By Primo Levi
W.W. Norton. 3 vols. 3,008 pp. $100
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Reviewed by John Timpane
nolead ends Here's the news: W.W. Norton, driven by editors Robert Weil and Ann Goldstein, has collected the writings of Primo Levi, the Italian novelist, poet, memoirist, and concentration camp survivor - introduced by Toni Morrison and translated by writers such as Jenny McPhee and Jonathan Galassi - and created a boxed set of three wonderful books.
A trained chemist and a Jew, Levi grew up in fascist Italy, joined the Resistance, was arrested by German troops and sent to Auschwitz, and somehow survived (thanks to his good German and science skills), taking nine months to trek from a repatriation camp in Russia back to his homeland. From this bitter path flowed the work on which his growing reputation is based.
I remember the first time I read Levi - The Periodic Tables, one of the best, and one of the few successful, postmodern experiments in blurred fact and fiction. (Put down this review, go read The Periodic Table, and come back.) I remember my second time: If This Is a Man, a shattering account of his time in Auschwitz. I remember my third time, If Not Now, When?, his novel about a Resistance fighter's odyssey through Europe during and after World War II. You cannot forget him. He writes clearly, cogently, concretely, compactly. His is a scientist's eye, and he often said (with his trademark dry humor) that the main model for his writing was the lab report. Yet in the best contemporary sense, he's also stylish, laboratory-scrupulous in sentence, description, and word choice, always with a sense of the lively mind behind the words.
Take this sentence, from the story "With the Best of Intentions": "Anyone who needs to punish himself finds the opportunity everywhere." Destined for Bartlett's. Or this, from the remarkable section "Gold" in The Periodic Table. Levi remembers his German captivity: "In those days, as I was fairly courageously waiting for death, I harbored a piercing hope for everything, for all imaginable human experiences, and I cursed my preceding life, which it seemed to me I had taken little and poor advantage of, and I felt time slipping through my fingers, escaping from my body minute by minute, like a hemorrhage that cannot be stanched."
A shapely, passionate sentence, yet detached, dispassionate, report rather than song. Note the pungent, self-critical "fairly courageous" (as in "not altogether") and the closing physiological simile. Such virtues make Levi singular and inimitable.
Another is his witness to history. He wrote repeatedly of the nature of evil, finding it as banal as Arendt did, as nightmarish as Kafka did. He writes stories, essays, and interviews on the havoc of war, the fog of European rebuilding, the burdens of memory and forgiveness, and the blights of racism, nationalism, and violence, which he decries both in the Nazis and in contemporary countries, including Israel.
No overt moralist, he prefers to present evil and let the reader's moral sense galvanize, without Levi-as-narrator belaboring it. (In "Why Do We Write?," he says "a reader in search of a story should find a story, not some unwanted lesson.")
I would not expect anyone to read these volumes cover to cover. The mind can go blank at so much meditation on the vexed mid-20th century, the tasks of blame and punishment, the physical and psychological cost, personal, racial, and national. All together, it can be relentless and a little misleading.
The point is to get to know Levi.
On the way, of course, you will read What Is a Man? and If Not Now, When? They are among his most-discussed works, the Levi compelled to give testimony on evil and suffering. And he is a lucid, strong essayist, as in "The Black Hole of Auschwitz," a brief, searing comparison of the German camps to the Russian gulags.
But there's another Levi. Please dip into his witty, often eloquent poetry, surprisingly good for a man so committed to prose. He is also a fine short-story writer. Two of my favorites are "Best Intentions," far ahead of its time, and the ironic, pervertedly romantic "Quaestio de Centauris."
Levi long wished to create something new: an expressive, artistic public discourse on scientific topics. He was looking for a literary balance between art and science, storytelling and reporting. He got the balance right in Periodic Table, in which the metaphor of the table of elements underpins a collection of vignettes, reminiscences, and meditations. Each "chapter" is titled after an element, and it's fun to speculate on the reasons this chapter is called "Gold,"
that one "Lead," and so on. If you want to know the true Levi, where his imagination loved to go, read "The Spider's Secret." In that regard, the essay "Asymmetry and Life," even though some of its science has been superseded, is also wondrous.
Levi is among the prime writers to emerge after World War II. This treasure trove will cement his reputation.