If This Is a Man
edited by Ann Goldstein, with an introduction by Toni Morrison
Liveright, 3,008 pp., $100
The unexpected news of the passing of Primo Levi on April 11, 1987 shocked not only his family and friends but also readers of his work around the world. Levi’s death, the result of a fall down the narrow stairwell of his apartment building in Turin, was officially pronounced a suicide. In part because he left no message behind, some of his close friends doubted that he had killed himself. Others, including his biographers, have agreed with the verdict of suicide, an issue to which I shall return. One matter is beyond dispute: In the large and still growing corpus of literature written in response to the Nazi genocide of the Jews, Levi has become canonical. The reasons for this are amply displayed in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, a handsomely produced three-volume gathering of almost everything Levi wrote, edited by one of his most distinguished English translators, Ann Goldstein.
Totaling more than 3,000 pages, this large collection will generously reward all of the time that readers can devote to it. What they will discover will be both familiar and new: The three volumes present 14 of Levi’s books previously published in Italian, but some of the material is appearing for the first time in English. Thirteen of these books have new English translations, one of which, Stuart Woolf’s rendering of Levi’s Auschwitz memoir, Se questo è un uomo, appears in a partially revised translation and with a new title: If This Is a Man instead of Survival in Auschwitz. The breadth of Levi’s literary range in these pages—memoirs, essays, novels, short stories, poetry, science fiction, newspaper articles, book prefaces and forewords, book and film reviews—is striking. Equally striking is the variety of subjects covered: not only the Shoah but science, technology, language, work, games, the mysteries of the universe, literary and political questions, aspects of the Jewish tradition, and more. A Cartesian by nature and a scientist by training, Levi had an endlessly curious, probing mind. He often claimed that he was first and foremost a chemist and not a professional writer, but anyone who reads Levi with care will be moved by the sober lucidity, subtlety, concision, and analytical power of his prose. As Saul Bellow put it, “In Levi’s writing, nothing is superfluous and everything is essential.”