Book Review: Primo Levi “If This is a Man” and “The Truce”.

If This is a Man was first published in the 1950s and accounts for Levi’s capture and subsequent internment in a labour camp that was part of the wider Auschwitz complex. The Truce deals with the camp’s liberation and his subsequent protracted journey back home to Turin, and was published in the early 60s.

Although technically they are two different books, they’re more often than not published together since they deal with two halves of the same story. I would not recommend that you did what I did with the book, which was read If This is a Man, and then blithely think ‘I’ll get round to reading part two in a little while’. In my case a little while was nineteen years.

There is very little I wish to say about the book’s (and I’m referring to them as a single work now) qualities. It is a work about a very serious topic by a serious (and seriously good) writer. In the insightful appendix published at the end of the book, in which Levi gives lengthy responses to typical readers’ questions, he famously states that he sought to write a book from the point of view of a single witness. Therefore he does not give  detailed background about the whys and wherefores of the Nazis’ death and labour camps. He sticks to what he himself saw, experienced, felt and thought. The result is a work which is short of generalities and moralising. It does carry great moral weight, however, and in my opinion this comes from Levi’s eye for detail and his aim to stand as a witness to what he saw.

It goes without saying that If This is a Man goes a long way to helping the reader understand how hard it was to exist and survive in the Nazi labour camps (could it even be called ‘living’?). It is a remorseless book in the sense that in chapter after chapter it outlines the pitilessly harsh time the rank and file prisoners had of it, being forced to cary out forced labour for a Government that considered them to be less than human.

Yet this does not make for a book that is difficult to read. Emotionally I admit that I found it difficult to take. But as for the actual reading of it, Levi’s skill lies in not browbeating the reader, or in laying out horrific scenes in emotive terms, but in calmly reporting what he saw. In this sense it is an examination of what his time in the camp was like, and I read his words as I read or listen to anyone who takes the time to carefully explain the story or knowledge that they have to impart. It is this calm tone that make those moments when he does express anguish, disbelief and anger all the more affecting.

If This is a Man ends with a twist of fate that in the end saved Levi’s life.

The Truce deals with the liberation of Levi’s camp and his slow route back to Italy. In a way it is a counterpoint to If This is a Man. If the latter dealt with a kind of living hell, then the former accounts for his time spent in a form of Soviet bureaucratic limbo between Spring 1945 and 1946 when he eventually got home to Turin. His travails and travels during this time were many and various, and he has some colourful tales to tell of the many people he met along the way. One important thing this book conveys is the sense of chaos, liberation, frenzy and free-for-all that existed in Europe during that immediate post-war period, which sat alongside the utter destitution and broken war-weariness that 6 years of hatred and destruction had wrought.  As a consequence some of the people and things he writes about are genuinely bizarre, and I found myself laughing out loud at several points.

As briefly mentioned, the appendix to the book, in which Levi explains at length his motivation for writing the memoir, and his own self-defined role as a survivor, is also well worth reading.

So in summary, while the subject matter of this book is harrowing, Levi’s skill as a writer is to clarify things and to present the facts as he saw them. The result is a book that enables the reader to reflect more rationally on the barbarity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.

I first read Primo Levi when I was in my late teens, starting with his collection of newspaper essays Other People’s Trades, and moving soon on to his first and possibly most important book If This is a Man/ The Truce. 

It’s satisfying to know that The Periodic Table (which I should have read back then, but better late than never) is something of  an amalgam of the above two books. It consists of 21 chapters, each one named after a chemical element. No chapter is about any of the named elements per se. What Levi gives us instead is a sideways take on chemistry, revealing some of the myriad ways in which it influences lives. Each chapter stands alone to a certain degree, but taken together they add up to something like an autobiography, Levi describing a specific episode or aspect of his life through the way in which a given element featured in it.

Why read this book? I think the main reason is because it is a great work. In many ways it is very serious (how could it not be, given a large part of it deals with Levi’s war time experiences, including his time in the Death Camps?). However, the seriousness is balanced by moments of levity and humour, and also by Levi’s intense curiosity about life. He wrote, he said, partly to bear witness to the Holocaust, so that it never be forgotten. But I think in  a more general sense he also wrote because he basically loved life, he loved the world and he wanted to explore it more through his writing.

Being based on personal recollection, the book provides an insight into what pre-war Italian Jewry was like, and how things changed over time under Fascism. Likewise it affords some insight into civilian life in Europe during the Second World War and its aftermath, which is a subject I always find interesting.

Perhaps most importantly the book reveals some of the many ways in which chemistry can touch upon everyday life. Levi remained a working chemist for all of his professional life, and it’s fascinating for me as a non-scientist to see, thanks to this book, the world through the eyes  of a specialist.

The almost perfect comparison to this book is another one that I found in my local library when I was halfway through Levi’s work. The Periodic Table  published by Quercus Books is an illustrated element-by-element guide to the building blocks of life and their role in world around us. It’s a lovely book in it s own right, and it allowed me to see those elements in their raw form that Levi went on to transform on the page.

Primo Levi- A Brief Introduction.

I’m currently reading Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table which has in turn made me want to find out more about his life and also chemistry. Here’s a lovely video I wanted to share which deals with both topics.  Being filmed in Levi’s alma mater in Turin adds to the atmosphere.

Last words from ‘The Leopard’.

Giuseppe-di-Lampedusa-in--006

Lampedusa, London, 1930’s: Publication and fame were still a long way off, but he demonstrated his ‘monster’ talent even then.

As I wrote the other day here the fact that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa published only one full length novel is not grounds for too much sadness, since he did leave other literary remains behind.

The real Lampedusa fanatic will want to hunt down his various notes on literature. In the early 50’s he agreed to give informal lectures on writing and writers to a few select young acquaintances. Lampedusa was formidably well read and loved English literature most of all, and his lecture notes are the fruits of much of this reading. I don’t go out of my way to read literary criticism, but I enjoyed reading this and find it refreshing to get a non-english perspective on writers and writing we think we know so well based on our own received opinions and assumptions. If you can track them down it’s also worth reading Lampedusa’s perceptive notes on Stendhal, which I guarantee will make you want to look (or look again) into the Frenchman’s work.

If you want something a little less specialised, in recent years his Letters from London and Europe have been published. Between 1925 and 1930, long before The Leopard was even conceived of, Lampedusa travelled a little and wrote letters to his cousins back home in Sicily. Their nickname for him was the ‘monster’, and this is the term he uses to refer to himself throughout these letters. Most of them detail his travels around London and the rest of the UK.  Despite being a Southern European by birth, Lampedusa was an ardent anglophile. He loved our literature and our language, and these letters demonstrate how much he was fascinated by our country. Despite his status of published author lying a long way off in the future, even around the time he was writing the letters Lampedusa shows he was a born writer, with the power to engage his readers and bring what he describes alive. Just as well, then, because the Britain of the 20’s and 30’s was a radically different place. So not only do these letters reveal more about their author, but they also give glimpses of how life was in a very different time.

Anyone who loves Lampedusa’s work has to have a look at Ian Gilmour’s The Last Leopard, which is a fabulous book and first-rate biography. It combines a narrative of Lampedusa’s life with pithy commentary on his literary works, and relevant comments on the social and historical context. What I think truly makes Gilmour’s book a cut above is his seemingly total understanding of Italy, Sicily and Lampedusa’s works. Written with full access to Lampedusa’s archive (including items retrieved by the author himself from the bombed out shell of Lampedusa’s former Palermo home, some forty years after the US air raid that put paid to things) Gilmour gets right under the skin of this incredible writer. Coming in at just over 200 pages, this book has the additional virtue of being short (itself perhaps a reflection of the fact that Lampedusa’s day to day life was rather monotonous and his literary output pretty small). However, what Gilmour has to say he says with insight and authority and does full justice the man and his masterpiece. This being a shorter biography it gives you plenty of energy left to go straight back into The Leopard and other works. Lampedusa could have written more, but into his one novel he poured the experience and insight of a lifetime. His other works may be the literary equivalent of left-overs, but take everything together and you’ve got a whole banquet of words.

And  that’s that, surely?

Well thankfully. It seems the cupboard is note entirely bare just yet and I understand that Lampedusa’s letters to his wife are soon to be (perhaps even have been) published in his native Italy. Let’s  hope an english translation quickly follows.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa- What can you read once you’ve read “The Leopard”?

 A round-up of some of the Italian author’s less well-known work.

Italian author Giuseppe Tomassi di Lampedusa remains justly renowned for his 1950’s masterpiece “The Leopard”. Since the book’s publication in the late fifties, a short while after the author’s death from lung cancer, it has won him a level of renown and respect that he never knew when alive. Sadly it is his only finished long work, one which demonstrates that this literary late starter had finally found his voice.  Readers who fall in love with that book (and we are legion) and who want to read more by him are therefore faced with a dilemma.  Luckily, he left behind other works, and what little else there is repays the effort for the devotee.  

For english-speaking readers there are quite a lot of editions of Lampedusa’s works around. Some of these are not in print, but most can be tracked down second hand. A very good place to start after “The Leopard” is any edition of his works that includes the autobiographical sketches usually translated under the title of “Places of my Infancy”. According to Ian Gilmour’s biography (see below) Lampedusa worked on these sketches while in the middle of writing The Leopard. The novel is based in large part on his own family’s history, so it seems that the necessary imaginative engagement with the past brought a significant number of memories to the fore. The sketches are pieces that see Lampedusa  reminiscing about the Sicily he knew in the very early twentieth century when he was a small boy.  The Leopard therefore opens a window on the world of Sicily and one of its aristocratic families in the mid- to-late nineteenth century, while the “Sketches” act as  a companion piece,  shedding light on the early influences of one particular Sicilian aristocrat. Before really getting to know Lampedusa’s work I was virtually ignorant about Sicily, having little to go on but a few cultural cliches (most of them I’m ashamed to say concerning the Mafia). While the Sketches aren’t as gory or gripping as “The Godfather Part II” perhaps, it is at least refreshing to learn that there was a part of Sicily that stood at as far and as genteel remove as it’s possible to get, while Lampedusa’s descriptions of the Sicilian landscape come close to the quality of description he attained in The Leopard. 

The short story “The Professor and the Siren” is often published together with the Sketches, and remains the other well know minor work. It’s one of my favourite short stories, and is set in Turin in the 1930s. It charts the odd friendship of a world-weary younger man and an older professor of the Classics. The Professor tells his new friend the story of a remarkable romance which occurred when he was a very young man back in Sicily, an entanglement which changed his life and influenced him even to the end of his days. As the story’s title suggests, the object of his affections was not entirely human and was a figure from Sicily’s ancient Greek past.  , The author harks back to the classical vein of storytelling, which saw gods and other immortals interact with men. It can be read as a fable, but it is just as easily read at face value as a tale of memory, love, loss, ageing, and passion. It’s quite different to The Leopard and indicates that Lampedusa was not just a one trick pony.

Less good is “The Blind Kittens”. This has been in print for years, and isn’t exactly a short story (though it can just about be read as one). It is in fact the remaining draft for the opening chapter for his next novel, which he was working on at his death. It was intended to deal with Sicilian society some decades on from The Leopard, but it doesn’t have the grace and ease of the earlier work. However, we must remember that Lampedusa was an ill man when working on it. It’s not a bad piece of work. It just suffers by comparison with a greater one. However, it continues in the vein of the author commenting on his fellow Sicilians, and echoes some of the previous novel’s wry and resigned descriptions of Sicilians and the national character.

Primo Levi: Other People’s Trades.

I can’t believe this book appears to be out of print and only available second hand.

On the surface, an Italian chemist with a flair for autobiographical and discursive writing, with a very sad and turbulent personal history, has very little in common with an english teenager. However, I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me buy this book when I was much younger. It was because I’d read of Levi and his major work “If This is a Man” in the newspaper. And it was also because, having seen this book by him in a shop, I picked it up and read a couple of pages.

Even at a young age, with barely enough knowledge to follow what I was reading fully, I must have known on some level that this was a very special writer. I think the intriguing titles of the essays got me first. Then the tone of the writing. It’s knowledgable and authoritative, but never patronising and its disarmingly personal. As a result,  I have had this book for many years, and it’s survived numerous house moves and culls of otherwise unwanted books. I always come back to it. It is a collection of essays which the late Italian writer published in the Turin paper La Stampa over a number of years. Of course Levi is most well known for his memoirs of the Holocaust, and the books that dealt with that event are very much the product of a writer forcing himself to recollect, to tell people and to stand as a public witness.

The essays contained in this book, by contrast, show another side to Levi, in which the private man invites his readers to take a look at the world around them in his company. The equally enchanting The Periodic Table is very similar to this book in tone and approach, showing his ability to observe and note things of interest that in turn can alter a reader’s perceptions of things for the better. While Levi’s life and his work in chemistry form the backbone of Table, this book by contrast ranges even wider. Levi was an endlessly curious man it seems, endlessly fascinated by the world about him and the people who inhabit it. Hence the title of “other people’s trades”, as each essay is the work of a man who is not interested in just his own little world and opinions, but someone who is interested in what is going on around him. Thus the essays reflect on many disparate topics, from the moon landings to the language of schoolchildren, from the fear engendered by trying to learn a language in your sixties to the wonders of looking at things through a microscope.

The book, then, contains the Levi mix of autobiography and a fascination with chemistry and natural history that we get in his other works. However, the mood is by and large lighter. When I was  younger I  was in no doubt at all that these were the words of a wise man, and a man with a great deal to teach other people.  As I’ve got older and come back to these essays the quality in them that I have come to value most is their humanity and love of life.  Although written for newspaper consumption, there is nothing throwaway about these pieces. The willingness to stop time for a moment, to think about those things which matter, and then to elegantly sum up your thoughts in writing is a timeless skill. Levi had this ability in spades,  and for this reason I don’t think I will ever tire of this book.