hile imprisoned in Auschwitz, Primo Levi had a recurring dream: “Here is my sister, with some unidentifiable friends of mine and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling: the three-note whistle, the hard bunk, my neighbor whom I would like to move but am afraid to wake because he is stronger than I am. I also speak at length about our hunger and about how we are checked for lice, and about the Kapo who hit me on the nose and then sent me to wash because I was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people, and to have so many things to recount, but I can’t help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent….”
The dream, which Levi discovered to his amazement was shared by many other prisoners, always ended in anguish: “A desolating grief now rises in me, like some barely remembered pain of early childhood. It is pain in its pure state…the kind of pain that makes children cry…. Why does it happen? Why is the pain of every day so constantly translated, in our dreams, into the ever repeated scene of the story told and not listened to?”
The urge to tell compelled Levi, who was a chemist by profession, to write If This Is a Man. After its publication in 1947, he wrote, “I realized that I had a new instrument in my hands, intended to weigh, to divide, to verify—like the ones in my laboratory, but flexible, quick, gratifying.”
The Truce, published in 1959, takes up where If This Is a Man left off, describing Levi’s Odyssean journey home to Italy after the Russian army liberated the camp. Later works established Levi’s preeminence among Italian writers and were widely read all over the world. Yet “in international culture”, as Monica Quirico writes in an appendix to the newly released Complete Works of Primo Levi, “the image of Levi as witness has come to dominate not only his status as a great writer but other essential aspects of his personality and his work.” Levi was an astonishingly brilliant memoirist, but he was also a poet, a short-story writer, a novelist, a critic, a translator, and an essayist of genius. As Ann Goldstein writes in her editor’s introduction, The Complete Works seeks to “enable English-speaking readers to encounter for the first time the entire range of his versatile, inventive, curious, crystalline intelligence.”
These three heavy, lavish volumes contain all of Levi’s published work, translated or retranslated under Goldstein’s supervision. Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker who has also translated Elena Ferrante and Pier Paolo Pasolini, took on The Truce, The Periodic Table, and one collection of short stories herself; she and the remaining nine translators, perhaps infected by Levi’s characteristically modest style, have made themselves so transparent that the end result feels seamless. One can read the collection straight through without once being jolted by a change in voice.
Even the secondary texts—afterwords, scholarly commentaries, a chronology enhanced by helpful maps—stand back and let Levi speak. The only essay with a personal touch comes from Stuart Woolf, who worked closely with Levi in 1958 on the first English translation of If This Is a Man (originally released in the United States under the title Survival in Auschwitz). Woolf’s revision of this translation opens The Complete Works, and his account of their collaboration—the two met in Levi’s apartment “every Tuesday and Thursday evening for the best part of a year”—is deeply moving. Levi was fanatical about his translations, and he seems to have ridden his young colleague rather hard. Yet he comes across, in Woolf’s essay, as unfailingly polite, generous, and kind. “He put to good use his remarkable memory when he was not fully convinced that I had adequately rendered the precise weight of his wording,” Woolf recalls, without a trace of remembered rancor. “When…I explained to him that I did not feel capable of translating his powerful and essential introductory poem, he reassured me and translated it himself…And soon afterward, although, as he explained to me, he regarded himself as outside the Turin Jewish community, Primo accepted my request that he be my best man when [my wife] Anna and I had a religious marriage.”
Ernesto Ferrero’s chronology, which carefully tracks Levi’s career, is an invaluable resource alongside The Complete Works. (Toni Morrison’s bewilderingly inapt introduction is the collection’s nadir.) Using pithy snippets from interviews and essays, Ferrero assembles a portrait of the artist’s intellectual, moral, political, and spiritual development. Levi’s own words are given pride of place, though his home life is scarcely mentioned. (“He marries Lucia Morpurgo,” reads a typical “personal” milestone in its entirety.) At age 14, Levi says, he became metaphysically smitten with chemistry, enthralled by its orderly promise that human beings “live in a conceivable universe, comprehensible to our imagination.” It especially thrilled him to see “the anguish of the darkness [give] way before the ardor of research.” The racial laws, promulgated in 1938 when Levi was already at the University of Turin (Jews previously enrolled were permitted to graduate), constituted, for him, “the reductio ad absurdum of the stupidity of fascism.” Levi’s family had originally adapted to fascism “with some annoyance”; he found the racial laws “providential” precisely because they precipitated a break. “I would say that for me, and for others, the racial laws gave us back our free will,” he later wrote. In December 1943, he and several friends were arrested as partisans; after a month in a transit camp near Modena, they were sent to Auschwitz. And “at Auschwitz,” he famously said, “I became a Jew.”
The consciousness of feeling different was forced upon me. Someone, for no reason in the world, decided that I was different and inferior: my natural reaction was, in those years, to feel different and superior….In that sense, Auschwitz gave me something that has stayed with me. By making me feel Jewish, it inspired me to retrieve, afterward, a cultural patrimony that I hadn’t had before.
Italian Jews were peculiarly situated: “We Italian Jews didn’t speak Yiddish; we were foreigners to the Germans and foreigners also to the Eastern European Jews, who had no idea that a Judaism like ours existed….We and the Greeks were the lowest of the low; I would say that we were worse off than the Greeks, because the Greeks were in large part habituated to discrimination….But the Italians, the Italian Jews, so accustomed to being considered equal to everyone else, were truly without armor, as naked as an egg without a shell.”
Stripped of his shell, Levi became exquisitely attenuated to his surroundings: “I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritedness…I never stopped recording the world and people around me. I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by…the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous, but new, monstrously new.”
Levi wrote If This Is a Man in 1946. “If I hadn’t had the experience of Auschwitz, I probably would not have written anything,” he later wrote. After the war, for nearly 30 years, Levi worked full time as a chemist in a paint factory; yet writing about the Lager (as Levi called Auschwitz) loosed a general urge for self-expression.
In Other People’s Trades (1985), Levi holds forth on everything from linguistics to beetles to family forebears. Each essay glitters like a little gem; all are erudite, bewitching, and droll. Levi was a true polymath, and his curiosity knew no bounds.
The Periodic Table was published in 1975, the same year Levi retired from chemistry to write full time. His subsequent novels (The Wrench and If Not Now, When?), short stories (Lilith and Other Stories), and an assortment of mediocre poems take up much of the second and third volumes of The Complete Works. After The Periodic Table, they feel a bit anticlimactic. However, Levi’s two late volumes of nonfiction—Other Peoples’ Trades, a diverse collection of essays originally published in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, and the utterly magnificent The Drowned and the Saved—are among the best things he ever wrote.
In Other People’s Trades (1985), Levi holds forth on everything from linguistics to beetles to family forebears who apparently didn’t quite make it into The Periodic Table: “One was an anarchist… another was a renowned sculler and a neuropath, while one (the story was told in whispers and in tones of horror), when still in the care of a wet nurse, had been eaten in his crib by a pig.” Paramecia seen under a microscope are “streamlined, nimble, twisted like old slippers.” He writes about chess, duels, squirrels, sidewalks, and his lifelong terror of spiders, for which he blames “the engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Arachne in Canto XII of [Dante’s] Purgatory, with which I collided as a child.” Each essay glitters like a little gem; all are erudite, bewitching, and droll. Levi was a true polymath, and his curiosity knew no bounds.
The Drowned and the Saved (1986) is entirely different. It falls somewhere between memoir and philosophical treatise, and functions as an excursus on If This Is a Man, written after decades of contemplation. The second chapter, which dissects “the gray zone” of protekcja (privilege) and collaboration within the camps, is justifiably celebrated. But the eeriest and most fascinating essay in the book—perhaps in all of Levi’s work—comes near the book’s end. “Letters from Germans” begins when Levi learns, in 1959, that a German publisher has bought the translation rights to If This Is a Man. “I was overcome by a violent new emotion, that of having won a battle,” he writes. “I had indeed written the book in Italian, for Italians, for their children, for those who did not know… But its real audience, those at whom the book was aimed like a gun, was them, the Germans. And now the gun was loaded.”
Levi got lucky with his translator, an “anomalous German” with perfect Italian who spent the war hiding from (and fighting) the Nazis in Padua. Their collaboration was intense, and ultimately Levi deemed it a success; shortly after the translation was published, letters began to arrive. Roughly 40 Germans wrote to him, all but one “polite, civil correspondents, members of the population that had exterminated mine.” Their letters, and Levi’s queasy, guarded replies, are extraordinary to read.
In early April 1987, less than a year after the publication of The Drowned and the Saved, Levi wrote to a friend: “I am suffering from a severe depression, and I am struggling to no avail to escape it… Let us see what the next months will bring to all of us, but my present situation is the worst I ever experienced, Auschwitz included.” On April 11, Levi died, a suicide. The Complete Works, a thoughtful, thorough, and impressive feat of collaborative scholarship, succeeds as both tribute and monument to his life and work.