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The Times Literary Supplement. The ethics of Primo Levi

Ian Thomson

In the mid-1950s, Primo Levi often travelled to Germany on business as an industrial chemist. It would have been bad for business if he could not, at some level, accommodate the country that had degraded him as a Jew at Auschwitz. In his memoir of his survival in the camp, If This Is a Man (1947), the Germans are addressed aggressively in the vocative: “You Germans, you have succeeded”. Any German who had shown Levi a scintilla of humanity in occupied Poland – and there were a few – is pointedly omitted. In a “judicial enquiry pervaded by indignation” (as Levi described his book), minor acts of German charity would have been a distraction. Yet the fact remains that there are not even half-decent Germans in If This Is a Man. Only in his later writing would Levi consider the exceptions that defied the stereotype: the good German, the charitable Kapo.
Levi displayed no obvious rancour during his first trip to Germany in 1953. On the contrary, he was keen to practise the German he had learned so imperfectly at Auschwitz, and loved to tear down the Autobahns with his boss Rico Accati at the wheel of his Maserati (which few German cars could overtake). By the time of his second visit in July 1954, however, Levi was in an antagonistic mood. He told Accati that he wanted to meet a former Nazi and went out of his way to ruffle sensibilities by introducing himself: “Levi, how do you do”, carefully articulating the Jewish surname first. Levi had already glimpsed an unpleasant instinct lurking beneath the polite surface of the Bayer headquarters outside Cologne, when an employee observed that it was “most unusual” for an Italian to speak German. Levi countered: “My name is Levi. I am a Jew, and I learned your language at Auschwitz”. A stuttering apology was followed by silence. Levi could hardly pretend that he was in a normal business relationship with post-Hitler Germany.
Levi’s most dramatic encounter – what he later called “the hour of colloquy” – took place one lunchtime at Bayer’s guesthouse on Kaiser-Wilhelm-Allee. He was seated at the dining table in shirtsleeves and making small talk when a director asked him about the 174517 tattoo exposed on his forearm. Levi instantly replied: “It’s a memento of Auschwitz”. Accati’s daughter Luisa, who was in Germany with her father to improve her spoken German, recalled the scene: “All one could hear was a polite clatter of forks on plates as ten Germans – all men – shifted awkwardly in their seats”. Levi’s forthright response did not suggest an attempt on his part to understand the Germans but rather to shame them.
However, as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Levi was able to treat the Germans as individuals, and make a distinction in his mind between Germans and Nazis. One German in particular helped to bolster his confidence: his German translator, Hans Reidt. In 1959 Reidt had written to Levi: “The publication of If This Is a Man in Germany seems to me to be extremely important and necessary”. So began an extraordinary exchange of letters – some twenty over a period of ten months – during which Levi learned that Reidt had not only fought in the anti-Fascist Italian Resistance but had done so in a “Justice and Liberty” formation just as he, Levi, had done. Reidt even shared Levi’s birthday: July 31, 1919. Moreover, his father-in-law, a non-Jew, had been an Auschwitz “red triangle”, or political prisoner.
Anxious to maintain control over the German translation on his book, Levi offered to help Reidt with queries. He was pernickety but beneficially so. In the final chapter, for example, the Jewish Hungarian prisoner Sómogyi dies while feverishly muttering Nazi commands. Where Levi had written, “he had finished”, Reidt substituted, “he had ceased to exist”. Levi vigorously objected. “When I wrote ‘he had finished’ I was referring to Sómogyi’s slow, terrible death-struggle”, explaining: “Ever obedient, here was a man who would only allow himself to die once he had ‘had finished’ saying Jawohl”. Such scrupulousness was understandable in a man who was about to be published in the country that had sought to annihilate him and his co-religionists; Levi had to be sure that his translated work said to the Germans exactly what he intended.
He was less fortunate with some of his other translations. A Spanish edition of If This Is a Man, published in Buenos Aires in 1956, turned out to be a ragged version of the original. “Traduttore traditore”, Levi complained. “The translator is a traitor.” Worse was the French translation, J’étais un homme, which appeared in 1961. Not only did the title come close to inverting the sense of the book, but the translation was filled with errors. Levi tried but failed to have copies withdrawn. Now we have The Complete Works of Primo Levi, a handsome, three-volume edition.
Almost every book previously translated into English has been retranslated. One exception is If This is a Man, whose original translator, Stuart Woolf, has revised his 1959 version. In an afterword, Woolf tells of how he lived in a flat close to Levi’s in Turin during the 1950s. Woolf was then a young Oxford historian on a research fellowship sponsored by Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Throughout 1958–9 he called on Levi twice a week with the latest pages of his translation. His dry humour and owlish English reserve appealed to the self-confessed Anglophile in Levi. By excising any ambiguities or solecisms from the translation he taught Woolf to “value” the weight of words and to choose them “meticulously”. When Woolf lent Levi a copy of the first volume of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the book came back to him the next day unopened. “I can see now that Tolkien must have stood for everything Primo despised: wilful obscurity, cod mysticism”, Woolf recollected. At all times, Levi tried to preserve the marvellously taut cadence of Woolf’s English; from this collaborative effort, rare in the history of modern translation, emerged a creative transformation.
It is difficult to see how Woolf might have improved on his original. In the afterword he talks of “improvements”, but in reality these are minor. A couple of examples may suffice. In the opening chapter, Levi writes of the German deportation trains waiting outside Modena at Carpi station: “There were twelve goods wagons for six hundred and fifty men”. In the new version, this becomes: “There were twelve cattle cars for six hundred and fifty of us”; “cattle cars” (vagoni, in Levi’s Italian) is preferable to “goods wagons”, but only just. Generally, Woolf has aimed in this new version for a more compressed and accurate English. “It had been by no means easy to flee into the mountains” is now “It hadn’t been easy for me to choose the mountains”. (“Non mi era stato facile scegliere la via della montagna”, Levi had written.) Woolf’s substitution of “flee” for “choose” (scegliere) in the original had suggested a blind dash away from the Germans into the mountains above Turin; in fact, Levi’s action had been carefully thought out.
In the United States, If This Is a Man and its sequel, The Truce, were published under the misleading titles Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening – misleading because The Truce is an intentionally ambivalent title, suggesting as it does that Levi’s rescue from Auschwitz and repatriation to Italy were a brief, queasy parenthesis before future troubles. In the final chapter, Levi describes a recurring dream in which he is back in the camp and “nothing is true outside” it.
Under Ann Goldstein’s diligent editorship, the British titles have been retained. Goldstein (the translator of, among other Italian writers, Elena Ferrante and Pier Paolo Pasolini) has overseen a total of nine translators for this hefty 3,000-page collection. Three of the fourteen books have been translated by Goldstein herself (The Truce, The Periodic Table, Lilith and Other Stories); she has rendered Levi’s formidably concise Italian into a transparent and bracingly spare English.
The Complete Works has been fifteen years in the making, but not all Levi’s works are here.
Notably absent is his anthology of favourite writings, La ricerca delle radici (1982, The Search for Roots), an unclassifiable yet darkly self-revealing work. The book was excluded on the grounds that not much of it was Levi’s own work, which seems a shame. Included in it was an extract from Thomas Mann’s novel Joseph and His Brothers. Why? At a time when Hitler was persecuting the Jews, Mann had published a book that portrayed Jews as the founding fathers of modern morality. The Romanian poet Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue” was also included. (“I carry this poem inside me like a virus”, Levi told his editor.) More problematic was Levi’s inclusion in this anthology of a “specification” paper on how to render an industrial varnish resistant to cockroach attack. Was the drily factual entomological text associated in Levi’s mind with the writhing dung-beetle of Kafka’s Metamorphosis?
In his essay “Translating Kafka”, included in Volume Three, Levi relates how his translation of The Trial in 1982 left him more terribly involved than he could have imagined. Originally he had hoped to improve his German, but found only bleakness in Josef K., who is arrested for a crime he probably did not commit. Levi wonders in the essay if he has any “affinity” at all with Kafka. Yet the more he immersed himself in the work of “St Franz of Prague”, the more he saw uncomfortable parallels. Kafka lived an unremarkable life as an insurance clerk in Prague, rarely travelling beyond his home or that of his parents; Levi believed he was similarly constricted in his own life as the manager of a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. Moreover, Kafka’s three sisters had all perished in the Nazi gas chambers – victims of a grotesque bureaucratically structured system foreshadowed by their brother two decades earlier in The Trial. Kafka must have had “astounding clairvoyance”, Levi comments, to have looked so accurately into the future.
More congenial to Levi were the anthropologists Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas, whose work he translated in the 1970s and early 80s for the Turin publisher Einaudi. Unfortunately his English was not quite up to Douglas’s Natural Symbols; the eminent Italian anthropologist Francesco Remotti was therefore summoned to help with technical terms. In Remotti’s view, Levi himself was an “anthropologist – of the death-camp”.
The view has more than neatness in its favour. Levi viewed Auschwitz as a giant laboratory experiment designed to transform the human stuff of mankind. In many ways, he was a writer of ethical meditation in the school of Montaigne, whose work stands as a marvel of luminous reflection on the ways of man. Writing itself was a moral act for Levi; his “crystalline” prose (as Goldstein calls it) served partly as an antidote to the language confusion – Yiddish, Polish, French, Hungarian – he had encountered at Auschwitz.
Toni Morrison’s introduction to this collection, oddly, has a flavour of the “wilful obs­curity” that Levi so distrusted. In solemn academic tones it lauds the Complete Works as “far more than a welcome opportunity to reevaluate and reexamine historical and contemporary plagues of systematic necrology; it becomes a brilliant deconstruction of malign forces”. Morrison speaks of the “Holocaust”, moreover, when Levi had made no secret of his dislike of the term. (“It seems to me inappropriate, it seems to me rhetorical, above all mistaken.”) From the Greek, “holocaust” means a sacrificial burnt offering to the gods: even by the barbarous standards of antiquity, Levi insisted, the Nazi genocide was not a ritual offering of victims.
Of course, Levi was more than a witness to contemporary barbarism. In much of the newly translated journalism, fiction and poetry he explores the border zone between science and literature. His great scientific memoir, The Periodic Table, published in Italy in 1975, was ahead of its time: only in recent years has science become, in publishing terms, popular and attractive. Long before Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and others, Levi had sought to make science accessible to the layperson. The Periodic Table gathers up an extraordinary range of writing, from detective fiction to learned scientific commentary. Chronicled are the fumes, stinks, bangs and fiascos (as well as the occasional triumphs) of Levi’s early chemistry experiments in 1930s Turin, his deportation to Auschwitz and post-war recovery as a writer and chemist.
Over a quarter of a century has passed since Levi died in 1987, yet his fame has grown during this period. In certain quarters of the United States, nevertheless, his suicide provoked a degree of moral outrage. By taking his life, an anonymous diarist objected in the New Yorker, Levi had cheated his readers. So violent a gesture (he pitched himself down the stairwell of the block of flats where he lived in Turin) was seen to be at odds with the calm reason of his prose. The belief remains as vulgar as it is short-sighted: the manner of Levi’s death in no way diminishes the importance of his writing. In The Complete Works Levi portrays himself variously as courageous, cowardly, prophetic or naive, but usually well balanced; in reality he was not at all well balanced.
Levi and his books are not one and the same. If anything, his suicide reminds us that the life of the artist does not run parallel to his art. The suicide was provoked by a clinical depression, which was compounded by a number of factors, among them the fear of memory loss and, possibly, guilt at having survived Auschwitz. These three volumes, appearing two decades after the two-volume Opere published in Italy in 1997, confirm Primo Levi as one of the most important writers of our time.
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