‘One must find the strength to resist’: Primo Levi’s warning to history

Sam Jordison in The Guardian:

Philip Roth once called Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce – usually published as one volume – “one of the century’s truly necessary books”. If you’ve read Levi, the only quibble you could make with Roth is that he’s too restrictive in only referring to the 20th century. It’s impossible to imagine a time when the two won’t be essential, both because of what they describe and the clarity and moral force of Levi’s writing. Reading him is not a passive process. It isn’t just that he makes us see and understand the terrible crimes that he himself saw in Monowitz-Buna. It’s that in doing so, he also makes us witnesses, passing us knowledge that gives us a moral and practical responsibility. We too must remember. We too must tell others. I write this article now in the hope that I can encourage more people to read Levi and understand his importance. If you’re hesitating now – and if I can possibly induce you – go read this book.

If I can’t persuade you, let me turn to Roth again, who described Levi’s achievement thus:

With the moral stamina and intellectual poise of a 20th-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and the most contemptible.

The testimonies that commenters have shared in this month’s reading group have also been moving and impressive. BengalEuropean, for instance, recalled reading Levi’s 1982 novel If Not Now, When?: “I read it at one of those turning or decision points in life, and it helped me to find the courage to decide to do something that dramatically changed my future. Apart from his Holocaust memoir – which is every bit as profound and important as posters here are saying – he’ll always occupy a special place in my mind as a writer able to frame the right questions and to suggest ways to think and behave as a human.”

More here.