Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919 into a family that he describes as being of the media borghesia. He graduated with honours in chemistry shortly before the racial laws prohibited Jews from taking academic degrees. In 1943, after the German occupation of northern Italy, he joined a group of partisans in the Val d’Aosta where he was captured by the fascist militia in December of the same year. In February 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 people transported with him only 15 men and 8 women survived.
Levi’s first book, If This is a Man (1947) is the account of how and what he survived. It has become a modern classic in Italy, and is studied in annotated editions in schools. His camp, Monowitz, was liberated by the Russians in January, 1945, after which he was interned in White Russia with a thousand other Italians. This story, together with that of the 35 days’ journey that took him back to Italy by an absurdly meandering route across Eastern Europe, is told in The Reawakening (1963), which won the Premio Campiello. His Storie Naturali won the Premio Bagutta in 1967; he describes the genre of those stories and those of his next book, Vizio di Forma (1971) as ‘technological fantasy’.
In 1975 he retired from his profession as industrial chemist and manager of a paint factory in Turin and wrote the collection of stories now being published in England as The Periodic Table, which won the Premio Prato in 1975, followed by La Chiave a Stella which won the Premio Strega in 1979. In 1981, he published an anthology of the writing which has most influenced or interested him, La Ricerca delle Radici (‘The Search for Roots’), in which he traces an intellectual system based on four tenets: ‘Human beings suffer unjustly; man is great notwithstanding; he is saved by understanding, and by laughter.’ He begins with the Book of Job and ends with Kip S Thorne, The Search for Black Holes.
Although Levi ‘s novel, Se Non Ora Quando?, won the two most prestigious Italian literary prizes, the Viareggio and the Campiello, in 1982, it did not have the success he hoped for and Levi’s international reputation languished until Saul Bellow put his weight behind Raymond Rosenthal’s translation of II Sistema Periodico. Now all Levi’s books are being republished and, while it cannot be denied that holocaust studies have created a receptive atmosphere in which Levi is perceived as an important member of a group of Jewish writers, it is equally true that If This is a Man (sadly retitled Survival in Auschwitz) and The Reawakening (a misleading translation of La Tregua – ‘The Truce’) are masterpieces.
Levi lives in a palazzo on one of Turin’s wide fin de siècle boulevards. He and his wife, whom he married in 1947, look after their mothers, both old and frail, one blind, the other very confused. For five years the Levis have been unable to leave Turin, or even their apartment, for more than a few hours at a time. Several times the telephone rang during our interview, with inquiries after the health of the old ladies. As I left, the lift opened and a South Italian boy, muscles bursting out of his tight singlet and tighter jeans, very gently helped out an ancient lady. She took my hand and gazed up into my face, thinking she knew me, before shuffling past into the apartment. Everything about her bespoke the most loving care and attention.
The interview was conducted in Italian; words occasionally given in inverted commas are words that Levi himself said in English.
In the first chapter of La Chiave a Stella Faussone says to the writer to whom he’s going to tell his story: ‘Now if you want to tell this, you’ll work on it, you’ll rectify it, you’ll burnish it, take away the dross, give it a bit of pizazz and turn it into something.’
Even though Faussone is an unreliable witness, I think he’s saying something fundamentally true about what writers do, and I want to ask you about that manufacturing process as it applied to If This is a Man. Any writer has to master reality and get it under his control if he’s going to trap it between the covers of a book. How did you manage to tame the subject of If This is a Man, and make out of that horror an elegant, clear and sensitive book. I find the achievement staggering.
I don’t know how to answer. For one thing, it’s forty years since I wrote it. And in those forty years I’ve constructed a sort of legend around that book, that I wrote it without a plan, that I wrote it on impulse, that I wrote it without reflecting at all.
The other people I’ve talked to about it accepted the legend. In fact writing is never spontaneous. Now that I think about it, I can see that this book is full of literature, literature absorbed through the skin, even while I was rejecting it (because I was a bad student of Italian literature). I preferred chemistry. I was bored by lessons in poetic theory, the structure of the novel and all that. When the time came, and I needed to write this book, and I did have a pathological need to write it, I found inside myself a whole ‘programme’. And it was that literature I’d studied more or less unwillingly, the Dante I’d had to do in high school, the Italian classics and so forth.
The virtuosity of If This is a Man seems to me to reside in the rhythm of the unfolding of such a vast and appalling story and in the control of the narrator’s tone, who never seems to be unburdening himself. You don’t actually find out very much about him: he was little, he could run, and he was a man people tended not to notice – which was just as well in the circumstances. Nevertheless, through the tone you feel the presence of a refined sensibility, a distinct personality, disabused, honest, undeceived and undeceivable.
I think that it ‘s precisely in this aspect, in being ‘disabused’ that you find the effects of my laboratory work. You couldn‘t afford to let yourself be taken in. It’s always a good idea to go beyond appearances. The first days were terrible – for everyone. There is a ‘shock’, a trauma connected with entrance into a concentration camp which can last five, ten, twenty days. Nearly all the people who died, died during this first phase. Our way of life had changed totally in the space of a few days, especially in the case of us western Jews. Polish and Russian Jews had done some hard training for the Auschwitz experience in the ghettos beforehand, and the shock for them was less severe. For us, the Italian, French and Dutch Jews, it was as if we had been plucked straight from our houses to a concentration camp. But I could feel, along with fear and hunger and exhaustion, an extremely intense need to understand the world around me. To begin with, the language. I know a little German, but I felt I had to know a lot more. I went so far as to take private lessons, paid for with part of my bread ration. I didn’t know that I was learning a really vulgar kind of German. I found that out on a business trip to a chemical factory in Leverkusen. The people I was dealing with, very polite German types, said ‘How strange. Italians don’ t usually know any German, and those who do know a different kind of German. Where did you learn it?’ So I told them. ‘I learnt it in Auschwitz.’ They were upset, for lots of reasons. We were being friendly together and at least some of them, perhaps all of them, had been Nazis.
It is always said that Levi is wonderful because he feels no hatred or resentment against the Nazis –
That doesn’t seem all that true to me.
In fact, reading If This is a Man I am very aware of the superiority of the detached, sophisticated narrator, who detests any kind of interference in other people’s lives, to these barbarous tormentors, and not just Nazis. You hardly ever mention the word ‘Nazi’, but you do say loud and clear that there’s no point in trying to understand Germans.
True enough. In fact, I tried very hard to understand Germans even afterwards. I signed on as a member of the Goethe Institute here in Turin for five years, and I’ve had lots of German friends.
If l can stick with this problem of the writer’s re-invention of reality for a bit longer …
Well, I think there are writers who do it deliberately and intelligently, writers who do it intelligently and not deliberately and ingenuous writers who do it without either planning it or wanting it. I believe that when I wrote If This is a Man I belonged to the third category. There’s certainly distortion in it – if only because the camp I went to, Monowitz, was not typical of the complex of camps that was Auschwitz. It was seven kilometres from Auschwitz and it was not the same. While I thought I was writing the authentic story of the concentration camp experience, I was telling the story of my camp, of just one.
At that time the selection of prisoners for extermination was more moderate; they took ten or fifteen per cent of the camp and not forty or even ninety per cent as they did at Treblinka. They needed labour, you see. That’s been documented: the conflict between the SS who wanted to kill everybody at once and German industry which, for reasons of money, not humanitarian considerations, said, ‘A worker who dies within a week is no use to us. We want workers who last at least three months, six months.’ All that came out at the Nuremberg trial I found out years later from Borkin’s book, that my camp actually belonged to I G Farben; it was a private camp. It didn’t belong to the SS. And I was saved by my trade. In the selection of October. 1944, I was passed over, because there was written on my card Facharbeiter, chemist. I was an unusual case, a specialised worker. And I’d like to add something else: all the stories of people who survived concentration camps have no general application. Every survivor is an exception, a miracle, someone with a special destiny. My special destiny was my training.
Your autobiographical writings, and in particular La Tregua, are a modern version of Robinson Crusoe, but I suspect you’re more sceptical, more pessimistic than Defoe.
Sceptical certainly. Doubtful.
It is also true that you can’t describe people without including an element of judgement in the description, isn’t it. Would Sandro recognise himself from the account you give of him in The Periodic Table? [Sandro del Mastro is the hero of a section of The Periodic Table. He was the first of the Piedmontese Resistance group to be killed in 1944.
No, he wouldn’t recognise himself. He’d have protested. As his nephews in fact did protest. They attacked me violently, for stupid reasons: because I wrote that his father was a capomastro and in fact he was an industrial surveyor. It’s always dangerous, transforming a person into a character. No matter how good the author’s intentions, no matter how much he tries not to distort anything, or tries to improve the character over the person, to make it more noble or more beautiful, the person is always disappointed. Because everyone has an image of himself which is different from the image that other people have of them. It’s as if I looked at myself in ‘ the mirror and saw a different face from the usual one. A human being is a ‘unique’, complicated object. When that object is reduced to a page, even by the best writers, it’s reduced to a skeleton. It took Flaubert five hundred pages to describe Emma Bovary. I think if Sandro had lived, and I’d made him read the portrait of himself, he would have burst out laughing. He would have thought it comical that he’d turned into a written page. He was a young man who so loathed all forms of rhetoric that he’ d have been afraid to find himself described as a hero, a saint, a warrior. He’d have laughed and said something in dialect, ‘Balls!’ probably.
Now that I’m retired I go to a swimming pool and nearly every Tuesday I meet Sandro’s brother there. We greet each other, talk about the weather but he has always refused to talk to me about Sandro.
It is dreadful, isn’t it? A writer’s like a parasite whose excrement lasts longer than the thing it fed on.
That’s true. But the writer’s not only a parasite, he’s also a creator. In the best cases the book lasts longer than the man who wrote it and transmits a reality which isn’t the true one. And no matter what he confesses to, the narrator is always invulnerable. Because he is in control. The author is omnipotent and can create the reality he wants.
The episode in La Tregua that I found the most appalling and morally ambiguous was when those of you hiding out in the scarlatina ward heard other patients in the next room groaning for water, you ignored their pleading.
My subjective impression was very different. And still is today. I wrote to Charles, the Frenchman who was with me there, and we confessed to each other that those ten days were our ‘finest hour’ . Of course we’ve censored and suppressed the fact that we didn’t give water to everyone. However, we did try to save ten people’s lives, and we succeeded, at least in part. We couldn’t save four hundred, but perhaps we could save ten. And we did our best under the circumstances, even though we were both very sick. We remembered those ten days as our best time because we invented everything, the way to make the soup, the stove we made it on, the way to get water, even the medicines that we needed. We made our own world. T here were hundreds around us who were not part of the world, but I think our calculation was the right one. It was better to try realistically to save ten than to succeed in saving no one.
I’m going to ask you the questions that Mordo Nahum [a character from La Tregua] and his friends used to discuss. What to you does the word ‘know’ mean?
I don’t know. I haven’t asked myself that question since I was eighteen. I was surprised that Mordo Nahum and his friends asked it. Philosophy of science exists to labour over such questions, but I’ve remained a chemist in this. I know with my hands and my nose, with my senses, like any naive realist. It’s not a matter of arriving at the deepest roots of knowing, but just of going down from one level to another, understanding a little more than before. When I understand what’s going on inside a retort, I’m happier. I’ve extended my knowledge a little bit more. I haven’t understood truth or reality. I’ve just reconstructed a segment, a little segment of the world . That’s already a big victory inside a factory laboratory.
The next question of Mordo Nahum: what do you mean by ‘spirit’?
The first people to practise distillation really thought they they were extracting the soul of things. I have to say I don’t know. I really don’ t believe in an eternal soul.
The third of Mordo’s conundrums: what do you mean by ‘justice’?
To each his own. I think a primary approximation is to punish the guilty and reward the just . But it’s very difficult to establish who is guilty and who is just. T he trials they conduct in Italy, or for that matter anywhere else in the world, are not adequate. We can never be sure of establishing ultimate responsibility, of deciding whether a criminal is criminal by A.is own choice or because of his upbringing or his environment or the people who indoctrinated him, his teachers, his parents and so on. And so throughout the civilised world legal codes have been set up.
What is your religion?
I have none. Because my parents are Jewish, I constructed a Jewish culture for myself, but very late, after the war. After I got back, I found myself in possession of a supplementary culture and I tried to develop it. But not for religion. It’s as if my religious sense had been amputated. I just haven’t got one. I have what Freud called the oceanic sense. If you think about the universe at all, you become religious, but I don ‘t have a problem with it.
Are you afraid of death?
I’m afraid of suffering, but not of death. I’m very afraid both of my own suffering and the suffering of others.
As you are one of the few Italian Jews to return from forced exile in the lager, did you not feel some kind of duty to steep yourself in the culture of a minority which was so nearly obliterated from history?
I didn’t think of it in that way. That’s a role that has been imposed on me. I found it very surprising, to be introduced everywhere as an ‘Italian Jew’. They compared me to Bashevis Singer, misleadingly because my Jewish culture is all post hoc, all added on afterwards. I’ve studied Yiddish but it’s not my language at all, and in Italy nobody speaks it. In America they put a label on me. I gave twenty-five interviews, and each one was on the theme, ‘What it means to be a Jew in Italy.’ Not much, I’m afraid.
I am interested in the fact that so many writers who are being successful in Italy lately have a second culture. Tomizza, for example, is from Istria and his books are all in Italian, but he knows all about the culture of the valleys of the Cuneese, where they speak an Occitanian Language. I’m Italian , but I’m also Jewish. It’s like a having a spare wheel, or an extra gear. For practical reasons I set about studying Hebraic culture, whether Yiddish or biblical, as well as the way of life of Jews in various parts of the world, but with a detached interest, zoological again. However, the chapter on the culture of my Piedmontese Jewish forebears in The Periodic Table is written with love. I’m profoundly attached to Piedmont. I’m perfectly aware of the defects in the Piedmontese character, because they’re my own defects.
Do you think a homeland is an essential thing? Is it essential for Jews to have a fatherland?
Mine is here, in Piedmont. I’d never think of going to Israel. But the first people who went to Israel didn’t have this kind of homeland. They were either very religious people, or they were Poles , Russians, Rumanians who were never allowed to think of the countries they lived in as their homes. The governments of their countries said to them, ‘You’re not a Russian, or a Pole or a Rumanian. You’ re a “yid”. ‘ The pogroms continued after the war. Some of the Jews who miraculously survived the holocaust died in post-war pogroms. A great force was impelling people towards a homeland when in fact they no longer had one. This isn‘t my situation. I am a Jew of the Diaspora, a second-hand Jew in any case. T he situation in Israel now is dramatic, tragic actually, partly for errors that have been made.
When I described the carriage full of young Zionists heading for Israel in La Tregua, I was indicating a self-evident truth. There simply wasn’t room in Europe any longer for these people. Europe was the land of massacres, the land of Auschwitz. There was a tremendous wave of emotion that I nearly got caught up in myself. I didn’t know if my family had survived, or if this house was still standing, but my only thought after the liberation of Auschwitz was to come back to Italy. Lots of my ex-comrades asked me why I was returning to Italy . They thought Europe was a dangerous place. ‘Come with us to Israel, to rehabilitate the land. By doing that we can rehabilitate ourselves. We’ll go and build in order to rebuild ourselves.’ It was a powerful argument. But it was a simplification. If you thought about the actual situation, the objective conditions … the country wasn’t empty for one thing.
I had trouble with this in America. I had to give a talk to a group in Brooklyn and for the first time in my life I found myself in front of a totally Jewish audience. All old and all Jewish. I gave my talk, which I’d written in England. I’m not sure how much they grasped, given my terrible accent. As soon as I finished, they started asking questions about Israel and where I stood on the Arab-Israeli conflict. When I started to explain that I thought Israel was a mistake in historical terms, there was uproar and the moderator had to call the meeting to a halt.
Do you think there is a modern Jewish literature?
I think there are five hundred.
One reason I ask is that there is a Kafka story which reminds me very much of your sensibility and style –
You know I translated The Trial – it was part of a project of translation of writers by other writers. I didn’t find it difficult, but it was very painful. I fell ill doing it. I finished the translation in a deep depression that lasted six months. It’s a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew.
A theme which struck me profoundly in If This is a Man was the theme of the ‘submerged’ versus the ‘saved’. Is there any value in the life of one of the ‘submerged’?
Certainly – before he is submerged. But not when he is reduced to a ‘husk’. But I wasn’t talking about people who let themselves go under rather than behave in a brutal way in order to survive. There was nothing dignified in the ‘submerged’ of Auschwitz. They would not have given some of their portion to another. All the fabric of human relationships was destroyed.
In Ethiopia, for example, there are many Hurbineks. [Hurbinek is a crippled three-year-old who somehow escaped extermination along with the rest of his family to die a few days after liberation in March 1945, whose brief story is told in La Tregua.] In Western Europe we are like the ten of you who saved yourselves in the hospital room. Outside many more are ‘submerged’ than can be saved.
Humanity is like an iceberg; nine-tenths of it is ‘submerged’. In the camps the ‘submerged’ had been pushed under by the Germans, but by the same token we are the Germans of the world.
Of course. The rest of the world is paying the costs of the colonial era.
So you see I take If This is a Man not as the story of an Italian Jew who wound up in Auschwitz in the closing years of the Second World War, but as a sort of allegory of the global situation. It raises all the important moral question of our time.