The Collected Works of Primo Levi, Edited by Ann Goldstein (REVIEW)
Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were the two most immediate and authentic literary voices who gave witness to the Holocaust. Wiesel was an extrovert and a very public figure who wrote initially in French. Levi was a modest retiring chemist who wrote in Italian. Whereas Wiesel was rooted in the Eastern European Jewish Hassidic world, Levi was the product of an assimilated, secular Italian society that saw itself as Italian first and Jewish as an accident of birth.
As Levi himself said, “At Auschwitz I became a Jew.” His was a left wing, secular point of view. His Judaism was assimilated. I was drawn to him for his retiring personality, his modesty, and his profound sadness. Wiesel said of him that he died at Auschwitz. Most people believe that when he died in 1987, he committed suicide (although others are convinced it was an accident).
Levi’s life’s work as a writer (although he trained as a chemist) is arguably the most important literary testimony to the times. Why Wiesel won the Nobel Prize and Primo did not is another example of the inconsistency, illogicality, and perhaps prejudices of the Nobel committees.
Levi had no intention of becoming a writer. He graduated as a chemist in 1941. Excluded from working for Italian companies because of the anti-Jewish laws, he found employment with a Swiss firm. But after Mussolini’s fall and Badoglio’s overtures to the allies, the Germans took over. Levi joined the Partizans but was captured, handed over, and together with other Italians was sent to Auschwitz in February 1944.
Only years afterwards did he decide to become a writer in the broader sense of the word. He read widely. Quoted Dante, Swift, Mann, and T.S Eliot, just to indicate the range. He translated Kafka and Levi Strauss. He wrote about Italy, about life, humanity, and love. And yet he kept coming back — drawn, forced, compelled — to write and speak out about the Nazi horror.
The new Complete works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein and published by Liveright, is an impressive and moving collection of almost everything he wrote. If only one could remove the execrable introduction, I would say that no thinking home should be without a copy.
In the chaos of post-war Europe, it took Levi over a year of wandering, being shunted around Eastern Europe, before he arrived back home to Turin in 1946. There he immediately wrote his first book, If This is a Man, which was published in 1947, and all but ignored until Einaudi re-printed it in 1958 and it was translated into English in 1959. It was not until then that he turned to writing full time. He took it upon himself to write about what the Holocaust had been like, to campaign for it to be remembered and to teach the next generations. He had no explanations. Only the repeated message that this was what humans were capable of.
A Boston rabbi rejected his submitted manuscript in 1947 on the grounds that no one wanted to hear about what happened to the Jews. Neither in Germany nor beyond did anyone want to talk about the Holocaust and crimes against the Jews.
His minimalist, dry observation of the hell he saw and experienced grips one like the bony hands of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. Sadly the Holocaust has produced so much opportunistic, pornographic, and dishonest material in prose and celluloid that the reality has been obscured and the horror a cliche. This is why Levi’s work is so important and must be read , precisely for its authenticity. He repeats in various places the German response to the question “why,” that “there is no why here.”
He followed If This Is A Man with the The Truce in 1963. It described the liberation, the confusion, and finally the long, tortuous trek home, the living dead he encountered, and the destroyed lives that struggled in whatever way they could to try to return to the land of the living. A volume of stories, Natural Histories, published in 1966, was of very different worlds. But he returned to his own experiences in the autobiographical The Periodic Table, using chemical metaphors to describe the episodes of his life.
The Wrench in 1978 focused on life in Italy in a previous generation and time. In 1982 he published If Not Now When (borrowing Hillel’s famous aphorism) that drew on his experiences of the Eastern European Jews he came into contact with as they struggled to rebuild their ruined lives.
The significance of this Liveright edition of his collected works is that it offers so many more stories, so much other written and spoken material that fleshes out the range of Levi’s interests, ideas, and talents. But for all the variety one is constantly reminded of the unique evil that he went through. He does not try to explain. He simply describes, “The German lagers constitute something unique in the admittedly bloody history of humanity; they added a monstrous goal, that of annihilating from the world entire peoples and cultures.” Again he says, “It seems to me the facts of Auschwitz can be interpreted only in this manner — that is as the insanity of a few men and the stupid and vile consent of many.”
He is angered by the refusal to come terms with the evil. Whether when writing about the Nazi Doctor Muller who abused him in Auschwitz and yet after the war, when their paths cross, tries to claim that he did nothing wrong — or the French revisionist Faurrisson who claimed there were no gas chambers — he is withering in his disgust. Or indeed towards those German murderers and sadists who returned to normal lives in industry, politics, and the judiciary and refused dying to accept their guilt. He despises the intellectual apologists. “We cannot read without dispiriting surprise the abject, servile voices (quoted by Leon Poliakov in ‘Auschwitz’ published in 1968) of Nobel Prize winning Stark, philosopher Heidegger and Cardinal Faullhaber, the supreme Catholic authority in Germany.”
Levi is often unfairly accused of rejecting his Jewish identity. And it is true he lacks a Jewish background, which leads him to make small errors. In his short story about the Golem he gets the Maharal’s name wrong. The Yiddish language and culture he picked up in the East is spotty. In the short piece “Ritual and Laughter,” although he ridicules orthodox practices, he ends up begrudgingly accepting that they have benefits and value.
He cannot accept the God who permitted Auschwitz to happen. He is no Zionist. And yet he says, “The relationship of every Jew, even if he is not a Zionist, to the State of Israel is obvious and profound.” And, “The existence of Israel may be inconvenient for some… but it threatens no one; if there is a people in the world that has millions of graves on its conscience, that is not us. Israel threatens no one for the same reason Finland does not threaten the Soviet Union.” Despite his criticisms of many things in Israel — his disappointment that it did not remain a socialist state and his anger at the Lebanon invasion — he did not repudiate Israel. And if there are those who try to use him as the poster boy of anti-Israelism, they are both dishonest and ignorant.
These Complete Works are a magnificent contribution to Levi’s reputation and oevre. We should be grateful to Ann Goldstein, not only for the editing but also for her elegant translations. And yet, as I have written before in these pages, it is the inexplicable insult to Levi’s memory of asking Toni Morrison to write an introduction that so mars this work. I pray that future editions will rectify this lack of judgment and sensitivity. Sensitivity, after all, is what marked Primo Levi, despite any revisionism, as a noble human being.