“We don’t remember days; we remember moments.”
Notebooks of Ceare Pavese, (28.7.1940)
Twenty years ago the chemist, memoirist, short story writer, novelist, essayist, Primo Levi committed suicide in Turin, the place of his birth.
His account of the year he was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz, “If This is a Man” was rejected by Einaudi, the most prestigious publishing house in Turin. Eventually a far smaller house did publish, in November 1947, 60 years ago this year. Only 1,500 copies were sold. Eleven years later Einaudi eventually produced a revised work, which was translated into English in 1959…and so began the global journey of a great piece of literature that “bares testament” to the evil of the death camps.
The writing in “If This is a Man” is clear and precise, occasionally humourous. It isn’t written in hate but describes man’s capacity to oppress another with unflinching honesty. The fluent, positive and human qualities of Levi’s writings are not negated by the controversial circumstances of his death, though they do bring many questions. His life, and where it took him as a human being, remain inspiring. The powerful affirmation of life Levi describes when confronted by the systematic brutality of war, resonates today.
Freed on 27 January 1945, it took Levi nine months to return to Turin, his journey home by train with former Italian prisoners of war in Russia took him from Auschwitz in Poland, through Russia, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Germany. A chemist by academic training, Levi combined science and literature for many years. His “The Periodic Table” a collection of short pieces – fiction and non-fiction – but related in some way to one of the chemical elements, was voted “the best science book ever written” at the Royal Institution in London, two years ago.
Levi died on April 11, 1987, when he fell from the interior landing of his third-story apartment in Turin. Elie Wiesel, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and himself a holocaust survivor, said: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.” However, Levi left no suicide note, and no other obvious signs of an intent to take his own life; his remaining papers and the testimony for friends, suggest many plans for new projects.
The importance of Levi’s manner of death is important though. If his work, personal and lucidly honest, is a powerful affirmation of life, is “suicide” a final comment on the validity of his message?
Why be ashamed? When one has done time,
if they let one out, it’s because like everybody else
who belongs to the streets, one has been in prison.
From morning till evening we wander the avenues
whether it’s raining or a beautiful sun’s showing its face.
It’s a joy to meet on the avenues people who talk
and talking among ourselves, bump into girls.
It’s a joy to wait and whistle at girls from doorways,
hug them on the streets and take them to movies
and smoking in secret, lean on their beautiful knees.
It’s a joy to talk and finger them laughing,
and at night in bed, feeling flung on one’s neck
their two arms pulling you down, thinking of morning
when one is released from prison in the fresh sunlight.
From morning till evening wandering drunk
and watching laughing passersby enjoying everybody — even ugly
people — just to feel themselves on the streets.
From morning till evening singing drunkenly
and meeting drunkards and starting discussions
that last a long time and make us thirsty.
All these characters who go talking among themselves,
we want them with us at night, down in the trough,
and to hound them with our guitar
that skips drunkenly and cannot stay confined
but throws the doors wide open to echo in the air — outside water
or stars may rain down. It doesn’t matter
if on the avenues at this hour no beautiful girls are strolling:
among us is one who laughs to himself
because he has also been released from prison tonight,
and with him, raising a ruckus and singing, we’ll make it to morning.
Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese-American poet, fiction writer and translator.
For a short time in the early 1930s at the Massimo d’Azeglio, Liceo Classico, a secondary school specializing in the “classics”, Primo Levi was taught by Cesare Pavese, already an anti-Fascist (he was arrested in 1935), and later to become one of Italy’s best-known novelists.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pavese. As a young man he was an avid reader and interpreter of English fiction, writing his thesis at the University of Turin on the poetry of Walt Whitman and translating many American and British writers into Italian. Arrested for receiving letters from a political prisoner in Rome he was sent into “confino”, internal exile in Southern Italy for a year. Returning to Turin he worked Einaud as an editor and translator.
The loner, through choice or circumstance is a frequent figure in Pavese’s work.
“His relationships with men and women tend to be temporary and superficial. He may wish to have more solidarity with other humans, but he often ends up betraying his ideals and friends; for example in The Prison, the political exile in a village in Southern Italy receives a note from another political confinato living nearby, who suggests a meeting. The protagonist rejects a show of solidarity and refuses to meet him. The title of the collection of the two novellas is Before the Cock Crows, a reference to Peter’s betrayal of Christ.”
It is said that love frustrations and a political disillusionment with communism led him to his suicide, by an overdose of barbiturates in 1950 – the year in which he won the “Strega Prize” for ‘La Bella Estate’’.
“It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs. What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.
So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter’s night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn’t published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.”
Chapter One, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller…
Born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, Italo Calvino spent his early years in Sanremo, on the Italian Riviera, He moved to Turin in 1941, “after a long hesitation over living there or in Milan. He often humorously described this choice, and used to describe Turin as ‘a city that is serious but sad.’ “ Wikipedia reports. He graduated from Turin’s university with a thesis on Joseph Conrad and started working with the official Communist paper L’Unità; in 1957, disillusioned by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Calvino left the Italian Communist party, and his letter of resignation (soon famous) was published in L’Unità. In 1962.
In the 1950s he began to publish many works, fiction and non-fiction, perhaps the most famous, the “Italian Folktales”, an attempt to emulate the Brothers Grimm in producing a popular collection of Italian fairy tales for the general reader: it was the first comprehensive collection of Italian fairy tales.
The death of his editor, Elio Vittorini in 1966 (a contemporary of Cesare Pavese and an influential voice in the modernist school of novel writing. His best-known work is the anti-fascist novel “Conversations in Sicily”, for which he was jailed when it was published in 1941) affected Calvino hugely and caused him to experience what has been defined as an “intellectual depression”, which the writer himself described as an important passage in his life: “…I ceased to be young. Perhaps it’s a metabolic process, something that comes with age, I’d been young for a long time, perhaps too long, suddenly I felt that I had to begin my old age, yes, old age, perhaps with the hope of prolonging it by beginning it early”.
He began to visit Paris (where he was nicknamed L’ironique amusé), met Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and grew closer to the academic world, interests included classical studies (Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Giacomo Leopardi). He also wrote novels for Playboy’s Italian edition).
In 1981 he was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur.
“Invisible Cities” was published in 1972 by Einaudi, a tale of magical realism that considers the imagination via the descriptions of cities by the narrator, Marco Polo.
“The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of Polo’s descriptions (1-3 pages each) of 55 cities. Short dialogues between the two characters are interspersed every five to ten cities and are used to discuss various ideas presented by the cities on a wide range of topics including linguistics and human nature.”
Invisible Cities is probably based, at some level on Il Milione, which we translate as The Travels of Marco Polo: the travelogue of the Mongol Empire was written in the 13th century, and shares with Invisible Cities
“the brief, often fantastic accounts of the cities he visits, accompanied by descriptions of the city’s inhabitants, notable imports and exports, and whatever interesting tales Polo had heard about the region.”
I wonder if Tom had read it when he traveled. Or Laurence Sterne… In Milan now I keep thinking of Jim Hake’s Turin show, “The Joy of Repetitions.”