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.