by Mirna Cicioni, 1995; Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist by Myriam Anissimov, translated by Steve Cox, 1999; "Primo Levi, Witness: Symposium," in Judaism, 48(1), Winter 1999, pp. 49-83; Holocaust Literature: Schulz, Levi, Spiegelman and the Memory of the Offence by Gillian Banner, 2000; Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival by Frederic D. Homer, 2001; The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987, edited by Marco Belpoliti and Robert Gordon, translated by Gordon, 2001; Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi As Writer and Witness, edited by Roberta S. Kremer, 2001.* * *
Primo Levi is one of the greatest of the writers of witness to Shoah; the range of his work, its literary quality, and especially his astonishing inventiveness with form also make him one of the major Italian writers of the twentieth century.
His works from beginning to end focus insistently on the issue of communication. The challenges to communication within Auschwitz—and about Auschwitz after the liberation of the camp—provide him the basis for a fundamental investigation of the possibilities and limitations of human language as an accurate vehicle of meaning. He conceived the project of writing about the experience of the camp while still in Auschwitz. Fiercely committed to accuracy, he deployed in the task of writing not only his astonishing memory—he claims and displays virtually total recall—but notes that he made at the risk of his life while still in Auschwitz. Already aware of the suppression of truth that the Nazis intended and the massive destruction of records as the camps were abandoned by the Germans, aware too of the strain on "normal" canons of credibility that the story of the camps would involve, Levi insists in his preface to his first book (Survival in Auschwitz ) that "none of the facts [that he reports] is invented."
Levi was fundamental in conceiving and developing the literature of witness. He produced writings of this category over the course of his career, most taking the form of narratives. His style is by purpose and habit strikingly lucid in denotation and restrained in tone. He was a chemist committed to using language in ways that are clear, direct, and controlled. He also believed that if people interested in communicating about the experience and meaning of the disaster addressed one another out of the waves of anger and guilt roused by the events, they would drown one another in the tides of their emotions. He therefore purposed to write in a restrained style in order to open up a space for quiet thought and conversation about the implications of those events for our self-understanding as humans. Critics, especially those who read his work in translations, which necessarily miss the subtle play of tones—particularly irony and understatement—that characterizes his writings, often remark with surprise that he could write about events and experiences that horrific so unemotionally, dispassionately, and objectively. But restraint, not lack of emotional response, is what is at stake. Certain phrases, even in the prose works, do display in a flash the depth of the emotions he personally feels, from profound anger, to disgust, to sad and castigating dismissal of disclaimers of responsibility on the part of those who committed or allowed the atrocities. His verse, comprising some 80 poems, of which he says that he composed in verse only to say things he could not say in prose, contains passages of more overt immense anger, as well as passages of great sorrow and compassion. The restraint in the prose writings was tactical, vicarious, in the service of effective communication and thought—and arguably cost him enormously. He believed firmly that Shoah was not just a Jewish disaster but a disaster for and of all humankind and that all have a duty to consider and be responsible for the lessons to be drawn from it. Called by Jean Améry once "the forgiver," Levi was anything but sentimental. He believed that forgiveness was a moral impertinence without remorse and a change in life in those who did wrong, and he did not see that those who did the wrong were in fact asking forgiveness.
The first two of his writings were first-person narratives, memoirs of and reflections on the experience of the camp and of the journey home to Torino. Levi was a master of choosing exemplary instances of human response to the pressure of the camps and characteristically renders these in studied pairs or triplets. His ability to present an anecdote that opens on a whole world of moral complexity or fixes subtly a personality or an attitude is virtually without parallel. One of the features that makes his work a challenge, though enormously evocative and insightful, is that experience at times is expressed through allusion to works read in the course of his own education or later in life. Dante, for example, is often a point of reference, and some of Levi's stylistic traits show the impact of The Divine Comedy. His literary references are always self-aware and carefully chosen and crafted, however, and mark not only literary indebtedness but, at times, moral distance. In perhaps the most strikingly profound of all his chapters, "The Canto of Ulysses," Dante's poem plays a central part, but one in which, while implying the greatness of the poem and the ways in which it configures Italian identity, he at the same time suggests the negative implications for a Jew of that poem's conception of God and the relations of that concept with the historical experience of Shoah.
Levi was deeply aware of the complex relations between fact, truth, and fiction and was scrupulous in notifying his reader when a work of his should be read as fact and when not. One of the century's most subtle and effective explorations of the art of speaking and the art of listening is one of his works of "fiction," The Monkey's Wrench. The concerns of communication after and about Auschwitz are present sustainedly, even if subtly, in this work that fractures Levi's own voice into two, those of himself and an alter ego, Faussone. Levi refused, as a witness, to be boxed—by doubters and, finally, by those who had committed the atrocities—into writing only works of "fact." One of the most striking of his works, If Not Now, When? is openly a sort of historical novel. He knew the conditions generally of resistance in Russia and the Jews' place in that resistance, he knew stories. But he was not a witness personally. Because no one was telling that story, however, its truth was being lost, and Levi openly dared to write fiction on this subject in order to tell that truth. He refused, in short, to defer to the cynical question "If Levi could write such compellingly plausible fiction as a work of witness, might he not have been fabricating in works in which he claimed to be reporting facts—things which 'have been'?"
In his last great work of witness, The Drowned and the Saved, he reversed the balance between narrative and analysis characteristic of his earlier works and wrote what is mostly an intense, solemn, and brilliant analysis of major issues arising from the experience of the disaster, infixing illustrative narrative as he felt that to be effective and helpful.
Levi was emphatic in his insistence that with scrupulous attention and honest intention, humans can communicate effectively about experience. He was dedicated to the notion that we must try to deploy our understanding and good will to try to avoid a repetition—in some form, with some people, in some way—of the disaster, a possibility, as he thought, that always threatens if we do not guard our laws, our customs, our speech. The danger is that they may become the means to the outworking of the maxim that he thinks is deep in many people and many nations: "every stranger is an enemy." When that maxim, he believed, becomes the major premise of a social syllogism of fear and hatred, at the end of that logical chain lies the Lager. An atheist ("There is Auschwitz, hence there cannot be God. I do not find a solution to the dilemma. I look for it, but I do not find it."), he was, as best understood, neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Perhaps the best image for his view of the world, in light of the crematoria of Auschwitz, is that his view is binocular: through one lens he sees the possibility of the world as one of warmth, home, friends, peace; through the other he sees the world of the lords of death. The world itself is neither possibility by nature or in itself. The bridge between the two lenses would then be human choice—the will to decency or to malice. He writes in order to give testimony to the reality of the world of the lords of death and to urge that we through understanding try to create a world of decency and respect.
Aside from his primary works of witness, his novels, short stories, and verse, he wrote a large number of occasional pieces as a columnist for the Torinese newspaper La stampa. These are characteristically marked by the huge and curious range of a never-resting intelligence, by a mordant if gentle irony, a delicious wit, and, along with a deep note of sadness, a will to cheer.
—Ralph G. Williams
See the essays on The Drowned and the Saved, If Not Now, When?, The Periodic Table, The Reawakening, and Survival in Auschwitz.
Italian author and chemist Primo Levi (1919-1987) was considered one of the foremost writers of concentration camp literature. He recounted with objective, scientific precision and detail the horrors of his year spent in Auschwitz. His focus, in life and in literature, was to promote understanding through memory and testimony, to respond to the "greatest crime of the century" with intelligence and humanity.
Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, on July 31, 1919 to an intellectual Jewish family. Levi's grandfather was an engineer, as was his father, Cesare Levi, who encouraged his son's interests in a wide variety of cultural pursuits, giving him access to a well furnished home library. The father-son relationship was complex in that Levi's introverted personality often contrasted with his father's more extroverted, exuberant nature. In any case, Levi recognized in his father the man responsible for his great interest in the arts, literature, and particularly the sciences. Levi's mother was also an avid reader and was well acquainted with her husband's interests. In his younger sister Levi found both a best friend and deep affection. Certainly, Levi's home and family was conducive to an intellectual life.
Levi's schooling contained both positive and negative experiences. During his first year at the Massimo D'Azeglio school he was forced, because of his physical frailness, to study privately. Nonetheless, he was a model student, and when he returned to school he won the admiration of his teachers and, consequently, aroused the envy of his peers. His Jewish origins often set him apart from the other students, and he frequently found himself the victim of aggression, targeted also because of his slight physical constitution. During high school he studied literature with academic success, yet his principal interests were clearly directed more toward scientific disciplines. He discovered a love for the rigor of scientific research and, completely unaware of his literary talents, decided to become a scientist.
Levi was an enthusiastic reader throughout his life. Two important influences on his later scientific works were Jack London and Jules Verne. During high school, in addition to the classics and Dante, for whom Levi had a passion, he read Mann, Flaubert, Hugo, Conrad, Kafka, and others. After his concentration camp experience, Levi found Mann to have been a sign of Germany's positive value, a reason to refrain from passing universal judgment on the German people. Levi also enjoyed North American writers and contemporary Italian narrative, particularly Alberto Moravia's Gli indifferenti (The Indifferent Ones) for its comment on the degradation of the Italian bourgeoisie during fascism.
Levi's university years marked his decision to dedicate his studies to science. In 1937, at age 17, he enrolled in the University of Turin's department of chemistry. His university career began happily, with great academic success and interaction with other students, both Jewish and non-Jewish. But in 1938 the Italian anti-Jewish racial laws went into effect under Mussolini's Fascist regime. According to the new measures, Italian Jews were forbidden to teach and enroll in all schools, and foreign Jews were not allowed to enroll in schools or keep a residence in Italy. This situation provoked a profound sense of isolation for Levi, yet despite all of these hardships he succeeded in graduating summa cum laude in 1941.
One of Levi's most significant friendships was with fellow chemistry student and anti-fascist Sandro DelMastro, who pushed Levi to develop his physical skills and resistance, almost as if in preparation for the life-threatening tests that he would later face in the Nazi Lager (concentration camp).
From 1941 to 1943 Levi worked under a false name as a chemist in northern Italy. During this period his father died. On September 8, Armistice Day, when the Italian Government fell, Levi fled to Torino where he was hidden by non-Jewish friends. He subsequently went to Val D'Aosta to join the "Justice and Liberty" movement. He was captured by the Fascist militia still collaborating with the German troops. The attack came in retaliation for a sortie by the partisans on the barracks of the Ivrea militia on December 13, 1943. Levi was fortunately able to rid himself of his false documents (which declared him to be Ferrero from Eboli) and was held prisoner for two months. He willingly admitted to being a Jew, as he assumed, mistakenly, that the admission to being a partisan meant sure death, and also because the Italians had promised not to turn any Jews over to the Germans. Levi was taken to Fossoli, near Modena, where he remained until February 22. The SS then arrived and took the 650 Jews of Fossoli to Auschwitz concentration camp. As he was leaving Italy, Levi managed to toss a postcard from the train. It reached his family, alerting them to the fact that he had been deported to Auschwitz (now in Poland).
Survival in Auschwitz, Levi's first work, recounts his experiences in the Nazi Lager with the detached objectivity of a scientist. Convinced that subjective commentary was unnecessary, Levi let the events and circumstances speak for themselves. He saw his duty as that of "bearing witness" and was confident that this work would serve as testimony to the atrocities committed there.
Levi remained in the concentration camp for approximately one year. He was freed January 27, 1945, when the Soviet's Red Army arrived. After a nine-month journey home, he wrote down his memories. He sent the result, Survival in Auschwitz, to the Einaudi Publishing Company, where Natalia Ginzburg rejected it. Also during this period Levi became technical director of a chemical industry in Turin and married a young Jewish woman, with whom he had two children, Lisa in 1948 and Renzo in 1957. In 1955 Levi took part in a conference on Nazi Lagers, after which he decided to resubmit his book to Einaudi. This time, in 1956, it was accepted by Luciano Foà. It was a great success and was translated into various languages. (In the United States it was published in 1960 under the title If This Is a Man.)
In 1961 Levi began writing The Reawakening, which he finished in December of 1962. This work tells the story of Levi's return to Italy via Eastern Europe. Published in 1963, it won the Campiello Prize the same year. Like Survival in Auschwitz, it enjoyed great success and was translated into six languages. In 1964 Survival in Auschwitz was adapted for and performed on radio, directed by Giorgio Bandini, followed by a theatrical version in November 1966 at the Carignano Theater of Turin, directed by Gianfranco DeBosio. In 1966 Levi's collection of short stories called Storie naturali was published, including works from 1952 to 1964, as well as a story from 1946. It was published under a pseudonym, Damiano Malabaila, as Levi felt that these stories didn't coincide with the serious tone of his concentration camp works. They are, in fact, of a science fiction nature, and won the Bagutta Prize in 1967.
One year later Levi wrote another collection, published in 1971 under his real name, called Vizio di forma, also a great success. English translations of stories from Vizio di forma and Storie naturali are collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales. In 1975 he published The Periodic Table, for which he won the Prato Prize for Resistance the same year. Later works include L'osteria di Brema (1975), a collection of poetry; The Monkey's Wrench (1978), winner of the Strega Prize in 1979; La ricerca delle radici (1981); Antologia personale (1981); Lilit e altri racconti (1981), published in English as Moments of Reprieve; If Not Now, When? (1982), which won him the Campiello Prize for the second time as well as the Viareggio Prize in 1982; Ad ora incerta (1984), poetry translated in Collected Poems, Other People's Trades (1985); and The Mirror Maker (1986). Levi's last work, The Drowned and the Saved (1986), takes its title from a chapter of Survival in Auschwitz and deals with the issues of survival, shame, and memory. It also contains a series of letters from German readers and Levi's responses to them.
Levi was an extraordinary figure in that he maintained his humanity inside the concentration camp and succeeded in resisting the temptation of hate and bitterness. He used his literary talents to "bear witness" to the inhuman experiences undergone in Auschwitz and sought to simply tell his story rather than pass judgment. On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi, for reasons unknown, ended his own life in Turin, Italy.
Various essay collections have been published on Levi's works. See, for instance, Reason and Light, Susan Tarrow, ed. (1990), as well as Primo Levi: Il presente del passato (1991), Alberto Cavaglion, editor. Ferdinando Camon's Conversations with Primo Levi is essential for understanding Levi's outlook on life and his experiences. For a more detailed biography and discussion of his works, see Massimo Dini and Stefano Jesurum's Le opere e i giorni (1992) and Fiora Vincenti's Invito alla lettura di Primo Levi (1990).
Cicioni, Mirna, Primo Levi: bridges of knowledge, Oxford; Washington, DC: Berg Publishers, 1995.
Levi, Primo, The drowned and the saved, New York: Summit Books, 1988.
Levi, Primo, The drowned and the saved, New York: Vintage International, 1989, 1988.
Levi, Primo, If this is a man and The truce, Harmondsworth; New York etc.: Penguin, 1979.
Levi, Primo, The reawakening, New York: Collier Books, 1986; New York: Macmillan; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.
Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz: the Nazi assault on humanity, New York: Collier Books; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1993.
Levi, Primo, Survival in Auschwitz; and, The reawakening: two memoirs, New York: Summit Books, 1986. □
Primo Levi (1919–1987) was born to an assimilated Jewish family in Turin, Italy. In 1944, after training as a chemist, Levi joined a group of antifascist partisans, was captured, and was deported to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. He survived and returned to Turin in 1945, at which point he embarked on joint careers as an industrial chemist and an author, publishing the account of his experiences titled Se questo e un uomo (If this is a man) in 1947. The book, published in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz, is considered to be among the finest accounts of the death camps.
Levi retired from his work as a chemist in 1978 and fell to his death in his Turin apartment building on April 11, 1987. Debate continues about whether Levi, who experienced repeated bouts of depression, killed himself or fell by accident.
Throughout his work Levi stressed the connections between science, literature, and ethics. His use of chemistry as an inspiration for storytelling in The Periodic Table (1984) made scientists more attuned to literature and readers of literature more appreciative of science.
One theme unifying Levi's diverse essays and short stories is his belief in the importance and value of work. Levi believed that human beings are naturally constituted to need to work, to strive toward a goal and solve problems encountered in doing so. He emphasized the importance of practice and effort and saw science as a particularly important forum for the struggle to survive and grow.
Levi argued that technology does not necessarily alienate humanity from nature but can enhance the rapport between them. At the same time he emphasized the capacity of humanity for self-transformation, which necessarily means defying and altering nature. He believed that through its inventions humankind has turned its back on nature, damaging both people and the natural world but also improving the lot, and raising the stature, of individuals. Levi argued that one must learn from nature but that one also learns from struggling against it.
Levi eschewed both triumphalism and despair regarding humanity's prospects and the contributions to them made by science. He emphasized that progress will always be noisy, dangerous, and limited. However, because people are adaptable and capable of courage, reason, and strength, progress is possible. Levi celebrated the "cheerful strength" and "sober joy" connected with thought and invention, which allow human beings to endure and learn. He spoke of himself as a man sustained by curiosity about the world and emphasized the value of the inquiry that human curiosity fuels. However, he also acknowledged that the struggle to unlock the secrets of nature through measurement and categorization can be monstrous as well as heroic.
Levi, who was particularly worried by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, called on his fellow scientists and technicians to "return to conscience," to become aware of their immense and potentially sinister power. He insisted that science is not neutral; it either helps or harms human beings. Scientists should not stop doing research for fear of the possible negative consequences of their work, but they should concern themselves with the results of their work and avoid research that leads to immoral results. Scientists should resist the temptation of material rewards and intellectual stimulation, engage in work that will benefit and not harm their fellow human beings, and speak out against the misuse of science by others.
Levi's short stories often satirize the arrogance, ambition, and desire for control or enrichment that can lead scientists to ignore or abandon moral scruples in pursuing and applying knowledge. He warned against submissiveness to power and urged that "a precise moral consciousness" be instilled in scientists as part of their training; he also recommended that scientists take a sort of Hippocratic oath to do no harm (Levi 2001, pp. 71, 89–90).
Levi's reflections on the ethical dimension of science emphasize potential benefits as well as limitations, hope as well as danger, and the joys of discovery as well as moral responsibility. He believed that human beings are alone in a universe not made for their well-being and warned that although science gradually reveals the secrets of the cosmos, those secrets do not provide answers to "big questions" regarding the aims of human life; those answers can come only from within human beings. People's reason for being, he concluded, rests on their nature as, in the words Levi quoted from Pascal, "thinking reeds" who seek knowledge and excellence, and this quest is the source of human dignity.
JOSHUA L. CHERNISS
SEE ALSO Holocaust;Science, Technology, and Literature;Work;Scientific Ethics.
Levi, Primo. (Italian edition 1947; English edition 1961). Se questo e un uomo [Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi assault on humanity], trans. Stuart Woolf. New York: Collier. Reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Levi's first book, an account of, and meditation on, his experiences at Auschwitz.
Levi, Primo. (1966). Storie naturali. Selections published in English in The Sixth Day, trans. Raymond Rosenthal. Turin: Einaudi; London: Michael Joseph, 1990
Levi, Primo. (1971). Vizio di forma. Selections Published in English in The Sixth Day, trans. Raymond Rosenthal. Turin: Einaudi; London: Michael Joseph, 1990. A collection of short stories, many of them fantastic parables addressing the moral dimensions of science and technology.
Levi, Primo. (Italian edition 1975; English edition 1984). Il sistema periodico [The periodic table], trans. Raymond Rosenthal. Turin: Eidaudi; New York: Schocken. A collection of autobiographical tales and reflections, each one associated with and inspired by an element from the periodic table.
Levi, Primo. (Italian edition 1986; English edition 1989). Racconti e saggi [The mirror maker], trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Schocken. A collection of short stories and essays, many of them addressing the ethics of scientific work.
Levi, Primo. (2001). The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961–87, ed. Marco Belpoliti and Robert Gordon. New York: New Press.
Thomson, Ian. (2002). Primo Levi. London: Hitchison.
LEVI, PRIMO (1919–1987), Italian author. Levi was born in Turin and trained as a chemist, receiving his degree from the University of Turin three years after Mussolini had barred Jews from higher education. Although he had a bar mitzvah he was far from his Jewish background until the enactment of the Italian racial laws in 1938. After the German takeover of Italy in 1943, he fled to the north intending to join the partisans but was caught, imprisoned first at the Fossolo camp and in February 1944 sent to Auschwitz. "I was not a very good partisan," he said in an interview. Of that train trip he wrote: "Now in the hour of decision, we said to each other things that are never said among the living… everybody said farewell to life through his neighbor." He survived there for ten months, one of the very few on his transport to survive until liberation, partly due to his employment by the Germans as a chemist in the Buna Works. His number in the camp was 174517. He wrote: "We have been baptized, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die." Unlike most prisoners in the Auschwitz camp complexes, Levi did not leave on the death march. He stayed behind for ten days. The Germans abandoned the camp, fleeing from Soviet troops who arrived on January 27, 1945. Levi wrote of liberation: "Liberty. The breach in the barbed wire gave us a concrete image of it. To anyone who stopped to think, it signified no more Germans, no more selections, no work, no blows, no rollcalls, and perhaps, later, the return."
After the war he wandered for nine months, including journeys through Soviet Russia, before he got back to Turin, which he described in great detail in his 1963 work The Reawakening. Unlike most survivors, Levi had a home and a community to which he could return. He came back to the apartment his family had occupied for three generations and that he was to live in until his death. He wrote his works in the very room in which he was born. He resumed work as a chemist at the Turin paint factory siva where he managed the plant from 1961–74. His first book was Se questo è un uomo (1947; If This Is a Man, 1959) which described the Auschwitz extermination camp, and is regarded as a classic of Holocaust literature. The book was republished in 1961 under the title Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. He described his experience in Auschwitz with meticulous detail, with scientific precision and seemingly without pathos. Survivors were no heroes to Levi. They were simply survivors. In La Tregua (1963; The Truce, 1965; U.S. ed. The Reawakening, 1965), he told of his wanderings and unusual adventures on his return to Italy with rich detail. Levi broadened his scope in Storie naturali (1966), moralistic and fantastic tales published under the pseudonym of Damianos Malabaila. In 1979 he was awarded the Strega Prize, one of Italy's top literary awards. His autobiographical Il sistema periodico (1975; The Periodic Table, 1984), containing episodes named after the elements in the periodic chart, describes his ancestry and his own experiences. Se non ora, quando (1982; If Not Now, When?, 1985) is a novel telling the story of a Holocaust survivor crossing Europe after the war in order to reach Israel. The Drowned and the Saved appeared in 1986. Levi also wrote several volumes of short stories. He was regarded as one of the great Italian writers of the post-war period and by many as the man who offered the most telling depiction of Auschwitz. No one has described life in Auschwitz more directly, more objectively, with greater scientific precision. He was insistent that life inside the camps required a new language, a new way of speaking. "Our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man. In a moment with a prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; … Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, as we were, still remains."
Levi's work as a writer was gaining recognition just as he died. He was honored but retained the simple discipline of writing. Philip *Roth, who had brought many European Jewish writers to the attention of the American reading public said: "With moral stamina and intellectual poise of a 20th century titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest works of the most endearing human events and with the much contemptible."
In April 1987 he was found dead at the bottom of the stairwell in the apartment building where he was born and where he lived with his wife and mother. His son lived on the very same floor. Friends spoke of anxiety over the deteriorating condition of his mother, left paralyzed by a stroke. He had been depressed and had had a bout with cancer. His anti-depression drug had been changed and he had written of suicide. In writing of the Belgian writer Jean Amery, who had been in Auschwitz and wrote of torture starkly and eloquently and who himself had committed suicide, Levi quoted his famous aphorism: "He who was tortured, remains tortured. He who has suffered torment can no longer find his place in the world. Faith in humanity – cracked by the first slap across the face, then demolished by torture – can never be recovered." His death was considered by most a suicide; though others have disputed this account. But if it was a suicide then Levi has given a clue as to its reason. The period of the imprisonment of survivors "is the center of their life, the event that for better or worse has marked their entire existence."
H.S. Hughes, Prisoners of Hope (1983); Dizionario enciclopedico della letteratura italiana, 3 (1967), 383; I. Calvino, in: L'Unità (May 6, 1948); A. Cajumi, in: La Stampa (Nov. 26, 1957). add. bibliography: A. Stille, "Primo Levi: Reconciling the Man and the Writer," in: New York Times (July 5, 1987); L. Langer, Versions of Survival (1982).
[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]