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Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life

New biography looks at Auschwitz survivor's contributions as a philosopher of ethics

<p>Children at the Auschwitz concentration camp (Photo by Associated Press)</p>

Children at the Auschwitz concentration camp (Photo by Associated Press)

  • Tim Adams for The Guardian
  • International
  • February 3, 2014
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With the exception of some months working as a chemist in Milan at the beginning of the war and the year in which he survived Auschwitz, Primo Levi lived in the same apartment in Turin for all of his 68 years.

Not long before he died he compared himself to "certain molluscs which after a brief larval stage during which they swim about freely, attach themselves to a sea-rock, secrete an outer shell, and stay put for the rest of their lives".

There are many tragic aspects to the manner of his death, deemed to be suicide, in a fall from the landing of his fourth floor home in 1987, but among the most poignant is the fact that it occurred in the same place in which he was born. This man who clung, having witnessed all the horror of the world, to the security of the familiar, became for whatever reason finally unmoored, and succumbed to gravity.

In the obituaries of Levi, and the speculation about his death, other Holocaust survivors such as Bruno Bettelheim suggested that it was the weight of his experiences, 42 years earlier, so indelibly recorded in If This is a Man, that led directly to his suicide.

At his funeral the rabbi of the Turin Jewish community described his passing as a "delayed homicide" (in part to allow Levi to be buried in the common ground of the Jewish cemetery). In this concise, well-researched, unemotional account of the writer's life and death, philosopher and Holocaust scholar Berel Lang remains scrupulously agnostic about such straightforward cause and effect.

The bleak depression of Levi's last year is explained as much in terms of his treatment for prostate enlargement, the stroke suffered by his 91-year-old mother, the challenges of his marriage, as any straightfoward legacy of the death camp or survivor's guilt.

As in Ian Thomson's more wide-ranging biography of a decade ago, the final act of Levi's life is afforded the honesty of its being unknowable.

That care is also evident in Lang's analysis of Levi's complex sense of fate and identity, and profound understanding of the workings of chance. The book is part of a Yale series of "Jewish Lives", and you imagine Levi would have accepted the title, while recognizing its limitation.

Having spent his first two decades growing to understand himself as a man of science and politics, Levi was faced with the first of many untenable choices when he was captured as an anti-fascist partisan by supporters of Mussolini in 1943. If he called himself a partisan he would be put against the wall and shot; if he called himself a Jew he would be sent to a prison camp and likely be deported.

"Partly out of weariness, partly out of pride, I chose to be Jewish," he said. But also "I was turned into a Jew by others". His uneasy acceptance of that identity was later mirrored by his acknowledgement that he had no real choice but to become a writer.

He knew that only banal luck had led to his survival at Auschwitz – one of only 30 men of the thousands sent on his transport – the luck of receiving just a little extra soup from a sympathetic Italian laborer at the camp, the luck of not getting seriously ill until the very last days before liberation, the luck of his training as a chemist allowing him sometimes to work indoors when winter set in, the luck of his knowledge of German.

But he knew also that such outrageous chance had left him with no other option after he returned to his apartment in Turin, to write what he had endured on behalf of those who had not come home.

Given Levi's rational conscience, his meticulous habits of mind, his unwavering desire for freedom, that fate could have undone him. His solution was to find structures in his writing as simple and weightless as any he might have conjectured in his work as a chemist, structures to contain the things he had seen, the life he had been given. 

One of the strengths of Lang's fresh reading of Levi's work lies in its examination in particular of his contribution as a philosopher of ethics. Levi would never have described himself as such – he disliked dealing in abstraction when there was so much pressing reality to contend with – but there is value in Lang's attempt to deconstruct his most closely held understanding of the history he witnessed.

Mostly these trails end in contradiction, the contradictions that Levi lived with through his work: that nature was intelligible, but that evil was real; that nothing was unspeakable, but that the "limits of language" were also the "limits of the world"; that as a non-believing Jew he placed his faith in the doctrine that "There is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God".

Full story: Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life by Berel Lang - review

Source: The Guardian

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