Travelling in the Classic Style
- Primo Levi’s Ordinary Virtues: From Testimony to Ethics by Robert Gordon
Oxford, 316 pp, £45.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 19 815963 3
- Primo Levi by Ian Thomson
Hutchinson, 624 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 09 178531 6
- The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography by Carole Angier
Viking, 898 pp, £25.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 670 88333 6
Primo Levi 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 about these matters than any other writer. The ‘drowned and the saved’, for example: that appallingly stark, Darwinian division between those who managed to secure a few extra grams of food for themselves, or respite from labour, or shelter from the cold, or friendship, and those who ended ‘on the bottom’, the ‘Muselmänner’, whom a pitiless system had reduced to the merely biological, the already dead whom everyone shunned. Or ‘the chemistry examination’, in which the starving prisoner, wondering what it would be like to be in the mind of his well-fed examiner, Dr Pannwitz, looks at him ‘as if across an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds. If he could explain that look he would have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany.’
He created memorable characters from among the companions who sustained him: Jean the ‘Pikolo’ of his Kommando; Lorenzo the mason who saved him with an extra daily portion of soup; Alberto his friend in a friendless place; Steinlauf who on his first day gave him the advice that saved his life; ‘Hurbinek’ the nameless, language-less child of unknown origin who somehow survived the camps only to die after liberation: ‘nothing is left of him; he bears witness through these words of mine.’ It is no more possible to think seriously about the ‘great insanity’ without Levi than to think deeply about 19th-century London without Dickens or 19th-century Paris without Balzac or Baudelaire.
That said, Levi’s claims for his subject are, relatively speaking, modest. In his writing much of what we take to be the uniqueness of the ‘Holocaust’, the essence of its cosmic, trans-historical, metaphysical portent, is missing. He has no sympathy for the term itself, with its suggestion of redemption – ‘it is naive, absurd and historically false to think that a devilish system like National Socialism sanctifies its victims’ – and its ties to a version of Jewish history that he rejected. What happened was a human catastrophe in which Jews suffered disproportionately for specific political and racist reasons but not as a result of the Diaspora; it did not justify what he regarded as Israel’s tribalist and aggressive actions in the name of sacred history and unique suffering. He has none of Elie Wiesel’s mystical faith or elegiac longing for the lost world of the shtetl, Yiddishkeit or the Kabbala. Heroically secular, he has nothing but contempt for anyone – including himself at a moment of weakness during a ‘selection’ in the camp when the idea of praying crossed his mind – who thinks that God had anything to do with Auschwitz.
Levi rejected even non-religious views that seemed to place the horrors in which he participated beyond the limits of ordinary thought and analysis: what he witnessed was not ‘unspeakable’, ‘ineffable’, ‘beyond language’. ‘I never liked the term “incommunicability”, so fashionable in the 1970s,’ he says in his last book. No moral or ontological voids for him. The Nazi crimes were unique only in the sense of their particularity, not because they were of a different order from other enormous evils. Levi was a resolute anti-Postmodernist and prided himself on being able to write and talk about the camps in limpid, even clinical prose. He thought that Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological theories about the camps were so much arid intellectualism. He responded to Jean Améry’s criticism that he was a ‘forgiver’ by broadening the debate: ‘I never forgave our enemies of that time, nor do I feel I can forgive their imitators in Algeria, Vietnam, the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia or South Africa because I know no human act that can erase a crime.’ What the Nazis did was not in his eyes a crime so enormous as to diminish all others.
On the other hand, he also rejected politically motivated claims that all great crimes were morally equivalent. In the depth of his last depression he took to the pages of La Stampa to launch a vigorous attack on the conservative German historian Ernst Nolte’s view that Hitler’s crimes were just a later version of the Soviet gulags: never before had a government planned total genocide; never before were the bodies of its victims so exploited, so totally obliterated – industrially murdered and industrially exploited. These were unique evils. The crimes of which Levi writes were cataclysmic but still comprehensible within the Enlightenment tradition of universal reason and a self-conscious humanism; they were a chapter in the long history of the heart at its darkest: a ‘Holocaust’ for all seasons.
At the same time, the ‘Holocaust’ he describes is spectacularly specific. Levi’s genius is not for the grand rhetorical style but for the well-observed detail, the limned gesture, the unexpected twist. His is famously and self-consciously a prose of understatement and restraint. He claims that he remained a man at Auschwitz because of his ‘detached curiosity’, because he could regard the seemingly unimaginable camp as ‘a gigantic biological and sociological experiment’. His first publication about Auschwitz was not If This Is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz in its mistranslated American title) but a technical article on the sanitary and nutritional conditions of the camp that he wrote with his fellow inmate and great friend, the doctor Leonardo de Benedetti, and published in the leading Italian medical journal.
Levi writes about his wartime experiences with the same attention to detail that he brought to his chemical work and to his close reading of beloved texts. He read, he says, ‘with a magnifying glass’; it was ‘a pitiless exercise’. This is a man who could find in the ‘fine structure’ of Manzoni’s The Betrothed – the great 19th-century novel to which he returned again and again as his appetite for new books diminished – a tiny physical gesture that was not quite right: at no point in his leap onto the gravedigger’s cart could Renzo have raised his fist as Manzoni describes it; it is also ‘completely unnatural to ride while holding one’s fist in the air’. ‘Only an acute observer of the human soul knows how to condense it in a few words and give us back the truth,’ but even Manzoni is susceptible to the overly theatrical gesture, the rhetorical flourish that may have worked in his day but now strikes us as an exaggerated movement from the silent film era.
Levi was not himself a great novelist; If Not Now, When? is his weakest work even if it was the most immediately successful. He was not a great writer of short fiction. He was a great essayist. Like Montaigne, he had the gift of transforming a moment, a pain, an object, a fleeting thought, into something universal. Like Montaigne, who also lived through murderous times, Levi salvaged a humane, optimistic moral vision from mankind at its worst.
How his ‘Enlightenment liberal ethics survive Auschwitz’, shaken, challenged to the core, ‘but intact’, is the subject of Robert Gordon’s superb book. Its thesis is that very early in his career Levi moved beyond the language of testimony to the ‘language of ethics’, a ‘flexible, sensitive, intelligent language’ that extends his work on the death camps into ‘a hypothetical general study of the human mind’, and brings the ‘Holocaust’ into ‘a rhythm of exchange’ with his enormously wide world of interests and curiosities. This is a book about ‘the fluid persistence’ of Levi’s ‘moralism’. It is a major achievement, a brilliant reading of Levi’s work that appreciates both its literary cunning and its broad cultural significance. Gordon’s is the sort of strong interpretation which, like certain performances of classic plays and operas, changes the way we see the work itself.
Levi never stopped talking about the camps. Even when he was preternaturally busy with his chemical and literary work he continued to lecture about his experiences in schools throughout Italy. To survive a place whose whole purpose was to obliterate any memory of its victims, he said, one has ‘to want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness’. He was borne to his grave by six survivors. But he bridled at the suggestion that he might have been touched by grace at Auschwitz, that his survival was ‘the work of Providence’, so that he might bear witness. All this struck him as ‘monstrous’. The scope of testimony was limited: no witness could speak for ‘the drowned’ – ‘we survivors are not the true witnesses.’ And at a more mundane, personal level, testimony as therapy had only a limited place in fashioning a life after Auschwitz. ‘It seemed to me,’ he writes about the first years after his return, that ‘I would be purified if I told its story.’ And he was. ‘By writing I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again.’ But once purged, he moved on: ‘my writing turned into a different adventure, no longer the painful itinerary of convalescence.’ Levi was not a man to wallow in trauma.
Gordon’s main point, however, is that Levi’s testimony was too intensely literary for the role in which he has been cast; he is ‘more of a writer than the label of witness will allow’. This literariness, in turn, associates Levi with a broad range of moral philosophy that emphasises virtue over rules: virtuous acts that have their origins in a virtuous character rather than abstract knowledge of ‘the Good’. Broadly speaking, Gordon associates Levi with a tradition which begins with the Aristotelian notion that ethics is a branch of practical philosophy. Writings about ethics are not, as Aristotle said, ‘undertaken for the sake of understanding . . . or in order to know what goodness is but to become good men’. Literature is important in modern versions of this view because it offers concrete examples of virtuous behaviour and because it reveals, through narrative, whether an action was indeed virtuous. A good character, in both the literary and the ethical sense, makes itself known through stories, through actions observed over time. And the more we know about a situation, the more thoroughly it is embedded in narrative detail, the more difficult it is to make black and white judgments. This approach to ethics might be contrasted with the rule-governed morality of utilitarianism and the categorical imperative of Kant, purportedly applicable in all places and at all times.
We should not draw the line between virtue and rules too sharply, however: these are transient academic problems. What matters is that Gordon suggests we read Levi within a capacious tradition that aspires to practical, flexible virtues, constantly open to reassessment but still rooted in the belief that there is an ethical core which reflection can make manifest. His central claim is that Levi’s ‘narrative and other reflections’ work their ‘way around ethical issues by figuring out just such a practice of virtue(s), even in the face of the void of Auschwitz’. Especially in the face of the void, we might add.
Levi’s virtues have multiple origins: the Enlightenment commitment to individual freedom, universal justice, equality and the avoidance of pain; the Reformation tradition that puts the centre of the moral life in the home, in work, in marriage, in the family rather than in holy orders or ascetic retreat. But the important point is that they are ‘ordinary virtues’, and that their opposites are ‘ordinary vices’. Charles Taylor, whom Gordon cites, lists five features of these ‘ordinary virtues’: they are rooted in dispositions accessible to anyone; they begin at home, in daily life; they subsist in the interaction of each of us with our fellow human beings at the first level of contact between the private and the public; they are small-scale and aware of their historical roots; they develop through stories and experience rather than through codes – that is, through narrative rather than rules. And we can guess at their opposites: cruelty, treachery, misanthropy and hypocrisy of any sort, small vices from which great wrongs grow. We are solidly in the world of Middlemarch, with its concluding paean to unsung quotidian virtues that Nietzsche so despised; or in the secular, humane, educated, private bourgeois world of Turin in which Levi was born and died, and very far from the heroics of the Greeks.
Gordon translates Taylor’s five general categories into 13 specific virtues – he could have chosen fewer or more – and devotes a chapter to each. He does a wonderful job of mobilising Levi’s major texts and minor writings to give one a sense of the nuances and rich colouring of his thought, but despite his best efforts there is no overarching principle to his exposition precisely because Levi himself resists such a logic. There is no single principle that purportedly organises everything.
That said, Levi does begin with the ethics of ‘the black hole of Auschwitz’, with the ‘anti-ethical system’ that seems ‘to preclude the very possibility of making the ethical moves that characterise his work’, and Gordon follows his lead. But there is another reason to start with the camp: a major point to emerge from this book is that Auschwitz, too, is horribly ordinary and all too historical. Despite all that’s been suggested in the debate surrounding human rights abuses during the past fifty years it is not so far beyond any other conceivable evil that all other horrors pale by comparison and can be somehow ignored if not excused.
Levi’s virtues appear most clearly in their negation. ‘Looking’, seeing and being seen, which figures so powerfully in If This Is a Man, and the look denied that is at the heart of the anti-ethics of the camps: the embarrassed look; the look avoided out of fear or shame. ‘Memory’: Levi’s struggle to move beyond remembering, which is solipsistic, impulsive, therapeutic and ultimately crushing, towards an understanding of memory and history as the arena for developing a common sense of value. The problem is to get beyond an elegiac, sentimental anxiety that direct experience of the camps will be lost to serious ethical engagement; to get beyond the sheer literariness of remembering to the real stakes of the enterprise. At the same time, literary memory – the cultural baggage impressed on liceo students – made life bearable for Levi: one thinks of his beautiful account of reciting Dante to his uncomprehending companion in the most unpromising of circumstances. Memory recalled Ulysses’ reminder to his shipmates that that they were men, not beasts. (All this has a general import but is also idiosyncratic: ‘The Canto of Ulysses’ did not have a big impact on his friend and fellow inmate Jean Samuel, who scarcely remembered the incident – he kept his mind alive by constructing algebraic problems.)
Levi is famous for, and self-conscious about, his economy of language, which Gordon interprets as an exploration of the virtues of silence and discretion, tact and prudence, or as the foundation of engagement: in short, the virtue of ‘rhetorical constraint’. We should not be misled by labels in Gordon’s discussion of what he calls Levi’s virtue of ‘use’, or ‘usefulness’, or ‘utilitarianism’; it bears little relation to any known philosophical tradition of that name. At issue is Levi’s pragmatism, his commitment to making something valuable from even the least promising material and his insistence that, if there is virtue in use, there is moral aggravation in uselessness. Gratuitous, useless violence – there is no warum, no ‘why’, Levi learned early in his time in the camp – is, on this account, the most horrible of all. (We might dispute this. I am not sure that hyper-instrumental, finely calibrated violence – the violence of certain SS officers, for example, who discovered that trenches could be more efficiently filled if people were not shot on the edge of a mass grave and bodies allowed to fall in, helter-skelter, but were instead packed in neatly while alive and shot in situ – is not just as appalling. But this is another question; uselessness does have its particular cruelty.)
From the virtues that represent the inverse of Auschwitz’s evil, Gordon, like Levi, comes to engage with the virtues rooted in the ordinary world: those of practical intelligence. They also derive – Gordon might have made this more explicit – from the literary tradition to which Levi is heir. ‘Measure and a sense of limit’, for example, seems to come straight from the Greeks and is relatively easy to understand. ‘The use of error’, on the other hand, is harder to situate. Sometimes it seems like a sort of liberal, everyday Popperianism; sometimes like the notion that ‘maturity is in the knowing (and therefore coherent) incoherence of being human’; sometimes like the notion that ‘man’s nobility is acquired over centuries of trial and error.’ For want of a better summary, it’s the virtue of living in the knowledge that to struggle against failure and error is the human condition.
‘Perspective, or looking again’ seems to describe the capacity to ‘look again and again at the world’ from various distances of time and space, and from multiple subjectivities. Perhaps it is not more – or less – than the innocent pleasure that Levi claims for himself: ‘looking at the world in an unusual light’, as a man who has kept himself ‘distant from groupings’. Perhaps it is the virtue of cosmopolitanism, the virtue that allows someone to write a book like The Drowned and the Saved and to discover the secret of the barbarism of a man like Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz who wrote a memoir that Levi read with interest, in something so seemingly ordinary as a stunted imagination. This is the virtue of an endlessly curious man who wrote intelligently about everything from anthropology to zoology. Levi was congenitally unable not to ‘look again’.
It is not Gordon’s fault – or mine – that the ‘ordinary virtues’ cannot be precisely defined. They come into focus through narrative. We get a sense of what Levi understood by ‘measure and a sense of limit’ in his encounter with a work that seems to lack these spectacularly: ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel, the colossal but only work of Rabelais, mon maître’. No literary characters seem further from Levi’s own restraint: the two giants are ‘mountains of flesh, absurd drinkers and eaters’; Pantagruel is a grotesque creation of ‘vast inspiration and vast laughter’; the more human Panurge, the anti-hero, is a ‘charlatan, pirate . . . by turns hoaxer and hoaxed’. Panurge, in Levi’s unexpected judgment, ‘is us, man’. ‘The Rabelaisian teaching is extremist, it is the virtue of excess.’ And then comes the twist: it’s only through our relationship to these extremes that a humane moderation becomes possible. The pleasure is in the struggle, in Rabelais’s ‘contradictions, unresolved and gaily accepted’. Ian Thomson tells us that Levi also loved Azio Corghi’s high Modernist opera based on Gargantua that had its premiere in 1984. The atonal music did not interest him, but the spectacular special effects (a giant jet of the protagonist’s urine drenched the opera’s cast), the profanity that so offended neo-Fascist defenders of public morality, and the general carnival atmosphere appealed to him greatly.
One could go on with Gordon’s list: ‘common sense’, Levi’s suspicion of grand truths and claims to certain knowledge; ‘friendship’, the building of mutual bonds through give and take, an element in a larger ethics of community, tested to its limits in Levi’s exchanges with Germans; ‘play’, laughter and light-heartedness in the face of disaster. Gordon might have used by way of illustration the text of the postcard that Levi threw from the boxcar on the way to Auschwitz and what he and his friends assumed would be their deaths. It miraculously reached its addressee and is reproduced by Thomson: ‘Dear Bianca, we’re all travelling in the classic style. Give our regards to everyone . . . We wish you well.’ But the point is clear.
The biography of a man like Levi is important because it is the expression of his work. If the deepest, most sinister aspect of Nazi crimes was, as he argued, the undoing of ‘man’, then the life of this man, in the flesh, fashioning himself, is as much a response to these monstrosities as any amount of abstract reflection. His was a life through which millions have sought to come to terms with epochal crime. His voice has become canonical. (As the survivor generation dies out, only Elie Wiesel sells more books on the subject in the United States.) The biographies by Carole Angier and Ian Thomson are thus important less because they explain his gifts than because his life – broadly understood – is a model for living in the shadow of moral collapse.
Of the two Lives, the journalist Thomson’s is vastly to be preferred. It is shorter by almost three hundred pages and organised in a straightforward way, with descriptive chapter titles that follow Levi’s life chronologically. He was born in Turin on 31 July 1919; he graduated in chemistry – he was top of his class at Turin University – on 12 June 1941; he came to Auschwitz on 26 February 1943 and was liberated in January 1945; he returned to Turin and by 1948 settled into work at Siva, a firm that made varnishes and associated products, where he remained for almost thirty years; he wrote and researched and managed; he was first struck by depression, the disease that would kill him, in 1963; he died in Turin, in the house where he was born, on 11 April 1987. The life as Thomson tells it is a surprisingly ordinary one, even if it is the life of a man of genius.
Angier might have taken to heart Levi’s commitment to ‘measure or a sense of limit’. She knows no restraint. There cannot be many of his writings, however minor, that she does not summarise. She says she wanted to ‘read every mark he left on paper; and every mark he left on people’, and may well have done so. ‘I have a pathologically detailed knowledge of everyone he ever met,’ Angier confesses and we readers suffer in consequence. (OK, it did enable her to identify a putative mistress of Levi’s that none of the other women in his life knew about.)
The real problem with Angier’s biography, however, is not its length but its deep wrong-headedness. She believes that the life of this man who rejected simple answers to complex questions – ‘the whys are many, entangled with one another or unknowable’ – can be understood as follows: ‘Primo Levi chose to live in only the rational half of himself and closed the door to the other,’ the irrational, emotional side. He never ‘resolved the hidden torment of his youth, in which failure to assimilate the “double bond” of life became the double bind of irresolvable conflict’. This is the ‘key to his achievement’ but ‘also the key to his suffering’. This ‘double meaning’ – double bind from psychology, double bond from chemistry and from the title of a book Levi hoped to write – has led her to write a biography organised around doubleness. It is ‘primarily personal and inward’, a book about Levi’s relatively private side – ‘his life in chemistry’ (what is at all private about this escapes me) – and the ‘very private side . . . the hidden life of his psyche’. And it is written on two levels: the rationally tested and knowable one – i.e. for which there purports to be evidence – and the ‘felt and imagined level’ inside her head, which, she says, is ‘equally true, and even more important’. Indeed these ‘irrational chapters’ – 117 pages of them in all – seem to her ‘even more true than the rational ones’. What might have been a solid, learned biography thus becomes an experiment in narcissistic cathexis and self-indulgent fantasy.
‘Primo’s double bind’ (Angier is instantly on a first-name basis with her much older, dignified subject, whom she never met) is apparently the result of this choice ‘to live only in the rational side of himself’ – that is, not to embrace the complexity of the chemical double bond that stands for the acceptance of both passion and reason. It is his ‘secret’ which, through constant and insistent exposure, quickly begins to sound like a disease – Primo’s psoriasis or Primo’s migraines. And indeed, Angier makes of it a debilitating psychosexual neurosis: Primo was afraid of women. ‘Some intoxicated themselves with a last, iniquitous passion,’ he writes about the last night in the transit camp, supposedly excluding himself from this salacious company. Beyond anything else that this observation might mean, for Angier it is evidence for his ‘double bind’: ‘even on the threshold of death he seems still in the grip of sexual horror.’
Auschwitz helped temporarily. All was not entirely well ‘beneath the lingering coils of his double bind’ when he returned home, but Levi had changed: he ‘dared to invite someone to dance’. But then the same old problem reasserts itself. ‘Primo had always been afraid of women. That is what his double bind meant, or came to mean.’ Everything, according to Angier, points to his problem with women: spiders, ants and beetles – the subject of some of his less than memorable science fiction – ‘horrify Primo, because they are mindless . . . they will never change, but will execute the order for eternity. They are like Muselmänner, like Nazis, like depression.’ And – no kidding – ‘they are, of course, like women, or like the women he fears.’
Large chunks of this book read like a Harlequin romance. Angier takes a mountain walk with one of Levi’s climbing friends, the tall, still handsome and charming Alberto Salmoni. She is just a little smitten by this man, who apparently had the sexual attractiveness and ease with women that Primo so wanted. She sees him ahead of her on the trail ‘poised like a cat’; soon she is ‘close enough to hear his even breathing’. She catches up. ‘Suddenly, he took my hand. For a moment I left it in his warm hand; but then I withdrew it . . . “It’s impossible,” I said. ‘’Why?” he asked . . . I saw he really didn’t know. I thought of the greatest impossibility of Primo’s life, the shadow of this one. “What would Primo say?” I asked him . . . “Truly.” He took my hand again, kissed it, and let it go.’ Primo may have given up any ‘real hope of sex and love’, but not his friend Alberto.
Angier’s style may be detestable, but it is not, to paraphrase Coleridge’s view of Gibbon, the worse thing about her. So much of what she says is wrong or distorted. The chemistry she mobilises for her double bond/double bind motif is nonsense, but I will spare readers that. The title of Levi’s Double Bond book is, as Thomson shows, prosaic. He started working on it in 1973 after a happy holiday with his wife and a cheerful birthday; it suggests a mirror image of the two-part introductory textbook (inorganic and organic) by his main university teacher, Giacomo Ponzio, which was an important source for his literary work. ‘Double bind’ is a dubious idea borrowed from Gregory Bateson, who in 1956 proposed that ‘paradoxical communications’ – when, for example, a mother on whom a child is wholly dependent offers food or comfort and at the same time gives signs of refusing it – cause schizophrenia. The popular press took it up and for decades parents were burdened with the guilt that the florid delusions of their children were caused by bad mothering. While the idea may not be completely wacky – parental abuse of a ‘double bind’ sort can cause real psychological damage – it is irrelevant here. The nuances, trade-offs, successes and failures of a seriously lived life like Levi’s are not reducible to pathology.
Angier worries that the real problem with outing her subject – tearing ‘out of the shadows the man behind the hakam, behind the secular saint’ – is that exposing Levi’s secret might deprive the world of ‘a rare and precious’ wise man. If his gifts for justice or detached reason aren’t the product of moral or literary choices but of ‘psychological imperatives, modes of survival’ that go back into his childhood, of living in only one side of his psyche, of being able to love a woman with only half of himself, of his sexual ‘fear of women’, then what is left, she asks rhetorically. This, too, is silly. If a good sex life by post-1960s standards is a qualification for being a wise man, few would sustain modern scrutiny. Tolstoy, Gandhi, Socrates, Montaigne? And in any case, applying the ideals of our age to a world in which a fully realised sexual life may not have been the sine qua non of the good life is wildly ahistorical.
With all her obsessive interest in every scrap of information about Levi’s life, Angier has no time for the real social and historical context, for what was possible and impossible, for norms and standards. And in the end, there is something insulting about this whole rhetoric. It seems like a way of putting her subject down, of reducing serious work to trivial origins, like dismissing Nietzsche’s reflections on the death of God as the consequence of the premature death of his pastor father. Levi did not write what he wrote or anguish over the great questions of his life as he did because he could not love women fully. Insofar as moral and literary choices are possible, he made them. (I can only surmise that Angier, who is manifestly in love with her subject, insists on his failure to love women fully because of wounded narcissism; Levi, towards whom she had so massive a transferential relationship, did not love her. But enough.)
One could speculate about Levi’s sex life, although the testimony of the putative mistress – the last ‘lioness’ of his life – whom Angier managed to track down is not convincing and the effort of reading his biography into his science fiction is doomed to fail. SF is a genre given to wild imaginings about bodies and pleasures and is not terribly reliable as a window into its author’s psyche. Thomson spends a paragraph on this subject and concludes, rather half-heartedly, that perhaps Levi’s sex life was not what it might have been and that he was attracted to men stronger and more dashing than himself. Fortunately, he leaves it at that. His biography is intelligent, low-key, well written, and mercifully innocent of big claims. It captures what is remarkable about its subject: the life and emotional economy of a man who was ‘ordinary’.
First, his mother. There is no question that Levi was deeply bound up with her. His sister seems to have inherited their father’s extroverted good cheer; he had more of Ester’s shyness and slowness to action. It is also quite possible that she made emotional demands on her son by way of compensating for a marriage that had long been without passion; Levi’s father, Cesare, openly kept his secretary as a mistress and on occasion even brought her home. And it is certain that Levi actively struggled with his relationship to Rina (as his mother was known), all his life. But the story is more complicated.
Levi, in fact, got an enormous amount from his father, to whom he was manifestly devoted. A pragmatic, voraciously and unsystematically curious engineer, Cesare offered his son a bricoleur’s library and steady encouragement to learn: Rabelais and Conrad, books on bees and ants by Jean-Henri Fabre – the ‘insect’s Homer’ – great 19th-century volumes on microscopic creatures, on wild animals, the African bush, spiritualism, anthropology and much more. It was the source of a lifetime’s engagement with both literature and the natural world in all its diversity. Levi seems never to have met a fact he didn’t enjoy knowing and that taste he got from his father. Whether the physically prepossessing Cesare Levi’s outgoing manner and uninhibited appetites frightened his son into permanent sexual latency we do not know.
Yes, Primo Levi was born and died in the same apartment at 75 Corso Re Umberto, but I’m not sure this is a sign of neurotic closeness to his mother. He returned from Auschwitz to a war-torn Turin. As soon as he took his first job he lived, not at home, but in the bachelor quarters of the paint factory, where he wrote the first draft of If This Is a Man. When he married in 1947 he and his wife decided to move in with his mother in the family’s rehabilitated apartment, an arrangement that was not so uncommon at the time and was meant to be temporary.
One can easily imagine what happened. He worked long hours at his new, and over the years, increasingly demanding job; Lucia, his wife, taught literature and the history of art at a well-regarded Jewish school. Until the 1970s they had very little money. In 1948, their daughter Lisa was born; in 1957, their son Renzo. Finding a new place was put off year after year. And each time the issue was raised, other matters required more immediate action. Levi’s sister lived in Rome and offered only temporary relief from parental duties when the couple travelled together. Anyway, kicking Rina out of what had been and legally might still have been her flat, whether to live with her daughter or alone, was a non-starter. Moving was postponed. As Rina aged, leaving her became more and more difficult. Chemistry, writing and political work made enormous demands on Levi; depression made decisive action difficult. By the time Rina’s declining health and mental capacity made both Levis virtual prisoners in 75 Corso Re Umberto, it was too late. When in desperation he was ready to put his mother in a home, Lucia resisted. Her mother, too, was ailing. We can imagine the marital back and forth.
One would like to know more about norms here. Judging by my experience with my European Jewish parents and their friends – people who had survived Hitler – one did not so easily rid oneself of a mother or father who had come to stay. There had been enough disruption. In fact, one would like to know more generally how many children in mid-20th-century Europe lived with their parents not just temporarily but until the older generation died. I suspect Levi’s story is not unusual.
All of this is not to say that he wasn’t emotionally tied to his mother in ways that he might have wished otherwise. He worried that he wasn’t doing enough for her; he felt increasingly guilty in the face of her increasingly heavy demands; he seemed to resent the warden-like power she held over his movements during his last years, although we can’t say how much she became an excuse for not doing what his depression in any case made impossible.
Levi was not successful with girls as an adolescent; they always seemed to find someone else more attractive. So much is clear, but not uncommon. All of us would like to have looked like Marcello Mastroianni and Levi – skinny and relatively short – didn’t. He may have had a great unrequited love just before Auschwitz in Vanda Maestro, a highly-strung, emotionally fragile fellow chemistry student. Luciana Nissim, a distinguished psychoanalyst and a close friend of both, told Thomson that Levi loved Vanda more than she loved him but that ‘Primo loved Vanda that night’ in the deportation camp. There was no sexual intercourse, she repeated, but, ‘Primo loved Vanda that night at Fossoli.’ It was an important night for him. But perhaps more important is the fact that Nissim and Levi didn’t seize the opportunity to escape from the loosely guarded train that took them to the transit camp because they didn’t want to abandon the vulnerable Maestro to her fate. She was gassed at Auschwitz after surviving the initial selection.
On New Year’s Day 1946, Levi met Lucia Morpurgo, who would become his wife. He had missed out on dancing lessons at the appropriate age because of Fascist race laws; she taught him. And she listened to him talk about his experience in the camps at a time when, as he says, he needed to talk about it obsessively. She was beautiful, a little prudish and provincial, it was said, but educated and artistically gifted. She seems to have been as fundamentally retiring as he was. He began a courtship; their love enabled him to write If This Is a Man; in September 1947 they married. Both were virgins.
Neither biographer had access to Lucia Levi; her husband wrote nothing about their marriage; and we know that marriages are notoriously difficult to judge from the outside. Levi did complain to friends that Lucia was distant and excessively jealous; he worried about being home in time for lunch; friends claimed that the house was closed to them, although on the evidence of these biographies the couple probably invited people in as much as was customary. Europeans of that generation did not, I suspect, keep the sort of open house that has become usual today. There was, some said, a truce at 75 Corso Re Umberto in a three-way, always simmering war between two women and a man caught between them. No one won.
Maybe. But for all Lucia’s supposed jealousy, her husband maintained his circle of friends, both male and female. He got out a lot despite the demands of work. How much she kept him on a short leash and how much he used her to protect himself from the world we cannot say; being the wife of a famous man sets one up as a spoilsport. (There is the story of Mrs Heidegger turning a visitor away from the door with the excuse: ‘Jetzt denkt mein Mann.’ ‘My husband is thinking now.’)
Clearly, their lives together weren’t easy. She married a wounded man desperate to purge himself of his trauma; he needed to talk; she listened; she got him through it all. Then came almost thirty years in which he worked and travelled unceasingly, making and selling paints and adhesives by day and returning home to his study and writing by night. She minded the house, their children, his mother and her own career. (The children were not especially difficult but they were children of the 1960s, whose far left positions irritated both their resolutely left-leaning parents.) Beginning in 1963, increasingly severe and dangerous attacks of depression alternated with the demands of his literary success, political work and the factory; but they managed.
Despite everything that’s said about Levi’s emotional reserve, one of the striking things about both biographies is the evidence they present for a lifetime of emotional engagement with friends and a passion for life and ideas. He seems to have had an immense gift for friendship, keeping up constantly with his old Turin crowd and with people like Leonardo de Benedetti, with whom he had become close in the camp. He formed an intense literary relationship with a young woman, Hety Schmitt-Maas, who became his main German interlocutor. (Thomson got access to her end of the correspondence and it enables him to offer a nuanced account of Levi’s long, emotionally charged and deeply serious efforts to come to terms with the people who had supported monstrosity.) Levi had good relations with people at work and made new friendships with colleagues from abroad. He was friends with many of his generation among Italian writers and especially close to Italo Calvino. He was also a man who felt deeply both his own suffering and the suffering of those close to him. He was heartbroken over the self-destructive drunken decline and death of Lorenzo Perrone, the mason who, more than anyone, kept him alive at Auschwitz.
And he had fun. He remained a passionate mountaineer all his life; he liked thrills. Thomson offers a wonderful vignette of him tooling down the German autobahns in his boss’s high-powered car. People generally thought he was in good cheer and much of the time he was. Schmitt-Maas found him ‘open’, ‘relaxed’, even ‘blooming’. Late in his life he made a close connection with Philip Roth, who said of him after their first meeting that his much admired colleague struck him as ‘a free and lively spirit’. ‘I got him completely wrong,’ he then added. Not quite: when Levi was not in the grip of depression he was the man that Roth and Schmitt-Maas saw.
Alberto Salmoni told Angier that Levi had once said that in his second year of university he had been so dispirited he had contemplated suicide; and there is evidence of earlier mood swings and low spirits. But had he not suffered as he did later this might have been reckoned as the more or less normal psychological travails of a sensitive young man growing up in a difficult time. His condition when he returned from the camps was less depression than a deep sadness that slowly softened and a sense of shame, guilt and general corruption that he eased by his marriage and his first book. For more than a decade all seemed well.
Then in 1963 he was struck, out of the blue, from both his and his family’s perspective, by the first of many bouts of a seemingly inexplicable, disabling loss of any sense of pleasure or well being. The Truce (a.k.a. The Reawakening), the relatively raucous account, by Levi’s standards, of his peregrinations between liberation and homecoming, had just appeared and he felt some let-down; his son had bronchitis and his daughter was in a state of teenage rebellion. But these ordinary anxieties do not explain his crash. (The book’s reception was generally favourable; Francesco Rosi had bought the film rights.) Levi was still enjoying work at the plant; his salary was on the rise. It was a long time before anyone recognised that he had a serious problem. His was not a culture that recognised mental illness easily; neither biography asks why Nissim, his psychoanalyst friend, never intervened.
Relatively short episodes that Levi and his wife interpreted as ‘tiredness’ began to strike him almost every year. Ten months of untreated depression eased early in 1969 but it overcame him again while the family was on holiday in the summer of 1971. Tranquillisers seemed to help this time round. His untreated attack in the winter of 1972-73 came and went with what he reported as ‘astonishing abruptness’. (He had what psychiatrists, not very helpfully, call ‘atypical depression’, in which patients rapidly ‘cycle’ from a seemingly healthy state to dejection and back with inexplicable rapidity.) In 1983, for the first time, he took anti-depressants, more because he was ashamed of his wretchedness than because the depression was especially severe. The MAO inhibitors worked and he was much comforted by the assurance that there was something that would help him. More short attacks followed until the last, major depression, the one that killed him.
Very little can be usefully said about what caused these cycles. In 1971, he wrote to Schmitt-Maas that his wife did not understand him and that he thought he was suffering from an ‘atavismus’, the supposed disease of the Jewish people that Lombroso had identified in order to explain their high suicide rate after emancipation. Sometimes a family problem precipitated an episode; sometimes it was politics (the growing neo-Fascist threat, the Red Brigade attacks); once it was Kafka, whom he was translating and who seemed to present him with a fearful and guilty doppelgänger; in the 1980s the death and debilities of ageing friends brought great sorrow. But nothing in his life explains his precipitous decline year after year. (His neuro-chemistry is not accessible to biography.) William Styron gave up trying to understand his own collapse, which coincided, roughly speaking, with Levi’s last attack: ‘the very number of hypotheses is testimony to the malady’s all but impenetrable mystery.’
Levi’s death is thus both easy and impossible to explain. He committed suicide by jumping from his third-floor interior balcony down the stairwell to the stone floor below. Both Thomson and Angier make clear that the cause was not Auschwitz but a deep clinical depression that the drugs of the day couldn’t reach. Only special pleading allows any other conclusion.
Some people can’t believe that a man like Levi could have committed suicide and produce all sorts of insupportable theories to sustain their view. For example, that he suffered from low blood pressure because of his anti-depressants, fainted and tumbled accidentally over an unusually low banister. He may have fainted, although we have no evidence that the drug he was taking had any such effect on him. We do know that the banister was not especially low: it has been measured at 96 cm, exactly the height required by my local building code. I don’t know what’s standard in Turin.
The notion that a chemist and a man with access to drugs would not have chosen so crude a way to end his life is equally specious. (His paternal grandfather had committed suicide by jumping off a third-floor landing, something Levi had written about many years before, but there is no evidence that the event was much on his mind.) He didn’t want to die and may even have taken care to keep medicines out of reach; the suicidal moments of deep depression are not planned but opportunistic. He left no suicide note, but that means nothing: most people who kill themselves do so without written explanation. His was an act of desperation.
If depression killed Primo Levi then Auschwitz did not. Again, those who insist otherwise do so for motives of their own. The chief rabbi of Turin had to declare the death a ‘delayed homicide’ – murder by the Nazis with a forty-year delay – so that Levi could be buried as a Jew. (Jews who commit suicide are denied the customary seven days of mourning and an honourable burial.) The literary lions of the Holocaust – Elie Wiesel, Bruno Bettelheim, Maurice Goldstein – all said that Auschwitz finally took his life. Renzo, Levi’s son, who as a teenager did not want to hear about his father’s time in the camps and who, even as a graduate student, had read none of his father’s works, agreed. Cynthia Ozick, a great defender of Israel, read what she and many Americans regarded as the new pessimism and despair of The Drowned and the Saved as ‘Primo Levi’s suicide note’. Italian critics did not read it that way and, despite his claim that ‘the worst survived and the best all died,’ they were right. It is perhaps Levi’s most brilliant, brave and consistently argued effort to make ethical sense of what had happened; it is far from pessimistic or despairing.
Neither Lucia Levi nor any of his close friends believed that the Holocaust killed him: he had purged the trauma of the camp by transforming Auschwitz. We also have Levi’s own views on the matter. One of the best essays in his last book, his response to Améry’s ‘The Intellectual in Auschwitz’, explains why he is different from those of his fellow inmates who killed themselves because they couldn’t bear the losses that the Nazis had visited on them. Améry suffered from the mutilation of his language in the German of the camps; it ‘scorched his mouth’; the Germans took away his culture and sent him into exile. (He knew nothing about being a Jew.) Améry was also eaten up with anger and hatred; in the camps and outside he needed to ‘trade blows’, a response that might achieve dignity but at the high price of sure defeat. Levi’s survival, he says of himself, came from a cool, naturalistic detachment, an almost Balzacian interest in this strange laboratory of horror.
Just as important, Levi’s culture did not fail him. Dante came back to him. He returned to his hometown, to the house of his birth. Most of his family and friends survived; 75 per cent of Italian Jews came through, one of the highest proportions in Europe. Some Italians failed him but Italy did not. Some of Levi’s friends were fervent anti-Fascists; others, like himself, were relatively oblivious to politics. (He had belonged to Fascist student organisations so as to be able to participate in their social activities.) Others still, including his close friend Nissim, supported the Mussolini-Hitler alliance until it almost killed her. (Alexander Stille tells the story of the wide range of Jewish responses beautifully in Benevolence and Betrayal.) In other words, Levi did not lose his world as Wiesel, Améry, Celan, Aharon Appelfeld and so many others lost theirs. His was the voice neither of the Diaspora nor of national exile but of a deeply rooted and successfully assimilated Italian Jew.
There is more to the emotional world of Primo Levi than his relationship with his mother, wife, children, friends and his depression. His life’s project was to bring a reasoned ethical vision into the places most hostile to it; we don’t need a parallel, somehow more fundamental psychological story, to make sense of it.
Two examples stand out. First, his relation to Israel. The Italian Jewish tradition into which Levi was born was urbane, basically secular and defined by family ties and holiday observance. He had a low-key bar mitzvah for which he learned the minimum amount of Hebrew. The Levi family kept the main Jewish holidays but had little interest in traditional learning or religious observance. Many of his friends were Jewish but some of his closest university and climbing companions were not. And, as with many of the emancipated Jews of Western Europe, Levi’s primary cultural allegiance was to his national literature and tradition and to the classical heritage more generally.
But he still felt himself unequivocally to be a Jew; he wrote admiringly of Ashkenazi culture; he set his only novel partially in Israel; he supported left-wing Zionism as a student, and the Jewish state as a homeland for Jews after the Nazi murders. Levi knew who he was. And this is what made Israel such a dilemma for him. He exulted in the victory in the Six-Day War and collected money for the cause. But even in 1967 he was saddened by what he took to be a rightward swing in Israeli politics and by the fact that Israel was acting as any other nation would. He signed a petition with 22 other Jews from Turin asking for Arab-Jewish dialogue and supporting what they considered to be the traditional links between Zionism and socialism.
In 1982, his position was more difficult and more painful. Begin and Sharon had invaded Lebanon, and on the eve of a trip back to Auschwitz Levi signed a petition together with other Jewish intellectuals calling for the withdrawal of Israeli troops and recognition of the rights of all people of the region. ‘Everyone is someone’s Jew,’ he was quoted as saying in an interview, ‘and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.’ For months he was asked to spell out the differences and felt stricken that something he had said added fuel to a newly respectable wave of European anti-semitism. He met with angry responses from some of his best friends and with a deluge of letters from Israel itself. Levi hated the position that Begin had placed Jews in; he hated the appropriation of the so-called Holocaust in the name of oppressing another people. Over the summer of 1982 he stopped speaking on the topic; it had become too painful.
And then came the massacres at Sabra and Chatila by Christian falangists, with the blessing of the Begin Government, and Sharon in particular. Levi was appalled and re-entered public debate. He gave an interview to La Repubblica in which he announced that ‘he, Primo Levi, called on Begin to resign’; asked that Jews suppress their instinct to support Israel blindly, and that Israelis get rid of their Government. He was not acting on instinct, he said, but doing everything he could to resist it. Was he impervious, an interviewer asked, to all the Jewish blood spilled over the years? Clearly not. But he insisted that Jewish blood was no more precious than any other and that the suffering of the Holocaust did not justify oppressing others. ‘You can reason very coldly,’ the interviewer rejoined.
‘It is hard being a Jew,’ he said that year and it was especially hard for someone who had worked so desperately all his life to articulate a universalistic ethic in the face of a world hostile to his painfully drawn nuances. He was shaken when Commentary attacked him for not being Jewish enough, and alarmed that, on his one visit to America, he seems to have met only Jews because everyone associated with his visit regarded him as a ‘Jewish writer’. Not Jewish enough, or too Jewish.
The second arena for his struggle with his emotions was his relationship with Germans. Levi had no interest in forgiving them or mitigating their guilt and was uncompromising in his conviction that Germans bore moral and political responsibility for what had been done in their name. On the other hand, he was willing to go to Germany on business very soon after the war and did so often over the next thirty years, selling or buying chemicals from some of the very firms that had used Jewish and slave labour in the camps. Many survivors could not have endured being in what a colleague of mine felt to be, on his first return after more than sixty years, a graveyard with six million dead. Although Levi never made friends with any of his German business counterparts he treated them with respect; among them, he felt, were ‘good Germans’. Again, a kind of reasoned, universalist, pragmatic ethic emerged from very particular engagements.
Thomson’s biography goes some way towards filling in the social and cultural, if not the psychological roots of this sensibility. He had lots of help from what Levi himself wrote: ‘from my trade I contracted a habit that can be variously judged and defined at will as human or inhuman – the habit of never remaining indifferent to the individuals that chance brings before me.’ This ‘naturalistic’ attitude need not come only or necessarily from chemistry but in his case, he said, it did. Chemistry indeed might stand not only for his profession, but for a world of clearly defined possibilities and limits.
Born into a family of emancipated Jews, comfortable but not rich, he knew his place in local society. On his mother’s side he was well connected to a prosperous, tolerant merchant community. By temperament irenic and not given to hasty action, he survived the late 1930s with their increasingly severe anti-semitic restrictions by getting by as best he could. Italy didn’t persecute Jews with the systematic intensity or ill-will of the Germans. Until just before he joined a Partisan band Levi was not passionately political, one way or the other.
He had the practical intelligence of someone who is extremely skilled with his hands: Levi was the only student in his university class who could blow and bend glass to make his own apparatus; he delighted in making wire sculptures. Although he sometimes said that he was disappointed that he hadn’t become a physicist or a more theoretical chemist, he clearly enjoyed the practical challenges of industrial chemistry. Near the end of his career the work began to get him down: a series of accidents happened on his watch; the company, and he individually, were charged with environmental violations; by the mid-1970s he was more interested in writing than in running a large plant. That said, he was proud of being one of the very few 20th-century literary men who were also managers of paint works: himself in Turin, Sherwood Anderson in Ohio, and – he gently reminded Philip Roth, who knew of only two – Italo Svevo, a specialist in anti-corrosive paints for ships.
Few people can have worked as hard at two trades for as long as Levi. His specialities were not glamorous: varnishes and adhesives of different sorts that were used for brake linings, insulated cables and radiators. He went to conferences on epoxy resins and mixed with the likes of the editor of Paints and Varnishes. Thomson is excellent on the details of his industrial career and gives us a picture of a man passionate about the nitty gritty of surfaces; paint went on smoothly or it did not. Stubborn matter provided pleasures.
In many ways Levi’s literary interests have this same specificity. He was drawn to translation, that most externally disciplined of ventures: a major American organic chemistry textbook; Mary Douglas’s Natural Symbols; Lévi-Strauss’s The Way of Masks. At first he took up this work to get his foot in the door with Einaudi, his eventual publisher, but he worked on Lévi-Strauss in 1984 when he was already world-famous. After he retired in 1976 he started taking courses at the local Goethe Institute and became passionate about German philology and grammar. (Another example of coming to grips with the camps through reflection.) The writers he most admired created worlds, revelled in particularities: Melville, Conrad, H.G. Wells. De Kruif’s Microbe Hunters provided the formal model for several of his own accounts of scientific discovery. (Thomson should have had a look at this book: it was typhoid that Levi avoided by not succumbing to the temptation of drinking the camp’s tap water, not typhus, which, as fans of that classic study know, one gets from lice. A Japanese doctor, as I remember, proved this by showing that animals within jumping reach of the insect got the disease and those placed higher up did not.)
Levi’s literary career had a shaky start – Natalia Ginzburg rejected his first book for Einaudi, not quite on a par with Gide’s rejection of Proust, but still embarrassing – and it didn’t take off until The Truce in 1963. (The Italian edition sold forty thousand copies within a month and might have secured his living were Einaudi not so badly managed as to be chronically in arrears with royalty payments. If This Is a Man took years to sell out a small initial run and produced substantial royalties only late in his life.) More books, letters, interviews, conferences and readings followed. He managed his own correspondence and business affairs (during his last depression he struggled with elaborate charts in an effort to keep track of various projects), arranged his own interviews and travel, supervised the many translations of his books. In short, he lived the life not of a superstar like Umberto Eco but of a successful journeyman writer. Had he taken steps to ease the burdens of ordinary life, had he tried to be less ‘useful’, perhaps his anxiety would have been less and his depressions less severe.
Ordinary virtues are those born of ordinary things, however extraordinary the man might be. This is what we learn from Levi’s life. While the other powerful voices that speak for Auschwitz – Wiesel is paradigmatic – lost their worlds and their languages, Levi did not. He didn’t feel the enormous emptiness that they had to fill with metaphysical longing, religion or the Postmodern breakdown of communicability. He was not lost either culturally or socially; he remained the consummate, educated, cosmopolitan European bourgeois, a child of the Enlightenment; his local roots were unshakable. Even epochal and unprecedented crimes, his life seemed to say, can be assimilated into a secular, humane, reasoned worldview. Friendships are made and survive; work goes on; one does the best one can in a godless world.