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.
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.