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The Atlantic. Why Primo Levi Survives

His will to bear witness, and record the hellish particularity of the Holocaust, helped save his life in Auschwitz. It also inspired the writing he will be remembered for.

William Dereziewicz.

Three volumes, 3,000 pages: The Complete Works of Primo Levi, in its very girth and exhaustiveness, asserts a claim about the man whose oeuvre it collects. Best known for his Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man, as well as for The Periodic Table—a book about his life in, with, and through chemistry—Levi should be seen, as the collection’s publicity material puts it, as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.” Novels, stories, poems, essays, science writing, science fiction, newspaper columns, articles, open letters, book reviews: His every word is worth preserving, translating, purchasing, pondering. To read them all together, the collection insists, is to see the man anew.I say this with reluctance—The Complete Works, which was 15 years in the making, is clearly a labor of love, meticulously edited by Ann Goldstein and seamlessly carried over from Italian, in fresh renditions, by a team of 10 translators—but the claim, on the volumes’ own evidence, is manifestly false. Levi is a great writer. He is a vivid writer, an unflinching writer, an indispensable writer. But he is also a limited writer, both in talents and in range. It does no favors, to the reader or to him, to try to rank him with the likes of Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Beckett. His achievement, in his work about the Holocaust and its aftermath—If This Is a ManThe Truce, and The Drowned and the Saved, as well as parts of Lilith and The Periodic Table—is significant enough. Surrounding that achievement with masses of ephemera only obscures it. A selected works, at half the length for half the price (The Complete Works lists for $100), would have served him better.

Still, if the collection brings new readers and renewed attention, 28 years after his death, to this remarkable artist and man, it will have done important work. Levi is the rare writer about whom it can be said that his literary virtues originate in, and are largely inseparable from, his moral ones. His ability to guide us through the hell of the camps depends upon his powers of precise observation as well as on an eidetic memory of the 11 months of his enslavement. But it also rests upon a superhuman strength of mind, a refusal to distort the record with a spasm of self-pity or sentimentality, of pain or rage or lust for revenge.

Consider the fact that the very first words of If This Is a Man are “It was my good fortune.” This is a book that was written immediately after the author’s return from Auschwitz, his face so bloated by malnutrition that his family didn’t recognize him. It was Levi’s good fortune, he goes on to explain, to be deported only in 1944, by which time the Germans were in desperate need of labor and therefore interested in keeping able-bodied Jewish men alive—or at least in killing them less quickly. Levi had grown up in Turin, the intellectually gifted son of an assimilated Jewish family. He studied chemistry in college, then joined the partisans in 1943 after the collapse of the Fascist regime and the occupation of the country’s north by German troops. Arrested that winter, he acknowledged his Jewish identity, was interned at a transit camp, and sent to Auschwitz. Of the 650 men, women, and children in his convoy, some 20 would return.

Many factors contributed to Levi’s survival, most of them matters of sheer luck, but chief among them, by his own account, was the will to bear witness: to transmit the experience, to a no doubt disbelieving world, with scrupulous exactitude. The effort clears his eyes and purifies his language. There are few general ideas in If This Is a Man—life under Fascism, he would later say, had taught him to prefer small, verifiable statements to big, rhetorical ones—but rather a succession of indelible particulars. The way you say never, in the slang of the camp, is “tomorrow morning.” Packed together with a mass of other naked men awaiting a “selection,” one of the periodic medical inspections that determine who gets to keep on suffering and who will be sent to the gas, he experiences “the sensation of warm flesh pressing all around” as “unusual and not unpleasant.” “In German,” he tells us, “I know how to say eat, work, steal, die.”

With perhaps a sense of mercy for the reader, or perhaps reflecting the shape of his own experience—the shock of entry into a universe of hunger, cold, and pain—Levi brings us quickly to the worst. The fifth chapter, “Our Nights,” is all but unreadable. The men bunk two to a miserable bed, head to toe. Sleep is a light veil. “One wakes at every moment, frozen with terror … under the impression of an order shouted out by a voice full of anger in a language not understood.” Men “smack their lips and waggle their jaws” in their sleep. Their food comes mainly in the form of a watery soup, forcing the inmates to urinate frequently during the night. They evacuate into a bucket, which must be emptied constantly, by whoever brings it to the brim. The latrine is outside, across the snowy prison yard:

It is our task to trudge to the latrine with the bucket, which knocks against our bare calves, disgustingly warm; it’s full beyond any reasonable limit, and inevitably with the shaking some of the contents spills over onto our feet, so that, however repugnant this duty may be, it is always preferable that we, and not our bunk companion, be ordered to do it.

The night ends long before dawn, when the guard “pronounces the daily condemnation”: Wstawać—get up.

Far worse than the physical suffering, whose urgency fades from memory, are the affronts to human dignity. Those wounds, it seems, do not heal. As a chemist, Levi is drafted into a squad of skilled workers for the rubber factory. He must pass an oral examination administered by a Doktor Pannwitz, “tall, thin, blond.” Pannwitz looks at him. It is a look, Levi tells us, that “did not pass between two men.” Earlier, after a comparable incident, he had felt “as if I had never in all my life suffered a more atrocious insult”—that of being treated as a beast. Now, he says,

if I knew how to explain fully the nature of that look, exchanged as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds, I would also be able to explain the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.

Beyond the obligation to bear witness, If This Is a Man is driven by a need to redress that affront—to assert to the world that its author is, indeed, a man. And not even to the world, per se. In 1961, 14 years after the book’s initial publication, a translation was made into German. In the preface, Levi writes that his one conscious purpose in life has been “to make my voice heard by the German people, to ‘talk back’ to the SS … to Dr. Pannwitz … and to their heirs.” Beasts do not talk back. In the camp, he has told us, you learn very quickly not to ask questions, because you’re not entitled to an answer. Communication goes in one direction, by means of shouts and blows. But now he has something to say to the Germans: “I am alive, and I would like to understand you so that I can judge you.” We are witnessing a very private interaction.

Understand and judge: Levi’s greatness as a writer of the Holocaust is analytical as much as narrative. His effort to make sense of a phenomenon that is devoid of sense by civilized standards was a lifelong project that began, in effect, the moment he entered the camp. The prisoner’s first, most exigent need was to decipher the rules of the place. That is why intellectuals, Levi remarks in The Drowned and the Saved, were at a disadvantage: because “logic and morality impeded acceptance of an illogical and immoral reality.” Those who spoke no German, he adds, and who therefore couldn’t understand the orders of the brutes in black, were generally dead in half a month.

In If This Is a Man, the author’s educative process is embodied in the volume’s very language. Before his deportation, in the transit camp, it is elegiac, noble. A large extended family prepares for the journey from which they know they will never return:

When all was ready, the food cooked, the bundles tied up, they loosened their hair, took off their shoes, placed the funeral candles on the ground, and, lighting them according to the customs of their fathers, sat on the bare soil in a circle for the lamentations, praying and weeping through the night.

But the instant Levi passes underneath the infamous sign, arbeit macht frei, that wise and cultivated voice departs. The man who possessed it is no longer with us. The language switches to the present tense: Every moment is the last; there is no place from which to stand and say “it was.” For many pages afterward, the facts come at us one by one, just as he encountered them and from the same perspective—that of total, vulnerable naïveté. The tone at times reminds you of a children’s book, if there were children’s books about the inferno. “Häftling: I have learned that I am a Häftling. My name is 174517.”

At last he starts to get his bearings. After five months, he has become an “old prisoner.” Time begins again. Chapters acquire titles like “The Events of the Summer” and “October 1944.” By now he is able to step back and describe the workings of the camp: the black market that operates in the northeast corner, where a stolen turnip, say, can be exchanged for a bit of third-rate tobacco; the “Prominents,” inmates who have managed to achieve position (cook, Kapo, superintendent of the latrine); the strategies and tactics of survival. The book’s middle chapter is an interlude. Levi asks himself whether there is anything to be learned from all this—about human nature, about the world outside the camps. Here we feel the scientist come to the fore. Yes, he says, “the Lager [camp] was also, and preeminently, a gigantic biological and social experiment … to determine what is inherent and what acquired in the behavior of the human animal faced with the struggle for life.”Interpreting the results of that experiment would occupy him, at intervals, for the rest of his life: in essays and speeches; in countless appearances at schools; in correspondence with German and other readers; in a voluminous reading of Holocaust memoirs and studies, many of which are reviewed in the pages of The Complete Works. Above all, at the end of his life, in The Drowned and the Saved(1986), a pendant, some 39 years later, to If This Is a Man and an intellectual and moral triumph.

There and elsewhere, Levi does battle against the myths, stereotypes, and pieties that have accreted around the Holocaust. The event is not incomprehensible; it yields its mechanisms, most of them composed of ordinary human motivations, to meticulous analysis. Its victims were not saintly; oppression corrupts the oppressed, a process for which the Nazis had a special knack. The survivors experienced shame not only for surviving, but also for witnessing acts that indict the entire species. Yes, the Holocaust was unique, but it must not be cordoned off from the rest of history. In all of Levi’s work, the journey is his most persistent motif. He wants to know precisely how we got from here to there, and how we might get back. “How could it have happened” is not a rhetorical question for him. It is a summons to thought.

Understand, in order to judge. Not to punish—that is someone else’s job. Not to forgive, “because I do not know of any human actions that can undo a wrong.” But to judge: to render justice. One of Levi’s most important analytic concepts is the “gray zone,” the intricately articulated realm of intermediaries between the Nazis and the “drowned,” the large majority of victims who went down without a struggle—the realm of those who cooperated with evil, to one degree or another, in order to survive, if only for a day. Before it Levi sits like Minos in Dante’s Inferno (an allusion that he makes himself), assessing their precise degrees of guilt: from the “swarms of low-level functionaries”—“sweepers, vat washers … bed smoothers”—all the way up to the unspeakable Chaim Rumkowski, the “petty tyrant” of the Lodz Ghetto, so besotted with his office that he printed stamps that bore his image.

The Germans don’t escape, of course. Not just the Nazis (Levi has a brilliant essay on Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, who in other circumstances would have been “at most a careerist with modest ambitions”), but also the enormous throng of ordinary Germans who must have known, should have known, looked the other way, or willfully forgot: who worked in, lived near, built, supplied, or purchased from the vast network of slave-labor camps that were integral to the German economy—“a mass of ‘invalids,’ ” Levi calls them, “huddled around a core of savages.”

Through it all he keeps his preternatural judiciousness and objectivity. Almost the first thing he tells us in The Drowned and the Saved, for example, is that the memoirs of survivors “should be read with a critical eye”—because their vantage point was limited and because they did not, by definition, “plumb the depths.” To the end, Levi remained the prodigy of inner rectitude who had refused to pray in Auschwitz during that selection. He was not a believer, he explains, and “the rules of the game don’t change … when you’re losing.” Besides, to pray that you and not another should survive is such a prayer as the Lord should “spit … out upon the ground.”If this is a man was initially published, in 1947, to scant attention. Levi had returned to his career as a chemist and wrote little over the next few years. Republished in 1958, the book began to find its audience, and its author felt encouraged to attempt another full-length work. The Truce (1963) is a sequel, a chronicle of Levi’s circuitous journey home across the polyglot tumult of Eastern Europe in the denouement and aftermath of the war. If the earlier book was Inferno, this one is The Odyssey, a tale of prodigies and marvels, adventures and idleness, Homeric storytelling and Homeric reunions. Judged purely as narrative, it is the best writing Levi ever did.

The war is over, or at least as the book begins, the front has passed. The living want to live again. Levi’s prose is fat and happy, sweet with simile and joyful even when relating hardship. A charming, benevolent humor presides, with touches of comic solemnity. The book is picaresque and carnivalesque, a menagerie of human nature. Levi’s subject, as always, is character, the limitless diversity of the human species as it responds to the endless variety of its circumstances, and here he is a master of the literary quick-sketch: rogues, thieves, veterans, ingenues, ladies’ men.

If the Lager was an experiment, so is the world of The Truce—but now a juster one, because people are free. A work of postapocalyptic nonfiction, the story watches as society reconstitutes itself from scratch. What comes back first is commerce: the elemental drive to trade for what you need. And with commerce comes not kindness, exactly, but camaraderie. The delectable feeling of being alive together.Images of Auschwitz return, reversed. Levi, drunk, awakes in a railway station beneath a pile of bodies—warm ones, a layer of sleepers who have buried him during the night. There is a train, but it takes him home; showers and gas, but presided over by a squad of “giant and silent GIs,” who disinfect him as he crosses to the West. There is a camp, with a hole in the fence. One day, “the sentinel was snoring, lying drunk on the ground, his machine gun over his shoulder”—as lovely a symbol of peacetime as one can imagine. Most of all there are the Russians, whose presence dominates the book and who are everything the Germans aren’t: lax, disorganized, tolerant, warm, with “a Homeric capacity for joy and abandon, a primitive vitality.” The life force, overwhelming the forces of death.

Levi went on to publish three more book-length works of narrative: The Periodic Table (1975), The Wrench (1978), and If Not Now, When? (1982). The first was voted “the best science book ever written” in a contest sponsored by The Guardian in 2006 and finally won its author an American audience, amidst ecstatic reviews, upon its publication in the United States, in 1984, but it is considerably less worthy, in my view, than its reputation suggests. It is a fine book by any standard, and some of its 21 chapters—especially the first, on Levi’s family history—rise to the level of his best work. But its organizing principle, keying each of its vignettes to one of the chemical elements, is less a unitary concept than an excuse to gather together a heterogeneous mass of material (an impression confirmed by the textual notes included in The Complete Works). The book tries to do too many things: illuminate the life of a working chemist; flesh out its author’s biography, particularly in the years before his deportation; rescue bits of uncollected fiction. Levi’s genius ran to shorter units—the episode, the anecdote, the tale. Larger structures tended to elude him.

The Wrench has a comparable problem. Critics disagree as to whether the book should be considered a novel or a set of linked stories—already a symptom of trouble. Either way, the work attempts to do for engineers what The Periodic Tabledid for chemists: rescue their work from literary oblivion. This is Levi the populist, Italian neorealist, and lover of Joseph Conrad, chronicling the unsung lives of men who work with the obdurate stuff of matter, and the quiet virtues that their work demands. Faussone, the book’s Conradian protagonist and yarn-spinner, is an itinerant rigger who builds industrial structures. His wrench, he says, “is what a sword was to a knight.” Auschwitz is absent, yet the volume’s highest meaning—Levi all but says it—is a statement of rebuke: Work, done well, really does make you free. Still, the stories are pedestrian and, indeed, largely disconnected, and their literary value apparently depends on Levi’s use of Piedmontese dialect, an effect impossible to reproduce in English.

If Not Now, When? is Levi’s only true novel, the saga of a band of Jewish partisans during World War II. The appeal of the subject was twofold for him. These are Jews with agency, dignity, guns. They are also Ashkenazim, members of the vast community, possessors of an intricate and ancient culture, whom Levi discovered in the Lager and who became an enduring fascination. The book is competently done, with a direct style that doesn’t strain for effect and a moral frankness and freedom from sentimentality. But Levi, for all his research, cannot surmount his status as an outsider. The characters are thin, and his grip on them comes and goes. There is too much explanation, too many episodes that come across as lessons. Levi lacked the fiction writer’s gift for devious lying. He was an observer, not an imaginer.

I am not persuaded, for similar reasons, by Levi’s science fiction. He wrote a lot of it, throughout his career—more than 50 pieces altogether. Almost all are rather slight, ideas quickly drawn with little in the way of narrative texture: more science than fiction. Levi gets high marks for technological prescience, anticipating smartphones, 3‑D printing, virtual reality, in vitro fertilization, and artificial intelligence. But the real interest here is biographical—the ways the stories sometimes reflect, or more often inadvertently reflect upon, the man who wrote them. “Angelic Butterfly,” by far the most powerful piece, is an allegory of Nazi eugenics. Other stories give form to their author’s apparent discomfort with sex, its sticky physicality—tales of females being pollinated by the wind and so forth, in contrast to the sexually powerful women who haunt a lot of his writing.

The complete works assembles nearly 200 essays, most of them quite brief: columns, forewords, inscriptions, reviews. As with Levi’s science fiction, a small selection would have sufficed. He is unfailingly curious, elegant, patient, humane, with wide interests in science and the natural world. But he is not, outside his writing on the Holocaust, a deep or original thinker. There is a large amount of repetition here, mainly in connection with the author’s tireless activity as witness. Levi likened himself to the ancient mariner, retelling his story to all who will listen. As the decades unfold, we see him informing the ignorant, upbraiding the simplifiers and sensationalizers, excoriating the denialists, and seeking to instruct the young. He speaks to present ills as well: nuclear weapons, the war in Vietnam, the recrudescence of fascism in 1970s Europe. Levi published a passionate defense of the Jewish state on the eve of the Six-Day War, but unlike Elie Wiesel, who has never publicly criticized Israeli policy, he wrote a sorrowful denunciation of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Many of Levi’s political sentiments take the form of postwar Enlightenment boilerplate: “Man is, and must be, sacred to man”; “Humanity will be one, or it will not be.” There is much technological salvationism, lots of optimistic talk about “the peaceful conquest of nature and victory over hunger, suffering, want, and fear.” Underneath, however, there are darker thoughts. Knowing not only what he had gone through but also what he was and would be going through—Levi struggled with depression, and his death in 1987 is regarded as a suicide—one can only see the happy talk as so much whistling past the graveyard. His science fiction is more apt to view technology as a threat. But the true repository of his negative emotions—isolation, bitterness, even hatred of life—was his poetry. “We’re invincible because we’re the defeated,” he writes in “Song of Those Who Died in Vain.” “We’re invulnerable because we’ve died.” Reading the poems, one wonders not that Levi killed himself, but that he took so long to do it.

Many of these verses are obsessed with time, the futility of effort in a universe of death. Better to have everything over, because eventually it will be over: for you, for the race, for the stars. Mendel, the protagonist of If Not Now, When? (whose title speaks of seizing the moment), is a mender of watches who wishes that time could run backwards, to before his wife and village perished in a common grave. Time broke for Levi at Auschwitz—a place where the day was so long “that we cannot reasonably conceive the end”—and it seems it never healed. Everything since is an interval, or, to take the title of his second book, a truce. Not peace; there is no peace. “But the war is over,” Levi says to a companion in that volume. “There is always war” is the reply. The Truce concludes with Levi back in Turin, surrounded by family and friends. He is sleeping in a bed whose yielding softness gives him a moment of terror. He dreams a dream, a dream within a dream. He is surrounded by “family, or friends, or at work, or in a verdant countryside.” Gradually the inner dream dissolves and the other one “continues coldly. I hear the sound of a well-known voice: a single word … get up, ‘Wstawać.’ ”

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