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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.