Author Ian Thomson presents the new edition of his classic biography of Primo Levi.
From the Preface
I did not choose to write Levi’s biography; Levi had no sooner died than a London publishing house approached me. At first I demurred. Intellectually there seemed to be little point in such a book. Levi was a writer of ethical meditation in the school of the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, whose work stands as a luminous reflection on the ways of man: I did not feel adequate to the task.
In the winter of 1991, however, after consideration, I flew out to Levi’s native Turin, and rented rooms there. In my box-like quarters off Via Madama Cristina was a small bed and, next to that, a wardrobe, with a cracked sink in one corner and a kitchen in the adjacent room with a stove and a couple of back burners. There was no telephone. I had recently got married and felt a sense of truancy from responsibilities back home. Night and day a tram rattled along the street beneath my window while I read and reread Levi’s books, and filled in a notebook with names and telephone numbers of potential contacts and interviewees. Each morning after an espresso and a pastry in the bar opposite I went through the notebook, before heading off to a public call box at Porta Nuova railway station. There I telephoned and arranged to meet people who had known Levi. Often the lines were down or busy or had been disconnected. Mobile phones were then a luxury that few could afford and in the course of my research I used up hundreds of plastic telephone cards.
[…] Although I had met and spoken to Primo Levi shortly before he died, I did not want to put myself on first-name terms with him (still less, place him on the psychiatrist’s couch). Nor had I wanted to make a drama out of my research or emote and empathise possessively with my own ‘Primo’. I had no agenda-driven argument to push, no academic thesis. My intention had been to write a balanced work that might inspire trust in the reader.
Levi was not simply a witness to contemporary barbarism. By profession he was an industrial chemist. His hybrid career as chemist and writer – and the tensions between the two – forms a significant part of my biography. Levi’s literary-chemical memoir The Periodic Table, first published in Italy in 1975, attracted to his work new scientific readers appearing at a time when authors with a scientific leaning were not published as frequently as they are today. Long before Carlo Rovelli or Oliver Sacks or Stephen Jay Gould, Levi had sought to make science accessible to the layperson. The Periodic Table, where elements of Levi’s life are explored through the medium of chemistry, is revered today by a generation of younger scientific writers, among them Siddartha Mukherjee, whose award-winning history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies (2011), is profoundly indebted to Levi as it cuts across the ‘two cultures’ of science and the humanities with humility and intelligent generosity.
One hundred years on from his birth, to say that Levi is now a star is a literal truth. In 2011 a constellation situated midway between Mars and Jupiter was officially named Primolevi – just one word, in accordance with astronomy registry rules. The existence of Planet Primolevi might have delighted Levi, who was an occasional writer of science fiction.
Levi is now so manifestly a ‘constellation’ that, [starting with Francesco Rosi’s adaptation of The Truce,] a number of films inspired by his life and work have appeared posthumously. […] The latest Italian film-maker to take an interest in The Truce, Davide Ferrario, chose to trace the course of Levi’s homeward odyssey to Italy through Russia and Eastern Europe in the form of a documentary. Moving across Ukraine to Austria, Primo Levi’s Journey, released in 2006, captured something of the boundless immensity of Russia as Levi had described it, with its steppe and tundra. The film concludes with an exterior shot of 75 Corso Re Umberto in Turin where, nineteen years earlier, Levi had died by his own hand.[…]
Unsurprisingly, no unpublished works by Levi have come to light in the three decades since he died. Levi had been too depressed to write anything much at all. Aware of this, his friend Giovanni Tesio, a Turin literary critic, suggested a series of conversations which he hoped might bring comfort to Levi, and also serve as the basis for a biography which he had in mind. Tesio never did write his life of Levi, but the three conversations he tape-recorded with him were reproduced belatedly in Italy in 2016 as Io che vi parlo (‘I who am speaking to you’), and in the UK two years afterwards as Primo Levi: The Last Interview. Tesio was one of the many people I had telephoned from Porta Nuova railway station; we occasionally met for an aperitif, but Tesio could not be persuaded to release the tapes of those conversations. Now I can see why. Levi had allowed Tesio to question him on subjects of minimal interest only. What became of Levi’s school reports? (Lost.) Can Levi’s aunt be interviewed? (No, she has arthritis.) Essentially a book of gleanings, The Last Interview contains little that did not find its way eventually into this biography.
By contrast, other recent books on Levi have been more clamorous. How far Levi was involved in the execution of two fellow partisans during Italy’s German occupation was the subject of Sergio Luzzatto’s 2013 non-fiction study Partigia: Una storia della Resistenza (‘Partisan: A Story of the Resistance’). Luzzatto, a young Turin history professor, identified the two executed men, accurately or not, as Fulvio Oppezzo, aged eighteen, and Luciano Zabaldano, seventeen. The decision to eliminate them had been arrived at ‘collectively’: that is, with Levi’s consent. More: it had been taken without just cause (‘di futili motivi’). Had it really? Evidence came to light subsequently that suggested otherwise. A diary kept by a Roman Catholic priest in Brusson adjacent to Levi’s partisan base in the mountains above Turin revealed that a sixty-five-year-old Jewish refugee – Elsa Polkorny from Vienna – had committed suicide following ‘threats’ made to her by two partigiani marauding drunkenly in the area. May they have been Oppezzo and Zabaldano? Predictably, Luzzatto’s book provoked moral outrage in Italy. Partigia had introduced an element of moral ambiguity – Levi’s ‘grey zone’ – into discussions of the Resistance, and blurred the easy distinctions so often made in post-war Italy between the victors and the vanquished. For that reason alone, Partigia remains a work of some importance, which goes to the heart of arguments about justice and moral responsibility in Primo Levi’s wartime.
Three decades on from Primo Levi’s death, I can say that I am proud of the biography. It gives a good enough idea of what Levi might have been like to meet as a man: a lucid explicator, witty, if rather reserved. In fact I look back on my younger self with a degree of wonderment. Did you really write this book? Heaven knows it was hard enough to write; but it allowed me to keep company with one of the most important writers of our time, and that was more than enough.
Ian Thomson was born in London in 1961, but grew up in New York, where his father worked for a bank. His mother, a Baltic émigrée, came to England in 1947. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and in the 1980s he worked in Rome as a teacher, translator, journalist and writer. He contributes regularly to the national broadsheets and weekly magazines, among them the Observer, Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator. His first important book, Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti (1992), considered a “great and abiding classic” by the film director Jonathan Demme, was listed for the Thomas Cook Travel Award. His biography of Primo Levi, Primo Levi: A Life (2002), took 10 years to write and won the Royal Society of Literature’s W.H.Heinemann Award.
In 2005 Thomson returned to the West Indies to write The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica (2009). Banned in Jamaica for political reasons, the book was awarded the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book Award. Ian Thomson has translated the Sicilian crime writer and essayist Leonardo Sciascia into English, and edited Articles of Faith: The Collected Tablet Journalism of Graham Greene (2006). In addition he has contributed a short story to Kingston Noir (2012). His latest book, Dante’s Divine Comedy (2019), reflects a lifelong interest in Italy. He is currently working on a book about his mother’s birthplace in the Baltic during World War II.