Reviews

If This Is a Man


The Complete Works of Primo Levi

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.

Primo Levi by Mark Anderson.

Primo Levi by Mark Anderson.

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.”

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About the Author

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the editor, most recently, of Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (Indiana University Press).

Comments

gwhepner on October 5, 2016 at 9:07 pm
WHAT HAPPENED TO PRIMO LEVI WHEN HE COULD NO LONGER TALK OF TROUBLES HE HAD OVERCOME

There is a famous book that's by the ancient Roman doctor, Galen,
called Peri Alupias, “About Not Being Distressed.”
For overcoming distress, the solution that appeared to be the best
for Primo Levi, iberkumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseyln,
which in Yiddish means: it's good to talk of troubles one has has overcome,
only worked for him as long as he was able to write
as brilliantly as he did, for once he couldn't, he gave up the fight
for life he'd won in Auschwitz, giving up in order to be dumb.
Unable to tell all the world about his troubles he
perhaps found rest in silence, just like Hamlet, tragically.

[email protected]
gwhepner on October 6, 2016 at 9:56 am
WHAT HAPPENED TO PRIMO LEVI WHEN HE COULD NO LONGER TALK OF TROUBLES
HAD OVERCOME


There is a famous book that's by the great Hellenic doctor, Galen,
called Peri Alupias, “About Not Being Distressed.”
For overcoming distress, the solution that appeared to be the best
for Primo Levi, iberkumene tsores iz gut tsu dertseyln,
which in Yiddish means: it's good to talk of troubles one has has overcome,
only worked for him as long as he was able to write
as brilliantly as he did, for once he couldn't, he gave up the fight
for life he'd won in Auschwitz, giving up in order to be dumb.
Unable to tell all the worlkd about his troubles he
perhaps found rest in silence, just like Hamlet, tragically.

[email protected]

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