If This Is a Man

Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoirs stand among the best literature of the 20th century, but his greatest creation was himself.

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.

He writes about his journey to the camps, in a boxcar, which he shared with old people, men and women, “inmates of the Jewish Rest Home of Venice,” for whom the absence of a latrine proved

a much worse affliction than thirst and cold … for them, evacuating in public was painful or even impossible: a trauma for which civilization does not prepare us, a deep wound inflicted on human dignity, an aggression which is obscene and ominous, but also the sign of deliberate and gratuitous viciousness.

With characteristic sunniness, he finds in this chaos the spirit of invention and celebrates it.

It was our paradoxical luck (al­‑ though I hesitate to write this word in this context) that in our car there were also two young mothers with their infants of a few months and one of them had brought along a chamber pot: one only, and it had to serve about fifty people. Two days into the journey we found some nails stuck into the wooden sides, pushed two of them into a corner and with a piece of string and a blanket improvised a screen, which was substantially symbolic: we are not yet animals, we will not be animals as long as we try to resist.

But he finishes the passage with a vision in which even pluck cannot subvert brutality.

The convoy was stopped two or three times in the open countryside … [and] the doors were opened another time … during a stop in an Austrian railroad station. The SS escort did not hide their amusement at the sight of men and women squatting wherever they could, on the platforms and in the middle of the tracks, and the German passengers openly expressed their disgust: people like this deserve their fate, just look how they behave. These are not Menschen, human beings, but animals; it’s clear as the light of day.

This was actually a prologue.

Completely different in kind from a plague of insomnia, a shower of butterflies, or the immemorial drumming child, Levi’s created scene—and it is that, though made out of fact—remains as fantastical, and it bears the additional power of having happened.

Of his prodigious output, the memoirs still stir readers most deeply; his playful stories derive from Italo Calvino, but without the captivating dreamy inevitability. Levi’s most successful work of fiction is also an amalgam: The Periodic Table, in which each element gives rise to a particular meditation or tale.

This new book, A Tranquil Star, a slim volume of previously unpublished stories, translated to English by Ann Goldstein, Alessandra Bastagli, and Jenny McPhee, contains two particularly resonant pieces. “The Death of Marinese,” about a prisoner detonating a bomb to kill his German captors, arose from an opportunity Levi once had but didn’t use (“I didn’t have the courage”); “Bear Meat” gives us again his full-hearted narrator, this time describing not a death camp but mountain climbing. Even given the less dramatic subject, the latter story generates power and affection, and suggests another direction Levi’s fiction could have gone: The narrator he created for the memoirs could have chronicled civilian life.

The allegorical stories here feel clever, but sometimes labored in their striving for originality, less distinctive than his substantial memoirs or than The Periodic Table and the three or four best of his poems. Though it doesn’t represent Levi’s major work, it completes his important library in English.

For many of his readers, the end of Levi’s life has been particularly hard to bear. In 1987, after a debilitating bout of major depression (in which, according to his biographer Carole Angier, he “dwelt obsessively” over the “drops of water he had not shared” with his fellow prisoner in Auschwitz), while his mother suffered through an agonizing illness, he was found dead on the lobby floor of his own apartment building. Though some doubt remains, there’s unanimity among those closest to him in believing that he committed suicide.

At the time, the general take on his death was that the Holocaust had finally destroyed him after all. Many readers, particularly Holocaust survivors, still feel betrayed, having assumed that Levi the writer had been his own persona. But Angier’s 2002 biography, The Double Bond, revealed that Levi had never been that man and that the Holocaust had not done in Primo Levi. According to Angier, the Holocaust, in fact, represented a remission from the serious depression Levi suffered all his life.

He was not the normal-man-made-writer-by-history, but an artist with an artist’s sensibility. Auschwitz was his great adventure, Angier writes, “his time in Technicolor … for which he could even feel nostalgia.” Afterward, he suffered the usual civilized tortures: Even with literary respect, fame, and the promise by many of a Nobel Prize, he feared that he was not a “real” writer.

I fell in love with a man who was as much a creation as Mr. Darcy. Levi’s great achievement rests on a paradox and great artifice. Who but a chronic depressive (given to the habit of self-criticism) could be sent to Auschwitz and focus on the behavior of the Jews, intricately chronicling their moral gradations of honor and corruption? The Auschwitz that Levi indelibly rendered could have been conjured only by someone who’d always believed in the existence of Nazis, whatever their guise.

There have been hundreds of depictions of the German camps, in a dozen different forms. The reason this one will remain primary and essential is precisely because of Levi’s skewed vantage. Levi ignored the big story that saner prisoners and screenwriters ever since have focused on: the simple brutality of the Germans, the pathetic and tragic plight of the victims. But big stories, written by people not unlike Levi’s narrator, do not last in their particulars. The truth of history is not the truth of art.

If Levi’s own “keen vision” was re‑ quired to see the Ausch­witz he saw, he must have realized that he needed to imbue his account with more than sporadic, rare stories of often-doomed heroism. He also needed to obscure his sensibility—after all, one discounts a certain portion of what a depressed person says, attributing it to his cast of mind.

Levi intuitively understood that the man he wished he could have been was the character to tell the tale that he himself had endured, even if such a man would not have registered the Ausch­witz Levi gave us, with its thieving and conniving and grabby survival. That man would have seen the barbarism of the Nazis in all its dramatic, grotesque detail and considered the Jews only as victims en masse— understanding that whatever they did, they did in the interests of animal survival, of life itself—and perhaps recorded a few acts of astonishing heroism, likely those that succeeded. Levi considered the few successful acts of heroism almost miracles; generally, he believed everyone still alive afterward to be somewhat tainted. The heroism he felt most drawn to was the sort he described in Hurbinek; a mighty striving toward humanity that ended in failure and death. While revealing the debasement easily accessible in human nature, Levi believed we needed the romance of man. He died of the “roar on the other side of silence,” but the narrator he created built fires in the Russian woods and sang all night, trusting in the restoration of a just world. On the bookshelf containing the immortals, there is no such thing as memoir. It is all fiction.