Primo Levi studied chemistry at Turin and worked as a chemist until, at 24, he joined the Italian “partisans” resisting the Nazi occupation of northern Italy in 1943. He was arrested by Italian Fascists and turned over to the Germans, who sent him to Auschwitz — he called it the Lager, the German word for a concentration camp — where he survived partly by luck, partly because he was put to work in a synthetic-rubber factory that used prisoners as slave labor. Returning to Italy, he wrote his memoir of Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), and worked 30 years for a paint factory while writing stories, poems, memoirs, essays, a novel and “The Periodic Table” (1975), his idiosyncratic autobiography in which each chapter was named for a chemical element and some chapters were short stories.
Levi earned world fame for the quiet, undramatic lucidity of “If This Is a Man” and for the strangely moving blend of scientific fact and quicksilver fantasy in “The Periodic Table.” In the United States his work was published haphazardly, with some books retitled for marketing purposes (“If This Is a Man” became “Survival in Auschwitz”), some printed in incomplete translations, some never translated at all. “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” expertly edited by Ann Goldstein — and the product of six years of negotiations to bring together the translation rights — includes everything Levi published, in new or revised translations. Twenty-eight years after his death, these three handsome volumes bring into focus the breadth and coherence of his genius, and make unexpectedly clear how deeply his work as a chemist shaped his unsettling work as a moralist and his unique vision of psychology and history.
Levi gave two different explanations of how he became a writer. “I write precisely because I am a chemist,” he said once. He also said, “If I hadn’t had the experience of Auschwitz, I probably would not have written anything.” Both statements were true. He emerged from Auschwitz with a “need to tell,” to bear witness. “The memories were burning inside me,” but he recorded them with a scientist’s cool detachment. What made his writings about Auschwitz uniquely memorable was his refusal to orate or exclaim over the horrors he described, his conviction that the facts were enough.
He was so thoroughly committed to facts that he wrote more angrily about Germans who, after the war, excused or denied the reality of the Lager than he wrote about the guards and commanders in the Lager itself. The most agitated prose in his “Complete Works” occurs in the chapter in his late meditation on Auschwitz, “The Drowned and the Saved” (1986), where he describes the letters he received from German readers of “If This Is a Man.” To one especially sanctimonious and self-exculpating letter, he replied with “perhaps the only angry letter I have ever written.”
Levi modeled his style on the reports compiled in chemical factories on the work of the preceding week. But there was nothing neutral about his style or content. Unlike almost everyone else who wrote about science in the 20th century, Levi never imagined that science was value-free. Just as human beings were moral or immoral, so, in his eyes, were chemical elements and compounds: “Sodium is a degenerate metal,” “chlorides in general are riffraff,” cerium “belongs to the equivocal and heretical family of the rare earth elements.” Morality, as Levi understood it, is not a set of rules or laws imposed by some divine power beyond ordinary reality; it is integral to reality, a matter of fact, not of opinion. In both the Lager and the laboratory, to lose sight of morality was to lose sight of what is real. Levi said of the Nazis who took up Nietzsche’s myth of the superman: “It is worth considering the fact that all of them, master and pupils, gradually took leave of reality at the same pace as their morals became detached from the morals common to every time and every civilization.”
The core of Nazi barbarism, as Levi saw it, was its reduction of unique human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category — Jews, for example — that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value. The core of Levi’s science, in contrast, was its refusal of generalizations and theories that transcend the realities of particular things. In a chemist’s work, he said, “You must not trust the almost-the-same. . . . The differences may be small but can lead to radically diverse results.” He added a laconic moral: “Not only the chemist’s work.” Like all great thinkers about science, Levi had a sharp sense of how easily science goes wrong, how readily scientists believe their own hypotheses. His story “Observed From a Distance” is a gentle parable of scientific fallibility, a report made by intelligent beings on the moon of their observations of Earth. They confidently interpret cities as inorganic crystals, ocean liners as migratory sea creatures and soccer stadiums as volcanic craters, but they are puzzled by the pervasive darkness, punctuated by sudden bursts of light, that occurred from 1939 through 1945.
For Levi, any attempt to “understand” or “comprehend” either chemical reactions or Nazi genocide risked the error of generalizing about the “almost-the-same”: “What we commonly mean by the verb ‘to understand’ coincides with ‘to simplify.’ . . . The desire for simplification is justified; simplification itself is not always. It is a working hypothesis that is useful as long as it is recognized for what it is.”
Perhaps, he wrote, Nazi hatred “cannot be comprehended, or rather, shouldn’t be comprehended, because to comprehend is almost to justify.” What is required instead is a recognition of what it is: “If understanding is impossible, recognizing is necessary, because what has happened can happen again, consciences can again be seduced and obscured: even our own.”
Levi scandalized some readers by reporting what he called “a disturbing but inevitable phenomenon” that he saw in Auschwitz: the “gray zone” between oppressors and the oppressed, in which some prisoners became the “privileged” who joined their captors in oppressing other prisoners. “We are aware,” he writes, “that this is very distant from the picture that is usually given of the oppressed.” But though he wrote that “even our own” consciences can be seduced, he had no use for the leveling fantasy that everyone’s heart is equally guilty: “I do not know, nor am I particularly interested in knowing, whether a murderer is lurking deep within me, but I do know that I was an innocent victim and not a murderer.”
The “Complete Works” includes Levi’s many gracefully satirical science-fiction stories set in the near future, stories in which our peaceful modern technological culture treats human beings as things, as objects that perform functions — and can therefore be replaced by machines. A poet buys a labor-saving mechanical versifier; a three-dimensional copier produces an exact duplicate of someone’s wife or husband, complete with personality and memories. The unspoken point is that it is not only Nazi murderers who forget what it means to be human.
Levi combined a passionate sense of human dignity with a deep fatalism about human freedom. Everyone in Levi’s memoirs and fiction has a sharply defined character and personality, but no one changes from within, no one makes a decisive choice, no one experiences the give-and-take changes of intimate relationships. Instead, any change in a person’s life is the result of something like an inexorable chemical reaction. A friend who refused to compromise with Fascism “reacted well to the reagent of the racial laws” that had been imposed on Italian Jews. Levi said of himself: “If it hadn’t been for the racial laws and the concentration camp, I’d probably no longer be a Jew, except for my last name. Instead, this dual experience, the racial laws and the concentration camp, stamped me the way you stamp a steel plate.”
He had no wish for vengeance, he said. Vengeance was as pointless against a Nazi as it would be against a destructive chemical like sulfuric acid.
What Levi values most — more than life, more than happiness — is the power to remain oneself, even in the face of death. He says of himself and his fellow prisoners at Auschwitz: “We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to almost certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength, for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.”
François Rabelais, writing in the 16th century, “doesn’t resemble us,” Levi said, “but he feels close to us as a model . . . for the way he writes, so alien to categories and rules.” Levi’s disdain for categories and rules — or anything that tries to shape reality from outside — is everywhere in his work, from his contempt for the Lager’s murderous rules about Jews as a category to his indifference to Jewish ritual and law. Judaism interested him as a culture, not as a religion. He wrote almost nothing about the beliefs of his Piedmontese Jewish ancestors, but much about their distinctive dialect and vocabulary.
In 1987, shortly after prostate surgery, Levi told a friend he was in a “severe depression,” though “the will to recover is strong.” When he killed himself two days later, he was still at the height of his powers as a writer. In the previous weeks he had written some of his most exuberant stories, in the form of interviews with a giraffe, a spider and other animals. He died at 67, and the 3,000 pages of his “Complete Works” seem tragically few.