Much more than a Holocaust survivor and memoirist

‘The Complete Works of Primo Levi’ affirms that Levi was a literary genius whose oeuvre goes far beyond documentation of his concentration camp experiences.

A portrait of Primo Levi taken in the late 1940s (photo credit: LEEMAGE VIA AFP)
A portrait of Primo Levi taken in the late 1940s
(photo credit: LEEMAGE VIA AFP)
IN HIS first and best-known book, “If This Is Man” (1946), Primo Levi refers to two kinds of dreams that he repeatedly experienced during his year as a slave laborer in Auschwitz, first in construction and then, briefly, in I.G. Farben’s synthetic rubber laboratory. The first kind of dream naturally enough involves food. In the second, he has the “intense pleasure” of finding himself at home with his family, “having so many things to recount.” But, he adds, “I can’t help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent; they speak confusedly among themselves of other things, as if I were not there. My sister looks at me, gets up, and goes away without a word.”
Such dreams – nightmares – were an added torture for Primo Levi. For the sole reason why he ever took up a pen, as he tells us many times, was to bear witness to what happened in the concentration camp.
Yet let’s be clear about one thing: If Primo Levi (1919-1987) had never been sent to Auschwitz, if he had never written some of the most moving literary works regarding that accursed experience, he still should be ranked among the finest writers of modern times.
Which is to say he clearly deserves to have the entirety of his oeuvre collected in this magnificent three-volume boxed set. (Priced at $100, this is truly the greatest book bargain I’ve come across in years.) What comes through repeatedly in reading his work is that simply to think of Primo Levi as Holocaust survivor and memoirist (a view that he decidedly opposed) is to diminish the fact that this man of science, this lifelong chemist employed at a paint factory in Turin, Italy, was unaccountably also a literary genius.
This “Complete Works,” based on a similar collection published in Italian in 1997, has been lovingly assembled and designed in a project that required some 15 years of effort. This edition comes with all the stories, essays, poems and one full-length novel.
About a quarter of this material has never before appeared in English. We also get all the apparatus one could wish for: a brief but moving introduction by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a fine introduction by Ann Goldstein (a New Yorker editor and the translator of Elena Ferrante’s internationally popular Neapolitan novels), a detailed chronology, maps, translators’ notes, critical essays, bibliography and, tucked out of the way at the end, textual notes and commentary.
Ten translators, including Goldstein, were marshalled for the task. (Amid the inevitable controversy, 10 of the works have been newly rendered into English.) It’s all been put together into beautifully printed (if very weighty) volumes. I spent many weeks with this set, and I’m sure I’ll return to it.
Given the limits of space, I’ll say little about Levi’s major works. “If This Is a Man,” “The Truce,” “The Drowned and the Saved” are justly well-known and have been much written about.
I read all three again, and confirmed that even in view of the entire library of Holocaust- related writings that has followed these works, they remain outstanding for their judicious reporting and observation, their inexplicably clear-eyed tone, their sheer humanity. The narratives therein cannot fail to move the reader: the revelations of the mild-mannered science student who joined the Italian resistance; who was betrayed to the Fascist forces, who readily identified himself to his captors as a Jew; who paid for that admission by being shipped to Auschwitz; who by sheer chance survived, and who made his difficult re-entry into the postwar world. “If This Is a Man” moreover comes with an appendix, not published with the original English edition of the book, in which Levi answers at length the eight questions he was most often asked over the years by students. (Have you forgiven your captors? Why were there no mass revolts? What would you be today, if you hadn’t been a prisoner in the Lager?) His responses are illuminating, and they foreshadow the later meditations on the Holocaust that appear in “The Drowned and the Saved.”
But I’ll concentrate here on the lesser- known works and the ones I’d never encountered before. I’ll begin with – what? Science fiction? This is a genre I normally ignore, but I did read some of Levi’s fantasies when they first appeared in English. In general, with my resistance toward the genre still strong, I had passed these stories off with bemusement as minor Levi. Yet now, immersed in the entirety of the writer’s output, I found to my surprise that the stories collected in “Natural Histories” and “Flaw in Form” – including the ones I’d read before – were truly astonishing.
Beginning in 1946 (even as he was writing his Auschwitz memoirs) and on into the early 1960s, Levi produced for newspapers and magazines what he called the 15 “joke-stories” that comprise “Natural Histories.” These are in the main wry riffs on technology. Put aside the tongue-in-cheek scientific mumbo jumbo: chemist Primo Levi proved to be a prophet of what was to come in the next half-century or so. Several stories are built around an office machine salesman hustling the latest American ingenuity. Hence the computer program that composes poetry (try Googling “Bristlecone”), the universal search engine (hello, Siri), the experiential headset (hello, virtual reality), the 3-D printer, cryogenics, artificial intelligence, cloning, and a host of other advances possibly just around the corner, like the device that transforms pain into pleasure, and the means of harnessing insects for micro-manufacturing.
Also included are a sharp satire on censorship, in which chickens are trained to purge subversive words and ideas from literature, and stories on the problems of raising centaurs and the committee that on God’s instructions plans the form and nature of Man.
TWENTY MORE stories in this vein, collected here as “Flaw in Form,” poured out of Levi between 1967 and 1970. Most of these are darker than the ones in “Natural Histories.” Here we have a world in which everyone must wear armor to ward off the constant bombardment of micro-meteorites (“Protection”), a telephone network that goes crazy (“With the Best Intentions”), and two stories about mass starvation (“Recuendo: The Nourisher” and “Recuendo: The Rafter”).
Several stories are breathtaking in their imaginative range: In “His Own Maker,” a man, or Man, explains how he evolved over the ages, and in “Creative Work” and “In the Park,” we’re led to a National Park where characters in notable fiction reside.
And some stories are flat-out horror tales, such as “Knall,” about a new and especially insidious weapon, “Best Is Water,” in which the world’s water slowly turns to glue, and “The Servant,” a very dark take on the Golem of Prague. It comes as no surprise that Levi had his nightmares.
I had passed on “The Periodic Table” when it first appeared in English in 1984 because I mistakenly believed that it dealt with science, and I don’t do science. My error. The 21 terrific stories collected here, each named for one of the natural elements and composed from the 1940s to the 1970s, constitute a kind of Primo Levi primer.
We have autobiography and family history (“Argon”), sketches from the Auschwitz laboratory (“Cerium,” “Vanadium”), and stories of fantasy, history, romance and politics.
But the bulk of the stories have to do with Levi’s work as a chemist. In “Silver” he explains: “I told him that it didn’t seem right to me that the world knew about how the doctor lives, the prostitute, the sailor, the assassin, the countess, the ancient Roman, the conspirator, and the Polynesian, and nothing about how we transmuters of matter live; but that in this book I would deliberately ignore grand chemistry, the triumphant chemistry of enormous facilities and dizzying profits, because that is collective and therefore anonymous work. I was more interested in stories of solitary, unarmed, pedestrian chemistry, on a human scale, with which few exceptions had been mine…” But there’s nothing pedestrian here. In “Vanadium,” for example, some 20 years after the war Levi the paint chemist receives business correspondence from a counterpart in Germany and realizes that ‘Dr. L. Muller’ is the Nazi who oversaw the Auschwitz laboratory where Levi was forced to work. Herr Miller was a complex figure: he once got Levi a pair of shoes. On another occasion he asked, “Why do you look so troubled?” And of course he claimed he never noticed any smoke from the death camp’s chimneys.
Levi duly sends Muller the German edition of “If This Is a Man.” After many weeks Muller writes back, saying he would like to meet with Levi. The author is stunned by the request. “I didn’t feel capable of representing the dead of Auschwitz,” he tells us, “and neither did it seem reasonable to see in Muller the representative of the executioners.
I know myself: I do not possess polemical quickness, the adversary distracts me, interests me more as a man than as an adversary, I listen to him and risk believing him: contempt and the proper judgment come to me later, on the stairs, when they are no longer any use. It suited me to continue by letter.”
“Lilith and Other Stories” is a collection of pieces that debuted in Italian journals between 1975 and 1981. This edition includes 18 tales appearing in English for the first time. About 10 read as valuable outtakes from “If This Is a Man,” making this new edition something of a director’s cut of Levi’s most famous book. Others are of a woozy sci-fi nature, while still others, like “Children of the Wind” and “Sisters of the Swamp,” are set deeply in Kafkaesque dreamscapes. (Levi actually translated Kafka into Italian.) All show Levi working at the height of his literary power and confidence.
“If Not Now, When?” first appeared in Italian in 1982 and is Levi’s longest single work, an episodic novel concerning Eastern European Jewish partisans. The book is based on research rather than on the author’s experience, but it is as convincing and as compelling as any partisan memoir I have read. The characters, mostly young Zionists, are not deeply developed – their backgrounds are vague and the focus is on their struggles in the present – but the story is amazingly detailed.
It also contains some astounding set pieces, like the hijacking of a Nazi parachute drop site, the stealing of a train, and a raid on a concentration camp. And amid the heroics, some fine writing. Example: “Mendel let the machine gun he was gripping in one hand slide to the ground, and he felt himself slide down until he was sitting amid the bushes. He felt oppressed by a wave of weariness unlike anything he could ever remember experiencing. The weariness of a thousand years, accompanied by nausea, rage, and horror […] A desire to stop resisting, to dissolve in smoke, that smoke. And shame and astonishment, astonishment that his comrades were still standing, weapons in hand, and that they could find voices with which to speak to one another; but their voices came to him as if from a great distance, through the cushion of his nausea.”
“The Complete Works” also contains scores of Levi’s poems. These are generally direct and accessible, and if not the author’s most distinguished work are never without interest. In “For Adolf Eichmann,” for example, we read, “O son of death, we do not wish you death. / May you live longer than anyone ever lived: / May you live sleepless for five million nights / And every night may you be visited by the suffering of everyone who saw / The door that closed off the way back click shut, / The dark around him grow, the air thicken with death.”
FINALLY, THE previously uncollected essays and stories found in the final volume here feature newspaper articles decrying Holocaust deniers, the Red Brigades and other insanities of the postwar era, book reviews, thoughts on science-fiction films, forewords and postscripts to various editions of Levi’s books, reports on postwar Germany and on Auschwitz as museum and memorial (Levi visited both) and the like.
Of no small interest are the articles about Israel, a country he visited once, in 1968, to little fanfare. His essay decrying the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 did little to endear him to Hebrew readers. Only one of his books was translated into Hebrew in Levi’s lifetime.
Among the uncollected stories is at least one I’d read collected somewhere before: “Buffet Dinner,” an elegant allegory about a kangaroo at a dinner party. Another winner is “The Great Mutation,” which is about a young girl who sprouts wings. Indeed, one of the amazing things about Primo Levi’s writing is how much whimsy they contain – whimsy not being a typical characteristic of Holocaust survivors.
Based on these writings, one would hardly predict suicide as Levi’s end. The editors of this publication, however, take that suicide as an established fact.
How to grasp Primo Levi? In his preface to “Other People’s Trades,” Levi described himself as “too much of a chemist, and a chemist too long, ever to feel myself a genuine man of letters; too caught up in the landscape, parti-colored, tragic, or strange, to feel like a chemist in every fiber of my being. In other words, I went my isolated way, and followed a serpentine path, nosing around here and there, and building myself a jumbled, gap-filled, know-it-all culture.
My reward has been the fun of seeing the world in an uncommon light, inverting the instrumentation, so to speak: revisiting technical matters with the writer’s eye, and things literary with the eye of a technician.”
This was a man.