Primo Levi was an assimilated Jew from Turin and a qualified chemist. He joined the Partisans when the Germans invaded Mussolini's collapsed Italy, and was arrested and deported, aged 24, to Auschwitz in winter 1944. Through luck, cunning, his chemist's training and the charity of others, he survived a year in the Inferno. Months of being shunted about Eastern Europe followed the Russians' freeing of the camp, and Levi did not arrive home in Turin until October 1945.
The shock of release killed some prisoners, when they realised the extent of their degradation. Levi was able to recover and commit the nightmare to paper. The result, in 1947, was If This Is a Man. When the major publisher Einaudi refused it, these terrifying reminiscences appeared with a small house. Lone but significant voices in Italy hailed it as a great artistic achievement. Levi entered a long period of gestation over how to continue his story, emerging with The Truce in 1963.
The Periodic Table (1975) expanded his fame abroad, and the 1984 reissue of If This is a Man in English had a huge impact in America and Britain. Levi was a genius and a Jewish cause celebre, something he did his best to shrug off, detesting the very word Holocaust. Then, early in 1987, living in the same Turin house as throughout his life, he killed himself, aged 67.
Did Levi have special qualities that helped him to survive? What lessons did he draw from his experience? What drove him to suicide? And what kind of writer was he? Though both these diligently researched, vast biographies suggest a range of answers, their very size can bury the issues.
Levi was an underdeveloped, quiet boy, derided at school for his size and later for his lack of sexual experience. He read and did chemical experiments. Later he took up cycling and mountain climbing and acquired friends of both sexes, and a wiry resilience, although he would not physically love a woman until he met his wife, Lucia, in 1946. Neither Carole Angier nor Ian Thomson suggests Levi's extreme sexual reticence was a matter of religious or moral scruple. Thomson, who has a fastidiousness about probing into anything psychological, skates over it in a paragraph. By contrast, it is Angier's running theme.
Let "lack of passion" be a neutral description of Levi's physical- emotional condition, not a fault. Clearly it hurt him to be so crippled as a young man, for he felt love. His reticence severely damaged his marriage. It was coupled with what Philip Roth identified as a pathological attachment to his mother, who outlived him.
My feeling is that a lack of passion is just what helped Levi to survive and gave his writing its fabulous objectivity. He was born distanced from the stage on which appetites are gratified. Angier refers to Levi's reason, and in the camp he quickly learnt not to fight back, to watch for anything useful but be inconspicuous. This is reason as practicality.
But what distinguished Levi was undeluded vision, a wiriness of mind and soul. He disliked those who prayed, he avoided those who told themselves comforting lies, and he learnt not to be moved. Of course, he felt joy and sadness in normal life and had rich friendships, but there was some distance he could build on under pressure, which helped him to observe behaviour and character. Add to this his prisoner's skills as a chemist, which meant he could keep life going with a few flints and a bottle of chloromine (and eventually secured him a privileged lab job), and you have a picture of resilience that no one could invent.
Levi's moral report from Auschwitz stresses moral luck and human equality. Though neither biographer observes it, Levi sets the tone for post-war moral discourse. A German who wipes his …