On Nature and Humanity Literary Sampler by Primo Levi, a Modern-Day Renaissance Man

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THE SIXTH DAY AND OTHER TALES, By Primo Levi. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal New York & London: Summit Books. 222 pp., $18.95

IT would not be amiss to describe the Italian writer Primo Levi (1919-1987) as a modern-day Renaissance man. His accomplishments - in the realms of chemistry, his first vocation, and literature, his later love - may not have rivaled those of a Leonardo da Vinci, but like the keenest minds of the Renaissance, Levi's ranged freely over many fields.

He, too, was a synthesizer, working toward a coherent vision of the world that would incorporate the various truths of chemistry, biology, cybernetics, psychology, religion, philosophy, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and whatever might be left under the heading of human nature that did not fall into any convenient category.

Convinced as a young chemist that the "hard truths" of science were the best possible antidote to the lies and bluster of politics, Levi later joined the resistance when he realized that scientific objectivity alone was not enough to counter the force and fraud of fascism. When the Nazis occupied his native northern Italy, Levi was arrested, and in 1944, deported to Auschwitz.

There he experienced firsthand one of the most monstrous and inexplicable manifestations of evil that a century - until then characterized by scientific progressivism - had to reveal.

Levi wrote two memoirs about his wartime experiences, "Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening," as well as other works on the subject, including "Moments of Reprieve" and "The Drowned and the Saved." He also wrote many essays, articles, poems, and stories on diverse subjects, including two volumes of tales: "Storie naturali" and "Vizio di forma," published in Italy in 1966 and 1977 and now being issued in English in one volume of 23 stories, "The Sixth Day and Other Tales."

Levi's writings are the products of a fruitful, if sometimes awkward, tension between his need to bear witness to the events he experienced and his inclination to explore the uses of fantasy and fable, as so many of his literary compatriots and contemporaries were doing.

His straightforward autobiographical writing is low-key, dispassionate, and oddly impersonal. It bears the stamp of truth: unretouched, undramatized, but almost too carefully objective and reserved. This cool manner, however, serves him well when he writes as a fabulist, supplying the matter-of-fact tone upon which the credibility of fantasy depends.

The tales in this collection, written over a period of years but left undated by the current publisher, are short, gem-like narratives that encapsulate complex concepts within their simple structures.

The title story, presented in the form of a script, takes us into a kind of corporate headquarters where experts from various fields - anatomy, chemistry, thermodynamics, psychology - are planning to introduce a new model: Man. As these well-prepared individuals debate the merits of a terrestrial vs. …