An Ordinary Witness: On the Complete Works of Primo Levi
Primo Levi's books are utterly diverse, but all one project. Like the young experimenter he used to be -- the one he describes in "Phosphorus," a chapter of his autobiographical miscellany, The Periodic Table -- he tests whatever he can lay his hands on for the presence of some explanatory element, or, conversely, he tests every possible reagent on one mysterious substance -- Primo Levi -- a peculiar human compound, a banal-seeming, dutiful, even uptight, northern Italian. Not the sort of person you'd go to expecting art or wisdom.
Despite his ambitions and the insistence of some of his champions (who get that he's great but can't put their finger on why), Levi is not an artist-writer of the usual variety. His work, in a sense, happened to him the year he spent at Auschwitz. This is difficult to understand, because, without that year, he also would have been a writer -- or an aspiring or frustrated writer -- perhaps a little too canny and too self-conscious for the crazed, unreal life of an artist. If this sounds like a complaint that a no-talent somehow "lucked into" a career, relax. I want to explain how Levi's manqué quality is the essence of his greatness. In a short article he once compared another scientist-writer, the author of a single modest post-war memoir, to artist-writers, with their grand creative deceptions. "[H]ow equalizing and reassuring," Levi exclaims, to come across a writer who "remains himself in what he writes." But with mild, almost pastoral, regret, he admits that the work of a writer like this has "neither pretense nor transfiguration, neither muses nor quantum leaps." For me, Levi, too, is comfortably equalizing. I never feel I'm in the borderline-irrational hands of an artist. Nevertheless, something happens. The transfiguration or quantum leap does occur.
It's helpful to try to pick apart Levi's life, hold it up as two different timelines, the true one and a parallel. Levi with and without the Holocaust. Levi was born (1919) and lived his whole free life in the same house in Turin. His family was enlightened and literate, and he attended the prestigious Liceo D'Azeglio in the center of town. But the Levis were strivers, the father an electrical engineer and self-improver. They were no relation to the great biologist (and banking scion) Giuseppe Levi, also of Turin but not Piedmontese, and they had little connection to his politically-engaged circle, full of celebrated ex-Liceo D'Azeglio boys like Cesare Pavese and Giulio Einaudi, the son of a future Italian president. That glamorous, tragic world is described by the other Levi's daughter, Natalia (Levi) Ginzburg, in Lessico Famigliare -- Family Sayings (1963). Young Primo Levi -- frail, tiny, weasel-faced -- was the object of the cool kids' condescensions and the repository of their confidences.
One senses that the cautious, realistic Primo Levi of this timeline would have gone only so far in pursuing his intellectual leanings. Once his career with a DuPont Chemical Co. subsidiary got going, he may have turned into something of a Chekhovian doctor-philosopher. Though Natalia Ginzburg would still give him the time of day, she wouldn't understand how someone could tread such a straight and narrow path, live a whole life without passionate gestures like her own (joining the Communist Party, converting to Catholicism after World War II). Somnolent provincial towns in Italy, some as intellectually lonely as the steppe, often have a tiny house museum, the forlorn bequest of a nineteenth-century physician-grandee, containing a few local antiquities and a collection of minerals from a tour of the Dutch East Indies. It's easy to imagine, in this timeline, a Casa Museo Dottor Primo Levi.
As a writer, Levi without the Holocaust would have belonged to the very particular European scientific-literary tradition of Jules Verne and, by extension, perhaps, Poe. The literalness of their scientific intelligence doomed writers in this tradition to be treated as, indeed to be, somehow middlebrow. Even so, like Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells, Verne was vastly influential because his work was good-bad and it appealed to precocious schoolchildren. Though Verne's fascinating stories never improved artistically, his readers, imprinted with his fantasies, sometimes grew up to become splendid writers themselves, if always a little too clever and self-contented to be trusted with the cultural household's fragile antiques, Nobel prizes and the like. Verne's sort of nerdy, inartistic good-bad writing can be seen in Borges, Calvino, Ki, Nabokov. Levi could easily have ended up like them, a sort of Italian Stanislaw Lem, a writer of sophisticated, innocent/sly sci-fi.
Even in the real timeline, sci-fi became a key part of Levi's work. From the beginning, as he was working on his first two Holocaust memoirs, Levi sometimes zigged into writing fantastic fictions. He collected and published a first group of these stories pseudonymously as Natural Histories. The zigging and the pseudonym (soon dropped) weren't a literary rabbit's display of nerves. Levi's fables, though suffused with sub-comedic humor, were as much about his elemental subjects as If This Is a Man. "The Knall," from the following collection, Flaw of Form, is a minuscule story perfumed by a jaw-dropping (fictional) insouciance toward death, and shows Levi's literary poise as well as his less expected, purely creative power to dream up a wicked conceit. Levi's friends did, and still do, what they can to soft-peddle his fantasies as a higher form of sci-fi, as Borgesian intellectual fantasy. This is justified, but what is gained? Paradoxically Levi is diminished when well-meaning literary antiquarians try to prop him up with flattering respect. It's more interesting to call this work sci-fi. In a messy way, in Levi's littered, not entirely "artistic" workshop, dynamic new categories are coming into existence.
That modern yes-and-no uncertainties (is this personal memoir/objective nonfiction, is he a newspaper columnist/an artist -- and much later, was it suicide/accident) confuse the image of Levi is exactly as it should be. Categories were his poetry and his affliction. Race, for instance, is a matter of fact, a matter of personal identity, and often something others decide for you.
Levi frequently mentioned his slight shock and fascination when he received his 1941 diploma in Chemistry from the University of Turin and saw himself identified as "di razza ebraica." Italian race laws that would have kept him from matriculating at all came into effect during his studies. He graduated as a more specific but less individual person than he started out. Unusually sensitive to language, even for a writer, Levi was startled. Not only was the phrase evidence of the world's polite hatred (any member of a minority who is used to "passing" will recognize his experience: a remark lodges in the mind, oddly indelible even if one's reaction is slight -- a frown or a blush of embarrassment, maybe), but also because the label initiated him in his own Jewishness, which he'd hardly noticed until that moment and which would grow more and more important for him. (Levi: "I adapted to the condition of being a Jew only as the effect of the Racial Laws passed in Italy in 1938 when I was nineteen years old, and following my deportation to Auschwitz in 1944.")
Levi's adaptation to his Jewishness is crucial. From unthinking status as a universal individual he was "demoted" to being a member of a group. That he later can't be pinned down to a genre starts to look less like a fault, more like a revealing characteristic. That others can't assess his "pure" literary merit to their own satisfaction starts to resonate in strange ways.
Of course, only one timeline matters. The Holocaust did happen. After finding his way back from Auschwitz to the hear-no-evil everyday world (a journey recounted in The Truce, 1963), Levi, like countless others, felt compelled to write about his perfectly unbelievable experiences. He'd written a few stories and poems before the war, but his significant work all begins now. It doesn't begin easily. His writing was almost convulsive. Friends encouraged him to make a book of his discontinuous accounts. His wife polished the flow of the resulting manuscript. But the Liceo D'Azeglio boys, who had long since formed the publishing house Einaudi, rejected the manuscript the first time around, and Levi's friend Natalia Ginzburg was deputed to give him the bad news. Se quest'é un uomo came out in a small run with DeSilva in 1947 and sold moderately in Turin. It looked like a talented, intellectually sophisticated man, a local dottore with the common-as-dirt dream of becoming a writer, was going to have a small, regional success.
Only gradually did it become clear that this unexciting man was the perfect witness to history, not in a charismatic sense, but in a scientific/literary/legal sense -- an expert witness of a new sort no one had ever dreamed we would need.
What made Levi the ideal witness of the Holocaust was his superhuman self-repression. Exactly the quality that, as a conventional artist, might have left him to grope around his life in the equivalent of welder's goggles, was needed to examine the Holocaust, the glare of which blinded almost everyone else. Levi became the great ethnographer of good and evil, or of whatever the next moral level below them is. His poise and eye for detail aren't unusual in literature. He was always, in a sense, "ordinary," but his power to maintain his ordinariness in the most extreme conditions turned out to be unique. It isn't surprising that If This Is a Man, which, as with many great books on first reading, can seem like a slightly underplayed version of itself -- of the Holocaust of our imagination -- looked unexceptional to Einaudi editors in whose minds the history all around them hadn't yet registered. The sulfurous, blah rock photos taken by the Soviet probe Venera 13 become astounding when we consider they represent a mere 127 minutes (four times the robot's designed lifespan) on the surface of Venus.
The humble, inquiring specificity of Levi's best writing feels like reportage. It's clearly more factual, or, say, fact-sensitive, than Natalia Ginzburg's Lessico Famigliare and other similar non-fictions or memory exercises by artist-writers. (I'm not talking about accuracy but about a way of looking at the past.) Still, in retrospect, Elie Wiesel's lapidary paradox of 1963, "A novel about Auschwitz is either not a novel, or it is not about Auschwitz" doesn't seem helpful or explanatory. It sounds like sacred mystification.
Now that we are getting used to so-called auto-fiction, we can find a suitable place for Levi. However unaffected and often merely functional, Levi's work is best read in the company of writers like Sebald, Edmund White (also treated as insufficiently artistic), Knausgaard, and, perhaps the closest parallel, Emmanuel Carrère in recent books like My Life as a Russian Novel and Limonov. Unalike as they are, these writers all owe a little something to a dark, almost extra-literary auto-fictional tradition, one which also had its origin in Second World War chaos. Granted, Levi would despise the anti-bourgeois delectation of vice in writers like Genet or Malaparte. And there's something resolutely middle-of-the-road about Levi that we associate with non-art. We forgive Genet or Knausgaard their somewhat uneven structure and wild flourishes and banalities, their, respectively, too gorgeous and too drab sentences, because, for whatever reason, we class them as artists, and we know art often works in ways we dare not judge. We're more comfortable reading Levi's imperfections as failure. We recall that he wrote way too much for La Stampa and spent far too much of his time at dull public commemorations or sounding off on public issues. Yet, exactly like art, his work would be useless if he achieved the scientific flawlessness he is driven to pursue and we feel driven to hope for. Levi's worldly entanglements start to look less like compromises and more like upright counterparts to Knausgaard's family scandals or of the real world lawsuits of Danilo Ki -- all of it intrinsic to the artist's work.
By harping on Levi's ordinariness to make a point, I've done him a disservice. He's a great writer. Reading some passages is like watching a braid of distilled water arc into a beaker. You can delight in the beauty or, because of the clarity, "forget" that this is language at all and experience it as unmediated truth. (This strongly bivalent quality, which many people mistrust or treat like a take-it-or-leave-it bonus of complicated or stylish writing, is, for me, necessary for writing to succeed as art, and that is why it is neither bizarre nor lurid to insist on the beauty or elegance of Levi's language even when he is writing about the Holocaust.)
Levi is a natural psychologist. His greatest "novelistic" effects emerge in descriptions of ordinary people (people of little interest to artists) for whom he had an attachment even deeper than Italo Calvino's (though perhaps a touch more remote). A particular father/son-like relationship is often the centerpiece of his work. "Levi," the autobiographer, presents himself as the observant underling to a more worldly but less sophisticated man of power. These powers range from older schoolboys, to bosses of all kinds, to Kapos, to the clueless American Simpson, a domineering salesman of fantastic office machines, who is a figure of satire in many early stories. Levi's extraordinary relationship with Mordo Nahum is the heart of The Truce, and that amoral, clannish, shrewd Greek merchant, a real life Odysseus, may be Levi's greatest literary "creation," the sort of person an artist-writer might have hastily dismissed as an unpromising stereotype, overlooking everything.
Sometimes I tell myself certain poetic effects Levi creates are epiphenomena, "naturally occurring" beauties of a mind's entirely scientific activity. Yet qualities that feel mysteriously unlinked to a physical work of art or literature, that seem beyond the reach of individual human intention, are often precisely what we recognize as artistic. One such case is a story, a mere anecdote, Levi recounts in his great humanist essay, The Drowned and The Saved from 1986. (Not the first place you'd look for "art" in Levi's inhomogeneous oeuvre.)
The anecdote takes place at a desperate moment in 1944 when starving inmates were forced to clear a factory cellar of rubble from a bomb strike. Off by himself, Levi found a length of pipe terminating in a damaged spigot. He writes in flat-seeming sentences, "The drops came out slowly, without pressure: the pipe must have been only half full, maybe less. I stopped trying to open it and lay down on the ground with my mouth under the faucet: it was water that had been warmed by the sun, tasteless, perhaps distilled or the result of condensation; anyway, it was a delicacy."
Starting a new paragraph, Levi next lays out the practical and moral problem connected with this discovery. His precise language has a glimmer of oratory about it, "How much water can a two-inch pipe one or two meters in length contain? One liter, if that. I could drink it all immediately, it would have been the safest thing. Or leave a little for the next day. Or split it evenly with Alberto. Or reveal the secret to the whole work squad." Levi says he opted for limited, even strategic, generosity and shared the water with Alberto but not the whole squad. As it happened another friend, Daniele, "covered with gray cement dust, his lips cracked and his eyes glazed over," noticed the two huddling by the spigot and guessed that they'd found water. With his unvarying moral simplicity, neither abject nor self-justifying, Levi admits, "I felt guilty" and he reports how "[m]any months later, in Belorussia, after the liberation, [Daniele] had harsh words for me: why the two of you and not me?" Levi, the anthropologist, explains, "The 'civilian' moral code was resurgent, the same code by which I, a free man today, am appalled by the death sentence meted out to the Kapo who beat us." This is typical Levi in many ways. He tracks the incredible suppleness of the mind at a scale that barely feels human, yet we recognize everything.
When Levi writes in his dutiful role as witness, he drops metaphor, but he doesn't reach for the jumbled or deliberately verbose dullness of the lab book. His words retain an elemental elegance. All is told as it should be in that water anecdote. Simple truth. Then, just as simply, Levi adds a layer of complexity, telescoping decades: "Today Daniele is dead, but in our affectionate, fraternal get-togethers as survivors, the veil of that failure to act, that unshared glass of water, stood between us, transparent, unexpressed, but tangible and 'costly.'" As a reader I experience this conclusion as a profound artistic effect in an art that matters, like the end of a Maupassant story when Maupassant stories were still urgent, or like a moment of Proust patched into a work of journalism.
We still have a hard time accepting reportage, even memoir, as the substance of art. And it's true that Levi rarely conjures up an experiential world as artist-writers normally do (though he manages it nicely in his self-consciously Jewish novel If Not Now, When? (1982), an almost folkloric effort, which is also autobiographical in that it's the gesture of an increasingly dutiful and exhausted public man).
But another recollection at the very end of The Drowned and the Saved feels, to me, like a form of tragedy in epitome. Levi is reviewing his searching correspondence with a German woman long after the war. In a strange amalgam of book review, letter, quotation, history, and inquiry, Levi presents his back-and-forth with the woman, Hety: "On only one occasion did we (or at least, I) sense a disagreement." This disagreement concerned Albert Speer, whose life Levi sketches dispassionately in a few sentences. Disturbed by the publication of Speer's Spandau diaries, Hety arranges a two-hour meeting with Speer. She presents him with a history of Auschwitz and a copy of If This Is a Man. In return Speer gives her a copy of his Spandau diaries to pass along to Levi. He writes:
I received and read the diary. Speer emerges as a Shakespearean figure, with boundless ambitions, so great that they blinded and corrupted him, but not as a barbarian, a coward, or a slave. I would have been happy never to have read it, because for me it is painful to judge someone, especially Speer, not a simple man, a guilty person who had paid for his crimes. I wrote Hety with a touch of irritation: "What drove you to see Speer? Curiosity? A sense of duty? A mission?"
One almost senses Levi's quivering as he tries at first to compose sentences about Speer that will remain true forever. Such a scientific/literary burden is unwelcome, and Levi allows himself to appear, instead, ordinary, irritated. He goes on to quote Hety's long response:
I do not have the impression that [Speer] is trying to justify himself: he would like to learn to understand what is so impossible to understand (also for him)... He impressed me as a person without "falsehood," who sounds earnest and who is tormented by the past. For me he became a key: he is a symbolic figure, the symbol of Germany losing its way!
Using the forensic tools of argument, witness statements, and extended quotation, with a hint of confessional reportage thrown, Levi illustrates a moral drama at the same time he is pursuing a more local artistic goal. No ultimate judgment of Speer is forthcoming. And the impact of the passage is fundamentally creative: two personalities, Heti and Levi, are interacting with a third who looms in the distance (a figure Hety instinctively refers to as the artistic symbol of something greater). Levi mentions that Speer's promised reactions to If This Is a Man "never arrived, to [his] relief":
[I]t would have been hard for me to have to reply to a letter (as is customary among civilized people) from Albert Speer. In 1978, apologizing to me because of the disapproval she sensed in my letters, Hety went to see Speer a second time, and she came back disappointed. She found him aged, egocentric, pompous, and stupidly proud of his past as a pharaonic architect.
Levi, the scientist, the gatherer of evidence, is forever correcting provisional conclusions. Levi, the artist, takes that never-ending process as his simultaneous subject.