Vol. 8 No. 18 · 23 October 1986

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

5126 words

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.

In The Periodic Table, beginning with the simplest of sentences a paragraph which describes one of chemistry’s most satisfying processes, Levi writes: ‘Distilling is beautiful.’ What follows is a distillation too, a reduction to essential points of the lively, wide-ranging conversation we conducted, in English, over the course of a long weekend, mostly behind the door of the quiet study off the entrance foyer to the Levis’ apartment. Levi’s study is a large, simply furnished room. There is an old flowered sofa and a comfortable easy chair; on the desk is a shrouded word-processor; perfectly shelved behind the desk are Levi’s variously coloured notebooks; on shelves all round the room are books in Italian, German and English. The most evocative object is one of the smallest, an unobtrusively hung sketch of a half-destroyed wire fence at Auschwitz. Displayed more prominently on the walls are playful constructions skilfully twisted into shape by Levi himself out of insulated copper wire – that is, wire coated with the varnish developed for that purpose in his own laboratory. There is a big wire butterfly, a wire owl, a tiny wire bug and, high on the wall behind the desk, are two of the largest constructions: one the wire figure of a bird-warrior armed with a knitting needle, and the other, as Levi explained when I couldn’t make out what the figure was meant to represent, ‘a man playing his nose’. ‘A Jew,’ I suggested. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said, laughing, ‘a Jew, of course.’

PR: In The Periodic Table, your book about ‘the strong and bitter flavour’ of your experience as a chemist, you tell about Giulia, your attractive young colleague in a Milan chemical factory in 1942. Guilia explains your ‘mania about work’ by the fact that in your early twenties you are shy of women and don’t have a girlfriend. But she was mistaken, I think. Your real mania about work derives from something deeper. Work would seem to be your obsessive subject, not just in The Monkey’s Wrench but even in your first book about your incarceration at Auschwitz.

Arbeit Macht Frei – ‘Work Makes Freedom’ – are the words inscribed by the Nazis over the Auschwitz gate. But work in Auschwitz is a horrifying parody of work, useless and senseless – labour as punishment leading to agonising death. It’s possible to view your entire literary labour as dedicated to restoring to work its humane meaning, reclaiming the word Arbeit from the derisive cynicism with which your Auschwitz employers had disfigured it. Faussone says to you: ‘Every job I undertake is like a first love.’ He enjoys talking about his work almost as much as he enjoys working. Faussone is Man the Worker made truly free through his labours.

PL: I do not believe that Giulia was wrong in attributing my frenzy for work to my shyness at that time with girls. This shyness, or inhibition, was genuine, painful and heavy – much more important for me than devotion to work. Work in the Milan factory I described in The Periodic Table was mock-work which I did not trust. The catastrophe of the Italian armistice of 8 September 1943 was already in the air, and it would have been foolish to ignore it by digging oneself into a scientifically meaningless activity.

I have never seriously tried to analyse this shyness of mine, but no doubt Mussolini’s racial laws played an important role. Other Jewish friends suffered from it, some ‘Aryan’ schoolmates jeered at us, saying that circumcision was nothing but castration, and we, at least at an unconscious level, tended to believe it, with the help of our puritanical families. I think that at that time work was for me a sexual compensation rather than a real passion.

However, I am fully aware that after the camp my work, or rather my two kinds of work (chemistry and writing), did play, and still play, an essential role in my life. I am persuaded that normal human beings are biologically built for an activity that is aimed towards a goal, and that idleness, or aimless work (like Auschwitz’s Arbeit), gives rise to suffering and to atrophy. In my case, and in the case of my alter ego Faussone, work is identical with ‘problem-solving’.

At Auschwitz I quite often observed a curious phenomenon. The need for lavoro ben fatto – ‘work properly done’ – is so strong as to induce people to perform even slavish chores ‘properly’. The Italian bricklayer who saved my life by bringing me food on the sly for six months, hated Germans, their food, their language, their war: but when they set him to erect walls, he built them straight and solid, not out of obedience but out of professional dignity.

PR: Survival in Auschwitz concludes with a chapter entitled ‘The Story of Ten Days’, in which you describe, in diary form, how you endured from 18 January to 27 January 1945 among a small remnant of sick and dying patients in the camp’s makeshift infirmary after the Nazis had fled westward with some twenty thousand ‘healthy’ prisoners. What’s recounted there reads to me like the story of Robinson Crusoe in Hell, with you, Primo Levi, as Crusoe, wrenching what you need to live from the chaotic residue of a ruthlessly evil island. What struck me there, as throughout the book, was how much thinking contributed to your survival, the thinking of a practical, human scientific mind. Yours doesn’t seem to me a survival that was determined by either brute biological strength or incredible luck. It was rooted, rather, in your professional character: the man of precision, the controller of experiments who seeks the principle of order, confronted with the evil inversion of everything he valued. Granted you were a numbered part in an infernal machine, but a numbered part with a systematic mind that has always to understand. At Auschwitz you tell yourself, ‘I think too much’ to resist: ‘I am too civilised.’ But to me the civilised man who thinks too much is inseparable from the survivor. The scientist and the survivor are one.

PL: Exactly – you hit the bull’s eye. In those memorable ten days, I truly did feel like Robinson Crusoe, but with one important difference. Crusoe set to work for his individual survival, whereas I and my two French companions were consciously and happily willing to work at last for a just and human goal, to save the lives of our sick comrades.

As for survival, this is a question that I put to myself many times and that many have put to me. I insist there was no general rule, except entering the camp in good health and knowing German. Barring this, luck dominated. I have seen the survival of shrewd people and silly people, the brave and the cowardly, ‘thinkers’ and madmen. In my case, luck played an essential role on at least two occasions: in leading me to meet the Italian bricklayer, and in my getting sick only once, but at the right moment.

And yet what you say, that for me thinking and observing were survival factors, is true, although in my opinion sheer luck prevailed. I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of exceptional spiritedness. I don’t know if this depended on my professional background, or an unsuspected stamina, or on a sound instinct. I never stopped recording the world and people around me, so much that I still have an unbelievably detailed image of them. I had an intense wish to understand, I was constantly pervaded by a curiosity that somebody afterwards did, in fact, deem nothing less than cynical: the curiosity of the naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous, but new, monstrously new.

I agree with your observation that my phrase ‘I think, too much ... I am too civilised’ is inconsistent with this other frame of mind. Please grant me the right to inconsistency: in the camp our state of mind was unstable, it oscillated from hour to hour between hope and despair. The coherence I think one notes in my books is an artifact, a rationalisation a posteriori.

PR: Survival in Auschwitz was originally published in English as If This is a Man, a faithful rendering of your Italian title, Se questo e un uomo (and the title that your first American publishers should have had the good sense to preserve). The description and analysis of your atrocious memories of the Germans’ ‘gigantic biological and social experiment’ is governed, very precisely, by a quantitive concern for the ways in which a man can be transformed or broken down and, like a substance decomposing in a chemical reaction, lose his characteristic properties. If This is a Man reads like the memoirs of a theoretician of moral biochemistry who has himself been forcibly enlisted as the specimen organism to undergo laboratory experimentation of the most sinister kind. The creature caught in the laboratory of the mad scientist is himself the very epitome of the rational scientist.

In The Monkey’s Wrench – which might accurately have been titled This is a Man – you tell Faussone, your blue-collar Scheherazade, that ‘being a chemist in the world’s eyes, and feeling ... a writer’s blood in my veins’, you consequently have ‘two souls in my body, and that’s too many.’ I’d say there’s one soul, enviably capacious and seamless; I’d say that not only are the survivor and the scientist inseparable but so are the writer and the scientist.

PL: Rather than a question, this is a diagnosis, that I accept with thanks. I lived my camp life as rationally as I could, and I wrote If This is a Man struggling to explain to others, and to myself, the events I had been involved in, but with no definite literary intention. My model (or, if you prefer, my style) was that of the ‘weekly report’ commonly used in factories: it must be precise, concise, and written in a language comprehensible to everybody in the industrial hierarchy. And certainly not written in scientific jargon. By the way, I am not a scientist, nor have I ever been. I did want to become one, but war and the camp prevented me. I had to limit myself to being a technician throughout my professional life.

I agree with you about there being only ‘one soul ... and seamless’, and once more I feel grateful to you. My statement that ‘two souls ... is too many’ is half a joke, but half-hints at serious things. I worked in a factory for almost thirty years, and I must admit that there is no incompatibility between being a chemist and being a writer: in fact, there is a mutual reinforcement. But factory life, and particularly factory managing, involves many other matters, far from chemistry: hiring and firing workers; quarrelling with the boss, customers and suppliers; coping with accidents; being called to the telephone, even at night or when at a party; dealing with bureaucracy; and many more soul-destroying tasks. This whole trade is brutally incompatible with writing, which requires a fair amount of peace of mind. Consequently I felt hugely relieved when I reached retirement age and could resign, and so renounce my soul number one.

PR: Your sequel to If This is a Man (The Reawakening; also unfortunately retitled by one of your early American publishers) was called in Italian La Tregua, ‘the truce’. It’s about your journey from Auschwitz back to Italy. There is a legendary dimension to that tortuous journey, especially to the story of your long gestation period in the Soviet Union, waiting to be repatriated. What’s surprising about La Tregua, which might understandably have been marked by a mood of mourning and inconsolable despair, is its exuberance. Your reconciliation with life takes place in a world that sometimes seemed to you like the primeval Chaos. Yet you are so tremendously engaged by everyone, so highly entertained as well as instructed, that I wondered if, despite the hunger and the cold and the fears, even despite the memories, you’ve ever really had a better time than during those months which you call ‘a parenthesis of unlimited availability, a providential but unrepeatable gift of fate’.

You appear to be someone whose most vital needs require, above all, rootedness – in his profession, his ancestry, his region, his language – and yet when you found yourself as alone and uprooted as a man can be, you considered that condition a gift.

PL: A friend of mine, an excellent doctor, told me many years ago: ‘Your remembrances of before and after are in black and white; those of Auschwitz and of your travel home are in technicolour.’ He was right. Family, home, factory are good things in themselves, but they deprived me of something that I still miss: adventure. Destiny decided that I should find adventure in the awful mess of a Europe swept by war.

You are in the business, so you know how these things happen. The Truce was written 14 years after If This is a Man: it is a more ‘self-conscious’ book, more methodical, more literary, the language much more profoundly elaborated. It tells the truth, but a filtered truth. It was preceded by countless verbal versions: I mean, I had recounted each adventure many times, to people at widely different cultural levels (to friends mainly and to highschool boys and girls), and I had retouched it en route so as to arouse their most favourable reactions. When If This is a Man began to achieve some success, and I began to see a future for my writing, I set out to put these adventures on paper. I aimed at having fun in writing and at amusing my prospective readers. Consequently, I gave emphasis to strange, exotic, cheerful episodes – mainly to the Russians seen close-up – and I relegated to the first and last pages the mood, as you put it, ‘of mourning and inconsolable despair’.

I must remind you that the book was written around 1961; these were the years of Khrushchev, of Kennedy, of Pope Giovanni; of the first thaw and of great hopes. In Italy, for the first time, you could speak of the USSR in objective terms without being called a philo-Communist by the right wing and a disruptive reactionary by the powerful Italian Communist Party.

As for ‘rootedness’, it is true that I have deep roots, and that I had the luck of not losing them. My family was almost completely spared by the Nazi slaughter. The desk here where I write occupies, according to family legend, exactly the spot where I first saw light. When I found myself ‘as uprooted as a man could be’, certainly I suffered, but this was far more than compensated for afterwards by the fascination of adventure, by human encounters, by the sweetness of ‘convalescence’ from the plague of Auschwitz. In its historical reality, my Russian ‘truce’ turned to a ‘gift’ only many years later, when I purified it by rethinking it and by writing about it.

PR: You begin The Periodic Table by speaking of your Jewish ancestors, who arrived in the Piedmont from Spain, by way of Provence, in 1500. You describe your family roots in Piedmont and Turin as ‘not enormous, but deep, extensive, and fantastically intertwined’. You supply a brief lexicon of the jargon these Jews concocted and used primarily as a secret language from the Gentiles, a jargon comprised of words derived from Hebrew roots but with Piedmontese endings. To an outsider your rootedness in this Jewish world of your forebears seems not only intertwined but, in a very essential way, identical with your deep, extensive rootedness in the region itself. However, in 1938, when the racial laws were introduced restricting the freedom of Italian Jews, you came to consider being Jewish an ‘impurity’, though, as you say in The Periodic Table, ‘I began to be proud of being impure.’

The tension between your rootedness and your impurity makes me think of something Professor Arnaldo Momigliano wrote recently about the Jews of Italy, that ‘the Jews were less a part of Italian life than they thought they were.’ How much a part of Italian life do you think you are? Do you remain an impurity, ‘a grain of salt or mustard’, or has that sense of distinctness disappeared?

PL: I see no contradiction between ‘rootedness’ and being (or feeling) ‘a grain of mustard’. To feel oneself a catalyst, a spur to one’s cultural environment, a something or a somebody that confers taste and sense to life, you don’t need racial laws or anti-semitism or racism in general: however, it is an advantage to belong to a (not necessarily racial) minority. In other words, it can prove useful not to be pure. If I may return to the question: don’t you feel yourself, you Philip Roth, ‘rooted’ in your country, and at the same time ‘a mustard grain’? In your books I perceive a sharp mustard flavour.

I think this is the meaning of your quotation from Arnaldo Momigliano. Italian Jews (but the same can be said of the Jews of many other nations) made an important contribution to their country’s cultural and political life without renouncing their identity, in fact by keeping faith with their cultural tradition. To possess two traditions, as happens to Jews but not only to Jews, is a richness: for writers but not only for writers.

I feel slightly uneasy replying to your explicit question. Yes, sure, I am a part of Italian life. Several of my books are read and discussed in high schools. I receive lots of letters, intelligent, silly, senseless, of appreciation, less frequently dissenting and quarrelsome. I receive useless manuscripts by would-be writers. My ‘distinctness’ has changed in nature: I don’t feel an emarginato, ghettoised, an outlaw, any more, as in Italy there is actually no anti-semitism: in fact, Judaism is viewed with interest and mostly with sympathy, although with mixed feelings towards Israel.

In my own way I have remained an impurity, an anomaly, but now for reasons other than before: not especially as a Jew, but as an Auschwitz survivor and as an outsider-writer, coming not from the literary or university establishment but from the industrial world.

PR: If Not Now, When? is like nothing else of yours that I’ve read in English. Though pointedly drawn from actual historical events, the book is cast as a straightforward picaresque adventure tale about a small band of Jewish partisans of Russian and Polish extraction harassing the Germans behind their Eastern frontlines. Your other books are perhaps less ‘imaginary’ as to subject-matter but strike me as more imaginative in technique. The motive behind If Not Now, When? seems more narrowly tendentious – and consequently less liberating to the writer – than the impulse that generates the autobiographical works.

I wonder if you agree with this: if in writing about the bravery of the Jews who fought back, you felt yourself doing something you ought to do, responsible to moral and political claims that don’t necessarily intervene elsewhere, even when the subject is your own markedly Jewish fate.

PL: If Not Now, When? is a book that followed an unforeseen path. The motivations that drove me to write it are manifold. Here they are, in order of importance:

I had made a sort of bet with myself: after so much plain or disguised autobiography, are you, or are you not, a fully-fledged writer, capable of constructing a novel, shaping characters, describing landscapes you have never seen? Try it!

I intended to amuse myself by writing a ‘Western’ plot set in a landscape uncommon in Italy. I intended to amuse my readers by telling them a substantially optimistic story, a story of hope, even occasionally cheerful, although projected onto a background of massacre.

I wished to assault a commonplace still prevailing in Italy: a Jew is a mild person, a scholar (religious or profane), unwarlike, humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever fighting back. It seemed to me a duty to pay homage to those Jews who, in desperate conditions, had found the courage and the skill to resist.

I cherished the ambition to be the first (perhaps the only) Italian writer to describe the Yiddish world. I intended to ‘exploit’ my popularity in my country in order to impose upon my readers a book centred on the Ashkenazi civilisation, history, language, and frame of mind, all of which are virtually unknown in Italy, except by some sophisticated readers of Joseph Roth, Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Potok, and of course yourself.

Personally, I am satisfied with this book, mainly because I had good fun planning and writing it. For the first and only time in my life as a writer, I had the impression (almost a hallucination) that my characters were alive, around me, behind my back, suggesting spontaneously their feats and their dialogues. The year I spent writing was a happy one, and so, whatever the result, for me this was a liberating book.

PR: Let’s talk finally about the paint factory. In our time many writers have worked as teachers, some as journalists, and most writers over fifty, in the East or the West, have been employed, for a while at least, as somebody or other’s soldier. There is an impressive list of writers who have simultaneously practised medicine and written books, and of others who have been clergymen. T.S. Eliot was a publisher, and as everyone knows Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka worked for large insurance organisations. To my knowledge, only two writers of importance have been managers of a paint factory: you in Turin, Italy and Sherwood Anderson in Elyria, Ohio. Anderson had to flee the paint factory (and his family) to become a writer: you seem to have become the writer you are by staying and pursuing your career there. I wonder if you think of yourself as actually more fortunate – even better equipped to write – than those of us who are without a paint factory and all that’s implied by that kind of connection.

PL: As I have already said, I entered the paint industry by chance, but I never had very much to do with the general run of paints, varnishes and lacquers. Our company, immediately after it began, specialised in the production of wire enamels, insulating coatings for copper electrical conductors. At the peak of my career, I numbered among the thirty or forty specialists in the world in this branch. The animals hanging here on the wall are made out of scrap enamelled wire.

Honestly, I knew nothing of Sherwood Anderson till you spoke of him. No, it would never have occurred to me to quit family and factory for full-time writing, as he did. I’d have feared the jump into the dark, and I would have lost any right to a retirement allowance.

However, to your list of writer/paint manufacturers I must add a third name, Italo Svevo, a converted Jew of Trieste, the author of The Confessions of Zeno, who lived from 1861 to 1928. For a long time Svevo was the commercial manager of a paint company in Trieste, the Societa Veneziani, that belonged to his father-in-law, and that dissolved a few years ago. Until 1918 Trieste belonged to Austria, and this company was famous because it supplied the Austrian Navy with an excellent anti-fouling paint, preventing shellfish incrustation, for the keels of warships. After 1918 Trieste became Italian, and the paint was delivered to the Italian and British Navies. To be able to deal with the Admiralty, Svevo took lessons in English from James Joyce, at the time a teacher in Trieste. They became friends and Joyce assisted Svevo in finding a publisher for his works. The trade name of the anti-fouling paint was Moravia. That it is the same as the nom de plume of the novelist is not fortuitous: both the Triestine entrepreneur and the Roman writer derived it from the family name of a mutual relative on the mother’s side. Forgive me this hardly pertinent gossip.

No, as I’ve hinted already, I have no regrets. I don’t believe I have wasted my time in managing a factory. My factory militanza – my compulsory and honorable service there – kept me in touch with the world of real things.

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