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New Primo Levi Stories Published


Today, Israelis and Jews around the world mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Also, this past week marked the 20th anniversary of the death of a prominent Holocaust survivor, the Italian writer Primo Levi. His autobiographical narratives of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz are among the most important and admired examples of Holocaust literature.

Not all of Levi's works are reflected in his wartime experience, however. A new collection of his stories has just been published in English. We'll hear about that book in a few moments. But we begin with a look back at Primo Levi's life from NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Levi did not start out as a writer. His passion was science, and he studied chemistry in Turin. But his career was cut short in 1938 when Italy's Fascist regime introduced laws that discriminated against Jews.

In 1943, as the Nazis occupied Italy, Levi, age 24, joined the resistance. But a few months later, he was captured and deported to Auschwitz with 649 other Jews. Twenty-three survived. Auschwitz, he would later say, turned him into a writer.

Alon Altaras, professor at the University of Sienna, says Levi is the greatest writer-witness of the 20th century, an anthropologist of the everyday life of the Nazi death camps.

Professor ALON ALTARAS (University of Sienna): After you read Levi, you see the testimony became an art. It's not only a document or autobiographical writing, but it's a great art.

POGGIOLI: Altaras has translated Levi's works into Hebrew and studied the writer closely.

Prof. ALTARAS: You'd even find in Levi the great metaphors. It's - he's never crying, he's never speaking about revenge or something like that. He is describing, in a very clear and a very calm manner, these tragedies. This is the force, the main force, of his writing.

POGGIOLI: But this spare, clinical description of the Nazi horrors, so soon after the Holocaust, was not welcomed. Levi couldn't find a publisher for his first book and had to pay for its publication himself. The title, "If This is a Man," was later poorly translated in the U.S. as "Survival at Auschwitz."

Furio Colombo, now a senator, became friends with Primo Levi after the war when they both wrote for the Turin daily La Stampa. Colombo says Levi's writings disoriented the editors.

Senator FURIO COLOMBO (Italy): Because he was talking about something then about anew, it was his nightmare.

POGGIOLI: The Holocaust survivor's recurring nightmare of not being able listened to. Another person who knew Levi well was Turin bookstore owner Angelo Pezzana. He says that while Levi became well known throughout Europe, it was years before he was published in the United States. And in Israel, his books did not appear until after his death. Pezzana says one person who helped promote Levi's works in the U.S. was Philip Roth. Pezzana remembers when Levi arranged to meet Roth in his bookstore.

Mr. ANGELO PEZZANA (Bookstore Owner and Friend to Primo Levi): It was an afternoon 22 years ago, and Primo Levi, a little shy as usual - because he was not an aggressive person, even his way of talking was very quiet and very respectful, he was more used to listen than to speak - but they talked about their life, their books, so they make a sort of little friendship here in my bookstore.

POGGIOLI: Levi's love and thirst for literature permeates all his work. In one celebrated passage in "Auschwitz," Levi tries to translate for a French prison mate a verse of the "Divine Comedy's Canto of Ulysses," when Dante says, "For brutish ignorance your mettle was not made. You were made men, to follow after knowledge and excellence." Reciting those lines of poetry, Levi writes, was like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of god. For a moment, I forget where I am. Professor Altaras says Levi shows us that knowledge and culture are tools for survival.

Prof. ALTARAS: Levi, he didn't forget to be Italian, to be an intellectual, to be a man. And he's doing culture in the place where culture is forbidden.

POGGIOLI: By bearing witness with a taut, precise style and factual reconstruction, Levi's work is a bulwark against revisionism and Holocaust denial. And yet, like several of his fellow Holocaust narrators, Levi apparently took his life at the age of 68. Bookstore owner Pezzana…

Mr. PEZZANA: At the end of his life, he told many friends, I'm in front of the white page, and I think I have told everything what was in me. Now, I have no more, nothing to tell.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

LYDEN: Readers in the United States will have more to learn about Primo Levi from a new volume of his short stories, published for the first time in English. The 17 stories are collected in a volume called "A Tranquil Star." Reporter Tom Vitale says the work reveals a side of Primo Levi that many of his readers never knew.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. PRIMO LEVI (Author and Holocaust Survivor): (Italian Spoken)

TOM VITALE: In this 1970 interview in the Italian television network RAI, Primo Levi said that his life was marked by two events: his imprisonment at Auschwitz and his writing about his imprisonment at Auschwitz.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. LEVI: (Italian Spoken)

VITALE: Primo Levi could not escape the fame generated by his Holocaust writings. And this often frustrated him, says Stanislao Pugliese, editor of an anthology called "The Legacy of Primo Levi."

Mr. STANISLAO PUGLIESE (Editor, "The Legacy of Primo Levi"): Levi did not want to be known as just, quote, unquote, "a Holocaust writer or an Italian writer or a Jewish writer." He aspired to the status of writer that is someone who had insights into what it meant to be human.

VITALE: Levi's humanity and wide-ranging interests can be found in the new collection of his short fiction, "A Tranquil Star." The stories are not about Auschwitz. They range from a Hemingwayesque tale of mountain climbing to a Vonnegut-like science fiction fable about a paint that wards off evil. Ann Goldstein translated half the stories and edited the collection.

Ms. ANN GOLDSTEIN (Translator and Editor, "A Tranquil Star"): And I think that's what's important about this book, is to show him in another way, to show that he was just a really wonderful writer. Because I think, then, you can go back and read the Holocaust books with a different - a little bit of a different perspective. Maybe you are able to read them more as not just Holocaust writing but as real writing.

VITALE: The 17 previously untranslated stories were written by Primo Levi between 1949 and the mid-1980s. Some might be called postmodern, funny, surreal fables that comment on the act of writing itself. A tale called "The Fugitive" is about a perfect poem that gets away from its author, literally, on legs.

The title story, "A Tranquil Star," deals with the inadequacy of words. The reading is by Stanislao Pugliese. The story begins: Once upon a time, somewhere in the universe, very far away from here, lived a peaceful star.

Mr. PUGLIESE: (Reading) This star was very big and very hot, and its weight was enormous. And here, a reporter's difficulties begin. We have written: very far, big, hot, enormous. Australia is very far; an elephant is big; and a house is bigger. This morning, I had a hot bath. Everest is enormous. It's clear that something in our lexicon isn't working.

VITALE: Stanislao Pugliese says while Primo Levi's sometimes fantastic stories seem far removed from his Holocaust writing, both come from the same perspective, that of an outsider.

Mr. PUGLIESE: And he reveled in his status as someone who was outside the Italian literary establishment. And his training as a chemist, as a scientist, becomes essential to understanding these other kinds of works outside the Holocaust experience. Levi never felt that these works, which some people consider to be minor works, were divorced from his Holocaust experience. It was all of a piece. It was all of a single fabric, a seamless garment.

VITALE: Some of the stories in the new collection reflect Levi's politics. "Censorship in Bitinia" tells of government officials who have decided to replace their human censors with animals better suited to the task. They fail with monkeys, horses and dogs before succeeding with chickens.

Mr. PUGLIESE: (Reading) The hens, besides being easily procured and costing little both as an initial investment and for their subsequent maintenance, are capable of making rapid and definitive decisions. They stick scrupulously to the prescribed mental programs, and, given their cold, calm nature and their evanescent memory, they are not subject to distractions.

VITALE: Politics were a constant thread in Primo Levi's life and work.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. LEVI: (Italian Spoken)

VITALE: In 1970, he complained on Italian television that modern Italians were oblivious to the strings of fascism that still existed in the country, what he called the consecration of the privilege of inequality.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Mr. LEVI: (Italian Spoken)

VITALE: Scholar Stanislao Pugliese says readers of Primo Levi's fiction shouldn't discount the underlying politics.

Mr. PUGLIESE: Levi was very much concerned about a resurgence of right-wing politics, anti-Semitism. In fact, I think it's one of the things that contributed to this very severe depression at the end of his life, which may have contributed to what might very well have been a suicide - Holocaust revisionism, Holocaust denial, the resurgence of right-wing politics in France and in Italy. He has this devastating line that every age has its fascism.

VITALE: Primo Levi's English translator hopes that this new collection of stories, "A Tranquil Star," will whet readers' appetites for Levi's complete works, scheduled to be published in English three years from now.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: This is NPR NEWS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Tom Vitale