levi: readapting ourselves to the complexity of being human


Levi is justly revered for his masterly memoirs, beginning with “Survival in Auschwitz” and continuing through “The Reawakening,” “The Periodic Table” and finally, and most darkly, “The Drowned and the Saved.” “Survival in Auschwitz” was written in a white heat soon after Levi’s liberation and published in 1947, though translation and recognition came much more slowly. It has often been noted, but is worth noting again, that the American title represents an unfortunate decision by the publisher to replace the haunting Italian title, “Se Questo È un Uomo” — “If This Is a Man” — with a more utilitarian one. The decision signals a confusion that exists in Levi’s reputation and that perhaps existed even inside of him: the urge to poeticize and philosophize competing with the need to bear witness, to record in as literal and straightforward a manner as possible the Nazi war against Western civilization in general and Jews in particular. But in all his writing, Levi, who worked as an industrial chemist much of his life, combined scientific detachment with deep, sympathetic imagination, a combination that allowed him to parse with excruciating clarity all the degradations — large and small, physical, psychic and spiritual — of the Nazi genocide.

more from the NY Times Book Review here.