Robert S. C. Gordon at Public Books:
The appearance of the “Complete Works” of any author inevitably cuts in two conflicting directions, at once both canonizing and destabilizing. Great works shine through and receive a mark of rightful recognition; but hidden corners, full and therefore also uneven writerly lives, come to light. Levi is no exception. These volumes reinforce his status as a clarion voice of ethically weighted, carefully calibrated, but also vitally human, witnessing—Mark Lilla has written of his “equipoise”—in the face of the very worst of human violence. The new translations successfully restore the layered plurality of tones and registers in Levi’s style that some earlier translations had lost, including the exuberant variety of foreign words, idioms, and dialects that make his language a choral celebration of human variety, all overseen by his Socratic probing, challenging, doubting, and testing, in Auschwitz and after Auschwitz, for survivor and reader alike. But the Complete Works also challenges us, pushes us to look beyond our settled, admiring view of Levi to the rich body of writing that moves, at oblique tangents and in less predictable directions, away from his core subject matter. In his science fiction, essays, autobiography, fiction, poetry, and more, where his concern frequently is the everyday, the apparently “ordinary” life, or the imagined lives of animals, of machines, of near futures as much as remembered pasts, we see the signs of his unique ethical acuity, and the geometric intelligence that made him the greatest mediator of the Shoah. Berel Lang, in a recent biography, boldly placed Levi in a line of great literary moralists that includes Aesop, Montaigne, and Pascal.4 Could it be that Levi’s compelling capacity to chronicle and pinpoint the moral framework of the Holocaust derives from his broader moralist’s appeal to his readers as fellows, friends, or “co-humans,” as he calls us in The Drowned and the Saved? Perhaps Levi’s is not so much a work of secondary response, or “mere” witnessing to the Holocaust, but rather the encounter of a supple moralist’s mind with a moral quagmire. Such a hypothesis is precisely the sort of rebalancing, the fruitful destabilization, that a newly translated Complete Works can allow us to test out. And the testing out of hypotheses through experience and experiment, including a testing of oneself (provarsi, in Italian), was perhaps as close to a sacred ritual, to an immoveable value, and to a (falsifiable) truth that Levi ever came.