The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography
life of Primo Levi
His moving memoir of Auschwitz is one of the great books of the 20th century yet this unassuming man has remained an enigma. Now biographer Carole Angier has discovered his last, unpublished book, which casts new light on his troubled life and mysterious death
Saturday March 9, 2002
Primo Levi is a special case. He is not simply a great 20th-century writer, like Proust or Joyce or Eliot, who have all been deeply and repeatedly explored. Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919, and deported to Auschwitz in 1943, at the age of 24. When he emerged, he wrote one of the greatest documents we have about that horror, If This Is A Man. In it he showed us that there is something even worse than physical murder: the destruction of the victims' humanity and dignity which preceded it. At the same time, he showed us that it was possible to retain that humanity, even in Auschwitz.
The villains of If This Is A Man are not murderers, but those who treat people like things, such as Alex the Kapo, who wiped his hand on Levi's shoulder as though he were a rag. And the heroes of If This Is A Man are men such as Lorenzo, the Italian civilian worker who saved Levi's life, at daily risk to his own; and Levi himself, who tells the story with justice and dispassion, transforming extreme suffering into knowledge and understanding.
This way of writing about Auschwitz is unique. It seems almost superhuman. How was it possible for Levi to write as he did about Auschwitz - like a calm, impartial, almost bodiless mind? What kind of a man could do that for us, and what had it cost him?
And it was not only about Auschwitz that he wrote as he did. If you look for the other half of him - the personal half - you realise that it is hardly there. After the war he married, he had a family, he worked for nearly 30 years as technical director of a chemical factory, Siva, on the outskirts of Turin. He wrote often about chemistry, for instance in his autobiography, The Periodic Table, but in an indirect, metaphorical way, to describe people he had known in his early life; hardly at all to tell of his life in the factory, which only one chapter out of 21 briefly mentions.
In The Periodic Table - which is a wonderful book, but one of the strangest autobiographies ever written - he wrote briefly about his father, who had died in 1942; about Lucia Morpurgo, the woman who became his wife in 1947; and very beautifully about several friends of his youth, and two of his early loves. But that is all. There is one (late) story about his sister, Anna Maria, who was probably closer to him than anyone; and nothing whatever about his mother, who lived with him all his life. There is nothing, either, about his children, Lisa and Renzo, born in 1948 and 1957. And there is nothing, or very little, about love, even in his stories and poems, where he hid his most private thoughts and feelings. When he was asked why, Levi said - with his small, self-mocking smile - that most books were about love, so we didn't need one from him; and, seriously, that he couldn't write about love, because "It is a very private subject to me."
We feel we know and love him from his work, because we know and love his gentle, rigorous, witty, open mind. But the rest of him is completely closed. Primo Levi is, in fact, one of the most secretive writers who ever lived. And not only in his work. Though he gave hundreds of interviews, he used them not to lower the walls but to raise them still higher, by presenting a careful construct of himself almost to the end. He presented the same construct to most people throughout his life; even, as long as he could, to himself. That construct - the calm, rational, optimistic man - was his ideal: an ideal he managed to reach in much of his life, because it was both a moral imperative and a psychological necessity to him.
But it was not the reality. "I have no instincts," he said, with his smile, "or if I do, I repress them." But the more he repressed them, the more they resisted, and took their revenge. The man who loved and spoke to the whole of humanity found private, emotional life impossibly hard. And the man who chose optimism, because one must not spread despair, found he had locked the despair inside him; and more and more often it rose and drowned him. That is the kind of man who could write as he did about Auschwitz; and that is the price he paid.
This was the key to Primo Levi's life and work - and to his death, which is the one mystery everybody knows. When he died in 1987, at only 67 after a fall from the stairwell of his third-floor apartment, newspapers around the world reported that he had committed suicide. But some of his friends and readers refused to believe it, and have argued against it ever since. So the question arose, and has grown; but what I discovered seemed to me to answer it. Primo Levi suffered from depression all his life, even before Auschwitz. That secret struggle would have to be fitted in to the more visible parts of his life - his chemistry and writing, his childhood, the racial laws, Auschwitz and Turin - if the real story was to be told.
To help me with the secret side of Levi's life, I had two things. First, his last, unfinished, unpublished book, Il doppio legame , The Double Bond. Levi had given three chapters of this book to his publisher before he died; and in the end I found three more, which no one else has ever seen. In this last book, Levi was trying to tell his secrets at last, recognising - I think - that if he did not, they would destroy him. He wrote about his depressions; and he wrote about one of the main reasons for them, his tormented relationship with women. But it was too late. Four months after he wrote the last chapter, he was dead.
Primo Levi himself was divided, not only on the surface between chemistry and writing, between Jewishness and Italian-ness but deeply between public and private, ideal and reality, conscious and unconscious. He called his last book Il doppio legame because that has a double meaning: the double bond of chemistry, which characterises all living things, and the double bind of psychology, which is an impossible conflict, in which whatever you do, you cannot win. That is what he was trying to say about himself at the end: that life - the double bond of chemistry - was an irresolvable conflict, the double bind of psychology, for him.
People always asked him if he would have become a writer without Auschwitz. He would reply, with his scientist's precision and his ironist's smile, that he didn't know, since "The counterfactual doesn't exist": he had no life in which he had not experienced Auschwitz, so he could not say what might have happened in it. But mostly he agreed with the question's implication: Auschwitz had driven him to write, which he had never intended; very likely, therefore, he would not have written, apart from the odd scientific paper, perhaps, without it.
This was not true, in my view. It might have been true, if the racial laws against the Jews, and then the war, had not happened, and if Primo Levi had become the pure scientist of his boyhood dreams. But even then, I am certain he would have written other things. His interest in human beings, and his love of storytelling, were as strong as his passion for science from the start. And, in fact, he wrote at least three stories before the war. Two are in The Periodic Table (called Lead and Mercury); the third he never published, and readers will encounter it for the first time in my book. All three are very different from his later and most characteristic writing: fictional in form, conventional in expression, and not very good. Auschwitz, then, did not make Primo Levi a writer, because he was one, privately, already. What it did was to release him from modesty and self-doubt, by requiring him to speak; and to shock him out of literary experiment into his mature voice at 25.
When If This Is A Man was finished, at the end of 1946, it was turned down by several major publishers. A small avant-garde house, De Silva, published 2,500 copies, sold fewer than half, and closed soon after. Two years after it appeared, Primo would say, his book was forgotten. But, he would add, he did not mind. He had done his duty to the dead. He went back to his real work, chemistry, and did not think of writing again for many years.
None of this was true either. He minded very much when If This Is A Man was rejected, and when it was forgotten. He tried four or five times to have it republished between 1947 and 1957, until he finally succeeded in 1958. And not only did he go on thinking of writing, he went on writing. He began his second book, The Truce, the tragi-comic account of his journey home from Auschwitz, in 1946, and worked on it on and off throughout the 50s. And he wrote stories from the first moment of his return - at the same time, or even before, If This Is A Man.
Until he retired from his chemical factory in the 70s, and even after that, he insisted that he was not a writer but a chemist. "I am a chemist," he was still claiming in 1976, when he'd been semi-retired for two years. Even when he was a chemist, he'd spent every spare moment writing; and he'd dreamed of leaving chemistry for writing from 1959 at the latest. And until he published his "first novel", If Not Now, When?, in 1982, he insisted that he was not a "proper writer", because he had not written fiction before. And that was not true either. He fictionalised all his stories except the first: right back to The Truce, and including his autobiographical tales in The Periodic Table.
Why did he do this? Why did he hide how important writing was to him, ever since he began in 1945-46, and even before? At this point of tension, his surface slowly cracks, and we begin to see beneath: into his true ambition and fear of failure; into his "success neurosis", and that of his family: his wife, even more private than he; his children, who could not talk to him about Auschwitz, or about his books. Once again he splits in two: the polite and patient sage above, the lonely, self-doubting man below.
When I first fell in love with Primo Levi's work, and wanted to write about him, kind friends tried to dissuade me. Look at the shape of his life, they said: 24 years of quiet bourgeois existence in Turin; then the indescribable hell of Auschwitz; then 42 more years of quiet bourgeois existence in Turin. What kind of story will that make? they said. Meaning: one that is 1.5% unwriteable, and 98.5% dull.
Auschwitz is indescribable - that was one of Levi's own themes; yet it must be done. And what I discovered about the rest of his life was not dull at all. The truth of his grandfather's death, so close to his own, which suggested, as he thought himself, a genetic element in his recurring thoughts of suicide.The truth of his parents' marriage, which had showed him that the world was war from the start. The truth, especially, of his struggles against depression, and the emotional disablement which caused it. At the root of that emotional disablement was his mother, Rina, who dominated him all his life, and especially at the end. "I do not think my mother ever hugged me," he said; but at the same time she would never let him go. Into the prison of his mother's house he had brought his wife, Lucia, in the hope that she might free him; but she could not, and nor could anyone else, least of all himself. That was the private darkness of Primo Levi's life. Yet out of this darkness, he wrested the joys of knowledge, of friendship, of story-telling and laughter: an alchemical transformation, aurum de stercore , gold from excrement, which he performed as long as he could for himself, and for us, in his books, forever.
And so we come back to Auschwitz, the worst stercore of all, out of which he made the purest aurum of his writing. Primo Levi wasn't a witness or a chemist but a writer, and a great one. He was not a saint or a guru, but a man, and a divided and tormented one. And Auschwitz did not destroy him. It came very near at the time, and immediately afterwards. But after that it did almost the opposite, requiring him to understand and to communicate, the two things that kept him alive. "I am a talker," he said. "If you stop up my mouth, I die." When, in his last depression, he felt he could no longer communicate, he died. That is what killed him, not his memories of Auschwitz. Neither Alex the Kapo of If This Is A Man, nor his heirs, should imagine they have that victory.
Hope and despair in Auschwitz, by Primo Levi
Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealisable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realisation of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it: for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.
We fought with all our strength to prevent the arrival of winter. We clung to all the warm hours, at every dusk we tried to keep the sun in the sky for a little longer, but it was all in vain. Yesterday evening the sun went down irrevocably behind a confusion of dirty clouds, chimney stacks and wires, and today it is winter.
We know what it means because we were here last winter; and the others will soon learn. It means that in the course of these months, from October till April, seven out of 10 of us will die. Whoever does not die will suffer minute by minute, all day, every day: from the morning before dawn until the distribution of the evening soup, we will have to keep our muscles continually tensed, dance from foot to foot, beat our arms under our shoulders against the cold. We will have to spend bread to acquire gloves, and lose hours of sleep to repair them when they become unstitched. As it will no longer be possible to eat in the open, we will have to eat our meals in the hut, on our feet, everyone will be assigned an area of floor as large as a hand, as it is forbidden to rest against the bunks. Wounds will open on everyone's hands, and to be given a bandage will mean waiting every evening for hours on one's feet in the snow and wind.
Just as our hunger is not that feeling of missing a meal, so our way of being cold has need of a new word. We say "hunger", we say "tiredness", "fear", "pain", we say "winter" and they are different things. They are free words, created and used by free men who lived in comfort and suffering in their homes. If the Lagers had lasted longer a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wear ing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one's body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing nearer.
In the same way in which one sees a hope end, winter arrived this morning. We realised it when we left the hut to go and wash: there were no stars, the dark, cold air had the smell of snow. In roll-call square, in the grey of dawn, when we assembled for work, no one spoke. When we saw the first flakes of snow, we thought that if at the same time last year they had told us that we would have seen another winter in Lager, we would have gone and touched the electric wire-fence; and that even now, we would go if we were logical, were it not for this last senseless crazy residue of unavoidable hope.
When it rains, we would like to cry. It is November, it has been raining for 10 days now and the ground is like the bottom of a swamp. Everything made of wood gives out a smell of mushrooms.
If I could walk 10 steps to the left I would be under shelter in the shed; a sack to cover my shoulders would be sufficient, or even the prospect of a fire where I could dry myself; or even a dry rag to put between my shirt and my back. Between one movement of the shovel and another I think about it, and I really believe that to have a dry rag would be positive happiness.
By now it would be impossible to be wetter; I will just have to pay attention to move as little as possible, and above all not to make new movements, to prevent some other part of my skin coming into unnecessary contact with my soaking, icy clothes.
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange how, in some way, one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening, it is your turn for the supplement of soup so that even today, you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium - as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom - well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
March 20, 2002
The apparent suicide of Primo Levi in 1987 remains a
mystery. Carole Angier describes Levi's struggle with depression
Suffering a darkness worse than Auschwitz
Primo Levi’s suicide in 1987 still raises many questions. One of the leading writers of the twentieth century, Levi built his reputation on his experiences in Auschwitz. His testament, If This is a Man, brought him literary fame while making him almost a saint, one who had conquered suffering and who therefore had answers to the human predicament. It was not a role he cherished or could fulfil. Did this explain his descent into depression? Or was there more that led him to take his own life?
The year 1986 started badly for Primo, experiencing all the symptoms of an enlarged prostate; his doctor ordered him off the sleeping pills which aggravated the problem and had no doubt helped to cause it. The only trouble was that he needed them; they were a defence, too, and now they were gone. To make matters worse, his mother, the dominant force in his life, was also ill and his latest book, If Not Now, When?, was a flop in America. By August he was sinking into depression.
He continued writing, however, this time about his long, lonely sexual suffering. His wait in vain for love, that strange and unnatural instinct, to appear. His constant falling in love, but “bloodlessly”, as he had said in If This is a Man: terrified of being touched, frightening the girls off with his torment. The confirmation of anti-Semitism and the racial laws; the boy at school who said that circumcision was castration — not for all Jews, perhaps, but certainly for him. Seeing the young laundress naked at her window when he was 15; and closing his own window then, in effect for ever. Remaining trapped in his untouched solitude for years, overcome every so often with such despair that he thought of suicide. Escaping it at last, only after Auschwitz, in the meeting with Lucia, who became his wife. Writing his confession did help, at least briefly. By the end of October the reprieve was over. In one of his last interviews, Primo acknowledged that people found a strength and wisdom in his books which he did not have. He was not a prophet, and he was not strong. Not at all. His readers thought he was, because he had survived Auschwitz: but that was not strength, it was only endurance.
It was not their fault, however, that they had this false idea of him; it was his own. He had put a false image of himself into his books. He had not pretended to be brave, or clairvoyant; but he had always presented himself as balanced and serene. And he was not. He went through long periods when he was not serene at all. He did not cope well with difficulties.
By early February, Primo was clearly ill. The real pit of depression had begun. He had been on antidepressants for five months, and was back on his sleeping tablets as well. His prostate trouble had become severe, and one day he noticed blood. An operation was urgently arranged. The last time he came to Einaudi, his publisher, he shocked and frightened his friend, Agnese Incisa. His eyes were fixed, as though he were looking into an abyss, she said. He began on his troubles straight away — he couldn’t write, his mother called him all the time. For God’s sake, Agnese said, put her in a home. And Primo went quite white and began to tremble. Agnese ran and fetched him a cognac from a reliable Einaudi tippler. How can you say that? Primo said to her. My mother would die. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Agnese said. But then she took him by the shoulders and almost shook him. Primo, she said, your mother is 91 years old. It’s better she should die than you.
After that he did not appear any more. He refused all invitations. On the 27th he said to Gisella, his muse in later life: “I am worse than I was at Auschwitz.” He went into the San Giovanni Maggiore hospital (in Turin) on Tuesday, March 17; the operation was the next day. The surgery went normally. He stayed in the hospital for the usual post-operative period of just over a week, and seemed to his doctors to be recovering well. He must have had moments of hope and relief, and so must his friends and family. That was another marvellous reprieve. He was healthy; he could have made a complete recovery. And then it happened. At around 10.15 on Saturday morning the police were called to Corso Re Umberto 75. There they found Primo’s body at the foot of the stairs. He was examined and pronounced dead. Both the police and the ambulance service filed their reports under suicide.
People asked each other over and over what could have happened. One of the first ideas was that he must have been murdered — by Fascists, Nazis, skinheads. Rumours flew in the neighbourhood that Primo had had death threats. It was not impossible but Primo never said a word about any such things. We can exclude murder.
The next idea was put forward by Primo’s friend Rita Levi-Montalcini. She knew how depressed he was. But she also knew that he had not given up, that he had plans and engagements. She was convinced that he could not have committed suicide. Not like that, she says; in a manner that was so dramatic, so violent and so uncertain. Primo was a chemist; if he had decided to kill himself, he would have done so in a decent, reliable Primo-Levian way. No, she said, at the most he had a sudden “raptus”, or brainstorm, caused by the depression; or more likely an attack of faintness, caused by the operation from which he had not yet recovered.
There is one other point on the doubters’ side. In her deposition to the police, his mother’s nurse said that around ten o’clock Primo called her and asked her to answer the telephone, if necessary, because he had to go down to the concierge’s lodge. She then returned to his mother’s room, which was at the far end of the corridor from the front door; and heard and knew no more until several police officers appeared some time later. Perhaps it does seem strange that a man in the last seconds before suicide would bother to make sure that his telephone was answered after his death.
Despite all this, I think it is certain that it was suicide. Those who believe otherwise have their own fears. Most painfully, perhaps, his fellow-survivors from Auschwitz. “If he couldn’t live with such memories,” said one, “who can?”
But Primo Levi’s death is not part of his testimony, only of his disease. His depression caused his suicide. But only if Auschwitz caused his depression is there any reason to say that even Primo Levi could not survive Auschwitz after all. People simply assumed the link from the start. The reports of his death bore headlines like “Auschwitz killed him 40 years later”. But to the best of our knowledge it is not true. The central, painful and paradoxical truth is that Primo Levi was depressed before and after Auschwitz, but not in it. He thought of suicide before and after Auschwitz, but not in it. Depression and suicide were in him from the start. It is even possible that without the experience of surviving Auschwitz, and without the mission to understand and testify to it, they might have claimed him sooner. Primo Levi’s death was personal. It was a tragedy, but it was not a victory for Auschwitz.
At the end everyone knew that it was his mother’s illness that was the main factor in his depression. He talked about it obsessively to everyone. He really wanted to be rid of his mother at last; he really wanted her to die. After the first shock of recognition that he wanted to save himself at the expense of his mother, Primo tried to. He told Lucia that he wanted to put his mother into a home. But Lucia would not hear of it; and not for her own mother either.
Her slavery went on; and so, therefore, did Primo’s. Then he was ill too, and she took care of him as well. To his guilt he was adding a debt, neither of which he could ever repay. It was clear to everyone who knew them that Lucia’s dedication to the two mothers was extreme, even pathological, and that she used it to bind Primo to her. But some also understood the other side; that Primo needed to be bound. He wanted to sacrifice his mother, but he also wanted to be stopped from sacrificing her; and Lucia stopped him. Lucia always stopped him doing what he wanted. That is what he needed her to do.
We only have glimpses of that morning. The rest we can only guess. I think he still felt better; perhaps completely well. Perhaps that was why Lucia decided that she could leave him and go shopping. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the first one that spring. I think he had greeted that day, had hoped to enjoy it at last, like everyone else — much more than anyone else. And then he realised he couldn’t. He wasn’t better. It wasn’t over at all.
He went to the phone and called Dr Gozzi; we know that. “Non ne posso più,” he said, “I can’t go on.” Wait, Gozzi said, I’m coming. But he couldn’t wait. Primo called the nurse, and told her to answer the phone; we know that too. In case someone might call and stop him in the last second? Because he just needed to get out, and really thought he might walk downstairs? He opened the door, and found himself outside.
It wasn’t the light and air he had dreamt of, but it was a deep void. I think he looked for Lucia to stop him. He leaned and looked, but she wasn’t there; and he let go.
A prisoner outside the gates
The legacy of Auschwitz wasn't the only darkness in Primo Levi's life, as Blake Morrison discovers in The Double Bond by Carole Angier, and Primo Levi by Ian Thomson
Saturday March 23, 2002
The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography
When Primo Levi fell head-first down a stairwell in April 1987, he destroyed not only his life but the illusions of his readers. Some of them felt anger rather than loss. How could Levi have survived Auschwitz, borne witness and written his cathartic, life-enhancing masterpieces ( If This is a Man, The Truce, The Periodic Table, The Drowned and the Saved ), only to throw himself away like that? This sense of affront was childish and unfair. But Levi's narrative voice had been so candid, ironic, tender and wise that strangers felt they knew and owned him - and, when he left with such violence, they felt betrayed. Some denied that he'd meant to do it. Theories multiplied: the banister was low, he'd been dizzy and lost his balance, his mind must have momentarily been disturbed. Why would a chemist choose such an uncertain and messy way to die? Didn't the lack of a suicide note suggest an accident?
But those who knew Levi well were unsurprised. "I feared it, everybody feared it," his wife is reported to have said on seeing his body. Despite his dapper reserve, Levi had been quietly warning people for months. He couldn't go on, he said. The public writer might seem serene, but the private man was in torment. He'd always suffered bouts of depression, and had lately hit a new low. Fear of cancer or becoming an invalid, anxiety over his elderly mother, despair at world politics, terror of what the post would bring (when every request and invitation felt like a burden) - there were many factors, but the legacy of Auschwitz wasn't among them. As Carole Angier puts it: "Depression and suicide were in him from the start. It is even possible that without the experience of surviving Auschwitz, and without the mission to understand and testify to it, they might have claimed him sooner."
For Angier, depression is the great untold story of Levi's life. Ian Thomson has less of a thesis to push, but makes it part of his story too. It must be unprecedented for a European writer to attract two British biographies barely a decade after his death. When you think that Levi spent all but a couple of his 67 years living quietly in the same Turin apartment building, it seems more remarkable still. But Angier and Thomson aren't short of material, and no one could accuse them of rushing or skimping. Their books run to 900 and 600 pages respectively, yet given the ground they cover and the multitude of people they've interviewed, neither seems overlong.
Getting friends of Levi to talk can't have been easy. With its rationalist grid of streets, Turin isn't like the rest of Italy, and its inhabitants are famously stolid and tight-lipped. " Esageroma nen, " they say. "Let's not exaggerate." Other Italians regard them as cold fish - rather like the English. Coldest and most reserved of all are the middle class. And within that class is the Jewish community into which Levi was born, assimilated and yet apart, used to keeping its head down and saying little.
The Levis had known insecurity two generations before Primo, when the family banking business crashed: under siege from creditors, Michele Levi threw himself to his death from the third floor, as his grandson would do 80 years later. Cesare, Primo's father, a dandyish and flirtatious man about town, bore few of the scars, and married the much younger Esterina when he was nearly 40. Already prudish and fastidious, Esterina shut down on Cesare after catching him in flagrante with his secretary. In the absence of a faithful husband, she fastened on Primo. He would later complain that she never kissed him, yet he spent his life in enslavement, desperate for her approval. She outlived him by four years.
The hidden tensions at home made Primo a timid child. He was bright, indeed top of the class ("Primo Levi Primo!"), but also sickly and small: his younger sister Anna Maria soon outgrew him. In adolescence, the puniness became a worry. Classmates taunted him for his lack of interest in girls. Some of these taunts were anti-semitic: "Circumcision," laughing goys said, "is castration." As though to assert his virility, he took up tennis, skiing and (most lastingly) mountaineering. But he remained in thrall to stronger men, taking revenge in books that show him triumphing over male rivals in non-physical ways. Thomson speaks of an "ambivalent sexuality". Angier describes him falling in love with women time and again but chastely, from the waist up.
Chemistry eased his sense of isolation. He chose it, he said, because it smelled clean, had right and wrong answers (unlike literature), and was "inherently anti-fascist". Up to the mid-1930s, fascism had been normal and unthreatening: nearly everyone in Turin was a fascist, including the Jews. But as Mussolini fell in with Hitler, the persecutions began. New laws prohibited Jews going to university. Luckily Primo had a place by then, and was allowed to complete his course. But even in the sanctum of the chemistry labs, the smell was bad.
He might have made his escape after graduation in 1941. But his father was dying, his mother needed him, and he tried to ignore the coming catastrophe. Miraculously, he was offered a job at a mine, extracting nickel; then a better job, in Milan. But by September 1943, Italy was a divided nation, with the Nazis occupying Turin and the rest of the north. Primo's only concern was to get his family to safety somewhere in the hills. For three months he helped the resistance, but its activities were chaotic and naive. By December he and his partisan friends were surrounded at the inn where they were staying and captured. Soon they and hundreds more were crammed inside cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz.
To any suggestion that it must have taken special bravery or fortitude to survive Auschwitz, Levi liked to reply that, no, the best had all died. In his case, survival owed much to luck: falling ill at the right moment so he went to the infirmary rather than the gas chamber, and being in the right place when a chemist was sought among the prisoners (the lab job freed him from manual labour outdoors). Still, as his biographers rightly stress, intelligence saved him, too, not least his talent for not being noticed.
He memorised the rules. He mastered the layout of the camp. He calculated how many calories were needed to live. He learned to carry all he owned - spoon, wooden bowl, shoes - wherever he went, even the shower and latrine, so no one would steal them. And though he would spend the rest of his life trying and failing to fathom the Germans, in one respect he understood them perfectly. Auschwitz was a vast biological and sociological experiment; well then, he would record his observations, commit them to memory and, once he was out, if ever he did get out, report his findings.
This was why, when he returned to Turin at the end of 1945, he began telling his tale almost at once: to his family, to colleagues, to strangers on buses and trains. As though to prove his authenticity, he liked to reveal the Auschwitz tattoo on his forearm, number 174517, by wearing short sleeves. Not everyone wanted to listen: we must get on with the peace, they said, not linger in the ruins of war. If This is a Man was written within a year, but he had trouble finding a publisher even in Italy, and the book only slowly found its way elsewhere (it would take until the 1980s for Levi to become known in the US). Early reactions from other writers were patronising: this curious little chemist, with his earnest sociology of the camps! Levi colluded in this, by underplaying his literary hand. The book had been composed at breakneck speed, he claimed, yet he revised and reworked it obsessively. He was a scientist, not a writer, he said, yet he had Dante, Homer and Gide as models. When his book was indifferently received, then quickly forgotten, he was more wounded than he let on.
By now he had a job, in the paint factory where he would spend the next 30 years. He also had a wife, Lucia, who, like him, was Jewish, secular, left of centre. Two children followed. But there were tensions at home, in the third-floor flat, between Lucia, Primo's mother and his sister. Faithful husband, loving father, loyal brother, dutiful son - he invited and accepted all these roles. But he must have been glad to escape to work, and at weekends into the mountains, and even (on business trips) to Germany.
His widow is still living, and much about the marriage can't yet be told. But it's clear there were resentments on both sides. Lucia did so much to nurture and protect Primo that she felt excluded when he achieved celebrity: silent hostility to his male writer friends and jealousy of any women seem to have been the norm. For his part, Primo felt cooped up - almost as much, Angier ventures, as he had in Auschwitz. There were women he flirted with and even loved, but he had made his marriage-bed and would lie in it. The choice, she argues, was typical of him: better the prison of sweet reason than the "dark, unconscious and animal" freedoms beyond.
If this was one double bind in the life of Primo Levi, the other concerned his literary status. He resented being treated as a mere witness - weren't his poetry and novels important too? But his imagination kept circling back to the year in Auschwitz, and despite his wish to escape the subject there was always more to say. What readers failed to grasp was how fictive his non-fiction could be. He needed to be believed, but believability, as he saw it, was a matter of style and persona, not fact. When real-life characters in his narratives threatened to sue for misrepresentation, he dug his heels in and wouldn't change a word.
The last phase of his life makes depressing reading. Quitting his job allowed him more time to write but left a hole. Israel's aggression, Holocaust denial and terrorism in Italy filled him with despair. There were also personal setbacks, despite the prizes and acclaim: a snub from Saul Bellow, a vicious attack by a young American called Fernanda Eberstadt. He still went climbing, and bought an Apple Macintosh ("my concubine", he called it) on which he played chess as well as wrote. But first shingles then a prostrate operation knocked him back, and he lost his pleasure in travel because he felt unable to leave his senile, 90-year-old mother in the care of others. "One of us will have to go," he told friends, "her or me." It was him.
It is bad luck for Levi's two biographers that their books should appear at the same time, but it is also a rare opportunity to see how two contemporaries working with the same material can pursue such different paths. Ian Thomson's Levi is resilient and humane; Carole Angier's is tortured and "uxoricidal". His book offers a pacy, straight-down-the-line narrative; hers likes to pause, digress, analyse, dig deep. He, chary of matiness, calls his subject "Levi" (he met him only once); she, more chatty and intimate, calls him "Primo" (she didn't meet him at all). He is strong on the world of history and politics; she knows about emotion and the pysche.
To that extent their differences are stereotypically gendered. But they also exemplify old and new approaches to biography. Thomson is coolly authoritative and shy of intruding himself; Angier is tangled, intense, obsessive and vulnerable, and makes a drama of her own research. She goes mountaineering with Primo's friend Alberto, and falls a little in love with him. She takes tea with Primo's women friends and tries to unprise them, defying the voice that tells her she shouldn't confuse real and fictional loves. She even admits to searching his work for "secret messages". Her book isn't only a biography, it's about biography - the guilt, frustration, risk and excitement of capturing someone's life.
Not everyone will care for her thesis, or for her reliance on paradox as an analytical tool. In putting so much emphasis on Levi's repressed emotions, she is in danger of replacing the old myth (Levi the serene survivor) with a new one (Levi the failed romantic lover). But she writes with brio and occasional brilliance, and, for all her self-dramatising, is passionately engaged with Levi's work, which she analyses at some length. By the end, I felt convinced that she had got to the heart of Levi.
If hers is the more exciting piece of life-writing, that is not to diminish what is achieved by Ian Thomson, who has researched and travelled prodigiously, had access to Levi's sister, and quotes revealing letters that Angier hasn't seen. The difference is more a matter of style than content: whereas he writes as someone who has done the work and knows his stuff, Angier seems to be learning as she goes along.
Both of them began in the belief that Levi is a great writer, and nothing they discovered about him has made them change their minds. His pessimism needs to be acknowledged as much as his life-affirming flame, and the horror of his death isn't easily forgotten. But it came from something deep inside him, not from Auschwitz. The Nazis made him suffer but they can't claim to have destroyed him. His suicide doesn't negate his art.
You wait 10 years for one
biography of Primo Levi...
...and then two come along at once. But what makes Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi stand out?
Sunday April 7, 2002
Hutchinson £25, pp640
Publishing can be a brutal game of chance. When, in 1947, Primo Levi had finished If This Is a Man , he found only rejection slips and disillusion. Then at last the house of Antonicelli took him up. But Levi's haunting story of Auschwitz was released almost simultaneously with The Path to the Nest of Spiders, Italo Calvino's buoyant tale of partisan revolt.
Two young and brilliant Italian writers, two accounts of war remembered: Levi and Calvino were reviewed together and sold together. Immediately, the upbeat Calvino, feeling good about the new Italy, had his bestseller. The horror of the Holocaust seemed somehow out of time, too near to confront. It would be a decade before one of the great books of the twentieth century was reissued and seen across the world for what it was.
Ian Thomson, perhaps, may smile wryly over this experience. His biography of Levi - 640 pages and 10 years in the writing - appears simultaneously with Carole Angier's The Double Bond, 928 pages traversing the same terrain. No ordinary reader is going to tackle both. Thus, Thomson and Angier are reviewed together, compared, sold against each other. Must it be 10 more years before they can be seen separately for what they are?
I hope not, for Thomson, on his own, distinctive merits, has surely written one of the best literary biographies of the year. Like Angier, he deserves to stand alone. Shrewdly, too, he has provided what any lover of Levi needs close by: not a critical interpretation or reinterpretation, but a readers' companion.
Levi, from If This is a Man to The Drowned and the Saved, essentially wrote the story of his own life as enhanced reality. There is no point in trying to compete with that. Nobody could say it better; nobody can approach its emotional truth. But knowing the background and the context - the rotting and corrupt Italy Levi grew up in; the rhythms of Jewish existence in the closed, claustrophobic Turin of the Thirties - adds another potential layer of understanding, and Thomson supplies it with an exemplary mastery of detail and rare narrative verve.
He is particularly good on the politics as a weak, vainglorious Mussolini slithers from his own brand of fascism (one which the student Levi and many of his Jewish friends blandly embraced) into a craven aping of Hitler.
Auschwitz may have been the visceral experience which transformed Levi from a bright chemistry student, keen on mountaineering and shy of girls, into a most unlikely giant, but there are continuities from school and university which return and are always with him.
He was a chemist first and last, 30 years as manager of a paint and varnish factory, a day job which both gave and drained energy. He stayed in the same Turin house almost all his days. His mother, a hopeless invalid, was his responsibility to the last. He died at 67, plunging himself three floors down into the stairwell of his home.
Thomson met Levi quite close to the end and pays tribute to the help that Levi's sister, Anna Maria, gave him. But if there is one mistake here, it comes in the final hundred pages or so as Levi briefly becomes a personality, lionised around the interview circuit, talking to Philip Roth, Michael Kustow, even Sue MacGregor.
Can anybody on that chat circuit really escape the trap of patter recited? The quotes, in their cocktail-party way, lose intensity, wisdom for rent. Levi hovers on the brink of becoming one of that most horrendous species - a celebrity - and thus the circumstances of his decline, the reasons for his suicide, must have their celebrity exploration.
Why did he do it? Sickness, despair, writer's block, the pall of Auschwitz? Ian Thomson doesn't know and can only theorise, but the theorising itself is also a trivialising. You don't need to know why Primo Levi killed himself to know that If This is a Man and The Truce are masterpieces which will long outlive any such speculation. It is the controlled passion, the lucidity, the vivid sense of testimony which matter, not stories about an end unforetold.
When this biography stays on the high ground of painstaking detail, however, illuminating what Levi wrote by its scholarship, piecing together the people and the influences with measured perception, it is often superb.
Levi, I think, would have appreciated it, just as, unadorned, we appreciate a writer of whom one young Italian collaborator said: 'I thought he had la verita rivelata, the truth revealed to him.'
No stone unturned
Carole Angier's new life of Italian writer Primo Levi, The Double Bond, is not only exhaustive, but also exhausting
Sunday March 24, 2002
The Double Bond: Primo Levi, a Biography
Viking £25, pp928
Walter Benjamin called suicide a uniquely modern act of moral valour, a reclamation of our imperilled autonomy, and he killed himself to prove his point. Why, then, if self-slaughter evinces integrity and stoical defiance, was the world so disconcerted and dismayed when in 1987 Primo Levi crushed his skull by leaping into the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin?
Levi, who got through a year of enslavement, starvation and torment in Auschwitz, where, as he mordantly put it, he had the 'good fortune' to be sent in 1944, had become a synonym for survival. To readers of If This Is a Man or The Drowned and the Saved, he stood for the stubborn inextinguishability of the human spirit.
To snuff that spirit out, as he chose to do, seemed to be morally treacherous, nihilistic to the point of frivolity. Friends of his respectable family clucked about his lack of consideration in doing it at home: think of the mess on the hall floor! And how could any possible medical or psychological explanation outweigh the sufferings he had transcended in the concentration camp?
By stealing utensils, hoarding scraps and shrewdly bartering his expertise as an industrial chemist, Levi defeated the efforts of Nazi technology to expunge his humanity and wreck his already infirm body. What defeated him, 40 years later, was not privation but the affluent satisfactions anyone else would have longed for: honour, riches, fame.
Every morning, he said, he dreaded the arrival of the mail, which would bring another consignment of letters from fans who were pious believers and expected him to solve their existential problems. He thought they would be better advised to decipher their tea leaves. The world had turned Levi into an agony uncle and, in doing so, refused to recognise his private anguish: his insomnia, his baffled, repressed eroticism, his bouts of depression, his pervasive dread.
Carole Angier's exhaustive, wearyingly long biography begins at the end, with Levi's unobserved lunge over the banister, and examines his life back to front. Her conclusion is that anyone who was surprised or affronted by the way he chose to die had simply not understood him.
His books, from the first, functioned as suicide notes. Even The Periodic Table despairingly reckoned man to be just a fortuitous, emulsified blend of liquids, gases and minerals, incapable and unworthy of preservation. With his experimental training, Levi recognised Auschwitz as just another laboratory, a place where the human being, that opportunistic compound, was analytically disassembled under conditions that, for all their obscene filth, had to be called clinical.
His crisis of faith did not begin in 1944. Long before Nazi racial laws defined Jews as subhuman, Levi, as Angier startlingly demonstrates, had voluntarily questioned his own humanity.
She attributes this self-doubt to his sexual timidity. All his life, he unofficially performed the priestly chore of hearing confessions. Girls in his adolescence told him their amorous troubles; they trusted him because he was 'not, quite, a man'.
For a while, he even obeyed the priestly edict of chastity, since he considered that he was not fit to reproduce himself. The question he asked, about both the Nazis and their dehumanised victims, was: 'Is this a man?' Angier reveals that the interrogation was primarily directed at himself and in his own view he failed the test.
He felt guilty about surviving Auschwitz and even guiltier when his books, predicated on the misery of millions, earned him so much praise.
Angier's title is borrowed from Levi's last, incomplete book, a chemical fantasia like The Periodic Table. It refers to the multiple, tenuous, unstable connections formed by organic molecules and also does duty, in Angier's account of Levi, for his lopsided relationships with friends whom he valued as antitheses of himself, embodiments of the humanity he felt he lacked.
But Angier has trapped herself in another kind of double bind. This biographer aspires to know everything about a subject whom she can never know at all. Hence the pathological pursuit of detail. She frets because she can't be sure which of two Turin cafés Levi visited with Philip Roth. Was it Fiori's or the Bicerin? My response would be: whatever.
This pettifogging mania for certainty about minutiae, which swells the book to more than 900 pages, is meant to atone for the larger uncertainties to which Angier is condemned. The Italian intellectuals she encounters consider her curiosity about his private life vulgar. She is outfoxed in interviews with his wily female friends, who impart none of their secrets and, in some cases, forbid her to publish their names. It mortifies her that she was not there when the jump occurred.
Aware of her exclusion, she guesses, supposes and imagines. All biographers do, of course; why the self-dramatising fuss in this case? Angier intrudes throughout her text to empathise with a hero who, reclusive and self-sufficient, would probably have had little use for her solicitude. Near the end, she quotes a florid speech at a book launch in Milan, when Levi was assured of the public's love for him. 'I hope he felt it,' she pipes up from the sidelines.
Hilary Spurling has called The Double Bond a thriller, which suggests she is easily thrilled. Her blurb also attests that she 'could hardly put it down'. I could hardly pick it up: it weighs two kilos. It is panoptically informative and indefatigably researched, but did no one think of editing it?
Levi, in a great passage of scientific lyricism in The Periodic Table, follows the course of a carbon atom as it escapes from incarceration in limestone, whirls in the air, is inhaled by Levi himself and absorbed by way of his bloodstream into a brain cell that 'guides this hand of mine to make this dot upon the page: this one.'
Angier, I'm afraid, takes that giddy, aerated atom and buries it all over again inside this boulder of a book.
June 16, 2002
Late in the morning of April 11, 1987, a slight 67-year-old man plunged three floors through the winding stair rails of his apartment house in Turin and was killed. Primo Levi had been severely depressed, and his family, the police and most of his closest friends and associates concluded that his death had been a suicide. So does this meticulous and visionary biography by Carole Angier.
There was then, and there is still, a tinge of reluctance to accept the verdict as entirely conclusive. The reluctance doesn't come from evidence or the frail counterarguments: Why no suicide note? Why ask his nurse to answer the phone while he stepped out? And why would this gentle, finely restrained man subject himself and his family to something so violently gruesome, when easier ends were certainly within reach?
It comes, instead, from what Levi meant, almost personally, to the literary world and millions of readers beyond it. A chemist by training and an Auschwitz survivor, he wrote the most beautifully observed account we have -- the adverb is shocking but accurate -- of the Holocaust's darkness. He also wrote of the human life that obstinately and at times radiantly asserted itself in a place of death. The portrayal dismayed a few who found the darkness thus trivialized, and transfixed the rest, who didn't.
Levi's art grew out of a measured, compulsive honesty. Rarely in modern times has literary genius been so wedded to quiet moral discriminations. And for that reason, the hope in his writing is rigorously matched with despair; at times outmatched.
He despised easy hope. Nevertheless, this most personal of writers seemed to personify hope (something that burdened, perhaps overburdened, him to the end). Thus our reluctance to believe that in his person, despair won out.
Any suicide is shocking. With an artist, particularly a writer, to the shock and normal search for reasons we add a special search. Did the work in some way prefigure the act, as with the brilliant darkness of Sylvia Plath or Paul Celan, or the brilliant hypermania of John Berryman? With Levi it was quite different, a matter, it seemed, of the work not prefiguring but being contradicted.
A difficult radiance, an affirmation of mankind's vitality amid overwhelming evil: such was the message his millions of readers took from him. To some, his suicide seemed a kind of betrayal. But if the resonant part of Levi's message is that man will prevail, the quiet part is that man will also succumb. The fall of the arrow is as much a segment of its arc as the rise.
The rise of Levi's arrows is heart-stopping. What he experienced in Auschwitz was terrible, though his job in the camp's chemical works spared him the worst. What he observed and heard (his quiet attentiveness had the faculty of compelling others' stories) was even more terrible. Yet trained, and by nature inclined, to persevere through the stenches, messes, explosions and disasters of a laboratory, he fixed his gaze upon an unlikely precipitate: human resilience, a sort of radioactive trace element.
''If This Is a Man,'' his first book, was unexpressively retitled in the United States as ''Survival in Auschwitz.'' The ''If This'' acutely frames its wretched and glistening particulars of human possibility. The tone is measured, calm, and this has put some critics off, as if depicting a horror -- Goya's ''Tres de Mayo,'' say -- demanded a paint-hurling brushstroke.
In ''The Reawakening,'' an account of Levi's zigzag journey out of Auschwitz to Russia and back to Italy, and in the additional Auschwitz stories of ''Moments of Reprieve,'' there is the same refusal to cloud the particular with the general, to stamp it with the deductive imprint of the philosopher, the polemicist or the prophet.
Instead, there is the inductive process of the scientist and -- Levi's crossbreeding triumph -- the artist. The particulars are sacred, however inconvenient. Nowhere is this truer than in his masterpiece, ''The Periodic Table'': ostensibly a mix of anecdotes, fables and reflections about chemistry that suddenly becomes a spyglass upon the human sweep beyond.
Levi's arrow flies down as well: through the long falling arc of his last book, ''The Drowned and the Saved.'' It is a book in pain, and emphasizes the deadly moral grayness of the camps, of perpetrators and victims both (though not alike). Levi's late grayness is much cited but, I think, misunderstood. It is not a flat uniform wash but, when he can manage it, a high-energy mix of pitch-black particles and glinting white ones.
The failing man who plunged down his stairwell wrote of life as an immortal principle, not an immortal possession. His ''in death we are in life'' never pretended to be any more than (but what a lot) a reverse corollary to the old adage.
The entwined complexities and contradictions of man and writer are caught in Angier's vastly detailed and intricately layered biography. Author of a life of Jean Rhys, Angier names two stars as her biographical mentors: Hilary Spurling and Michael Holroyd. Whether by influence or otherwise, her approach to Levi suggests something of Holroyd's way with George Bernard Shaw: a determination to understand, nudge, infiltrate and all but become her subject.
Scrupulously indexed and annotated (113 pages of endnotes for 731 pages of text), ''The Double Bond'' is remarkable in all senses of the word. Angier's critical appreciation is to my mind flawless, acutely distinguishing between the stronger work and the weaker. It is the root of her intelligent passion -- a passion that gives energy to a book that vibrates with it, and once in a while all but shakes it apart.
Passion and energy were needed to trace a subject for whom privacy was a condition of life; whose city, Turin, was noted for its prudent reserve (''the icebox of Italy,'' other Italians call it); and who drew his closest friends from an old established community of fellow Jews that in this respect could be thought of as Turin's Turin.
More than that, shortly after his marriage in 1947 Levi moved into his mother's apartment, where he lived for the rest of his life with Lucia, his wife, and, until they grew up, their two children. Both women, pictured as competing for an edge in keeping Primo private, carried it to an extreme that amounted to incarceration, one he partly depended on and partly could not bear.
The key to Angier's portrait is this conflict: intellect versus emotion, repression versus outcry, safety versus freedom. The first term in each pair prevails, the second seeps, potently distilled, into his books, all the more transfiguring for their serenity; as well as into a few half-fledged ventures at amatory escape.
These conflicts are signaled in the book's title, which is also the title of a late manuscript -- Angier is the first to write of it -- in which Levi tried to deal with his inner life, and which he never managed to finish.
The author couldn't penetrate the apartment at Corso Re Umberto 75; she includes a photograph of its stately facade. Levi's widow (his mother died at 96, after his death) refused to talk with her. So did their two grown children, his sister and a few, though by no means all, of his close friends. More seriously, all his papers remain locked up in his study and unavailable.
It was a formidable barrier, and accounts for some of Angier's leaps. In a preface that is inspired and a little odd, she tells us that she has written two books: one based on the facts she was able to find, the other on deductions and intuitions about Levi's private and inner life.
The second is the more truthful, she suggests, and goes on to write with a touch of mystical mission that Levi's reserve was ''one of the prisons from which I wanted to release him . . . because he wanted to be released from them too.'' There are moments in ''The Double Bond'' where such biographical pre-emption can be alarming. The wonder, though, is what an illuminating case she makes for so many of her intuitions and connections.
''He explored himself through others, rather than others through himself,'' she writes of Levi's utterly revealing reticence about himself. And: ''He wanted to prove himself a writer, even at the risk of being understood.'' Of his meticulous observation of Auschwitz's bestial folkways: ''Being Primo Levi, he did not just learn in order to survive. On the contrary: he survived in order to learn.''
Angier worked patiently and thoroughly with the people and documents available to her; among them a great many that her persistence and resourcefulness obtained despite the family's silence. There were, for instance, two women, now old, whom Levi loved in some undefined way in his later years, and who became his confidantes. Irritatingly, Angier refers to them at several points as his ''secret sharers,'' without further explanation. Only near the end does she become more specific, placing them by pseudonyms and recounting their useful recollections.
Chronology is a weakness. The high-flying intuitive portrayal tends to snub the workaday plod of ''and then, and then.'' In a sense, the entire book takes place in the ''now'' of the author's discoveries and conclusions. An early passage will contain an unsecured allusion to a later work or incident. In a book of riverine flow and eddy we can lose our bearings.
''The Double Bond'' begins with a portrait of Levi's forebears and goes on to his school and university days. A compromise in the racial laws of the late 1930's allowed him to finish his chemistry studies but not to switch to the greater enticement of physics. (Which might have fulfilled him: consider it literature's previously unrecorded debt to Mussolini.)
It tells of his brief service with a partisan band until they were captured; of Auschwitz; of his successful career as a chemist; of his early discouragements as a writer, followed by success, prizes and fame. It portrays his depressions, instigated partly by this very success -- the torments of his double bind -- and provides a judicious account of all that is known about his death.
Sometimes, as with the Auschwitz chapter, Angier's diligent details, verifications, counterchecks and intuitive variations seem a distended contrast to Levi's quicksilver distillations. She does a kind of un-distilling, returning spirits to heaps of grain and buffalo grass. Other times, she splendidly elaborates what Levi gives a bare sketch of. There is a gripping account of encounters, rivalries and betrayals among the partisans, and another of the oddly humane Italian detention camp where the prisoners were held before the Gestapo deported them.
One of Angier's gifts was to persuade or charm a number of initially reluctant sources into telling more, possibly, than they had meant to. The charm is genuine and infectious. It comes, I think, from her hunger, her lucid grasp of Levi's work, her display of details her interlocutors did not know and her affectionate respect for them. She nudges, true, but she does not exploit.
Where biographical fact flags and biographical intuition threatens to turn overinsistent, we get an influx of invigorating freshness. ''The Double Bond'' is also a travel book: Angier's journey to find Levi, and her encounters, discoveries and rebuffs along the way.
The portraits are lovely: Gabriella, for example, a valiant, witty woman with whom Levi fell timidly in love, going so far as to make a hypothetical proposal in the event they were to find themselves unmarried. Gabriella talks freely and acutely; with a regret not of wishing things different but of allowing them, for a moment, the freedom to be different. She is elegantly dressed, quoting her grandmother's adage: ''A young girl should please, an old woman should not displease.''
Angier tells of following Alberto Salmoni, one of Levi's oldest friends, up a mountain they used to climb. Salmoni is in his 70's; his climb is light as a gazelle's while she stumbles behind, winded. On the way down he essays a respectful pass. ''What would Primo say?'' she admonishes; not a put-down but a gazelle measure of her own.
Richard Eder writes book reviews and articles for The Times.
March 24, 2002
Reviews: Cover books: The
Double Bond by Carole Angier; Primo Levi by Ian Thomson
THE DOUBLE BOND: Primo Levi A Biography by Carole Angier (Viking £25 pp898)
PRIMO LEVI by Ian Thomson (Hutchinson £25 pp480)
In 1960, when I first read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, which tells of surviving the calculated horrors of Auschwitz, I knew I had made the acquaintance of an extraordinary writer and a rare human being. On the instant, I decided that Levi would join my own literary pantheon, along with Chekhov and George Herbert. Levi’s lucid prose, even while it is accounting for the unimaginable, treats the reader with “sovereign politeness”, to use his own phrase. Five years later, with the publication of its sequel, The Truce, in which he describes his long and eventful journey back to Italy and liberty, my impression that here was a writer whose every word needed to be savoured was confirmed. I thought then, in my innocence, that nobody but Levi should ever write about him. He seemed to have told the only stories worth telling.
I was wrong, as the appearance in the same fortnight of the first two biographies in English confirms. We now have the full human measure — or seem to have — of a literary genius who was plagued from childhood onwards by physical insecurity and blinding depression. At school in his native Turin, he was bullied and teased because of his puny physique and the incontrovertible fact that he was circumcised. Then, in 1938, at the age of 19, with the imposition of Mussolini’s racial laws, he realised that he was a Jew as well as an Italian. His heritage, which he had never considered seriously before, was suddenly and cruelly brought home to him. As Carole Angier observes in the preface to her ambitious and remarkable biography, The Double Bond, Levi’s four greatest books, which are, in essence, autobiographical, are notable for their portraits of other people. Levi himself is a witness, a sometimes alarmingly temperate recorder. “We feel we know him — and love him — because we know every movement of his gentle, rigorous, open mind. But it is only his mind we know.” This is Angier’s starting point and Ian Thomson’s, also, in his more traditional but often very informative work. Both biographers are determined to reveal the tortured human being behind the writer who espoused reason as one of the cardinal virtues.
Angier’s approach to the task of unravelling the mystery of the man who suppressed everything dark or irrational in his nature is highly personal. She is a questing presence in her book. The reader accompanies her as she delves into archives, studies Levi’s stories, articles and poems (these last especially) and interviews the women to whom he entrusted some of his secrets. Their answers occasionally surprise her, but often leave her irritated by being evasive.
Thomson, by contrast, is invariably disinterested, happier to disseminate facts and dates than to indulge in psychological speculation. I have always wondered where Levi acquired his ability to read and, indeed, translate English, and Thomson supplies the explanation. He discloses that Levi had an English teacher named Gladys Melrose, who arrived in Turin from London in 1936. She gave Levi private lessons for about a year, instilling in him an admiration for the novels of Aldous Huxley, of whom she was a fan. Laura Archera, a contemporary and near-neighbour of Levi, was to become Huxley’s second wife. Angier does not mention either Melrose or Mrs Huxley, whose vivid memories of Turin in the 1920s and 1930s inform Thomson’s lively opening chapters.
Angier and Thomson are in agreement on important matters, not the least of which is that Levi was a mother’s boy from cradle to untimely grave. He couldn’t shake her off, even if he wanted to. The Rina Levi whom Angier presents is an unforgiving and vindictive wife and an overprotective parent, imbuing her son with an entirely misplaced guilt for his father’s feckless ways. The truth that emerges is that Levi was stunted emotionally, his morbid fear of all things sexual persisting throughout his married life. He remained an adolescent where the heart was concerned.
It is startling to learn that Levi was away from Rina for only two relatively brief periods — the year or so he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and the weeks after his marriage to Lucia Morpurgo in 1947. The honeymoon over, he took his young bride to live with his mother and there they stayed for ever. The third floor of 75 Corso Re Umberto was to become his domestic prison, from which he escaped by putting in long hours at the chemical factory where he worked from 1947, and retreating into his study to read and write. The depressive moods that blighted his student days returned with greater force as he got older. Fame meant comparatively little. On a visit to America, he saw enough of the literary life to know it wasn’t for him. He was shaken and mortified when his hero Saul Bellow snubbed him at a prizegiving ceremony.
Angier and Thomson scotch the myth (of Levi’s own making, in part) that If This is a Man was written in haste, with no attention paid to style. They deal tactfully and sympathetically with the people he describes in his books. They single out for special attention the artisan Lorenzo Perrone, who ensured Levi’s survival in Auschwitz by leaving him scraps of food. Perrone went back to his home town in Italy and drank himself to death. Angier is wonderfully eloquent when she reminds us that a man can be of the greatest possible moral fibre and still die a drunk and a pauper.
These biographies are radically different in style, but not in substance. Thomson is the better informed on the subject of Italian politics, while Angier’s portraits of Levi’s friends and the occasional enemy are more detailed and thoughtful. They are in accord that Levi’s suicide in 1987 was not, as some scribe in the New Yorker glibly stated, a triumph for the forces of darkness that led to Auschwitz. Here is what Angier has to say: “The central, painful and paradoxical truth is that Primo Levi was depressed before and after Auschwitz, but not in it. He thought of suicide before and after Auschwitz, but not in it . . . It is even possible that without the experience of surviving Auschwitz, and without the mission to understand and testify to it, they (depression and suicide) might have claimed him sooner.” His death, she adds, was a personal tragedy, “but it was not a victory for Auschwitz”.
In the light of the publication of these two painstaking studies, perhaps Levi’s British publishers can be persuaded to replace the wretched, inaccurate translations of The Periodic Table and The Drowned and the Saved with renderings worthy of the great man who wrote them.
Primo Levi was an assimilated Jew from Turin and a qualified chemist. He joined the Partisans when the Germans invaded Mussolini's collapsed Italy, and was arrested and deported, aged 24, to Auschwitz in winter 1944. Through luck, cunning, his chemist's training and the charity of others, he survived a year in the Inferno. Months of being shunted about Eastern Europe followed the Russians' freeing of the camp, and Levi did not arrive home in Turin until October 1945.
The shock of release killed some prisoners, when they realised the extent of their degradation. Levi was able to recover and commit the nightmare to paper. The result, in 1947, was If This Is a Man. When the major publisher Einaudi refused it, these terrifying reminiscences appeared with a small house. Lone but significant voices in Italy hailed it as a great artistic achievement. Levi entered a long period of gestation over how to continue his story, emerging with The Truce in 1963.
The Periodic Table (1975) expanded his fame abroad, and the 1984 reissue of If This is a Man in English had a huge impact in America and Britain. Levi was a genius and a Jewish cause célèbre, somehting he did his best to shrug off, detesting the very word Holocaust. Then, early in 1987, living in the same Turin house as throughout his life, he killed himself aged 67.
Did Levi have special qualities which helped him survive? What lessons did he draw from his experience? What drove him to suicide? And what kind of writer was he? Though both these diligently researched, vast biographies suggest a range of answers, their very size can bury the issues.
Levi was an underdeveloped, quiet boy, derided at school for his size and later for his lack of sexual experience. He read and did chemical experiments. Later he took up cycling and mountain climbing and acquired friends of both sexes, and a wiry resilience, although he would not physically love a woman until he met his wife, Lucia, in 1946. Neither Carole Angier nor Ian Thomson suggests Levi's extreme sexual reticence was a matter of religious or moral scruple. Thomson, who has a fastidiousness about probing into anything psychological, skates over it in a paragraph. By contrast, it is Angier's running theme.
Let "lack of passion" be a neutral description of Levi's physical-emotional condition, not a fault. Clearly it hurt him to be so crippled as a young man, for he felt love. His reticence severely damaged his marriage. It was coupled with what Philip Roth identified as a pathological attachment to his mother, who outlived him.
My feeling is that lack of passion is just what helped Levi survive, and gave his writing its fabulous objectivity. He was born distanced from the stage of life on which appetites are gratified. Angier refers to Levi's reason, and in the camp he quickly learnt not to fight back, to watch for anything useful but be inconspicuous. This is reason as practicality.
But what distinguished Levi was undeluded vision, a wiriness of mind and soul. He disliked those who prayed, he avoided those who told themselves comforting lies, and he learned not to be moved. Of course he felt joy and sadness in normal life, and had rich friendships, but there was some distance he could build on under pressure which helped him observe behaviour and character. Add to this his prisoner's skills as a chemist, which meant he could keep life going with a few flints and a bottle of chloromine (and which eventually got him a privileged lab job), and you have a picture of resilience that no one could invent.
Levi's moral report from Auschwitz stresses moral luck and human equality. Though neither biographer observes it, Levi sets the tone for postwar moral discourse. A German who wipes his hands on him is disgusting. No man can treat another as something less. But to have the moral luck to survive is also a kind of inequality, leading to the problem of survivors' guilt.
Moral decisions pressed in the last ten days of the camp, when the abandoned, sick prisoners fended for themselves. Who should the strong, including Levi, try to save? In the event, the strong of various origins barricaded themselves in. But among nearer cries for mercy, Levi helped Italian voices first.
Thomson does not want to emphasise what is "already evident in If This is a Man, that racial prejudice is animal and pre-human in origin", but he is right to mention it. Levi came back to it in a public lecture in 1979, when he advised his audience to abandon optimism about humanity, for life is terrible.
In his famous years Levi hated being taken for a moral example. Slowly he learnt not to hate all Germans, and though he met kind ones, he did not include them in If This is a Man. Angier emphasises his misery in the US at being adopted as a Jewish martyr.
He was, I think, an almost unique example of attenuated writerly and human unease. Manipulated by the media, uncertain about his merits, sometimes short of money, and with a history of depression, he always reserved the right to kill himself.
The pressures came from all directions. First, when he elected himself writer-witness of Auschwitz, it was profoundly against his egalitarian instincts. He hated the idea of anyone being "chosen". Second, his domestic life troubled him and he lost the support of his colleagues when he retired from industrial chemistry in 1975.
The political climate, with the urban terrorism of the Red Brigades and the rise of Holocaust denial, was also dispiriting. But what seems to have destroyed Primo's remaining will to live was to see his mother becoming one of the contorted dying. She resembled one of the so-called Muselmänner, whom he remembered from the camp.
On Levi the writer, Thomson draws interesting parallels with other Italian writers, and unexpectedly with Aldous Huxley. Angier fashionably wants process, rather than literary history. Her efforts to put Levi's creations back within the stone from which they have been hewn are unenlightening, and plead the cause of the biographer over art. She will also irritate many readers with her cataloguing of too many not-quite-love-affairs and tears wept behind veils of anonymity. Though she is excellent on the chemical dimension, as life and metaphor, there is a great deal of it.
Angier has written the more seductive book, but then she has drawn extensively on Levi's text, injecting the tension that Levi eschewed, and making the end of Auschwitz a gripping read. Thomson scrupulously refuses to borrow from Levi, but his piling-up the facts of history does not always seem relevant.
My feeling is that Primo Levi was something extraordinary and irreversible that happened to European literature, like the Holocaust itself. Except for Auschwitz, he would not have been a writer and his venture into fiction – If Not Now, When? – was, as Thomson says, ill-advised. Levi was a writer when he was writing. Otherwise, he was a chemist, husband, father, and man.
Neither Thomson nor Angier draws a parallel with the Czech poet and immunologist Miroslav Holub, but this is precisely what he used to say about himself. It is difficult for a romantic age to swallow, and for the very nature of biography, but what these books make clear is that it is not Levi's life which matters – only that he survived to tell it.
Lesley Chamberlain's most recent book is 'The Secret Artist: a close reading of Sigmund Freud' (Quartet); her novel 'Girl in a Garden' will be published next year
Rising above the horror
Theo Richmond reviews two complementary biographies of the writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi
IAN THOMSON met Primo Levi just once, in 1987, on a sunlit day in Turin. Levi was in shirt sleeves, the tattooed concentration camp number visible on his left forearm. The interviewer's initial nervousness faded in the presence of a man he found warm and sprightly, seemingly at ease with himself. The afternoon was "full of unexpected laughter".
Nine months later, on another bright day, Primo Levi plunged into the stairwell of his home. The concierge heard the thud as Levi's body hit the ground. He was 67.
Primo Levi was a master at concealing his feelings. Below the surface serenity lurked torment, which did not start with Auschwitz. Long before his deportation at the age of 24, Levi had known depression and suicidal thoughts. Later, in his writings, he was able to deal in his own quiet way with emotional drives, with man's capacity for love as well as for bestiality - nowhere more so than in his Auschwitz memoir If This is a Man, one of the defining books of our age.
His own emotions he guarded behind a barrier of secrecy. Even in his autobiographical writings he rarely referred to his wife, never to his mother or children.
Sexual anxieties, in particular, he kept not only from his readers but from most of his many friends too, including the women he loved. Both Ian Thomson and Carole Angier believe this to be a key to understanding the man. Shy and timid as a youth, nervous with girls, uneasy at being touched, desiring sex, perhaps horrified by it, he remained in a repressed state of desperate chastity until he met his future wife Lucia Morpurgo at a Jewish dance after his return from Auschwitz in 1946. She made him feel, as he put it, "reborn".
He surrendered his virginity with relief and gratitude, yet never managed to shed his inhibitions. Both before his marriage and after his domestic life had lost its savour, his intense relationships with women remained platonic. "Man is a centaur," he wrote, "a tangle of flesh and mind." He never reconciled the two.
Both biographers search his childhood for psychological clues: the mother who (he let slip to a friend) never gave him a kiss or caress but bound him to her in a pathologically close relationship to the end of his days; a powerful, philandering father who lavished most of his paternal affection on his daughter.
Carole Angier, more inclined perhaps than Thomson to place Primo Levi on the psychiatrist's couch, takes the title of her biography (Viking, £25, 898 pp) from Levi's last, unfinished and unpublished book Il doppio legame - The Double Bond. The title carries a double meaning: as the term for the chemical double bond of living things, and the double bind of psychology. Angier has studied the three chapters Levi left with his publisher and three others she says no-one else has seen. In this literary adieu Levi abandoned his dedication to secrecy in a final attempt to resolve his "irresolvable conflict".
It is a chronicler of the Holocaust that Levi is best known. In 1943, after a brief spell as amateurish partisan in the mountains, he was captured and deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 prisoners on his transport, only 24 returned. To read of his four-day ordeal crammed in a cattle car with the dead and the dying is to be reminded of how miraculous it was that this small, skinny, hypersensitive Jew survived.
Levi owed it partly to luck (as a chemist he was useful to the Germans), partly to what he called his "detached curiosity", his capacity for viewing hell through the eyes of a scientist or anthropologist, striving to understand the inexplicable, observing everything, remembering everything, as if knowing a time would come when he would be free to bear witness and do his "duty to the dead".
Refusing to demonise the oppressors or canonise their victims, he wrote of the "grey zone" of human nature where good compromises with evil. Yet, by finding scraps of human goodness in the foulest dung heap, his testimony helps to redeem mankind, drawing light from darkness.
In the end, he feared that his words had been of no avail: Holocaust denial, a revival of fascism, genocide, the nuclear threat and, on the personal front, the onset of physical ill health, a stifling marital life that turned home into a prison (partly of his own making), his senile, incontinent, semi-paralysed mother living in the next room competing with Lucia for his attention, all contributed to his despair and finally death. He left no note behind, but few dispute the verdict of suicide.
These two new studies of his life probe Levi's hybrid career as chemist and writer, and the tensions between the two. They offer insights into his major books - If This is a Man, The Truce, The Periodic Table, If Not Now, When? and The Drowned and the Saved - as well as his short stories and poetry. And they show Levi - again as a hybrid - rooted in his native Piedmont and his Jewish heritage.
Soon after his bar mitzvah he abandoned Judaism for a humanist faith, yet he wrote: "I belong, whether I like it or not, to the Jewish people." Two days before his death, Levi contacted the local synagogue to check that the Passover matzos had arrived.
Prodigious in their research and years in the writing, these biographies would have gained from the concision that distinguishes Primo Levi's work. Nevertheless they were worth waiting for, and take us further and deeper than Myriam Anissimov's flawed life of Levi published in translation in 1998.
Angier's is a biographical achievement of the highest order; but each of these new book has its merits, and where there are gaps in one, they are filled in the other. Levi's sister, closer to him in his childhood than anyone else, gave Thomson her trust. Two of the women Levi loved - protected here by pseudonyms - shared their memories with Angier. Levi's widow and children talked to neither author.
Resisting hagiography, these are biographies clearly written from love, and are unlikely to be surpassed until Primo Levi's letters and papers left in his widow's possession are released - if they ever are. Carole Angier fears Lucia may already have burned them.
· Theo Richmond is the author of 'Konin: A Quest' (Vintage).
Talk of other
Claudia FitzHerbert reviews The
Double Bond: Primo Levi by Carole Angier and Primo Levi by Ian Thomson
DURING the year he spent in Auschwitz, Primo Levi, a 24-year-old, already depressive, Jewish Italian chemist from Turin, had a recurrent dream in which he tried to tell his story to listeners who turned away and spoke "confusedly of other things among themselves". When he returned to Italy in 1945 - one of only 24 to do so, out of the 650 with whom he had been transported - his compulsion to testify at first alarmed his immediate family and a gradually widening circle of relations, friends and acquaintances. Many had themselves lost loved ones in the camps; some understandably put their capacity to hope before their obligations to the truth. Levi was different. He brought the whole of his scientific training to bear on his experiences and he was also natural storyteller: he widened his audience by accosting strangers on buses and trains. As the months wore on and the curtain of normal life descended, Levi stopped talking to strangers, and started writing for them instead.
The manuscript of If This Is a Man was completed within months. Einaudi, the Turin-based publishing house with exemplary anti-Fascist credentials, took a week to reject it. It was eventually published in 1947 by a maverick with the wit to recognize the memoir as a work of art but without the publishing resources to make it succeed. Ten years later Einaudi republished the book to great acclaim. Levi continued to work as an industrial chemist making business trips to Germany ("I learnt it in Auschwitz," he replied evenly, when complimented by German colleagues on his knowledge of the language), but his evenings and weekends were spent writing.
In England we continued to speak confusedly of other things for another two decades, despite the trickle of translations which began to appear. In America Levi's courageous stand against Israeli aggression made him a problematic figure until the mid-1980s, when the runaway success of The Periodic Table earned him some respite from Zionist certainties. By the time of his death by suicide in 1987, Primo Levi was a household name in the English-speaking world as well as Italy, and the news of his violent end occasioned shock and disbelief everywhere.
The circumstances of that death - he plunged down the stairwell of the apartment building in Turin where he had been born 67 years earlier and where he still lived with his mother and his wife - compelled attention. Primo Levi, whom many felt they knew well from his books of semi-fictional autobiography, never wrote about the domestic details of a life spent, but for the year in Auschwitz, under his mother's roof. By 1987 the mother was senile and paralysed, but her hold over her son was greater than ever. He nursed her with the help of his wife, Lucia, whom he had brought to the flat 40 years earlier in what all concerned had assumed would be a temporary arrangement. Levi's son and daughter were born and brought up there. The son, at the time of Levi's death, was living in the same block, just across the fatal stairwell. Only Levi's sister and daughter escaped. Neither married.
Angier and Thomson agree on everything and nothing. They are agreed on the circumstances of the writer's life, the meaning and worth of his work, and the reason - depression, not Auschwitz - for his death. Both present Levi as forever trapped in his survivor's role, bound to testify again and again, to roll up his sleeve and wave his tattooed arm with gentle insistence in the faces of schoolboy deniers and revisionist historians. But they could not agree less on how to tell his story, or what to do about the gap created by the silence of their subject's wife and children. Given their common subject matter there is a startling absence of overlap between these two books.
Thomson's book (624pp, Hutchinson, £25) barely acknowledges the existence of a gap in the evidence that he plugs with history. On the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, he conveys the texture of life for Italy's assimilated Jews under Mussolini: the initial radicalising shock of the racial laws, followed by the slowness of any apprehension of real danger. There is a terrible freshness to his description of the rejoicing which followed Il Duce's fall and the degree to which the north was caught unawares by advancing German troops. It is the best sort of history: the urgent directness of the writing distracts attention from what we can't know about Levi's life during this time - such as how much he really minded about difficulties with girls and whether or not his mother dissuaded him from joining the resistance movement sooner.
Angier, by contrast, constantly draws attention to what we don't know, by how much she makes up. She uses forgotten novels by distant cousins to allege that his parents' marriage was unhappy, which in turn explains the pathological closeness of Levi's bond with his mother and consequent inability really to love another woman. Evidence of Levi's mental anguish as a young man is gleaned from stories written decades later. Her technique is to yank us forward from Levi's early friendships to find out how and why the writer portrayed the person in question, and what sort of response - if any - the portrait elicited. Another yank forward and we are - often divertingly - eavesdropping on Angier energetically doorstepping a survivor. The use a writer makes of his material can be an invaluable tool for understanding his quiddity as a writer. Angier takes an opposite tack, appearing to believe that Levi's artistic decisions can be treated as biographical documents.
Angier's account takes off in dealing with the stories Levi didn't tell, while in comparison Thomson's bluff lack of interest in the increasingly claustrophobic conditions of Levi's home life begins to look disablingly imperceptive. Angier weaves a darkly persuasive fairy tale around the wretched triangle made by Primo and the two Mrs Levis. Lucia had saved the life of her virginal, spavined, chemist first by listening to him and then by loving him, but as he went out into the world of success, which was a necessary part of transforming himself from witness into writer, she retreated from it. Angier suggests that neither had any idea at first "how strong he really was, and how much he would need his freedom; nor how weak he was, and how little he would dare to seize it". Far from being forced to live under her mother in law's roof, Angier's Lucia seizes her chance and enters into an unholy alliance with her mother-in-law to keep her husband from the world.
Angier's version may depend too much on what she has gleaned from two interested parties - intimate women friends of his last years. Both refuse to be named, and one witholds the manuscript chapters of an unfinished work in her possession. The gentleness with which the biographer treats these unnamed women is in marked contrast to her portrayal of Lucia Levi as a vengeful widow intent on destroying her husband's papers. It is tempting to disgress, Angier-like, and consider the parallels between the roles of unauthorised biographer and unacknowledged mistress.