I first read Primo Levi in 1963. I picked up a second-hand copy of If This is a Man, a Four Square paperback published for two shillings and sixpence and which cost me (as we used to say it) one and six. I still have the book – now falling apart – with that second-hand price pencilled inside it. This was more than twenty years before Levi achieved world-wide renown with The Periodic Table.
The earlier book, Levi’s memoir of his experience at Auschwitz, certainly impressed me at the time, but I didn’t take notes on it, so I don’t now recall all the reasons why. What I most remember about reading the book then was my surprise at learning that hell on earth, even hell on earth, had a social structure. It wasn’t just, as I guess I must have half-imagined it to be up till then, a kind of shapeless inferno.
In the early 1990s I again read and re-read If This is a Man, along with other of Levi’s writings and as part of a systematic thought and research process about the Nazi genocide. The thing that struck me second time around was Levi’s extraordinary wisdom: his wisdom not only about the camps, but about life and the world. It is sometimes said that such knowledge is born of suffering, and this may be true to an extent. But in the case of Primo Levi I’m convinced it’s not the whole story, and it may not even be the main story. He would have been a great writer in any case. Reading the account of life and death at Auschwitz, written by a man not yet 30, I am constantly brought up short by the breadth and acuity of Levi’s insight.
I don’t know how to do justice to this other than by trying to exemplify it. So… Levi explains how, through the winter, the prisoners have longed for the release brought by spring, to spare them the agonies of the biting wind at roll call; and then:
Today is a good day. We look around like blind people who have recovered their sight, and we look at each other. We have never seen each other in sunlight: someone smiles. If it was not for the hunger!
For human nature is such that grief and pain – even simultaneously suffered – do not add up as a whole in our consciousness, but hide, the lesser behind the greater, according to a definite law of perspective. It is providential and is our means of surviving the camp. And this is the reason why so often in free life one hears it said that man is never content. In fact it is not a question of a human incapacity for a state of absolute happiness, but of an ever-insufficient knowledge of the complex nature of the state of unhappiness; so that the single name of the major cause is given to all its causes, which are composite and set out in an order of urgency. And if the most immediate cause of stress comes to an end, you are grievously amazed to see that another one lies behind; and in reality a whole series of others.
So that as soon as the cold, which throughout the winter had seemed our only enemy, had ceased, we became aware of our hunger; and, repeating the same error, we now say: “If it was not for the hunger!…”
But how could one imagine not being hungry? The Lager is hunger: we ourselves are hunger, living hunger.
I don’t know how to analyse all the power of what Levi tells us there; I just limit myself to commenting on the way in which he uses common experience to illuminate the experience of the Nazi universe of death, and vice versa.
Something similar occurs in a passage where Levi explains about waking up at Auschwitz after nights of terrible, tormented and tormenting, dreams:
At the hour of the reveille, which varies from season to season but always falls a fair time before dawn, the camp bell rings for a long time, and the night-guard in every hut goes off duty; he switches on the light, gets up, stretches himself and pronounces the daily condemnation: ‘Aufstehen,’ or more often in Polish: ‘Wstavac.’
Very few sleep on till the Wstavac: it is a moment of too acute pain for even the deepest sleep not to dissolve as it approaches?
Like a stone the foreign word falls to the bottom of every soul. ‘Get up’: the illusory barrier of the warm blankets, the thin armour of sleep, the nightly evasion with its very torments drops to pieces around us…
Levi has also written of this in his poetry:
In the brutal nights we used to dream
Dense, violent dreams,
Dreamed with soul and body:
To return; to eat; to tell the story.
Until the dawn command
Sounded brief, low:
And the heart cracked in the breast.
Once again there is here, I believe, the mutual illumination of uncommon and common experience. Everyone wants to be lucky enough not to have to wake up, ever, to what the prisoners at Auschwitz daily faced; yet, except for the very, very fortunate if there indeed are any this fortunate, most people know on some level what it means to wake from ‘the illusory barrier’ of sleep to a heavy, unresolved burden, an enduring pain or trouble. The knowledge informs our understanding of what Levi recounts, and is also deepened by it.
A final example. After a ‘selection’ in their block, a prisoner nearby Levi is praying, thanking God that he isn’t one of those who has been selected. Levi writes:
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? … Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again
Primo Levi’s greatness as a writer is no doubt complex, made up of several different qualities. But partly it comes, I think, from his ability to convey that, when real evil is done by people to other people, it is bottomless. Though it needs to be explained so far as we are able to, it cannot be contained by its explanation or redeemed by it.