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Primo Levi: (Paperback)

Primo Levi: (Paperback)

Myriam Anissimov

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ISBN 13: 978-1-58567-020-8
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translated from the French by Steve Cox

The writer Primo Levi (1919-87) once said that "No one can say what his past would have been like 'if."' If it had not been for what happened to Levi at the age of 24, this unassuming Italian chemist might have lived and died unknown to all but his family and friends. The Holocaust changed his life and gave him an intense need to testify.

Until now, the world's representation of Primo Levi came almost entirely through his own writings. His public self-shy, intelligent, diffident-in some respects disguised the man within. This first biography delves deeply into the life and mind of a controversial writer, one who was really a philosophical student of life itself. Primo Levi explores the complex nature of a man who was both a strong and spirited survivor as well as a man prone to severe depression, a man who felt misunderstood and certain that future generations would forget and deny what many would call the central informing disaster of the century.

Primo Levi was born in Turin in 1919, the son of an educated middle-class Jewish family. In 1941 he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in chemistry. Even with honors, as a Jew he could not get a job until he was finally hired to work under a false name at a nickel mine in the mountains near Turin. In 1942 he transferred to a pharmaceutical firm in Milan. Within a year the Nazis had arrived, and Levi joined a group of partisans in the Val d'Aosta. In December 1943 he was captured by the Fascist militia and deported to Auschwitz in a convoy of 650 "items," of whom 525 went directly to the gas chambers, the rest to the labor camps. Levi and a few others survived.

After his liberation Levi returned to his native village with one ambition: to bear witness to all that he had seen. "I had a torrent of urgent things to tell the civilized world. I felt the tattooed number on my arm burning like a sore." His testimony is conveyed in a series of extraordinary books, the first of which, If This is a Man (1947), bears crucial witness to the horrors of the Holocaust while at the same time asserting through calm, almost serene, prose the triumph of dignity and reason over brutality and baseness. It is, as Philip Toynbee wrote, "a great book because this man was able to match his experiences both with his character and with his words."

Other books followed, including The Truce (1963), an account of his return from the camps through a disintegrating Europe. Yet his reputation as a writer spread little and he continued his career as an industrial chemist. A man who took pride in his work, he retired after 30 years to write full-time, deciding to employ the tools of his trade the elements of the periodic table-to tell the story of his life. Argon, iron, cadmium, carbon, and others all became metaphors for life's experiences. The Periodic Table (1975), a brilliant, beautiful book, earned a torrent of praise from Saul Bellow, Italo Calvino, and others, making Levi's name known throughout the world.

Publication and sometimes re-publication of all his books swiftly followed-, they were translated into seventeen languages. Everywhere he went this gentle, discreet, and modest man found himself praised and honored. He wrote, lectured, gave interviews, answered his readers' inquiries, and even led tours to Auschwitz. Yet he always wondered if he had done enough. Once, pointing to the number tattooed on his arm, he said, "That is my disease." The legacy of the camps was indelible.

On April 11, 1987, Primo Levi fell to the bottom of the staircase of the building in which he was born, widely believed a suicide.

By bringing Levi's life into focus with material gathered from extensive research, interviews with friends and relatives, and numerous unpublished texts and testimonies, Myriam Anissimov has written not only the first biography of this major figure, but also a guide to Levi's works and times, which, even decades later, we must always call our times.

Myriam Anissimov s biography of Primo Levi is masterfully evocative and will serve as a companion volume to his own books. It helps explain their depth and greatness. Elie Wiesel

An important event . . . a serious, lively, and at times fervently told story that is always sympathetic to Levi s shy personality and restrained tone. front page, The New York Times Book Review

Powerful and harrowing, this masterful biography challenges us with the darkest question of the modern age. Booklist

Myriam Anissimov was born in a refugee camp in Switzerland. The author of eleven books, she lives in Paris.

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