Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist

Overview

Until now, the world's representation of Primo Levi came almost entirely through his own writings. His public self - shy, intelligent, diffident - in some respects disguised the man within. This first biography delves deeply into the life and mind of a controversial writer, one who was really a philosophical student of life itself. Primo Levi explores the complex nature of a man who was both a strong and spirited survivor as well as a man prone to severe depression, a man who felt misunderstood and certain that ...
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Overview

Until now, the world's representation of Primo Levi came almost entirely through his own writings. His public self - shy, intelligent, diffident - in some respects disguised the man within. This first biography delves deeply into the life and mind of a controversial writer, one who was really a philosophical student of life itself. Primo Levi explores the complex nature of a man who was both a strong and spirited survivor as well as a man prone to severe depression, a man who felt misunderstood and certain that future generations would forget and deny what many would call the central informing disaster of the century. By bringing Levi's life into focus with material gathered from extensive research, interviews with friends and relatives, and numerous unpublished texts and testimonies, Myriam Anissimov has written not only the first biography of this major figure, but also a guide to Levi's works and times, which, even decades later, we must always call our times.
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Editorial Reviews

Victor Brombert
Anissimov is at her best evoking Levi's gentleness, his somehat puritanical and introverted reserve, his compulsion to talk about what he saw and suffered....Anissimov....can be moving, as when she recounts the last night 650 Jews spent in [an] Italian transit camp....[Levi's story] demonstrates humanistic pride in the power of words and in the human struggle against matter.
New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Levi, an Italian Jew, lived a ghastly year in Auschwitz. Liberated by the Russians, he roved through Europe before returning home, where he resumed his career as a chemist. Determined to bear witness to his harrowing experiences, he recounted them ceaselessly and wrote an agonizing account of his ordeal. Initially greeted with indifference, If This Is a Man was reissued 12 years later in 1958, this time reaching a broad audience. Prize-winning and widely translated books and articles followed. But Levi's growing international recognition gave him no comfort. He continued to struggle with his guilt and shame for having survived, and he was devastated by the Holocaust deniers. Finally, he committed suicide. Elie Wiesel said, "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later." This biography tells Levi's tragic story largely through his writing. It belongs in all libraries.--Morton Teicher, Walden Univ., Miami, FL
Booknews
Presents a detailed biography of an Italian chemist caught up in the Holocaust whose later books bore testimony to what he'd seen. The book makes use of research, interviews with Levi's friends and relatives, and unpublished texts and testimonies. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Internet Bookwatch
Primo Levi: Tragedy Of An Optimist is a major biography which delves deeply into the life, mind and work of an influential writer, philosopher, and Holocaust witness. Drawing from exhaustive research, interviews with friends and relatives, as well as numerous unpublished texts and testimonies, biographer Myriam Anissimov explores the complex nature of a most singular, shy, intelligent, and diffident man who was both a strong-spirited survivor and a sufferer of depression, a man who felt misunderstood, certain that future generations would inevitably forget, and even deny, that the Holocaust happened. Indeed, on April 11, 1987, his self-deprecating depression was to lead him to suicide by throwing himself down the staircase of the building in which he was born. Primo Levi is a superbly presented biography and an important, singular contribution to Holocaust studies.
Victor Brombert
Anissimov is at her best evoking Levi's gentleness, his somehat puritanical and introverted reserve, his compulsion to talk about what he saw and suffered....Anissimov....can be moving, as when she recounts the last night 650 Jews spent in [an] Italian transit camp....[Levi's story] demonstrates humanistic pride in the power of words and in the human struggle against matter. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A French novelist's fine-grained, illuminating exploration of a life lived under the shadow of Auschwitz. Primo Levi (1919-87) is widely regarded as one of the most lucid and coolly reflective witnesses of the Holocaust. He was a well-educated Italian Jew, a native of Turin, whom the SS deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Because of his professional expertise in chemistry and, as he emphasized, through blind luck, the Nazis did not murder him but put him to work. He survived and arduously made his way back to Italy. He returned to his childhood home (until his death he lived in the house he had been born in), established himself in the field of industrial chemistry, married and raised a family. As Anissimov shows, this modest, reserved, and seemingly dispassionate technologist burned inwardly with the "urgent need to free himself from his experience, believing that such a release-never to be achieved-was a moral and civic obligation." The full-bodied, unsentimental, yet immensely sympathetic image of Levi that emerges from these pages will not startle those familiar with his work (The Drowned and the Saved), but it will sharpen and deepen their understanding and appreciation of his writings. Perhaps the strongest point of Anissimov's accomplishment is her account of Levi's life from the '50s to his suicide-if it was a suicide-in 1987. She believes he threw himself down the deep stairwell of his apartment building because of depression, rage, and despair (though the writer left no note), but she also records his comment that Auschwitz failed to destroy his desire to live: "That experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness." In the years since 1945, somany "survivors" of death camps have killed themselves. Did meaningless suffering finally overwhelm even Levi's reserves of optimism and sense of mission? Anissimov does not solve the puzzle, but she has admirably set out the pieces for her readers to ponder.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585670208
  • Publisher: Overlook Press, The
  • Publication date: 3/28/2000
  • Pages: 604
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 8.94 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

1 Corso Re Umberto

    The Corso Re Umberto is one of the broad avenues that criss-cross the elegant La Crocetta quarter in Turin. There are only a few shops, and the heavy gates of palazzi with austere facades often open on to hallways as spacious and sonorous as crypts. Passers-by are rare. Amid the dense foliage of the chestnut trees, the tramcars glide on rails covered in weeds.

    One Saturday morning in April 1987, a tragedy disrupted the peace and quiet of the Corso Re Umberto. Primo Levi had taken his own life.

    He left no farewell note to family or friends to account for the reasons that made him choose to die. Two days before, he had phoned the office of the Jewish community of Turin to ask whether the matzah, the unleavened Passover bread, had arrived. The previous day, on the last afternoon he was to spend in his study in Turin, he had phoned his cousin Giulia Diena, and Giovanni Tesio, a literary critic with whom he had begun an authorized biography which had been interrupted by his prostate operation.

    He was going through a phase of deep depression -- not the first -- as he struggled to recover from the after-effects of the operation, which had affected him severely. He was constantly occupied with his ninety-one year old mother, who was paralyzed, tyrannical and senile, and with his blind mother-in-law who was four years older. Primo Levi had a strong sense of duty, and had taken it upon himself to keep them both inside the family circle. Nevertheless, between them the two old ladies were a heavy responsibility and a source of tension for himself and his wife Lucia.

    In the public sphere, he had been deeply offended by the arguments denying the Holocaust which had received broad coverage in the press, and had replied to the French revisionist Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and Ernst Nolte, the German apologist for the Nazi regime, in an article called "The Black Hole of Auschwitz," published shortly before his death in La Stampa, the newspaper to which he had been a contributor for twenty-seven years.

    Some people have claimed that Primo Levi committed suicide, like the writer Jean Amery, because of the Holocaust. Yet when writing about his deportation to Auschwitz he had stated: "Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again."

    Levi had argued against suicide several times in his books, and he had conducted a kind of posthumous argument with Jean Amery after the latter's suicide on 17 October 1978. He had replied to Amery in a chapter of his last book, The Drowned and the Saved, entitled "The Intellectual in Auschwitz," in which he also defended himself against being the "forgiver" that Amery had claimed to have unearthed in him, in a book called Jenseits von Schuld und Suhne.

    Nine years after Amery, Levi too chose suicide. But Amery had premeditated and organized his death, whereas Levi, despite the period of dreadful depression he was suffering, appears to have succumbed to a sudden violent impulse. It is worth noting that his paternal grandfather also committed suicide -- because of his wife's infidelity -- and that the adolescent Primo Levi had mentioned the possibility of taking his own life to Alberto Salmoni, one of his close friends. The reasons that made him think about killing himself at the age of seventeen were tied up with the torments of a painfully shy young man born into an assimilated middle-class Jewish family. Referring to his sense of inferiority in the presence of girls, and uncontrollable terror at the idea of approaching them in spite of his longing to do so, he explained that this inhibition was undoubtedly linked to the feeling of being Jewish and circumcised. The truth is that his identity was still unformed, and his sense of belonging -- or not -- was imposed at first by his Christian classmates, who were the chief reminders of his difference. A Jew, he wrote in The Periodic Table, is someone who is circumcised, who does not celebrate Christmas, and does not eat pork. By likening circumcision to castration, his classmates intensified his feeling of being both odd and inferior. The racial laws which came into force in Italy in October 1938 made him aware of his Jewishness. At the time he was studying chemistry and was able to take his doctorate, even though he was an "impure Jew," only thanks to the protection of an anti-Fascist teacher, the astrophysicist Nicola Dallaporta.

    When a journalist once asked him whether, after surviving Auschwitz, he still had trust in mankind, Primo Levi replied:

I have always had it intuitively from birth. The camp did not manage to destroy it. That doesn't mean that it is necessary to have trust in all men, nor that one should not totally distrust some of them.... It is better to begin with a feeling of trust, at the risk of being mistaken. I prefer that in principle to despair and pessimism. That is a gamble. Optimism too is a gamble. It seems to me that optimism, although irrational, is the way to start out on the right foot, even it if turns out that one was mistaken.


2 A Jewish childhood under Fascism

Primo Levi was away from his apartment on the Corso Re Umberto only on rare occasions and for brief periods, except for the year he spent in the concentration camp of Monowitz-Buna (Auschwitz III), and the long months of being shunted around through Eastern Europe and Byelorussia before his return to Turin on 19 October 1945.

    He described his apartment in an article published in La Stampa, to which he regularly contributed essays, articles, notes, and poems. This nest, this "territory," was situated in a brick-built apartment block, in keeping with the other buildings on the avenue, and clad in a stucco that had turned dark grey in the course of almost a century. Perhaps it looked more sober than the rest, rather more austere in appearance, with no elaborate friezes above the high windows. On the other hand, when you pushed open the heavy entrance door, it came as a surprise to discover a hall and then a handsome flight of stairs, painted a creamy white, with a glazed lift of the kind manufactured at the turn of the century, and cast-iron banisters of Art Nouveau design.

    Nothing could have induced Primo Levi to move out of the apartment he was born in. He never preferred a more modern, luxurious or comfortable home, because he loved the place where his father and grandfather had lived. Every nook and cranny in the corridor was dear to him, including the wardrobe where as a child he had cut his knee on a splinter of glass while playing hide-and-seek. He never dreamed of leaving the solid walls that shut out the noises from the avenue, which during his childhood still had a village air about it, where the glazier and rag-and-bone man passed by, as well as the "collector of hair-combings," and the street singers with their barrel organs, who would catch the coins thrown out of windows, wrapped in a scrap of paper. Only close friends crossed the threshold of that quiet apartment.

    Agnese Incisa, a young editor from the publishing house Einaudi, who had a very friendly and trusting relationship with Primo Levi, describes a visit she paid him in November 1986, when his bedridden mother kept summoning her son to her room. Incisa remembers a dark passageway and the tidy hush of the austere apartment. The living-room had a flowered settee, late nineteenth-century furniture and lace mats. She noticed two bookcases -- one of them completely devoted to the Holocaust, with books in Yiddish and Hebrew -- a computer, a big table used as a writing desk, the shutters drawn over the two windows, and the cloistered atmosphere permeating the whole apartment. During her visit, the old lady called her son several times to ask him to fetch a glass of water, or tell her the time, or account for what he was doing. Levi told Agnese Incisa that each day at lunchtime it was his duty to spoon-feed his mother, even though she always had a nurse by her side.

    After meeting him the previous spring in London, the writer Philip Roth came to visit Primo Levi in Turin in September 1986. He spent "a long weekend" in his company, conducting a series of interviews. Roth explained that

The Levis' large apartment is still shared, as it has been since they met and married after the war, with Primo Levi's mother. She is 91. Levi's 95-year-old mother-in-law lives not far away, in the apartment immediately next door lives his 28-year-old son, a physicist, and a few streets off is his 38-year-old daughter, a botanist. I don't personally know of another contemporary writer who has voluntarily remained, over so many decades, intimately entangled and in such direct, unbroken contact with his immediate family, his birthplace, his region, the world of his forebears and, particularly, with the local working environment which, in Turin, the home of Fiat, is largely industrial....

Roth writes about

the lively, wide-ranging conversation we conducted, in English ... mostly behind the door of the quiet study off the entrance foyer to the Levis' apartment. Levi's study is a large, simply furnished room. There is an old flowered sofa and a comfortable easy chair; on the desk is a shrouded word-processor; perfectly shelved behind the desk are Levi's variously coloured notebooks; on shelves all round the room are books in Italian, German and English. The most evocative object is one of the smallest, an unobtrusively hung sketch of a half-destroyed wire fence at Auschwitz. Displayed more prominently on the walls are playful constructions skilfully twisted into shape by Levi himself out of insulated copper wire -- that is, wire coated with the varnish developed for that purpose in his own laboratory. There is a big wire butterfly, a wire owl, a tiny wire bug, and high on the wall behind the desk are two of the largest constructions -- one the wire figure of a bird-warrior armed with a knitting needle, and the other, as Levi explained when I couldn't make out what the figure was meant to represent, "a man playing with his nose." "A Jew," I suggested. "Yes, yes," he said, laughing, "a Jew, of course."


According to family tradition, Primo Levi was born in the room that was later to become his study, on 31 July 1919, the year when the National Socialist Party was founded in Germany and when Benito Mussolini created the Fasci italiani di combattimento. (It was also the year Antonio Gramsci, Angelo Tasca, Palmiro Togliatti and Umberto Terracini launched the Communist weekly L'Ordine nuovo, in Turin.)

    Primo's father, Cesare, was forty years old when his son was born. He himself was born into a well-to-do family in 1878, in Bene Vagienna, a small highland locality in Piedmont, in the province of Cuneo. Levi's paternal grandfather, a civil engineer, who had a small estate and also owned a bank that went bankrupt, died there around 1885. Cesare had studied electrical engineering in 1901, then had lived in France and worked in Belgium. After that he had been taken on as a designer by a big firm in Hungary, where he became a terrified witness of the revolution and subsequent Red Terror led by Bela Kun in Budapest in 1919 during his many journeys there. In the course of the interviews he granted to Ferdinando Camon, Primo Levi explained that his father had been appalled for several reasons: on the one hand because Bela Kun, who was Jewish and did not conceal it, had published a Soviet constitution in 1919; and furthermore because he feared Communism, feared the reaction to Communism, and dreaded the reaction to Jewish Communism. In 1918 Cesare Levi married Ester Luzzati, born in 1895, and nicknamed Esterina.

    Primo Levi's ancestors, according to the details collected in The Periodic Table, were descended from ancient Jewish communities of Spanish origin who arrived in Italy by way of the Comtat Venaissin, in Provence, around 1550, half a century after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

    In Bene Vagierma, the village where he was born, Levi's father suffered the taunts of his schoolmates after school, when they chanted "Pig's ear, donkey's ear, give 'em to the Jew that's here" and imitated a donkey's ear by screwing up the tails of their jackets in one hand. In The Periodic Table, Levi explains this gesture as follows:

The allusion to the ear is arbitrary, and the gesture was originally the sacrilegious parody of the greeting that pious Jews would exchange in synagogue when called up to read the Torah, showing each other the hem of the prayer shawl whose tassels, minutely prescribed by ritual as to number, length, and form, are replete with mystical and religious significance. But by now those kids were unaware of the origin of their gesture. (Table 5)


The uncles (barbe) and aunts (magne), only distantly related to the author, and proud of belonging to "the people of Israel," spoke the Piedmont dialect, interspersed with words of Hebrew origin, some of them now absorbed into present-day Italian. Levi tells how his remote ancestors would acquire the title barba and magna when they reached a venerable age. He lists the names of some of those odd characters who caught the attention of their descendants: Barbaioto (Uncle Elijah); Barbasachin (Uncle Isaac); Magnaieta (Aunt Maria); Barbamoisin (Uncle Moses); Barbasmelin (Uncle Samuel); Magnavigaia (Aunt Abigail), who according to family legend came from Carmagnola to Saluzzo as a bride, riding on a white mule; Magnaforina (Aunt Zepora, "from the Hebrew Tsippora which means `bird'"); Nono (Grandfather) Jacob; and Barbapartin (Uncle Bonaparte), so named, like many Jews, in memory of the brief emancipation granted by Napoleon, and "fallen from his rank as uncle because the Lord, blessed be He, had given him so unbearable a wife that he had had himself baptized, became a monk, and left to work as a missionary in China." Then there was Nona (Grandmother) Bimba, the beautiful owner of an ostrich feather boa, and ennobled together with all the members of her family for having lent money (manod) to Napoleon, and Barbaronin (Uncle Aaron), who came from Fossano and was taken on by the Teatro Carignano as an extra in Don Carlos. Having invited his parents, Uncle Nathan and Aunt Allegra, to come to the opening night, he was shocked to hear his mother shout down from the gallery when the curtain rose and she saw him "armed like a Philistine": "Aaron, what are you doing? Put down that sword!" (Table, 6-7).

    Among these distant ancestors were the Della Torres (more correctly the Vitale Della Torres), who came from the aristocratic communities of Alessandria and Chieri. They were related through Levi's maternal line, which he did not know. He compared them to the noble and rare gas Argon (the Inactive) because, as they were isolated and few in number -- like this gas, which is present in tiny amounts in the atmosphere and does not combine with its other component gases -- the Jews of Piedmont's rural communities did not merge into Italian society. Notable Della Torres include Natale Della Torre, who in 1881 published a popular newspaper, La Miseria, the writer Carlo Levi and the historian Giovanni Levi.

    Primo Levi belonged to a Sacerdote family through the paternal line. Barbamiclin or Piantabibini (the "Turkey-planter"), who came from Aqui, became legendary for his stupidity. Uncle Pacifico reared a turkey-hen at home which disturbed Signor Lattes, a musician by profession. Uncle Gabriele, the rabbi, was called Barba Moreno, "Uncle Our Teacher." Gnor Grassiadio of Moncalvo, ashamed of being born a Jew, had married a goya called Magna Ausilia, who was unfaithful to him.

    "Noble, inert and rare," according to the analogy drawn by Levi between the noble gases and his ancestors, these characters peppered the Piedmontese dialect with numerous "crippled" Hebrew words so as not to be intelligible to the goyim, the gentiles, and to be able, for example, to talk about them, curse or insult them without their knowledge. Primo Levi was fascinated by etymology from childhood, and in the first chapter of The Periodic Table he examines in detail the traces of Hebrew in the dialect of the Jews of Piedmont. In particular, he shows how the hieratic language of the Bible became, in that dialect, colloquial and sometimes comic. Thus he quotes a remark by Aunt Regina to Uncle David as they sat in the Cafe Florio on Via Po: "Davidin, bat la cana, c'as sento nen le rukhod!" ("David, thump your cane, so they don't hear your winds!")

    Later came Barbarico, an unusual character who gave up his career as ship's doctor on board a transatlantic liner because "there was too much noise." After settling in Turin he lived on the Borgo Vanchiglia "with a big vulgar goya," Magna Morfina, and dabbled in medicine but hardly ever charged his poor patients. There was also Grandmother Fina of Carmagnola, who once gave the rabbi of Moncalvo a pork cutlet to eat without his knowing. She had a brother, Barbaraflin (Uncle Raphael), "the son of the Moses of Celin," as rich as he was shy, who had fallen in love with Dolce Valabrega. He wrote her love letters that he never sent, and wrote himself equally passionate replies. Another legendary family figure was Marchin, who worked as a clerk for Susanna, and nursed deep feelings for her. When Susanna, who had a secret recipe for goose sausage, repulsed Marchin's advances, he avenged himself by selling the recipe to a goy.

    Barbabramin of Chieri, the son of Aunt Milca (the Queen), fell in love with a haverta, a maidservant, endowed with "splendid khlaviod" (breasts). When he informed his parents that he intended to marry this goya, only to receive their categorical refusal, he decided to spend his time in bed, which he left only to play billiards at night in the cafe below. Needless to say, as soon as his parents died he married his haverta.

    Levi devoted several pages of the same chapter to his paternal grandmother, who was called "the Heartbreaker." It seems that the first husband of this irresistible creature, the writer's grandfather, committed suicide because she was unfaithful to him. She had three sons by him, including Cesare, Primo's father, brought them up without much affection, and made them study. In her old age she married a taciturn Christian doctor who may have been a freemason. After living extravagantly in her youth, with age she had grown terribly miserly. Apparently incapable of feeling the slightest tenderness for anyone, she lived with her aged husband, whom she forced to wear a patched-up overcoat even though he owned eight brand-new ones, mothballed away, that his heirs found hanging at the back of a cupboard. In her gloomy apartment on the Via Po, Grandmother Malia, who threw nothing away -- not even cheese rinds -- lived in squalor and was torn between Judaism and Catholicism, so much so that she sometimes attended the synagogue, sometimes the parish church of Sant' Ottavio, where she went to confession. Levi relates that she died of uraemia in 1928, surrounded by ancient neighbours, among them a Madame Scilimberg whom she kept an eye on till her dying breath, fearing that she would filch the key hidden under the mattress and make off with her money and jewels -- which were all fakes.

    In paying homage to his ancestors, Levi told the story as his family's traditions had preserved it. Even if he was not certain whether all the anecdotes were completely reliable, they belonged to the saga, to the way the family saw itself. If Aunt Abigail did not really cross the frozen River Po on a white mule to meet her future husband, that was how she told the tale to her descendants. Levi said that he would have loved to know more, and to become his family's chronicler, but that he had neither added nor subtracted anything, and unfortunately the material was exhausted.

    Primo Levi revealed very little about his childhood in his books, including The Periodic Table. On the other hand, in his exchanges with Tullio Regge, no doubt prompted by his interviewer's ready interest, he talked about his father's influence on his later choices. Cesare Levi had studied engineering in Liege, then before the First World War had found work with the Ganz company in Budapest, and studied German there. Apart from the episode of Bela Kun's bloody revolution, he enjoyed his time in Hungary, and made many friends. In the Ganz factory German was spoken, but Cesare also learned Hungarian. When the First World War broke out, the Hungarian authorities expelled him with regret, and paid for his journey home, although he continued to travel frequently between the two countries. He remained the Ganz representative for Piedmont and Liguria until 1942. The company's director used to send him a card at Christmas time with a chess problem of his own devising printed on the back, which the recipient was invited to solve.

    Cesare returned to Turin with a deep-felt fear of Communism. In 1917 he married Ester Luzzati, the daughter of Adelina and Cesare Luzzati, who was seventeen years his junior, loved literature and music, and still spoke the Judaeo-Piedmontese dialect. Ester came from a family of six children, four sisters and two brothers.

    Adelina, Ester's mother and Primo's grandmother, was the daughter of Salomone Della Torte and Ester Sacerdote. Salomone Della Torre had six brothers. He was the son of Leone Vitale Della Torte, from Alessandria, and "Aunt" Milca, the one whose goya maid her son Barbabramin fell in love with and married after his parents' death. He himself died in 1883.

    In her old age, Primo's mother continued to speak a dialect that contained Hebrew loanwords often twisted and transformed to suit Italian pronunciation. In Chapter 1 of The Periodic Table, Levi compares the "hybrid language" of his family roots -- "that minor, Mediterranean, less illustrious Yiddish" -- with the dialect of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

-----------------------------

Although he had studied for a degree, Cesare Levi had the self-taught man's special love for books. In one of the villages where they used to spend their holidays, he bought a whole crateful for his son, which contained, among others, works by Camille Flammarion and Voltaire. His interest in the sciences seems to have outweighed all the rest. As Primo Levi reports, humorously borrowing from Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 7:

he read in his house and when he went out, and when he lay down and when he rose up. He had big deep pockets sewn, which could each hold a book. He had two brothers, equally avid indiscriminate readers. The three of them -- an engineer, a doctor and a stockbroker -- were fond of each other, but they were forever wrangling over books in the bookshops.


Always in competition with his two brothers, Cesare scoured the bookshops of Turin for all sorts of rare and unusual books, such as the "Little Library of Science" published by the brothers Bocca, a collection in which his friend Cesare Lombroso had published some of his lectures under the title Antisemitism and the Social Sciences. Lombroso, who was a socialist, wrote about Jewish neuroses, portraying the religious factor as a hereditary defect. He approached Judaism only in the narrowest sense of the word, and was disapproved of by his conservative coreligionists.

    As a child, Levi read popular science books such as The Microbe Hunters and The Architecture of Things by William Bragg, Man the Unknown by Alexis Carrell, and Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity by Wilkins. Chemistry and astronomy became and remained his favourite subjects, because he found in his reading some of the answers to the questions he asked himself about the apparent chaos of the world.

I read a lot because I belonged to a family in which reading was an innocent and traditional vice, a rewarding habit, a mental exercise, and an obligatory and compulsive way to fill in spare time. A kind of Fata Morgana, destiny in the way of wisdom.... I went through my youth in an atmosphere saturated with printed pages, and in which textbooks were in the minority.


In his conversations with Ferdinando Camon, Levi states that his father was hostile to Fascism, but he does not trace this rejection to any deep political convictions, and describes its causes as "superficial" -- "The play-acting, the parading, the lack of seriousness, put him off."


Levi goes on to make a very revealing remark: he tells Camon that his father had no foreboding of the tragic events that were to follow during the War, and that his death from stomach cancer in 1942 was a blessing in disguise, because he could never have stood "what happened afterwards" -- better to die of disease than of sorrow. At the same time, he admits that because of the gap between their ages he rarely spoke at length with his father whom he could not imagine confronting the despair of genocide. Yet he cherishes the memory of a man who was above all a townsman, "in love with the centre of Turin," with a loathing for nature. Cesare used to take his son on strolls through the streets of the town when Primo's head was full of mountain scenery. The horror of straying from the quiet Corso Re Umberto -- which had its own view of the fields in any case -- and facing all those insects, dust, and country heat! When his family twisted Cesare's arm and he agreed to go for a walk out of town, he would take several books along, and once they had reached their destination he would sit on a newspaper to keep his clothes from getting dirty, and plunge straight into his reading without once looking up at the landscape.

    Cesare was a Jew who went to synagogue for Yom Kippur and ate ham in secret, while cursing his own weakness. He was an Italian Jew, and Italian Jewry was highly assimilated -- Primo Levi said that it was the most assimilated in the world. Cesare Levi believed in the Enlightenment, and was a keen reader of Herlitzka, Angelo Mosso and Cesare Lombroso. This same Lombroso, the criminal anthropologist from Turin, who read Fontenelle, Flammarion, and Annie Besant, was a very influential figure who used to organize spiritualist seances and boasted of his table-turning powers. In his work, Lambroso looked for signs of criminal propensities in the minorities. He claimed that criminality depended on genetic inheritance and that the body, with its deformities, became "a mirror of the soul." Citing Aristotle, he stated that the wild beast, nature, and the criminal body are evil, and that the soul they harbour is criminal by nature. Could it have been possible that Cesare Levi, who was a peaceful man, self-educated, a book-lover and a keen believer in scientific progress, shared some of his friend Lambroso's ideas?

    Although he had not forgotten his origins, Cesare Levi regularly broke the Mosaic law in the presence of his son, and when that happened he would seek a kind of collusion in his eyes. This little scene was played out on Sunday mornings, when Levi, the engineer, his pockets stuffed with books, set out on foot with Primo to visit his grandmother in her gloomy apartment on the Via Po. On the way there, he used to stroke all the cats, "sniff at all the truffles," and look in on a pork butcher's to buy a slice of the ham he loved to eat. He paid after checking the butcher's tally with his slide-rule, then consumed the forbidden food with a mixture of shame and voracity. In a conversation with Stefano Jesurum, the writer remembered that his father

was a fundamentally secular man, but nevertheless attached to certain customs. Out of a kind of superstitious fear, he did not eat pork, yet he adored ham. He ate it. I blamed him. He put on a guilty expression that was as if to say "I sin because the flesh is weak, but you, don't give in, behave yourself."


The visit to Grandmother Malia always followed the same pattern. After ringing the bell, his father would call out "He's first in his class!" Not that his grandmother cared; she took no pleasure in her guests, and it seems that the two visitors unsettled her. She would lead them through the labyrinth of her vast and dusty apartment, which contained the office of the old doctor who was never there, and whom little Primo feared because he had heard tell that he used scissors to cut the fraenum linguae, the web beneath the tongue, of children who stuttered. Grandmother Malia would delve into a cupboard for the same old box of mouldy chocolates, and her grandson would hurriedly take one and shove it to the bottom of his pocket.

    During the school holidays Cesare Levi would resign himself to letting the sprawling country spoil his happy urban life. In winter he and his wife would set out into the valleys near Turin in search of a place to rent in summer. As the Levis did not own a car -- in those days hardly anybody could afford one -- they would look for a house near a railway station, because this hardworking father, who gave himself only three days off in August, caught the train every night to rejoin his wife and two children -- Levi's sister Anna Maria was born on 27 January 1921 -- in localities like Cogne, Torre Pellice, Meana or Bardonecchia.

    Every evening, the whole family would wait for Cesare at the station, and early next morning the poor man would leave in time to reach his office on the Corso San Martino by eight o'clock. It is not surprising that at this rate he quickly fell ill. Nevertheless, every June, Ester Levi would start to pack impressive amounts of luggage: suitcases, bags, and three wicker baskets weighing "nearly a quintal each," containing the linen, sets of pots and pans, toys, books, provisions, clothing for all weathers, shoes, remedies and accessories, "as if we were leaving for Atlantis."

    Friends and members of the family used to choose the same place, so as to be together in the country. Later on, the Levis owned a house on a hillside in Piossasco, not far from Turin, and sometimes the entire family would gather there in late summer. In those days, the homeward journey took them through the countryside; nowadays the train runs through built-up areas, and the house, which still exists, no longer belongs to the family.

    Primo Levi recalled the three months of summer holiday as quiet and boring, but with occasional diversions. His holiday homework felt like a cruel burden, but he delighted in the afternoons spent by the side of a mountain stream, exploring nature and discovering animals, while his mother knitted in the shade of a willow tree. When he was ten, the sight of tadpoles in a stream was a marvel, and his attempts to rear them an instructive failure: later he drew an almost biblical conclusion from it. When the few tadpoles that survived the treatment he inflicted on them turned into tiny frogs and scattered into the garden looking for non-existent water, a robin swooped on one of them, and in turn was pounced on by the white household cat, who, having caught the bird, took it into a corner to play with before eating it. This series of destinies ruthlessly cut short by death in a savage world recalled the Chad Gadiah, the song sung at the end of the Seder, the Passover meal. It tells how, because of a lamb bought by the narrator's father, a great many animals perish, driven by their natural urges or as victims of the elements, until the Angel of Death in person intervenes to finish what has been begun.

    One night, in his bedroom in the country, Primo had one of his worst childhood scares when up above his head, rasping on the peeling, curling wallpaper, he heard "a ticking sound" which was gradually coming closer. He switched on the light and saw a spider crawling down on to his bedside table "with the uncertain and inexorable step of Death" (Trades 153/141). This childish fear of spiders was later to develop into a revulsion, and a supply of metaphors. He often commented on the fact that certain female spiders consume the male after or during mating. A few days before his death he published a story in La Stampa in which a female spider is interviewed by a timid, cautious journalist. Levi knew the source of his phobia. It went back to his childhood, when he saw Gustave Dore's etching of Arachne in Canto XII of Dante's Purgatory. In the illustration the girl punished by a dreadful metamorphosis is "almost half a spider." She is portrayed with full breasts and a back from which grow "six legs, knotty, hairy, painful six legs which, together with human arms that writhe desperately, add up to eight. On his knees, before the new monster, Dante seems to be contemplating its crotches, half disgusted, half voyeur" (Trades 157/145).

    His cousin Giulia recalls that one of Primo's favourite games was playing schoolteacher and correcting his cousins' homework with all the proper gravity. He also used to bring the telescope his father had given him, and spend his nights on the roof terrace, observing the stars and constellations. He knew their names and courses. In the house in Torre Pellice there was a large kitchen with a set of copper saucepans. Paolo Avigdor, Primo's first cousin, remembers what noisy drums they made.

    Primo used to organize charades which he played with his female cousins and his cousin Giovanni, the son of one of his mother's sisters. Giovanni Levi, who owes his surname to the fact that his grandmother married a Levi not related to Cesare, recalls how Primo would enter the room where the audience of children was gathered, then perform a mime, and the children had to guess the saying or character it stood for. One day, Primo imitated the Discus Thrower by striking the famous statue's stance. He posed, then went straight out again to pee. The phrase they had to guess was "I'll be right back"!

    In fact, Primo Levi did not play much, except for chess, which his father had taught him with pieces passed down in the family for generations. Carla Ovazza, a descendant of the wealthy Ovazza family -- to which Alexander Stille (ne Kamenetzki), an American Jewish writer of Italian ancestry, devotes a chapter of his book Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Families under Fascism -- still recalls how she introduced her friend Primo to the art of skating. Fifty years later, Primo dedicated his last book to her with the words "For Carla, my skating teacher."

-----------------------------

Levi's books tell us very little about his relationship with his mother, his sister, to whom he remained deeply attached all his life, and his extended family, which teemed with cousins. Giulia, his mother's sister's daughter, has clear recollections of the tribe of Levis, who all lived close to one another in the fashionable district of Crocetta.

    Giulia, whose mother was only one year younger than her sister "Esterina," lived on the Via Alfonso Lamarmora, parallel to Corso Re Umberto. Both sisters lived to a great age and died only two days apart. Ester Levi survived her son for five years. She was not informed about his suicide, but told that he had died of a heart attack, although it seems that, in spite of her senescence, she had had her doubts about this version.

    Giulia was born in 1921, a month after Anna Maria, Primo's younger sister. They attended the same district school, the Felice Rignon, at 40 Via Massena, and played together with the same friends in the same places.

    Giulia's and Primo's maternal grandmother, who had eleven grandchildren, lived not far from there, on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Giulia recalls how the children of the family -- numbering no fewer than eleven -- used to visit her for tea after school. There was a veranda, a stool, and a table where little Primo, who had finished the first year, taught his female cousins to read and count. When the lesson was over, teacher and pupils piled into an armchair turned motor car. With Primo at the wheel and his cousins behind him, they would explore the big wide world.

    One day, Giulia and Primo, who were suffering from a very violent and contagious cough, were playing together in a park. A very pretty little girl who was all alone and looked rather sad came up to them and said "I'm on my own, would you like to play with me?" "Yes, but we've both got donkeys' cough [whooping cough]" the cousins chorused in reply, and the little girl turned and ran. "All we saw was her behind!" Despite his seriousness, Giulia remembers that Primo enjoyed doing gymnastics. His little sister Anna Maria, who was a very lively girl, used to jump on the armchairs and furniture, to the fury of the woman downstairs.

    All the cousins were good friends. Primo, Anna Maria, and Giulia were the eldest. Paolo Avigdor, born in 1925, the son of a younger sister of Ester, also belonged to their merry band until his parents left for Genoa when he was ten years old. Primo's and Avigdor's fathers, both electrical engineers, often went off for a walk together on the Corso Re Umberto. Primo was considered the cleverest of the family's children, an example to be followed in every area, and although he remained very good-natured and never tried to boss the rest around, Paolo felt a sense of inferiority towards him. So in order to gain their attention and respect he boasted to Primo and Anna Maria that he never washed his hands or his ears, which earned him some lessons on cleanliness.

    Grandmother Adelina had her own way of observing the Jewish festivals. She fasted for Yom Kippur, and as this meant that the kitchen was free she took the opportunity to make her tomato puree at leisure. In her view, not working meant not knitting or sewing. The Passover Seder was also held at Primo's maternal grandparents' house. Grandfather Luzzati sat at the head of the table. As the family was vast, on Seder night no fewer than forty young children would throng around their grandparents while consuming the Passover matzah and meal. Giulia sat next to Primo, because they were the eldest. Primo would recite a few pages of the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus, together with his father, and Giulia's father and grandfather. She says today: "Primo did not really know what he was reading, but he read. It was not exactly a proper Seder. Our fathers came in from the office feeling tired, and they read at high speed."

    Primo was a serious little boy, very thin, with straight fair hair. Giulia recalls that when she was six and Primo eight years old, a primary teacher from the Jewish school used to give them lessons in Hebrew and biblical history in a classroom in a state school. She came on Mondays from four till five, after class. Although her cousin was as shy as she was, Giulia used to wait for Primo to take her by the hand before they both went in. This shyness was not unique to them; in those days, that kind of reticent behaviour was fostered by their upbringing.

    Ester Luzzati's father, who died in 1941, kept a store that sold fabrics on the Via Roma, whose ancient buildings were torn down by order of Mussolini's architects to make way for sinister, arrogant concrete blocks, squatting on ugly arcades, which appear all the more appalling when the street emerges at last into the Piazza San Carlo, which the vandals left intact. Grandfather Levi's shop looked nothing like the showy boutiques lining the Via Roma today. It was a long and shadowy semi-basement, whose entrance was down a short flight of steps. Not far away was a cafe-bar decorated to look like a cave full of stalactites, the ceiling studded with crudely plastered scraps of broken mirror glass that were also set along the bottom of the counter, so that the reflections made the passers-by sprout multiple legs. Levi wrote that the children used to ask "to be taken to the Via Roma just for this."

    Grandfather Luzzati had bought his business from a Monsu Ugotti, and his customers called him by the same name, which even spread to other family members and eventually included Primo Levi himself. In an article entitled "Grandfather's Store," first published in La Stampa and then collected in Other People's Trades, Levi paints a portrait of this imposing patriarch -- laconic, ironic, uneducated, but a maestro of his trade. Calm and commanding, he brought the same authority into the kitchen at home, on the special occasions when he cooked there, as he did into his store, which was staffed by eccentric employees like Tota Gina, whose real name was Savina, the cashier with the mighty bosom and teeth of gold and silver. Anchored to her cash-desk, larger than life, she handed out Leone pastilles to the children. Signor Luzzati-Ugotti sold his fabrics alongside his two sons, who spoke a jargon intelligible only to the salesmen, so as to work surreptitiously on the customers.

    The Via Roma had other textile stores belonging to competitors, some of them distant relatives of the grandfather's. They all spent their time spying on one another and called each other "Signor Thief" and "Signor Crook." As a paternalist employer, Monsu Ugotti treated his staff now and then at the Boringhieri brasserie. Levi also describes how his grandfather used to send a young salesman to the nearby Portanuova station to intercept engaged couples from the provinces as they alighted from the train to do their shopping in the big city. Once they had made their purchases at the Luzzati-Ugotti store he would steer them to the other merchants' premises.

    The high point of the year was the carnival, when Grandfather Luzzati would invite his grandchildren to watch the procession of decorated floats from the balcony of the store. On this occasion Grandmother Luzzati, usually kept out of sight in Levi's stories, would also emerge onto the balcony. He describes her as "a fragile little woman ... the mother of many children," who came from an extensive family of twenty-one children, one of whom had been eaten in his cradle by a pig.

-----------------------------

From the age of six to eleven (1925-30), Primo Levi attended the primary school in the Via Massena, just at the back of his house. He appears in a family photo album, a slender figure with straight fair hair, wearing the black shirt that schoolboys were obliged to wear during the Fascist period.

    When he was eleven, during the three months' endless summer holidays in the country, Primo fell in love with a nine-year-old girl named Lidia, but was too shy to say so. In the hope of winning favour, he gave her stamps for her collection, which he had encouraged her to start, and also helped with her holiday homework. Lidia was not pretty, and she loved to tell the story of her tonsil operation, which gave Primo the shivers.

    With hindsight, when writing about her in 1984, Levi wryly describes his sweetheart as "polite, homely, sickly, and not all that bright." So why fall in love with her? The boy was enchanted because Lidia had a special affinity with animals. She alone was able to stroke a ferocious German shepherd dog, and she only had to call and the hens and chicks would come flocking from the nearby farmyard and eat out of her hand. Of course, Primo did not dream of making the slightest advance towards her, but he did notice that Lidia favoured a boy named Carlo, who was bigger and stronger than he was. Indifferent to Lidia's advances, Carlo played football, tussled with the other village children, and play-acted at driving the wreck of a truck abandoned in a meadow. To grasp the full scale of this drama, one should add that Carlo was Primo's best friend at the time, and that they played with Meccano together, combining the pieces in both of their boxes to build larger constructions. In all their ventures, Carlo was the brawn and Primo the brains. Loving both Lidia and Meccano led Primo to the obvious conclusion that he had to woo Lidia by means of Meccano.

    On the pretext that it would soon be Lidia's name-day, he persuaded Carlo, "the bolt tightener," to build a machine of Primo's own devising that was bound to impress his beloved and make her realize the strength of the feelings she inspired. What he had in mind was a clock, though not a conventional clock, given the materials available. Primo's clock only had a cardboard face and a single hand, and it did not tell the time -- the hand went "round once in twenty or twenty-one minutes." On Saint Lidia's day, the ungrateful girl glanced for a moment at this outlandish object, asked "What's it for?," and then went into raptures over Carlo's present: a cellophane envelope containing a collection of stamps from Nicaragua.

    That is how the primitive, less sensitive rival won against the pure, noble, thoughtful lover. No doubt that is also how the solitary child from the Corso Re Umberto came to feel a shyness towards women that he never overcame.

[Continues ...]

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Table of Contents

Primo Levi's Works
Introduction 1
Prologue 5
Ch. 1 Corso Re Umberto 11
Ch. 2 A Jewish Childhood under Fascism 13
Ch. 3 The Chemical Institute 38
Ch. 4 The Era of the Racial Laws and the Nazi Occupation 73
Ch. 5 From the Mountains to Fossoli di Carpi 94
Ch. 6 Auschwitz (Part I) 103
Ch. 7 Auschwitz (Part II) 154
Ch. 8 The Last Ten Days 198
Ch. 9 Liberation: Detour through Central Europe 209
Ch. 10 The Return 247
Ch. 11 Witness 277
Ch. 12 Chemist and Writer 303
Ch. 13 "You Will Write Concisely and Clearly" 315
Ch. 14 Man of Letters 325
Ch. 15 Returning to Jewish Roots 337
Ch. 16 Famous and Marginal 356
Ch. 17 "Old, Am I?" 368
Ch. 18 "I Find No Solution to the Riddle" 383
App. I "The Jews of Turin": Preface 409
App. II "The Marital Web" 413
Notes 417
Glossary of Concentration Camp Terms 437
Select Bibliography 439
Index 441
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