Books: A worthy tribute

A three-volume, 3,000 page compilation celebrates the prolific work of Primo Levi.

Primo Levi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Primo Levi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Primo Levi never wanted to be characterized as a Holocaust writer. He was, says Ann Goldstein – editor of the three-volume, 3,000 page Complete Works of Primo Levi – a prolific writer of stories, essays, novels and poems on a wide range of scientific, literary and autobiographical subjects. He liked to refer to himself not just as a witness, but as a writer and a storyteller – as well as a centaur, a chemist, an Italian and a Jew.
It is as a witness though, of course, that we know Levi best: His haunting memoir of his time in Auschwitz, If This is a Man, was followed up by The Truce, a harrowing account of his nine-month journey home after the liberation of the camp. But he is also known for his autobiographical masterpiece The Periodic Table, his philosophical reflection on the Holocaust The Drowned and the Saved, and his only novel, If Not Now, When?, in his words, “a homage to those Jews, who, in desperate conditions, had found the courage and skills to resist.”
Yet Levi’s work went considerably beyond his experience as a survivor.
The three volumes, published by Liveright, also include the author’s two collections of science fiction, Natural Histories and Flaw of Form, a compilation of stories each based on technical ideas originating from his work as a chemist; The Wrench, a series of stories in which a rigger named Fausonne recounts his adventures on the job at construction sites around the world; Other People’s Trades, a collection of essays on a broad range of topics that Levi described as “the fruit of my roaming about as a curious dilettante”; an anthology of Levi’s poetry and more.
Goldstein led a team of nine translators – as well as commissioning from Stewart Woolf a revised and outstanding translation of If This Is a Man – to complete the herculean task of putting together the compilation, some of which had never been translated into English. As she notes in concluding her introduction: “These new volumes, by presenting Levi in all his facets, will enable English- speaking readers to encounter for the first time the entire range of his versatile, inventive, curious, crystalline intelligence.”
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote the introduction to the collection.
She describes Levi’s works as singular amid the wealth of Holocaust literature both for “his use of language with his intimate knowledge of ancient and modern sources of philosophy, poetry and the figurative uses of scientific knowledge” and for the “triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction.”
The collection is a worthy tribute to an author whom the Italian journalist and writer Itali Clavino described as among “the most important and gifted of our time.”