Primo Levi

The Mystery of Primo Levi

Tim Parks (NYRB) reviews the Complete Works of writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi
P

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


Primo Levi, Turin, 1985
Primo Levi, Turin, 1985

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

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

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


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Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981

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

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

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