Primo Levi at 100

New York, May 28, 2019 – Centro Primo Levi and the Italian Cultural Institute inaugurate Primo Levi’s Centenary with two programs highlighting Levi’s relevance today and his ability to continue to speak to people of different backgrounds and generations. 

On June 5, 2018 at 6:30 pm at the Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue, novelist and essayst Pankaj Mishra will discuss two chapters of Levi’s last book and intellectual testament, The Drowned and the Saved, the “The Intellectual at Auschwitz” and “The Grey Zone,” to probe his complex views on the dialectic of oppression and its impact on both oppressed and oppressor. 

Expanding on topics that Levi tackled with growing concern in his last years, Mr. Mishra will talk about Primo Levi and Israel as well as the rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the light of Levi’s ideas. The event is free and open to the public.

Mr. Mishra began writing as an essayist in the early 1990s after moving to a Himalayan village in northern India. He contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines in Europe, Asia and the US, often providing an unsparing look at the legacy of colonialism on contemporary culture. His most recent offering, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) explores the foundations of violent nationalism and other ideologies.

On June 12th, from 12 noon to 8:00 pm, writers, performers, and scholars will gather at the New York Public Library for a multilingual, full-length reading of Primo Levi’s seminal memoir, If This Is A Man. The event will take place at the  NYPL Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Wachenheim Trustees Room, 476 5th Ave (at 42nd Street). 

Readers representing the diversity of New York city’s population, will read  the book in many of the 40 languages in which it was translated, while English text will be projected throughout the day: 

Stella Levi, Italian, Waleed Alhariri  Arabic, SoHyun Bae Korean, Sam Norich English, Debora Balardini Portuguese, Azra Raza English, Clémence Bouloque French, Erin Mizrahi English, Parul Sehgal English, Fatma Bucak Turkish,  Heli Sirviö Finnish, Yuriy Tarnawsky Ukrainian, Magda Teter Polish, Roger Cohen English, Jordi Torrent Catalan, Jonathan Galassi English, Alma Guillermoprieto Spanish, Kirmen Uribe Basque, Amir Vahab Farsi, Frank Hentschter German, Lara Vapnyar Russian, Vít Hořejš Czech, Sherrilyn Ifill English, Aleksandra Wagner Serbo-Croatian, Revital Iyov Hebrew, Jeanne Marie Wasilik English, Michael Frank English, Elidor Mëhilli Albanian, Nicole Krauss English, Bob Weil English, Kitaura Momoyo Japanese, Loukas Skipitaris Greek, soHyun Liselot van der Heijden Dutch, Mark Shapiro English.

The public can attend any portion of the program. Registration is recommended at www.nypl.org. 

The annual Joy Gottesman Ungerleider Lecture has been made possible by a generous grant from the Dorot Foundation. The program is held under the auspices of the Italian Committee for Primo Levi’s Centenary. We thank all institutions that helped collecting the translations used for the reading: Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi, Turin, Gjovalin Rakaj, Agra Publications, Editura Art, The Aladdin Project, Romanian Cultural Institute, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Gummerus Publishers, Grup 62, W.W. Norton, New York Public Library, California State Library, Queens Library. 

Primo Levi 

Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi (1919-1987) was born in Turin into a family of Piedmontese Jews. In 1943, five years after Mussolini unleashed the persecution of the Jews, he was arrested by the Fascist militia, incarcerated in the transit camp of Fossoli and deported to Auschwitz. Liberated by the Red Army eleven months later, he returned to his home in Turin after a year-long journey through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The account of his detention written upon his return and published in 1947 with the title If This Is A Man, was one of the first memoirs on the death camp experience. 

Levi held a full-time position as an industrial chemist while continuing to write, unremittingly seeking a voice and a language to explain the extermination camps, state violence and what unravels from the dynamics between oppressor and oppressed. A profoundly political man, he frequently appeared on the radio and in the press. He addressed the importance of integrating science and the humanities, in post-war Europe increasingly governed by an unchecked trust in science and technology — Auschwitz had been the most monstrous result of this binomial blend.

Levi went on examining under his microscope the “normalized societies” combining the tools of science with the inventions of story-telling. He grew increasingly concerned with the quasi-religious crystallization of memory that contributed to obscure the complexity of what had happened and was still active beneath the “peaceful” surface of the present.

As a scientist and an acute observer of nature, Levi did not only challenged the sacralization of memory. Beginning in the 1960s, he took on the paramount question of nature and the power of science and technology to alter the planet’s equilibrium and the relations among peoples. 

The mutilation of the environment goes hand in hand with the separation of men and women from their own work, two distinctive traits of industrial “progress” that Levi explores through his lesser known collections of short stories: Flaw of Form, Natural Histories and The Wrench. His query remains tied to the camp experience, as one of the characters in Flaw of Form states: “humanity has long turned away from nature: it is made of individuals and aims [solely] at individual survival.”  

Levi continued to seek occurrences of a mechanism, a flaw, e misplaced tile in our society and in the human being. The incommensurable distance between the survivor and the victim, and the complicity imposed on the survivor, manifest themselves in other forms and other contexts, some already fully visible, others foreshadowed in his futuristic tales of “normal” societies in which, as he says of the camp, “as we got accustomed to death, the line between the cultured and the uncultured disappeared”. 

Languages

The question of language pervades Primo Levi’s work in its entirety. The “Babel of languages” in which humanity can no longer communicate and becomes isolated and “deaf” is the image that Levi uses to describe the process of dehumanization in the camp. Babel, however, is also the “cheerful confusion of all beginnings” narrated in The Truce, where all the people of Europe rediscover life in often comic attempts to communicate in “languages never heard before”. 

Language lacks the words to express the offence perpetrated by mankind to mankind in Auschwitz. Yet it is language, one language, the indispensable asset that allows survival in the camp. Having thought that Esperanto may be the clever way to overcome linguistic divisions bringing together a little bit of every European language, Levi eventually pondered the fact that millions of Chinese people do not share any of those European pieces with which Esperanto is constructed. Each translation of his books delighted Levi and so did the translations he made of other authors including Kafka, Lévi-Strauss and Heine. In an interview he said that if one does not know other languages, one cannot truly know his own. Then, he admiringly let his fictional character Faussone speak “poorly many languages, even a little Arabic and, just as poorly his native Italian”. Levi often played with words, with their etymology and the strange ways in which they are transformed across languages. A self-declared son of Western culture as expressed by Italian, German, French and English literature, Levi was an enthusiast of Yiddish and lovingly documented the Piemontese and Judeo-Piemontese dialects, which had hardly any known literature and only a handful of people understood. 

Levi’s reflections on language raised several contradictions which he did not attempt to smoothen into a coherent form. They offer a glimpse of the tensions and struggles that he faced in his dialogue with the society that created Auschwitz in which he continued to live and whose essential flaws and ruptures he never ceased to explore and question.

About the presenters

The New York Public Library is a free provider of education and information for the people of New York and beyond. With 92 locations—including research and branch libraries—throughout the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island, the Library offers free materials, computer access, classes, exhibitions, programming and more to everyone from toddlers to scholars, and has seen record numbers of attendance and circulation in recent years. The New York Public Library serves more than 18 million patrons who come through its doors annually and millions more around the globe who use its resources at www.nypl.org. To offer this wide array of free programming, The New York Public Library relies on both public and private funding. Learn more about how to support the Library at nypl.org/support. 

Founded in 1961, the Italian Cultural Institute of New York is an office of the Italian government, dedicated to the promotion of Italian language and culture in the United States to fostering cultural exchange between Italy and the US in a variety of areas, from the arts to the humanities to science. The ICI’s interdisciplinary scope spans across visual arts, books, academic programs, music, dance, cinema, theater, architecture, literature, philosophy, technology, and sciences. www.iicnewyork.esteri.it/iic_newyork/en/

Since 1998, Centro Primo Levi New York has offered a platform for new readings of Primo Levi’s work and conversations on the topics he brought to the fore including Fascism, science and the history of the Italian Jewish minority’s relation with the mainstream in ancient and modern societies. www.primolevicenter.org

Primo Levi’s chronology and other resources:

www.primolevicenter.org/primolevi/

www.primolevicenter.org/the-shoah-in-italy/

www.primolevi.it

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