It is wise not to have heroes but there are certain writers, for all their human flaws, whose integrity seems heroic – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nawal El Saadawi, Osip Mandelstam, Albert Camus, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Roberto Saviano, Nurmuhemmet Yasin, and so many of the current imprisoned dissident writers highlighted by PEN International who need our advocacy. Though he would have rejected piety, Primo Levi has such an immense moral presence, even the way he wrote had an ethical basis in clarity and honesty. I could pick any number of his short stories – ‘Rappoport’s Testament’ for its reflexivity, ‘Lorenzo’s Return’ for its melancholy, ‘Carbon’ for being such a perfect encapsulation of scientific wonder but ‘Small Causes’ is an incredibly powerful example of how the littlest things can eventually have the most monumental consequences.
First published in Vanity Fair, January 1986, and available to read here. Collected in Moments of Reprieve, 1986
This year is the 100th anniversary of Primo Levi’s birth, and we never tire of reading and re-reading his work. Everyone rightly knows him as an immensely important writer of the Holocaust, but Levi had a wide range of interests and was also a superb science fiction writer. His collection Natural Histories, published in the 1960s,is a book full of pioneering sci-fi stories, where Levi’s scientific background meets a vivid and prophetic imagination. The last story of the book, ‘Retirement Fund’, centres around a character presenting to a potential buyer the Torec, a helmet that works as a virtual reality recorder by connecting directly to the brain: back in the 1960s, Primo Levi was imagining an early version of the devices later popularised by films like Strange Daysor by several episodes of Black Mirror.
First published in Storie naturali, Einaudi, 1966. Collected in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein, introduced by Toni Morrison, Liveright 2015
‘I often asked myself what kind of humanity was massed behind their symbol, and have regretted that none has told his story’
If stories are a vehicle for human connection and compassion, then few can be as important as Levi’s scenes presenting his time in Auschwitz. This moving series of vignettes and character studies, plainly and quietly told, infused with humour and humanity, often depict turning points where life could have changed. In ‘The Juggler’, former street thief and acrobat Eddy catches Levi with paper and pencil, risking his life to write a letter home. Eddy’s shrewd quick-thinking, along with his capacity to move on from Levi’s offence, saves the author’s life; although he receives a less positive ending himself. Levi’s succinctly rich illustrations of the tenacity of the human spirit provide compelling evidence for Frankl’s logotherapy theories and the human search for meaning.
In Moments of Reprieve (Penguin, 1986)
When I think of Primo Levi, I think of the title of Myriam Anissimov ‘s Levi biography: Tragedy of an Optimist. Levi was a young Jewish chemist from Turin when he was deported to Auschwitz; his incredible survival and long return journey home to Italy are documented in works such as If The is A Man and The Drowned and the Saved. His death in 1987 as a result of a fall from the staircase in the apartment building where he was born and continued to live has long been debated as suicide or accident. But Levi was not only a witness and documenter of the Holocaust; his writing was also intellectually and playfully curious, quixotic and strangely comforting, as his stories prove. As with his masterpiece The Periodic Table, Levi combines complex scientific fact with lyrical language to lovely effect, as in the mysterious, allegorical yet highly rigorous ‘A Tranquil Star’.
(From A Tranquil Star and Other Stories. Penguin Classics, 2007)