His moving memoir of Auschwitz is one of the great books of the 20th century yet this unassuming man has remained an enigma. Now biographer Carole Angier has discovered his last, unpublished book, which casts new light on his troubled life and mysterious death
The Guardian, Saturday 9 March 2002
|Primo Levi, intellectual and Nazi death camp survivor [image google]|
Primo Levi is a special case. He is not simply a great 20th-century writer, like Proust or Joyce or Eliot, who have all been deeply and repeatedly explored. Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919, and deported to Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 24. When he emerged, he wrote one of the greatest documents we have about that horror, If This Is A Man. In it he showed us that there is something even worse than physical murder: the destruction of the victims' humanity and dignity which preceded it. At the same time, he showed us that it was possible to retain that humanity, even in Auschwitz.
The villains of If This Is A Man are not murderers, but those who treat people like things, such as Alex the Kapo, who wiped his hand on Levi's shoulder as though he were a rag. And the heroes of If This Is A Man are men such as Lorenzo, the Italian civilian worker who saved Levi's life, at daily risk to his own; and Levi himself, who tells the story with justice and dispassion, transforming extreme suffering into knowledge and understanding.
This way of writing about Auschwitz is unique. It seems almost superhuman. How was it possible for Levi to write as he did about Auschwitz - like a calm, impartial, almost bodiless mind? What kind of a man could do that for us, and what had it cost him?
And it was not only about Auschwitz that he wrote as he did. If you look for the other half of him - the personal half - you realise that it is hardly there. After the war he married, he had a family, he worked for nearly 30 years as technical director of a chemical factory, Siva, on the outskirts of Turin. He wrote often about chemistry, for instance in his autobiography, The Periodic Table, but in an indirect, metaphorical way, to describe people he had known in his early life; hardly at all to tell of his life in the factory, which only one chapter out of 21 briefly mentions.
In The Periodic Table - which is a wonderful book, but one of the strangest autobiographies ever written - he wrote briefly about his father, who had died in 1942; about Lucia Morpurgo, the woman who became his wife in 1947; and very beautifully about several friends of his youth, and two of his early loves. But that is all. There is one (late) story about his sister, Anna Maria, who was probably closer to him than anyone; and nothing whatever about his mother, who lived with him all his life. There is nothing, either, about his children, Lisa and Renzo, born in 1948 and 1957. And there is nothing, or very little, about love, even in his stories and poems, where he hid his most private thoughts and feelings. When he was asked why, Levi said - with his small, self-mocking smile - that most books were about love, so we didn't need one from him; and, seriously, that he couldn't write about love, because "It is a very private subject to me."
We feel we know and love him from his work, because we know and love his gentle, rigorous, witty, open mind. But the rest of him is completely closed. Primo Levi is, in fact, one of the most secretive writers who ever lived. And not only in his work. Though he gave hundreds of interviews, he used them not to lower the walls but to raise them still higher, by presenting a careful construct of himself almost to the end. He presented the same construct to most people throughout his life; even, as long as he could, to himself. That construct - the calm, rational, optimistic man - was his ideal: an ideal he managed to reach in much of his life, because it was both a moral imperative and a psychological necessity to him.
But it was not the reality. "I have no instincts," he said, with his smile, "or if I do, I repress them." But the more he repressed them, the more they resisted, and took their revenge. The man who loved and spoke to the whole of humanity found private, emotional life impossibly hard. And the man who chose optimism, because one must not spread despair, found he had locked the despair inside him; and more and more often it rose and drowned him. That is the kind of man who could write as he did about Auschwitz; and that is the price he paid.
This was the key to Primo Levi's life and work - and to his death, which is the one mystery everybody knows. When he died in 1987, at only 67 after a f all from the stairwell of his third-floor apartment, newspapers around the world reported that he had committed suicide. But some of his friends and readers refused to believe it, and have argued against it ever since. So the question arose, and has grown; but what I discovered seemed to me to answer it. Primo Levi suffered from depression all his life, even before Auschwitz. That secret struggle would have to be fitted in to the more visible parts of his life - his chemistry and writing, his childhood, the racial laws, Auschwitz and Turin - if the real story was to be told.
To help me with the secret side of Levi's life, I had two things. First, his last, unfinished, unpublished book, Il doppio legame , The Double Bond. Levi had given three chapters of this book to his publisher before he died; and in the end I found three more, which no one else has ever seen. In this last book, Levi was trying to tell his secrets at last, recognising - I think - that if he did not, they would destroy him. He wrote about his depressions; and he wrote about one of the main reasons for them, his tormented relationship with women. But it was too late. Four months after he wrote the last chapter, he was dead.
Primo Levi himself was divided, not only on the surface between chemistry and writing, between Jewishness and Italian-ness but deeply between public and private, ideal and reality, conscious and unconscious. He called his last book Il doppio legame because that has a double meaning: the double bond of chemistry, which characterises all living things, and the double bind of psychology, which is an impossible conflict, in which whatever you do, you cannot win. That is what he was trying to say about himself at the end: that life - the double bond of chemistry - was an irresolvable conflict, the double bind of psychology, for him.
People always asked him if he would have become a writer without Auschwitz. He would reply, with his scientist's precision and his ironist's smile, that he didn't know, since "The counterfactual doesn't exist": he had no life in which he had not experienced Auschwitz, so he could not say what might have happened in it. But mostly he agreed with the question's implication: Auschwitz had driven him to write, which he had never intended; very likely, therefore, he would not have written, apart from the odd scientific paper, perhaps, without it.
This was not true, in my view. It might have been true, if the racial laws against the Jews, and then the war, had not happened, and if Primo Levi had become the pure scientist of his boyhood dreams. But even then, I am certain he would have written other things. His interest in human beings, and his love of storytelling, were as strong as his passion for science from the start. And, in fact, he wrote at least three stories before the war. Two are in The Periodic Table (called Lead and Mercury); the third he never published, and readers will encounter it for the first time in my book. All three are very different from his later and most characteristic writing: fictional in form, conventional in expression, and not very good. Auschwitz, then, did not make Primo Levi a writer, because he was one, privately, already. What it did was to release him from modesty and self-doubt, by requiring him to speak; and to shock him out of literary experiment into his mature voice at 25.
When If This Is A Man was finished, at the end of 1946, it was turned down by several major publishers. A small avant-garde house, De Silva, published 2,500 copies, sold fewer than half, and closed soon after. Two years after it appeared, Primo would say, his book was forgotten. But, he would add, he did not mind. He had done his duty to the dead. He went back to his real work, chemistry, and did not think of writing again for many years.
None of this was true either. He minded very much when If This Is A Man was rejected, and when it was forgotten. He tried four or five times to have it republished between 1947 and 1957, until he finally succeeded in 1958. And not only did he go on thinking of writing, he went on writing. He began his second book, The Truce, the tragi-comic account of his journey home from Auschwitz, in 1946, and worked on it on and off throughout the 50s. And he wrote stories from the first moment of his return - at the same time, or even before, If This Is A Man.
Until he retired from his chemical factory in the 70s, and even after that, he insisted that he was not a writer but a chemist. "I am a chemist," he was still claiming in 1976, when he'd been semi-retired for two years. Even when he was a chemist, he'd spent every spare moment writing; and he'd dreamed of leaving chemistry for writing from 1959 at the latest. And until he published his "first novel", If Not Now, When?, in 1982, he insisted that he was not a "proper writer", because he had not written fiction before. And that was not true either. He fictionalised all his stories except the first: right back to The Truce, and including his autobiographical tales in The Periodic Table.
Why did he do this? Why did he hide how important writing was to him, ever since he began in 1945-46, and even before? At this point of tension, his surface slowly cracks, and we begin to see beneath: into his true ambition and fear of failure; into his "success neurosis", and that of his family: his wife, even more private than he; his children, who could not talk to him about Auschwitz, or about his books. Once again he splits in two: the polite and patient sage above, the lonely, self-doubting man below.
When I first fell in love with Primo Levi's work, and wanted to write about him, kind friends tried to dissuade me. Look at the shape of his life, they said: 24 years of quiet bourgeois existence in Turin; then the indescribable hell of Auschwitz; then 42 more years of quiet bourgeois existence in Turin. What kind of story will that make? they said. Meaning: one that is 1.5% unwriteable, and 98.5% dull.
Auschwitz is indescribable - that was one of Levi's own themes; yet it must be done. And what I discovered about the rest of his life was not dull at all. The truth of his grandfather's death, so close to his own, which suggested, as he thought himself, a genetic element in his recurring thoughts of suicide.The truth of his parents' marriage, which had showed him that the world was war from the start. The truth, especially, of his struggles against depression, and the emotional disablement which caused it. At the root of that emotional disablement was his mother, Rina, who dominated him all his life, and especially at the end. "I do not think my mother ever hugged me," he said; but at the same time she would never let him go. Into the prison of his mother's house he had brought his wife, Lucia, in the hope that she might free him; but she could not, and nor could anyone else, least of all himself. That was the private darkness of Primo Levi's life. Yet out of this darkness, he wrested the joys of knowledge, of friendship, of story-telling and laughter: an alchemical transformation, aurum de stercore , gold from excrement, which he performed as long as he could for himself, and for us, in his books, forever.
And so we come back to Auschwitz, the worst stercore of all, out of which he made the purest aurum of his writing. Primo Levi wasn't a witness or a chemist but a writer, and a great one. He was not a saint or a guru, but a man, and a divided and tormented one. And Auschwitz did not destroy him. It came very near at the time, and immediately afterwards. But after that it did almost the opposite, requiring him to understand and to communicate, the two things that kept him alive. "I am a talker," he said. "If you stop up my mouth, I die." When, in his last depression, he felt he could no longer communicate, he died. That is what killed him, not his memories of Auschwitz. Neither Alex the Kapo of If This Is A Man, nor his heirs, should imagine they have that victory.
Hope and despair in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi
Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealisable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realisation of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.
We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain. Yesterday evening the sun went down irrevocably behind a confusion of dirty clouds, chimney stacks and wires, and today it is winter.
We know what it means because we were here last winter; and the others will soon learn. It means that in the course of these months, from October till April, seven out of 10 of us will die. Whoever does not die will suffer minute by minute, all day, every day: from the morning before dawn until the distribution of the evening soup, we will have to keep our muscles continually tensed, dance from foot to foot, beat our arms under our shoulders against the cold. We will have to spend bread to acquire gloves, and lose hours of sleep to repair them when they become unstitched. As it will no longer be possible to eat in the open, we will have to eat our meals in the hut, on our feet, everyone will be assigned an area of floor as large as a hand, as it is forbidden to rest against the bunks. Wounds will open on everyone's hands, and to be given a bandage will mean waiting every evening for hours on one's feet in the snow and wind.
Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say "hunger", we say "tiredness", "fear", "pain", we say "winter" and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wear ing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.
In the same way in which one sees a hope end, winter arrived this morning. We realised it when we left the hut to go and wash: there were no stars, the dark, cold air had the smell of snow. In roll-call square, in the grey of dawn, when we assembled for work, no one spoke. When we saw the first flakes of snow, we thought that if at the same time last year they had told us that we would have seen another winter in Lager, we would have gone and touched the electric wire-fence; and that even now, we would go if we were logical, were it not for this last senseless crazy residue of unavoidable hope.
When it rains, we would like to cry. It is November, it has been raining for 10 days now and the ground is like the bottom of a swamp. Everything made of wood gives out a smell of mushrooms.
If I could walk 10 steps to the left I would be under shelter in the shed; a sack to cover my shoulders would be sufficient, or even the prospect of a fire where I could dry myself; or even a dry rag to put between my shirt and my back. Between one movement of the shovel and another I think about it, and I really believe that to have a dry rag would be positive happiness.
By now it would be impossible to be wetter; I will just have to pay attention to move as little as possible, and above all not to make new movements, to prevent some other part of my skin coming into unnecessary contact with my soaking, icy clothes.
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange how, in some way, one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening, it is your turn for the supplement of soup so that even today, you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium - as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom - well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.