Hard Labor: On the Complete Works of Primo Levi

Turin, the provincial capital of Piedmont in northwestern Italy, sometime in the mid-1950s. In a comfortable apartment block on Corso Re Umberto, a 19th-century boulevard running southwest of the ...

Turin, the provincial capital of Piedmont in northwestern Italy, sometime in the mid-1950s. In a comfortable apartment block on Corso Re Umberto, a 19th-century boulevard running southwest of the city’s elegant central squares and their pre-Alpine backdrop, two men, one in his late 30s, the other barely into his 20s, meet twice weekly to work together on a shared project. The work is steady, careful, detailed. Their materials are words, sentences, turns of phrase, tones, idioms, and voices, their labor one of translation. There is no formal contract between them, no publisher’s deadline; author and translator simply care for the act itself, for a future possibility of speaking across borders.

The young man, the translator, is Stuart Woolf, a British student living in Turin researching for his Oxford doctorate who will go on to become a leading historian of modern Europe. The older man is Italian, a native of Turin. He lives with his wife and young children on Corso Re Umberto and commutes to a job as an industrial chemist in a small town outside the city. He has little time for writing, but carves out moments such as these with determined discipline. He was born in this apartment and three decades later, in 1987, he will die there, almost certainly a suicide, to the genuinely heartfelt, intimate consternation of his many readers across the globe. He is, for now though, unknown, the author of just one almost forgotten book, published in 1947 by a small, defunct house in Turin called De Silva. His name is Primo Levi, and the book, pored over by Levi and Woolf for many hours, weeks, and months, is Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), Levi’s sober but searing account of the 11 months he spent in the company of death, starvation, and degradation at Auschwitz. It is quite possibly the greatest, most essential, and most humanely alert of all the testimonies to emerge from the Nazi genocide of the European Jews.

The scene of Levi and Woolf working away together in Turin—of modest collaboration, dialogue across generations, careful labor and refinement, precision, respect for language and for the power of communication, even across gulfs in experience and expression—is something of an epitome of the virtues, both moral and literary, that Primo Levi brought to all his writing. Woolf’s fine translation of If This Is a Man appeared in English in 1959, although distorted in the US edition by a tone-deaf change of the title to Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. The scene in Corso Re Umberto is also, then, the ur-scene of Levi in English, the point of origin of all his journeying into the Anglophone world. Now, more than half a century later, the journey has reached an unprecedented zenith in the monumental new three-volume edition of the Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein and published under the revived Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton. For this vast undertaking, which Liveright director Robert Weil pursued with great tenacity over fifteen years, Woolf has been persuaded to return to revise his (co-)translation of If This Is a Man, and the edition includes a brief Afterword by him evoking his enriching Turin encounters with Levi. Goldstein, a superb translator of modern Italian fiction (including of the writer of the moment, Elena Ferrante) and an editor at the New Yorker, has gathered and marshaled a team of nine new translators in a grand labor of collaboration. The results are lively, poised, brand-new versions of all Levi’s books and collections, many complete here for the first time in English, and a rich seam of his occasional, uncollected writings from the 1940s to the 1980s.1

Moments of insight always come qualified by Levi’s quiet irony, a humane reminder of our limits, even as we struggle to comprehend.

The lines of connection that bind Levi and Woolf at the desk in Corso Re Umberto to the new Complete Works stretch further still into the past, to another scene of writing, perhaps at the very same desk, and to another almost insurmountable challenge of “translation” and imagination. This scene takes place in the mid-1940s and is drawn directly from the pages of If This Is a Man. It plunges us deep into Levi’s core power as a writer and a witness, and deeper still into his probing account of Auschwitz (or rather, as Levi would carefully specify, of the Buna Lager at Auschwitz III-Monowitz, where he was interned from February 1944 to January 1945). One of the most powerful and also tragicomically grotesque chapters in If This Is a Man is “Chemistry Examination,” in which we learn how Levi came, by a remarkable stroke of good fortune, to be assigned for a few freezing Polish winter months in Auschwitz to the so-called “Chemical Command”: a ragtag group of Jewish prisoners, tattooed, shorn, skeletal, and starving, delegated to work indoors, in the dysfunctional parody of a laboratory in the Buna rubber factory. It saved Levi’s life. The chapter describes the entry examination for the Command, an interrogation of Levi by a blond Nazi scientist, also attended by a brutal and ignorant Kapo, on the niceties of polymerization. The examination brings on a torrent of thought and emotion in Levi—he is characteristically lucid in unpacking these, but he is never, or never only, the coldly rational writer some have made him out to be—from his panic and anxiety, knowing that his life depends on this test, to his bafflement at the ridiculous Germanic formality of the encounter, to the excruciating nostalgia it evokes in him of his student days, his boyish skill and instinct for doing well in exams, his Turin life that seems lost in another universe. No torture or physical assault is evoked, but in a manner quite typical of Levi’s sharp mind and his ear for resonance, he sees, in the very look of Doktor Ingenieur Pannwitz across the desk, something fundamental:

Because that look did not pass between two men; and if I knew how to explain fully the nature of that look, exchanged as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds, I would also be able to explain the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich.

This is writing of the most visionary, but also incisive, kind: it chills, but also cuts to the quick, to the heart of the matter. And yet Levi protested loudly whenever he was treated as a seer, a saint, or a prophet, merely, as he saw it, for having survived (by chance). This is why such moments of insight always come qualified by Levi’s quiet irony, a humane reminder of our limits, even as we struggle to comprehend. So, before he even begins to relate the tale of Pannwitz’s chemistry examination, Levi steps out of the mire to his own present-tense, at his writing desk in Corso Re Umberto in 1947, and also implicitly forward to our present day, in order to ponder the astonishing, profound absurdity, the dangerous implausibility, and the ethical horror of what he is about to tell:

Today, this very day, as I sit at a table and write, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.

“Chemistry Examination” takes up a mere seven pages. It is written in controlled prose, but it is dense with the energy of detail, voice, reflection, and complexity. Writ large, this economy of effect goes some way to explaining Levi’s remarkable force as a writer, how he is able to place us as readers, visually and morally, both “there” and “here,” and to spool back and forth with us between the two. It also explains, perhaps, why the short form—chapter, story, essay, poem, report—is the most natural vessel for his writing, like that of Borges or Calvino. (When he tried his hand at a novel, If Not Now, When?, an epic tale of Jewish partisans during the war, you can feel the strain and the stretch.)

One of the signal achievements of these Complete Works is to give us the full range of that complexity, to show us Levi probing and reflecting, inventing and telling stories across a spectrum of fascinations that goes from Auschwitz to chemistry to mechanical engineering, from sci-fi to submarines to rock-climbing, from language games to animal poems to virtual reality machines, from Job to Rabelais to Conrad.2 And back to Auschwitz again, since there is an important unity to Levi’s work across this bursting variety, a constant intimation that Auschwitz is not an alien universe but a present danger to us as individuals and political animals. Not only did these things really happen, they may happen again; they may be happening again. As he put it with chilling force at the end of his most important essay, “The Gray Zone”: “We are all in the ghetto … the ghetto is walled in … outside the wall are the lords of death, and … not far away the train is waiting.”

<i>An Auschwitz slave laborer at the IG Farben plant near the camp, where Levi also worked</i>. Photograph courtesy of the Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons

An Auschwitz slave laborer at the IG Farben plant near the camp, where Levi also worked. Photograph courtesy of the Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons

This unity-in-variety is the Ariadne’s thread that helps lead a way through the labyrinth of Levi’s complete oeuvre. Not all his readers will be willing to follow the thread along all its meanderings; indeed, responses to the Complete Works have already divided somewhat between those willing to listen to the modulated, lighter, more elfin tones in some corners of this volume and those who, perhaps understandably, prefer to split the work into his greater and lesser achievements and pass over his forays into occasional writing, science-fantasy, zoomorphic poetry, and the rest.3

The thread is worth following, however. The harmonies and dissonances between the modes of Levi’s work are, to a significant degree, what make him such a distinctive, subtle, and compelling ethical writer, one who ponders how to live in the face of both the extraordinary and the everyday, not through abstractions but through fragments of stories and vignettes of sentient experience and intelligent invention.

The Complete Works facilitates the task by restoring the chronology of publication of Levi’s books. If This Is a Man was published in its second and more widely read Italian edition in the late 1950s, just as it was being translated for the first time. In 1963, Levi completed his second book, The Truce (previously titled in the US translation The Reawakening), a buoyant, if haunted, account of his nine-month journey home from a liberated Auschwitz through the postwar European maelstrom to Turin. In 1966 and 1971 came two collections of science-fiction stories, Natural Histories (initially under a nervous pseudonym) and Flaw of Form (the heavy alliteration is almost, but not quite, there in the original, Vizio di forma). These are Levi’s thought experiments, a writing lab where he staged and thought aloud about science, commerce, and bureaucracy, the limits of the human, nature and culture, and, here too, violence, race, and memory. In 1975 he published The Periodic Table, an autobiography loosely structured according to the chemical elements Levi had encountered or imagined throughout his life, education, and career as a chemist. The book is perhaps his greatest literary invention and is steeped in the values of friendship, the drudgery but also the rewards of lab work, the creativity and magic of science, and also, intertwined with these, anti-Fascism, anti-Semitism, survival, and memory. His next, ostensibly very different book, The Wrench (1978), followed the construction and engineering tales of an industrial rigger, Libertino Faussone, who, in his odd mixture of Piedmontese dialect and technical jargon (making this the greatest of technical challenges for the translator, Nathaniel Rich), tells of his epic and intimate struggles with bridges, dams, and cranes. Levi, however, saw The Wrench and The Periodic Table as closely related, as twins: both hymned the value of hands-on, problem-solving, quick-thinking, bridge-building work: work that really does set you free.

The appearance of the “Complete Works” of any author inevitably cuts in two conflicting directions, at once both canonizing and destabilizing.

By the early 1980s, Levi already had a devoted, if relatively small, following abroad, but when The Periodic Table appeared in English in the mid-1980s, it was widely acclaimed, especially in America: Saul Bellow selected it as a book of the year, describing it as a “necessary” work, in which “nothing is superfluous.” All his work was rapidly, if at times patchily, selected and translated in the following years (for the most part by Raymond Rosenthal). Back in Italy, a stream of new work appeared: essays, stories, poems, articles. He was a public figure now, writing for the Turin newspaper La Stampa, penning prefaces and comment pieces for books, events, television series, and exhibitions about the Holocaust, explaining the Holocaust to Italians. He translated Kafka and Lévi-Strauss. His Collected Poems appeared in 1984, originally under the Coleridgean title Ad ora incerta (At an Uncertain Hour). Perhaps the finest product of this eclectic creative period was the collection of essays and articles Other People’s Trades (L’altrui mestiere), which, as translator Antony Shugaar nicely explains, could equally be rendered as “other people’s business,” in the sense of “mind your own business”: Levi’s intellectual and human curiosity for the stuff of others’ lives and work, another trait which helped him survive in Auschwitz, here found its most unconstrained expression, in essays which stick their noses into everything from translation to moon landings, from crickets to fossils to children’s games.

A year before his death, Levi drew together his four decades of reflections on Auschwitz in his most considered, most influential, and also most troubled book, The Drowned and the Saved. Its essays revisit many of the moral and historical questions thrown up by the Holocaust that he had pondered for so long, and are models in self-sufficient ethical meditation. The terms the essays used, their careful reflections on how the Holocaust looked 40 years after “the Event”—on problems such as the shame of the survivor, the fallibility and necessity of memory, the dangers and uses of stereotype, the moral contaminations and complicities of the “gray zone”—have resonated with immense force in the years since, such that it is hard to contemplate the Shoah and its legacies now without in some sense coming to terms with Levi’s moral framing. At the same time, the book contains moments of genuine anguish, anger, and ambivalence. Indeed, the acceleration in his publishing and growth in his public profile were accompanied by pressures and anxieties. Levi was vexed by periods of writer’s block, frustrated by what he saw as distortions in his reception abroad, and deeply concerned by pernicious strands of negationism and revisionism emerging in France and Germany. He struggled to connect with young audiences and, long prone to depression, was troubled by his health and that of his ageing mother and mother-in-law. Nevertheless, he remained active, talking, writing, and planning future work (drafting parts of a new novel on chemistry, tentatively entitled The Double Bond), until his presumed suicide on April 11, 1987, at the age of 67.

The appearance of the “Complete Works” of any author inevitably cuts in two conflicting directions, at once both canonizing and destabilizing. Great works shine through and receive a mark of rightful recognition; but hidden corners, full and therefore also uneven writerly lives, come to light. Levi is no exception. These volumes reinforce his status as a clarion voice of ethically weighted, carefully calibrated, but also vitally human, witnessing—Mark Lilla has written of his “equipoise”—in the face of the very worst of human violence. The new translations successfully restore the layered plurality of tones and registers in Levi’s style that some earlier translations had lost, including the exuberant variety of foreign words, idioms, and dialects that make his language a choral celebration of human variety, all overseen by his Socratic probing, challenging, doubting, and testing, in Auschwitz and after Auschwitz, for survivor and reader alike. But the Complete Works also challenges us, pushes us to look beyond our settled, admiring view of Levi to the rich body of writing that moves, at oblique tangents and in less predictable directions, away from his core subject matter. In his science fiction, essays, autobiography, fiction, poetry, and more, where his concern frequently is the everyday, the apparently “ordinary” life, or the imagined lives of animals, of machines, of near futures as much as remembered pasts, we see the signs of his unique ethical acuity, and the geometric intelligence that made him the greatest mediator of the Shoah. Berel Lang, in a recent biography, boldly placed Levi in a line of great literary moralists that includes Aesop, Montaigne, and Pascal.4 Could it be that Levi’s compelling capacity to chronicle and pinpoint the moral framework of the Holocaust derives from his broader moralist’s appeal to his readers as fellows, friends, or “co-humans,” as he calls us in The Drowned and the Saved? Perhaps Levi’s is not so much a work of secondary response, or “mere” witnessing to the Holocaust, but rather the encounter of a supple moralist’s mind with a moral quagmire. Such a hypothesis is precisely the sort of rebalancing, the fruitful destabilization, that a newly translated Complete Works can allow us to test out. And the testing out of hypotheses through experience and experiment, including a testing of oneself (provarsi, in Italian), was perhaps as close to a sacred ritual, to an immoveable value, and to a (falsifiable) truth that Levi ever came.

In a very pragmatic, hands-on sense, translation was another kind of testing out and self-testing for Levi, a slow process of trial and error, a deeply challenging and deeply enriching labor. In the same months and years that he and Woolf were meeting to translate Se questo è un uomo, Levi himself was also working in his spare time as a translator: not of great writers and intellectuals such as Kafka or Lévi-Strauss, as he would later become, but of a vast four-volume English work of science, Organic Chemistry: An Advanced Treatise (edited by Henry Gilman, 1938). As all translators know, this was slow, thankless, hard graft. But the result, to quote Levi’s cherished lines from Dante, was “virtue and knowledge,” the passing on of knowledge, whether of organic chemistry or of Auschwitz. This labor of passing on was something of a vocation for Levi, and it is shared by the translation of his Complete Works, which will in turn allow him to carry on that work. icon

  1. The latter are based on the 1997 Italian edition of Levi’s works, edited by literary critic and essayist Marco Belpoliti. The Complete Works are also the product of a fine cross-border collaboration between America and Italy; a mass of supplementary notes, maps, chronologies, and bibliographies have been contributed by scholars at the Turin Primo Levi Study Center led by Domenico Scarpa.
  2. One of the few regrettable omissions from the Complete Works is Levi’s sparkling, eclectic anthology of his favorite books, The Search for Roots (1981; English translation 2001), which contains Job, Rabelais, and Conrad alongside many other entries, predictable and unpredictable. (Levi’s full reading library remains a hidden treasure trove not yet available to scholars.) The only other significant omission is the so-called Auschwitz Report (1946; English translation 2006), a medical report on conditions in Monowitz, which Levi co-wrote with fellow survivor and neighbor (and also Stuart Woolf’s wife’s uncle), Leonardo De Benedetti.
  3. Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books seems to belong to the latter category, confessing he had hitherto not read Levi’s lesser-known works and found them (and certain disconcerting biographical details) diminishing of Levi (“The Mystery of Primo Levi,” New York Review of Books, November 5, 2015). On the other hand, David McConnell sees the pay-off in watching Levi “zigging” into fantastic fictions and out again, retaining his complex, elemental writerly force throughout (“An Ordinary Witness: On the Complete Works of Primo Levi,” Bookslut, September 2015).
  4. Berel Lang, Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life (Yale University Press, 2013), p. 87.
Featured image: Primo Levi in the 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Mondadori Publishers / Wikimedia Commons