Philip Roth talks to the Italian writer Primo Levi about his life and times

On the September Friday that I arrived in Turin – to renew a conversation with Primo Levi that we had begun one afternoon in London the spring before – I asked to be shown around the paint factory where he’d been employed as a research chemist, and, afterwards, until retirement, as factory manager. Altogether the company employs 50 people, mainly chemists who work in the laboratories and skilled labourers on the floor of the plant. The production machinery, the row of storage tanks, the laboratory building, the finished product in man-sized containers ready to be shipped, the reprocessing facility that purifies the wastes – all of it is encompassed in four or five acres a seven-mile drive from Turin. The machines that are drying resin and blending varnish and pumping off pollutants are never distressingly loud, the yard’s acrid odour – the smell, Levi told me, that clung to his clothing for two years after his retirement – is by no means disgusting, and the skip loaded with the black sludgy residue of the anti-polluting process isn’t particularly unsightly. It is hardly the world’s ugliest industrial environment, but a very long way, nonetheless, from those sentences suffused with mind that are the hallmark of Levi’s autobiographical narratives. On the other hand, however far from the prose, it is clearly a place close to his heart; taking in what I could of the noise, the stink, the mosaic of pipes and vats and tanks and dials, I remembered Faussone, the skilled rigger in The Monkey’s Wrench, saying to Levi, who calls Faussone ‘my alter ego’: ‘I have to tell you, being around a work site is something I enjoy.’

As we walked through the open yard to the laboratory, a simply-designed two-storey building constructed during Levi’s managerial days, he told me: ‘I have been cut off from the factory for 12 years. This will be an adventure for me.’ He said he believed that nearly everybody once working with him was now retired or dead, and, indeed, those few still there whom he ran into seemed to strike him as spectres assuming living form right before his eyes. ‘It’s another ghost,’ he whispered to me, after someone from the central office that had once been his had emerged to welcome him back. On our way to the section of the laboratory where raw materials are scrutinised before moving to production, I asked Levi if he could identify the particular chemical aroma faintly permeating the corridor: I thought it smelled a little like a hospital corridor. Just fractionally he raised his head and exposed his nostrils to the air. With a smile he told me: ‘I understand and can analyse it like a dog.’

He seemed to me inwardly animated more in the manner of some little quicksilver woodland creature empowered by the forest’s most astute intelligence. Levi is small and slight, though not quite so delicately built as his unassuming demeanour makes him at first appear, and still seemingly as nimble as he must have been at ten. In his body, as in his face, you see – as you don’t in most men – the face and the body of the boy that he was. His alertness is nearly palpable, keenness trembling within him like his pilot light.

It is probably not as surprising as one might think to find that writers divide like the rest of mankind into two categories: those who listen to you and those who don’t. Levi listens, and with his entire face, a precisely-modelled face tipped with a white chinbeard which, at 67, is at once youthfully Pan-like but professorial as well, the face of irrepressible curiosity and of the esteemed dottore. I can believe Faussone when he says to Primo Levi early in The Monkey’s Wrench: ‘You’re quite a guy, making me tell these stories that, except for you, I’ve never told anybody.’ It’s no wonder that people are always telling him things and that everything is recorded faithfully before it is even written down: when listening he is as focused and as still as a chipmunk spying something unknown from atop a stone wall.

In a large, substantial-looking apartment house built a few years before he was born – and where he was born, for formerly this was the home of his parents – Levi lives with his wife Lucia; except for his year in Auschwitz and the adventurous months immediately after his liberation, he has lived in this same apartment all his life. The building, whose bourgeois solidity has begun slightly to give way to time, is on a wide boulevard of apartment buildings that struck me as the Northern Italian counterpart to Manhattan’s West End Avenue: a steady stream of auto and bus traffic, trolley cars speeding by on their tracks, but also a column of big chestnut trees stretching all along the narrow islands at either side of the street, and the green hills bordering the city visible from the intersection. The famous arcades at the commercial heart of the city are an unswerving 15-minute walk straight through what Levi has called ‘the obsessive Turin geometry’.

The Levis’ large apartment is still shared, as it has been since they met and married after the war, with Primo Levi’s mother. She is 91. Levi’s 95-year-old mother-in-law lives not far away, in the apartment immediately next door lives his 28-year-old son, a physicist, and a few streets off is his 38-year-old daughter, a botanist. I don’t personally know of another contemporary writer who has voluntarily remained, over so many decades, intimately entangled and in such direct, unbroken contact with his immediate family, his birthplace, his region, the world of his forebears and, particularly, with the local working environment which, in Turin, the home of Fiat, is largely industrial. Of all the intellectually-gifted artists of this century – and Levi’s uniqueness is that he is even more the artist-chemist than the chemist-writer – he may well be the most thoroughly adapted to the totality of the life around him. Perhaps in the case of Primo Levi, a life of communal interconnectedness, along with his masterpiece on Auschwitz, constitutes his profoundly civilised and spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his every sustained connection and tear him and his kind out of history.

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