If you are like me, when you visit someone’s home for the first time you look at the bookshelves to see what the selection of books can tell you about your host. Primo Levi had ‘a habit of placing [his] favourite books on the same shelf, independently of their theme and their age’. They were all densely marked and annotated, which made it easy for him to choose thirty extracts in response to a publisher’s invitation to assemble a personal anthology. As a result of this initiative we can now peruse at least part of that precious row of books, and try to figure out what they tell us about the man who cherished them.
Primo Levi gives us many hints in his general introduction and in the short preface to each extract. Indeed, he confesses that the choice left him feeling ‘more exposed to the public’ than in his own writing, and he takes a masochistic pleasure in baring his soul. What the anthology reveals is a man torn between an optimism of the intellect and a pessimism of the will. It suggests a lonely man: not a single item describes love, or family life. Levi writes about the affinity between books, but there is nothing about human relationships in his selections.
An extract called ‘The Romance of Technology’ concerns a salvage-boat captain’s struggle with the tides. Story after story depicts the individual pitted against nature, machines, organisations, the cosmos. They are not all bleak, but there is a stark dichotomy between those which evince a belief that man can win against the odds, and others in which the motif is a fear that humanity will lose.
Levi’s choices begin with Job and one cannot help but wonder whether in Auschwitz he thought of himself as ‘the just man oppressed by injustice’. The significance the biblical tale had for him is suggested by its reappearance in an extract from the work of Carlo Porta. There is a hint of it, too, in the dark humour of Giuseppe Belli and the dystopian vision of Jonathan Swift: Levi selects the part of Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver describes the horror of an eternal life poisoned by infirmity.
Conrad, another traveller who viewed the world with a cold, satiric eye, is present as one of Levi’s most loved writers – and one to whom he felt very close. He particularly valued Conrad’s struggle with language and his self-effacement. But in opting for ‘Youth’ to exemplify these particular virtues, Levi misses something extraordinary about the story. In ‘Youth’ the narrator, Marlow, recalls a ship catching fire and being abandoned, and the adventures of the crew as they sought a landfall. This is classic writing about man’s struggle against the elements and the brash confidence of a young man that he will survive. Levi doesn’t comment on the fact that the doomed ship is called the Judea and that ‘over the Judea hangs a malign destiny’. Is it coincidental that he is spellbound by the end of the ship Judea, consumed by flame? Is it chance that he writes about the youth, who survives this apocalyptic scene more out of sheer good fortune than his illusory mastery of events?
There are some similarities between Conrad’s yarn, a chunk of Melville’s Moby-Dick, and the astonishing piece of nautical writing by Roger Vercel about the salvage boat. All three portray men wrestling with nature, and in Vercel’s case also technology, although in his choice of these stories Levi’s optimism seems dominant and the men more or less succeed. But his inclusion of war stories by Isaac Babel and Stefano D’Arrigo shows his darker side again. In the portion he takes from T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, describing the horror following the assassination of Thomas Becket, Levi seems to be saying that the infamy of Auschwitz can never be erased: ‘Can I look again at the day and its common things, and see them all smeared with blood, through a curtain of falling blood?’ After the crime ‘the world is wholly foul’. His choice of Paul Celan’s devastating poem ‘Death Fugue’, with its refrain that ‘death is a master from Germany’, and the conclusion from Herman Langbein’s Humankind in Auschwitz illustrate the evil that has befouled our world.
Despite Langbein’s hortatory flourish expressing the hope that humanity may learn from Auschwitz, the cumulative effect of these passages is dispiriting. Matters are not helped by Levi’s apparent inability to decide whether or not reason and science will ultimately be mankind’s salvation. He cites Charles Darwin, Sir William Bragg, Joseph-Henri Rosny, Marco Polo and Lucretius as examples of superstition being banished by reason, of men achieving mastery over the universe by the exercise of intellect. An extract from a laboratory manual written by Ludwig Gattermann, with his earnest and slightly comical admonition always to wear protective goggles, seems to offer the promise of safety: the wise scientist as mentor who will protect us. Levi brings in writers who he believes made the world a little better and more human with their poetry and prose, such as Giuseppe Parini. But in this context, a few pages away from Auschwitz, the jokiness of Rabelais seems more like whistling in the dark, and Bertrand Russell’s words about how we can be happy if only we ‘transcend self’ have a hollow ring.
Revenge has surprising prominence as a theme among Levi’s literary favourites. He follows up the misery of Job with the tale of Ulysses exulting in his revenge on the Cyclops. D’Arrigo write stunningly about the tormented last moments of a German soldier surrounded by juvenile Italian partisans remorselessly set on vengeance. Babel, too, describes a merciless act of revenge, this time in the name of ‘class justice’. Levi praises Thomas Mann’s adaptation of the story of Esau in The Tales of Jacob for celebrating the victory of the ‘weak and the shrewd over the strong and the stupid’. This is an unexpected side to the man we usually regard as pacific and gentle.
It is almost as if there are two Primo Levis. In a selection from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the crew of a downed plane survive the desert thanks to a meeting with friendly Bedouin. But in a brilliant, brutally short sci-fi story by Frederic Brown, a being in a wilderness comes across a human and zaps him to kingdom come. Arthur C Clarke reiterates the idea of faith in technology, its promise of mastery over the universe, but Kip S Thorne warns that when we confront black holes we are at the limit of human knowledge. In his gloss on this passage Levi comments: ‘We are alone.’ But if we exist in the cosmos by ourselves, the very selves that produced Auschwitz, what guarantee is there that reason can save us?
This anthology suggests a man whose equanimity was hard-won and precarious, who once beheld the void and could never forget what he saw; one who, like Conrad, had the sense that every day we walk the crust of a dormant volcano, with no one by our side and nothing to help us.