Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist

by Myriam Anissimov

Paperback, 2000




The Overlook Press (2000), 604 pages


Primo Levi is represented in this world almost entirely by his writings, and his public self--shy, intelligent, diffident--has long hidden the true Levi. This major biography delves deeply into the life and mind of the controversial writer, philosopher, and Holocaust witness, exploring the complex nature of a man who felt misunderstood, certain that future generations would inevitably forget and even deny the Holocaust.

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LibraryThing member John
Ever since I read If This Be a Man, (also titled Survival in Auschwitz, recently re-read as well), followed by I think all of his books, and some of his poetry, Primo Levi has been, for me, one of those seminal writers who makes a difference in the way one looks at life. So, I was particularly eager to read this first biography of him. It is a biography based very much on his writing; by that I mean that we learn nothing of his wife (whom he married after the war), nor his children; nor does Anissimov speculate at all on whether their's was a happy union, whether Levi was a repressed homosexual, or whatever. And this is a real pleasure. Rather, she explores the meaning and direction of his life through his writings (novels, poetry, journalism), his activities, interviews with friends and relatives, his work as a chemist, various interviews that he gave over the years, and, in the pre-war period, through a fairly straight-forward accounting of his life.

Anissimov describes well the strength of If This Be a Man, and summarize the essence of Primo Levi:

In Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed and recorded. Nothing escaped him. He scanned the most ordinary conduct, the most seemingly insignificant reactions, and found in them the depths of human behaviour. The man placed in an extreme situation is still capable of doing good or evil. Auschwitz was the place of absolute evil, a world without God. Although he did not doubt the final outcome, Levi drew upon all of his mental energy to memorize each detail, in case he should survive, in order to tell the story, to bear witness, and to call for justice, for he still believed in humanity and justice.

Levi was very much an assimilated Jew whose awareness and appreciation of Judaism was stimulated by his experiences and exposure in Auschwitz; all his life, although he became more observant following his wartime experiences, he himself recognized that his Jewishness was in a sense something learned or intellectually assimilated, not bred in the bone from birth. Levi did not really experienced the war until the Germans invaded Italy and he joined a group of partisans. He was arrested for this activity, identified as a Jew, and sent to Auschwitz. Having survived that horror, he returned home (circuitously, over several months, through the Soviet Union) with an obsession to tell, to recount, to explain, to describe what he had seen and lived through in Auschwitz. This fierce compulsion to bear witness drove him throughout his life and much of what he accomplished afterwards. His first book, Survival in Auschwitz, was not a great success and it was only with the publication, much later, of The Periodic Table, particularly in the USA, that he became an international literary personage. But even with that, and with the fact that almost all of his books won one literary prize or another, he was never fully accepted by some in Italy as a man of letters; rather, these saw him as a chronicler. None of this bothered Levi, who argued throughout his life for the conjunction of science and art, and against the dismissal of the former by the latter as mere mechanics. To Levi, understanding and describing the workings of nature was as justifiable an art form, or something to be sought after, as was any more "purely" art-endeavour.

Towards the end of his life, however, despite the fame and honours heaped upon him, Levi became increasingly depressed for, it would seem, a number of reasons: his very strong disillusionment with the publicity and credibility given to the Holocaust-deniers that seemed to vitiate what he had dedicated his life to; the intolerable burden of caring for his very elderly mother and mother-in-law, at home, both bed-ridden, and his own mother a senile tyrant whose constant care and attention demanded too much of Levi's time and energies and prevented him from traveling and accepting invitations that he would have liked to have done; and, I think, the lingering sense, that never really left him, of "survivor's guilt": why had he survived when so many others, more worthy, had gone to the gas chambers and the crematoria? As Anissimov puts it:

Levi had believed in the superiority of Enlightenment thought over an irrational world. Once this bad world, inexplicably bad, was no longer accessible to the light of reason, he had no course left but to despair.

On April 11, 1987, at the age of 68, Primo Levi threw himself down a stair well in the apartment building where he had been born and lived all of his life. We were living in Tokyo at the time, and I remember very well the great sense of sadness and loss that I felt upon hearing of his death.

Throughout his writings, Levi tried not only to describe what he experienced, but draw the broader moral lessons from it, or to try to understand what in the psychology of human beings would make them behave as they did, as either tormentors or the tormented. The following quote struck me when he was talking about the Jews who ran the crematoria until they too were fed into the flames:

I repeat, I believe that no one is authorised to judge them, not those who lived through the experience of the Lager and even less those who did not live through it. I would invite anyone who dares pass judgement to carry out upon himself, with sincerity, a conceptual experiment: let him imagine, if he can, that he has lived for months or years in a ghetto, tormented by chronic hunger, fatigue, overcrowding, and humiliation; that he has seen die around him, one by one, his beloved; that he is cut off from the world, unable to receive or transmit news; that, finally, he is loaded onto a train, eighty or a hundred persons to a boxcar; that he travels towards the unknown, blindly, for sleepless days and nights; and that he is at last flung inside the walls of an undecipherable inferno. This, it seems to me, is the true Befehlnotstand, the "state of compulsion following an order": not the one systematically and impudently invoked by the Nazis dragged to judgement, and later on (but in their footsteps) by the war criminals of many other countries.

Millions of people systematically murdered is a statistic that is hard to grasp. The mind can best understand or try to grasp a single instance: in the group of five partisans arrested with Levi, (the group had never undertaken any real activity but were hiding in the mountains and training) was Vanda Maestro, a lively, healthy, energetic young woman, described as a feminist and a dare-devil. She was sent on the same convoy as Levi to Auschwitz. Anissimov describes her end:

Vanda had held out until September, 1944 [they had arrived in February]. Perhaps, like Primo Levi, she might have been assigned to the Buna laboratories during the final months, but she was already too sick. The last time that Luciana Nissim saw her, she was sitting on the ground outside one of the Schonungsblock huts, with her bloated legs tucked under her, and covered with oedemas, sores, and phlegmons.

Vanda Maestro was twenty-five years old when she joined the last selection for the Birkenau gas chambers in October 1944. Her friends had dosed her with narcotics to numb some of the horror of her final dreadful hours.

Think of what you were doing at the age of 25 when you thought you had your whole life and endless possibilities ahead of you.
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LibraryThing member keylawk
Biography of Primo Levi, with selections from the works of one of the great scientists, chemists, businessmen, cultural figures and poets of Europe and Italy, who survived persecution and extermination camps. We have very little direct evidence for why Primo committed suicide, but the fact remains that many survivors have taken their own lives.

This book is a monument which justifies Israel, and it is a gentle refutation of ALL anti-Zionist tracts, however well-funded they are today. Primo survived, and never indulged in hatemongering of any kind.
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