Primo Levi and the enigma of survival

0082__ReneBurri-Harpers-1512-630-1James Marcus at Harper's Magazine:

Primo Levi’s literary conquest of America has been slow, sketchy, almost diffident. The English translation of his first book, If This Is a Man, appeared in this country in 1959, twelve years after the publication of the original in Italy, and despite a handful of good reviews, it sank without a trace. Perhaps it was too soon for Levi’s clear-eyed account of life in Auschwitz — perhaps, for readers enjoying the postwar boom and the pleasures of the Pax Americana, the book seemed too bitter, even medicinal. His second book, The Truce, repeated this disappearing act in 1965. Levi, of course, kept writing and publishing in Italy, where he won every literary prize and came to be regarded as one of the sanest, sharpest, and most sweetly rational voices of the century. There, he was a major writer and public intellectual (who happened to make his living as a chemist). Here, he was invisible — until The Periodic Table showed up in 1984, an elemental masterpiece and a reminder to American readers that they had an awful lot of catching up to do.

In short order, English versions of Levi’s work began spilling from the chute: fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs. It was a windfall to have all this stupendous work at last. It was also a lot to digest in a hurry. Levi’s suicide, in 1987 — there are still doubters, but most agree that the author threw himself down the stairwell of his Turin apartment building — seemed for some time to contaminate the pleasure that so many had taken in his work. And even after the initial shock faded, his substantial oeuvre felt somewhat scattered.

more here.