Remembering Primo Levi

The Complete Works of Primo Levi. Edited by Ann Goldstein. Translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf, Ann Goldstein and others. Liveright/Norton. 3 Volumes. $100.
The Complete Works of Primo Levi. Edited by Ann Goldstein. Translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf, Ann Goldstein and others. Liveright/Norton. 3 Volumes. $100.

Here, amid all the print-on-demand paperbacks and downloadable e-texts, is old-school publishing on a grand scale. Once more, Robert Weil of W.W. Norton, now director of its Liveright imprint, has produced a magnificent boxed set edition of an important, if slightly neglected, author, Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi.

Volume I opens with an appreciation of Levi by Toni Morrison, succeeded by editor Ann Goldstein’s general introduction, relating the 15-year history of this huge project and stressing that virtually every work has been newly translated, often by a multi-talented writer, such as Jonathan Galassi, Jenny McPhee or Nathaniel Rich. As Goldstein observes, Levi consistently “strove in his writing for lucidity, precision and conciseness — qualities that he attributed in part to his training and profession as a chemist.”

There then follows a detailed chronology of the writer’s life. Born in 1919 to a comfortably middle-class family in Turin, Italy, the young Levi read widely in world literature — Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, Darwin, Tolstoy — but early on, he decided to become a chemist. Only when the fascist Italian government promulgated racial laws did Levi grow seriously conscious of his Jewish identity. Eventually, he joined a youthful resistance group, was soon arrested and, shortly afterward, loaded onto a boxcar destined for Auschwitz. Of the approximately 650 men, women and children in his group, more than 500 were immediately sent to the gas chambers.

Because Levi was healthy, knew some German and was lucky, he survived and later recounted his horrific experiences in the 1947 memoir, If This Is a Man. After its publication, he worked as a chemist in a paint factory to support his wife and two children. On the side, he also wrote what his friend (and editor) Italo Calvino dubbed stories of “biological” science fiction, eventually collecting these as Natural Histories. In 1963, Levi published The Truce, an account of his months-long journey — through much of Eastern Europe — to get back home after his liberation from Auschwitz.

Over the next dozen years, Levi contributed essays to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, translated Kafka’s The Trial, wrote more fiction and produced The Periodic Table, a series of autobiographical “microhistories,” each linked to a different element. In 1986, he summarized his final thoughts on the Holocaust in The Drowned and the Saved. And then, in 1987, suffering from depression and the after effects of prostate surgery, Levi unexpectedly tumbled to his death in the stairwell of his Turin apartment building. Whether suicide or an accident has never been determined.

Volume II contains The Periodic Table, as well as the short-story collections The Wrench and Lilith, the novel If Not Now, When? and uncollected essays from 1949 to 1980. Volume III then opens with Galassi’s translations of Levi’s distinctly attractive poetry. A Profession is an especially lively ars poetica: “All you have to do is wait, your ballpoint poised:/ “The lines will buzz around you, like drunk moths.”

Volume III continues with additional stories and articles before arriving at the Italian writer’s last major work, The Drowned and the Saved, and yes, still more hitherto uncollected fiction and nonfiction. The set then concludes with Weil’s Primo Levi in America and Monica Quirico’s The Publication of Primo Levi’s Work in the World, followed by notes on the various texts, a select bibliography compiled by Domenico Scarpa and short biographies of the many translators.

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.

Michael Dirda reviewed this edition for The Washington Post.