Reviews — From the December 2015 issue

Free but Not Redeemed

Primo Levi and the enigma of survival

Discussed in this essay:

The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein. Liveright. 3,008 pages. $100.

Primo Levi’s literary conquest of America has been slow, sketchy, almost diffident. The English translation of his first book, If This Is a Man, appeared in this country in 1959, twelve years after the publication of the original in Italy, and despite a handful of good reviews, it sank without a trace. Perhaps it was too soon for Levi’s clear-eyed account of life in Auschwitz — perhaps, for readers enjoying the postwar boom and the pleasures of the Pax Americana, the book seemed too bitter, even medicinal. His second book, The Truce, repeated this disappearing act in 1965. Levi, of course, kept writing and publishing in Italy, where he won every literary prize and came to be regarded as one of the sanest, sharpest, and most sweetly rational voices of the century. There, he was a major writer and public intellectual (who happened to make his living as a chemist). Here, he was invisible — until The Periodic Table showed up in 1984, an elemental masterpiece and a reminder to American readers that they had an awful lot of catching up to do.

Primo Levi at his home in Turin, 1985 © René Burri/Magnum Photos

Primo Levi at his home in Turin, 1985 © René Burri/Magnum Photos

In short order, English versions of Levi’s work began spilling from the chute: fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs. It was a windfall to have all this stupendous work at last. It was also a lot to digest in a hurry. Levi’s suicide, in 1987 — there are still doubters, but most agree that the author threw himself down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building — seemed for some time to contaminate the pleasure that so many had taken in his work. And even after the initial shock faded, his substantial oeuvre felt somewhat scattered. The books were reprinted, rejacketed, and published in recombinant editions. Some went in and out of print. The thrilling arc of Levi’s development as a writer — one who emerged fully formed but took years to accept his own extraordinary talent — was lost. It all seemed very random, as if the books had floated ashore from a shipwreck.

This randomness is what Ann Goldstein and a crew of distinguished translators are hoping to rectify with The Complete Works of Primo Levi. It is, by any measure, a monumental effort: 3,000 pages of text in three fat volumes, assembling all fourteen of the author’s works in their original Italian configurations. What’s more, with a single exception, all the books appear in new translations. The rationale for redoing them is, at first, not entirely clear. It’s one thing to commission a new translation of, say, Anna Karenina, given that Constance Garnett’s came out in 1901 and is likely to strike contemporary readers as a little fusty. (Vladimir Nabokov, who gave Garnett’s work a thorough frisking on several occasions, once called it “unbearably demure.”) But the existing translations of Levi’s books were not late-Victorian relics. The first two were done by the estimable Stuart Woolf, who translated If This Is a Man quite literally at the author’s elbow in 1958. Many of the others were the work of William Weaver and Raymond Rosenthal, two of this country’s most gifted postwar translators, and most of them are less than thirty years old: relative striplings, as these things go.

In her introduction, however, Goldstein explains that the idea was to assemble a complete and stylistically uniform edition. The industrial scale of the operation forced her to rely on a team of translators: Anne Milano Appel, Alessandra Bastagli, Francesco Bastagli, Jonathan Galassi, Jenny McPhee, Michael Moore, Nathaniel Rich, and Antony Shugaar. Woolf was brought on to revise his version of Levi’s debut. Goldstein herself, in a burst of Stakhanovite zeal, not only translated three of the books but also finessed the others, in pursuit of “a tone that is consistent and consistently recognizable.” In this, she has succeeded. What we hear throughout is Primo Levi’s voice: wry, honest, exact, compassionate in its recognition of human frailty, and imbued with (as he once wrote of Charles Darwin) “the sober joy of a man who extracts order from chaos.” It is a quiet voice, as if spoken just a few inches from one’s ear. It is also marvelously comprehensible, even when Levi is unleashing one of his serpentine sentences or fusing together metaphorical material that most writers would regard as scarcely covalent. Always, he sought what he once defined as “strenuous clarity” — and from the moment he first put pen to paper, he found it.

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is the executive editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is also the translator of seven books from the Italian, including Giacomo Casanova’s The Duel (2011), and a recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award.

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