The Complete Works of Primo Levi

Edward Mendelson in The New York Times:

MendPrimo Levi studied chemistry at Turin and worked as a chemist until, at 24, he joined the Italian “partisans” resisting the Nazi occupation of northern Italy in 1943. He was arrested by Italian Fascists and turned over to the Germans, who sent him to Auschwitz — he called it the Lager, the German word for a concentration camp — where he survived partly by luck, partly because he was put to work in a synthetic-rubber factory that used prisoners as slave labor. Returning to Italy, he wrote his memoir of Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), and worked 30 years for a paint factory while writing stories, poems, memoirs, essays, a novel and “The Periodic Table” (1975), his idiosyncratic autobiography in which each chapter was named for a chemical element and some chapters were short stories.

Levi earned world fame for the quiet, undramatic lucidity of “If This Is a Man” and for the strangely moving blend of scientific fact and quicksilver fantasy in “The Periodic Table.” In the United States his work was published haphazardly, with some books retitled for marketing purposes (“If This Is a Man” became “Survival in Auschwitz”), some printed in incomplete translations, some never translated at all. “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” expertly edited by Ann Goldstein — and the product of six years of negotiations to bring together the translation rights — includes everything Levi published, in new or revised translations. Twenty-eight years after his death, these three handsome volumes bring into focus the breadth and coherence of his genius, and make unexpectedly clear how deeply his work as a chemist shaped his unsettling work as a moralist and his unique vision of psychology and history.

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