Thursday, October 28, 2021

Levi the Memorious: A Survivor's Tale

I think that the first time I actually read anything by Primo Levi was around the turn of the millennium, when a colleague of mine extracted a chapter from If This is a Man for inclusion in an anthology of readings for our then-new "Life Writing" course.

I knew the name, of course, and had seen The Periodic Table and other books of his displayed on many bookshelves. I don't know quite why I hadn't opened any of them up till then.

Fear, I suppose - fear of the horrors they might contain. I'd read a number of books and watched a great many documentaries about the Holocaust by then, and it was getting harder to persuade myself to endure all that again each time - shameful though that undoubtedly sounds.

I still remember my shock at reaching the last line of Levi's chapter 13: "October 1944":

Primo Levi: If This is a Man (1947)

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.
Everything else in the chapter - in the book, even - is described so calmly and dispassionately, that the last line explodes like a bomb.

You begin to get some idea of the sheer pressure of need for expression of the events and sights in his book. It's not a masterpiece because of the scenes it depicts. Nor is it a masterpiece in spite of the author's closeness to his material. No, it's a masterpiece because of what it is: the organic expression by an exceptionally alert intelligence of a series of horrors almost beyond communication.

Primo Levi: If This is a Man / The Truce (1947 / 1963)

After that I began to collect Levi's books - in a rather desultory way. I guess I thought that since nothing could possibly top the white-hot intensity of If This is a Man, his other works must be some kind of comedown just in the nature of things ...

The Truce was very good also, though: completely different from his first book about the concentration camp, but equally absorbing.

Primo Levi: The Periodic Table (1975)

On top of that, The Periodic Table and The Wrench both do a great job of communicating the absorbing interest of the world of work to dedicated professionals: chemists and construction workers, respectively.

Primo Levi: The Wrench (1978)

So it did come as a bit of a shock to me to realise that I'd somehow missed any announcement of the sumptuous, three-volume edition of his Complete Works in English pictured at the head of this post.

And even more of a shock when, before ordering it, I checked out some of the online reviews. Here's William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic Monthly (December 2015):
Three volumes, 3,000 pages: The Complete Works of Primo Levi, in its very girth and exhaustiveness, asserts a claim about the man whose oeuvre it collects. Best known for his Holocaust memoir, If This Is a Man, as well as for The Periodic Table — a book about his life in, with, and through chemistry — Levi should be seen, as the collection’s publicity material puts it, as “one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.” Novels, stories, poems, essays, science writing, science fiction, newspaper columns, articles, open letters, book reviews: His every word is worth preserving, translating, purchasing, pondering. To read them all together, the collection insists, is to see the man anew.
I say this with reluctance — The Complete Works, which was 15 years in the making, is clearly a labor of love, meticulously edited by Ann Goldstein and seamlessly carried over from Italian, in fresh renditions, by a team of 10 translators — but the claim, on the volumes’ own evidence, is manifestly false. Levi is a great writer. He is a vivid writer, an unflinching writer, an indispensable writer. But he is also a limited writer, both in talents and in range. It does no favors, to the reader or to him, to try to rank him with the likes of Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Beckett. His achievement, in his work about the Holocaust and its aftermath — If This Is a Man, The Truce, and The Drowned and the Saved, as well as parts of Lilith and The Periodic Table — is significant enough. Surrounding that achievement with masses of ephemera only obscures it. A selected works, at half the length for half the price (The Complete Works lists for $100), would have served him better.
$100? Try $US30.49! One of the reasons I was so quick to order the book was that I couldn't believe how cheap it was. Reviews such as the one above must have been pretty effective in killing any appetite for this edition, swollen - as Deresiewicz alleges it is - 'with masses of ephemera'.

Not all the reviews were in this vein, mind you. Here's a nice, rather more subtly reasoned one by Robert S. C. Gordon from the website Public Books (15 January 2016):
This unity-in-variety is the Ariadne’s thread that helps lead a way through the labyrinth of Levi’s complete oeuvre. Not all his readers will be willing to follow the thread along all its meanderings; indeed, responses to the Complete Works have already divided somewhat between those willing to listen to the modulated, lighter, more elfin tones in some corners of this volume and those who, perhaps understandably, prefer to split the work into his greater and lesser achievements and pass over his forays into occasional writing, science-fantasy, zoomorphic poetry, and the rest.
The thread is worth following, however. The harmonies and dissonances between the modes of Levi’s work are, to a significant degree, what make him such a distinctive, subtle, and compelling ethical writer, one who ponders how to live in the face of both the extraordinary and the everyday, not through abstractions but through fragments of stories and vignettes of sentient experience and intelligent invention.
The Complete Works facilitates the task by restoring the chronology of publication of Levi’s books.
To sum up, then, let's complete our hat-trick with Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (23/9/15):
For such a gift as The Complete Works of Primo Levi, one should probably do little more than express thanks. The captious, however, might complain that Levi’s autobiographical writings are somewhat repetitive, his essays a bit dry and his fantasy fiction rather labored. Still, these are just cavils. Whether as witness or imaginative artist, Levi stands high among the truly essential European writers of the past century.
With friends like that, who needs enemies? "Repetitive ... dry ... laboured" - these are not bookselling adjectives. Nor is Robert Gordon's mention of the "lighter, more elfin tones" of some of his more fanciful stories particularly enticing.

Primo Levi: The Mirror Maker (1989)

Is it true? Or rather, is there truth in it? I fear so. They're not just making it up out of whole cloth. It isn't all part of an anti-Levi conspiracy. Some of his slighter stories - and there are a great many of them - are a bit ephemeral. Nor does much of his "science-fantasy" reach the dizzying heights of fellow survivor of the Nazis Stanisław Lem.

Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved (1986)

It's tempting just to leave the matter there - to conclude that Levi is a writer whose primary value lies in his autobiographical testimony as an Auschwitz survivor, and that the rest is simply window-dressing. Tempting, yes, but fundamentally wrong. The story is much more complex than that.

Primo Levi: Opere Complete (2017)

Opere Complete. Ed. Marco Belpoliti in collaboration with Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi. Introduction by Daniele Del Giudice. 2 vols. 1997. Nuova Universale Einaudi. Torino: Einaudi, 2017.
    Vol. I:
  1. Se questo è un uomo ('If This is a Man', 1947)
  2. Se questo è un uomo (1958) e appendice
  3. La tregua ('The Truce', 1963)
  4. Storie Naturali ('Natural Histories', 1966)
  5. Vizio di forma ('Flaw of Form', 1971)
  6. Il sistema periodico ('The Periodic Table', 1975)
  7. La chiave a stella ('The Star Wrench', 1978)
  8. Appendice [Appendices]
  9. Note ai testi [Notes on the text]
  10. Vol. II:
  11. La ricerca delle radici ('The Search for Roots', 1981)
  12. Lilít e altri racconti ('Lilith and Other Stories', 1981)
  13. Se non ora, quando? ('If Not Now, When?', 1982)
  14. Ad ora incerta ('At an Uncertain Hour', 1984)
  15. Altre poesie ('Other Poems', 1984)
  16. L'altrui mestiere ('Other People's Trades', 1985)
  17. Racconti e saggi ('Stories and Essays', 1986)
  18. I sommersi e i salvati ('The Drowned and the Saved', 1986)
  19. Pagine sparse ('Scattered Pages', 1947-1987)
  20. Appendice alle pagine sparse [Appendices to the scattered pages]
  21. Note ai testi [Notes on the Text]
In 1997, ten years after Levi's death, Marco Belpoliti assembled a two-volume edition of Levi's Complete Works in Italian. This gave readers everywhere a good overview of the basic canon of his works, including scattered articles, poems, and other uncollected pieces.

Ann Goldstein (1949- )

It also inspired American editor Ann Goldstein, more famous as the translator of Elena Ferrante's bestselling Neapolitan Novels, to attempt a more-or-less complete English version of Primo Levi. As Wikipedia puts it:
The effort of obtaining translation rights took six years, while its compilation and translation took seventeen years ... Goldstein oversaw the team of nine translators and translated three of Levi's books.

The one significant absence from the English edition is the anthology above, which is included in the Italian version. This does make a certain amount of sense. A number of the passages chosen by Levi were originally written in English and other languages, and in cases where the Italian translations diverge from their originals - as they often do - it's a difficult decision whether to correct or simply transcribe the results.

The book is, in any case, already available in a 2001 translation by Peter Forbes.

Which brings us to the question of whether all of these new translations are actually improvements on the original English versions? You'll recall that passage I quoted above, from the end of Chapter 13 of Levi's If This is a Man in Stuart Woolf's 1960 translation? Here it is again in the new 2015 edition:

Primo Levi: Complete Works: I (2015): 123-24.

Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk, on the top level, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his cap on his head, his torso swaying violently. Kuhn is thanking God that he was not chosen.
Kuhn is out of his mind. Does he not see, in the bunk next to him, Beppo the Greek, who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow, and knows it, and lies there staring at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Does Kuhn not know that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty - nothing at all in the power of man to do - can ever heal?
If I were God, I would spit Kuhn's prayer out upon the ground.
There are a lot of small changes here. Kuhn's beret has become a 'cap'; he thanks God that he was not chosen, rather than thanking him because he has not been chosen; he's out of his mind rather than out of his senses; a number of phrases have been shifted around, greatly increasing the number of commas. All these are fairly standard consequences of revisiting a piece of your own prose.

What I did not expect, however, was that change in the last sentence of the chapter. That is significant. This is how it read in 1960:
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.
And this is how it reads in 2015:
If I were God, I would spit Kuhn's prayer out upon the ground.
Ten cutting, powerful words have become 13, with a subjunctive added and some extraneous 'ground' to spit on, as well ... But then, how does the sentence read in the original Italian?
Se io fossi Dio, sputerei a terra la preghiera di Kuhn.
A literal translation of that would be: "If I were God, I would spit to earth the prayer of Kuhn."

So, much though I personally prefer the first version of Woolf's translation of this sentence, I'm forced to agree that his revised take on it is far closer to what Levi actually wrote.

Primo Levi (1940s)

On the minus side, then, Stuart Woolf is not necessarily a better stylist after fifty years of brooding on the book than he was in his first flush of enthusiasm. On the plus side, though, he has contributed a fascinating afterword to this new edition in which he reveals just how closely he worked with Levi while preparing that original version.

He also explains that the book's long history of revisions and reprintings has necessitated a number of changes simply to keep up with its author's latest intentions. He is, after all, the only one of the original translators of Levi's works to have been asked to re-vision his work for the new edition. It's hard to imagine anyone else having Levi's work so close to his heart.

So, yes, many analogous quibbles could be made about these new translations of Levi's principal works. Many of them are significantly less idiomatic and more pedantic in tone: careful to preserve the original italian idioms and wordplay even when this has the effect of interrupting the narrative or the train of thought.

But that's what comes of declaring him a 'classic'. All of a sudden the tiniest details seem more significant - it's not just a matter of a temporary publishing boom, but rather of providing reliable details for readers and scholars now and in the future.

Something has been lost, but more - I would say - has been gained in the process. After all, those older editions are still in existence. They haven't been superseded by the new super-edition. Speaking personally, though, I think this new Complete Works will be the mainstay of my own Levi reading from now on.

Art Spiegelman: Maus (1980-1991)

The title of this blogpost was meant as a kind of double-barrelled pun. On the one hand it references cartoonist Art Spiegelman's celebrated graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale, which first appeared, piecemeal, chapter by chapter, in Raw magazine, the comics journal he co-founded with his wife Françoise Mouly, and which was subsequently collected in two volumes: 'My Father Bleeds History' (1986), 'And Here My Troubles Began' (1991).

Jorge Luis Borges: Funes el memorioso (1942)

However, it also makes a nod towards Jorge Luis Borges' great story 'Funes the Memorious', which records the strange fate of one Ireneo Funes, who hits his head in a fall from his horse, and is thereafter cursed to remember absolutely everything which has ever happened to him. He dies shortly afterwards, but first spends a long night describing his plight to the narrator, a somewhat stylised version of Borges himself.

Gustave Doré: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1875)

Like Funes, Levi was forced to remember. He had no choice in the matter. And, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner - a comparison he made himself more than once: in fact it supplied the title for his 1984 book of poems Ad Ora Incerta ['At an uncertain hour'] - he had 'strange power of speech,' as well as a compulsion to seek out listeners.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
Reading this new edition of Primo Levi puts us in the almost unique position of watching a man not bred to the trade in the process of learning how to write. There are the inevitable stumbles and false starts as he moves from the white-hot assurance of his first memoir into the stories and essays which gradually became the mainstay of his life as a modern 'man of letters.'

Those two first volumes of stories, Natural Histories and Flaw of Form, are particularly telling in this respect. The stories are, at times, quite painfully bad - but each one teaches their author something, and gradually they begin to improve. They all have something, some germ of a complex and interesting idea, but it takes some time for him to reach the more sustained accomplishment of a book such as Lilith and Other Stories.

This is a development almost entirely obscured until now by the piecemeal appearance of his fiction in English translation. Four volumes of miscellaneous stories and essays in Italian became a bewildering labyrinth of partial English reprints, translated at different times by very different people. For this alone we should be grateful to the new edition.

Finally, then, I'd have to say that in a case like this I certainly believe that more is better. Would 'a selected works, at half the length for half the price' really 'have served him better', as William Deresiewicz claims in his review above? It might have made Levi seem more of a careful stylist, but I'm not sure that it would have done justice to the more complex and exacting details of his literary legacy.

Primo Levi: If Not Now, When? (1982)

In my case, for instance, having read in Carole Angier's 2002 biography of the lukewarm reception of Levi's one full-length novel, If Not Now, When?, I never even felt tempted to read it until running into it here, in volume 2 of this chronologically arranged edition.

But that would have been a great loss, because it's a wonderfully nuanced and accomplished piece of work. Clearly it was not to the taste of many readers in 1982, who were expecting a repeat of If This is a Man, but that's probably because it's composed more in the style of one of the great classics of European realism.

It echoes Tolstoy's Sebastopol Tales, or Väinö Linna's Finnish war novel The Unknown Soldier - even Jaroslav Hašek's Good Soldier Švejk - far more than the standard-issue Holocaust book that was expected of him. Levi had, in any case, made it clear that he considered the camps an inappropriate subject for fiction. No Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Life is Beautiful for him.

In any case, readers will now be able to decide any and all such matters for themselves, without the no doubt well-intentioned Bowdlerising tendencies of critics such as Deresiewicz.

Primo Levi (1980s)

Primo Levi (1930s)

Primo Michele Levi

  1. If This Is a Man / The Truce. [‘Se questo è un uomo’, 1947/58 / ‘La tregua’ 1963]. Trans. Stuart Woolf. 1960 & 1965. Introduction by Paul Bailey. 1971. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  2. The Periodic Table. [‘Il sistema periodico’, 1975]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1984. Essay by Philip Roth. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000.

  3. If Not Now, When? [‘Se non ora, quando?’, 1982]. Trans. William Weaver. 1985. An Abacus Book. London: Little, Brown and Company (UK) Limited, 1992.

  4. The Wrench. [‘La chiave a stella’, 1978]. Trans. William Weaver. 1986. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1987.

  5. Moments of Reprieve. [‘Lilìt e altri racconti’, 1981]. Trans. Ruth Feldman. 1986. Introduction by Michael Ignatieff. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

  6. Other People’s Trades. [‘L'altrui mestiere’, 1985]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1986. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1989.

  7. The Drowned and the Saved. [‘I sommersi e i salvati’, 1986]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1986. Introduction by Paul Bailey. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1988.

  8. Collected Poems. [‘L'osteria di Brema’, 1975 / ‘Ad ora incerta’, 1984]. Trans. Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann. 1988. London: Faber, 1991.

  9. The Mirror Maker: Stories & Essays. [‘Racconti e Saggi’, 1986]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1989. London: Methuen, 1990.

  10. The Sixth Day and Other Tales. [‘Storie naturali’ (as Damiano Malabaila), 1966 / ‘Vizio di forma’, 1971]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1990. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1991.

  11. The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology. [‘La ricerca delle radici’, 1981]. Trans. Peter Forbes. 2001. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

  12. The Black Hole of Auschwitz. [‘L'asimmetria e la vita: Articoli e saggi 1955-1987’, ed. Marco Belpoliti, 2002]. Trans. Sharon Wood. UK: Polity Press, 2005.

  13. [with Leonardo de Benedetti]. Auschwitz Report [‘Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz - Upper Silesia)’, 1945]. Trans. Judith Woolf. UK: Verso, 2006.

  14. A Tranquil Star. [‘Vizio di forma’, 1971 / ‘Lilìt e altri racconti’, 1981]. Trans. Ann Goldstein & Alessandra Bastagli. 2006. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008.

  15. The Complete Works of Primo Levi. Ed. Ann Goldstein. Introduction by Toni Morrison. 3 vols. Liveright Publishing Corporation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. Inc., 2015.
      Vol. 1:
    1. If This Is a Man. Trans. Stuart Woolf (1947)
    2. The Truce. Trans. Ann Goldstein (1963)
    3. Natural Histories. Trans. Jenny McPhee (1966)
    4. Flaw of Form. Trans. Jenny McPhee (1971)
    5. Vol. 2:
    6. The Periodic Table. Trans. Ann Goldstein (1975)
    7. The Wrench. Trans. Nathaniel Rich (1978)
    8. Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1949-1980. Trans. Alessandria Bastagli & Francesco Bastagli (2015)
    9. Lilith and Other Stories. Trans. Ann Goldstein (1981)
    10. If Not Now, When? Trans. Anthony Shugaar (1982)
    11. Vol. 3:
    12. Collected Poems. Trans. Jonathan Galassi (1984)
    13. Other People’s Trades. Trans. Anthony Shugaar (1985)
    14. Stories and Essays. Trans. Anne Milano Appel (1986)
    15. The Drowned and the Saved. Trans. Michael F. Moore (1986)
    16. Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1981-1987. Trans. Alessandria Bastagli & Francesco Bastagli (2015)

  16. Interviews:

  17. [with Tullio Regge]. Conversations. ['Dialogo', 1984]. Trans. Raymond Rosenthal. 1989. Introduction by Tullio Regge. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

  18. The Voice of Memory: Interviews, 1961-1987. [‘Conversazioni e interviste 1963–1987’, ed. Marco Belpoliti, 1997]. Ed. & Trans. Robert Gordon. 2001. New York: The New Press, 2001.

  19. Secondary:

  20. Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. 1996. Trans. Steve Cox. 1998. London: Aurum Press Ltd., 1999.

  21. Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography. 2002. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.

  22. Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi: The Elements of a Life. London: Vintage, 2003.

Martin Argles: Primo Levi

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