by Ruth Franklin
Post date: 06.24.02
Issue date: 07.01.02
Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography
by Carole Angier
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 898 pp., $40)
Primo Levi, chronicler of the twentieth century's darkest inferno, has been called a Dante for our time. Like Dante, Levi maps out the full panorama of his hell, and like Dante he pays special attention to its human inhabitants. Often in If This is a Man, his memoir of his time in Auschwitz, Levi pauses to introduce characters as pathetic and as terrifying as Francesca or Ugolino: the compulsive Steinlauf, who believes that washing his face is a meaningful way of asserting his power over the Nazis; Elias the dwarf, who has superhuman strength and a variety of skills--tailoring, woodworking, and the ability to "ingest ten, fifteen, twenty pints of soup without vomiting and without having diarrhea"; Henri, the supreme organizer, "once seen in the act of eating a real hard-boiled egg," whose talent is for human exploitation, and who is the only one of his fellow prisoners whom Levi says that he does not want ever to see again.
Yet more terrifying than any of these characters is one who appears after liberation, as Levi is recovering from scarlet fever. Nearby lies a three-year-old child, "a child of death, a child of Auschwitz," who may have been born in the camp, and who was never taught to speak. An older boy, Henek, discovers that the child, whom a nurse has named Hurbinek, can say a word, but it is a word that nobody recognizes. "In the following days everybody listened to him in silence, anxious to understand, and among us there were speakers of all the languages of Europe; but Hurbinek's word remained secret." No one ever learns the meaning of Hurbinek's word. He dies in March, 1945, "free but not redeemed."
Hurbinek embodies the survivor's nightmare: to speak and not to be heard. While at Auschwitz, Levi himself dreamed of telling about the hunger, the lice, the cruelty of the Kapos, to people who ignore him; in the dream his sister "looks at me, gets up, and goes away without a word." After his return from the camp, Levi would spend the rest of his life testifying as compulsively as the Ancient Mariner: a citation from Coleridge serves as the epigraph to his final published book. But despite all the evidence to the contrary--the schoolchildren who pestered him with questions, the readers from many countries, including Germany, who sent him letters--Levi, too, may have felt that he was speaking into a void.
This is the thesis of Carole Angier's far-reaching, moving, yet ultimately unsatisfying biography. Levi, Angier argues, lived a double life: externally calm, rational, light-hearted; internally conflicted, guilty, self-doubting. Though he exorcised the urge to testify in his numerous books, in his personal life Levi remained locked in an interior world, unable to overcome the barriers that he set up between himself and others. This conflict, Angier says, destroyed Levi from the inside out, crippling him with depressions that recurred with increasing intensity throughout his life, until his suicide in 1987.
Angier's book is not a critical biography or an intellectual biography. It is an emotional biography. As such, much of her version of Levi's life--though it omits some important details, and includes some inappropriate details--is convincing. There can be no doubt that the emotional dimension of Levi's story is an important one, especially if we are to have some understanding of why, or even whether, he killed himself. Even before his death, there were suggestions that Levi's personal life was not as peaceful as it appeared. He lived in the same apartment with his mother for nearly all his life. Though his life was his own greatest subject, he was fanatically secretive about both his wife and his mother, except to complain about the latter's ailments. And his suicide was deeply mysterious: since he died in a plunge from his third-floor landing and left no note, there has been much speculation that his death was an accident.
For a writer as intensely, compulsively autobiographical as Levi, the personal can seem inseparable from the professional. The problem is that Levi's life as a writer is open for inspection, but his life as a man is not. Even in Levi's autobiographical writings, the carefully constructed persona acts as an invisible wall to shield the man within. At best, an emotional biography of a writer as private as Levi will be founded upon doubts and speculations. At worst, it will rely on the possibly mistaken assumptions of friends and family members, many of whom may not have understood Levi or may have been motivated by their own biases and jealousies. But though the inner life of any person must always remain unknown to others, a biography that betrays no hint of the personal is no better than a death mask. A biography that intends to depict a life in all its fullness must at some points shift between the verifiable and the possible.
Primo Levi's life as a writer began in earnest almost at the moment he arrived at Auschwitz. "I was conscious of living the fundamental experience of my life," he wrote later. "The idea of having to survive in order to tell what I had seen obsessed me night and day." He would say that he was "saved by my trade": as a chemist, he was given preferential treatment and was eventually assigned to a Kommando that worked indoors in a laboratory, with an extra ration of soup. But it was also his vocation as a writer that saved him. He may have survived in order to become a writer, but he also became a writer in order to survive.
Levi "distilled" (as he put it) his eleven months at Auschwitz into the slim volume Se questo è un uomo, or If This is a Man. (It was published in America under the true but infelicitous title Survival in Auschwitz.) He wrote that he considered the camp "pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment," and the book is in some ways similar to a laboratory report: it includes detailed analyses of the soup and the bread served at Auschwitz, and the "selections" in which the SS weeded out those not of obvious utility, and the literally back-breaking labor required of even the weakest of the prisoners chosen for work rather than for death. But the book is also an experiment in itself, and like some of the procedures that Levi recounts in The Periodic Table, its goal is to distill. What it distills is the essence of Auschwitz: the "demolition" of the prisoners' humanity, as Levi puts it. "It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so," he writes early on in If This is a Man. "Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains."
When all the trappings of humanity are taken away, what does remain? This question is at the heart of If This is a Man, starting with the title, from a poem by Levi called "Shema," which serves as the book's epigraph. Here are the relevant lines:
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no....
"Consider if this is a man": if Auschwitz was a laboratory, then this was Primo Levi's hypothesis. He argues convincingly that the Nazis' intent to dehumanize was evident in every increment of their plan, from the lack of latrines on the transports to Auschwitz to the practice of addressing prisoners by number rather than by name. Levi will ultimately conclude that a man cannot really be dehumanized, which reveals the depth of the Nazis' depravity: they tried to reduce people past the limits of reducibility. And yet Levi's book also shows that a man can come very, very close to ceasing to be a man; and even so it is impossible to say that he is no longer a man, because to do so is to think like a Nazi.
For Carole Angier, the question of what makes a man was the central question of Primo Levi's life. Levi, she writes, was beset from childhood with doubts about whether he himself could be fully considered a man. He was shy, he was not good-looking, he was attracted to women and pathologically afraid of them. He dealt with his doubts by repressing them, presenting a calm exterior and hinting of them to only a few friends. Levi is often seen as the supreme rationalist of the Holocaust writers, the decorous humanist, his work dispassionate and rigorously reasoned. Angier argues that in his personal life Levi was a rationalist to a fault: he "chose to live only in the rational half of himself, and closed the door on the other."
Angier takes the title of her book from a manuscript that Levi was writing at the time of his death. This unfinished book, which remains unpublished, was intended as a sequel to The Periodic Table, his famous autobiography through chemistry, and it takes the form of letters written by a chemist to a woman whom he is instructing in basic chemistry. Levi titled the book Il doppio legame, which can mean either "the double bond" or "the double bind"; the first term from chemistry, the second term from psychology. The double bond is the way in which organic molecules attach to each other: they connect "at two or even more points, making possible richer but also less stable combinations." The double bind Angier defines as "a crippling conflict between contradictory or unfulfillable requirements, which you can neither escape nor win." She sees both--though primarily the latter--as a metaphor for Levi's life.
Angier's approach will not appeal to everyone. She is unrelenting in her pursuit of the personal, and she can be mawkish. Though she comments very effectively on certain aspects of Levi's writing, anyone looking for literary criticism should look elsewhere. Her book has passages of much grace, but it is bloated. She assumes a broad base of knowledge about Levi's books, failing to adequately introduce much of his work. And her speculation about Levi's wife and mother is astonishingly one-sided, utterly lacking the sympathy with which she treats so many of the other figures in his life.
Most controversially, Angier confesses in the introduction that at times she has "felt or imagined the past from a story, or from an encounter." This is not as dubious as it sounds, because the chapters in which she does this form a sort of "shadow biography": they are set apart from the main text, with their headings in italics, and anyone wishing to avoid speculation about Levi's life could simply skip them. Angier comments that these chapters have an "unstable bond" with Levi, but her own relationship with them is slippery as well. By setting them apart from the text and emphasizing their reliance on guesswork rather than scholarship, she appears to disavow them; but at the same time she says that she believes these "irrational chapters" to be "more true" than the rational ones. Angier really does seem to believe that she has gotten inside Levi's head, and maybe she has. But her perceived intimacy with him dominates the book, leading to a sense that she is too close to her subject, whom she refers to throughout by his first name.
The major feat of Angier's biography is that at many points she does convince even the skeptical reader of her good judgment. For a start, she has been a scrupulous researcher, indefatigably tracking down every living person who played a role in Levi's life. (His wife and his children, as is their custom, did not speak to her, and Levi's papers are still sealed.) No anecdote from any of Levi's memoirs is repeated in her biography without independent confirmation or clarification, often from more than one source. Angier also freely confesses her own disappointment when a source has denied a story about Levi that she has hoped to be true. By revealing so much of her methodology--particularly in the earliest of the "shadow" chapters, in which she hikes with Levi's old friend Alberto Salmoni, and delights in confronting a class bully with a short story in which Levi portrayed him unflatteringly--Angier allows the reader to see what her encounters with her sources must have been like, and why Levi's friends and relatives might have trusted her with intimate information. Though her speculations may sometimes go too far into Levi's personal life, there is never a sense of exploitation. Angier's goal is to tell the story of Levi's life as completely as possible, because she believes that it is what he wanted to do himself.
The book's major flaw is its heavy reliance on Il doppio legame, a source that Angier takes as her book's counterpart: Levi's emotional autobiography. (I will refer to this book by its Italian title so as to avoid confusion with the title of Angier's book.) Though she questions everything else that he has said about himself in his books, in this last book she seems to take Levi at his word, confirmed only by the most questionable of sources--two unnamed women with whom Levi apparently had lengthy affairs. Angier recognizes that the woman to whom the narrator of this book addresses his letters has no direct correspondent in Levi's life: she is a composite of several women he loved, a fiction. But Angier takes what the narrator says about himself to be the literal truth of Levi's life, when in fact there is no reason to believe that the narrator of Il doppio legame has any more or less in common with Levi than the narrators of any of Levi's other works of fiction. Levi ended his preface to If This is a Man with the somber statement, "It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented." But it is worth remembering that none of his other books bears such a disclaimer.
From the first chapter of The Periodic Table, in which Levi uses the element argon to represent his ancestors--"noble, inert, and rare"--it is clear that there is much we are not meant to take literally. To begin with, the stories Levi tells in this chapter are not limited to his own family members. "After The Periodic Table was published, he said, friends frequently remarked to him: 'It's odd, but my grandfather said exactly the same thing as yours,'" Angier reports. "The reason was, of course, that it was their grandfather." When the stories do concern Levi's relatives, they are carefully edited. He alludes to his grandfather's suicide, but disguises the circumstances of his grandmother's remarriage; and he does not mention at all the suicide of his great-uncle.
Levi was unhappy at school, despite his academic excellence: "Primo Levi primo," a friend would say, reporting that he was first in the class. He was close to his sister Anna Maria, and apparently also to his mother, with whom he would live in the same Turin apartment for his entire life (except for a brief period in Milan and the year he spent at Auschwitz). Levi's parents' marriage seems to have been unhappy. Cesare Levi, Levi's father, was a playboy, and carried on a long affair with his secretary. Rina, as Angier calls Levi's mother (her name was Ester, but the family called her Rina), was, "like most Jewish women of her generation," a "regina della casa," a queen of the house.
Levi never spoke nor wrote about his mother, giving as his reason that she was still alive. (She outlived him by four years.) But some family friends and relatives imply that there were other reasons. Angier finds her version of the story in two novels, one by Paolo Levi (Levi's first cousin), the other by Luisa Accati, daughter of Levi's longtime employer and close friend. Both books feature happy-go-lucky men married to puritanical, stern women. In Accati's novel, the parents' honeymoon ends with the mother claiming to be "not a normal woman," and the husband's infidelity is the result of his "rejec[tion] by his frigid and punishing wife." Though other sources confirm that something very similar was the rumor in Turin about the Levis' marriage, Angier does not fully acknowledge the dubiousness of basing her conception of the family on these novels. And yet other evidence seems to confirm them. A family friend, describing to Angier how strict Rina was, wonders "if Primo had once been hugged by his mother." Late in life, Levi would tell an interviewer that he could not remember a single occasion on which his mother had kissed him.
Levi entered Turin's Chemical Institute in 1937, just before the racial laws were established in Italy. Zinc becomes the metaphor in The Periodic Table for this point in his life, in a chapter that focuses on questions of purity and impurity, in both metals and romance. Zinc, Levi learns, resists interaction when it is in a very pure state; he finds this imperturbability "disgustingly moralistic," and prefers the zinc impure, "which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life." When he discovers that Rita, to whom he is attracted, is working on the same experiment, he has something to bridge the racial barrier that separates them: "I ... am Jewish and she is not: I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard." He endeavors to walk her home, and in the last image of the chapter he triumphantly takes her arm. But Angier has tracked "Rita" down--her real name is Clara Moschino--and she does not remember the walk home, or Levi taking her arm. "Perhaps [Angier interjects] he did do it, on another occasion.... She can see that I would like at least this to be true. So she says firmly but gently that she does not think so. He may have wanted to do it, or dreamed of doing it, but he did not." And so, of course, both Rita and the story's narrator are fictions. As Angier discovers again and again, Levi's stories were autobiographical, but they were not autobiography.
Levi graduated in 1941 with high honors, but due to the racial laws he had difficulty finding a job. Eventually he was offered employment in a mine, where he had to work under a false name so as to hide "my abominable origin." Two percent of what the mine produced was asbestos; the rest was detritus, from which Levi was supposed to extract nickel. This alchemical dream of extracting "gold from dung" becomes a central metaphor of The Periodic Table, as well as of other books. But Levi quickly grew tired of this futile task and moved to a factory outside Milan. Here, too, his work was nonsensical: he was to measure the phosphorous levels of plants and then inject them into rabbits in the hope of finding a cure for diabetes. And here he again fell in love, this time with Gabriella Garda, a former classmate. In the climax of the "phosphorous" chapter of The Periodic Table, he takes her on the handlebars of his bicycle to her fiancé's house, where she must convince his parents to allow her to marry their son. Levi waits outside, hoping she will not succeed, but of course she does. This chapter, Angier finds, is almost entirely true. Yet a crucial detail is invented: that Garda threatened to scream, "Get your hands off me, you pig!" when Levi refused to accompany her home from the cinema. When Levi showed her the manuscript, Angier reports, Garda asked him to remove that part, but he refused, telling her that it revealed her nature better than anything that actually took place. Again, when the materials life provided ran short, Levi improvised.
On September 8, 1943, the Nazis occupied Italy, and Levi returned home to Turin. He joined a band of partisans fighting in the mountains, but lasted only a month and a half before they were betrayed. He was arrested and held briefly in prison, then sent with three friends to Fossoli, a holding camp. If This is a Man begins on Levi's last night in Fossoli, before his deportation to Auschwitz.
"Without any deliberate effort, memory continues to restore to me events, faces, words, sensations, as if at that time my mind had gone through a period of exalted receptivity, during which not a detail was lost," Levi would write many years later to describe his unusual mental capacities during his time at Auschwitz. Among the many former prisoners Angier interviews, not one disputes the substance of Levi's account--even Henri (whose real name is Paul Steinberg) acknowledges the truth of Levi's ugly portrait of him. Levi said numerous times that not a single word or episode of If This is a Man was invented. He wrote the first draft in the first year after the war, and the only changes that he made later were to add characters or his own commentary.
But despite its adherence to fact, If This is a Man is a fundamentally literary book, with a highly stylized use of language. Levi always refers to the camp as the "Lager" and to the prisoners as "Häftlinge": "the Lager's language was a German apart," he explained later. He portrays Auschwitz as a "perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before, and woe betide whoever fails to grasp the meaning." From the start, all official information is disseminated in German, and those who cannot understand it are more likely to be sent to the wrong side. People died "at first sight of hunger, cold, fatigue, disease; on closer examination, of insufficient information." Language works its perversity until the end; in his last days at Auschwitz, spent in the infirmary, Levi hears dying men around him succumb to delirium: one mutters "Jawohl" for two days straight, another mimics the speeches of a Kapo.
But amid the Babel Levi is formulating exact, potent phrases. The Germans run the camp with "absurd precision." The prisoners, stripped and shaved, are "a hundred miserable and sordid puppets." His book is so detailed that one wishes prisoners entering the camp could have used it as a manual. All the rules are elucidated: how many buttons one must have on one's shirt, how to exchange ill-fitting shoes, where to stand in line to receive the heartiest portion of soup. Levi does not shrink from the disgusting: there is an extended passage on the importance of properly timing one's nighttime visits to the latrine bucket so as to avoid being the one who must empty it, since the contents will inevitably overflow onto one's feet.
Only by learning these unofficial rules of the Lager can anyone hope to survive. But this presents Levi with a "double bind," which, in Angier's reading, would be a source of guilt for the rest of his life. In The Drowned and the Saved, his last published book, Levi wrote that "the worst--that is, the fittest--survived. The best all died." The "worst" are not necessarily the brutes, but those prisoners, such as Elias and Henri, who play the system without scruple. And "the best" are not necessarily those who courageously resisted--such as Lorenzo, a civilian who worked alongside Levi in the Buna factory at Auschwitz and often brought him extra food and posted letters to Italy for him, who would survive--but "the most delicate, the most innocent," who "could not bear to see degradation and bestiality everywhere, to lie and steal," as Angier writes. One wishes that she had acknowledged the perversity of this idea: surely many good people also survived and many bad people also died. Needless to say, the best did not all die, and to say that they did is an insult to all survivors. Levi may have felt that he himself was among "the worst," but no one who knew him would have agreed.
The germ of this terrible idea, sadly, is evident as early as If This is a Man. Nothing is so easy at Auschwitz as dying: "it is enough to carry out all the orders one received, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp," Levi writes. To survive, one has to be prepared to take special measures: to steal, to seek out preferential treatment for oneself at the expense of others. Levi ended The Truce, the sequel to If This is a Man, with the observation that "only after many months did I lose the habit of walking with my glance fixed to the ground, as if searching for something to eat or to pocket hastily or to sell for bread." He eventually manages to finagle a privileged role for himself on the Chemical Kommando, which enables him to work indoors, with a larger daily ration and more comfortable clothing.
But Levi felt that he was singled out in another way as well. In the climax of If This is a Man, Levi and Pikolo, the Kapo's assistant, have gone to collect the day's kettle of soup. Pikolo mentions that he would like to learn Italian, and Levi seizes the opportunity to recite from Dante. As Levi recites the story of Ulysses, he explicates:
Here, listen Pikolo, open your
ears and your mind, you have to understand, for my sake:
"Consider your seed:
"You were not made to live like brutes,
"But to follow virtue and knowledge."
As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.
The implications of these lines in the Lager are obvious. "A man was made to pursue virtue and knowledge--he was mind and will, ideal and reason," Angier writes. But Levi does not want to stop with reciting Dante; he has a glimpse of the possibilities for his own future. "If Dante had looked into Ulysses as into a mirror, so in turn did Primo.... Now his ambition was far from ordinary. It was--as he told Pikolo then, many times--to record and report Auschwitz to the world."
He would begin to do so almost immediately. Levi contracted scarlet fever in early January, 1945. The camp was evacuated on January 18, and almost no one survived the subsequent death march. Levi waited out the evacuation in the infirmary. In a final Allied raid, the power and water lines were cut, and the SS fled, leaving the prisoners behind. Levi and two others were able to salvage a stove. After the room was warm, one of the inmates proposed that everyone give a piece of whatever bread he had left to the three workers. "Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable," Levi wrote. "The law of the Lager said: 'eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,' and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the Lager was dead."
The Truce (published in America as The Reawakening) begins with the arrival of the Russians to liberate Auschwitz. As soon as Levi is well enough, he is sent to a transit camp in Kraków. Here he meets "the Greek," the first of the fantastic characters to accompany him on his journey. The Greek leads Levi to the market and tells him to find out the going rate for shirts. Whereas in the Lager language barriers meant death, in the post-Auschwitz world they are the stuff of comedy. And so Levi makes his way around the market, learning the Polish for "how much" and "what time" and "gentlemen." He stops a priest to find out where the soup kitchen is, and with no other language in common they converse in Latin: "Pater optime," Levi asks, "ubi est mensa pauperorum?"
These hilarious episodes recur as Levi winds his circuitous way from Poland to Belarus and finally down through Romania, Hungary, and Austria to Italy. After the Babel of Auschwitz, Levi cannot repress his glee at being able to make himself understood in language after language. When the war ends, he is in a transit camp in the Polish town of Katowice, and can follow the news even without understanding Polish. "We read 'Vienna,' 'Koblenz,' 'Rhine'; then 'Bologna'; then, with emotion and joy, 'Turin' and 'Milan.' Finally, 'Mussolini,' in enormous letters, followed by an awesome and indecipherable past participle; and at last, in red ink, covering half a page, the final, cryptic, and exhilarating announcement: 'BERLIN UPADL!'" Even miscommunication, when it occurs, is largely for comic effect. The huckster Cesare wants Levi to teach him German so that he can woo a Polish girl, but "the things he wanted to learn from me are not taught in any German language course, nor had I had the slightest occasion to learn them in Auschwitz; moreover, they were such subtle and idiomatic questions that I suspect that they do not exist in any language other than Italian and French." Much of this comedy is almost certainly exaggerated for effect, and Angier's interviews with "Cesare" turn up a number of discrepancies. Levi was playing with a much looser hand than in If This is a Man.
Levi's newfound language skills are providential, because he is seized with the desire to speak about his experiences to anyone he sees. He tells his tale for the first time on a train platform in Trzebinia. (It is, uncannily, the station where travelers visiting Auschwitz today change trains.) He speaks "at dizzy speed" of all that has happened; but he suddenly realizes that his interpreter is identifying him as a political prisoner, not as a Jew. When he asks why, he is told: "La guerre n'est pas finie." As if on cue, his listeners begin to disperse; his nightmare has come true.
The ending of The Truce quietly annihilates the comedy that has preceded it. "A dream full of horror has still not ceased to visit me, at sometimes frequent, sometimes longer, intervals," Levi writes.
I am sitting at a table with my family, or with friends, or at work, or in the green countryside; in short, in a peaceful relaxed environment, apparently without tension or affliction; yet I feel a deep and subtle anguish, the definite sensation of an impending threat. And in fact, as the dream proceeds, slowly or brutally, each time in a different way, everything collapses and disintegrates around me, the scenery, the walls, the people, while the anguish becomes more intense and more precise. Now everything has changed to chaos; I am alone in the center of a gray and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it. I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home. Now this inner dream, this dream of peace, is over, and in the outer dream, which continues, gelid, a well-known voice resounds: a single word, not imperious, but brief and subdued. It is the dawn command of Auschwitz, a foreign word, feared and expected: get up, "wstawać."
"Nothing is true outside the Lager." This, as much as the fear of not being understood, is the survivor's nightmare. Tadeusz Borowski wrote of it in poetry he published soon after the war; he killed himself in 1951. Sarah Kofman wrote of it in her remarkable memoir Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, published in 1994; she killed herself the same year. It seems self-evident: how could anyone living under the weight of such great despair not commit suicide? Primo Levi's son was quoted after his father's death as saying, "Read the ending of The Truce and you'll understand."
But his remark was probably flippant. It is too easy to say, as the newspapers at the time did, that "Auschwitz killed [Levi] forty years later." And it is a non sequitur. The fact that both Kofman and Levi killed themselves shortly after writing their last books--Kofman was writing about her experiences in the Holocaust for the first time, Levi was returning to the topic after a long break--certainly does not mean that it was writing about the Holocaust that killed them. It could just as easily be the other way around: that Auschwitz kept Levi alive for forty years as a writer, and that after The Drowned and the Saved he was unable to regain a sense of purpose in life.
Angier argues that "the untold story" of Levi's life, and of his death, was depression. "Primo Levi was depressed before and after Auschwitz, but not in it," she writes. "It is even possible to say that without the experience of surviving Auschwitz, and without the mission to understand and testify to it, [suicide] might have claimed him sooner." His first major depression, she says, occurred in winter 1946-1947, after he had finished the first draft of If This is a Man, which was promptly rejected by Natalia Ginzburg at Einaudi. Angier finds the root of this depression in an encounter Levi had with Nico Dallaporta, a former professor. Dallaporta told Levi that God must have spared him so that he would bear witness. Levi was horrified, and said that the very idea was monstrous and unjust. "The suggestion had touched 'an exposed nerve,' he wrote later," Angier comments. "Of course he had never imagined that God had chosen him to testify; but he had chosen himself, which made the injustice his own." He, who did not believe that any man had a right to be spared at Auschwitz instead of any other, had secretly hoped for just that: to live in order to be its chronicler, "the new Dante," as he had realized when reciting the Canto of Ulysses.
Levi came out of this depression when he met Lucia Morpurgo; they were married in September, 1947. If This is a Man was published the following month. It initially sank into oblivion, but Levi began work on The Truce immediately. At the same time he was also writing fiction: some of the stories destined for The Periodic Table, as well as others that Angier describes as moral fables about science, which Levi published under the title Storie naturali, "natural histories." She convincingly reads many of these as metaphors for Levi's internal struggles. In "L'amico dell'uomo" ("Man's Friend"), a professor discovers that the cells of certain tapeworms reveal patterns that correspond to terza rima. The parasites, he realizes, have made themselves into poems addressed to their hosts. Alas, they go unread, since the hosts are uninterested in missives from their intestines. Angier hears in this an echo of a lament Levi made years later of the difficulty of communication: "whoever writes ... writes in his own code, which others do not know."
Meanwhile Levi had begun working at SIVA, the paint and varnish factory where he would remain until his retirement in 1977, eventually becoming director general. Despite its initial failure, he pushed to have If This is a Man republished, especially with the swell of interest in Holocaust memoirs around 1955, the tenth anniversary of liberation. Einaudi finally accepted it, bringing out a revised version in 1958; it was published in the United States a year later, and in Germany in 1961. The Truce, which Levi called his first "consciously literary" book, appeared in 1963; and after that Levi never stopped publishing. Storie naturali appeared in 1966, followed by Vizio di forma--another, less successful, collection of stories--in 1971. (Neither exists in its entirety in English.) Levi's masterpiece The Periodic Table appeared in 1975. After his retirement from SIVA in 1977, there came a burst of productivity: the novel The Monkey's Wrench in 1978, another book of stories in 1981, the novel If Not Now, When? in 1982, the essay collection Other People's Trades in 1985, and finally The Drowned and the Saved in 1986.
Despite Levi's professional success, the final chapters of Angier's book make painful reading. Levi's fame, she says, was a source of anguish for his family, particularly his wife, who was pathologically jealous of anyone or anything that took him away from home. Angier theorizes that Lucia's jealousy stemmed from her intense competition with Levi's mother. Their war of wills robbed Levi of his freedom, forcing him continually to negotiate the two women's conflicting demands. "Primo built himself a Lager," Angier quotes a cousin of Levi's as saying. After he retired, the situation worsened, as he had no excuse for contact with other people, especially women. Soon his mother's health became much worse, and he could no longer leave Turin at all.
This story is fascinating and disturbing, but it leaves many questions unanswered. Certainly many people suffer from unhappy marriages and difficult parental relationships, but rarely is ordinary life so melodramatic as this. And from other sources one can glean details that are missing from Angier's account. If Lucia Levi were truly so opposed to her husband's success, why would she celebrate with him and give him gifts when his books won prizes? Ian Thomson, the author of a biography of Levi published in England this spring but yet to appear in the United States, writes of Levi's "tender" relationship with his mother; perhaps he has missed the real story, but surely no man can live in an apartment with his mother for his entire life if he does not feel some affection for her.
If the grim picture is to be believed, however, then it is hardly surprising that the frequency of Levi's depressions increased toward the end of his life. They often came at times when Levi was aware of his own fragility; he suffered from debilitating attacks of shingles, and he had "a terror of physical ailment" of any kind. A diary kept by a woman with whom (according to Angier) Levi had a long relationship, from 1974 until his death, makes for heartbreaking reading. "I have nothing more to say," he reportedly told her during a deep depression in 1982. "I don't know what to do with myself.... My novel has won three prizes, but the very thought of it makes me sick....I want to end it. But the third floor is not high enough."
Il doppio legame, written in the last year of Levi's life, is the true revelation of Angier's book. She describes and discusses several chapters of it, all given to her--some in censored form--by two of the women with whom Levi had close relationships. Since none of the book has ever been published, it is impossible to evaluate Angier's account of it. It is thus also impossible fully to evaluate her reading of Levi's life, since so much of it is based on this manuscript. But one thing seems certain. If this book is anything like Levi's other autobiographies, the persona that he creates is just that--a deliberate construction. Just as it would be naïve to take at face value the persona of The Periodic Table, it is equally problematic to accept uncritically Levi's description of himself in this work--especially if, as a sequel of sorts to the chemical autobiography, it is similarly semi-fictional.
One hopes that Angier's description of the first chapter, written in January 1986, is reductionist. Levi begins with a discussion of the definitions of "volt" and "ampere." Both, he says, are like anger: a volt is "a touch of anger, rather than a great rage." (I cite Angier's paraphrase; she appears not to have been allowed to quote from the manuscript.) More important are voltage and amperage, and "the work that can be extracted from them": Levi goes on to discuss kilowatts and kilowatt-hours, other ways of measuring work. Angier calls this "a delightful start," but the "pleasure and irony" she speaks of seem to have gotten lost somewhere. The second chapter, which Levi wrote in August of that year, treats the process by which a boiled egg becomes hard: it includes a paean to the egg as well as a physical description of what happens to the egg's molecules when boiled. It also includes some suggestions about the relationship between the writer and the lady--she is not Jewish, he has known her for many years, he is in love with her.
The third and fourth chapters are the most personal. In the third the chemist talks about his "long, lonely sexual suffering": his youthful horror of genitalia, his many platonic friendships with women in which he feared touching or being touched, the schoolboy taunts of "circumcision is castration," "remaining trapped in his untouched solitude for years, overcome every so often with such despair that he thought of suicide." The fourth chapter takes depression as its main topic. Depression, he says, is "the desire for desire: though that is an illusion too, since even if [sufferers] find something reasonable to desire, and achieve it, the next moment they will be as unhappy as before." His own case, he says, has to do with the fact that success no longer satisfies him. It is (in Italian) a past participle, which means that it is always already over. It requires conferences, festivals, and other obligations, which he must continually refuse. And he is overwhelmed by letters: "every morning when the post arrives is a moment of dread." This, at least, is echoed in one of Levi's interviews. "How do you experience fame?" the interviewer asked. "In fits and starts," Levi replied. "In particular at ten o'clock in the morning, when the post arrives."
The events of April 11, 1987, Levi's last morning, are well established. A friend came to see his son, who lived next door, and they both stopped by. At half past nine Levi's wife left to go shopping. At around ten, as usual, the concierge, Jolanda Gasperi, brought up his mail. Sometime afterward, he told his mother's nurse to answer the phone if it rang, because he was going down to Gasperi's office. At around quarter after ten, Gasperi heard a thud, and discovered Levi's body.
Many have found it difficult to accept the idea of Levi's suicide, preferring the theory that he suffered a dizzy spell and fell. There appears to have been nothing alarming in the day's mail. He did not leave a suicide note. And in the last days before his death he was still making plans for the future. He was in the process of being interviewed for an authorized biography; the work had been interrupted, but on the day before his suicide he told the biographer, "We can go on now," and said to phone him back the next week. But as Ian Thomson points out, many people who commit suicide experience a sharp improvement in mood in the days just before death.
After reading Angier's account of Levi's last days, it is hard to think that his death could have been anything but suicide. While he was writing Il doppio legame, Levi was diagnosed with an enlarged prostate, which provoked another depression. For a few months he was treated with anti-depressants, as he had been in the past, but they interfered with his prostate medication. In March, he had a prostate operation, which sent his depression spiraling out of control. Angier reports friends' accounts of anguished conversations with Levi in the days before his death, in some of which Levi was so depressed he could barely speak. She has interviewed a physical therapist who treated Levi and became his friend, who says that after she told him of her own close call with suicide, they often discussed the topic: "he talked about suicide without fear," and was "very interested in it, even fascinated by it." And if the mail reminded him of the obligations that he felt unable to meet, its arrival would have been enough to evoke his horror, even if nothing upsetting was delivered.
Despite her many conversations with Levi's friends and relatives, however, it is clear from the beginning of Angier's book that much of her conception of his depression and suicide--and of his life, since she sees depression as its basis--rests on her reading of Il doppio legame, which she seems to regard as the key to his psyche. This would be questionable regarding any writer, but it is all the more so with regard to Levi, who allowed his life to appear in his work only in disguise. If Angier has subjected Il doppio legame to the strenuous interrogation she has conducted on Levi's other works, confirming his statements through interviews with others or information about his life, it is not evident. Her reports of her interviews with Levi's two longtime lovers are brief and focus mainly on whatever she can discern about their affairs. As we have seen with his other books, when Levi changed the details of his life for his fiction, he did so to improve upon the story. For all we know, the truth behind Il doppio legame's sexual intrigue is considerably more mundane. But if the fact that Levi published a book about the Holocaust before committing suicide does not mean that the Holocaust was responsible for his suicide, then the fact that Levi was writing a book about sexual repression and depression at the time of his suicide cannot imply a causal link either.
In his last interview, Levi spoke of "the difference between the writer as he appears in his books, and the man as he really is." Despite the surface transparency of Levi's books, the "man as he really is" will always remain unknowable. And this is as it should be. The contradictions of Levi's writing--the continual questioning of whether the prisoners are or are not men, the mixture of fiction and reality in The Periodic Table--are a part of what makes his work so rich. These contradictions cannot be unraveled through a posthumous psychoanalysis of Levi, no matter how empathetic or convincing. Perhaps after his wife's death Levi's private papers will be published for all to see, and Angier's theories will be confirmed or disproved. Until then, we have only his books, which all lead to a single incontrovertible conclusion, with all the paradox that it implies: this was a man.
Ruth Franklin is associate literary editor at TNR.
A HARD CASE
by JOAN ACOCELLA
The life and death of Primo Levi.
Primo Levi was a man whom people wanted on their side. Not only was he a concentration-camp survivor; with his 1947 book "Survival in Auschwitz," he was also the camps' noblest memoirist. No breast-beating for Levi, no look-at-me, no violin song, only a plain, thoughtful record, which by its very modesty stunned the mind. He went on to write two more great books, "The Reawakening" (1963) and "The Periodic Table" (1975), plus a number of excellent ones, and he campaigned for just causes all his life. In the eyes of many, he was a Jewish saint. Peace groups demanded him for their conferences; journalists called to ask him about the future of the Jews. Strangers wrote to him, seeking consolation, prophecy. And often, by virtue of the traits these people admired in his writing—honesty, justice, abstemiousness—he told them things they didn't want to hear.
Now he has disappointed another person. Carole Angier, in her new book, "The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $40), does not attack Levi. She loves his work. Yet the point of her book, announced in its title and tirelessly argued for seven hundred and thirty-one pages, is that he was a neurotic man, split down the middle. "His gentleness, justice, and detachment were not so much moral or literary choices as his own psychological imperatives," she writes. He couldn't help being that way, because "he had never resolved the inner torment of his youth." That torment was the basis not just of his late-life depressions and his presumed suicide but of all his life and all his work. It is "the key to everything."
Angier concedes that she may not have the whole truth. Levi's immediate family—his wife, his sister, his two children—refused to talk to her, and many of his friends would speak only on condition of anonymity. In other words, this is a biography in which the key to the subject's life is provided by people who refuse to give their names. But Angier says she'll take responsibility for that. She is a character in this book, she tells us. She gives us extended accounts of her interviews with Levi's friends. (If I'm not mistaken, she reveals between the lines that she had a sexual adventure with one of them, on a mountain promontory.) She also seems to think she's psychic. Some of her chapters, she says, will be "rational," based on evidence. Others will be "irrational," based on intuition, though she believes that these may be "more true than the rational ones." If, on the other hand, they're wrong, that's O.K., too: "there may be more truth in failure."
Those words, from her preface, are the last we hear about possible failure. Angier feels that she has solved a mystery. The story of Levi's terrible end is well known. One morning in 1987, at the age of sixty-seven, he was found dead, his skull crushed, at the base of the stairwell of his building, having fallen—or, as the police and many other people assumed, jumped—from the landing on the third floor, where he lived. Angier begins by asking us to look at the building. Its façade is "blank and stony," its windows shuttered. Clearly, it is hiding something.
In that building, in Turin, Levi was born to a respectable bourgeois couple in 1919, and, apart from a few brief absences—his year in Auschwitz, for example—he lived there all his life. He was a shy, bookish little boy. According to Angier, his parents were ill-matched. The father, Cesare, an engineer, was a bon vivant. (Walking down the street, Cesare would stop to "caress all the cats, sniff at all the truffles," Levi later wrote.) The mother, Ester, was a cold, domineering woman. She had a horror of sex, Angier says, so Cesare found it elsewhere. Ester therefore hated Cesare, and she drew her son to her side, forcing him to reject the things his father stood for—above all, sensuality. Levi was attracted to women, but at the same time he was "revolted and terrified" by the thought of sex. This was his "double bond," or "double bind," as Angier also calls it (confusingly, because the double bind is an old theory of schizophrenia). Yet in eschewing his father's traits Primo did not win his mother's affection. She never loved him. Accordingly, he was left defenseless in the face of all emotion. He lived only in the realm of reason, and shut out everything instinctual. That is the aforementioned "key to everything."
It is worthwhile here to skip ahead to Levi's marriage, since in Angier's view it was merely an extension of the mother-child nexus. Levi married Lucia Morpurgo, a serious-minded young woman, and they moved into Ester's apartment. (Cesare was dead by then.) Thereafter, whatever Ester did not prevent Primo from doing or feeling, Lucia did—a convenient arrangement, Angier suggests, because it gave Primo something external to blame for what were in fact his own hesitations in life. Lucia was a jealous wife. She resented his work, his fame. She wouldn't have his friends in the house. The marriage was largely sexless, Angier implies.
Her evidence for these suppositions, both about the parents' marriage and about Levi's, is flimsy. Unidentified sources are heavily relied on. So are two novels, one by a cousin of Levi's and one by his employer's daughter. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence against Angier's conclusions. She herself tells us that Lucia was always the first reader of Levi's writings—a strange circumstance, if she so resented his work. And if Levi was emotionally blocked how do we explain the genius for friendship which, after his solitary childhood, he developed as a young man? Levi's friends adored him, and he them. This putatively pleasure-fearing man spent night after night at their houses, chatting and telling stories and playing charades.
Life got better for young Primo. He fell in love with his studies, and specialized in chemistry. Angier links this decision to his double bind; he was fleeing the "chaos of human affairs." Levi gave a different account. Once, charmingly, he said that he was drawn to the chem lab because he liked smells. In "The Periodic Table," he wrote that the allure of chemistry was that it held out the promise of understanding: "I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: 'I will understand this, too, I will understand everything. . . . I will push open the doors.' " In 1941, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Turin. He wanted to go on to graduate study in physics. Mussolini's race laws (whereby Jews could no longer attend state schools), and then the war, put an end to that plan, though Angier feels that Levi's double bind is lurking here, too. Supposedly, among the anxieties of this man who wrote more than a dozen books was a morbid fear of failure and a consequent need to limit himself.
Italian Jews were among the most assimilated in Europe. By 1920, the country had had nineteen Jewish senators and two Jewish prime ministers. Levi wrote that when he was young he felt no different from his Christian friends. A Jew, he thought, was just somebody "who should not eat salami but eats it all the same." With the advent of the race laws, he found out otherwise. In 1943, he joined a partisan band in the Piedmont hills. Within weeks, the group was betrayed and arrested, and Levi, at the age of twenty-four, was sent to Auschwitz.
In his transport, there were six hundred and fifty Jews. Twenty-three survived. That Levi—a timid, scrawny man (five feet five, a hundred and eight pounds)—was one of them seems a miracle. He attributed it to luck. First, he didn't get to Auschwitz until 1944, so he spent only a year there. Second, he was soon transferred to a block where he found a friend of his, Alberto Dalla Volta. The two men became inseparable, and they made a pact to share everything they had. This agreement, to aid another man—an action rare in the camps, as Levi later pointed out—was probably even more important to his mental health than to his physical well-being. Third, and most crucial, after four months in the camp Levi met a Piedmontese bricklayer named Lorenzo Perone, who was not a prisoner but one of Auschwitz's many "civilian workers." Every day, at serious risk to his life, Lorenzo smuggled a mess tin containing two quarts of soup to Levi, which he then shared with Alberto. Without this extra ration, Levi said, he would have died. Fourth, it was eventually discovered that Levi was a chemist, and he was sent to work in one of the camp laboratories, out of reach of the brutal Silesian winter.
Finally, Levi did not become seriously ill until the very end of his year in the camp. In January, 1945, as the Russian Army was crossing Poland and the S.S. was preparing to evacuate Auschwitz, he came down with scarlet fever and was sent to the camp infirmary. He should have died there; the Nazi command gave orders that anyone not strong enough to join the march to Germany should be killed. But the last days of Auschwitz were very chaotic, and in the end the S.S., with some sixty thousand prisoners, abandoned the camp without bothering to shoot the bedridden. On the night before the evacuation, Alberto came and stood under the infirmary window, and he and Levi said goodbye to each other. Both must surely have believed that Alberto would live and Levi would die. Instead, Alberto, together with most of the other Auschwitz evacuees, died on the march, and Levi lived.
It is hard to find the words to praise "Survival in Auschwitz," and this is not because of the enormity that it records but because of its internal qualities: the intelligence, the fine-mindedness, the sheer narrative skill with which Levi addresses that enormity. He later said that he modelled the book on the "weekly report" issued in chemical factories. Accordingly, he sticks to the facts, and they are fascinating. He tells us, for example, about the toilet problems in Auschwitz. At night, in the block, you had to learn to time your trip to the bucket so that you would not be the one to fill it to the rim. If you did, you had to carry it, spilling on your feet, through the snow, and empty it in the camp latrine. Many prisoners became expert in judging, during their half sleep, the sound their fellows' urine made as it hit the bucket. Half full, near-full: each made a different splash.
Levi writes with pity, and with outrage, too, but those emotions almost never come unmixed with the memory of other, less respectable feelings: the fear of smelling bad in front of women, the pain of seeing old men naked, the overriding wish to live, though others might die. Levi records how, one day, the camp was swept with excitement at the news that there was to be a distribution of new shirts, because "a convoy of Hungarians . . . had arrived three days ago." (In other words, the shirts would be from gassed Hungarians.) He tells how, after one of the infamous "selections"—where the prisoners were forced to run naked in front of an S.S. officer, who then sorted their name cards to the right or to the left (that is, to be exterminated immediately or not)—the men couldn't figure out which was the death sentence, the right pile or the left. So they crowded around the oldest, weakest man in the block, asking him which side his card went to. This is not the only dark comedy. There is a whole chapter on the camp's black market, where starving men stood around, just as at the bourse, comparing barter rates for various negotiable items and scurrying to cash in their supplies of stolen nails or shoe grease when the price went up from one portion of bread to two.
The title of the Italian edition of "Survival in Auschwitz" is "Se Questo È un Uomo" ("If This Is a Man"), and the book's purpose is to ask that question: whether people reduced to such circumstances were still men. It's a close call. The last chapter describes the week and a half that Levi and ten other men spent, near death, in the infectious ward of the camp infirmary between the time their German captors left and their Russian liberators arrived. They had no heat, no food. Then came the Allied bombings, setting fires in the camp. Patients driven out of their quarters hammered on the door of Levi's ward, pleading to be let in. Levi and the others knew that they could not support a single additional person: "We had to barricade the door. They dragged themselves elsewhere, lit up by the flames, barefoot in the melting snow. Many trailed behind them streaming bandages. There seemed no danger to our hut, so long as the wind did not change." It must have taken guts to write that last sentence, but the problem it poses—survival versus fellow feeling—is the story of the book.
The story has a happy ending, and that is one of the reasons people love "Survival in Auschwitz." It votes for humankind; it says that these desperate creatures were still men, or that they returned to that condition as soon as they could. One day, Levi and two young Frenchmen, Charles and Arthur, went out into the camp to scavenge. They found some potatoes; they also found a stove, and set it up in the ward, and cooked the potatoes on it, and passed them around. From then on, as Philip Roth pointed out in a 1986 interview with Levi, the book becomes like "Robinson Crusoe," a tale of inspired scrounging, of a treasure hunt, almost. (On a later foray, into the S.S. barracks, Levi found "four first-rate eiderdowns, one of which is today in my house in Turin.") It is also the story of a contest: how many of the men in the ward can Levi and Charles and Arthur save from death before the Russians get there? Levi does not present this as a matter of altruism. He treats it as a test of enterprise, and thus he keeps sentimentality and self-congratulation at bay. But enterprise is enough.
On the night Levi and his French friends brought back the stove and the potatoes, one of their ward-mates—Towarowski, a typhus patient—proposed that each man give a portion of his food to those who had gone on this mission. "Only a day before, a similar event would have been inconceivable," Levi writes. "The law of the Lager [camp] said: 'eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor.' " Towarowski's proposal, and the ward's agreement, "meant that the Lager was dead." That night:
Arthur and I sat smoking cigarettes made of herbs found in the kitchen, and spoke of many things, both past and future. In the middle of this endless plain, frozen and full of war, in the small dark room swarming with germs, we felt at peace with ourselves and with the world. We were broken by tiredness, but we seemed to have finally accomplished something useful—perhaps like God after the first day of creation.
Eight days later comes the liberation. A man in the ward has died (they lost only one), and Levi and Charles have gone out into the snow to deposit his body in the common grave. But the grave is full, "overflowing with discolored limbs." As they are standing there, wondering what to do, they look up and see four Russian soldiers, "with rough and boyish faces beneath their heavy fur hats," coming down the road on horseback. "When they reached the barbed wire, they stopped to look, exchanging a few timid words. . . . They did not greet us, nor did they smile." To Levi and Charles, the sight of men in a state of advanced starvation—not to speak of a ditch full of skeletal corpses—was common, but to these young Russians it was not. On their faces, Levi writes, he saw shame, the shame "that the just man experiences at another man's crime." Horribly, Levi and Charles were also ashamed, filled "with a painful sense of pudency . . . and also with anguish, because we felt . . . that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past."
When Levi got back to Turin, he fell in love, married, and went to work as an industrial chemist, a profession that he pursued full time for almost thirty years. (His first six books were written at night and on weekends.) He had already decided in the camp that if he lived he would write a book about the experience. Within a month of his return, he began "Survival in Auschwitz," and he finished it in just over a year. When it was first published, in 1947, it sold only about fifteen hundred copies. At that time, no one wanted to hear about the camps. But when the book was revised and reissued, in 1958, it was a runaway success.
Heartened, Levi embarked on a sequel, "The Reawakening," which describes his journey home from the camp. Like "Survival in Auschwitz," "The Reawakening" is not just a memoir—it is a moral tale, in this case the story of Levi's remarriage to life—and, in contrast to the tight-lipped "Survival in Auschwitz," it is loose and gay. Levi later said that by the time he wrote down these stories, more than a decade after the events, he had told them many times. Hence the book's picaresque quality—it is a string of anecdotes—and also, at times, a certain patness in the comedy. This is shtick, well polished. (And that's just fine. We want him to have this pleasure, of telling his favorite joke.) The guiding spirits of the book are the Russians, his liberators, a people, in Levi's view, as decent and disorganized as the Germans were criminal and efficient. Between their endemic chaos and the fact that, for much of this time, there was still a war on, it took the Russians seven months to get Levi pointed southwest rather than northeast of Auschwitz—he had a leisurely stroll through Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, and Hungary—but they fed the ex-prisoners well when they could, and gave everyone (babies included) ten ounces of tobacco a month, and put on variety shows, with singing and dancing, in the holding camps.
"Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening" established Levi as a writer, but a certain kind of writer: a survivor, a witness. He wanted to serve as a witness, and desired it all the more urgently as, in the seventies, neo-Fascism and Holocaust denial reared their heads. He spoke to endless numbers of school groups. He received scores of interviewers, and when, long after he had begun writing about subjects other than the Holocaust, they asked him only about the Holocaust he patiently replied. Indeed, he wrote three more books about the Holocaust. One, the novel "If Not Now, When?" (1982), was the story of a group of Jewish partisans sabotaging Nazi operations in the last years of the war. This was his answer to the widespread claim that the Jews went like lambs to the slaughter.
But the more Levi shouldered his responsibilities as a Jew the more he got caught in the toils of the Holocaust culture. Like most Italian Jews, he believed in assimilation. And he did not consider the Jews to be heroes because Hitler had tried to exterminate them. As he saw it, they were merely human—Fascism's crime was to have deprived them of that status—and humanity was what we had to understand if we harbored any hope of a just world. Accordingly, he gave Israel no breaks. "Everybody is somebody's Jew," he told an Italian newspaper in 1982, "and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis." After the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, he said that Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon were bringing down shame on the name of the Jews, and he called for their resignation. This brought a flood of letters accusing him of giving comfort to the enemy. In sum, Levi, the greatest soul, the greatest artist, of the "witness" writers, was not usable the way the others were. It was not Levi but his friend Elie Wiesel who got a Nobel Prize.
In 1985, two years before Levi's death, Commentary published an article by Fernanda Eberstadt, claiming that the true, Jewish meaning of the Holocaust was beyond "so fastidious and uncertain an imagination" as his. He was a literary master, but in a "minor key." He was an aesthete, a decadent, like the Latin poet Ausonius, who, while the barbarians were threatening Rome, retired to his estate in Bordeaux to grow roses and "compose poetry dallying in 'anagram and compliment, enamelled fragments of philosophy, the fading of roses, the flavor of oysters.' "
All this was torture to Levi, but nothing was worse than the implied message that, given his history, he was barred from writing about anything other than the Holocaust. For him to produce "just" stories, "just" essays—not about Jews—would be viewed as an abdication, a rose-smelling. By him, too. Because of this scruple, he published his first non-Holocaust book, a 1966 collection of stories, under a pseudonym—an action that greatly annoyed his reviewers. (They thought it was coy.) But everyone got over that in 1975, with the publication of "The Periodic Table." This book once again had credentials as testimony. It was signed by Primo Levi, and it included some war stories. At the same time, much of it was not about the war, and all of it was art of the highest order, as was widely recognized. He had finally crossed over.
Like Kafka before him and Sebald after, Levi invented a new genre—in his case, the "science fable," a cross between his two professions, chemistry and literature. True to the book's title, the contents page of "The Periodic Table" reads "Argon," "Hydrogen," "Zinc," and so on. In each chapter, Levi uses one element as an anchor for autobiography or fiction or essay. Some chapters are very funny. In "Tin," for example, he tells of the small, independent chemistry lab that he and his friend Emilio set up, at the beginning of their careers, in the bedroom of Emilio's obliging parents. The lab's misfortunes were frequent:
It is not that hydrochloric acid is actually toxic: it is one of those frank enemies that come at you shouting from a distance. . . . You cannot mistake it for anything else, because after having taken in one breath of it you expel from your nose two short plumes of white smoke, like the horses in Eisenstein's movies. . . . Acid fumes invaded all the rooms: the wallpaper changed color . . . and every so often a sinister thump made us jump: a nail had been corroded through and a picture, in some corner of the apartment, had crashed to the floor. Emilio hammered a new nail and hung the picture back in its place.
There are other stories like that, and stories utterly unlike that—lyrical, grieving stories, and spooky stories, too. Each tale is wholly specific and individual, the way chemicals are—the way mercury dances, and lead sinks, and bromine smells. Together, the twenty-one chapters describe a huge psychological arc, parallel to the arc described on the material plane by the periodic table. The book was a best-seller in Italy, and when it was published in the United States, nine years later, in a beautiful translation by Raymond Rosenthal, Levi became an international hero. People stopped him on the street to get his autograph. "If this goes on," he said, "I'll have to shave my beard."
It didn't go on long. Levi had produced one more splendid book, a 1978 novel called "The Monkey's Wrench." But his flame began to gutter, and his life became more difficult.
The source of the problem, in Angier's view, was Levi's double bind. She trawls his novels, his memoirs, his stories for what they can reveal about his psychic conflicts. When he invents the "science fable," often having to do with curiosities, oddities, that's because he was frightened at how odd his psyche was. When, in "The Periodic Table," he tells a nice story about a mine where he worked as a young man, that, too, gets a raising of the eyebrows. The mine, Levi writes, was reputed, in former days, to have been a hotbed of sexual misbehavior:
Every evening, when the five-thirty siren sounded, none of the clerks went home. At that signal, liquor and mattresses suddenly popped up from among the desks, and an orgy erupted that embraced everything and everyone, young pubescent stenographers and balding accountants, starting with the then director all the way down to the disabled doormen: the sad round of mining paperwork gave way suddenly, every evening, to a boundless interclass fornication, public and variously entwined.
What is it about me that I find this funny? To Angier, it demonstrates Levi's internalization of his mother's horror of sex.
That's her angle on his work. As for his life, the position she takes is roughly that of a psychotherapist of the seventies. She's O.K. We're O.K. Why wasn't he O.K.? Why did he have to work all the time? Why didn't he take more vacations? And how about getting laid once in a while? She records that as a teen-ager he mooned over various girls, but whenever he got near one he blushed and fell silent. "What was this?" Angier asks. "Can anyone ever say?" I can say. Has Angier never heard of geeks? They are born every day, and they grow up to do much of the world's intellectual and artistic work. One wonders, at times, why Angier chose Levi as a subject—she seems to find him so peculiar. And does she imagine that if he had been more "normal"—less reserved, less scrupulous—he would have written those books she so admires?
Levi did suffer serious depressions in his later life. This is not speculation on Angier's part. He went to psychiatrists; he took antidepressants. Nevertheless, the account Angier gives us is tailored to her prior interpretations. She never tells us when he suffered his first depression, presumably because that would limit the problem, and she never seriously considers the possibility that his disorder may have been endogenous (caused by biochemical abnormalities) rather than exogenous (a response to events in his life). Endogenous depressions are more likely to cycle regularly, as Levi's did. But, if his depressions were biochemically based, what would that do to Angier's double-bind theory?
Nor does she make much allowance for the evidence against depression, or for frequent relief from depression. It was during the early nineteen-seventies, when, according to Angier, Levi's mental state was "so terrifying that it is hard to imagine anything worse," that he wrote the superb and funny "Periodic Table." Likewise, in the late nineteen-seventies, when he is again supposed to have been despondent, he produced—with great ease—"The Monkey's Wrench," which Angier herself calls "his most optimistic, most entertaining book." This is not to say that depressed artists can't produce happy work. But the record of cheerful activity in Levi's last decade—during which time he not only wrote seven books and translated four others (including Kafka's "The Trial") but sometimes published more than twenty newspaper articles a year, meanwhile taking hikes, spending evenings at his friends' houses, and fashioning little animal sculptures out of the insulated wire produced by his old company—seems to call for some qualification of Angier's view that his last ten years were a dark, dark time. It doesn't make a dent. To her credit, she records the opposing evidence. But then, in most cases, she simply moves on, unfazed, with the pathological sequence she has set up: disturbed mother-child relationship, double bind, repression, return of the repressed, depression, suicide. The book is relentlessly teleological. It shoots like an arrow to Levi's suicide.
A problem here is that we don't know if Levi committed suicide. As the Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta pointed out in a measured essay in the Boston Review in 1999, there is good evidence that he did and good evidence that he didn't. In the months and weeks before his death, Levi said that he was depressed, and tortured by living with his now senile mother. Nevertheless, he was full of bustle and plans. He wrote new stories, witty stories. The day before he died, he spoke with a journalist who was writing a biography of him, and suggested that they get back to work. The morning of his death, he seemed fine to those who saw him. Shortly after ten, he told his mother's nurse that he was going down to the concierge's lodge, and asked her to take any calls. (As Angier acknowledges, a man going out to kill himself is unlikely to worry about his phone messages.) Then he walked onto the landing and somehow went over the bannister. Could this have been an accident? Easily, Gambetta says. The top of the railing was no higher than Levi's waist, and the medication he was taking can cause dizziness. He could have leaned over, to look for someone on the stairs—perhaps his wife, who had gone shopping—and lost his balance. Such a scenario would solve a big problem with the suicide hypothesis: the gruesome and theatrical manner of his death. It is hard to believe that the modest Levi—who, furthermore, as a chemist, knew how to kill himself discreetly—would have chosen such a means.
These facts have been debated for years, in an atmosphere clouded by emotion and politics. "Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later," Elie Wiesel declared. Others, also assuming suicide, grieved that this wiped out the idealism that had seemed to inform his books. Still others clung to that idealism and said that it ruled out suicide: Levi would never have succumbed, never have given the Nazis that victory.
Angier believes that he committed suicide but that this had nothing to do with the camps: "For him Auschwitz was an essentially positive experience. It gave him a reason to live, to communicate, to write. . . . It was, as he always said, his adventure, his time in Technicolor, his university. . . . The central, painful and paradoxical truth is that Primo Levi was depressed before and after Auschwitz, but not in it. He thought of suicide before and after Auschwitz, but not in it. Depression and suicide were in him from the start." This is a bold theory, and highly questionable. (As noted, Angier regards shyness and scrupulousness as depressive symptoms.) In her view, he did not plan to commit suicide; he did it on an impulse. The "void" drew him, the same void that "draws all deep depressives, like a call." He went to the landing, perhaps, on his way outdoors, and he gazed into the void, in the form of the stairwell. "He leaned and looked . . . and he let go." Those are the last words of the book.
Readers can decide for themselves. (Or not decide. Gambetta says we will never know.) But, even if Levi did commit suicide, it is a species of sentimentality to think that the end of something tells the truth about it. That's the case with mystery novels, but not with lives. Nor do we have any reason to believe that life should not be sad. Many lives are sad, and fraught with double binds, which just means conflicts. We make of them what we can, and then we throw up our hands and die. The things that Levi made of his life—"Survival in Auschwitz," "The Reawakening," "The Periodic Table"—are in no way diminished by the possibility that he killed himself. They may even seem more remarkable and moving: the darker the night, the brighter the stars.
A race to the bookshop
A rival biographer spurred Ian Thomson to complete his life of Primo Levi
Saturday March 1, 2003
When I began my biography of Primo Levi, I could not have imagined that it would take 10 years to complete. Progress was hampered by the arrival of my three children; the buggy in the hall was always a reminder of other duties. I was the first to begin work on Levi's life, yet I was almost beaten to the bookshops by a rival.
I arrived in Levi's native Turin in early 1991 with few contacts, unsure how to start. Turin is a most un-Italian city, chilly in its reserve, with an unsmiling, bourgeois air. I knew that Levi had been an enthusiastic mountaineer, so my first move was to visit the National Museum of Mountains. Unsurprisingly, there was little information of use there beyond some fascist-era alpenstocks, plus-fours and a stuffed ibex. Turin is a small city, though, and soon word got round. I was considered diligent (some reportedly said "obsessive"), and Levi's friends began to speak to me.
I had six long interviews with Levi's sister, Anna Maria. During our final conversation, she announced that Aldous Huxley's second wife had not only been to the same school in Turin as Primo, but had grown up in the same block of flats where he was born. I pursued the connection and found Laura Huxley living in a Hollywood villa, beneath the first "O" of the fabled Hollywood sign. Fortunately her memory was still intact despite quantities of LSD consumed with Aldous. Over coffee and slices of (pharmaceutically inactive) pumpkin pie, she told me about the pre-war Turin of Levi's childhood.
In the hope of tracking down others who had known Levi, I placed advertisements in Scientific American, and Chemistry and Industry. The response was good. A Jungian analyst in London contacted me, as did a biophysicist in Atlanta. However, my letters to the great Istrian novelist Fulvio Tomizza, a close friend of Levi, had gone unanswered, and he was not on the phone. So I went to Croatia on the off-chance of finding him. Arriving by taxi at his village, I was given directions to his farmhouse. Tomizza was raking leaves into a bonfire when I found him. "You've come from London?" he asked, astonished.
Much of the material I unearthed had not been seen before. Levi maintained an intense correspondence with a German admirer of his work, Hety Schmitt-Maas, for almost 20 years. Hety's daughter gave me Levi's 50-odd letters to her mother; they have much to tell us about his frequent depressions as well as his domestic unhappiness. Others have not yet picked up on the correspondence, or indeed Albert Speer's extraordinary letters about Levi.
Months before his suicide, Levi appointed an Italian critic as his official biographer. Nothing came of the book, and after Levi's death in 1987 his widow wanted no business with biographers. I was lucky to have interviewed Primo Levi shortly before he died, and subsequently had access to his sister for vital information.
A year into my sleuth-work, however, I became aware of a rival biographer. By the time Carole Angier settled in Turin, I had spoken to most of Levi's surviving friends. Consequently I passed her only once - when an interviewee booked us in at the same time. It was like a scene from a bad Woody Allen film. "Are you the famous Carole Angier?" I asked, and she held out her hand. "Are you the famous Ian Thomson?"
In the battle of the biographers, competition can sometimes be unseemly. Curiously, though, I believe our biographies have benefited from each other's labours. Angier spurred me on and no doubt I was a thorn in her side, too.
To my relief, while some critics admired my rival's book, others preferred mine. The biographies could not be more different, however. My intention had been to write an authoritative, measured work that would inspire confidence in the reader. My competitor's instinct, on the contrary, seemed to be to empathise imaginatively with her subject. (This sort of biography is increasingly common in our touchy-feely times.) In the interests of concision and readability I cut 120,000 words from my typescript; Angier's book is 300 pages longer than mine. But, rather sweetly, our biographies are now billed on the Amazon website as "perfect partners" ("buy both and save £10!"). We are wedded in cyberspace, if nowhere else.
Primo Levi is published by Vintage
Carole Angier feared her rival was casting voodoo spells on her
Saturday May 17, 2003
Writers always complain that people would rather read biographies of them than work by them. They may be pleased to know that it is the same for biographers: people would rather read stories about our biographies than our biographies themselves.
Anyone who has heard of my biography of Primo Levi is certain to know one thing about it - that a rival biography was published at the same time. Whenever I talk about it, someone is bound to ask: "What was it like to work for 10 years, knowing all along that someone else was working on the same subject?" And when I answer "Sheer hell", they always say the same thing, with ghoulish glee. "Oh, that's so interesting. You really should write about that." Well, now my rival biographer has done it, in these pages; and indeed his account is very entertaining. Perhaps people would like to hear a little more.
As Ian Thomson says, we met once in the course of our two years of interviewing the same people. He was coming to fetch some notes and letters which our interviewee, the actor-director Pieralberto Marchè, had kept about his work with Levi. The episode was entirely absurd, and sadly symbolic. Marchè put the papers on a table; Thomson peered at them eagerly; and I tried to peer at them too. But somehow his shoulder seemed to be in the way. I jogged from one side of him to the other, but whichever way I went, he seemed to go too. Perhaps it was my paranoia, perhaps it was his, but the result must have looked like a dance - the Biographers' Polka, perhaps, or the Researchers' Reel.
That is how Thomson seemed to me for a decade: my shadow, my Doppelgänger; mostly invisible, but all the more frightening for that. And now I know that he was just as afraid of me. He made up a silly name from my initials - C&A, after the shop which went out of business years ago, as he no doubt hoped I would. And I did the same to him: all these years he has been "It" to me.
You'll laugh at us, quite rightly; but we were also perfectly right to fear each other. Thomson began two years before me, and by the time I arrived he had, as he says, spoken to almost everyone. Those who liked him felt loyal to him, and didn't want to speak to me; those who didn't like him were put off the whole business, and didn't want to speak to me. Either way, he doubled the difficulty of my task; and before long I was doubling his.
When his book was announced in 1998, I booked a foreign holiday for the duration. When it was announced again in 1999 I waited - I'd nearly lost my deposit the first time - and once again, miraculously, the danger passed. Finally my book was announced, and it was his turn to catch up.
When our books came out together, in the spring of 2002, it seemed like the best solution. If either had come out first, the other would have had to answer it, to take its shadow on and box it. As it is, there are two biographies of Primo Levi, based on similar research, and coming to many similar conclusions; but in method and approach - as Thomson says - as different as night and day. No doubt they will both be superseded in the future. But until then, as far as our own battle goes, let the best man or woman win.
I first thought my fear would be over 18 months ago, when I finished the book, and knew I had caught up with him. But it wasn't, quite. All the way through I had had a recurring thought, which I admit with shame. For his previous work, a travel book on Haiti, Ian Thomson had joined a voodoo cult. Each time I had an ache or sniffle I'd think: is this It, trying to slow me down? Then I'd laugh at myself, and the thought would go.
One morning I caught sight of a small dark object beside my left foot. I bent down and picked it up: a short black plastic nail. I threw it away. But the next day, there was another. Soon they were turning up in whichever room I was in, as though they were following me. I found myself constantly checking the floor around my feet. I tried to examine the things calmly, but they weren't like anything I'd seen before.
I knew it was crazy, but the words that kept coming to mind were coffin nails. Was It sending these coffin nails to haunt me? For a week or so I managed to laugh every time the idea occurred. Then, at a friend's house, miles from home, I looked down - and there was another one. They were following me everywhere. That night and the next day I was almost lost. I knew it was mad, but I couldn't shake the fear of a voodoo spell.
after it began, I solved the mystery. It was my hairbrush. Its rubber base had
torn, and its teeth were falling out every time I brushed my hair. That was the
explanation of Ian Thomson's coffin nails. My fear vanished at last, and for
good. But it had been a close-run thing.
Books: The Chemistry of Havoc
Carole Angier’s weighty look at the
life, and death, of Primo Levi gracefully reflects his unyielding intellect and
Just tell, jumped or fell? So the cynic, or perhaps merely the biography-weary reader, might ask. After all, acclaimed Jewish-Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi told his story himself in print many times over. He has also been the subject of four previous biographies, nearly two dozen book-length critical studies, a half dozen international conferences and countless articles and essays. Levi himself gave hundreds of interviews and lectures, many of which have been collected between hardcovers.
So we might forgive the readers who, daunted by this four-pound biography, impatiently demand of its author: Just tell us, did Primo Levi slip and fall down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin that Saturday morning, April 11, 1987, or did he intentionally hurl himself to his death?
The question is one of more than ordinary morbidity, for if Levi intentionally took his own life then the act might be seen as a triumph, albeit 40 years delayed, for the infernal regime that sought to murder him. Many readers who revere Levi for his talent, mind and character are loath to give Auschwitz that final victory. For this reason, many clutched at reports that the 67-year-old writer, who was frail and recovering from surgery, had indeed stumbled over the banister in the building he had lived in virtually all his life.
Unfortunately this scenario is no more credible than the one that had Ernest Hemingway accidentally shooting himself while cleaning his favorite shotgun at 5 a.m. that July 4 weekend in 1961. (Not unless you believe Papa placed both barrels in his mouth to blow out dust.) No, as biographer Carole Angier persuasively argues, Primo Levi did away with himself. He didn’t wish to die, but (like Hemingway) he was suffering from acute depression and his medication was doing him no good. In the days prior to his death he repeatedly told friends he could no longer go on. In fact, even before his Auschwitz experience, Levi had suffered from clinical depression and had contemplated suicide. (And again like Hemingway, suicide was in the family.)
Angier catalogues other factors contributing to Levi’s death: fear of prostate cancer (unfounded, as it turned out); the increasing demands of relatively late success and fame on an almost pathologically shy and private man; outrage at Holocaust denial and the perceived resurgence of European fascism; a harrowing domestic situation that included a distant wife, a demanding nonagenarian mother and, for good measure, a mother-in-law in his home; writer’s block; and perhaps worst of all for a thinker devoted to examining his past, the onset of memory loss.
Whatever the reasons, Primo Levi’s death was immensely sad and tragic. Yet it is wrong to dwell on the ending of a life that was so inspiring and enriching for so many others. Levi remains one of the two or three best writers to survive the Holocaust -- and I assert this in full awareness that he was to many Jews far from the ideal or emblematic survivor. He was, to begin with, atypical by being Italian and of Sephardi origin. Levi, moreover, was an agnostic Jew before Auschwitz, and remained so thereafter. He was likewise doggedly a non-Zionist; although early on he endorsed the establishment of a Jewish state, he made only one brief visit to the country. At the time of the Lebanon War, he became a fierce critic of Israel, calling for the resignations of prime minister Menachem Begin and defense minister Ariel Sharon.
Levi also earned little affection in some quarters for his willingness to visit Germany repeatedly after World War II and for what some saw as an unaccountable readiness to forgive his former German tormentors. Even more, he upset many when he maintained that, regarding concentration camp inmates, "the worst survived."
Yet none of this diminishes his achievements as a literary artist and humanist thinker. Such works as "If This Is a Man," "The Truce," "The Periodic Table" and "Moments of Reprieve" were painfully produced and for many years slow to earn the international attention they deserved. Today, these works stand among the finest and most thoughtful European attempts to understand the unparalleled havoc of the 20th century and what that havoc revealed about the nature of mankind.
Biographer Angier, however, believes Primo Levi would have been a great writer even without his year of slave labor in the chemical factories of Auschwitz-Monowitz. And she is as persuasive in this respect as she is about the ending of Levi’s life.
Angier, a fellow at the University of Warwick, Oxfordshire, and author of two books on the British novelist Jean Rhys, says she spent 10 years on "The Double Bond." It shows. Intimidating in its sheer size, the biography is thoroughly researched, lavishly illustrated and almost obsessively annotated. But it is also eminently readable, even gracefully written. It does tend to relate more about Primo Levi and his world than many readers will want to know. For example, she describes at great length many of the chemical processes Levi researched at the paint factory where he was employed for several decades. Angier also documents in almost nauseating detail the suffering of Auschwitz prisoners in their capture, transport, arrival and slave labor. Yet we forgive this, along with Angier’s numerous personal and often engaging asides, in view of her supple writing and because her subject is so compelling.
Angier’s achievement is even more remarkable when one considers that the people closest to Levi -- his wife, his two children, his mother, his only sister -- all refused to cooperate in any way with the biographer. Especially frustrating is that Levi’s widow, Lucia, denied Angier access to the manuscript Levi was struggling to finish at the time of his death, a major book to be called "The Double Bond." (That Angier appropriated this title -- an organic chemistry term that Levi uses to express his view of the emotion/reason divide -- for her own book may be a measure of her frustration, but the borrowing still seems unjustified.)
Angier characterizes Lucia Levi as not only fiercely protective of her husband but fiercely jealous as well. But Signora Levi’s jealousy was not without foundation. Indeed, two of Angier’s important sources on Primo Levi’s last book -- and on his last months and days -- are none other than the man’s lady friends. This is not to suggest Primo Levi was a womanizer. But the existence of those and other close female confidantes clearly contradicts Angier’s facile assertion that for most of his life Levi "was afraid of women."
The facts, as Angier herself points out early on, are that Primo Levi was an eminently reserved individual who grew up in the Piedmont, a region whose inhabitants are notoriously distinguished from other Italians by virtue of being circumspect and undemonstrative; even more so Turinos, whom Angier describes as having a "Puritan, almost Victorian" reserve. Turin’s Jews, she adds, are "110 percent like their neighbours." Add to this reserve Levi’s solitary nature, his rational and scientific mind and his diminutive stature (he weighed 108 pounds when he arrived at Auschwitz). Small wonder he was no Casanova. But that hardly means he "feared" women.
I belabor this point because such a brisk and poorly supported judgment is untypical of Angier’s otherwise measured and thoughtful work. What she achieves is manifold: a splendid picture of the little-known Jewish world of northern Italy, Jewish Turin’s important role in the Italian struggle for unification and independence, the community’s complex response to Italian fascism, and Jewish-Italian intellectual life up to the beginning of World War II.
Pride of place goes to Angier’s depiction of Levi the university student and his hesitant involvement in the partisan movement.As noted, Angier’s chronicle of Levi in Auschwitz is horrific. But she also does an excellent job of identifying those characteristics of intellect and spirit that helped the prisoner survive. Of his determination not only to live but to testify about what he learned, Angier writes: "Only someone whose whole life had prepared him for this moment could have done it: someone whose instinct to dominate experience through understanding was stronger than any other instinct, even to survive; who combined scientific training with passionate human interest; who possessed huge gifts of memory, intellect and will, and who inspired people to entrust him with their stories."
Primo Levi wrote those stories, plumbing their depths for what they might reveal about the humanity (the "moments of reprieve") and the moral challenges (the "grey zone") manifested in extreme circumstances. What he left us was not only a body of beautifully expressed insights, but a portrait of a solitary and struggling soul uncomforted by the faith and optimism of, say, an Elie Wiesel. Levi’s lifelong struggle to understand and to communicate was inspiring. So too, in its way, is Carole Angier’s "The Double Bond."
July 12, 2002, 11:49AM
An Italian Jew caught by history
By PAUL MARX
THE DOUBLE BOND:
Primo Levi: A Biography.
By Carole Angier.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $40; 898 pp.
ONE of the momentous encounters of post-World War II literary giants was that between Philip Roth and Primo Levi in 1986. The meetings took place in and around the northern Italian city of Turin, Levi's hometown. Roth, like many others, was interested in Levi because, as a Jew, Levi had been sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, had survived and then had written movingly about the experience.
Levi had not become angry, vindictive or cynical. Everybody seemed to love Primo Levi. Roth envied him for his rootedness. Levi seemed so well-rooted in his work, his city, his family, and in reality rather than words. With the exception of the war years, Levi seemed to have led the perfect writer's life.
Even at Auschwitz, from which only 600 of 8,000 deported Italian Jews returned, Levi seemed to have been of indomitable spirit. Even though the best human beings among his fellow deportees were the first to die and the worst were the fittest to survive, he refused to despair.
While the best gave up trying to adapt to the infernal conditions of the camp, Levi sought to understand. A guard tells Levi that at the camp "there is no why," but Levi persists in trying to find the why. He keeps his mind fully fueled, and the enemy's efforts to dehumanize do not work on him.
He becomes obsessed with the idea that he is called upon to survive and to tell the story of Auschwitz. And so "I never stopped recording the world and the people around me. ... I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by curiosity ... the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous, monstrously new."
For a very uncertain future use, he makes it his business to note and remember every detail of death-camp life. His witness is given in If This Is a Man, a book known in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz.
Surviving made Levi a stronger person. Yet, according to Carole Angier, author of this massive new biography, all was not well. The man Philip Roth so envied was far from the totality of Primo Levi. While Auschwitz was the single most important experience of Levi's life, what came before and what followed had longer-lasting effects on him. Being rooted can have negative consequences.
What came before were years of living with the feeling of gross inadequacy. As a child and as a young man, Levi was undersized and unattractive. He was shy and unassertive and reluctant to reach out to peers, especially to females.
His family's solid middle-class Jewish status, complete with domineering mother, further restricted him. And the Turin of his youth, for all intents and purposes as puritanical as Boston, made fortuitous adventures all but impossible. And so, moving into his 20s, Levi was an inexperienced, sadly repressed young man.
The displacement of Jews that came with the Nazi takeover of northern Italy in 1943 was especially disastrous for Levi. It is Angier's theory that the exclusions brought on by the racial laws magnified Levi's feeling of being unlovable and unworthy. Before Auschwitz, Angier believes, Levi felt not wholly a man. Auschwitz made him better able to accept himself.
Angier sees division, or two-sidedness, almost everywhere in Levi's life. Levi was educated as a chemist and worked in that field before the war. The chemist's way of thinking, surprisingly, helped Levi understand the humanity he encountered at Auschwitz.
Back in his chemist's life, which then continued unbroken for 30 more years, Levi becomes a writer by night. One of his major works is a series of autobiographical short stories called The Periodic Table, in which each story has as its title and a theme a different element -- Argon, Phosphorus, Zinc, and so forth.
But having become successful as a writer, Levi finds it a great strain dealing with the demands of fame. He reads and answers all his mail. He feels compelled to take seriously invitations to all kinds of literary events. He worries too much about slowdowns in the pace of his creativity. The rooted writer envied by Roth is really in a state of inner turmoil.
Finally, in 1987, Italy's greatest postwar writer, in line for a Nobel Prize, commits suicide. The exterior facts of his life say suicide makes no sense. Angier puts together an internal life that makes suicide very plausible.
From her description of Jewish life in prewar Turin to her account of Levi in Auschwitz to the debate over Levi's suicide, the story of Levi's life has much of interest. But Angier has overdone it. For this book she has tried to interview everyone Primo Levi knew, and she insists on presenting a report of each interview. She even digresses from telling about the life of Primo Levi to tell about the life of Carole Angier, Biographical Researcher.
The unfortunate result is that whenever her main story gets chugging along, she derails it with stories of far less interest.
Paul Marx is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven.