Why Read Primo Levi Today?

In 1987, at the age of sixty-seven, Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi fell to his death from the third floor of his apartment building in Turin. Nearly every article about him begins with this fact, and then weighs up the two arguments — was it an accident or a suicide?

It isn’t exactly surprising that those familiar with Levi are so perplexed by his death, given that his inner life—or more precisely, the inner struggles which came to define his life—possess such a deep human interest. As a shy young Jewish student of chemistry in Mussolini’s Italy, Levi experienced firsthand the antisemitism that was a recent import from Germany. In 1944, after a brief stint fighting for the Italian resistance, Levi was captured, and condemned to spend the final year of the war in Auschwitz. He managed to survive by persuading the Nazis of his utility as a chemist; they put him to work in a factory and thus had an interest (however selfish) in keeping him alive. The encounter with the concentration camp never left him, however:

The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me; I felt closer to the dead than the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings…

Elie Wiesel famously argued of Levi’s apparent suicide that he ‘died at Auschwitz forty years later’ — in other words, that the psychological trauma caused by the camp never left him, and indeed eventually overcame him. In much of his work, there certainly exists an element of continual confrontation, between his civilised mind and the nightmare of his past. By writing about his nightmare he temporarily got the better of it, but it seems from his letters and later books that it would always creep up on him again, crushing and inescapable.

Jillian Edelstein / Camera Press / Redux

The Periodic Table (1975) is not free from this nightmare. Though ostensibly the book is an autobiographical account of Levi’s experiences as a chemist (each chapter is tied to a specific element from the periodic table), and though much of it covers the peaceful years before and after the war, the substance of the whole book — nearly every recounted episode — is inevitably coloured by that harrowing year in the concentration camp.

A large part of the book’s interest lies in its portrayal of a normal, intelligent, thoughtful human being — Primo Levi himself — and how the values of such a human being are altered through subjection to the most unimaginable evil. The world most of us inhabit does not challenge us in quite the same way that Levi’s life challenged him, and it is partly for this reason that reading his work is such a worthwhile exercise — if only to inherit some of his sense of how good it is to be free, and to be alive. In the chapter ‘Chromium’, for instance, he describes falling in love mere months after the war’s end:

Now it happened that the next day destiny reserved for me a different and unique gift: the encounter with a woman, young and made of flesh and blood, warm against my side through our overcoats, gay in the humid mist of the avenues, patient, wise, and sure as we were walking down streets still bordered with ruins. In a few hours we knew that we belonged to each other, not for one meeting but for life, as in fact has been the case.

With such simplicity as this, The Periodic Table conveys, in a way that few books can, an intense appreciation of ordinary human joys — perhaps because those joys, for Levi, were thrown into such sharp relief by his experience of their opposites. To take another example, in the following passage Levi is reflecting on his time in an Italian prison awaiting deportation to Auschwitz. He recounts a conversation with a fellow prisoner whose livelihood consisted of panning gold from rivers. This other man had merely been charged with possession of contraband, and was due to be released in a couple of days. As he enthusiastically described his footloose existence to Levi and encouraged him to try it, Levi thought to himself:

Of course I would try it: what wouldn’t I try? During those days, when I was waiting courageously enough for death, I harboured a piercing desire for everything, for all imaginable human experiences . . . . Of course I would search for gold: not to get rich but to try out a new skill, to see again the earth, air, and water from which I was separated by a gulf that grew longer every day . . . . I felt gripped by a painful envy for my ambiguous companion, who would soon return to his precarious but monstrously free life, to his inexhaustible trickle of gold, and an endless series of days.
Primo Levi in the Alps, July 31, 1983. Photo / Silvio Ortona, coll. Ian Thomson

Passages such as this lift the book beyond ‘good’ and turn it into something unforgettable. In our world of moral uncertainty, it is a forceful reminder that there is good and bad in life. The possibility that Levi committed suicide also reminds us that for every person — no matter how serene — the scales can easily swing both ways, towards happiness or despair. We whose lives are ‘monstrously free’ should do everything within our power to learn from writers like Primo Levi, and try to tilt the scales in the right direction for as many people as possible.