Primo Levi

By David Keffer,
with Allen B. Ruch

Primo Levi (1919-1987)

  1. Introduction
  2. Biography
  3. Levi's Fiction: Description and Analysis of Six Works
  4. 11 April 1987: Levi's Controversial Death
  5. Selected Bibliography of English Translations
  6. Credits



Is anything sadder than a train
That leaves when it's supposed to,
That has only one voice,
Only one route?
There's nothing sadder.

Except perhaps a cart horse,
Shut between two shafts
And unable even to look sideways.
Its whole life is walking.

And a man? Isn't a man sad?
If he lives in solitude a long time,
If he believes time has run its course,
A man is a sad thing too.

--Primo Levi
January 17, 1946
From Collected Poems
Faber and Faber, London, 1988.

In approaching the works of Primo Levi, it becomes clear that there were two major episodes in his life which profoundly influenced his writing. The first was his training as a chemist in Italy. The second was his internment in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he spent ten months from 1943 to 1944. Although these two aspects of Levi's life pervade nearly everything he wrote, they tend to fall on opposite ends of a stylistic continuum, with his camp experiences forming a body of memoir and traditional fiction (the nonfiction of Survival in Auschwitz or the novel If Not Now, When?), and his life as a working chemist informing his more experimental works, where memoir, storytelling and fiction are blended by unusual narrative inventions (the stories within stories of The Monkey Wrench, or the elemental framework of The Periodic Table).

Certainly, Levi's nonfiction holds great historical significance, providing an invaluable and literate reminder of the Holocaust. Levi's accounts of Auschwitz are recognized for the brutal and uncompromising honesty with which events inside the camp are portrayed. Although neither as voluminous nor as laboriously detailed as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago (1973-75), the intent of Levi's nonfiction writing was the same -- to record the horror of the camps. If Levi's tone is less bitter and accusatory than that of Solzhenitsyn, it is at least partially because (i) the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps were over by the time of the Levi's writing, whereas the Gulag continued to exist even as Solzhenitsyn published his accounts of it; and (ii) the vast majority of people openly admitted the atrocities of the holocaust in Nazi Germany, whereas there remained a great deal of ignorance, especially in the U.S., as to the magnitude of the atrocity inside the Soviet penal system. Having recognized the importance of Levi's nonfiction, the remainder of this survey will focus on Levi's fiction, which occupies its own place in the history and development of modern literature.


Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy in 1919, to a family of assimilated and fairly non-religious Jews with Spanish roots. He pursued an education in chemistry, and despite Mussolini's racial laws of 1938 -- which prohibited Jews from higher education -- Levi received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Turin in 1941. He eventually landed a position in a pharmaceutical laboratory where he worked until 1943, when the Germans invaded Northern Italy.

Leaving his job, the young chemist traded his glassware for a pistol, joining a band of partisans devoted to fighting Germans and Italian fascists. After being betrayed by one of their own number, Levi was handed over to the Germans and deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He spent 10 months at Auschwitz, where he survived by working in a synthetic rubber factory in the Monowitz labor section of the camp. Falling ill to scarlet fever, he was left behind when the Germans evacuated the camp in anticipation of advancing Russian forces. In January 1945, Levi was liberated by the Red Guard, forever changed by his experience and bearing the indelible tattoo 174517. Making his way back to Milan, he married Lucia and resumed his career as an industrial chemist. In 1977, he retired from his position as manager of a chemical factory in Turin, devoting himself exclusively to writing until his controversial death on April 11, 1987, in the apartment building where he was born and eventually took up residence.

Falling to his death from the railing of his third-floor stairwell, the question of whether Levi committed suicide or was the victim of a tragic accident is still open to debate, and will be discussed later.

Levi's Fiction

The amount of fiction produced by Levi is not tremendous -- five modestly sized collections of short pieces and a novel -- and yet they provide a unique perspective in literature, skillfully combining the major elements of the author's life. On the one hand, his training as a chemist is evident in his choice of subject matter, the reasoning of his protagonists, and his analytical descriptions. On the other hand, Levi's harrowing experiences in Auschwitz are the source of an insuppressible sense of wonder present in his work, a wonder over every detail of the animate and inanimate world, coupled with a profound appreciation of simply being alive to observe the details. What arises from this combination of science and mystery are stories which are as uncategorizable as they are unusual. For example, Levi's tale about the construction of a bridge progresses not by the traditional plot sequence of introduction, conflict, and resolution; but rather by the scientific description of the engineering process, tempered by an omnipresent delight in just being able to witness the construction of a bridge. These stories, the odd children of the unplanned pairing of science and atrocity, comprise Levi's gift to modern literature.

In this section, Levi's six volumes of fiction will be examined, with the greatest attention given to The Monkey's Wrench and The Periodic Table, generally considered to be his two greatest contributions to the field.

The Sixth Day

The first of Levi's works of fiction to be published, The Sixth Day contains twenty-three short stories. Four of these stories ("Order on the Cheap," "The Measure of Beauty," "Full Employment," "Retirement Fund") concern a Mr. Simpson, a salesmen for the mysteriously named NATCA corporation. In each of these stories, Simpson approaches the first-person narrator (basically Levi himself; a trend that will continue throughout his work) with a different futuristic instrument. These devices include a mimer, which perfectly duplicates three dimensional objects; male and female Kalometers, which measure beauty; another device that allows Simpson to communicate and make business deals with dragonflies, bees, and ants; and finally the spectator, that allows the user to put on goggles and relive the experiences of others. (A striking 1960s vision of the computerized virtual reality technology that was developed in the 1990s.)

Given that these stories deal with imaginary or futuristic technology, they can be classified as science fiction. Many of the stories in The Sixth Day (and in The Mirror Maker) share this trait. However, Levi attempts to integrate this technology into the contemporary world as a single, explicable anomaly between that fictional world and the real world, thus making it seem less improbable. And despite the gee-whiz nature of the various gadgets, Levi's purpose in introducing these devices into his stories is to explore the human reactionto the instruments and how the products might be used, and eventually misused, to the detriment of mankind. The use of the fantastic to examine humanity is a well-known literary device, whether found in Kafka and Borges, serious science fiction, or so-called magical realism. It is a device that Levi will use throughout his career, from the historical fantasy episodes found in The Periodic Table to the subtle wonders of The Monkey's Wrench.

The relationship between Simpson and the narrator is an ambivalent one, friendly but frequently tested. In a sense, it is a precursor to the relationship between Faussone and the narrator of The Monkey's Wrench. Simpson is much more of a doer than a thinker, as is Faussone relative to the narrator. It is in this contrast of characters, one spontaneous and one reserved, one innocent and one calculating, that Levi is allowed to inspect the use of these devices in two different lights.

Not all of the stories in The Sixth Day deal with Mr. Simpson's futuristic devices. One of the most interesting stories, "Westward," explores the biological imperative to live with a traditional scientific approach. It begins with a study of lemmings rushing into the sea. It is observed that, within the lemming population, there is a distribution of enthusiasm in the execution of this mass suicide. By capturing individuals across the distribution, the researchers are able to isolate a hormone in the laboratory, which dictates the biological imperative to survive. The researchers next begin to search through the human population for a similar hormone or lack thereof. Their search leads them to an isolated population of indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest.

During the entire story, Levi uses the investigation as a canvas upon which he can explore his own understanding of the purpose of existence and the motivation of people who continue to exist, even when they no longer perceive an ulterior purpose in their existence. The story is fundamentally a philosophical discussion of whether a biological or chemical imperative is sufficient to convince an existentialist to maintain their existence. On both the philosophical and the fictional level, the story is delightfully unique.

The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table is a collection of 21 short works, each named after an element from the periodic table. These works range from memoirs and essays ("Zinc," "Potassium") to short stories written in youth, lost then found again decades later ("Lead," "Mercury"). In characterizing the work as a whole, Levi wrote:

The reader, at this point, will have realized for some time now that this is not a chemical treatise... Nor is it an autobiography, save in the partial and symbolic limits in which every piece of writing is autobiographical, indeed every human work; but it is in some fashion a history.

In all of the works, several recurring characteristics of this "history" are present. Foremost among these is the historical milieu of Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s, a time when being a Jew in Italy was, to say the least, difficult. In The Periodic Table, this difficulty presents itself in the limited opportunity Levi had to be educated in chemistry and, later on, to secure a position where he could practice it. He had to take whatever job he could find, and usually did so under a false name ("Nickel"), so as not to alert his employers to the fact of his Jewish heritage. The stories themselves blend this mix of the personal and the historical, and are narrated in the first person, a series of memoirs beginning from childhood. In this sense, we have a very individual history of Levi. In another, more general sense, the stories incorporate the history of the Jewish people in Italy -- in "Argon," Levi writes of his ancestors leading up to his grandparents and uncles.

Regardless of whether the individual works are memoirs, essays, or fiction, The Periodic Table is suffused with a reverence for work that would later characterize The Monkey's Wrench, with its tales of Faussone the rigger. However, in The Periodic Table, the sense of dignity and respect is more personal, as the subject of the work is chemistry, with the elements and compounds that make up the entire earth and the people upon it. This reverence for work translates into a reverence for all things natural, and in fact life itself. In "Nitrogen," Levi presents a diagram of alloxan:


Upon which he remarks:

It is a pretty structure isn't it? It makes you think of something solid, stable, well-linked. In fact it happens also in chemistry as in architecture that "beautiful" edifices, that is, symmetrical and simple, are also the most sturdy: in short, the same thing happens with molecules as with the cupolas of cathedrals of the arches of bridges.

Despite Levi's obvious scholarship and professional interest in chemistry, the works in The Periodic Table never come off as academic or didactic. For every digression into chemistry or the etymology of elemental names, Levi provides a very human explanation, and his reflective musings are always insightful. The stories have simple and engaging plots, and Levi himself serves as an excellent storyteller. Although some find postmodern elements in the mixture of fact and story, the boundaries are fairly well delineated, and the structure of the work is fairly traditional in its own way. The elements of postmodernism in The Periodic Table have more to do with the manner in which the inanimate elements themselves are presented as the motivation (if not the protagonists) of the stories. Levi is simply an observer, following the signs which they provide.

The Monkey's Wrench

Aside from If Not Now, When?, which takes the form of a traditional novel, The Monkey's Wrench is the only other one of Levi's books to be generally labeled a novel. However, the criteria by which The Periodic Table is categorized as a collection of short stories and The Monkey's Wrench as a novel are a bit ambiguous. Beyond the arbitrary choice made by the publisher to divide the former into distinct stories and the latter into chapters, there is really no structural difference (much less thematic difference) between the two volumes.

However, what is different is the style in which the work is narrated. Libertini Faussone, the fictional protagonist of The Monkey's Wrench, is a "rigger;" a type of construction worker who directs the practical assembly of cranes and other equipment used in the construction of bridges, dams, and other industrial structures. Faussone has worked in various constructions sites all over the world, and the novel is anchored by these sites, which lie at the center of Faussone's colorful tales. Although Faussone is at the center of the book, the first-person narration is again provided by an unnamed narrator with characteristics, education, and a history similar to Levi himself. Occasionally the rigger breaks from his stories and discusses them with the narrator, who in turn offers the reader his own commentary on the idiosyncratic Faussone. In this way, the authorial "Levi" narrator is placed between the reader and the actual protagonist. Although this deviation from the traditional form of the novel places The Monkey's Wrench on an unusual literary plane, it can also be seen as a bridge between the immediate storytelling of The Periodic Table and the purely fictional characters and omniscient viewpoint of If Not Now, When? By this token, the most "postmodern" of Levi's books may be seen as a transition between two more traditional forms, rather than the result of a particular style evolving towards greater degrees of experimentation. Which is not to undermine either the work's creative genius or its charming uniqueness. Levi performs wonders with the stories themselves, achieving the perfect balance of storytelling, characterization, and reflection. Just how Levi does this calls for a closer look.

Neither the entire novel nor the individual tales follow the traditional pattern of introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution. Nor do the stories have much in the way of plot. Yet despite this lack of active movement, two mechanisms serve to keep the reader suspended in a state of curious engagement. The more obvious, though less important of the two, emerges through Faussone's description of the various problems that he's encountered in his work. As each story progresses, the reader wants to learn if a remedy to the problem exists, and if it does, just what form the solution will take. If a solution does not exist, we're morbidly drawn to know the magnitude of the resulting disaster. For example, when Faussone describes a job building a bridge in India for which he hung the suspension cables, numerous hints are provided to the reader that the project ended in disaster. Exactly how that disaster will manifest is the central question that permits suspense to build despite Faussone's leisurely pace in unfolding the story.

The second way that Levi keeps his reader actively engaged is through the careful building up on the character of Faussone. The gradual revealing, story by story and layer by layer, of Faussone's personality is what proves to be ultimately satisfying about The Monkey's Wrench. Levi takes great relish in the unveiling of his storyteller, and that delight is transmitted directly to the reader, often through rapport with his literary double, the narrator. For example, after a discussion where Faussone and the narrator compare the trades of a rigger and a writer, Levi writes,

We agreed then on the good things we have in common. On the advantage of being able to test yourself, not depending on others in the test, reflecting yourself in your work. On the pleasure of seeing your creature grow, beam after beam, bolt after bolt, solid, necessary, symmetrical, suited to its purpose; and when it's finished you look at it and you think that perhaps it will longer than you, and perhaps it will be of use to someone you don't know, who doesn't know you. Maybe, as an old man, you'll be able to come back and look at it, and it will seem beautiful, and it doesn't really matter so much that it will seem beautiful only to you, and you can say to yourself, "maybe another man wouldn't have brought it off."

It is through a reader's identification with Faussone that The Monkey's Wrench ultimately either succeeds or fails. By basing the movement of the novel on character development rather than plot, Levi plays a dangerous game. If the reader feels apathy or even hostility towards the protagonist, the book will undoubtedly fail, or at the very least, will be set down unfinished. What is particularly tricky here is that identifying with Faussone requires a certain moral and ethical identification as well -- one imagines the reader must share an appreciation of the protagonist's actual character. Faussone values experience above education, effort above result, and work above leisure. He prizes honesty of intention and despises laggards and corner-cutters. Faussone's judgment of men is based upon a single criterion: Are they honestly devoted to their work? A man's worth is judged by the degree of care and effort that he puts into his work. All other personality traits, whether virtues or vices, are only minor details to Faussone. While some readers may find this ethic quite agreeable, one can just as easily imagine a reader who may feel placed at a distance by it. A reader who judges people by different criteria may find fault with Faussone's tolerance of vice, so long as the man is true to his work. His provincial attitudes may also serve to alienate some readers. An example of this can be found in Faussone's view of women. Faulkner wrote, "A woman is just a woman to you part of the time -- the rest of the time, she's just someone who hasn't learned to look at things the way a man has learned to." While Faussone would never make such a direct statement himself, by his attitude and the stories he tells, the reader understands that his view of women is something close to a more benevolent version of Faulkner's statement.

Yet one of the things that makes this work interesting -- and cohesive -- is that Faussone, a relatively uneducated construction worker, and the narrator, a university-trained chemist, share virtually the same life philosophy. Both men perceive the opportunity to partake in good work as the ultimate pleasure this life has to offer. Nowhere is this made clearer than in Faussone's description of a bad day:

That's right: There are days when everything goes wrong...Then you begin to ask yourself questions, maybe even questions that don't make any sense, like for example, what are we in this world for? And if you think about it, you surely can't answer that we're in the world to rig towers. Right? In other words, when you break your neck for twelve days, putting everything you've got into the job, and you sweat and freeze and curse, and then you begin to have doubts, and they gnaw at you, and you check, and the job is crooked, and you can hardly believe it because you don't want to believe it, but then you check again, and sure enough, the dimensions are screwed up, then you want to know what happens. Then a man changes his way of thinking; and he begins to think that nothing's worth the effort, and he'd like to have another kind of job, and at the same time he thinks that all jobs are the same, and that world is also crooked, even if we can go to the moon now, and it's always been crooked, and nobody's ever going to straighten it up, and least of all a rigger.

For Faussone and Levi, work is life and life is work. Faussone summarizes this perspective when he says, "You have to take what life offers. I mean what the factory offers." And again, when he says, "For me, every job I take is like a first love."

A second aspect by which The Monkey's Wrench deviates from the traditional novel, as well as Levi's previous work, can be found in the language of Faussone, the storyteller. In the narrator's own words, "He's not a great story-teller." Faussone digresses frequently and often quite lengthily, and his speech is filled with stock clichés. While the narrator acts as a translator, rendering Faussone's dialogue into readable print, he is careful not to edit out Faussone's mannerisms, which provide color and depth to the story. At the same time, he balances Faussone's rambling, rustic tone with his own careful, concise descriptions of the storyteller himself. In a sense, Levi is forced to maintain a precarious balancing act between the two extremes in terms of descriptive style. That the book reads effortlessly is a testament to Levi's skill at seamlessly blending Faussone's stories with "his own" commentary.

So, what ultimately makes The Monkey's Wrench hold a special place in the world of literature is Levi's ability to transform into a masterpiece a series of stories that are not only essentially plotless tales about work, but related by an inferior storyteller as well. Despite the fact that we can recognize this transformation as the crux by which Levi's magic works, it is nevertheless difficult to identify the specific mechanism or mechanisms by which the transformation operates.

Perhaps an examination could begin by returning to Levi's experiences in the Nazi camps. In Auschwitz, work was life, both literally and figuratively. On a starkly realistic level, Levi was allowed to survive solely due to his ability to work as an industrial chemist. On a more imaginative level, only by focusing on his work could Levi find solace and retreat from the horror of the world surrounding him. Upon emerging from the concentration camp in 1945, Levi retained these habits, struggling to find a personal meaning that could give justification to a life where horror is an undeniable reality. On some plane, life was so fantastic and full of wonder that it must outweigh all the negative things he had witnessed. Because he believed that such an aspect existed, the effort he put into his search was inexhaustible. The answer to his search is difficult to verbalize, but it was found in the minute structure and detail of this life. Work was for him a way to engage this structure and detail and to lose himself in the vast wonder of the complexities of the world in which we live. Work was something which would accept and reward a lifetime of devotion. Work and devotion to work, no matter how menial, no matter if physical, intellectual, or imaginative, was something he could transform into poetry.

Levi is not alone in his adoration of work. Donald Barthelme, in his own sardonic way, has written a eulogy to work in the short story, "Our Work And Why We Do It" (Amateurs, 1976). Throughout this story, Barthelme investigates detail only, fragments; never the entirety. It is in the details of work and of life that he finds wonder. He equates his work to art and concludes, "Our reputation for excellence is unexcelled, in every part of the world. And will be maintained until the destruction of our art by some other art which is just as good but which, I am happy to say, has not yet been invented."

In a completely different tone, the American poet, Philip Levine, also has numerous eulogies to work which echo Levi's sentiments. In poems spanning the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Levine describes the relationship between work and life. Although Levine frequently focuses on the numbing and repetitive industrial jobs of his native Detroit, he arrives at the same conclusion as Faussone, although from the opposite direction. Levine never comes right out and says that a man's life is defined by his relationship to work, even if the work is onerous, and by extension that the man himself is defined by his work. Rather, Levine describes various details of the work and details of the man outside the work. The reader is left to bridge the two. In the poem, "Buying and Selling" (A Walk With Tom Jefferson, 1988), Levine writes:

All the way across the Bay Bridge I sang
to the cool winds buffeting my Ford,
for I was on my way to a life of buying
untouched drive shafts, universal joints,
perfect bearings so steeped in Cosmoline
they could endure a century and still retain
their purity of functional design, they
could outlast everything until like us
their usefulness became legend and they
were transformed into sculpture.

Though Faussone is not so eloquent, it is a sentiment I think he would approve.

If Not Now, When?

If Not Now, When? is Levi's most conventional novel, complete with a cast of characters and an omniscient narrative viewpoint. Although a clear break from the style of his last two works, what the novel may lack in narrative invention it gains in depth and breadth of content and mastery of characterization, and many consider it to be Levi's masterpiece.

Beautifully written and emotionally direct, the story concerns a group of Jewish partisans, refugees from the War who undertake an odyssey from Russia through Eastern Europe down to Italy, their ultimate goal an escape to Palestine. During their voyage they engage in Resistance actions against the Germans, come across the painful reality of the Nazi camps, and generally engage in universal human activities such as bickering, bonding, and sharing stories. Though based more from records and stories of partisans than Levi's actual experiences, all the hallmarks of Levi's humanity are still present -- his humor and warmth; his delight at the world and its many fragile wonders; his insights into cruelty, suffering, and hope; and his love of storytelling. As with the tales of Faussone and The Periodic Table, the stories of the partisans often reveal a sense of poetic insight which occasionally approaches the mysterious truths of magical realism. (Such as in the story that opens the novel, where the Germans claim the rifle that a town used to signal the hour, "and the village was left without any time.")

The title of the book comes from a quote by Hillel in The Sayings of the Fathers: "If am not for myself, who will be for me? If am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?"

The Mirror Maker

The Mirror Maker is divided into two sections, "Stories" and "Essays." The very short stories are a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. "The Interview" describes an alien conducting an interview with a man walking home late at night. "The Great Mutation" involves a girl who sprouts wings. This is followed by interviews with a gull, a mole, and a giraffe. The stories seem to be a relatively broad collection that span decades and styles. Some of the stories are fragmentary pieces that lack introduction, plot, and conclusion. Others follow a more traditional approach.

Taken as a whole, the tales in The Mirror Maker are much weaker than the stories found in The Periodic Table and The Monkey's Wrench. Quick and easy to read, they are mostly sparse, and can occasionally come across as unfinished. Although many are enjoyable, and perhaps insightful, there is little more than entertainment (sometimes not even that) to be taken from them. In fact, in the "Premise," Levi seems to discourage interpretation beyond the literal, writing:

I beg the reader not to go in search of messages. It is a term that I detest because it distresses me greatly, for it forces on me clothes that are not mine, which in fact belong to a human type that I distrust; the prophet, the soothsayer, the seer. I am none of these; I'm a normal man with a good memory who fell into a maelstrom and got out of it more by luck than by virtue, and who from that time on has preserved a certain curiosity about maelstroms large and small, metaphorical and actual.

This premise is somewhat misleading, as the stories barely approach the level of even small metaphorical maelstroms! However, beneath the calm tone of melancholy with which Levi relates them, one may indeed hear the tone of precisely a man who has been through a maelstrom. Still, it is something of a disappointment after the ingenuity of the tales collected in his earlier volumes, and the sharp and poignant characterizations of his novel just a few years previous to this collection.

As for the essays in The Mirror Maker, they are Levi's observations on such things as the moon landing, how spiders make silk, Jack London, his own translation of Kafka's The Trial, and so on. While also enjoyable at times, none of the essays are particularly meritorious, and like the stories, are interesting only in the light of Levi's other accomplishments. If you stumbled across one of these essays in a newspaper, as they were originally intended, it might get your attention as a solid and interesting piece; certainly above-average. However, when gathered together in a collection, they lose their individual sparkle and tend towards homogeneity.

Other People's Trades

Other People's Trades is a collection of 44 essays written approximately from 1969 to 1985, many of them collected from his published columns in the Turin newspaper, La Stampa. The subjects of the essays range through entomology, astronomy, chemistry, and literary theory, all mixed with personal recollections. In all of the essays, the common thread is Levi's unique, reflective tone, which can sound both optimistic and yet curiously ambivalent at the same time.

The essays are also notable in that they may signal a darkening change in Levi's general outlook. In "News from the Sky," an essay on the scientific progress in understanding the sky and its celestial occupants, Levi writes:

The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and the infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return to barbarism.

Levi's statement is loaded with flagrantly anti-egalitarian notions -- a trait conspicuously absent in such works as The Monkey's Wrench, where the rigger Faussone is honored for the lowly but pure work that he performs. That Levi puts the judgment of the worth of humanity in the twentieth-century in the hands of scientists is a statement sure to provoke debate. But the motivation behind the statement, the contemplation of the uncertain future of humanity, is a ubiquitous element in the development of postmodern fiction. The destruction of classical human truths (such as the distinction and sovereignty of man over other animals, the indivisibility of the atom, the special place of the sun and the Earth in the universe) gave strength to the impulse to question everything, which led to the birth of postmodernism and the experimental abandonment of classical literary forms and formulae.

Levi expounds on this uncertainty with greater candor in "Eclipse of the Prophets." This universal uncertainty is both a boon and a bane. It is bane because, as Levi writes, "A good part of our malaise comes therefore, I believe, from the extreme unknowability of the future, which discourages every long-term project of ours." On the other hand, uncertainty is a blessing because it frees us from the limitations of our past, and allows the collective promise of improving (perhaps only serendipitously) the world of the present.

Included in Other People's Trades are essays that address literature. In "Why does one write?," Levi answers his title question in nine parts. Although only a summary of these answers is provided here, Levi's answers serve as a wonderfully concise statement to his entire career.

Why does one write?

Because one feels the drive and the need to do so.
To entertain oneself and others.
To teach something to someone.
To improve the world.
To make one's ideas known.
To free oneself from anguish.
To become famous.
To become rich.
Out of habit.

11 April 1987

Levi's death is a subject of great debate. What is beyond question is that shortly after receiving his morning mail, Levi, at the age of 68 and recently taking antidepressants, fell over the third floor railing of the central stairwell, crashing to his death on the ground stairs near the elevator cage. The debate centers around whether this was an accident or suicide, and much ink has been spilled over the matter -- critics attach great philosophical significance to the question, which can't help but affect how Levi's body of work may be read and interpreted. At stake is Levi's invulnerable optimism, faith in humanity, and love of life. Having experienced the horrors of Auschwitz, Levi was still able to write optimistic fiction, praising the virtues of man. His faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, as demonstrated in his fiction, is a fundamental pillar in his writing. The critics who claim that Levi took his own life argue that his final suicidal act was a betrayal of his faith in humanity and, in fact, outweighs and undermines the optimism of his life's work. The ultimate conclusion of their argument is that, if Levi did indeed commit suicide, then he finally succumbed to life's unbearable heaviness, and has as a result rendered meaningless his works proclaiming otherwise. This position is best represented by the words of Alexander Stille, who believed Levi's death was a voluntary act. According to Stille,

When a writer commits suicide it is difficult not to reinterpret his books in light of his final act. The temptation is particularly strong in the case of Primo Levi, much of whose work stemmed from his own experience at Auschwitz. The warmth and humanity of his writing had made Levi a symbol to his readers of the triumph of reason over the barbarism of genocide. For some, his violent death seemed to call that symbol into question. An article in The New Yorker went so far as to suggest that perhaps "the efficacy of all his words had somehow been canceled by his death -- that his hope, or faith, was no longer usable by the rest of us." An author's suicide is seen as the logical conclusion of all he has written or as an ironic contradiction -- rather than as the result of a purely personal torment. (New York Times July 5, 1987)

The critics who believe that Levi's optimism and faith in humanity were unshakable naturally contend that his fall was an accident. They suggest, among other arguments, that a chemist like Levi could have employed much more certain (and gentle) means of committing suicide than leaping into a stairwell and risking paralysis. Levi's cardiologist friend David Mendel writes,

[Levi's] death was not premeditated, he left no note. Older people almost never choose a violent death; they use gas or an overdose, and Primo could, had he wished, have taken an overdose of his medicine. It seems most likely to me that he died from the side effects of his anti-depressant drugs. These often lower the blood pressure, and the effort of walking back upstairs to his flat would lower it further. As a result, his brain would have received an inadequate blood supply and he would have felt faint. If he reacted taking some deep breaths, that would worsen matters by causing a further reduction in blood supply. I have a photograph of Primo holding those banisters, which are well below waist-height; I think that on the point of fainting, he reached for them to steady himself and fell. (Sunday Telegraph; with thanks to Diego Gambetta.)

And so the question remains -- suicide or accident? Perhaps believing in one or the other only serves to reflect one's own perception of the world than it does to better illuminate the true meaning of Levi's literary legacy. Whether one feels inclined towards hope or despair, what seems certain is that both forces were in perpetual struggle within Levi's soul. Indeed, his death adds a new resonance to the words he once placed in the mouth of Faussone, words a fictional character used to rebuke the writer himself, words that reveal both conflicted sides of Levi's personality:

So, you really want to close up shop? Excuse me for saying so, but if I were in your shoes, I'd give it some careful thought. I tell you, doing things with your hands has an advantage: you make a mistake, you correct it, and next time you don't make it. But you're older than me, and maybe you've already seen enough things in your life.

Whether or not Levi made the decision to close up shop, that he felt driven to tell stories about all the things he had seen, that he saw the beauty of work and found wonder amidst horror, that his humanity never faltered -- for these things and more the world remains in his debt.

--David Keffer,
with Allen B. Ruch
17 December 2001

Selected Bibliography


The Sixth Day (Summit, 1990) translation of Storie naturali, 1966

The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1984) translation of Il systema periodico, 1975

The Monkey's Wrench (Summit, 1986) translation of La chiave a stella, 1978

If Not Now, When? (Summit, 1985) translation of Se non ora, quando?, 1982

Other People's Trades (Summit, 1989) translation of L'altrui mestiere, 1985

The Mirror Maker (Schocken, 1989) translation of Racconti e sacci , 1986


If This Is a Man (Orion Press, 1959) translation of Se questo è un uomo, 1947

Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (Collier, 1961) translation of Se questo è un uomo, 1947

The Truce (Little Brown, 1965) translation of La tregua, 1958

The Reawakening: A Survivor's Journey Home From Auschwitz (Bodley Head, 1965) translation of La tregua, 1958

Moments of Reprieve (Summit, 1986) translation of Lilit e altri racconti, 1981

The Drowned and the Saved (Summit, 1986) I sommersi e i salvati, 1986

If This Is a Man (contains Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening & Moments of Reprieve)


Shemà (Menard, 1976)

At an Uncertain Hour, translation of Ad ora incerta, 1984

Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1988)


Conversations (1989)
By Ferdinando Camon, John Shepley (Translator)

The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961-1987
By Primo Levi, Marco Belpoliti (Editor), Robert Gordon (Editor)
(The New Press, 2001)


Dr. Keffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His study of classical and contemporary literature has been self-directed and he holds no formal academic credentials in the area. Inspired by Dr. John Prausnitz's article "Chemical Engineering and the other Humanities" (Chemical Engineering Education, Volume 32, Number 1, Winter 1998, Ed. Tim Anderson, published by the Chemical Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education, pp. 14-19), Dr. Keffer has attempted to incorporate nontraditional elements of science and engineering, as they appear in art, theater, literature, and music, into the otherwise technically rigorous curricula of his undergraduate engineering students. In dealing with literature, he frequently directs students to the fictional writings of Kobo Abé (M.D.) and Primo Levi (Chemistry).
Dr. Keffer shamefully does not remember who first introduced him to the works of Primo Levi, sometime about 1992 in Minneapolis. To whomever it was, thanks.

As of December, 2014, this essay is hosted by The Poison Pie Publishing House, which can be contacted here.

This essay was originally published on December 17, 2001 in the Scriptorium of the Modern Word Website, which apparently is no longer extant.