The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi was born 100 years ago in Turin, Italy. He spent his entire life there, except for the months he spent imprisoned by the Nazis in a sub-camp of Auschwitz, Buna-Monowitz, and the year it took him to make his way home. Although Levi’s actual birthday is not until next month (he lived from July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987), I’ve decided to spend much of June reading and writing about him.
Levi is a writer close to my heart. It would not be wrong to say that I am in love with him. Which is of course a preposterous thing to say. But from the time I first read Levi, in my second year at university, I was smitten with his secular humanism. I admired the way he bridged the so-called “two cultures” (not an idea, I suspect, he would have had much time for). And mostly I sensed that he was a decent, kind person—a mensch of the first order. Of course, I gleaned that sense from his autobiographical writings, and, like all memoirists, the persona Levi offers us in writing is related to but not the same as his actual person. I have long had Ian Thomson’s biography on my shelves, and this seems the perfect time to read that alongside Levi’s own works.
(Thomson is a great writer, and I’m really looking forward to his book, but I know there are at least two other biographies in English, one by Carole Angier and one by Berel Lang. I won’t have time to read them, but if anyone has read one or both, I’d like to know what you think. I’m dimly aware that Thomson and Angier come to different conclusions about Levi, particularly, I believe, about his mysterious death.)
When I speak to groups about the Holocaust, I am often asked what books I would most recommend for people who want to learn more. It’s a question to which there are so many possible, equally worthy answers. There are so many urgent Holocaust books. But I always list Survival in Auschwitz (as it is frustratingly titled in the US: a much better, and more accurate title would be If This is a Man) first. For me, it is one of the most indispensable books of the twentieth century.
Here’s what I have in mind at the moment for my centenary celebrations:
- A post on Survival in Auschwitz, specifically how I teach it. [Note: this turned into two long posts: here and here.]
- A post on his genre-defying The Periodic Table, which I read 25 years ago and look forward to revisiting. [Note: Didn’t do this, but my friend Nat did–he’s thoughtful as always.]
- A post on If Not Now, When?, a novel in which Levi takes on the Eastern Jewish experience that wasn’t his own (it’s about a band of partisans making their way from Russia to Palestine, perhaps loosely based on the Bielski partisans).
- A post on some of Levi’s non-Jewish writing: I’m thinking Other People’s Trades and some of the stories
- A post on some of the things I learned from Thomson’s biography
That’s an ambitious schedule, and who knows how much of it I’ll get to. In the meantime, you could check out a couple of things I’ve already written on Levi. Here at the blog I wrote about how I always begin my introductory Holocaust Lit course with a close reading of a passage from the second of Levi’s memoirs, The Reawakening. And a couple of years ago I reviewed an interesting new book about Levi’s time as a partisan in the Italian Alps in 1943. (It was for this resistance work, rather than his being Jewish, that Levi was first arrested.)
I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to join me in reading Levi—no need to match my choices, especially since I’m not even sure I know what they’ll be yet. And if you feel compelled to write about your responses to those works, I’ll gladly post your thoughts on the blog.
I have the Angier biography as well as another by Myriam Anissimov. Both are pretty huge and have been sitting on my shelves for 20 years, so I’m not ambitious enough to suppose I could get through them, but might try dipping into them. Will start with The Periodic Table and see how it goes from there.
Great! Hadn’t heard of the Anissimov, so thanks for the tip-off.
I’ll look forward to following your posts and I will try to join in with some reading and thoughts on Levi of my own. I have the Thomson book but I’m not sure what else, biography wise. I have the American edition collected works and I’d like to spend some time with his poems and less well known works, although I could well be drawn to revisit The Periodic Table, the first Levi I read. And yes, you are allowed to be in love with your authors I think – I certainly feel that way about my favourites. I’m well known for having literary crushes on either sex! ;D
Glad to hear of your interest, Karen. I’ve got that Collected Edition, too–I’m very glad it’s available, but I don’t much like reading those giant hardcover volumes.
Agree it would be interesting to spend some time with the poems: look forward to any thoughts you’d like to share.
Thanks, you’ve inspired me to reread the Periodic Table and to seek out second-hand copies of some of his less well-known works.
Levi made a great impression on me when I first read him in the 1990’s. Just as Imre Kertesz did more recently. I’d be interested to now how you compare the two writers. Kertesz took longer to come to the attention of the English-speaking world due primarily, I guess, to the fact that he wrote in Hungarian.
Thanks for commenting, Paul. I’m glad to hear you’re inspired to read (more) Levi. I like Kertesz a lot. I don’t know the breadth of his work as well as I do Levi’s, but I regularly teach Fatelessness, an incredible (and very difficult) book.
In some ways, I think they are similar: secular Jews that at times take an almost documentary approach to writing about the Holocaust. And yet there is a big difference: Levi’s analysis is predicated on retrospection; Kertesz wants to reject retrospection. For him, it can only introduce hindsight bias. Fatelessness is so amazing because it’s an attempt to relate the experience from within, without any of the moralizing that attends contextualizing.
Does that make sense? What would you say?
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I’m going to try to join in; I have The Periodic Table sitting here waiting to be read.
I came to If This Is a Man initially through French, and was dumbfounded that my library here didn’t have a copy (until I realized that Survival in Auschwitz had been adopted as the English title). I adored Levi’s The Search for Roots – the last book he wrote, about books that had influenced him. So yes, I’m looking forward to reading more.
So glad to hear, Scott!
I’ve never heard of The Search for Roots, but it sounds great. Presumably it is in that new Collected Edition. I shall check.
For anyone interested in Italian literature, The Search for Roots is a treasure trove – though Levi doesn’t restrict himself to Italians. I posted on it a few years ago here: https://seraillon.blogspot.com/2016/04/primo-levis-essential-reading.html
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