Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge by Mirna Cicioni - review by Sean Haldane

Sean Haldane

Did He Jump or Was He Pushed?

Primo Levi: Bridges of Knowledge


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Primo Levi was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in 1987, having presumably thrown himself from the landing of his fourth-floor flat. The New Yorker announced that Levi’s act had ‘cancelled’ the value of his writing. The novelist William Styron claimed that antidepressants (to which he has attributed the salvation of his own creativity) would have ‘rescued’ Levi. Promoters of various causes invoked Levi’s despair about political progress. Some of his friends said he must have fallen in a dizzy spell.

Mirna Cicioni refers to these ‘speculations’, but provides none of her own. Nor does she mention that the flat (unlike other sources, she says it was on the third floor) from which Levi fell or jumped was where he had been born, and where he spent not only his childhood but most of his adult life: his writing desk was exactly where his cradle had been. Academic correctness forbids any engagement with its subject. However, in terms of the stated aim of the series of which this book is part — to provide introductions to writers and literary movements — it is formidably competent. For students, it should replace a comparatively superficial existing study by Risa Sodi (A Dante of Our Time), although an impassioned pamphlet by Anthony Rudolf (At an Uncertain Hour) could supplement it. (Rudolf makes the neat point that Levi’s suicide no more ‘cancelled’ his writing than Sylvia Plath’s ‘confirmed’ hers.)

Cicioni is particularly good in explaining Levi’s position as a highly assimilated Italian Jew. She is brilliant on Levi as a scientist (he was a biochemist and industrial manager) and the writings (The Periodic Table, Natural Stories) in which he uses scientific method, not without irony, to analyse human qualities.

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