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Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life

Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life

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by Berel Lang, Ariella Lang

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In 1943, twenty-four-year-old Primo Levi had just begun a career in chemistry when, after joining a partisan group, he was captured by the Italian Fascist Militia and deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, he was one offewer than 25who survived the eleven months before the camp’s liberation. Upon returning to his native Turin, Levi


In 1943, twenty-four-year-old Primo Levi had just begun a career in chemistry when, after joining a partisan group, he was captured by the Italian Fascist Militia and deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, he was one offewer than 25who survived the eleven months before the camp’s liberation. Upon returning to his native Turin, Levi resumed work as a chemist and was employed for thirty years by a company specializing in paints and other chemical coatings.Yet soon after his return to Turin, he also began writing—memoirs, essays, novels, short stories, poetry—and it is for this work that he has won international recognition. His first book, If This Is a Man, issued in 1947 after great difficulty in finding a publisher, remains a landmark document of the twentieth century.

Berel Lang's groundbreaking biography shines new light on Levi’s role as a major intellectual and literary figure—an important Holocaust writer and witness but also an innovative moral thinker in whom his two roles as chemist and writer converged, providing the “matter” of his life. Levi’s writing combined a scientist’s attentiveness to structure and detail, an ironic imagination that found in all nature an ingenuity at once inviting and evasive, and a powerful and passionate moral imagination. Lang’s approach provides a philosophically acute and nuanced analysis of Levi as thinker, witness, writer, and scientific detective.

Editorial Reviews

Hayden White

"Berel Lang's brilliantly nuanced book is, as far as I know, the first to successfully extract a philosophically coherent worldview from Primo Levi's artistic, biographical and essayistic writing. Such an enterprise requires tact, subtlety, and sensitivity to what is implicit and latent in a writer like Levi, whose 'clarity' masks as well as manifests the complexity of his sensibility."—Hayden White, University of California

Howard Needler

"Lang develops a strikingly original approach to an old problem: the relation of thought and feeling to experience. Primo Levi says much that is new, and compelling, in an area where it was hard to imagine there was anything new to be said."—Howard Needler, Wesleyan University

New Republic - William Giraldi

"Lang has written a wise and deeply-felt examination of the personal and philosophical conditions that made Primo Levi’s work possible."—William Giraldi, New Republic
Evening Standard - Ian Thomson

“Professor Lang has written an informative and wide-ranging guide to the life and work of a man, who like Dante before him, had been to hell and back.”—Ian Thomson, Evening Standard

Jewish Book Council - Philip K. Jason

"Berel Lang has given us a fresh vision of a fascinating and rather mysterious figure."—Philip K. Jason, Jewish Book Council
The Observer - Tim Adams

“In this concise, well-researched, unemotional account of the writer’s life and death, philosopher and Holocaust scholar Berel Lang remains scrupulously agnostic about such straightforward cause and effect.”—Tim Adams, The Observer

Library Journal
Lang (emeritus, philosophy, State Univ. of New York, Albany; Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide) presents a new biography of Italian Jewish author Primo Michele Levi (1919–87), who earned a degree in chemistry and worked as a chemist but became a writer after World War II when he survived his deportation and 11-month imprisonment in Auschwitz. Lang explains that Levi began with no writing ambitions or literary design but instead felt the need to write about his time in the concentration camp—a spontaneous rather than intended literary exercise. For Lang, Levi's strength as a philosopher was his ability to reflect on the horrible events he lived through and use them to try to understand such philosophical concepts as goodness, evil, and human nature. VERDICT Lang does a fantastic job of combining events in Levi's life with his development as a writer. Readers who are familiar with the philosopher's work as well as newcomers will find this biography an illuminating look into his life.—Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI
Kirkus Reviews
The life of celebrated essayist, novelist, poet and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (1919–1987), told in swift succinctness by the author of such philosophical and historical works as Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence (2009). Lang (Emeritus, Philosophy/SUNY, Albany) approaches this entry in the publisher's Jewish Lives series from a variety of perspectives. He presents the facts of Levi's life but also looks closely at his writings, philosophy and identity as a Jew. Lang organizes his text in a way both playful and educative: His first chapter is "The End," and the preface comes at the end. The author begins with the controversy surrounding Levi's death--suicide or no? (Lang says yes.) Then he carries us back to 1943 and Levi's arrest by the Nazis in Italy and his transport to Auschwitz. Lang offers some Italian history and notes that the tiny Jewish population of Italy tended to support Mussolini--at first. After the war, Levi began writing, and Lang takes us through several of the works, observing that Levi had admired the writing of Jack London and that his relationship with Elie Wiesel was uneasy. He continually reminds us of Levi's education as a chemist and the jobs in the chemical industry he held. He shows the considerable influence of chemical training on Levi's The Periodic Table (1975). A tricky chapter is the one he devotes to Levi's Jewishness. The author argues that Levi's later contention that the Holocaust accentuated that identity is a bit disingenuous: Levi was immersed in the Jewish secular world before the war. He'd been an early supporter of Zionism but not for himself. Lang's philosophical bent emerges clearly in his chapter about Levi's thought, and he discusses five aspects of it, including thoughts about human nature, justice and God. A sketch of the writer, but one with crisp lines and sure-handed strokes.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Jewish Lives Series
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

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Primo Levi

The Matter of a Life



Copyright © 2013 Berel Lang
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-13723-1


The End

"It is particularly difficult to understand why a person kills himself, since generally speaking the suicide himself is not fully aware." —Primo Levi, "Jean Améry, Philosopher and Suicide," La Stampa, December 7, 1978

On July 31, 1987, Primo Levi would have turned sixty-eight, but he had died three and a half months earlier, on April 11, in the same apartment building on Turin's Corso Re Umberto where he was born and where, except for two intervals, he had lived continuously since. One of those intervals was related to jobs he took after completing his university studies in chemistry in 1941, work that took him to Milan. After that came the two-year period that included his time with the partisans and capture by the Italian Fascists, eleven months as a Häftling (prisoner) in Auschwitz, and his lengthy post-liberation return to Turin. The physician called by police to the scene of his death termed it a suicide, and that verdict was later affirmed by a Turin court. The cause of death was judged to be a fall from the landing of Levi's apartment on the third floor (the fourth, in American count) to the ground floor about fifty feet below. There was no evidence of criminal responsibility, and there were no eyewitnesses. The verdict of suicide was thus an inference, opening space for speculation that quickly filled with dissent—opposition to the verdict on one side and, on the other, disagreement among those who accepted the verdict but disputed the act's causes. Both responses led to pronouncements on Levi's life as much as on his death.

In Levi's closest circle of family and friends, reaction to his suicide mingled shock and grief with an awareness that approached resignation. A number of intimates had anticipated that end; the depression they saw engulfing him in the months previous was deep and sustained, even if not unbroken. Levi himself spoke and wrote about his depression, variously naming the factors that he saw contributing to it. Among these: Levi's mother, Rina (Ester), aged ninety-one and owner of the family apartment—a gift to her upon her wedding to which Levi and his wife, Lucia, had "temporarily" moved soon after their marriage—had been paralyzed for nine months by a stroke. In uncertain health for years before this, she increasingly demanded his presence in addition to that of hired aides (she would outlive her son by four years). Levi's mother-in-law, Beatrice Morpurgo, who lived in an apartment within walking distance, was ninety-five and had been virtually blind for fifteen years, requiring Lucia's continued attention. Levi had recently begun to consider moving his mother to a nursing home, but his sense of obligation resisted the change, with Lucia adding her objections to it. (Agnese Incisa, an editor at Einaudi and a friend of Levi's, had reproved him, "Either you die or your mother dies" —a locution he would himself later repeat.) The strain of these demands sharpened tensions in Levi's relationship with Lucia that were of long standing; with rare openness about this personal matter, Levi in midlife described it in some detail to one of his correspondent friends.

To these external factors, Levi's body in i987 added its own weight. Foot ulcers, perhaps vestigial from Auschwitz where he first experienced them, reappeared; shingles that surfaced first in i978 now recurred. In mid-February, he underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate, and on March i8, the complication of a bladder blockage required further surgery (again under general anesthesia) and ten additional days in the hospital. There is some question of whether there were two operations or one, but none about the problem itself. No evidence of cancer was found in these procedures, but Levi remained apprehensive; in the aftermath he mentioned a problem with incontinence—a common effect of prostate surgery, but distressing nonetheless. Beyond such specific challenges, Levi had begun to fear that his memory and powers of concentration were failing, the remarkable faculties on which his work and expressive presence had drawn so readily. And then, too, there was a history of depression itself which extended to pre-Auschwitz days and only underscored the severity of this newest appearance. The regular pattern found in depressions of building on their own impetus added its increments here in his last days as well; the variety of anti-depressant drugs to which Levi turned seemed increasingly ineffective and all the more frustrating because of that.

Such factors would have had different weights, but their collective impact cannot be doubted: individual issues among them might have sufficed as causes or reasons for suicide—if there is indeed any way of generalizing about that. Levi's younger sister, Anna Maria, would insist after his death that the assembly of possibilities could be reduced entirely to one, namely, the prostate operation and its consequence. In any event, to recognize the cumulative effect of the factors noted does not diminish the challenge each posed individually.

But what then of the eleven months that Levi endured in Auschwitz forty-two years earlier? Did not also that enter and affect this final siege? Asked this question by several friends aware of the grip of his depression close to the end, Levi explicitly ruled that source out. Without denying the shadow of the "Lager" (the term he often used for Auschwitz or collectively for the camps), he ascribed this depression to what he took to be more proximate causes, and he offered the same assessment in other communications during his last weeks. Thus, he described the depression to Ruth Feldman, the American translator of his poetry: "In certain respects, it's even worse than Auschwitz"—at once comparing and contrasting the present with that past. And surely, if explanations by means of sufficient cause ever explain suicide, the aggregate of factors cited would suffice even without the additional reference to Auschwitz. Viewed from the outside, depression often seems over-determined, but even so, the weight of factors affecting Levi in this last period seems heavier than most. Admittedly, his own enumeration of the causes is not conclusive: reasons do not automatically count as causes, and even reasons named by the person affected can be disputed. Suicide notes—and Levi did not leave one—are inconclusive; even there, statements of intention or design do not have the last word in determining cause.

Despite the weight of these considerations, claims attributing Levi's suicide to his months in Auschwitz surfaced quickly. Elie Wiesel's concise reaction epitomized this pattern: "Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later." (Wiesel's earlier recollection of having encountered Levi in Auschwitz was met by Levi's denial of any corresponding memory.) And reactions similar to Wiesel's were expressed by other public figures, some of whom had known Levi personally (Natalia Ginzburg), others slightly (Alberto Moravia) or not at all (Bruno Bettelheim), and widely in the Italian and foreign press. For them and still more for readers acquainted with Levi through his first two books—If This Is a Man, his account of the eleven months in Auschwitz, and The Truce, the narrative of his post-liberation return to Turin—the link between his suicide and Auschwitz appeared self-evident. Emanuele Artom, the rabbi of the Turin Jewish community of which Levi was a member, who conducted Levi's funeral, had rather different reasons for quickly judging Levi's death a "delayed homicide": quickly, in order to meet the Jewish requirement of burial within twenty-four hours of death or as near that as possible; "homicide" because Jewish law forbids burial of suicides in the common ground of the Jewish cemetery, requiring a separation in death from the community. Religiously, he had also to consider the requirement that in the event of doubt about the person's state of mind in the act, the verdict of suicide must be withheld.

And then, too, those who dissented entirely from the verdict of suicide found a number of more specific reasons for that view, either in additional evidence or in reinterpreting the same evidence. Some among this group claimed (and still continue to hold) that for Levi to commit suicide would diminish or contradict too much else in his life and work, what he had lived through and for. An implication of this view is a contention that he should not have done it or, more strongly, that he could not have done it. But the first of these is a moral or psychological not a historical claim, and any version of could not is patently rhetorical. On the other hand, individual claims among the dissents warrant attention. So Rita Levi-Montalcini, a longtime friend of Levi's (herself a Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine in 1986), detected no hint of suicide in a conversation with Levi shortly before his death; more deliberately, she argued that someone as considerate as Levi was—and a professional chemist—would have found a less disturbing means of committing suicide if indeed he had decided to do that. The novelist Ferdinando Camon, though first accepting the suicide verdict, changed his mind on receiving a letter from Levi several days after the death in which Levi wrote with confidence about future plans: a counter-indicator, in Camon's opinion, to the official judgment.

But these, like all the other demurrals, offer no explanation of Levi's references during the same period to the severity of his depression; they also ignore the general clinical pattern of depression that allows for "breaks" that bring a temporary reversion to "normalcy"—before the sufferer (often suddenly) reverts to depression's more typical bleakness. All the dissenters from the verdict of suicide assume that the thoughtful and restrained person whom they knew as Primo Levi and whom some of them had encountered as that person in conversations or correspondence shortly before his death would not soon afterward throw himself headfirst down the stairwell of Corso Re Umberto 75.

But this pleading hardly warrants the conclusion drawn from it, even without the counterevidence mentioned. Was suicide to be as thoughtful or reasoned an act as those the person—any person—"normally" performed? The requirement itself is unreasonable. And then, too, of course, to reject the verdict of suicide leaves untouched the question of how Levi did die. The principal, seemingly the only possible response to that question must then be to ascribe Levi's end to accident or misadventure: leaning on or over the banister near the stairwell and becoming disoriented, perhaps dizzied by his anti-depression medication, he fell over it. This version of the sequence cannot be ruled out, but physical probabilities argue against it. Levi was slight, about five-foot-five; the banister on the landing was a bit more than three feet high, reaching at least to his waist—a combination of numbers that makes an accidental fall, with Levi faint or unconscious or at any rate unable to control his balance, unlikely. But then, too, the possibility has been posed that perhaps he was walking down or back up the stairs, past an area where the banister was lower than on the landing, and then fell over it. Again, the possibility cannot be excluded, although additional explanation would be needed of why Levi, against his custom of using the elevator, had been walking up or down the stairs. And the pressure remains of how to weigh those possible accounts against the other factors already mentioned as likely contributors to his suicide, none of them conjectures, as the others are, about Levi's movements after he received his mail that morning from the concierge (the last person outside the apartment to see him alive) or about the differing heights of the banister or about the difficulty he "must" have foreseen in planning a jump through the narrow aperture of the circular staircase. What is certain beyond these conjectures is that Levi did die from a fall and that there are reasons for inferring that the fall was deliberate. And if not deliberate in the sense of reasoned, at least as having been initiated by him.

Additional circumstantial factors supporting this claim surface from unexpected directions. So, for example, suicide had been a presence not only in Levi's awareness of history but in his personal relations. His own family's past included the suicides of his paternal grandfather, Michele Levi, and a maternal uncle, Enrico Sacerdote. And there were others among his own acquaintances: Agostino Neri (d. 1938), a laboratory classmate in their second year at the university; the writer Cesare Pavese (d. 1950, in Turin), who as managing editor of Einaudi concurred in the publisher's initial rejection of If This Is a Man (and who was teaching at the elementary school in which Levi was a pupil, though not as Levi's teacher); Lorenzo Perrone (d. 1952), the Italian laborer at Auschwitz who risked his life to provide food for Levi but who on his own return to Italy destroyed himself (not in a single act but over several years—in Levi's words, "To live no longer interested him"; Levi would name both his daughter and son after him); Hanns Engert (d. 1981), Levi's teacher of German at Turin's Goethe Institute where Levi enrolled in 1978 and with whom he built a personal friendship.

There were still other acquaintance-suicides, and then too, there were the public figures whose deaths affected Levi as incorporating histories which, like his own, the Nazis forced on them: Paul Celan (d. 1970), whose difficult postwar poetry Levi regarded as heralding his suicide, with the two "acts" traceable as deriving from a common source. And more, even most important for him, Jean Améry (d. 1978), whose accusation against Levi as a "forgiver" of the Germans stung Levi into denial but who also impressed Levi with his analysis of the condition of the "intellectual" in the camps, his account of being tortured as a Nazi captive, and his reflections on suicide, which came close to Levi's own view (Levi addressed these issues in a full chapter of his last book, The Drowned and the Saved).

Levi had himself noted what he took to be the infrequency of suicide in the Lager as well as in the ghettoes, as the Warsaw diarist Chaim Kaplan had claimed, countering the expectation that hardships suffered in those settings would conduce to suicide. No, Levi insisted—agreeing here with Améry that suicide assumes sufficient freedom to allow a person to step back and consider whether he or she wishes to continue to live (Améry emphasizes the difference between Selbstmord, "self-murder," the common German term, and Freitod, "free [voluntary] death," the term that Améry prefers). In Levi's view, the Lager, in which demands of survival consumed all energy and thought, left no space for a Freitod. When all human resources were exhausted, only the condition of the "Muselmann" remained—a final stage of life for "the submerged," as Levi represented it, where individuals became incapable of making decisions at all, including the decision to put an end to their own suffering.

How could Levi's conception of suicide as a Freitod account for his own last days? His sense of irony might have recognized that even his own act need not conform to his speculation, that suicide although at times voluntary might also at times be involuntary or nonvoluntary. And then, too, it is not clear, and cannot be, that he himself did not choose to do what he did, with background evidence in support of that. In his last months, he mentioned the possibility of suicide to a number of friends, as he also had even earlier. In 1982, in the trough of a depression, he had said to a woman confidante with a touch of bravado that in retrospect seems only grim irony: "I want to end it. But the third floor is not high enough." In what we know about Levi's end, we find a virtual consensus among those closest to him: Lucia, his two children, his sister, and close friends who had known him for upward of fifty years including the jurist Bianca Giudetti Serra, Alberto Salmoni, and Silvio Ortona. For them, his last weeks with its depression and the numerous factors contributing to it as these together were viewed and measured against the background of years of intimacy led to only one conclusion, that what occurred was indeed suicide. This was also the judgment of a physiotherapist and a psychiatrist whom Levi had recently consulted professionally and who, basing their conclusions on their sessions with him, not only concurred with but insisted upon it.

Again, none of these reports, singly or collectively, is conclusive; given the circumstances as access to them is possible, nothing can be; even an eyewitness account, after all, would not fully settle the matter. But the available evidence is cumulative, with a notable feature that those who find the balance of evidence going the other way were as a group farther removed from Levi than those in the other group—David Mendel, an English doctor who had only a short time before the death made Levi's acquaintance through correspondence and telephone (and one meeting) and who was oddly motivated at first to contact Levi in order to compose beforehand Levi's obituary; the novelist Ferdinando Camon, who met Levi in 1982 and then interviewed him, with Levi then checking Camon's account of their conversations in May 1986 before Camon's book was published (as mentioned, Camon received a letter from Levi after his death which referred to plans for the future; there is no reference in Camon's memoir to the matter of Levi's depression); the Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, who was not personally close to Levi but who could conclude in the Boston Review in 1999 from no more than the information cited here that "suicide is, at the very least, no more likely than an accident."

Excerpted from Primo Levi by BEREL LANG. Copyright © 2013 Berel Lang. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Berel Lang is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, State University of New York, Albany. He is the author or editor of twenty-one books, including Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, The Concept of Style, and, most recently, Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence. He lives in Riverdale, NY.

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