The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi, edited by Robert S. C. Gordon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 205 pp. $29.95.
Survivor guilt is well documented, but there is a different, milder form of guilt, Or uncertainty and embarrassment, which can affect people professionally charged with teaching or writing critically about Primo Levi or other writers of testimonial literature. It is given voice in this volume by professors Anna Laura and Giulio Lepschy in an essay on the languages and dialects employed by Levi. "Some readers may feel an unease at treating Primo Levi's work (and crucial for their ethical, political and historical value." Does analysis of him with routine critical tools carry the risk of diminishing the impact of his work on the greatest crime in human history?
The problem is particularly acute in the case of Levi, since he had a distaste for being pigeon-holed and was the author of several works which were not immediately related to his experiences in Auschwitz. The question of Levi's identity as a writer lies close to the surface of virtually all the chapters in this stimulating, excellent anthology. The editor, Robert Gordon, makes it clear that the objective is to consider Primo Levi in all his deeply layered complexity as a commentator on, and teller of tales about, such varied topics as "the risks and rewards of science, the nature of historical responsibility, the limits of the human, the workings of language and the ethics of everyday life." Levi's sensitive probing of these vital questions in essays, novels, and stories would of itself ensure him a place as one of the great writers of our time, but of course he was the man who endured Auschwitz and whose accounts and reflections on that experience are perhaps the greatest work of all testimonial literature.
In answering their own question, the professors Lepschy point out that ethical commitment is among the most fundamental criteria for the evaluation of any creative work which aims to be more than mere escapism, and that their essay examines Levis engagement with language as it relates to his core concerns. The ethical imperative was central to Levi, but his interests were legion, and it is surely only in appreciating Levi in his totality that the fullness of his achievement can be celebrated.
All contributors are admirers, so this is not a work of revisionism, but each writer approaches him from a different standpoint. There are three essays on the Holocaust, including an account by Judith Woolf of Levi's treatment of the theme in different books and a chapter on "Holocaust Vocabularies" by Gordon and Marco Belpoliti which suggests that Levi's ethical interrogations of Auschwitz entitle him to be ranked with Pascal and Montaigne. Charlotte Ross takes as her theme Levi's sci-fi short stories, proposing that they act as "extensions to his writing about the Lager" but also pointing out that they focus on the "impotence of the individual before unaccountable forces," and that challenging comment immediately compels the reader to rethink Levi's fiction. …