The Problem of Reality

Michael Wood

  • Primo Levi: The Tragedy of an Optimist by Myriam Anissimov, translated by Steve Cox
    Aurum, 452 pp, £25.00, September 1998, ISBN 1 85410 503 5

Myriam Anissimov’s biography of Primo Levi, 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 threshold that had to be crossed but couldn’t be crossed without returning. ‘On 11 April 1987 Primo Levi plunged down the stairwell of the house where he was born and had always lived’; ‘It was this man who on an April morning, after a period of dreadful depression, suddenly “exited life by the window”, in the words of the Italian critic Cesare Cases’; ‘One Saturday morning in April 1987, a tragedy disrupted the peace and quiet of the Corso Re Umberto. Primo Levi had taken his own life.’

Anissimov is right, of course, to see this death as peculiarly shocking and baffling. Levi, the lucid and eloquent survivor of Auschwitz, the man who had returned home and had stayed at home since 1945, who had converted much of his life into a work of witness, a defence of light against the century’s darkness, seemed not only to have taken his life but to have cancelled it, taken it back. Moreover, there is, as Anissimov notes, an odd premonition of this death in a passing image in Levi’s first and most famous book, If This Is a Man (1947). In the bombed and infected camp, when the Germans had all gone and only sick prisoners remained, diphtheria, Levi says, ‘was more surely fatal than jumping off a third floor’.

But we shouldn’t rush to think we understand this story, to find in it a ready-made tale about survivor’s guilt and the long arm of history. Levi’s death – certain of his friends still refuse to believe that it was suicide – was also miserable and banal, as he would have been the first to say, and even historically insignificant sorrows can be lethal. Levi had had a prostate operation, was depressed by what he thought was his loss of memory and his inability to write, and signed a letter to a friend ‘De Profundis’. He also knew that ‘perfect unhappiness’ was just as unattainable as perfect happiness, and memorably wrote of a sunny day in Auschwitz when he and others briefly and erroneously imagined everything would have been all right, if it had not been for the hunger.

For human nature is such that grief and pain – even simultaneously suffered – do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective ... It is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.

Levi was born and died in Turin. The year of his birth, 1919, was also the year of the founding of the National Socialist and Fascist Parties in Germany and Italy. The confused and erratic Italian racial laws of 1938 meant that Levi could complete his doctorate in chemistry (in 1941) but only with a physics professor, since no one else would take him on. After one or two precarious industrial jobs in Turin and Milan, Levi joined the Partisans in the mountains, but was soon arrested by the Fascist militia, and detained in a camp at Fossoli di Carpi, near Modena. Here he expected to wait out the war, but quite suddenly, in February 1944, with the German takeover of the camp, all the Jews in Fossoli, some 650 persons, were deported to Monowitz and Birkenau, two of the 38 Lagers which by that year comprised Auschwitz. Five hundred people, men, women and children, either died on the journey or were killed on arrival, the others were put to work. Only 23 came back.

It’s hard to write the biography of an autobiographer. The author has been almost everywhere before you, and you have to trail after him or her. Anissimov does a certain amount of this, but she has plenty of other sources, too, and the great attraction of her book is its direct and uncomplicated intelligence. She doesn’t delve much into Levi’s psychology, but she lays out the events of his life with admirable clarity: childhood in Turin, love of walking and mountain-climbing, hampered studies, survival in Auschwitz, the long return home, work in a paint factory. Levi insisted that although he was a chemist by profession, he was a technician rather than a scientist, as he would have wanted to be. If This Is a Man began to attract some attention only when a new edition was published in 1958, and Levi wrote almost nothing between 1947 and 1961. Then he published The Truce (1963), describing his circuitous journey back to Italy through a war-ruined Russia, and his writing career began to come alive. He retired from the paint factory in 1975, and after The Periodic Table (1975), a combination of fiction and memoir centring on the chemical elements, he wrote a stirring novel about Jewish partisans in Russia, called If Not Now, When (1982). But writing became difficult for him in his last years. He was at work on an epistolary novel when he died.

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