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The Problem of Reality

Michael Wood: Primo Levi

1 October 1998
Primo LeviThe Tragedy of an Optimist 
by Myriam Anissimov, translated by Steve Cox.
Aurum, 452 pp., £25, September 1998, 1 85410 503 5
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... Myriam Anissimov’s biography of PrimoLevi, first published in French two years ago, begins with a kind of stutter surrounding the writer’s end. The book’s Introduction, prologue and opening chapter all invoke his death, as if it were a ...
23 October 1986
... On the September Friday that I arrived in Turin – to renew a conversation with PrimoLevi 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 ...

Levi’s Oyster

Karl Miller

4 August 1988
The Drowned and the Saved 
by Prime Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal.
Joseph, 170 pp., £10.95, April 1988, 0 7181 3063 4
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... The Italian writer PrimoLevi died a year ago, on 11 April 1987, to the dismay of his readers, and The Drowned and the Saved may well be the last of his writings to be translated and reviewed in this country. There was a time ...

Travelling in the Classic Style

Thomas Laqueur: Primo Levi

5 September 2002
Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics 
by Robert Gordon.
Oxford, 316 pp., £45, October 2001, 0 19 815963 3
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Primo​ Levi 
by Ian Thomson.
Hutchinson, 624 pp., £25, March 2002, 0 09 178531 6
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The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography 
by Carole Angier.
Viking, 898 pp., £25, April 2002, 0 670 88333 6
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... PrimoLevi is among the most read and most resonant witnesses to the greatest human disaster of a disastrous age. He created more powerful images, more mind-sustaining turns of phrase through which to think ...
19 December 1985
The Periodic Table 
by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal.
Joseph, 233 pp., £9.95, October 1985, 9780718126360
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... they could award it to you for?’ Much the same question, and with much the same genuine lack of irony, posed itself to me when I read on the back of the cover of this book that its author, Dr PrimoLevi, was being spoken of as a possible candidate for the Nobel. Would it be for literature, I wondered? Or for chemistry? Or would it conceivably be the Peace Prize, seeing that in this book of his ...

Bang, Crash, Crack

Elizabeth Lowry: Primo Levi

7 June 2007
A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories 
by Primo Levi, translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli.
Penguin, 164 pp., £20, April 2007, 978 0 7139 9955 6
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... The Italian writer, chemist and Auschwitz survivor PrimoLevi died twenty years ago, on 11 April 1987, when he plummeted down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. He was 67. The coroner’s verdict was straightforward: suicide. The unexpected death ...

Extenuating Circumstances

Adam Phillips: Paul Steinberg

19 July 2001
Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning 
by Paul Steinberg, translated by Linda Coverdale.
Allen Lane, 176 pp., £9.99, May 2001, 0 7139 9540 8
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... In PrimoLevi’s memoir of Auschwitz If this is a man – written, he says, not ‘to formulate new accusations … rather, to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind’ – ...
21 February 1991
About Turn. The Communist Party and the Outbreak of the Second World War: The Verbatim Record of the Central Committee Meetings 1939 
edited by Francis King and George Matthews.
Lawrence and Wishart, 318 pp., £34.95, November 1990, 9780853157267
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... 1989, as Nicolae Ceausescu was led out from the courtroom in Tirgoviste to his summary execution, he began to hum the opening bars of the ‘Internationale’. More than four decades earlier, PrimoLevi recalled that as the Red Army speechlessly liberated the fortunate few from Auschwitz, a fellow survivor, a German named Thylle, sat on his bunk and sang the ‘Internationale’ too: ‘in a low ...
22 May 1986
If not now, when? 
by Primo Levi, translated by William Weaver.
Joseph, 331 pp., £10.95, April 1986, 0 7181 2668 8
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The Afternoon Sun 
by David Pryce-Jones.
Weidenfeld, 214 pp., £8.95, March 1986, 0 297 78822 1
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August in July 
by Carlo Gebler.
Hamish Hamilton, 188 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 241 11787 9
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... Edgar Reitz’s film chronicle of life in a German village, could honestly continue to explain the rise of Nazism by reference to the categories of British war mythology. Equally, no one could read PrimoLevi’s If not now, when? and be in any doubt as to the extent or actuality of the suffering and barbarism for which Germany in those years was primarily, if not solely, responsible. ‘Try to ...

Underparts

Nicholas Spice

6 November 1986
Roger’s Version 
by John Updike.
Deutsch, 316 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 0 233 97988 3
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The Voyeur 
by Alberto Moravia, translated by Tim Parks.
Secker, 186 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 0 436 28721 8
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Dvorak in Love 
by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson.
Chatto, 322 pp., £10.95, September 1986, 0 7011 2994 8
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Moments of Reprieve 
by Primo Levi, translated by Ruth Feldman.
Joseph, 172 pp., £9.95, October 1986, 0 7181 2726 9
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... World. With his past experience, he has good reason to set store by an innocent love of life such as he feels Dvořák’s music expresses and America does not openly repress. How much more so, then, PrimoLevi, who lived through Auschwitz, and who, forty years later, continues to bear witness to what he saw. The 15 stories collected in Moments of Reprieve record episodes which let a chink of light ...

Diary

Jenny Diski: Pearl’s Question

19 October 1995
... her parents, her eight brothers and sisters, her favourite sister’s five children of whom the oldest was six. In that context, the simple answer merely reiterates the question. ‘Have you read PrimoLevi?’ I ask her. ‘He wrote about that. The feelings the survivors were left with.’ ‘Yes, yes. Someone gave me a book. I read it over and over. He was a very clever man. He killed himself ...

Dynamite for Cologne

Michael Wood: James Meek

21 July 2005
The People’s Act of Love 
by James Meek.
Canongate, 391 pp., £12.99, July 2005, 1 84195 654 6
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... event, ‘because the novelties of this age of wonders came with the assurance that just as such things had never happened before, they were certain to happen again.’ This is the world of Kafka and PrimoLevi, where the impossible keeps happening without damaging the idea of its impossibility. ‘The implausibility of their actions,’ Adorno astutely says of the National Socialists, ‘made it easy ...
21 March 1996
A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile 
by Agate Nesaule.
Soho, 280 pp., $24, December 1995, 1 56947 046 4
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... childhood had made her a masochist. But what can explain her split personality as a writer – one half of it a gushing, jargon-slinging agony aunt, the other a chronicler who can make one think of PrimoLevi (she herself thinks of Jerzy Kosinski)? As a 12-year-old arrival in Indianapolis she taught herself to read English from Gone with the Wind. Perhaps, after what she had lived through, ordinary ...

Devoted to Terror

Thomas Laqueur: How the Camps Were Run

23 September 2015
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps 
by Nikolaus Wachsmann.
Little Brown, 865 pp., £25, April 2015, 978 0 316 72967 3
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... of this efficiency, we know relatively little about the dead. There are only three survivors’ accounts from Belzec, where, between 17 March and late December 1942, 434,500 Jews were murdered. As PrimoLevi said, we know little of those who were truly at the bottom. Conversely, much of the story of the concentration camps does not overlap with that of the Holocaust. The camp system was a latecomer ...

Diary

Karl Miller: Ten Years of the LRB

26 October 1989
... more than their fair share of punishment, with a large crowd of onlookers goggling at their deserts. It’s also the case, I think, that such authors may experience each other as rivals, as threats. PrimoLevi points this out in a further posthumous selection of his journalistic writings,* in which his two callings of artist and scientist are once more on display, and which serves as a reminder that ...

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