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This review is taken from PN Review 86, Volume 18 Number 6, July - August 1992.

MAKING COMMON CAUSE Primo Levi, Collected Poems, translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (Faber) £5.99
Claude Vigée, Flow Tide: selected poetry and prose, translated by Anthony Rudolf (Menard Press) £9
T.S. Eliot, Quatre Quatuors, translated into French by Claude Vigée, introduction Gabriel Josipovici (Menard Press) £9

During the relatively short period of time in which he knew world fame, and in the aftermath of a life he had chosen to terminate, Primo Levi was principally read for his prose works, and especially for his first and finest book: If This Is A Man. It was not generally considered important to ask if this man was also a poet, which would in any case have implicitly reconfirmed the priority of the prose. Levi, who with typical (but unnecessary) modesty saw his verse as worthy of the contempt conveyed by the Yiddish word nebbich - meaning useless, inept, foolish - did not perhaps much mind, the very choice of language (with Hebrew reserved for sublimer matters) an index of his feelings. But it has gradually, by way of Shema (Menard Press), the first and now the new expanded Collected Poems, become very clear that poetry was by no means a mere afterthought, or subsidiary to the prose, except insofar as all Levi's thoughts were after Auschwitz, and all of his writing - in a career with several 'blank' periods, and with regular productivity established only towards its end - privileging utility over the rhetorical extravagances which pass for poetry. Levi owed his survival of the death camps to his professional qualifications as an industrial chemist, and though this left him permanently with the 'guilt' of the survivor, he could not reasonably have been expected to abjure method in favour of a charismatic and empty frenzy.


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