When Primo Levi committed suicide in 1987, many thought that he’d killed himself because his wartime imprisonment in Auschwitz had at last made it impossible for him to go on living; many others (this writer among them) believed that if it hadn’t been for Auschwitz, Levi would have killed himself years earlier—that the war, in fact, had lengthened his life because the experience of the concentration camp gave him writing, and it was writing alone that controlled the life-threatening anxiety against which he had struggled from earliest youth. Bearing witness to the historic catastrophe of Nazi Germany allowed (nay, commanded) Levi’s inner agitation to retreat far enough and long enough to let him exercise the talent for philosophical observation that had always been his, but, until the war, had been without sufficient content to find form. It was Auschwitz that freed Levi to become the artist he so clearly was, and writing about it held his inborn despair in check for a good forty years; only then did it fail to win the day.
Primo Levi was born in the northern Italian city of Turin in 1919, into a family of secular, middle-class Jews who had been living in the Piedmont for generations. He grew up in one of the city’s Jewish neighborhoods surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors, most of whom remained solidly in place until World War II and, since most of them survived the war, even long after. Levi, too: except for a year in Milan, a year in Auschwitz and another year spent getting back to Turin, he lived and died in the apartment house in which he was born. When he married in 1947, it was to a girl from the neighborhood, and she readily agreed to move into the building and share the family flat with his sister and widowed mother. At the time of his death—he leaped from the third floor into the open stairwell of this very building—his grown son was living across the hall, his daughter a few blocks away, and his childhood friends on the streets all about. As Levi himself said, Auschwitz was his only adventure.
He grew up physically small, intellectually gifted, emotionally nervous—possessed of (or by) a trembling insecurity that did not abate with the passage of time. People who knew Levi in his youth have testified to one biographer after another that his timidity was his torment. He wanted the world but did not dare to leave home; he fantasized about being a visionary physicist but settled for industrial chemistry; he fell rapturously and repeatedly in love, but only from the waist up: sex terrified him. This last was surely the enduring bane of his existence.
In his 20s, Levi was often infatuated, and the inability to approach a woman made him desperate: “I thought myself condemned,” he wrote years later in the “Zinc” chapter of The Periodic Table, “to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman’s smile forever, which I nevertheless needed as much as air.” And in the “Phosphorus” chapter, he wrote that looking into the future, he saw this morbid shyness as “a condemnation without appeal which would accompany me to my death, confining me to a life poisoned by envy and by abstract, sterile, and aimless desires.” As late as 1975, he was writing as though this problematic condition had never been corrected.
Once, also in his 20s, Levi went mountain climbing with another chemist, a down-to-earth, unimaginative fellow whose joy in risk-taking during the climb was infectious; for Levi, scaling the mountain with this man was like eating some exotic food of life. Of this incident, he wrote in middle age, “Now that many years have passed, I regret that I ate so little of it, for nothing has had, even distantly, the taste of that meat, which is the taste of being strong and free, free also to make mistakes and be the master of one’s destiny.”
Throughout these trials and tribulations of the soul, Levi, when considering the major elements of his identity, inevitably thought of himself as an Italian, a chemist, a would-be writer, even a mountain climber and a failed lover. Like most Italian Jews, who felt as assimilated before the war as the German Jews, Jewishness per se was last on his list. Even in 1929, when Mussolini signed an agreement with the Catholic Church that established Catholicism as the state religion and relegated all other religions to the status of “tolerated cults,” Jews like Levi shrugged. Nine years later, however, in 1938, the race laws were passed and Italian Jews were shocked when they lost their civil rights, property, positions in public office and right to higher education. As Levi had matriculated a year earlier at the University of Turin, he was allowed to continue his studies in chemistry and eventually received a compromised degree in 1941. “I had in a drawer an illuminated parchment on which was written in elegant characters that on Primo Levi, of the Jewish race, had been conferred a degree in Chemistry summa cum laude…. A dubious document, half glory and half derision, half absolution and half condemnation.” Now he knew that in the eyes of his government, he was to be stigmatized as a Jew, and shortly after that branded nothing but a Jew. Little could he have imagined that this turn of events would lead him to his great and abiding subject: the experience of finding oneself transformed into a creature unworthy of being treated like a human among humans.