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Temporary Note


Primo Levi

This section details Levi’s fiction and nonfiction, as well as eminent books written about Levi and his work. Most of the original commentary is devoted to his fiction. If anyone would like to submit reviews of his nonfiction or Levi-based criticism, please email us.

[Fiction & Stories] [Nonfiction] [Poetry & Interviews] [Bio & Criticism]



Fiction & Stories

The Sixth Day

(1966, Storie naturali)

Summit, 1990, ISBN 0671626175; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]

The first of Levi’s works of fiction to be published, The Sixth Day contains twenty-three short stories. Four of these stories (“Order on the Cheap,” “The Measure of Beauty,” “Full Employment,” “Retirement Fund”) concern a Mr. Simpson, a salesmen for the mysteriously named NATCA corporation. In each of these stories, Simpson approaches the first-person narrator (basically Levi himself; a trend that will continue throughout his work) with a different futuristic instrument. These devices include a mimer, which perfectly duplicates three dimensional objects; male and female Kalometers, which measure beauty; another device that allows Simpson to communicate and make business deals with dragonflies, bees, and ants; and finally the spectator, that allows the user to put on goggles and relive the experiences of others. (A striking 1960s vision of the computerized virtual reality technology that was developed in the 1990s.)
Given that these stories deal with imaginary or futuristic technology, they can be classified as science fiction. Many of the stories in The Sixth Day (and in The Mirror Maker) share this trait. However, Levi attempts to integrate this technology into the contemporary world as a single, explicable anomaly between that fictional world and the real world, thus making it seem less improbable. And despite the gee-whiz nature of the various gadgets, Levi’s purpose in introducing these devices into his stories is to explore the human reaction to the instruments and how the products might be used, and eventually misused, to the detriment of mankind. The use of the fantastic to examine humanity is a well-known literary device, whether found in Kafka and Borges, serious science fiction, or so-called magical realism. It is a device that Levi will use throughout his career, from the historical fantasy episodes found in The Periodic Table to the subtle wonders of The Monkey’s Wrench.
The relationship between Simpson and the narrator is an ambivalent one, friendly but frequently tested. In a sense, it is a precursor to the relationship between Faussone and the narrator of The Monkey’s Wrench. Simpson is much more of a doer than a thinker, as is Faussone relative to the narrator. It is in this contrast of characters, one spontaneous and one reserved, one innocent and one calculating, that Levi is allowed to inspect the use of these devices in two different lights.
Not all of the stories in The Sixth Day deal with Mr. Simpson’s futuristic devices. One of the most interesting stories, “Westward,” explores the biological imperative to live with a traditional scientific approach. It begins with a study of lemmings rushing into the sea. It is observed that, within the lemming population, there is a distribution of enthusiasm in the execution of this mass suicide. By capturing individuals across the distribution, the researchers are able to isolate a hormone in the laboratory, which dictates the biological imperative to survive. The researchers next begin to search through the human population for a similar hormone or lack thereof. Their search leads them to an isolated population of indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest.
During the entire story, Levi uses the investigation as a canvas upon which he can explore his own understanding of the purpose of existence and the motivation of people who continue to exist, even when they no longer perceive an ulterior purpose in their existence. The story is fundamentally a philosophical discussion of whether a biological or chemical imperative is sufficient to convince an existentialist to maintain their existence. On both the philosophical and the fictional level, the story is delightfully unique.


The Periodic Table

(1975, Il systema periodico)

Schocken, 1995, ISBN 0805210415; Paperback $12.95. [Browse/Purchase]

The Periodic Table is a collection of 21 short works, each named after an element from the periodic table. These works range from memoirs and essays (“Zinc,” “Potassium”) to short stories written in youth, lost then found again decades later (“Lead,” “Mercury”). In characterizing the work as a whole, Levi wrote:

The reader, at this point, will have realized for some time now that this is not a chemical treatise... Nor is it an autobiography, save in the partial and symbolic limits in which every piece of writing is autobiographical, indeed every human work; but it is in some fashion a history.

In all of the works, several recurring characteristics of this “history” are present. Foremost among these is the historical milieu of Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s, a time when being a Jew in Italy was, to say the least, difficult. In The Periodic Table, this difficulty presents itself in the limited opportunity Levi had to be educated in chemistry and, later on, to secure a position where he could practice it. He had to take whatever job he could find, and usually did so under a false name (“Nickel”), so as not to alert his employers to the fact of his Jewish heritage. The stories themselves blend this mix of the personal and the historical, and are narrated in the first person, a series of memoirs beginning from childhood. In this sense, we have a very individual history of Levi. In another, more general sense, the stories incorporate the history of the Jewish people in Italy – in “Argon,” Levi writes of his ancestors leading up to his grandparents and uncles.
Regardless of whether the individual works are memoirs, essays, or fiction, The Periodic Table is suffused with a reverence for work that would later characterize The Monkey’s Wrench, with its tales of Faussone the rigger. However, in The Periodic Table, the sense of dignity and respect is more personal, as the subject of the work is chemistry, with the elements and compounds that make up the entire earth and the people upon it. This reverence for work translates into a reverence for all things natural, and in fact life itself. In “Nitrogen,” Levi presents a diagram of alloxan:

Alloxan

Upon which he remarks:

It is a pretty structure isn’t it? It makes you think of something solid, stable, well-linked. In fact it happens also in chemistry as in architecture that “beautiful” edifices, that is, symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy: in short, the same thing happens with molecules as with the cupolas of cathedrals of the arches of bridges.

Despite Levi’s obvious scholarship and professional interest in chemistry, the works in The Periodic Table never come off as academic or didactic. For every digression into chemistry or the etymology of elemental names, Levi provides a very human explanation, and his reflective musings are always insightful. The stories have simple and engaging plots, and Levi himself serves as an excellent storyteller. Although some find postmodern elements in the mixture of fact and story, the boundaries are fairly well delineated, and the structure of the work is fairly traditional in its own way. The elements of postmodernism in The Periodic Table have more to do with the manner in which the inanimate elements themselves are presented as the motivation (if not the protagonists) of the stories. Levi is simply an observer, following the signs which they provide.

The Monkey’s Wrench

(1978, La chiave a stella)

1. Abacus, 1994, ISBN 0349100128; Hardcover, UK. Translated as The Wrench. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0140188924; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Aside from If Not Now, When?, which takes the form of a traditional novel, The Monkey’s Wrench is the only other one of Levi’s books to be generally labeled a novel. However, the criteria by which The Periodic Table is categorized as a collection of short stories and The Monkey’s Wrench as a novel are a bit ambiguous. Beyond the arbitrary choice made by the publisher to divide the former into distinct stories and the latter into chapters, there is really no structural difference (much less thematic difference) between the two volumes.
However, what is different is the style in which the work is narrated. Libertini Faussone, the fictional protagonist of The Monkey’s Wrench, is a “rigger;” a type of construction worker who directs the practical assembly of cranes and other equipment used in the construction of bridges, dams, and other industrial structures. Faussone has worked in various constructions sites all over the world, and the novel is anchored by these sites, which lie at the center of Faussone’s colorful tales. Although Faussone is at the center of the book, the first-person narration is again provided by an unnamed narrator with characteristics, education, and a history similar to Levi himself. Occasionally the rigger breaks from his stories and discusses them with the narrator, who in turn offers the reader his own commentary on the idiosyncratic Faussone. In this way, the authorial “Levi” narrator is placed between the reader and the actual protagonist. Although this deviation from the traditional form of the novel places The Monkey’s Wrench on an unusual literary plane, it can also be seen as a bridge between the immediate storytelling of The Periodic Table and the purely fictional characters and omniscient viewpoint of If Not Now, When? By this token, the most “postmodern” of Levi’s books may be seen as a transition between two more traditional forms, rather than the result of a particular style evolving towards greater degrees of experimentation. Which is not to undermine either the work’s creative genius or its charming uniqueness. Levi performs wonders with the stories themselves, achieving the perfect balance of storytelling, characterization, and reflection. Just how Levi does this calls for a closer look.
Neither the entire novel nor the individual tales follow the traditional pattern of introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution. Nor do the stories have much in the way of plot. Yet despite this lack of active movement, two mechanisms serve to keep the reader suspended in a state of curious engagement. The more obvious, though less important of the two, emerges through Faussone’s description of the various problems that he’s encountered in his work. As each story progresses, the reader wants to learn if a remedy to the problem exists, and if it does, just what form the solution will take. If a solution does not exist, we’re morbidly drawn to know the magnitude of the resulting disaster. For example, when Faussone describes a job building a bridge in India for which he hung the suspension cables, numerous hints are provided to the reader that the project ended in disaster. Exactly how that disaster will manifest is the central question that permits suspense to build despite Faussone’s leisurely pace in unfolding the story.
The second way that Levi keeps his reader actively engaged is through the careful building up on the character of Faussone. The gradual revealing, story by story and layer by layer, of Faussone’s personality is what proves to be ultimately satisfying about The Monkey’s Wrench. Levi takes great relish in the unveiling of his storyteller, and that delight is transmitted directly to the reader, often through rapport with his literary double, the narrator. For example, after a discussion where Faussone and the narrator compare the trades of a rigger and a writer, Levi writes,

We agreed then on the good things we have in common. On the advantage of being able to test yourself, not depending on others in the test, reflecting yourself in your work. On the pleasure of seeing your creature grow, beam after beam, bolt after bolt, solid, necessary, symmetrical, suited to its purpose; and when it’s finished you look at it and you think that perhaps it will longer than you, and perhaps it will be of use to someone you don’t know, who doesn’t know you. Maybe, as an old man, you’ll be able to come back and look at it, and it will seem beautiful, and it doesn’t really matter so much that it will seem beautiful only to you, and you can say to yourself, “maybe another man wouldn’t have brought it off.”

It is through a reader’s identification with Faussone that The Monkey’s Wrench ultimately either succeeds or fails. By basing the movement of the novel on character development rather than plot, Levi plays a dangerous game. If the reader feels apathy or even hostility towards the protagonist, the book will undoubtedly fail, or at the very least, will be set down unfinished. What is particularly tricky here is that identifying with Faussone requires a certain moral and ethical identification as well – one imagines the reader must share an appreciation of the protagonist’s actual character. Faussone values experience above education, effort above result, and work above leisure. He prizes honesty of intention and despises laggards and corner-cutters. Faussone’s judgment of men is based upon a single criterion: Are they honestly devoted to their work? A man’s worth is judged by the degree of care and effort that he puts into his work. All other personality traits, whether virtues or vices, are only minor details to Faussone. While some readers may find this ethic quite agreeable, one can just as easily imagine a reader who may feel placed at a distance by it. A reader who judges people by different criteria may find fault with Faussone’s tolerance of vice, so long as the man is true to his work. His provincial attitudes may also serve to alienate some readers. An example of this can be found in Faussone’s view of women. Faulkner wrote, “A woman is just a woman to you part of the time – the rest of the time, she’s just someone who hasn’t learned to look at things the way a man has learned to.” While Faussone would never make such a direct statement himself, by his attitude and the stories he tells, the reader understands that his view of women is something close to a more benevolent version of Faulkner’s statement.
Yet one of the things that makes this work interesting – and cohesive – is that Faussone, a relatively uneducated construction worker, and the narrator, a university-trained chemist, share virtually the same life philosophy. Both men perceive the opportunity to partake in good work as the ultimate pleasure this life has to offer. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Faussone’s description of a bad day:

That’s right: There are days when everything goes wrong...Then you begin to ask yourself questions, maybe even questions that don’t make any sense, like for example, what are we in this world for? And if you think about it, you surely can’t answer that we’re in the world to rig towers. Right? In other words, when you break your neck for twelve days, putting everything you’ve got into the job, and you sweat and freeze and curse, and then you begin to have doubts, and they gnaw at you, and you check, and the job is crooked, and you can hardly believe it because you don’t want to believe it, but then you check again, and sure enough, the dimensions are screwed up, then you want to know what happens. Then a man changes his way of thinking; and he begins to think that nothing’s worth the effort, and he’d like to have another kind of job, and at the same time he thinks that all jobs are the same, and that world is also crooked, even if we can go to the moon now, and it’s always been crooked, and nobody’s ever going to straighten it up, and least of all a rigger.

For Faussone and Levi, work is life and life is work. Faussone summarizes this perspective when he says, “You have to take what life offers. I mean what the factory offers.” And again, when he says, “For me, every job I take is like a first love.”
A second aspect by which The Monkey’s Wrench deviates from the traditional novel, as well as Levi’s previous work, can be found in the language of Faussone, the storyteller. In the narrator’s own words, “He’s not a great story-teller.” Faussone digresses frequently and often quite lengthily, and his speech is filled with stock clichés. While the narrator acts as a translator, rendering Faussone’s dialogue into readable print, he is careful not to edit out Faussone’s mannerisms, which provide color and depth to the story. At the same time, he balances Faussone’s rambling, rustic tone with his own careful, concise descriptions of the storyteller himself. In a sense, Levi is forced to maintain a precarious balancing act between the two extremes in terms of descriptive style. That the book reads effortlessly is a testament to Levi’s skill at seamlessly blending Faussone’s stories with “his own” commentary.
So, what ultimately makes The Monkey’s Wrench hold a special place in the world of literature is Levi’s ability to transform into a masterpiece a series of stories that are not only essentially plotless tales about work, but related by an inferior storyteller as well. Despite the fact that we can recognize this transformation as the crux by which Levi’s magic works, it is nevertheless difficult to identify the specific mechanism or mechanisms by which the transformation operates.
Perhaps an examination could begin by returning to Levi’s experiences in the Nazi camps. In Auschwitz, work was life, both literally and figuratively. On a starkly realistic level, Levi was allowed to survive solely due to his ability to work as an industrial chemist. On a more imaginative level, only by focusing on his work could Levi find solace and retreat from the horror of the world surrounding him. Upon emerging from the concentration camp in 1945, Levi retained these habits, struggling to find a personal meaning that could give justification to a life where horror is an undeniable reality. On some plane, life was so fantastic and full of wonder that it must outweigh all the negative things he had witnessed. Because he believed that such an aspect existed, the effort he put into his search was inexhaustible. The answer to his search is difficult to verbalize, but it was found in the minute structure and detail of this life. Work was for him a way to engage this structure and detail and to lose himself in the vast wonder of the complexities of the world in which we live. Work was something which would accept and reward a lifetime of devotion. Work and devotion to work, no matter how menial, no matter if physical, intellectual, or imaginative, was something he could transform into poetry.
Levi is not alone in his adoration of work. Donald Barthelme, in his own sardonic way, has written a eulogy to work in the short story, “Our Work And Why We Do It” (Amateurs, 1976). Throughout this story, Barthelme investigates detail only, fragments; never the entirety. It is in the details of work and of life that he finds wonder. He equates his work to art and concludes, “Our reputation for excellence is unexcelled, in every part of the world. And will be maintained until the destruction of our art by some other art which is just as good but which, I am happy to say, has not yet been invented.”
In a completely different tone, the American poet, Philip Levine, also has numerous eulogies to work which echo Levi’s sentiments. In poems spanning the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Levine describes the relationship between work and life. Although Levine frequently focuses on the numbing and repetitive industrial jobs of his native Detroit, he arrives at the same conclusion as Faussone, although from the opposite direction. Levine never comes right out and says that a man’s life is defined by his relationship to work, even if the work is onerous, and by extension that the man himself is defined by his work. Rather, Levine describes various details of the work and details of the man outside the work. The reader is left to bridge the two. In the poem, “Buying and Selling” (A Walk With Tom Jefferson, 1988), Levine writes:

All the way across the Bay Bridge I sang
to the cool winds buffeting my Ford,
for I was on my way to a life of buying
untouched drive shafts, universal joints,
perfect bearings so steeped in Cosmoline
they could endure a century and still retain
their purity of functional design, they
could outlast everything until like us
their usefulness became legend and they
were transformed into sculpture.

Though Faussone is not so eloquent, it is a sentiment I think he would approve.

If Not Now, When?

(1982, Se non ora, quando?)

Penguin, 2000, ISBN 014118390X; Paperback $17.70. [Browse/Purchase]

If Not Now, When? is Levi’s most conventional novel, complete with a cast of characters and an omniscient narrative viewpoint. Although a clear break from the style of his last two works, what the novel may lack in narrative invention it gains in depth and breadth of content and mastery of characterization, and many consider it to be Levi’s masterpiece.
Beautifully written and emotionally direct, the story concerns a group of Jewish partisans, refugees from the War who undertake an odyssey from Russia through Eastern Europe down to Italy, their ultimate goal an escape to Palestine. During their voyage they engage in Resistance actions against the Germans, come across the painful reality of the Nazi camps, and generally engage in universal human activities such as bickering, bonding, and sharing stories. Though based more from records and stories of partisans than Levi’s actual experiences, all the hallmarks of Levi’s humanity are still present – his humor and warmth; his delight at the world and its many fragile wonders; his insights into cruelty, suffering, and hope; and his love of storytelling. As with the tales of Faussone and The Periodic Table, the stories of the partisans often reveal a sense of poetic insight which occasionally approaches the mysterious truths of magical realism. (Such as in the story that opens the novel, where the Germans claim the rifle that a town used to signal the hour, “and the village was left without any time.”)
The title of the book comes from a quote by Hillel in The Sayings of the Fathers: “If am not for myself, who will be for me? If am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?”

The Mirror Maker

(1986, Racconti e sacci)

Schocken, 1989, ISBN 0805240764; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]

The Mirror Maker is divided into two sections, “Stories” and “Essays.” The very short stories are a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. “The Interview” describes an alien conducting an interview with a man walking home late at night. “The Great Mutation” involves a girl who sprouts wings. This is followed by interviews with a gull, a mole, and a giraffe. The stories seem to be a relatively broad collection that span decades and styles. Some of the stories are fragmentary pieces that lack introduction, plot, and conclusion. Others follow a more traditional approach.
Taken as a whole, the tales in The Mirror Maker are much weaker than the stories found in The Periodic Table and The Monkey’s Wrench. Quick and easy to read, they are mostly sparse, and can occasionally come across as unfinished. Although many are enjoyable, and perhaps insightful, there is little more than entertainment (sometimes not even that) to be taken from them. In fact, in the “Premise,” Levi seems to discourage interpretation beyond the literal, writing:

I beg the reader not to go in search of messages. It is a term that I detest because it distresses me greatly, for it forces on me clothes that are not mine, which in fact belong to a human type that I distrust; the prophet, the soothsayer, the seer. I am none of these; I’m a normal man with a good memory who fell into a maelstrom and got out of it more by luck than by virtue, and who from that time on has preserved a certain curiosity about maelstroms large and small, metaphorical and actual.

This premise is somewhat misleading, as the stories barely approach the level of even small metaphorical maelstroms! However, beneath the calm tone of melancholy with which Levi relates them, one may indeed hear the tone of precisely a man who has been through a maelstrom. Still, it is something of a disappointment after the ingenuity of the tales collected in his earlier volumes, and the sharp and poignant characterizations of his novel just a few years previous to this collection.
As for the essays in The Mirror Maker, they are Levi’s observations on such things as the moon landing, how spiders make silk, Jack London, his own translation of Kafka’s The Trial, and so on. While also enjoyable at times, none of the essays are particularly meritorious, and like the stories, are interesting only in the light of Levi’s other accomplishments. If you stumbled across one of these essays in a newspaper, as they were originally intended, it might get your attention as a solid and interesting piece; certainly above-average. However, when gathered together in a collection, they lose their individual sparkle and tend towards homogeneity.

A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories

Norton, 2007, ISBN 0393064689; Hardcover, $21.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

Holocaust memoirist Levi (1919–1987) also wrote small fiction sketches, reminiscent of contemporaries Dino Buzzatti and Italo Calvino, for periodicals, collected here and introduced by Goldstein. Of two realistic pieces that recall The Periodic Table and Survival in Auschwitz, one concerns the last minute in the life of a resistance fighter whose act against his German captors would today be called a suicide bombing. Transparent political allegories, of the kind that were fashionable in the Cold War period up to the late ‘60s, predominate. In the slighter of the 17 works, a miraculous paint is developed to replace lucky charms, and a Mad Max-like look at sports of the future describes tourneys conducted between men armed with hammers and cars. “The Molecule’s Defiance” concerns the inexplicable spoiling of a batch of synthetic chemical, eerie in its description of a monstrous, gelatinizing mass expanding rapidly in a reactor, as though revolting against its human makers. While these pieces (published in Italian from 1949 to 1986) don’t really stand on their own, they shed further light on Levi’s life and work. © Reed Business Information


Nonfiction

Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity

(1947, Se questo è un uomo)

Touchstone, 1995, ISBN 0684826801; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Survival in Auschwitz is the English translation of If This Is a Man, Levi’s first Holocaust memoir. From the publisher:

In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-old chemist and “Italian citizen of Jewish race,” was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from his native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi’s classic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic cruelty and miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion, and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit. Included in this new edition is an illuminating conversation between Philip Roth and Primo Levi never before published in book form.

The Reawakening: A Survivor’s Journey Home from Auschwitz

(1958, La tregua)

Touchstone, 1995, ISBN 0684826356; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Published in 1958 as La tregua, or “The Truce,” Levi’s postwar memoir has been translated in English as The Reawakening. It tells the story of his harrowing voyage back to Italy from Auschwitz.

If This Is a Man/The Truce

(1947, Se questo è un uomo/1958, La tregua)

1. Abacus, 1991, ISBN 0349100136; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Everyman’s Library, 2000, ISBN 1857152220; Hardcover, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]

A combination book collecting both If This Is a Man and The Truce, also published as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening respectively.

Moments of Reprieve

(1981, Lilit e altri racconti)

Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0140188959; Paperback $11.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

Published simultaneously with the reissue of Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, this new memoir presents 15 additional portraits of unforgettable characters the author encountered at Auschwitz. In Levi’s “moments of reprieve” which he describes as “bizarre, marginal moments of truce” he encountered Wolf, a Berlin pharmacist who had scabies but didn’t scratch; Ezra, the cantor who insisted that his soup ration be saved while he fasted on Yom Kippur; Joel, a blond Jew with a German accent who crossed Europe without being harmed by the Gestapo but was imprisoned by the British in Palestine; Avrom, an innocent young soldier of fortune who became a hero of the Resistance; Grigo, a Gypsy who paid with bread for having an undeliverable letter written; and Rumkowski, chief of the Lodz ghetto, who rode to Auschwitz in a private car. © Reed Business Information

Other People’s Trades

(1985, L’altrui mestiere)

1. Summit, 1989, ISBN 0671611496; Hardcover, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Abacus, 1990, ISBN 034910185X; Paperback, UK. [Browse/Purchase]

Other People’s Trades is a collection of 44 essays written approximately from 1969 to 1985, many of them collected from his published columns in the Turin newspaper, La Stampa. The subjects of the essays range through entomology, astronomy, chemistry, and literary theory, all mixed with personal recollections. In all of the essays, the common thread is Levi’s unique, reflective tone, which can sound both optimistic and yet curiously ambivalent at the same time.
The essays are also notable in that they may signal a darkening change in Levi’s general outlook. In “News from the Sky,” an essay on the scientific progress in understanding the sky and its celestial occupants, Levi writes:

The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and the infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return to barbarism.

Levi’s statement is loaded with flagrantly anti-egalitarian notions – a trait conspicuously absent in such works as The Monkey’s Wrench, where the rigger Faussone is honored for the lowly but pure work that he performs. That Levi puts the judgment of the worth of humanity in the twentieth-century in the hands of scientists is a statement sure to provoke debate. But the motivation behind the statement, the contemplation of the uncertain future of humanity, is a ubiquitous element in the development of postmodern fiction. The destruction of classical human truths (such as the distinction and sovereignty of man over other animals, the indivisibility of the atom, the special place of the Sun and the Earth in the universe) gave strength to the impulse to question everything, which led to the birth of postmodernism and the experimental abandonment of classical literary forms and formulae.
Levi expounds on this uncertainty with greater candor in “Eclipse of the Prophets.” This universal uncertainty is both a boon and a bane. It is bane because, as Levi writes, “A good part of our malaise comes therefore, I believe, from the extreme unknowability of the future, which discourages every long-term project of ours.” On the other hand, uncertainty is a blessing because it frees us from the limitations of our past, and allows the collective promise of improving (perhaps only serendipitously) the world of the present.
Included in Other People’s Trades are essays that address literature. In “Why does one write?,” Levi answers his title question in nine parts. Although only a summary of these answers is provided here, Levi’s answers serve as a wonderfully concise statement to his entire career.

Why does one write?

Because one feels the drive and the need to do so.
To entertain oneself and others.
To teach something to someone.
To improve the world.
To make one’s ideas known.
To free oneself from anguish.
To become famous.
To become rich.
Out of habit.

The Drowned and the Saved

(1986, I sommersi e i salvati)

1. Vintage, 1989, ISBN 067972186X; Paperback $12.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Abacus, 1991, ISBN 0349100470; Paperback, UK. [Browse/Purchase]

From Library Journal:

Renowned Italian author Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, finished this contemplation of the Holocaust before his death in 1987. Observing a general loss of understanding about Nazi Germany as time passes and eyewitnesses die, he asks, “How much of the concentration camp world is dead? . . . What can each of us do so that in this world pregnant with threats at least this threat will be nullified?” Levi’s answer is a thoughtful analysis of the process that was the camps, and his chilling conclusions about the conditions that created them are uncomfortably relevant to current events.


Poetry & Interviews

Collected Poems

Faber & Faber, 1992, ISBN 0571165397; Paperback, Out of print. [Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

Readers moved by Levi’s penetrating autobiographical accounts of the Holocaust will equally esteem these harrowing poems assembled before his suicide in 1987. Embedded here is profoundly felt outrage, made all the more piercing by Levi’s locating his experience of this uniquely appalling historical moment within a hallowed, unbroken literary tradition through the use of frequent quotations or allusions (such as to Dante). Poems written in late 1945 and early ‘46 record the painful yearning of the prisoner of Auschwitz simply to walk “sweet beneath the sun”; the burden of the liberated; inescapable grief and horror “That taint your bread and wine / Lodge every evening in your heart”; and a longing for a justice impossible to reckon. Among the most wrenching is a 1984 poem expressing the guilt of the survivor, who says to the ghosts of the murdered, “Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone, / Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread. / No one died in my place. No one.”; and a 1983 poem that links the poet’s mortality to the discharging of his mission to “tell the story”: “What to do now? How to detach yourself? / With every work that’s born you die a little.” © Reed Business Information

Conversations with Primo Levi

By Ferdinando Camon, et al.
Marlboro Press, 1989, ISBN 0-910395-48-9; Paperback $9.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From the publisher:

Beginning in 1982 and at intervals over the next four years Ferdinando Camon traveled to Turin for a series of meetings with Primo Levi. This book is the record of their dialogues. Levi spoke of the war, of anti-Semitism, of the camps, of German guilt, of Israel’s emergence, and of his own extraordinary life and work. The give-and-take of the discussion, its tone, its lucidity, its intelligence, lift it well above the level and format of the usual journalistic interview with a celebrated author.

The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961-1987

By Primo Levi, et al.
New Press, 2001, ISBN 1565847113; Paperback $17.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

Primo Levi’s (1919-1987) Survival in Auschwitz (originally translated as If This Is a Man) is now almost universally recognized as one of the great masterworks of Holocaust literature. With this collection of interviews drawn from the course of more than a quarter of a century, Levi can now be recognized not only as a writer of the Holocaust but as a seminal thinker of the 20th century. Belpoliti, who is editing Levi’s collected works, and Gordon, a lecturer in Italian at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, have added interviews not found in the original Italian edition of this book. Among the more than two dozen pieces here, there is, of course, the famous 1986 interview with Philip Roth as well as the more comprehensive “self-interview” that appeared in the 1986 English edition of Survival in Auschwitz. American readers will discover for the first time the wide range of Levi’s thinking, from science fiction and poetry to Judaism and the role of the intellectual in contemporary society. American readers will be intrigued by Levi’s detachment from his ancestral religion (he “was turned into a Jew by others”) and perhaps outraged by his criticism of Israel. What will come as a surprise is his politics: Levi was a democratic socialist, a point often (in fact almost always) overlooked in the substantial body of criticism concerning his work and life. Levi offers no facile answers to the moral catastrophe of the Holocaust or modern consciousness: “I am a centaur... I am split in two,” he said in a 1966 interview. Inevitably there is some repetition, as the interviews often cover the same ground. As Levi recognized, the Holocaust will inevitably recede into history. As it does we will come to recognize and appreciate his writing and life all the more, for he represents one of the most humane, fertile and powerful responses to the barbarity of an age. © Reed Business Information


Primo Levi Criticism

Understanding Primo Levi

By Nicholas Patruno
University of South Carolina Press, 1995, ISBN 157003026X; Hardcover $34.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Part of the “Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature” series. From the publisher:

Primo Levi emerged from the Holocaust as one of the most powerful voices to bear witness to the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. Italian by birth and Jewish by ancestry, this young chemist survived Auschwitz and later, with his sober retelling of the horrific experience, consecrated the memory of millions who perished there. Among the most widely read contemporary Italian writers in the United States, all of his major works are available in English. In this companion to these works, Nicholas Patruno analyzes Levi’s novels, short stories, and essays to reveal a writer who eloquently evoked the soul of the persecuted Jew but who never came to terms with the guilt of his own survival.

The Tragedy of an Optimist

By Myriam Anissimov
Overlook Press, 1999, ISBN 1585670200; Paperback $18.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

At Auschwitz, Levi once broke off an icicle to relieve his desperate thirst, only to have it snatched away by a German guard. “Warum?” he asked, and the guard retorted, “Here there’s no why.” This first biography of Levi, who died an apparent suicide in 1987, begins with the compelling problem of why a man who was able to turn even his Auschwitz experience into a reason to live (in his mission to bear witness to others), would suddenly choose to end his own life. Unfortunately, this is another “why?” that can't be answered, or at least isn’t here, as this book swerves away from close attention to Levi’s later life, which might have supplied the most relevant material. The story is extraorindary, nonetheless. Levi was an assimilated Jewish chemist in a prewar Italy mostly free from anti-Semitism; it was only after Mussolini’s accommodation of the Nazis that his yellow star and tattoo made him a Jew (as the hideous irrationality of the gas chambers made him a writer). Even at Auschwitz, Levi recorded observations like a good chemist, furnishing Anissimov with her best source material. One thing is clear: the camps left Levi scarred and suffering from “the survivors’ disease,” as he came to feel at times that “the best all died” in the camps. Although Anissimov usefully identifies the creative fictionalizations in Levi’s wartime narratives, she fails to delve into his troubled postwar years. Levi’s wife, Lucia, remains a shadow, and the couple’s family life – they cared for their 90-ish mothers, one senile, the other blind, in their flat in Turin until the end – is never clearly evoked. © Reed Business Information

Holocaust Literature: Schulz, Levi, Spiegelman and the Memory of the Offence

Gillian Banner
Mitchell Vallentine & Company, 2000, ISBN 0142002380; Paperback $27.95. [
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Part of the “Parkes-Wiener” series. From the publisher:

Influenced by her social work practice and belief that remembrance of past injustice is essential for a civilized society, Banner (English literature, Sheffield U.) studies the dynamics of memory in relation to Holocaust representations. She focuses on the works of three generations of writers: Bruno Schultz, whose surreal stories presaged Nazism; Auschwitz chronicler Primo Levi; and Art Spiegelman, son of Holocaust survivors, whose comic books demonstrate that this genre can seriously convey the Shoah and its legacy.

Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness

Roberta S. Kremer, editor
State University of New York Press, 2001, ISBN 079144922X; Paperback $21.95. [
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Part of the “Suny Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture” series. From the publisher:

Carefully examines the work of Primo Levi, one of the premier survivor-writers of the Holocaust and one of the outstanding Italian writers of the twentieth century. Artists, writers, and educators have all turned to Levi’s writing as a source of inspiration and wisdom in coping with the tragedy of the Holocaust. Until recently, however, there have been few book-length works in English on Levi. This collection of essays from an international group of writers aims to bring greater critical attention to Levi’s work by exploring all aspects of his oeuvre, including his science-fiction writings and his poetry, as well as his fictional and nonfictional writings about the Holocaust. Interdisciplinary in nature, this collection includes literary, psychoanalytic, linguistic, and historical approaches to Levi’s work.

Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival

Frederic D. Homer
University of Missouri, 2001, ISBN 0826213383; Hardcover $44.95. [
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From the Publisher:

At the age of twenty-five, Primo Levi was sent to Hell. Levi, an Italian chemist from Turin, was one of many swept up in the Holocaust of World War II and sent to die in the German concentration camp in Auschwitz. Of the 650 people transported to the camp in his group, only 15 men and 9 women survived. After Soviet liberation of the camp in 1945, Levi wrote books, essays, short stories, poetry, and a novel, in which he painstakingly described the horrors of his experience at Auschwitz. He also spent the rest of his life struggling with the fact that he was not among those who were killed.

In Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival, Frederic D. Homer looks at Primo Levi’s life but, more important, shows him to be a significant political philosopher. In the course of his writings, Levi asked and answered his most haunting question: can someone be brutalized by a terrifying experience and, upon return to “ordinary life,” recover from the physical and moral destruction he has suffered? Levi used this question to develop a philosophy positing that although man is no match for life, he can become better prepared to contend with the tragedies in life.

According to Levi, the horrors of the world occur because of the strength of human tendencies, which make relationships between human beings exceedingly fragile. He believed that we are ill-constituted beings who have tendencies toward violence and domination, dividing ourselves into Us and Them, with very shallow loyalties. He also maintained that our only refuge is in education and responsibility, which may counter these tendencies. Homer calls Levi’s philosophy “optimistic pessimism.”

As Homer demonstrates, Levi took his past experiences into account to determine that goodwill and democratic institutions do not come easily to people. Liberal society is to be earned through discipline and responsibility toward our weaknesses. Levi’s answer is “civilized liberalism.” To achieve this we must counter some of our most stubborn tendencies.

Homer also explores the impact of Levi’s death, an apparent suicide, on the way in which his work and theories have been perceived. While several critics discount Levi’s work because of the nature of his death, Homer argues that his death is consistent with his philosophy. A book rich in brutally honest philosophy, Primo Levi and the Politics of Survival compels one to look at serious questions about life, tragedy, optimism, solidarity, violence, and human nature.

The Double Bond

Carole Angier
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
, 2002, ISBN 0374113157; Hardcover $40.00. [Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

History will remember Jewish-Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi (1919-1986) as a seminal chronicler of the Holocaust one of the first and certainly one of the most memorable. But in undertaking his biography, Angier (Jean Rhys: Life and Work) faced a host of obstacles: the tight-knit, impenetrable community of Turin, Levi’s native city; a closemouthed family; inaccessible papers. There was also the hurdle of Levi’s own fictionalized alter ego always true to character, but rarely an exact match with the facts. Angier deftly fills the lacunae with recollections and anecdotes drawn from her research. Her skillful narrative illuminates not only the painful, dramatic passages of her subject’s life his work in the partisan resistance, his extraordinary survival in Auschwitz but also the decades after the war that Levi spent as a chemical specialist in varnishes and resins, quietly issuing works of literary genius every now and then. Always sensitive to the historical context of her subject, Angier provides a macroscopic view of the war from the perspective of Italian Jewry. But she also explicates some of the more difficult, ambiguous aspects of Levi’s temperament: his fear of women, his tendency to see chemistry as a metaphor for life, the fierce determination to bear witness that underlay his gentle nature, and the inner torment that eventually drove him to suicide. Anyone moved by Levi’s accounts of heroism and atrocity will learn much from this nuanced biography. © Reed Business Information

Primo Levi: A Life

Ian Thomson
Picador, 2004, ISBN 0312423675; Paperback $24.00. [
Browse/Purchase]

From Publishers Weekly:

Thomson’s biography of Primo Levi comes a little over a year after Carole Angier’s Levi biography, The Double Bond. The merits of the two are sharply distinct from each other. Where Angier considered broader questions of culture and identity, Thomson is brisk and novelistic. Thomson had extensive, exclusive access to Levi papers and family members, where Angier had almost none. For that reason alone, any Leviphile will derive considerable pleasure from Thomson’s account. The fast-paced narrative sometimes results in frustratingly concise characterizations (“Chemistry was to be a powerful magnet for the inadequate teenager looking for a focus to his life”), but that may well be the price for a book that follows Levi’s comings and goings so closely. Thomson, who has translated the novels of Sicilian crime writer Leonardo Sciascia into English and wrote Bonjour Blanc, is particularly attentive to the often glossed-over later years of the author’s life, tracing the twin courses of his publishing career and his deepening struggle with depression. Since Levi’s tragic suicide in 1987, the search for the true man behind the mythic Holocaust survivor has only intensified; Levi biographers always find they must compete not only with each other but with their subject, whose immortal memoirs will inevitably have the final say. In the end, Thomson’s contribution may concentrate more on the trees than the forest, but its smoothly assembled accumulation of details renders an invaluable service to the Levi legacy. © Reed Business Information

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–David Keffer
& Allen B. Ruch
20 June 2007

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