The ethics of Primo Levi

Primo-levi-1981-by-sergio-del-grande-sergio-del-grandemondadori-portfolio-via-getty-imagesIan Thomson at the Times Literary Supplement:

Of course, Levi was more than a witness to contemporary barbarism. In much of the newly translated journalism, fiction and poetry he explores the border zone between science and literature. His great scientific memoir, The Periodic Table, published in Italy in 1975, was ahead of its time: only in recent years has science become, in publishing terms, popular and attractive. Long before Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould and others, Levi had sought to make science accessible to the layperson. The Periodic Table gathers up an extraordinary range of writing, from detective fiction to learned scientific commentary. Chronicled are the fumes, stinks, bangs and fiascos (as well as the occasional triumphs) of Levi’s early chemistry experiments in 1930s Turin, his deportation to Auschwitz and post-war recovery as a writer and chemist.

Over a quarter of a century has passed since Levi died in 1987, yet his fame has grown during this period. In certain quarters of the United States, nevertheless, his suicide provoked a degree of moral outrage. By taking his life, an anonymous diarist objected in the New Yorker, Levi had cheated his readers. So violent a gesture (he pitched himself down the stairwell of the block of flats where he lived in Turin) was seen to be at odds with the calm reason of his prose. The belief remains as vulgar as it is short-sighted: the manner of Levi’s death in no way diminishes the importance of his writing. In The Complete Works Levi portrays himself variously as courageous, cowardly, prophetic or naive, but usually well balanced; in reality he was not at all well balanced. Levi and his books are not one and the same. If anything, his suicide reminds us that the life of the artist does not run parallel to his art. The suicide was provoked by a clinical depression, which was compounded by a number of factors, among them the fear of memory loss and, possibly, guilt at having survived Auschwitz. These three volumes, appearing two decades after the two-volume Opere published in Italy in 1997, confirm Primo Levi as one of the most important writers of our time.

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