Primo Levi's Universe

Overview

Primo Levi is best known for his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, but he was also a scientist, fiction writer, and poet: in short, a Renaissance man, who did not want to be known exclusively as a Holocaust writer. Using Levi's own words as a springboard, Sam Magavern offers here for the first time a multi-faceted portrait of the man - as a writer. By exploring all of Levi's writings—including his short stories, poems, his delightful novels about blue-collar workers—Magavern introduces us to a talented writer who ...

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Primo Levi's Universe: A Writer's Journey

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Overview

Primo Levi is best known for his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, but he was also a scientist, fiction writer, and poet: in short, a Renaissance man, who did not want to be known exclusively as a Holocaust writer. Using Levi's own words as a springboard, Sam Magavern offers here for the first time a multi-faceted portrait of the man - as a writer. By exploring all of Levi's writings—including his short stories, poems, his delightful novels about blue-collar workers—Magavern introduces us to a talented writer who had a profound love of humanity, a sharp wit, a passion for his profession as a chemist—a man inspired by variety of things beyond his Holocaust experience. Magavern brings a fresh, personal sensibility to the way we think about Levi and produces a hybrid book—part life story and part literary biography, finally doing justice to the man's calm rationality and essential beliefs.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This is a book about a survivor, not a victim, and what Magavern shows with remarkable skill is how Levi, the writer, managed to live in Auschwitz in a state Levi himself describes as “exceptional spiritedness”; a state which allowed him to record in exceptional detail the sometimes human, sometimes inhuman world he was forced to inhabit.” —Jewish Book World

"Magavern, in clear, careful language that Levi would appreciate, leads us through Levi's works and life, opening our ears and minds to a richer understanding of one of the most subtle and complex writers of the twentieth century." —Ann Goldstein, The New Yorker, editor of the forthcoming complete works of Primo Levi

 

"This is a measured and sensitive academic exploration of a complicated and tortured soul who desperately sought freedom throughout his lifetime."—Publishers Weekly

 

"The author understands Levi as a heroic witness to Auschwitz and reads his work as redemptive and spiritual. A good introduction to Levi's life and work."—Library Journal

 

"There is no more haunting literary death in our time. Let Sam Magavern tell it in his careful and elegant way, and you’ll understand why this is an exemplary slender critical biography of a great 20th century writer."- Jeff Simon, The Buffalo News

 

“Sam Magavern walks us through Levi’s writings, offering us a haunting view into Levi’s internal universe...This is a book about a survivor, not a victim, and what Magavern shows with remarkable skill is how Levi, the writer, managed to live in Auschwitz in a state Levi himself describes as 'exceptional spiritedness.'” —Jewish Book World

 

“Sam Magavern has elucidated Levi’s writings, delving into their ambiguity, intensity and complexity to fashion a whole of what is a legacy that cannot help but disturb our conceptions of the Holocaust.”  —Chicago Jewish Star

 

"Sam Magavern, himself a poet and lawyer, looks through that window with almost uncanny empathy in his book Primo Levi’s Universe. He unravels contradictions in the sometimes puzzling work of a sometimes puzzling man, or else leaves them in place as imprints of the atrocity of Auschwitz and of Levi’s own complex personality."—Hadassah

Publishers Weekly

Commemorating the late Primo Levi's 90th birthday, this extended essay interweaves the writer's tragic life with his work. Small of stature, unpopular and a Jew in Fascist Italy, Levi was no model for success. Denied a career as an astrophysicist, he worked as a chemist and later as more of a company paper-pusher. Yet to paraphrase University of Buffalo Law School professor Magavern, though denied the chance to study the stars, Levi became the master chronicler of hell on earth in brilliant works like If This Is a Man and The Periodic Table. Aside from his imprisonment in Auschwitz, Levi was inspired by an eclectic group of authors from Dante to Melville, Paul Celan and, above all, Rabelais. Although Levi had two children and was quietly married for many years, an acquaintance once described him as a prisoner at home-living with both his mother and mother-in-law. Two longstanding affairs did little to relieve his battle with depression, and he died in 1987, falling down a stairwell. This is a measured and sensitive academic exploration of a complicated and tortured soul who desperately sought freedom throughout his lifetime. (July 7)

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Library Journal

Primo Levi (1919-87) is a complex and difficult writer to see fully. His If This Is a Man, The Periodic Table, and The Drowned and the Saved are profound meditations on Auschwitz, but the various formats and viewpoints he used can make it hard to grasp a clear understanding of his work, influence, and importance. Magavern (law, Univ. at Buffalo), who stresses the greatness of Levi, has attempted a short biographic and literary reading of the complete man. The author understands Levi as a heroic witness to Auschwitz and reads his work as redemptive and spiritual. Magavern writes of the importance to Levi of Dante, Homer, and Rabelais and of Levi's desire to be a writer, a family man, and a constructive member of society. For Levi, the Nazi era is a gigantic metaphor for the cruelty of life itself-the world is a prison of shame and guilt redeemed by love, work, and duty. Magavern describes Levi's difficult family relationships and struggles with depression. A good introduction to Levi's life and work.
—Gene Shaw

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780230606470
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/7/2009
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Sam Magavern has written for Poetry, The Partisan Review, and The Paris Review, among others.  He is a professor at the University at Buffalo Law School and serves on the city's Living Wage Commission. He lives in Buffalo, New York.

Jonathan Rosen (introduction) is the author of Eve’s Apple and The Talmud and the Internet. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker among others. He is editorial director of Nextbook, where he edits the “Jewish Encounters” series.   

Risa Sodi (afterword) is the director of undergraduate study, senior lector II, and language program director at Yale University. She is the author of Narrative and Imperative: The First Fifty Years of Italian Holocaust Writing, 1944-1994  and A Dante of Our Time: Primo Levi and Auschwitz. She was the last person to interview Levi before his death.

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Table of Contents

A New Cosmos

Frogs on the Moon

Black Stars

Magic Mountains

Hell's Circles

Truces

Life Inside the Law

Uncertain Hours

The Thaw

Into the Sea

What We Make of Each Other

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