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Why Do We View Primo Levi’s Work Through the Prism of His Death?

Bernard Gotfryd/Premium Archive/Getty Images

Primo Levi kills himself again and again. It’s been twenty-six years since he flung himself from the fourth floor of his apartment building, and for many people the circumstances of his death still take precedence over the deathlessness of his work. Levi left no suicide note, but for a writer of such dignified restraint, for a witness who withheld much of what he saw and felt, that isn’t surprising. He didn’t choose the surer and less violent means of poison, and although that might seem suspicious for a chemist sickened by violence, his suicide bears every mark of desperate impulsivity. Poison required a planning Levi simply could not muster, while falling over a fourth-floor railing took only a second’s small effort. That Levi was born and brought up in the very building in Turin which served as his means of destruction is a too-neat poeticism that probably would have disgusted him—he who eschewed ostentation and the gloat of the damned—which is another reason not to doubt his suicide but to see it as an immediate and irrepressible urge against another day’s pain.

In his new book Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, philosopher and Shoah scholar Berel Lang reminds us that Levi’s health had been in shambles for years, owing mostly to a prostate condition, the surgery for which left him uncomfortable and incontinent. The fanged melancholy that had infected him since youth had returned and offered no promise of abatement. Although Levi either downplayed or denied its lingering severity, his eleven-month hell in Auschwitz forty-three years earlier had knifed out a crucial element of his spirit. Like many of the repatriated—and despite marriage, fatherhood and a laudable career as a chemist and, later, as an author—Levi had a difficult time fully trusting the chrysalis of civilization after Auschwitz. He was a man of unflinching probity who never succumbed to the cutthroat Hobbesian conception of human striving, or to that toxic strain of bitterness which contaminated and ultimately ended the writer Jean Améry (also a Shoah survivor and suicide). But there is sometimes in Levi’s work the itchy suspicion that the hell could happen again, or that it never really ended.

Beneath that unperturbed and almost placid prose creeps a fatalism, a capitulation before the vastitude and depravity of what he named “the demolition of man.” The stupefied silence before this vastitude and depravity is part of why his work remains ever pregnant and never born, because “our language lacks words to express this offense.” Lang is particularly adept at addressing our kneejerk linguistic and conceptual reactions to Auschwitz: “ineffable,” “unimaginable,” “incomprehensible,” etc. The subject resists irony and apothegm alike. As a scientist, Levi didn’t surrender to the convenient belief that some human agency is beyond explication, even though he himself could offer no answer to such demonical madness. The mind doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Shoah, and the heart never even tried to understand.

Eight days before committing suicide in 1950, Levi’s near-contemporary Cesare Pavese wrote a final diary entry: “Not words. An act.” Upon Levi’s suicide, Elie Wiesel famously said that we could engrave Levi’s name among the six million incinerated by the Third Reich. In her essay “Primo Levi’s Suicide Note,” Cynthia Ozick suggests: “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” (She refers to The Drowned and the Saved; “Lager” was Levi’s term for the death camps.) For Levi, as for Pavese, an act only now. His books, erroneously accused of being too sunny or too neutral, too suffused with scientific integrity, shame the barbarous Catholic notion that suffering leads to deliverance and is of itself holy. Suffering isn’t holy. To steal from Randall Jarrell’s formulation, we can’t call pain by another name in hope of diminishing its sting. Pain is pain: worthless, wasteful, replete with barren wrath.

We do not behold the lives and work of Walter Benjamin or Virginia Wolff through the cracked prisms of their self-destruction, but Primo Levi is a special case. Lang speaks of the emotional investment we had in Levi, the optimist and survivor: he who emerged whole from the perdition of Hitlerism, who through the most arbitrary luck and against every odd endured to document the flames, the social contagion and moral catastrophe he quit trying to comprehend. His survival and testimony was one of the bantam victories against the Final Solution. His suicide, then, meant for some one more body added to the hideous count, meant a nullifying of that victory. But part of the skill of Lang’s approach is his even-keeled testing of the unknowables: given Levi’s saturnine disposition and family history of depression and suicide—his paternal grandfather leapt to his death from a window—there’s no way to be certain of Wiesel’s claim that Auschwitz succeeded in killing Levi.

Lang’s measured stance might have a ready-made snicker waiting in reply—how could an outlier such as Auschwitz not have contributed to his despair, his demise?—but it’s a necessary reminder of Levi’s tremendous complexity as a man and the impossibility of ever fully knowing him. Lang’s study is an invaluable addition to the expanding array of scholarship on this potent writer. He combines an exact psycho-emotional analysis of Levi with the tempestuous social context in which his psyche developed, warped, and eventually self-destructed. If the book is too brief on insights into Levi’s actual work, it does not purport to be literary critique; rather, Lang has written a wise and deeply-felt examination of the personal and philosophical conditions that made Primo Levi’s work possible.

In November of 1961, Italo Calvino wrote to Levi in praise of some science fiction stories Levi had sent him. Near the end of the letter Calvino added this caveat: “Of course you still do not possess the sureness of touch of a writer whose stylistic personality is already formed.” He then went on to hail Borges for being unmistakably himself even though Calvino must have known or suspected that Levi—master of muted clarity, of subdued assertion—was turned off by the inverted, batty world of Borges. Calvino was four years younger than his Italian contemporary and hadn’t experienced even a minim of the hell Levi had endured in his racked life, so the condescending tenor of that line, from friend to friend, is a bit hard to take. Still, Calvino accidentally underscored an important point about the work of Primo Levi: the fiction sputters and stalls next to the memoirs, his masterpieces If This Is A Man (published in America with the more market-friendly title Survival in Auschwitz), The Truce (in America called The Reawakening), Moments of Reprieve, The Periodic Table, and The Drowned and the Saved. His novels The Monkey’s Wrench and the terribly titled If Not Now, When? grope not necessarily after “stylistic personality” but after the proper architecture and employment of narrative invention.

Why would the novel present a challenge to Levi’s talents when his memoirs everywhere demonstrate such excellence of expression and form, such distinction of sensibility and pitch? Levi himself once suggested that the composition of a memoir was simpler than a novel because a memoir’s framework was already erected: all one had to do was remember. That isn’t exactly an intentional misrepresentation of memoir writing—Levi’s powers of recall were outright preternatural—but of course he knew that a successful memoir requires more than mere remembering, especially since he admitted to massaging certain memories in order to achieve a harmony of form (in an interview with Philip Roth, Levi calls it the “filtered truth”).

In his 1985 essay “Writing and the Holocaust,” Irving Howe contends that “Holocaust writings make their primary claim ... through facts recorded or remembered.” He speaks to the “helplessness of the imagination before an evil that cannot quite be understood.” In other words: the sinister facts of the Lager render impotent the imaginative powers of every novelist. This is why the great Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld concerns himself with only the before and after, never the during: not only because he never witnessed the gas and ovens—he escaped from a death camp in Transnistria at ten years old—but because even if he had witnessed them, they are beyond the reach and renderings of imagination. Or, to borrow from Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, both of which reside always in imagination before they manifest in act.

Levi took an identical tack in his two novels, skirting the Lager altogether: The Monkey’s Wrench is a crawling, digressive tome about the art of storytelling and the love of work, and If Not Now, When? is an almost-adventure story about a renegade outfit of liberated Jews harassing Nazi designs at the close of the war. The novels don’t triumph as the memoirs do because Levi’s imagination either atrophies or explodes when confronted with the task of narrative invention. It’s as if the abattoir of Auschwitz—its insistent facts felt in limbs and blood, its dearth of digestible meaning—had crippled his capacity to provide the storytelling apparatus that facilitates character, plot, and the convincing cohesion every novel strives to achieve. This might also be responsible in part for Levi’s inability to appreciate Borges and Kafka: the roiling fancy of their imaginations could never match the gaunt faces he remembered.

Any writer is irked by being cubicled as a one-trick magician, and for Levi, the tags “Holocaust writer” and “Jewish writer” were regrettable, although he grew to accept, even embrace, the latter. His detainment by Italian fascists and then by Nazis in Auschwitz altered how he perceived his Jewishness: it shifted, Lang writes, “from something presumptive, on the edge of consciousness and will, to a place close to the center of his self-identity.” If Ozick is correct in seeing Levi’s last book, The Drowned and the Saved, as “the bitterest of suicide notes,” one brimming with a finally-vented fury, then neither the suicide nor the fury that caused it succeeds in depleting Levi’s identity and the work to which it gave life. “The injury cannot be healed,” he wrote in his final book, and he will not accept the blame for that. He is not our feel-good Lager survivor for many reasons but mainly because his work does not nod toward personal or communal redemption, toward martyrdom or the supposition that all bones are stronger at their broken places. In a 1948 essay called “Terror Beyond Evil,” Isaac Rosenthal wrote of the Lager: “By now we know all there is to know. But it hasn’t helped; we still don’t understand ... besides, who wants to understand?” Rosenthal was right and wrong: right that we must never be willing to understand, wrong that in 1948 we knew all there was to know. It would take Primo Levi to help complete our knowledge of the limits of human understanding.

William Giraldi is author of the novel Busy Monsters and Fiction Editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.