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Primo Levi’s Second Language

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.


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