Reviews — From the December 2015 issue

Free but Not Redeemed

Primo Levi and the enigma of survival

( 4 of 5 )

Even as he worked on The Truce, Levi opened an authorial second front. He began publishing short fantastical tales, often in the newspaper Il Giorno, and collected the first batch of these in 1966 as Natural Histories. Worried that his readers might be thrown by the stylistic disjunction — was he a recording angel or a light entertainer? — he published the book under the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila. A second such volume, Flaw of Form, appeared in 1971, this time under his own name.

These days, nobody would blink twice at Levi for dabbling in sci-fi and fantasy — indeed, his publisher would probably urge him to write a YA novel as well. The problem is that the stories aren’t particularly good. There are effective touches in both collections, and Flaw of Form includes at least one sinister triumph, “Best Is Water,” in which the most common fluid on earth has begun to thicken into a gel. “We don’t cry,” Levi writes. “The lacrimal liquid remains uselessly in our eyes and doesn’t form into teardrops but oozes like a serum denying us all dignity and relief from our tears.” You sense the author aiming at a poetic fusion of science and whimsy, not unlike what Italo Calvino was accomplishing during those same years in Cosmicomics — but Levi lacked Calvino’s gift for metaphysical frolics, for summoning stories from the void.

No, it was his next book in which Levi fused not only science and whimsy but memoir, history, matter, and spirit. He had begun drafting chapters of The Periodic Table as far back as 1946. It’s not clear, however, exactly when it occurred to him that Mendeleev’s table of the elements — that venerable guide to the Urstoff, the underlying matter of the universe — could serve him as an autobiographical armature.

In some cases, the element’s role is mainly metaphorical. In the chapter called “Argon,” for example, Levi compares the inert and almost undetectable gas to his Italian Jewish forebears, existing in trace quantities among the noisier, numerous Gentiles. Their dual existence, torn between “divine vocation and the daily misery of exile,” fascinates Levi, as does their language, which is similarly shot through with lexical impurities:

It has a marvelous comic force, arising from the contrast between the fabric of the speech, which is the rough, sober, and laconic Piedmontese dialect, never written except on a bet, and the Hebrew framework, plucked from the remote language of the fathers, sacred and solemn, geologic, smoothed by the millennia like a riverbed by the glaciers.

In “Gold,” the elemental connection is more direct. The chapter recounts Levi’s capture in 1943, and then his confinement and slapdash interrogation by a couple of Fascist flunkies. The worst was yet to come: an Italian jail cell was paradise compared with the rigors of Auschwitz. But Levi, crushed by his arrest, as well as by the recent liquidation of his comrades, felt that he was finished. No wonder he envied his cellmate, who had been busted on a minor smuggling charge but made his living by panning for gold in the nearby Dora River. “Straining my ears,” Levi writes, “in the silence of the blackout I could hear the murmur of the Dora, lost friend, and all friends were lost, and youth, and joy, and perhaps life: the river ran close by but indifferent, carrying gold in its womb of melted ice.” Gold here is everything that is beautiful and unobtainable and on the point of vanishing. It is also a reminder that for a chemist, the elements are never neutral, but as slippery and enigmatic as human beings, with shapeshifting personalities of their own.

Levi takes this shape-shifting to new heights in the final chapter, “Carbon.” As he explains, his idea is to narrate the history of a single carbon atom, which spends millennia locked in a deposit of calcareous rock before being liberated, in 1840, by a miner’s pick. Baked in a lime kiln (a distant echo of the crematorium that Levi only narrowly avoided), the atom is carried aloft from the smokestack and spends decades in a continuous state of transubstantiation: inhaled by a falcon, dissolved in seawater, absorbed by a leaf, devoured by a woodworm. “The death of atoms, unlike ours, is never irrevocable,” we read. Before Auschwitz and after, Levi was never a believer: the idea of an afterlife would have struck him as risible. Here, however, is a kind of immortality, one indebted not to spirit — which Fascist philosophy had long since ruined for Levi — but to matter, whose secrets he spent a lifetime unlocking.2

2 Translation is an imperfect art, a high-wire passage from one language to another, with a million opportunities for that mortifying slip. So it should surprise nobody that The Complete Works includes a sprinkling of errors, most of them minor blemishes that can easily be fixed in a reprint. A few, however, cry out for more immediate correction, and many of those seem to be clustered in The Periodic Table. When, in “Iron,” the author stresses the sharp contrast between himself and a rustic mountain-climbing companion, we read, “I was born on the Serra d’Ivrea, a beautiful, miserly land.” Levi, of course, was born in Turin, at Corso Re Umberto 75—the same building in which he grew up, raised his family, and died. (The other guy was born on the Serra d’Ivrea.) In “Chromium,” the translator is lulled by a dastardly false cognate. Recalling the dreary period following his return from Auschwitz, Levi writes: “I had been back from prison for three months, and I found life hard.” The word he uses in the original is prigionia, which certainly resembles “prison.” But the meaning is closer to “captivity” or “imprisonment,” and here the distinction is absolutely crucial: Levi was not in a prison, where society punishes malefactors in what are supposed to be roughly proportionate terms, but in a death factory. He never would have confused the two, nor should we.

After The Periodic Table, Levi may have felt that he had exhausted the autobiographical vein: that it was time for pure invention. In any case, his next two major books were novels. The Wrench, published in 1978, is essentially a series of monologues by a construction rigger named Libertino Faussone. In many cases, he presents a technical mystery and its solution — not unlike the chemical conundrums that Levi had supplied in certain chapters of The Periodic Table. Why should a distillation tower, a huge cylinder filled with water and several thousand ceramic rings, start moaning and swaying, as if it had a bad case of food poisoning? How can Faussone and his crew erect a giant trapezoidal derrick, twice the height of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the raging waters of the Bering Sea?

Like Levi’s ancestors, Faussone speaks in a linguistic mash-up, flecked with technical jargon and Piedmontese colloquialisms. Despite this freewheeling idiom, the book was a hit in Italy, with initial sales of 140,000 copies — about twice the number The Periodic Table had sold when it first came out. Levi must have felt that his bet on fiction had paid off, and he began work on an even more ambitious project, If Not Now, When?, which was published to great fanfare in 1982 and followed The Wrench onto the Italian bestseller list.

This picaresque narrative of Jewish partisans during the Second World War was yet another ingenious inversion of Levi’s own experience. His characters were Ashkenazi (Levi’s own ancestors were Sephardic), and part of his task was to reconstruct the world of Eastern European Jewry that had been so diligently and ferociously wiped out in the camps. More to the point, these were Jews who had fought back — who returned the blows that Levi, in order to survive, had learned to absorb without complaint.

As it happened, the question of returning blows had been weighing heavily on Levi. The early Seventies had seen the rise of neo-Fascism in Italy — and for a man who had considered his works to be an inoculation against just such an event, this was disastrous news. Next came the advent of the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist group whose taste for bloodshed far outstripped that of its right-wing counterparts. During the so-called anni di piombo, violence was no abstraction for Levi: there were regular bombings and assassinations in Turin, and his friend Carlo Casalegno, deputy editor at La Stampa, was shot to death just down the street from Levi’s home. Had the madness, the random mutilation and death of innocents, begun to creep back into European society?

Equally frightening was the sudden flourishing of Holocaust denial. The most visible practitioners were Robert Faurisson, a defrocked French academic who argued that the gas chambers had never existed, and Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, a doddering racist and former Vichy bureaucrat who had actually signed the deportation documents for 70,000 French Jews. Levi, shocked and enraged, was determined to fight back. Abandoning the fiction that had brought him such pleasure — and already struggling with the cyclical depression that would kill him in the end — he returned the blows the only way he knew how: on the page.

The result was his last and most sobering work, The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986. By now Levi had recounted almost all that he remembered of his year in the camp, so he offered little in the way of new narrative material. Instead, the book was a prolonged, sometimes agonized meditation on the themes of Auschwitz — its demonic ruination of conscience, communication, morality. Throughout, Levi acknowledged things that must have been intensely disturbing: that memory, his primary tool as a writer, was subject to terrible slippage, and that when it came to ethical matters, Auschwitz was even more of a toxic whirlpool than he had realized. There was no way to dodge the corruption. To have survived was itself a potential badge of dishonor, or at the very least a cause for stringent self-interrogation:

I felt innocent, to be sure, but herded among the saved and thus in permanent search of a justification, in my own eyes and in the eyes of others. Those who survived were the worst, that is to say, the fittest. The best all died.

The tone is tougher and more pugnacious than that of his previous books (although he insisted that he was still “incapable of throwing punches or answering a blow with a blow”). This unflinching quality was what led Cynthia Ozick, in a controversial review of The Drowned and the Saved, to call it Levi’s suicide note: “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” In her view, Levi had finally raised his voice, had given vent to decades of suppressed fury, and it had devoured him.

The reality, I would argue, is more complicated. Reading the book for the first time in many years, I was struck by its continuity with Levi’s earlier work. If This Is a Man, for all its vaunted calm and control, includes moments of tremendous anger, disgust, and grief. Whereas his last book, designed as a stinging rebuke and roundhouse swing, achieves some of its most powerful effects by understatement, just as Levi always had. Discussing the transformation of human beings into raw material — the ultimate credo of Auschwitz — Levi doesn’t sermonize or shake his fist. He doesn’t even allow himself the rhetorical latitude of his first book, in which he memorably declared, “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t quick, but you Germans have succeeded.” He simply sets down the facts, more devastating than any jeremiad:

Human ashes from the crematoriums, tons every day, were easily recognizable since they often contained teeth or vertebrae, but they were still used for various purposes: as landfill for marshy terrain, as cavity-wall insulation in wooden structures, and as phosphate fertilizer. They were notoriously used instead of gravel to pave the pathways of the SS village next to the camp. I couldn’t say whether this was out of sheer callousness or because, given its origins, it was material to be crushed underfoot.

None of this proves that the book, which was so painful to write that Levi could initially manage no more than a page per day, didn’t devour him. Indeed, back in 1989, I had a furtive conversation with a family member who told me that Ozick had gotten it right, had accurately sketched out Levi’s psychic collapse in the wake of The Drowned and the Saved. In some way, despite having survived the camp and its relentless ripple effects, he had ended up in a spot little different from Hurbinek’s: free but not redeemed — not quite.

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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