Pri­mo Lev­i’s Uni­verse: A Writer’s Journey

Sam Mag­a­v­ern; Jonathan Rosen, fwd.; Risa Sodi, aftwd.
  • Review
By – December 22, 2011

In 1943, Pri­mo Levi, the chemist, was sent to Auschwitz and, upon arrival, was torn from the arms of the woman he loved. In 1945, he was released and, against all odds, emerged as Pri­mo Levi, the writer. In this book, which is part biog­ra­phy, part lit­er­ary analy­sis, Sam Mag­a­v­ern walks us through Levi’s writ­ings, offer­ing us a haunt­ing view into Levi’s inter­nal uni­verse. Through Levi’s own words, Mag­a­v­ern shows us his strug­gle to under­stand the Nazis, his fel­low pris­on­ers, and human nature more broad­ly. Levi strug­gles to ulti­mate­ly under­stand what it means to be a man when all the hall­marks of human­i­ty are stripped from one’s existence. 

The writ­ing is at times pro­found­ly mov­ing, at times more ana­lyt­i­cal. The book is most alive when we see glimpses of Levi’s life (par­ents, sib­lings, lovers, friends, his bat­tle with depres­sion) but it’s well worth the effort required to read through the lit­er­ary analy­sis in the longest chap­ter, Hell’s Cir­cles,” in order to under­stand how var­i­ous facets of his life and his psy­che played out in his sto­ries. This is a book about a sur­vivor, not a vic­tim, and what Mag­a­v­ern shows with remark­able skill is how Levi, the writer, man­aged to live in Auschwitz in a state Levi him­self describes as excep­tion­al spirit­ed­ness”; a state which allowed him to record in excep­tion­al detail the some­times human, some­times inhu­man world he was forced to inhab­it. After­word, notes, sources.

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