During a wide-ranging conversation I had with Primo Levi in his home in Turin in the summer of 1985, two years before his death, I asked him what effect Auschwitz had on him as a writer. He sat up, smiled, patiently shook his head and said: “The question I am most often asked: ‘If you hadn’t been an inmate…what would you have become?’ I am not able to reply. I am so ingrained…so intertwined with my condition of a chemist and of an Auschwitz inmate that I can’t distinguish anymore my other personality from that one.”
Today, a dozen years after he committed suicide by hurling himself down a flight of stairs, Levi is increasingly attracting the recognition he so richly deserves as one of the crucial writers of our century. Such recognition was long in coming, however, considering that Survival in Auschwitz, now deemed a classic of Holocaust literature, had a first printing of a scant 2,500 copies in 1947 and was followed sixteen years later by its companion volume, The Reawakening. (Both works were published in England under more appropriate and more literal titles: If This Is a Man and The Truce.)
Although Levi spent the sixties and seventies winning literary prizes, writing a column for La Stampa and publishing fiction and essays in his native Italy, not until the publication of his masterpiece, The Periodic Table, hailed as such in this country by Saul Bellow in 1984, did he begin to receive the critical and popular attention here that has been increasing ever since.
As a survivor of one of the camps that stripped inmates of their essential selves, Primo Levi more effectively, if also more horrifyingly than theoreticians and scholars, reveals the process that reduced men and women to silence and shadows. His scientific training as a chemist is everywhere evident: in his terse expression, in his ability to see relationships among disparate elements, in his dispassionate depiction of evil. As a writer, he is responsible for a body of work that, taken as a whole, constitutes one of the major documents of the Holocaust. Given the complexity of the man and his work, of his life and his times, any potential biographer faces the daunting challenge of doing what Levi said he himself couldn’t do: showing how the survivor and the scientist, separately and together, perceive the world.
Primo Levi, the nonbeliever, survived not only because of a fortunate chain of circumstances but also because of his deep reservoir of cultural humanism, which sustained him when loss of life and reason seemed certain. Beyond his survival, however, is his moral victory over the forces of savagery and ignorance, cowardice and corruption. Through his quiet eloquence, his power to probe the limits of language, he has more than kept his promise to bear witness. Insisting on upholding the values that have shaped our civilization despite the grotesque conditions that would most deny them, Levi is himself the answer to the implied question the title of his first book raises: This is a man.
Myriam Anissimov, a French journalist and novelist, attempts to meet the challenge Levi’s life poses. Her Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist, the first full-length study of him, is based primarily on a reading of his work, her correspondence or interviews with men and women associated with him and interviews and essays on him by others. In effect, she applies the journalist’s stock-in-trade to produce a biography whose subject demands a carefully reasoned and penetrating analysis of the diverse elements that stamped and then doomed him as anarchetypal twentieth-century man. Relying heavily on Levi’s own published texts to produce her work, Anissimov adds little to the facts of his life. But because she so conveniently gathers and arranges the available material, her book is of value to beginning readers of Levi who wish to know more about the man. For those more familiar with his extensive and varied works, however, Anissimov’s biography may not prove so useful.
After describing Levi’s childhood and early adulthood through graduate school, Anissimov recounts his Auschwitz experience, using as her basis Survival in Auschwitz. She does so, however, by separating her work into sections that are at times a single paragraph long, at others several pages, with no discernible transition or connection between them. Anissimov does have an impressive ability to track down and question people from Levi’s near and distant past, but her use of such sources is in some instances questionable, at best.
One such source is the man Levi refers to as “Henri,” the fictitious name for Paul Steinberg, a fellow inmate whom Levi scorned. Although Levi was certain, as he says in Survival in Auschwitz, that “Henri” had survived the camp, he never wanted to see him again precisely because he had betrayed the scruples Levi saw necessary to maintain oneself as a man. Henri’s icy detachment from his fellow inmates, his unctuous manner toward his captors and his relative well-being as a direct result of his servility all made him repugnant to Levi.
Anissimov gives Steinberg more trust and attention than he deserves by placing his assumptions and recollections, despite having made them decades after the events, on the same level as those of Levi, which were recorded within a year or so after they took place. She recalls the fact that a German scientist who was Levi’s superior in the chemical laboratory wrote to Levi after the war and asked him for news of those companions mentioned in Survival in Auschwitz. He did not, however, ask about Steinberg, who claimed to have worked in the same lab. When Anissimov brought up this discrepancy with Steinberg, he inexplicably claimed not to have remembered Levi being in the lab at all. Instead of simply rejecting Steinberg’s assertion (made all the less credible by Levi’s detailed description of how he managed to be one of three inmates selected to work in the science lab, which he credited with saving his life) she concludes: “It is a riddle that is bound to remain unsolved.” Most readers of Levi would differ, resolving that no such riddle exists and fully understanding Levi’s desire never to see “Henri” again.
More troubling, however, than Anissimov’s willingness to accept at face value assertions made by such a witness is her failure to show how the artist developed from the constitutive elements that made the man: his cherished Italian heritage–social, cultural and linguistic; his Auschwitz experience; his agnosticism in conflict with–and his accommodation to–his Jewishness; his philosophical and ethical moorings; his abiding love of and profound indebtedness to science.
Although Levi’s love of his Italian heritage and culture is everywhere evident in his writing, nowhere is it more dramatically and intensely revealed than in Survival in Auschwitz. Levi depicts himself in the crucial scene trying to recall some lines from Dante’s Inferno. His ultimate success in doing so constitutes the essential reminder that despite the brutalization and humiliation he witnessed and suffered, he is–within the tradition of his culture–still a man.
If Anissimov fails to give proper due to Levi’s Italian heritage in his development as a man of letters, she evidences another serious critical lapse by suggesting that Levi’s agnosticism, a clear result of his scientific rationalism, “was subverted by his fondness for quoting from the Bible.” In fact, Levi states that he wrote The Periodic Table, the rich complexity of which does not get the full attention it deserves from Anissimov, at the end of his career to express his gratitude to the profession to which he owed so much. The masterful book reveals Levi to be a writer who, in presenting the interrelated complexities of heritage, society and profession, bridges the worlds of art and science while probing the political and ethical currents of our age.
There are times, however, when Anissimov’s interviews and correspondences with Levi’s friends and associates pay off. For instance, she reproduces an important speech, “The Camp and Memory,” that Levi gave at a conference; one of the attendees gave it to her. And her discussion of the German translation of Survival in Auschwitz is both insightful and informative, detailing Levi’s active engagement with the translator, a German who fought against the Nazis in Italy. The German translation was particularly significant to Levi, inasmuch as he had written the work not only to get the poisons out of himself but also to reveal to the Germans the truth of this grotesque chapter in their history. A particularly glaring and troubling omission, however, in the list of those interviewed is Levi’s immediate family. Anissimov mentions in a cryptic footnote at the end of her book that Levi’s widow has, in effect, denied access to a series of important interviews with Levi that are in the possession of his official biographer. Anissimov doesn’t cite reasons for the refusal, or state why his widow and children apparently refused to be interviewed by her.
In the concluding essay of Other People’s Trades, a collection of short pieces he wrote for La Stampa over a thirty-year period, Levi, in a mix of humor and seriousness, offers advice to a would-be writer: “After ninety years of psychoanalysis, and successful or failed attempts to pour the unconscious directly onto the page, I have an acute need for clarity and rationality…. Writing means laying oneself bare…. Oh, I forgot to tell you that, in order to write, one must have something to write.”
However playfully Primo Levi presents his injunction, it has to be taken seriously. Clarity and rationality must be maintained by the biographer as well, not only in laying bare Levi’s self but also in peeling away the textured layers of meaning his works encompass. However well-intentioned, Anissimov’s biography does not adequately reveal the extraordinary complexity and depth of the life and work of the man.
During my conversation with Levi in Turin, I asked why he chose to become a chemist. “What I was looking for was a comprehension of the universal meaning–of the stars, of the moon, of the microbes, of the animals, plants, chemistry and so on. Yes, to have something under my fingers which could be checked if true or false. Verified, verified,” he said. Unfortunately, even the profound awareness he developed of the affinity of all elements was not enough to save him from the Auschwitz demons that, many decades later, drove him to his death.