Primo Levi: Reconciling the Man and the Writer
As published in the New York Times
WHEN a writer commits suicide it is difficult not to reinterpret his books in light of his final act.
The temptation is particularly strong in the case of Primo Levi, much of whose work stemmed from his own experience at Auschwitz. The warmth and humanity of his writing had made Levi a symbol to his readers of the triumph of reason over the barbarism of genocide. For some, his violent death seemed to call that symbol into question. An article in The New Yorker went so far as to suggest that perhaps ”the efficacy of all his words had somehow been canceled by his death – that his hope, or faith, was no longer usable by the rest of us.” An author’s suicide is seen as the logical conclusion of all he has written or as an ironic contradiction – rather than as the result of a purely personal torment.
Since learning of Levi’s suicide I have been trying to reconcile in my mind the writer and the man I had come to know with his violent death.
Levi bore none of the obvious emotional scars common among Holocaust survivors, none of the usual reticence in discussing his past. He was a person of remarkable serenity, openness and good humor, with a striking absence of bitterness. He was able to describe a Nazi prison guard with the same objectivity and understanding he showed in writing or speaking of his fellow prisoners. It seemed a kind of miracle that a person of such gentle temperament and finely tuned intellectual balance could have emerged from the nightmare of Auschwitz. Levi retained the shy sensitivity and inquisitiveness of the chemistry student he was before the war, and yet he had the wisdom and toughness of a survivor who has seen more of life than anyone should.
Levi was free of the vanity and self-importance of many writers perhaps because he had worked for 30 years as a chemist in a paint factory. He was unfailingly generous in response to the many demands on his time and politely answered even the most stupid questions. Slight of build, almost wiry, with a thick shock of white hair and alert eyes, he had a simplicity of manner that belied his considerable intellectual sophistication.
Unlike some survivors who remained rootless after the war, Levi had profound ties to his family and his city. After Auschwitz, he returned to live in the Turin apartment his family has occupied for three generations. He contributed regularly to the Turin newspaper La Stampa and stood by the Turinese publishing house Einaudi even after it went into receivership and most of its other prestigious authors had abandoned it.
As a writer Levi grew from being simply an eloquent witness of the Holocaust into a full-blown imaginative novelist. After his first two volumes of memoirs about his wartime experience (”Survival in Auschwitz” and ”The Reawakening”), he drew on his life as a chemist to produce ”The Periodic Table,” ”The Monkey’s Wrench” and two collections of short stories not yet translated into English. Throughout, he remained in the stately old apartment building on Corso Umberto where he and his wife spent much of their time caring for his ailing 92-year-old mother. Their son lived just down the hall. Writing his books in the room in which he was born, working on a computer, Levi seemed both deeply rooted in the past and still intensely curious about the present. But last April 11, just outside his fourth-floor apartment, he hurled himself down the building’s central stairwell to his death.
The last months of Levi’s life were dominated by personal problems. In November his mother suffered a paralytic stroke, requiring around-the-clock care. Levi himself had been hospitalized for two prostate operations, which, although minor, tired and depressed him. A doctor had placed him on antidepressant drugs, and some have suggested that a reaction to a change in dosage may have led to his seemingly impulsive act. While these circumstances may account for the timing of his death, it is difficult not to search his Holocaust experience for the origin of his underlying despair.
Levi’s final nonfiction book, ”The Drowned and the Saved,” which has not been translated into English and which I had occasion to discuss with him in Turin a year ago, sheds some light on the last period of his life. While ”Survival at Auschwitz,” ”The Reawakening” and ”The Periodic Table” are ultimately hopeful books, ”The Drowned and the Saved” is a dark meditation on the meaning of the Nazi exterminations after the passing of 40 years. In it he recalls how the Nazis tormented prisoners by telling them that even if through some miracle they managed to survive, no one would believe them when they returned home.
While this was not literally the case, it contains a larger truth. By the end of his life Levi had become increasingly convinced that the lessons of the Holocaust were destined to be lost as it took a place among the routine atrocities of history. Levi was troubled by the sentimental distortions of survivors and sympathetic historians and by the collective amnesia of those responsible for the exterminations. In recent years he had spoken often to students and joined the board of his former high school. He was acutely aware of how remote his experience had come to seem to the youngest generation.
”Holocaust survivors,” Levi said in one of our talks, ”can be divided into two distinct categories: those who talk and those who don’t.” Levi, clearly, was in the first category. In our psychoanalytic culture we tend to believe that those who talk are better off and happier than those who don’t. But those who prefer silence and forgetfulness may have a successful self-protective strategy. Those who talk are also those who remember. Levi said he could remember literally everything that happened during his year and a half of imprisonment. Forty years later he could recall entire sentences he had heard in languages he did not even know: Polish, Yiddish, Hungarian and Greek.
Explaining why he kept returning to the subject of Auschwitz, Levi wrote in ”Moments of Reprieve,” a collection of autobiographical sketches, that ”a host of details continued to surface in my memory and the idea of letting them fade distressed me. A great number of human figures especially stood out against that tragic background: friends, people I’d traveled with, even adversaries – begging me one after another to help them survive and enjoy the ambiguous perennial existence of literary characters.”
In ”The Drowned and the Saved,” Levi writes about the tremendous difficulty of living with Holocaust memories. Suicide is, in fact, a major preoccupation of the book. He dedicates an entire chapter to the Belgian philosopher Jean Amery, who had been with Levi at Auschwitz and who killed himself in 1978. While any suicide, Levi writes, ”is open to a constellation of different interpretations,” he believes that in the case of Holocaust survivors the origin is likely to reside in their war experiences. For survivors, he writes, ”the period of their imprisonment (however long ago) is the center of their life, the event that, for better or worse, has marked their entire existence.” In a passage he quotes from Amery, Levi may have left us an interpretive key to his own death: ”He who has been tortured remains tortured. . . . He who has suffered torment can no longer find his place in the world. Faith in humanity -cracked by the first slap across the face, then demolished by torture – can never be recovered.”
But while Amery was a man who tried to retaliate against violence, Levi described himself as ”personally incapable of responding to a blow with a blow.” He responded to the violence of Auschwitz by internalizing it. Acutely sensitive to the suffering of others, he was particularly subject to feelings of guilt for having been unable to do more for those who suffered and died around him. WHILE many of his readers viewed him as an example of the triumph of good over evil, Levi would probably have rejected that view as an oversimplification. When I spoke with him in Turin, he said that he was especially concerned by a tendency to view the Holocaust in black and white terms, with the Germans as the bad and the Jews the good. ”The world of the Lager I witnessed was much more complex,” he said, ”just as the world outside it is much more complex.” The architects of the Holocaust created a system that delegated much of the physical punishment of prisoners to other prisoners. By creating an infinite number of subtle divisions and privileges, they pitted the inmates against one another in a brutal struggle for survival.
But to Levi, Darwin’s laws were thrown into reverse. ”The worst survived: the violent, the callous, the collaborators and the spies,” he said. Levi himself did not resort to collaboration – he survived largely through the help of an Italian worker who brought him food and through his job as a chemist in a camp factory – but he was nonetheless tormented by the memory of companions he was unable to help. In his last book he wrote: ”Each of us [ who survived ] supplanted his neighbor and lives in his place. . . . It’s deeply hidden like a moth. You can’t see it from outside but it gnaws and bites.”
During his last months Levi had been talking extensively about his past with the Turinese literary critic Giovanni Tesio, who was gathering material for a biography. A few days before his death, Levi broke off their conversations because the memories of Auschwitz were becoming too painful, Mr. Tesio said recently in an interview. Other friends spoke about a nightmare Levi often had. In the dream, he told them: ”I would see myself at the dinner table with my family or at work or in a green countryside. A relaxed atmosphere. And yet I felt a subtle anxiety, the sense of an imminent threat. Then as the dream proceeded, the scene dissolved. The family disappeared. There was no more work. No more countryside. I was still in the camp. And there was nothing real outside of the camp.”
– July 05, 1987
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