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Primo Levi

Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Primo Levi
    Book Description:

    In 1943, twenty-four-year-old Primo Levi had just begun a career in chemistry when, after joining a partisan group, he was captured by the Italian Fascist Militia and deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews in his transport, he was one of fewer than 25 who survived the eleven months before the camp's liberation. Upon returning to his native Turin, Levi resumed work as a chemist and was employed for thirty years by a company specializing in paints and other chemical coatings. Yet soon after his return to Turin, he also began writing-memoirs, essays, novels, short stories, poetry-and it is for this work that he has won international recognition. His first book,If This Is a Man, issued in 1947 after great difficulty in finding a publisher, remains a landmark document of the twentieth century.

    Berel Lang's groundbreaking biography shines new light on Levi's role as a major intellectual and literary figure-an important Holocaust writer and witness but also an innovative moral thinker in whom his two roles as chemist and writer converged, providing the "matter" of his life. Levi's writing combined a scientist's attentiveness to structure and detail, an ironic imagination that found in all nature an ingenuity at once inviting and evasive, and a powerful and passionate moral imagination. Lang's approach provides a philosophically acute and nuanced analysis of Levi as thinker, witness, writer, and scientific detective.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19920-8
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xii])
  3. 1 The End
    (pp. 1-16)

    On July 31, 1987, Primo Levi would have turned sixty-eight, but he had died three and a half months earlier, on April 11, in the same apartment building on Turin’s Corso Re Umberto where he was born and where, except for two intervals, he had lived continuously since. One of those intervals was related to jobs he took after completing his university studies in chemistry in 1941, work that took him to Milan. After that came the two-year period that included his time with the partisans and capture by the Italian Fascists, eleven months as aHäftling(prisoner) in Auschwitz,...

  4. 2 The War
    (pp. 17-45)

    Forty years after the event, Levi was “astonished” at the summer excursion in August 1943 that he and his sister and friends took to the Piedmont mountain town of Cogne. Forty years after that—now,2013—the excursion still seems improbable. At the time of Levi’s holiday, World War II had reached its “world” extent. Six months earlier, the Battle of Stalingrad ended in Germany’s surrender with a total number of about two million dead in the eight-month struggle. By August, after almost two years of fighting in the Pacific and North Africa, the United States had suffered 50 percent...

  5. 3 Writing
    (pp. 46-90)

    When Primo Levi died in 1987, he had published fourteen books—memoirs (or, as he preferred to call them, “autobiographies”), novels, poetry, collections of essays, short fictions. Parts of these had appeared earlier among the more than two hundred individual pieces he published in newspapers, journals, and anthologies: essays, short stories, poems, book reviews, prefaces. He had translated six books into Italian—from the French, English, German, and Dutch—and given about 250 interviews that were published or broadcast. Another novel, “The Double Bond,” was nearly complete at the time of his death but remains unpublished. This oeuvre would be...

  6. 4 The Jewish Question
    (pp. 91-111)

    In 1938 the Jewish communities in Italy numbered approximately fifty thousand in a national populace of 44 million, not much more than one-tenth of one percent. Over the centuries of Jewish settlement in Italy, beginning in the South during Roman times and in the North mainly after the fifteenth-century expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, there had been assimilation by conversion and intermarriage, but little of those practices in the early twentieth century stemmed from overt legal or political pressures. Jewish community members had achieved public recognition and high office usually without reference to their Jewish origins: in the...

  7. 5 Thinking
    (pp. 112-140)

    Primo Levi was by education and profession first a chemist, and he brought that background to bear on his second, later profession of writer, engaging both lines of work simultaneously for thirty years with the only strain between them during those years, in his own words, being the pressure of time. He did not in either of the two commitments consider himself a philosopher, and indeed he expressed impatience with the abstractions of traditional philosophy and its contrivance of technical terms when so many more pressing and concrete human issues demanded attention. Although he read widely in six languages and...

  8. 6 The Beginning
    (pp. 141-148)

    Thebeginning? Asserted, one supposes, with the force of the Hebrew Bible at its beginning: “In the beginning . . .” When attached tobeginning, the—that slight but definite article—implies that there was only the one beginning for that particular event: nothing came before or even alongside it. So: Primo Michele Levi was born in Turin on July 31, 1919. Wasthatthe beginning? Well yes—but also no. Yes, because on July 30, he was not Primo Levi, and then on July 31 he was. Sort of. Somewhere in that interval, there certainly was “a” beginning, but...

    (pp. 149-154)
    (pp. 155-158)
    (pp. 159-160)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 161-170)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 171-174)
    (pp. 175-175)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 176-178)