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.