By any standard, Primo Levi’s works must be ranked among the finest autobiographical writing of our age. Philip Roth’s claim that lf This Is a Man is ‘one of the century’s truly necessary books’ is more than just promotional hyperbole. It is the recognition that Levi’s exploration of the dark universe that was Auschwitz should be a moral expedition undertaken by all those born after the Holocaust. Levi’s recurrent nightmare at Auschwitz was that he would one day find himself compulsively telling his story of the camp to an audience that refused to listen. His fear that this terrible vision was becoming reality fed the depression which may have propelled Levi towards suicide in April 1987. More than a decade later, the precise circumstances of his death remain unclear. The need to amplify Levi’s voice and impress his essential testimony upon successive generations remains as urgent as ever.
All the more reason, then, to welcome the first major, comprehensive biography of Turin’s wise and gentle chemist. In setting out to write it, Myriam Anissimov has sought to place this incomparable man in his cultural and historical milieu. Through her many interviews with his surviving friends, family members and professional contacts, Anissimov gives us an opening into the very particular world of Piedmontese Jewry that shaped the man. In the early chapter, she strings together an absorbing series of anecdotes and reminiscences about Levi’s childhood and adolescence: his enveloping passion for science; his strong friendships at school and university; the crucial lessons about endurance and improvisation he learned as a young mountaineer; and his immersion in the Anti–Fascist Movement in the early Forties. Although the material is never less than engaging, Anissimov’s style tends at times towards the journalistic.
Even more problematic are the central chapters covering Levi’s experiences in Auschwitz and his arduous trek back to Italy after liberation early in 1945. Anissimov here faces a near-impossible task: how to write about a period in her subject’s life which he himself has chronicled and interpreted so masterfully in