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Exceptional Spiritedness

A writer-lawyer tackles Primo Levi’s tangled life and legacy

Jonathan Rosen
August 18, 2009
Primo Levi in 1985.(Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images)
Primo Levi in 1985.(Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images)

Sam Magavern, a writer and public interest lawyer, is the author of the recently released Primo Levi’s Universe: A Writer’s Journey, which was published with a foreword by Nextbook Press editorial director Jonathan Rosen. The two recently corresponded over email about Levi’s Jewishness, his work’s enduring relevance, and the lingering questions over whether or not the writer-chemist took his own life. Magavern will be discussing his book with Tablet contributing editor Adam Kirsch at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage tomorrow evening.

Your title, Primo Levi’s Universe, makes a large claim for the scope and relevance of Levi’s writing. What makes him a figure of contemporary urgency?

Levi was a modest man but an ambitious writer and thinker. He confronted big questions—good and evil, life after religion—with a unique and modern perspective, both as an Auschwitz survivor and as a poet-scientist who had fully assimilated Darwin and Einstein but who knew that science alone could not give us a coherent view of the world and our place in it.

You have a novel, almost radical, approach to the reading of Levi’s work—you see it all as part of a single epic. Can you explain that?

The title of Levi’s first book, If This is a Man, encapsulates much of his quest. (It’s a shame the American version was re-titled Survival in Auschwitz.) Levi wanted to understand human beings, and he wanted, himself, to become a complete human being. He pursued both goals by writing—on an infinite variety of topics, but, most centrally, about his own experiences and his formation as a man, particularly in the inferno of Auschwitz but also as a university student, an aspiring chemist, a lovelorn youth, a mountain climber, and a writer.

Your book, though sensitive to the historical context for Levi’s writing, seems filtered through a deeply personal sense of connection to him.

I was writing a novel about a group of law students, and I decided to have one of them become obsessed with the mystery of Levi’s death in 1987—whether his fall down the stairwell was accident or suicide. I began reading more and more of his work and became obsessed myself, not with his death but with his life and his remarkable literary talent. I came to think that his depth and breadth were not yet fully appreciated. I started writing a short essay, and that mushroomed into a book.

Levi’s relationship to his Jewishness was complicated. How would you describe it?

Levi was ambivalent about being called a Jewish writer. He was never observant, he did not believe in God, and he lacked a sense of the mystical. He talked about the need for new decalogues, new testaments, new ways of understanding the world that incorporate modern science and history. At the same time, he understood that you cannot build a new cosmos from scratch. Thus, he based his most important poem, the “if this is a man” poem, on the Shema, wrote another poem called “Passover,” titled a novel If Not Now, When?, after a saying from Rabbi Hillel, and began his anthology of favorite texts with the Book of Job. As in almost everything, Levi is a hybrid, a man not equal to himself, both a Jewish and a non-Jewish writer.

There’s a way that Levi seems in your book like someone who transcended literature through literature and is almost the founder of a religion, something post-Jewish and post-Christian that’s nevertheless informed by elements of both. Am I wrong in sensing this?

Levi vehemently rejected the role of prophet, but with the vehemence, perhaps, of someone who was drawn to it. Part of his genius was to create a cosmos that is coherent and yet democratic, rather than dogmatic. He believed not in revelations but in reasoned conversations—he was a master of the interview. His pronouncements always included warnings that he himself is not to be fully trusted, that memory and imagination are indispensable but unreliable, and that everyone must think things through for himself.

Levi’s ethos draws strongly from Jewish and Christian sources in its emphasis on goodness and care for others, as exemplified in If This is a Man by the mason who keeps Levi alive by smuggling him soup, Lorenzo. But Levi combines that ethic of care with an equally deep yearning for excellence, knowledge, and adventure: the “virtue” of the ancient Greeks, personified by Levi’s hero, Odysseus. There is also a trace of religion in Levi’s very secularism—in the fact that, having concluded that there is no God, he felt that as a loss and perceived the universe not merely as neutral, but, in the absence of Providence, hostile. Revealingly, he described his lack of religion by comparing it to an amputation.

Levi understood the flaws of secularism even as he was a proponent of it.

Again, he is deeply ambiguous. In If This is a Man, he exhibits a certain scorn for the religious inmates, and for anyone who swallows someone else’s system whole, without acknowledging that no system can be adequate. But he also says that the devout “lived better,” a phrase which can suggest both that they were less despairing but also that they were more ethical. Levi thought that modernity had dissolved the old faiths and created a chaos, and that we needed new scientist-poets to “extract harmony from this obscure tangle” but also to make it “compatible, comparable, assimilable to our traditional culture.” Levi rejected the type of secularism that would simply throw out the old faiths; he understood that the Book of Job and Rabbi Hillel remain indispensable, even to atheists.

Levi’s split between the scientific realm and the imaginative realm—he was a writer-chemist—seems to have great relevance for our own age. Would you say he was a healer of the split or someone who felt these were incompatible realms?

Levi wrote great poetry, fiction, and non-fiction about topics such as chemistry, biology, and physics. From science he absorbed a respect for facts and a secular, “disenchanted” worldview. But most of his tales about science describe disasters, experiments gone awry, sometimes comically and sometimes tragically. From literature (and life) he gained a sharp sense of tragedy, human limits, and the dangers of hubris. He was deeply concerned about nuclear weapons and environmental problems, as well as attempts to re-engineer the human spirit. So I would say that he found science and poetry not only compatible, but also indispensable as complements to one another. In The Periodic Table, he has a beautiful passage comparing writing to distilling; both are ways to “obtain the essence,” to reach the “spirit” that inheres in matter, to find through multiple metamorphoses an ambiguous purity.

You are yourself a poet and a professor of law. Do you see the tension in Levi’s work, between the urge to bear witness and the need to invent, as in some sense a reflection of the tension in Judaism itself between halachaand agaddah, between law and story?

In the preface to Moments of Reprieve, Levi wrote that the temptation to round out the facts and heighten the colors is “an integral part of writing, without it one does not write stories but rather accounts.” The only way for his fallen comrades to survive was for them to enjoy what he calls “the ambiguous perennial existence of literary characters.” Levi combined a scientist’s devotion to factual accuracy with a poet’s sense that only imagination reaches the deepest truths of human experience. In all kinds of law, civil and religious, the same tension exists. Lawyers tell competing stories compounded of fact and imagination, and judges use their moral imaginations to compare those stories to the stories embodied in past decisions. Laws try to eliminate ambiguity, but laws can only be implemented through the moral imagination, which depends on the ambiguity of stories to give it substance and the freedom to operate.

I’m struck by the fact that although he was a father and a husband, in his writing these elements of his life are all but erased. How would you account for this act of suppression? And does it compromise your sense of him as a complete writer?

Also, despite living almost his whole life with his mother, he never wrote about her, or really about mothers in general. Although Levi was gentle and not macho, his worldview could be rather male, particularly in his youth. His favorite authors included Melville, Conrad, and Jack London. As he told Philip Roth, “Family, home, factory are good things in themselves, but they deprived me of something that I still miss: adventure.” He wrote beautifully about male friendship and male antagonism, but little about family relationships. His fear of women made him feel incomplete as a man, but, paradoxically, because he wrote about that sense of incompleteness quite honestly and well, I’m not sure that it compromised him as a writer; it gave him one of his great themes. That is a tangled answer, but Levi, for all his lucidity, was a tangled man.

Do you believe Levi killed himself?

Probably. He was in the midst of a terrible episode of depression. But no one can ever be sure whether it was intentional, accidental, or something in-between. As Levi wrote in an essay about a fellow Auschwitz survivor, “Jean Améry, Philosopher and Suicide,” “Each and every human action contains a kernel of incomprehensibility.”

Does it matter?

It does matter, but, for me, not as much and not in the same way that some have suggested. I disagree with the rabbi of Turin, who avoided the Jewish strictures against suicide by pronouncing it a case of delayed murder by the Nazis. Levi suffered from severe depressions, including thoughts of suicide, before Auschwitz. He did not attribute his chronic depression to the Nazis; he said he survived Auschwitz in a condition of “exceptional spiritedness” and that the experience, ironically, gave him a reason to live: to tell the story. I also do not believe that suicide robs a life of its meaning or marks it as a failure. Obviously, it is not identical to dying of heart disease, but it may be more similar than we sometimes believe. In the end, what matters to me is the miraculous writing from a beautiful soul.

Sam Magavernis co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and teaches at the University of Buffalo Law School and Cornell University’s School of International and Labor Relations. His writing has appeared in Poetry, The Antioch Review, and The Paris Review.

Jonathan Rosen is the author of four books: Eve’s Apple, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds, Joy Comes in the Morning, and The Life of the Skies.

Jonathan Rosen is the editor of the NextBook Press Jewish Encounters book series.