Sunday, December 20, 2015

Primo Levi's "Complete Works": Book Review

Forever marked as a survivor of Auschwitz, known for his unflinching account If This Is a Man, Primo Levi wrote much more than that. Gathering for the first time English versions of his fourteen books over four decades, The Complete Works of Primo Levi retranslates all but one of them. And that one, If This Is a Man, has been revised by Levi’s first English translator. The Primo Levi Center in New York City claims that Levi is the first Italian author in history to have had his complete oeuvre published this way into English, “from the first to the last page.”

Prefacing this review with an indication of the scope of this project is necessary. For these three volumes exceed three-thousand pages. Memoirs, short stories, novels, essays, commentaries, and poetry are included, with nine translators working alongside the editor, Ann Goldstein. Textual notes and appendices, and an introduction by Toni Morrison, enhance this collection. (These were not made available in print galleys provided.) Serving as an equivalent to the 1997 Italian edition of the works, this enables readers and scholars to assess the whole of Levi’s career.

Born in Turin in 1919 to an assimilated Jewish family, trained as a chemist, arrested at the end of 1943 as a partisan, sent to the death camps in February 1944, Levi returned from Germany and started writing. However, his 1947 report on his experiences did not gain wide recognition until another decade in Italy. Its follow-up on his long return back from imprisonment to Turin, The Truce, appeared in his homeland in the mid-1960s. This pair occupies half of the first volume; the rest is his science-fiction stories written mainly from the same time as The Truce. These tales lack the power of his memoirs. Collected as Natural Histories and Flaw of Form, they feel slight by inevitable comparison. However, chronological order places them where they are.

Turning to the second volume, more successful stories and vignettes build the chemical structure of The Periodic Table. Basing chapters on analogies to various elements, Levi applies his laboratory expertise and rational scrutiny to his own life and that of his family. Broadening the view beyond his two memoirs, this 1975 “autobiography-in-stories” starts with a Yiddish phrase “it is good to tell past troubles.” Goodness and trouble mingle, in a book that resists easy classification, but which captures the strengths of Levi, in his steady, calm gaze, and hints of his weakness. He favors a detachment that renders humans clinically, more often than warmly.

Two-thirds of the texts in these books were written after Levi retired from his managerial post. They sustain his characteristic attention to detail, but in the novel The Wrench, the stories he collects from the working world of hands-on labor stay too inert on the page. Similarly, his shorter fiction in Lilith and the uncollected stories and essays from 1949 to 1980 were often brief columns for newspapers or book prefaces, of interest more to specialists. Their presence here testifies to the completeness of this edition, but the content can drift into the ephemeral.

Volume three opens with his poems. It continues with The Drowned and the Saved. In 1986, Levi returned to considerations of the Shoah after it appeared a generation was passing and the impact of the terror was fading from memory. He enters the “grey zone,” the ambiguity of those who survived. Disturbed, he confronts those who had to compromise to cling to life in a realm of extinction. This darker element tinges his later work, as he wrote more and more as he aged.

Rather anticlimactically, after the tension of The Drowned and the Saved, the edition gathers various essays and stories. Other People’s Trades begins with Levi’s admission that these essays “are a product of a decade and more of vagabond and dilletantish curiosity.” On writing, chess, science, and insects, among other topics, they are readable and pleasant, intended for the general audience of La Stampa. But as with his works on the camps, these lighter pieces touch on Yiddish and the Reich, if in the same conversational tone. It can be unnerving to find tonal consistency across so many pages, but Levi tended to prefer the object to the subject, the physical or the verbal as opposed to the spiritual or the human. This assertion challenges humanists who champion Levi for his life-affirming message. Yet when he concentrates on facts, Levi steadies himself. This may be a defense mechanism, given his endurance of inhuman conditions engineered by his fellow humans. It may corroborate the success of his fact-based explorations of this predicament, as a fragile man encountering wonder and chaos, more than his fictional forays. The latter leave the reader with a weaker impression of Levi’s skill as a patient observer. This had been honed by a style based on his chemical reports, efficient and precise.

Perhaps a collected works might best serve his legacy, for a wider audience at an affordable price. The cost of this edition keeps it beyond the reach of many who wish to learn from Levi. Levi’s last moments, in April 1987, still spark debate. Whether or not he chose to commit suicide, he was on anti-depressants after a prostate operation. His death, from a third-story fall in the home where he had been born 67 years earlier, marked another ambiguity in a life full of them, from a man who faced evil and who reflected in many of his works collected now upon the ability of goodness to endure within frail humans and humanity, after his own brutal encounters. (Amazon US 12-15-15; Spectrum Culture 12-06-15)

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