In 1978, the year I declared my English major at Berkeley, the writers I most admired weren’t even English. Around the hilly campus, I carried Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Though both novels depend on stylized history, that seemed a background pleasure, upstaged by the imaginative bonanzas of their narrative circus trains. One felt their influence everywhere, trickling down even into the undergraduate Introduction to Fiction workshops, where tales of human flight abounded and even I, a cautious 19-year-old, began a novel that featured a scarecrow and children with thalidomide fins serving dinner in a strange coastal hotel.
Now, more than a quarter century later, I no longer carry thick novels. The challenge to the primacy of the novel as the product from which we glean nuance and complexity unavailable from the harder disciplines is not (as it seemed for a while that it would be) the movies, or even (as has sometimes been claimed) serial dramatic television, but, in my case at least, another kind of book. The 20th century also left us the work of two particularly somber artists, one of whom would have hesitated to call himself an artist at all. I’m speaking of W. G. Sebald and Primo Levi, whose homemade genres emphasized the lability of the line between fiction and history. In contrast to Grass and García Márquez, Levi is especially inimitable. Though memoirs are ubiquitous, I’m quite sure I’ve seen no student “Primo Levi” stories in the undergraduate workshops.
Levi lived 64 of his 67 years in Turin. He lived a year and a half in Milan. And he lived one year in Auschwitz. After the war, he returned not only to Turin, but to the flat in which he’d grown up. He worked as an industrial chemist for the next 30 years, writing nights and weekends in what had been his childhood bedroom.
“The camp was my university,” Levi wrote, in an afterword to his imperishable masterpiece, Survival in Auschwitz, a 173-page chronicle of precisely that, and of its opposite. The sentiment echoes Melville, but with a dire 20th- century twist.
Survival in Auschwitz and The Re-awakening, a companion piece about Levi’s Odyssean trek home after the liberation, have frequently been cited as the one set of books (they’ve been published together) survivors of the camps can bear to read. In the first account, his subject isn’t the Nazis’ ritual humiliation and torture of the prisoners, but the easy degradation of humanity—and he puts himself in the category of the compromised. The Nazis, when they appear at all, seem generic and homogeneous. Levi removes them from the human drama, treating them as a kind of biblical scourge, rendering the camp as a microcosm of our world.
When Levi speaks of himself, it is as an example of the average, such as when he chances on a pipe in the midst of debilitating thirst and drinks from it, not sharing with an 18-year-old prisoner who had recently arrived at the camp. But Levi is a minor player; his great portraits are of other prisoners, in various stages of degeneration. Yet amid the general debasement, he also finds rare and astonishing heroism.
He writes about a small child in Auschwitz who was paralyzed from the waist down, who could not speak, and who had no name:
Hurbinek [the name the prisoners called the child], who was three years old and perhaps had been born in Auschwitz and had never seen a tree; Hurbinek, who had fought like a man, to the last breath, to gain his entry into the world of men, from which a bestial power had excluded him; Hurbinek, the nameless, whose tiny forearm—even his—bore the tattoo of Auschwitz; Hurbinek died in the first days of March 1945, free but not redeemed. Nothing remains of him: he bears witness through these words of mine.
The narrator who emerges from these chronicles is decidedly not self-dramatizing—a young Italian-Jewish chemist, who’d been given an education rich in the classics of world literature. I didn’t picture him as rich exactly, but from an established, upper-middle- class family (the Nick Carraway of Turin), a man who loved and upheld all of that establishment and convention and who, but for his term in Auschwitz, would never have felt inclined to tell us his story, or perhaps any story at all.
I’m certainly not the only reader to have fallen in love with him. A writer by accident, not temperament, he is a romantic hero for those who prefer their heroes Austenesque and can forgo the usual artistic features of depression, insecurity, and, for that matter, poverty.
Levi’s level judgments seem un‑ tainted by neurosis (a great advantage, of course, in a chronicle of events meant to be believed; we might prefer John Hersey’s version of Hiroshima to Joyce’s, or Woolf’s). We feel we’re getting not the artist’s view of hell, but the normal man’s.
This man, whom I (and thousands of others) inferred from the narrative voice of the memoirs, turned out to be one of Levi’s greatest creations.
During an epic journey through Russia on his long trip home, he and his companions lit fires in the woods, sang and danced deep into the night. Part of this narrator’s appeal is that he’s given, in those early books, to great swoops of hope for
an upright and just world, miraculously re-established on its natural foundations after an eternity of upheavals, of errors and massacres, after our long patient wait. It was a naïve hope … but it was on this that we were living.
It’s clear that this time cut out of Levi’s life in Turin contained not only the deepest horror, but the defining experiences of his life. In the books, his optimism seemed to come from his history, his conventionality, his very nature. Never had normalness looked so good. Solidity turns up commonly enough in mankind. It’s rare—to the point of being missing—only in artists. George Eliot suggested almost a century and a half ago that if ordinary people had “keen vision,” it would be “like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Which is to say that sensitivity, like its antidotes, has side effects.
Evidence for Levi’s incredible strength of character lies in his plain productivity after Auschwitz. He managed a paint company, he married, he fathered two children, and he wrote essays, fables, short stories, novels, memoirs, and poems.
Yet the original two memoirs, even after he amended them, could not bind his memories. He kept returning to that year in Auschwitz, both in his fiction and in his essayistic examinations, Moments of Reprieve and The Drowned and the Saved. In the latter, he analyzes the breaking down of humanity with substantially less optimism than in his earlier work.