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This report is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

On Primo Levi
1919–87
Anthony Rudolf
The centenary year of Primo Levi’s birth provides a good excuse to recall If this Is a Man, his first book, a fully formed literary masterpiece. In a crucial episode, Levi is teaching Italian to his friend Jean Samuel while on soup detail, glossing quotes from Dante, who knew a thing or two about hell.

Arrested as a partisan, deported as a Jew, Levi spent almost a year in Auschwitz, and survived thanks to his knowledge of German, solidarity with other prisoners, strength of character and luck. Levi returned home by the scenic route, and told the story of that therapeutic nine-month train journey in The Truce, first sequel to If this Is a Man. Back in Turin, this latter-day self-styled Ancient Mariner would buttonhole strangers and tell them his story. He went on to have a demanding day job as an industrial chemist and manager of a paint factory.

I cannot separate the writer from the witness: the witness was the writer, and that is how we know he was a survivor; it was the same thing. Only later, with his ‘invented’ books, could one begin perhaps to make the distinction. In his abundant oeuvre, there are at least five masterpieces: the most neglected is The Wrench, a novel at once about physical work and about storytelling itself. Another indispensable book in what has become known as the literature of the Holocaust is The Drowned and the Saved, second sequel to If This Is a Man. Here too, his intellect, imagination and feelings are fully engaged.

I was ...


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