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Primo Levi

An Identikit

Drawing on twenty years of research, this is the definitive biography of Primo Levi.

Over the last seventy years, Primo Levi (1919–87) has been recognized as the foremost literary witness of the extermination of the European Jews. In Primo Levi: An Identikit, a product of twenty years of research, Marco Belpoliti explores Levi’s tormented life, his trajectory as a writer and intellectual, and, above all, his multifaceted and complex oeuvre.
 
Organized in a mosaic format, this volume devotes a different chapter to each of Levi’s books. In addition to tracing the history of each book’s composition, publication, and literary influences, Belpoliti explores their contents across the many worlds of Primo Levi: from chemistry to anthropology, biology to ethology, space flights to linguistics. If This Is a Man, his initially rejected masterpiece, is also reread with a fresh perspective. We learn of dreams, animals, and travel; of literary writing, comedy, and tragedy; of shame, memory, and the relationship with other writers such as Franz Kafka and Georges Perec, Jean Améry and Varlam Shalamov. Fundamental themes such as Judaism, the camp, and testimony innervate the book, which is complemented by photographs and letters found by the author in hitherto unexplored archives.
 
This will be the definitive book on Primo Levi, a treasure trove of stories and reflections that paint a rich, nuanced composite portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most unique and urgent voices.

780 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9

The Italian List

Biography and Letters

Jewish Studies


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Table of Contents

Preface
PHOTO: Portrait with his Mother (1920)
Portrait with his Mother
If This Is a Man
Before If This Is a Man
Avigliana
Writing the Auschwitz Report
A Diary and Early Typescripts
The 1947 Edition of If This Is a Man
If This Is a Man (1947-1958)
The Journey
On the Bottom
Initiation
Ka-Be
Our Nights
The Work
A Good Day
This Side of Good and Evil
The Drowned and the Saved
Chemistry Examination
The Canto of Ulysses
The Events of the Summer
October 1944
Kraus
Die Drei Leute vom Labor
The Last One
The Story of Ten Days
A Sequel?
The 1948 Edition
Other Versions
LEMMAS
The Deported
Lager
Muselmänn
First Names
Holocaust
Time
I/We
Depositions
Heinz Riedt
Germans
PHOTO:Portrait of a Student (c.1937)
Portrait of a Student
ESSAY: Is If This is a Man really “a detached study of certain aspects of the human mind” as the author claims?
ESSAY: Why If This Is a Man was rejected by Einaudi and other publishers, or why so much time went by before it was understood and appreciated.
ESSAY: Is If This is a Man a Comedy or a Tragedy?
PHOTO: Photo of the False Identity Card (c. 1942)
Photo of the False Identity Card (c. 1942)
The Truce
Inception
Editor of Himself
Writing by Hand
The Title
The Typescript
Publication
Further Editions
LEMMAS
Mud/Clay
Trains
Journeys
Space Travel
Maps
Self-Commentary
Music
Theater
ESSAY: Dreams, Nightmares and Visions from If This is a Man, The Truce and the Shirt Stories
ESSAY: Can Primo Levi be Considered a Political Writer?
Natural Histories
The Short Story Workshop
Science Fiction?
The Book
Variants
LEMMAS
Science Fiction
Hybrid
Scientific American
Radio
Television
Cinema
Flaw of Form
LEMMAS
Games
Invention
Creation/Evolution
PHOTO: Portrait of a Chemist (1952)
Portrait of a Chemist (1952)
The Periodic Table
A Book About Chemistry
Calvino’s Letter and Argon
The Typescript
The Book
ESSAY: Vanadium and the gray doctor Müller
LEMMAS
Science
Chemistry
Paint
Symmetry/Asymmetry
Mountain Walking
PHOTO: Portrait of the Family (1963)
Portrait of the Family (1963)
The Wrench
Books in Pairs
History of the Book
The Typescript
LEMMAS
Work
Hands
Charles Darwin
Claude Levi-Strauss
ESSAY: What Literary Genre Does Primo Levi Belong To?
The Search for Roots
History of the Book
The Preface
Levi’s Encyclopedia
The Typescript
LEMMAS
Alessandro Manzoni
Dante Alighieri
Giacomo Leopardi
Charles Baudelaire
François Rabelais
Art
The Bible
Pain
Happiness / Unhappiness
Envy
Hermann Langbein
Mario Rigoni Stern
PHOTO: Portrait while Smoking and Discussion (1978)
Portrait While Smoking and Discussing
Lilith and Other Stories
The Collection
The Typescript
PHOTO: Portrait with an Owl Mask (1986)
Portrait with an Owl Mask (1986)
LEMMAS
Levi’s Alphabet of Animals
Alfil
Anchovies
Animalcules
Ants
Atoula/Nacani
Bees
Beetles
Birds
Buck
Butterflies
Cats
Centaurs
Creation
Crows
Delta
Designers
Dogs
Dolphin
Dromedary
Elephants
Ethology
Flies
Giraffes
Goosander
Hens
Horses
Inventing an Animal
Inspiration
Kangaroos
Lemmings
Lichen
Man
Metamorphosis
Moles
Monkeys
Monsters
Mice
Neoteny
Oysters
Parasites
Seagulls
Serpents and Worms
Spiders
Tadpoles
Traces
Vilmy
ESSAY: Levi, the Ecologist
PHOTO: Portrait with a Personal Computer (1986)
Portrait with a Personal Computer (1986)
If Not Now, When?
A Drawer-Full of Unused Ideas
A “First Time”
The Typescript
A Return to Jewish Roots?
LEMMAS
Israel
Anti-Semitism
Kafka
At an Uncertain Hour (Collected Poems)
History of the Collection
Short, Bloody Poems
Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner, and the Title
The Garzanti Edition
Variations
Translations
Poetry and Computers
Other People’s Trades
Elseviers
The History
The Typescript
The Book
LEMMAS
Encyclopedias
Computers
Food Preservation
Italo Calvino
Aldous Huxley
Paul Celan
Turin
Clarity/Obscurity
Collected Stories and Essays
History of the Book
The Book
LEMMAS
Editor and Translator
Artist
PHOTO: Portrait of a Retired Chemist (c.1986)
Portrait of a Retired Chemist
The Drowned and the Saved
How the Book was Conceived
The Night of the Girondists
Appendix to If This Is a Man
Chaim Rumkowski and the “Gray Area”
The Title
The Book
LEMMAS
Gray Zone
The Night of the Girondists
Jean Améry
Hannah Arendt
Bruno Bettelheim
Sigmund Freud
Variam Shalamov
ESSAY: Levi, Bellow and the King of the Jews
LEMMAS
Color
Memory
Humor
Calvino, Levi, and Black Holes
Suicide
PHOTO: Levi’s Hall and Stairwell (c.1987)
Levi’s Hall and Stairwell

Excerpt

Several chapters of if this is a man, if not all, were written in a small town in the piedmont region called Avigliana where Levi found a job in 1946. Two months after his grueling but ultimately fortunate journey home, Levi was employed by the Montecatini, the company that owned the chemical plant there. Years later, Levi wrote about the period when he was writing his first book in a short story called chromium (in the periodic table). Levi’s duties in the noisy paint factory were not particularly pressing (“no one paid much attention to me”, p.877), and he found time here and there to dedicate to his writing. It is likely that some chapters were written by hand, while others were typed, especially in the evening in the factory dormitory where he stayed during the week. The “maniacal scribbler who disturbed nights in the dormitory” (p.881). Since he had just comeback from Russia, some suspected him of being a soviet agent. He was in no hurry to finish but told his story “Giddily” (p.876), almost compulsively. He had no precise plan. The chapters of If This Is a Man he produced “little   by   little” (ibid.) In Avigliano were still very much fresh reports of facts, impressions, reflections, and eyewitness accounts, which would only take on a cohesive form when the final project was completed.
 
Levi also “scribbled”, as he put it, on his commutes from Turin to Avigliano and back. As he himself would later relate, one important chapter, The Canto of Ulysses, was written in a lunch break. He finished his meal in fifteen minutes and then retired to his dormitory to write the story of Pikolo and how he attempted to use Dante’s Canto   XXVI   to   teach   his French   fellow   prisoner   Italian.  These impressions linked to facts, as he liked to say, werexactly what Levi was extracting by writing a testimony in the guise of a story.
 
Before examining the work-in-progress that was the 1947 edition of If This Is a Man—the one published by de silva after Einaudi had rejected the manuscript—let us take a few steps back in time and look at the text known as the Auschwitz report. This is because there is an important link between this more ‘technical’ witness statement and the first edition of if this is a man.
 
In   the   Katowice   concentration   camp   where   Levi   was   held   after Auschwitz   was   liberated   by   the   red   Army   in   January   1945, Leonardo de Benedetti and Primo Levi were commissioned by the soviet officials who managed the camp to write a report on the sanitary and medical conditions at Monowitz where they had been imprisoned. The soviet government requested a similar report from all the doctors who had been held at Monowitz. De Benedetti, who was a doctor, had worked in the infirmary there, and Levi had been his assistant.
 
We do not know what language the report handed over to the soviet officials was written in. It may have been in French, a language both sides were familiar with. What we do know is that the Initial report served as a palimpsest for a later report entitled rap  porto sull’organizzazione igienico-sanitaria del campo di concentramento per ebrei di monowitz (auschwitz-alta slesia) (report on the sanitary and medical conditions of the concentration camp for Jews in Monowitz, Auschwitz, high Silesia, better known as the Auschwitz report) written by the same two former prisoners who had worked at the buna synthetic rubber factory at Monowitz.

De Benedetti and Levi sent the report to the medical journal “Minerva Medica” in 1946, after they had been introduced by Silvia Pons, a doctor and former partisan. The article was reviewed by the board and published in the November 26 edition under the section ‘Original work’. The article was signed by the two authors, although De Benedetti’s name was spelt wrong. De Benedetti was credited as being a “surgeon” while Levi was referred to as a “chemist”.
 

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