CULTURE Primo Levi: a New Insight

leviBy Ada Treves*

The most decisive answer was given by Manuela Consonni, senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who recently became the head of Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (author of L’eclisse dell’antifascismo. Resistenza, questione ebraica e cultura politica in Italia dal 1943 al 1989): “It is clear that the author wants to present himself as the biographer of Primo Levi. Indeed, I do think Marco Belpoliti is one of a kind, he was brave enough to break his neck to understand Levi; he read and tried to analyse and grasp everything about him”. On the other hand, the opinion of Anna Foa (respected Italian historian, author of Portico d’Ottavia 13. Una casa del ghetto nel lungo inverno del ’43) is not as sharp: “This is, without any doubt, a really important book that aspires to be the ultimate biography. For now. Belpoliti has become Primo Levi’s exegete, or, at least, that’s the way he presents himself, though to me this huge volume looks, in a way, as the autobiography of Belpoliti himself. As if Levi influenced his life, and his story”.

The important and bulky monograph that Marco Belpoliti dedicates to Primo Levi, titled Primo Levi di fronte e di profilo (Guanda Editore), is hitting the bookstores right now, generating interest but also raising many questions among the people who often speak their minds on Pagine Ebraiche, the newspaper of Italian Judaism. Their first comments, made in the heat of the moment, underline once again the autobiographical aspect of the book. Alberto Cavaglion (University of Florence, one of Levi’s most experienced specialists and curator of the annotated edition of If This Is a Man) notes how the book is an attempt to fix and organize what was written during years of research: “It’s almost an evaluation, in which Belpoliti reworks everything he wrote in almost thirty years, as he himself states in the introduction. It made me a bit sad though to realize how, in the end, it’s just a harsh exercise that highlights a noteworthy transformation: his first papers have been of great importance. In the beginning of his researches, he did raise remarkable issues, he has had considerable insights, while now he has become more minimalist, lighter, and I preferred the first Belpoliti.” Cavaglion, who’s familiar both with the author and all of his works, believes that Primo Levi di fronte e di profilo is not the ultimate biography. “It will never exist, it can’t exist. This volume is ‘Levi as seen by Belpoliti’ and can be definitive only in this sense. Maybe it’s a way for him to put the matter to rest, to deal with his relationship with Levi, almost in an autobiographical sense. But it is not a milestone”.

The historian Claudio Vercelli (author of Il negazionismo. Storia di una menzogna) also perceives the feeling of “dealing with something”, and the first thing he asks himself is if the volume, “so encyclopedic that it’s almost elephantine” – it’s 736 pages long – could actually receive a positive editorial outcome. “Its quality is undeniable, the book is a sort of vademecum which retraces Levi’s life through his works and vice versa. But I think it is, most of all, a generational showdown, a way to verify the variable perceptions about Levi’s work. Belpoliti wants to underline the literary element, the writer’s value, and pay a posthumous homage to someone who always presented himself as one. It’s evident how Belpoliti reflects himself in Levi’s figure as a writer”. Vercelli poses many questions, such as “To whom belongs Levi?” Could it be to the writers or maybe to the historians, to figurative art or to exact science? “Belpoliti adopts for Levi a literary paradigm which is mainly chemical, with an ongoing molecular construction and deconstruction. I doubt this is going to be the ultimate biography, even though that’s what the author clearly aims for, but Levi’s influence and importance changes as time passes”. He goes on explaining that maybe it’s too soon to know for certain but we have probably reached a turning point in that cultural season that includes the Shoah in its constitutive tissue. With regard to this, the recovery of Levi as a writer feels also as a new sensitivity transposed to other matters: in a time where we run out of testimonies, we must understand that Memory will soon become something to imagine, in which the temporal distance impose an elaboration that can also be narrative.

“We must remember that Levi is an object that regenerates through time, therefore Belpoliti’s intention is completely legitimate, as it is the claim, evident in the text, that his book is going to be an important one. Moreover, it’s frequent that, when registers like this are used, biographers ends up writing about themselves through the life of the biographee. Cavaglion also analyses the register and the structure of the book: “It’s sort of an encyclopedia with definitions and key words, in which Belpoliti utilises a structure he likes. After all, he did the same when editing the collection “Writers’ Library” for Bruno Mondadori. Browsing through Corriere della Sera historical archive, we find an article from 1998 by Corrado Stajano in which he explains: “What’s new about the ‘Writers’ Library’? The rational structure, divided in sections to ease consultation, represents an effective instrument for the reader who’s familiar or not the writer protagonist of the book. The unfortunately defined “hypertext of paper” in the instructions of the volume begins with a short well-documented biography. For example, some of the words in Levi’s biography are written in bold: antisemitism, chemistry, grey area, in addition to the titles of Primo Levi’s works, from If This Is a Man to The Truce, to The Drowned and The Saved and many others. The second part is a real dictionary, where the reader can easily find the definitions of those words in bold and the thorough analysis of different themes. The third part is a an annotated bibliography that comprises the author’s work, a choice of books, essays and articles about him and a list of books mentioned in the volume. Useful books, not only for students but also for who knows and who doesn’t.” It’s a description that fits also the structure of Guanda’s volume, except for its layout and the superior depth and dimension of the work.

Claudio Vercelli adds: “The encyclopaedias that really work are open encyclopaedias, even though I’m sure Belpoliti wouldn’t like the idea; he’s inclined to utilise the hypertext, almost like a metawikipedia”. Cavaglion confirms the importance and usefulness of the volume for both students and teachers, as the author himself states in the introduction: “I wanted to write not only for those readers who sit comfortably on their armchairs and sofas and read the book from the first page to the last one, but also for teachers and students alike; these readers may find the information they need by browsing through the summary and the index.”

That’s not all: the volume includes ten photographies that aim to show some aspects of Levi’s human and intellectual personality, the history of the books and how they were written, many definitions – some encyclopedic, others written as short essays -, some researches about specific aspects of Levi’s works, a bibliography with different sections in which we can find useful tips about what to read if we want to carry on studying Levi, a bibliography of Levi’s works that serves as a guide for the reader, the bibliography of texti recepti mentioned in the book and the index.

Anna Foa underlines the great influence that Belpoliti’s work could have over the way Levi’s persona is perceived in Italy: “I know that his very first works already stressed greatly on Levi’s literary value, but in Italy he’s still mainly seen as a witness. Other countries, such as the United States, Israel but also the rest of Europe, acknowledged his value as a writer since many years; he is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century. If Belpoliti’s book succeeded in changing this perception, then it would be a great result.” Anna Foa adds: “Personally, I’m not sure it’s right to analyse only the literary aspect. I liked his writing style and register, the literary tone, almost as if it were a novel; the structure is very interesting too, and I loved the part about Corso Re Umberto, even if he could have added more characters. There are some deficiencies: I feel like the part about Turin, about the Jewish and antifascist Turin is lacking something. Maybe I would understand if it had to fit a 200 pages volume, but the book is over 700 pages long. Belpoliti writes about it as if he doesn’t know that specific context. It could be a conscious decision, he wants to focus only on Levi as a writer, but the book is lacking of the whole background of Turin.”

Manuela Consonni agrees: “The book, first of all its title, suggests that Belpoliti wants to write about all aspects of Levi’s persona, and at the same time establish himself as an authority in that regard, almost like he wants to “take possession” of Levi. But this is normal, that’s what everybody does. I was curious to read the Turin part, though I feel like he didn’t fully grasp anything about the city’s Jewish environment. I find it a bit weird knowing that, during the years, he empathized so much with Levi he almost became him. In a sense, it’s like he’s talking from inside Levi. Actually, it looks like Belpoliti wrote this book as his intellectual autobiography.”

*This article has been translated in English by Letizia Anelli, student at the Scuola superiore interpreti e traduttori di Trieste, ‎who is doing her apprenticeship within the newsroom of Pagine Ebraiche.The artwork is by Giorgio Albertini