At a dinner party recently, the conversation turned to personal heroes. I chose Primo Levi – the Italian Jewish chemist turned writer who survived Auschwitz to immortalise it in his books, If This Is A Man and The Truce. He was a man of profound humanity, humility and erudition. Clearly a good man, his insatiable curiosity about and enthusiasm for life is transmitted to us in precise, lucid, and graceful prose. These two books should be set texts in every school because they clarify the extent and nature of the Holocaust in a way which lists of desensitising horrors or repulsive visual images cannot do. By focusing on the ‘moments of reprieve’ – tiny instances of humanity shown by men who had been degraded to animalistic levels in the lager – Levi makes us realise that it was real men who did this to other real men. He makes the inconceivable conceivable and so highlights the danger of its happening again. If I had to recommend one 20th century writer as an example of how good prose should be written, it would be Primo Levi, beautifully translated into English by Raymond Rosenthal.
Other People’s Trades is a collection of 46 brief essays, ‘the fruit of my roaming as a curious dilettante for more than a single decade.’ Surprisingly few authors write about working and Levi’s infectious fascination with men (and animals and insects) doing and making is revelatory. He is able to