Remembering Primo Levi

20 years ago last Wednesday, Primo Levi died. I went to a lovely memorial the week prior at the New York Public Library, which you can listen to by clicking the link “Listen to the Program” on the event page. Ruth Franklin, who spoke at the NYPL event, in Slate, on the new collection of Levi’s short stories:

It is a curse of those who write about the Holocaust that they are eternally identified with their horrific, unapproachable subject, even when they try to take their lives in other directions. Elie Wiesel has written numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, but he will always be thought of first as the author of Night. Twenty years after its publication, Paul Celan’s audiences were still pestering him to recite “Deathfugue,” his canonical poem about the camps (“Black milk of daybreak we drink you at evening …”).

Primo Levi, whose memoir Survival in Auschwitz (its American title) has become one of the defining testimonies of the Holocaust, has suffered a similar injustice. Returning from the camp in 1946 at age 25, Levi went on to have a successful career as an industrial chemist while simultaneously rising to prominence as one of postwar Italy’s most beloved writers. His memoir, first published in 1947, initially sank into obscurity, but his essays and short stories ran in some of the country’s best-known periodicals, and his fiction won numerous literary prizes. Yet in the English-speaking world, he has been defined solely through his works about the Holocaust, which also include The Periodic Table (1984), his autobiography through chemistry, and The Drowned and the Saved (published posthumously in 1988), his final and most brutal meditation on evil.

It is tempting to greet A Tranquil Star—a selection of 17 of Levi’s short stories appearing in English for the first time—as a source to be mined for additional clues about his experience at Auschwitz and its effects on his life afterward. But this impulse is misguided—not least because the stories in this book, the first significant work of Levi’s to be published in America in nearly two decades, offer very little in the way of such clues.