The Com­plete Works of Pri­mo Levi

Pri­mo Levi; Ann Gold­stein, ed.

  • Review
By – September 16, 2015

This boxed set rep­re­sents the cul­mi­na­tion of a mul­ti-year effort to bring to Amer­i­can read­ers the com­plete works of Ital­ian sci­en­tist, man-of-let­ters, and Shoah sur­vivor Pri­mo Levi. Under the able edi­tor­ship of Ann Gold­stein, the vol­umes present in new trans­la­tions all of Levi’s works — the ear­ly nar­ra­tives of Levi’s expe­ri­ences as an inmate of Auschwitz (If This Is a Man) and his Odysseus-like return trip to Italy via Rus­sia (The Truce); his ground-break­ing mem­oir (The Peri­od­ic Table); his late nov­els (The Wrench; If Not Now, When?) and his vale­dic­to­ry and somber recon­sid­er­a­tion of the mean­ing of the Nazi exter­mi­na­tion machine (The Drowned and the Saved), in addi­tion to all of his occa­sion­al news­pa­per columns, short sto­ries and pre­vi­ous­ly uncol­lect­ed essays, as well as his poet­ry. Levi accom­plished this prodi­gious out­put in the 42 years between his lib­er­a­tion from Auschwitz and his pre­ma­ture death in 1987 (pre­sum­ably by sui­cide); all the while he held down a series of increas­ing­ly respon­si­ble day” jobs as a work­ing sci­en­tist and indus­tri­al manager.

Levi’s work gained Amer­i­can atten­tion only in the last few years before his death, near­ly 40 years after he first began writ­ing. His ear­ly mem­oir, If This Is a Man, was not pub­lished in Eng­lish until 12 years after its first Ital­ian pub­li­ca­tion in 1947 and did not gar­ner much atten­tion. Like­wise, the trans­la­tion of The Truce (pub­lished in the U.S. under the title The Reawak­en­ing), writ­ten years after the events depict­ed, was also neglect­ed. It was not until endorse­ments by Irv­ing Howe and Saul Bel­low of The Peri­od­ic Table in the ear­ly 1980s gen­er­at­ed inter­est that Levi entered the con­scious­ness of the Amer­i­can read­ing public.

Sev­en­ty years after the lib­er­a­tion of the camps and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sur­vivors’ accounts and schol­ar­ly and cre­ative works on the Shoah, If This Is a Man still hor­ri­fies with its accu­mu­la­tion of details of the squalor and degra­da­tion, the dai­ly humil­i­a­tions, the pet­ty rules, the vicious­ness of camp inmates toward each oth­er, the arbi­trary judg­ments of the SS guards and their pris­on­er-Kapo assis­tants select­ing” inmates for exter­mi­na­tion, and the sheer bru­tal­i­ty of the work inflict­ed on those who were not imme­di­ate­ly con­signed to the death cham­bers. Levi con­sid­ers that it was his good for­tune” to be sent to Auschwitz so late in the war (he was cap­tured in a raid on his par­ti­san band in Jan­u­ary 1944) and he cred­its his sur­vival in the most noto­ri­ous of the Nazi death camps to a com­bi­na­tion of for­tu­itous cir­cum­stances. What is also strik­ing about the nar­ra­tive is its almost com­plete absence of anger, ran­cor, or judg­ment about the per­pe­tra­tors of this epit­o­me of human evil. Levi thus gained the rep­u­ta­tion of being a sec­u­lar saint, a Christ-like dis­penser of for­give­ness, a char­ac­ter­i­za­tion he most emphat­i­cal­ly reject­ed. As he made clear years lat­er in an appen­dix added to the repub­li­ca­tion of the vol­ume for school use, his incli­na­tion to hatred toward his oppres­sors was tem­pered by his ratio­nal quest for jus­tice above all. He felt he would be more cred­i­ble if he assumed the calm and sober lan­guage of the wit­ness, not the lament of the vic­tim or the anger of the avenger.” This calm and sober” demeanor car­ries over into his lat­er, more prob­ing analy­sis in The Drowned and the Saved, which offers a scathing but ratio­nal and mea­sured cri­tique of the active par­tic­i­pants in the Final Solu­tion” and their silent and pas­sive accom­plices. In that lat­er book, he is unspar­ing but also under­stand­ing in his con­sid­er­a­tion of the psy­chol­o­gy of the vic­tims, those caught in what he calls the grey zone” of the camps.

Levi’s nar­ra­tive of his delayed home­com­ing in The Truce is anoth­er order of nar­ra­tive— more picaresque and occa­sion­al­ly almost com­ic in tone — that opens up with a skill equal to If This Is a Man the less fre­quent­ly depict­ed post-lib­er­a­tion strug­gle for sur­vival. Lib­er­at­ed from the aban­doned Auschwitz by advanc­ing Russ­ian troops, Levi was sent on a nine-month odyssey through Poland and Ukraine, with a return jour­ney through most of war-dev­as­tat­ed East­ern Europe. The book is filled with heart­break­ing depic­tions of depri­va­tion and near-anar­chy, leav­ened some­what by the col­or­ful char­ac­ters Levi encoun­ters. This expe­ri­ence served as Levi’s inspi­ra­tion for his lat­er effort at extend­ed fic­tion, his self-described West­ern,” If Not Now, When?, which traces the activ­i­ties over a three-year peri­od of a band of Russ­ian-Pol­ish-Jew­ish par­ti­sans as they seek to hide out from and dis­rupt the Nazi war effort in East­ern Europe, and their even­tu­al arrival in Italy en route to a new life in Palestine.

The Peri­od­ic Table is Levi’s most pop­u­lar book. Its unusu­al hybrid qual­i­ty is per­haps the secret to its suc­cess but also its most chal­leng­ing aspect. Levi’s use of the peri­od­ic table as a metaphor or anal­o­gy for aspects of his life before and after his impris­on­ment is often hard to inter­pret, but the book suc­ceeds in a num­ber of strong vignettes; per­haps the most strik­ing is the penul­ti­mate chap­ter in which Levi, in his role as man­ag­er of a paint fac­to­ry, cor­re­sponds with a Ger­man sci­en­tist who, it turns out, was involved in the I. G. Far­ben syn­thet­ic rub­ber project on which Levi worked at Auschwitz and to which he attrib­uted his sur­vival. Levi lat­er revealed that this char­ac­ter, Dr. Müller, was a com­pos­ite, but the vignette encap­su­lates the men­tal­i­ty that Levi sees as sup­port­ing the Nazi death machine through delib­er­ate igno­rance of the hor­ror being per­pe­trat­ed right under wit­ness­es’ noses and the blink­ered refusal to accept moral respon­si­bil­i­ty in the aftermath.

Ann Gold­stein, the gen­er­al edi­tor of these vol­umes, asserts that it is some­what unfor­tu­nate that Levi is iden­ti­fied pri­mar­i­ly as a Holo­caust writer (Levi him­self did not like the term Holo­caust), and she tries to make a case for the exten­sive­ness of his out­put and the vari­ety of his sub­jects. To this read­er, the non-Holo­caust relat­ed pieces — the large num­bers of qua­si-sci­ence fic­tion pieces and occa­sion­al essays col­lect­ed here — seem of less con­se­quence than the major nar­ra­tives. The sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries are amus­ing exer­cis­es in a kind of writ­ing rem­i­nis­cent of Ray Brad­bury, Jorge Luis Borges, or Levi’s Ital­ian con­tem­po­rary Ita­lo Calvi­no. The poet­ry is heart-felt and pen­e­trat­ing, often, as Jonathan Galas­si sug­gests, break­ing through to deep­er emo­tions that Levi kept bot­tled up in his prose. The occa­sion­al essays, many of them com­ments on the Shoah, were often recy­cled by Levi into his lat­er Drowned and Saved, so there is some degree of rep­e­ti­tion if one reads the entire con­tents of this mas­sive collection.

The dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of this col­lec­tion is the new trans­la­tions of all the works with the excep­tion of If This Is a Man, which appears in a revised ver­sion by its orig­i­nal trans­la­tor, Stu­art Woolf. In addi­tion to Gold­stein and Woolf, trans­la­tors include Nathaniel Rich (The Wrench); Jen­ny McPhee; Jonathan Galas­si (Levi’s poet­ry); Anne M. Appel; Antony Shugaar; Michael Moore; and Alessan­dra and Francesco Bastagli. All read smooth­ly and cap­ture Levi’s restrained tone and style. The lack of an extend­ed dis­cus­sion beyond Goldstein’s intro­duc­tion of the issues involved in the trans­la­tions seems an unfor­tu­nate omis­sion. In addi­tion to the essays on Levi’s rep­u­ta­tion in Europe and the U.S., the vol­umes also con­tain com­men­tary and notes on the indi­vid­ual works that detail their pub­li­ca­tion his­to­ries and put them into the con­text of Levi’s life.

As Toni Mor­ri­son elo­quent­ly puts it in her brief intro­duc­tion, in read­ing Levi, Time and time again we are moved by his nar­ra­tives of how men refuse era­sure.” This is Levi’s lega­cy and these vol­umes solid­i­fy it.

Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes; commentary

Relat­ed Content:

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions