Primo Levi on Franz Kafka’s “astounding clairvoyance”

Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.
Primo Levi in his studio, Turin, 1981.

In a recent piece for The Times Literary Supplement, Ian Thomson has reviewed Penguin’s new three-volume collection of Primo Levi‘s Complete Works in English. Thomson praises the work of Ann Goldstein, the editor who oversaw the new translations (including one revision) over the course of fifteen years. He also takes time to acknowledge the power of Goldstein’s own translation, which bring “Levi’s formidably concise Italian into a transparent and bracingly spare English”.

Thomson, the author of Primo Levi: A Life, offers a number of fascinating insights into the character and sensibility of the late writer, chemist, and Holocaust survivor (including a note on Levi’s distaste for the term “Holocaust”). Readers of Franz Kafka will be interested to learn that Levi attempted to translate the Prague writer in the early 1980s, and found the experience deeply unsettling:

“In his essay ‘Translating Kafka’, included in Volume Three, Levi relates how his translation of The Trial in 1982 left him more terribly involved than he could have imagined. Originally he had hoped to improve his German, but found only bleakness in Josef K., who is arrested for a crime he probably did not commit. Levi wonders in the essay if he has any ‘affinity’ at all with Kafka. Yet the more he immersed himself in the work of ‘St Franz of Prague’, the more he saw uncomfortable parallels. Kafka lived an unremarkable life as an insurance clerk in Prague, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents; Levi believed he was similarly constricted in his own life as the manager of a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of a grotesque bureaucratically structured system foreshadowed by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had ‘astounding clairvoyance’, Levi comments, to have looked so accurately into the future.”

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