Primo Levi’s Second Language

Reappraisal

By Gabriel Sanders

Published April 13, 2007, issue of April 13, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Primo Levi’s death. To commemorate the occasion, W.W. Norton & Company is releasing “A Tranquil Star,” a selection of the author’s previously untranslated short stories. Though clearly a tribute, the book is also being touted as a kind of reintroduction to the Italian master: Not only was Levi the great chronicler of the horrors of Auschwitz, but he was also a satirist and stylist — a writer whose imaginative powers were as keen as his reporter’s eye.

“We’re suddenly beginning to see a re-emergence of Levi as a writer rather than as a memoirist of the Holocaust,” said Robert Weil, executive editor of Norton, which, in the fall of 2010, will publish Levi’s collected works. “It’s delightful and surprising to see this multifaceted man who never wanted to be boxed in as just a recorder of Auschwitz in the first place.”

The question that arises, then — and it is one that is being taken up at conferences and panel discussions throughout this anniversary month — is just how did Levi become “boxed in” to begin with? Is it a matter of what has been available in translation? Was it through Levi’s own doing? Or can it be that a reading public that knows Levi chiefly as the author of “Survival in Auschwitz” has no room for a broader conception of the author, particularly one that is at odds with the image of the sober scientist who, in crystalline prose, laid down the camps’ cold, hard truth?

“Writers are categorized in our minds in certain ways,” said Stanislao Pugliese, a professor of history at New York’s Hofstra University, which, later this month, will be hosting a conference devoted to Levi’s legacy. Our need to pigeonhole does Levi a disservice, Pugliese said, for he was a writer of enormous versatility. “He used to write for Torino’s major newspaper, La Stampa, for what was called la terza pagina [the third page], which would be comparable to our op-ed page. If you look at his writings there, they literally range from anthropology to zoology.” The page was also a place for fiction. Seven of the 17 pieces in “A Tranquil Star,” including the title story — a dark rumination on the limits of language, told in the form of an apocalyptic fairy tale — were first published there.

According to Ann Goldstein, an editor at The New Yorker who, together with Alessandra Bastagli, translated the stories in the new book, the tension between Levi the scientist and Levi the fabulist was not the creation of an audience but something with which the writer himself grappled. “He often called himself a centaur,” Goldstein said, pointing to a 1971 interview in which Levi confessed that after completing his Holocaust memoirs, he felt he still had more to say and that to say it he needed a different kind of language, an “oblique” language that he, in another context, likened to a brand of science fiction. Levi’s fear of a hostile response to works written in his second “language” was strong enough to prompt him to publish his first book of stories under a pseudonym.

In his Holocaust nonfiction, said Carole Angier, author of the 2002 Levi biography “The Double Bond” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Levi assigned himself a seemingly impossible task: the spreading of hope. It is this move that has helped fuel the creation of the “Primo Levi that we believe in, who somehow salvaged [from the world of the camps] all kinds of human dignity and the capacity for renewal,” she said. But strip away these self-imposed restrictions — as Levi allowed himself to do in his fiction — and you find a very different voice, one marked by both “a teeming imagination and a deep despair.” To an extent, Angier said, Levi’s sleight of hand has worked. His darker side has remained hidden. “People haven’t really looked.”

Which is not to say that the stories are not worthy of attention. Angier pointed in particular to “The Magic Paint,” a 1973 tale whose dark playfulness is characteristic of the collection as a whole. In it, a paint manufacturer is presented with a miraculous new sample: a varnish that provides protection from misfortune. At first glance, it is unremarkable. Its look, smell and drying time “were those of a common, clear, acrylic enamel.” (Levi knew his paints; he served for many years as the director of a paint factory.) But its results are, nevertheless, undeniable. After having its hull painted, a fishing boat that had been coming back with empty nets suddenly begins netting spectacular catches. A typographer mixes the paint with his ink, and all his typos disappear. The stuff is no less effective with humans. After one fellow painted himself from head to toe, “all traffic lights he came to were green, he never got a busy signal on the telephone, his girlfriend made up with him, and he even won a modest prize in the lottery.” Encouraged, the paint manufacturer’s thoughts turn to a friend known for bringing about bad luck, someone afflicted with an “evil eye.” The poor guy’s eyeglasses are painted with the miracle varnish, but no sooner does he put them on than he drops dead.

“I know I’m a biographer, and I read it biographically,” Angier said, “but what an extraordinary idea: Here’s someone who is afflicted with something which makes him unable to be with others, and yet if you stop that thing, it turns inwards and kills you.”

So now that this sample of the “afflicted” Levi is available to us, will our image of him change?

“Will there be some kind of tipping point?” Angier mused. “I doubt it. We just too much need the Primo Levi we’ve invented for ourselves — and that he invented for us.”

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.