It was in a small bookstore in Manhattan on 23rd Street near Park Avenue in the early 1980s, its proprietor an elderly gentleman who sported a tweed sports jacket and French beret, where I first discovered Primo Levi. I was captivated by his writing, imbued with the first person perspective of being a holocaust survivor. The genre was similar to Elie Wiesel but what made Primo unique was his background as a scientist that informed his observational powers.
At about the same time, in the same place, I was discovering Philip Roth as a writer. If Primo was the pride of the Jewish people, Philip was our pariah (that is until recently when his soul was redeemed through an honorary degree conferred by the JTS). I devoured everything written by both authors, and Roth was an ardent admirer of Levi as evidenced in the 1986 interview he conducted with Primo for the London Review of Books, subsequently recounted in Roth’s Shop Talk.
The news that Primo Levi had apparently committed suicide in 1987 was devastating at the time. I say apparently committed suicide because there is both evidence that he did and that he did not. Here was a brilliant intellectual who had ostensibly overcome the hell of Auschwitz only to succumb to the throes of depression or the accidental misfortune of being flung headfirst down the spiral staircase of his apartment building, crushing his skull in the process. The shock waves were palpable in the media, and even alluded to by Woody Allen in his 1989 movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen is in the midst of putting together a documentary based on lectures from Louis Levy, a major intellectual who exuded positivity despite the atrocities he observed in WWII, when he receives word (at the 1:26 mark) of Levy’s suicide. He is mystified by Levy’s exit, and that he wouldn’t leave a note explaining why he took his life, shrouding his end in mystery. In trying to comfort Allen, Mia Farrow delivers this line: “I was just thinking, no matter how elaborate a philosophical system you work out, in the end it’s gotta be incomplete.” The real Levi (as opposed to the reel Levy) alluded to these complexities in a letter to a young Italian girl in 1983 which has only recently surfaced. The controversy surrounding Levi’s death may never be resolved, but there is ongoing interest in his experiences.
Renewed attention has been drawn to Levi’s life and writings through a monumental effort by Ann Goldstein, spearheading the translation of his complete works including material not previously published in English. This achievement was celebrated on October 15, 2015 at the 92nd St. “Y” in Manhattan, introduced by Primo’s son, Renzo Levi, who spoke for the first time in America.
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison wrote the Introduction to Levi’s complete works, and you can get a taste of that in her article on Primo’s defiant humanism written for The Guardian. The Complete Works has been lauded in many circles, including The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. It was only in backtracking after reading the reviews of The Complete Works that I realized I wouldn’t have been surprised by its release had I been a Primo friend on Facebook.
On November 2, 2015, the JCC in San Francisco held a special tribute to honor the release of Levi’s Complete Works in September.
Update December 24, 2015 about Primo Levi’s suicide, in an exchange of letters in the New York Review of Books:
Another update, a review of The Complete Works in The Wall Street Journal:
Update January 19, 2016:
Update February 19, 2016 – great interview with translator Ann Goldstein:
Update June 20, 2016: