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By Sam Magavern


The Montréal Review, July 2021


By Sam Magavern


PRIMO LEVI COULD be deceptively modest. Despite the fact that he published some twenty books, in just about every literary genre, he sometimes cultivated the image of a nonliterary author, a scrittore non scrittore, as he once phrased it: a writer-witness, a writer-scientist, or an accidental writer. He wrote in solitude, unaffiliated with any universities, literary establishments, circles, or movements. He worked for thirty years as a chemist and manager at a paint and varnish factory. His most famous work is nonfiction, and its subject matter—Auschwitz—is so overwhelming that one can miss its literary depth. He wrote in an age that prized the novel, but his two novels, The Monkey’s Wrench and If Not Now, When?, are not among his most important work.

Yet when we read all of Levi’s writings together, we find that he has woven a great and terrifying testament, one of the most vital bodies of work in modern literature. We find that his various writings combine to make a bildungsroman rivaling Proust’s. A bildungsroman, or “education novel,” follows the moral and psychological growth of its main character. In a minor bildungsroman, we watch a character adapt to an adult reality that we, the readers, already know. In a major bildungsroman, like Proust’s or Levi’s, we watch as the character finds and creates not only a self, but also a cosmos—a new interpretation of the world.

Levi’s main character is Primo Levi: a more or less factual version of himself created in a long series of memoirs, stories, essays, poems, and interviews. In Levi’s core work, he focuses on his youth: the classic age for the bildungsroman, the age of adventures. Levi’s youth included both adventure and tragedy; it did not end until his late twenties, when he returned from the war, married, and began working as an industrial chemist. But, as important as his youth was to him, Levi continued to grow and change—to re-work himself and his cosmos—until his death.

Levi’s central concern was what makes—and unmakes—a man. He pondered this insoluble riddle in diverse ways. He studied the biology of Darwin and the psychology of Freud. He looked to myths and legends, spinning variations on Adam and Eve, the Golem, Frankenstein, and other creation tales. He translated anthropological studies by Claude Levi-Strauss and Mary Douglas. Although not a believer, he studied religious texts, placing the book of Job first in his anthology of favorite works, The Search for Roots. Most important, though, he sifted through his own experiences: how his humanity was shaped by Auschwitz, his nine-month odyssey returning from the war,his misadventures as a chemist, his chronic depression, and the challenges of ordinary life. As Levi writes in The Truce, “everybody’s moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography.”

Levi combined a gift for the lyrical, introspective, and autobiographical with an equally potent gift for the scientific, exploratory, and essayistic. One has to look to Michel de Montaigne to find another writer who reports on his life in a way that encompasses so much of the world. Levi had the tragic misfortune to be present at a crucial event in world history, to suffer personally an epochal, radical evil; but he also had the genius to transmute that experience into enduring literature.

In literary style, Levi is sometimes viewed as a traditionalist. And yet Levi’s short stories are playful, ultramodern fables comparable to those of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Some of his poems—such as “For Adolf Eichmann”—have a naked ferocity that could scarcely be called traditional. And Levi’s central prose works—If This is a Man, The Truce, The Periodic Table, and The Drowned and the Saved—are innovative hybrids of many genres, including autobiography, short story, novel, poetry, essay, history, and sociology. Levi viewed himself as a hybrid, someone not identical with himself; he was like the narrator of The Monkey’s Wrench, who says, “I felt as if I had two souls in my body, and that’s too many.”

Levi blurred the line between fact and fiction. While all his autobiographical narratives are more or less true, in some he keeps very close to the facts, changing only a name or a minor detail, but in others he takes considerable license. The results can be confusing. Many of his autobiographical essays, published in the United States in Moments of Reprieve, Other People’s Trades, The Mirror Maker, The Periodic Table, and A Tranquil Star, read exactly like the short stories with which they are intermingled. In Italy, If This Is a Man is read as a novel about Auschwitz; in the United States, it is published under the title Survival in Auschwitz and presented as historical testimony. One might call it a nonfiction novel, but that hardly does justice to its complex and unstable richness.

Photograph (detail) by Jillian Edelstein / Camera Press / Redux

Levi’s style—so lyrical and yet so polyvalent—responded perfectly to his literary and historical context. By the time he began writing, the era of the great realist novel had passed. It no longer seemed appropriate or original to write in the objective vein of the nineteenth-century masters, surveying society as if from a mountaintop. The focus had shifted to a more subjective account of consciousness: the memories, reflections, dreams, and nightmares of single, often isolated, individuals. As a result, modern literature often runs the risk of solipsism, a retreat into private worlds and languages—something Levi strenuously resisted. His challenge was to write about the world and the self, and their fluctuating, mysterious interactions, in a way that avoided false objectivity and yet remained coherent.

This literary challenge corresponds closely to a modern philosophical challenge: how to create a cosmos—a view of the world—that is systematic enough to be useful and yet open and self-critical enough to avoid hardening into dogma. Secular thinkers have struggled to construct a philosophy that does not rely on God and yet resists the temptation to put man (or history, or some other grand force) in God’s place. Scientists have crafted a periodic table (in Italian, il sistema periodico), which offers a comprehensive system of natural elements. But what table, what tablets, can give us a comprehensive system of humanity? Or, as Levi asks, “would it not be better to acknowledge one’s lack of a system?”

If the Ten Commandments are not divinely given, then it falls to individuals or groups to create their own ethics, their own decalogues. Benito Mussolini offered one response: his Fascist Decalogue, which included the commandment that Mussolini was always right. Levi offered his own ethos, but it included the commandment that he, like all sources, must always be doubted. He grappled with the question of whether we can judge good and evil confidently, and even authoritatively, without becoming authoritarian: whether we can create ourselves without dreaming of being supermen, transcending good and evil.

To respond to these literary and philosophical concerns required a modern Dante, a thinker who could combine stunning ambition with profound humility, bold innovation with “the search for roots.” It required someone committed to purity, clarity, and the light of reason, yet capable of celebrating impurity, incoherence, and doubt. Perhaps, to be thoroughly convincing, it required someone with the authority of a firsthand participant: someone who had gone to the edge of the world, the edge of humanity, and seen with his own eyes, suffered with his own body and soul, the demolition and painful re-creation of mankind.


Sam Magavern is a writer and public interest lawyer, currently teaching at the University at Buffalo Law School.  He is the author of Primo Levi's Universe. He has written in a wide variety of genres – poetry, fiction, film, scholarly essays, and comic books – and published in many of the nation’s leading literary magazines, including Poetry, The Antioch Review, and The Paris Review.


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