"The Complete Works of Primo Levi is an act that transfigures publishing into conscience at its most sublime.” — Cynthia Ozick
I salute Liveright Publishing, a division of Norton and Company, for having the moral vision to publish (forthcoming September 2015) The Complete Works of Primo Levi. At 3008 pages, it is of major service to the Anglophone literary universe. Containing fourteen novels, numerous essays and short stories as well as excellent introductory articles and many brand new and never translated works I think many will one day consider this three volume set as among their most treasured literary possessions. People will pass down this collection to their descendants.
The best known work in the collection is his memoir of his year in Auschwitz, If This Is aMan. Just last week I read a beautiful beyond my ability to praise novel by Iréne Némirovsky, Suite Francaise. I felt great sadness and shame at the human condition when I learned she died in Auschwitz in 1942. I see the Holocaust, in part, as a war on a culture and a people as dedicated to the reading life as ever existed.
Primo Levi was sent to Auschwitz on Febuary 21, 1944, arrested for his membership in an Italian anti-fascist organization. He was there until the Russians liberated the camp on January 18, 1945. If This is a Man is his memoir of that time. The average life expectancy on entering Auschwitz was three months. There were people who survived more than three years. (Iréne Némirovsky was classified as a worthless to the Germans person and was sent to the gas chambers after only two days.)
The Germans made the common criminals in the camp the leaders, the "Kapos". In the camp people did not simply see themselves as Jews but as Italian, French, Polish, Russia. The camp also housed English prisoners of war. An experienced inmate could tell from another's number where they were from and how long they had been there. Levi brilliantly shows us how life was organized in the camp. Much of it is not easy to read. We learn how some were able to survive for years in the camp and why some were recognized as having no chance by experienced residents. One of the things survivors learned to profit from was the stupidity of the Germans working in the camp. If you had a professional skill such as a doctor, engineer, carpenter, classical musician, chemist (as was Levj), if you spoke German or were an attractive homosexual, per Levi, your chances of survival went way up. A lot of it was just how strong your will to live was. Getting food and clothes, especially good shoes, were of all importance. It was wonderful to see how many inmates kept their basic human decency in this enviorment. Levi wonderful brings to life a number of inmates. The most dreaded occasion was "selection day". The camp authorities were periodically ordered to send to the gas chambers a fixed number of their captives based on projected incoming volume of new arrivals. On one day Levi describes, seven percent were selected.
We are there when the camp is liberated by the Russians. A myth of holocaust thought is that these were occasions for great rejoicing. This is based on staged newsreel productions. In truth most captives were in too poor health to even fully understand what had happened. In the case of Auschwitz, most Germans simply left. The inmates knew at some point the end was near for the Germans and their was a fear, as had happened elsewhere, that the Germans would slaughter them all.
I was very kindly given a review copy of this collection. I will next read his Truce, an account of his trip back to Italy after leaving the camp. Maybe I will never read all 3008 pages but now I can.