Magazine article The Spectator

His Great Adventure

Magazine article The Spectator

His Great Adventure

Article excerpt

THE DOUBLE BOND by Carole Angier Penguin, (English pound)25, pp. 928, ISBN 0670883336 PRIMO LEVI by Ian Thomson Hutchinson, (English pound)25, pp. 624, ISBN 0091785316 Can we assume that it is generally known that Primo Levi was the most articulate of concentration camp survivors? If This is a Man, his account of Auschwitz, and The Truce, the story of his tortuous, Odysseus-like return journey to Turin in the chaos of 'liberated' Europe, are classics: school texts (in Italy, at least) and, as Thucydides said of his own history, a ktema es aei: baggage for eternity.

Born in 1919, Levi's early life was that of a pampered, shy, Jewish, middle-class prodigy (top of the class, both in literature and in his chosen vocation, chemistry). In the untypically Italian city of Turin, reticence was a common characteristic, carried to endogamous extremes by the large Jewish population, many of whose ancestors had been Sephardic refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. After the war, a Catholic friend, Ferdinando Camon, would remind Primo of the element of coercion implicit in Catholicism. Jews were welcomed in partly Protestant Piedmont with a tolerance rare in the rest of Italy. In Rome, they continued to be ghettoised (literally), until after the Risorgimento in which Italian Jews were eager Garibaldini.

Jews proved more enthusiastic citizens of the united Italy than many Romans, Milanese and Neopolitans, for whom the city, not the nation, was the focus of loyalty (cf. Giovanni Bologna's terracotta, now on show in the V&A, of the triumph of Florence over Pisa). Jews were also among Mussolini's earliest adherents. Alexander Stille's From Benevolence to Betrayal is the key, uncited source here. Mussolini's Fascism may have been militant mounte-- bankery, but (like the Mafia it suppressed) it was only casually murderous and not programmatically racist until 1937/8.

Primo's father, the somewhat louche Cesare, offered scornful passive resistance to Fascism, but - as Dan Vittorio Segre remarked in his Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew - it was `the only natural form of existence' for Italians between the wars. Mussolini had a Jewish mistress, Margherita Sarfatti, and - until the late 1930s affected to despise the racist mania of the Nazis. He then betrayed the Jews, and Italy itself, by his fatal alliance with Hitler.

Opportunities for theft, careerism and blackmail were often taken, but wholehearted Italian anti-Semitism was rare. In 1938, only 864 of the 400,000 Fascist party membership chose to `interest themselves' in the Jewish question. Not until the Duce was overthrown, in 1943, and the German army, followed by the SS, became the masters of Italy, did deportations begin.

Hence Primo Levi could start If This is a Man by saying, with accurate irony, that he had the 'good fortune' not to be sent to Auschwitz until 1944. By then the Nazi killing frenzy had somewhat abated. Only thousands and thousands of women and children and old men were immediately gassed. A doctor of chemistry had his uses, as one of Primo's quick-witted comrades realised on arrival. `Alberto mi ha salvato la vita,' Primo said. He could not do as much for Alberto, who survived only to be murdered, at the end of the war, on a death march in which Primo was too prostrate with scarlet fever to take part.

Levi wrote, with obsessed objectivity, about what came to be called (not to his approval) the Holocaust. Like a naturalist, he tabulated varieties of individual responses to `the horror, the horror' (he was a keen reader of English, and not least of Joseph Conrad). Then, in The Periodic Table, he composes a sequence of `scientific' fables, often fantastic but always aware of the heartless ingenuities of nature. Levi remained a practising Jew, of a kind, but he ceased to believe in God.

Much has already been written about a man with whom his biographers tend very soon to be on intimate terms. Now we are blessed with two more damn fat books. …

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