The Mystery of Primo Levi

Primo Levi was born in 1919 on the fourth floor of an “undistinguished” apartment block in Turin and aside from “involuntary interruptions” continued to live there in the company of his mother until in 1987 he threw himself down the stairwell to his death. The longest interruption was from September 1943 to October 1945 and would provide Levi with the core material for his writing career: it involved three months on the fringe of the partisan resistance to the German occupation, two months in a Fascist internment camp, eleven months in Auschwitz, and a further nine in various Russian refugee camps.
In 1946, aged twenty-seven, despite working full-time as a chemist, Levi completed his account of his time in a concentration camp. Now widely considered a masterpiece, If This Is a Man was turned down by Turin’s main publishing house, Einaudi, in the person of Natalia Ginzburg, herself a Jew whose husband had died in a Fascist prison. It was also rejected by five other publishers. Why?
Even before his return, Levi had been overwhelmed by the need to tell what had happened. Prior to Auschwitz he had not felt that Jewishness was central to his identity. Like most Italian Jews, the Levis had long been assimilated with little to distinguish them from other Italians. The introduction of the Race Laws in 1938, which discriminated against Jews in public education and excluded them from regular employment, thus created a predicament for Levi that went far beyond the problem of completing his degree in chemistry and finding a job. It was a threat to his identity. Who was he if not an ordinary Italian like his fellow students? The question “what is a man?” that would echo throughout his work was never an abstract consideration but a matter of personal urgency.
Until September 1943 it had been possible for Levi to live in “willful blindness,” to get around the rules, graduate, and find work unofficially; but with the Italian capitulation to the Allies and the German occupation of Italy this was no longer an option. Jews were being rounded up. Many were fleeing to the Americas. Levi’s insecurity at this time was compounded by the death of his father in 1942, making Primo, at twenty-three, responsible for the well-being of his mother and younger sister. His father had been something of a womanizer whose betrayals of their mother were common knowledge.

Here too there was a question of manhood: Levi himself had yet to have anything more than “bloodless female friendships,” was believed by his companions to be terrified of women, and feared that he was “condemned to a perpetual male solitude.” He nursed his self-esteem with adventurous chemistry experiments and arduous mountain climbing in the Alps above Turin, and it was to the mountains that he fled in September 1943, taking his mother and sister with him and renting rooms in a small resort hotel near the Swiss border.
Was he a Jew on the run or a partisan? The Swiss border was closed. German forces were approaching. The would-be rebels with whom Levi eventually associated were poorly organized and quickly infiltrated by a Fascist spy; the only shots fired in anger were those that served to execute two younger members of the band who had gone on a drinking and looting spree that put the safety of the others at risk. How far Levi was involved in this killing is largely the subject of Sergio Luzzatto’s mistitled new book,Primo Levi’s Resistance.1 There was no resistance. To Levi’s dismay his sister had taken his mother from the hotel on December 1 to find refuge back in Piedmont. On December 9 the two undisciplined band members were dispatched with shots to the back. By the time Levi was arrested on December 13 he was utterly demoralized and disoriented. Warned that to confess to being a partisan would mean certain death, he opted for the lesser evil of admitting his Jewishness.
The reader coming to If This Is a Man today brings with him a great deal of knowledge about the Holocaust and in most cases is free of any direct personal involvement in the war. Readers in Turin in 1947 were not so well informed and their own intense war experiences were very much on their minds. The book opens, in first person, with a curious mixture of coolness and portentousness. “I cultivated a moderate and abstract sense of rebellion,” Levi remarks, and declares that given his half-heartedness as a partisan the “sequence of events” leading to his arrest were “justified.” The tone changes abruptly when he talks about the collective experience, in the internment camp, of being told that all Jews were to be dispatched to Germany the following day:
Night came, and it was such a night one knew that human eyes would not witness it and survive…. Many things were then said and done among us; but of these it is better that no memory remain.
Today it is easy to imagine the young Levi searching for a voice, a manner, that would allow him to tell his tale without being overwhelmed by it and at the same time compel the reader’s attention. Prior to studying chemistry he had been educated at a prestigiousliceo classico in Turin; he knew his Dante and Manzoni and brought frequent references from them to his text, to enrich it, to get across a sense of extremity and profundity. But having lived through twenty years of fascism the literary establishment in postwar Turin were sworn enemies of all grandiloquence, which they tended to associate with inauthenticity; in their defense it has to be said that If This Is a Man is most powerful when it is most straightforward.
The difficulty in finding a voice for what had happened was intimately linked to the experience itself and the question of what it means to be human. Many inmates of Auschwitz, Levi tells us, experienced the same dream: they would be back home trying to tell their story—the hunger, the cold, the beatings, the selections—but all too soon they would realize that their loved ones were not listening. “They are completely indifferent…as if I were not there.”
Why this refusal to listen? The worst aspect of the camp, Levi tells us, was that it “was a great machine to reduce us to beasts.” The victim was systematically brought down morally to the level of his torturers. Prisoners were encouraged to fight one another, for the possession of a spoon, for sufficient space to sleep, to get the easier jobs, to avoid emptying the slop cans:
One had to…strangle all dignity and kill all conscience, to enter the arena as a beast against other beasts…. Many were the ways devised and put into practice by us in order not to die…. All implied a grueling struggle of one against all….
To give up this struggle was to become an obvious candidate for the gas chamber, one of
an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead within them, already too empty to truly suffer. One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death….
In her introduction to this three-volume collection of Levi’s works, Toni Morrison remarks how “the triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.” These are heartening words but they are not true. Rather Levi tells us about human identity crushed and corrupted by unspeakable evil; his work is powerful because it squares up to that reality. “The personages in these pages are not men,” he tells us; everybody in the camp, torturers and tortured alike, was “paradoxically united in a common inner desolation.”
To tell this harrowing story was to confess to one’s own degradation. It wasn’t attractive. This anguish explains the strange shifts of tone throughout If This Is a Man, in particular the moments when Levi addresses us defensively with the didactic “we”:
We now invite the reader to contemplate the possible meaning in the Lager of the words “good” and “evil,” “just” and “unjust”; let each judge,…how much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire.
The rejections of his book must have come to Levi as confirmation of his recurrent nightmares. Fortunately in the meantime there was love. Levi had started dating Lucia Morpurgo in early 1946. She was a year younger than he; both were virgins. Crucially, Lucia was happy to listen to Levi’s story in all its terrible detail. “I felt myself become a man again,” he later wrote. Eventually his memoir was published by a tiny publishing house in October 1947, a month after Levi and Lucia had married.
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