Writers & Company

Martin Amis and Ian Thomson on the legacy of Primo Levi

To mark the centenary of the birth of Primo Levi, the British writers join Eleanor Wachtel to reflect on the late Italian author's exceptional writing about the Holocaust, science and humanity.
British authors Martin Amis and Ian Thomson reflect on the life and work of Italian writer Primo Levi. (Knopf Canada, WW Norton, Caroline Forbes)
Listen to the full episode1:02:16

One hundred years after the birth of Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor, his work remains as powerful as ever. 

Famous for his book If This Is a Man (or Survival in Auschwitz) — a searing account of the year he spent in a Nazi death camp — he is also widely admired for his idiosyncratic literary memoir, The Periodic Table, which was named the best science book ever written by The Royal Institution of Great Britain. In 2015, his writing was newly translated and published in The Complete Works of Primo Levi, a three-volume set edited by Ann Goldstein with an introduction by Toni Morrison. 

To discuss his life and influence, Writers & Company brought together his biographer Ian Thomson and novelist and essayist Martin Amis, who cites Levi's impact on his own acclaimed fiction about the Holocaust. 

The writer's writer

Martin Amis: "Primo Levi is an important writer — not just for scholars or general readers of the Holocaust — but for other writers as well. Saul Bellow was a great admirer of Primo Levi.

"Bellow always used to say that Levi was exemplary for the fact that all his sentences had the right number of words. There was never one too many or one too few. Levi is a model in that respect. Not a word wasted."

There's no writer from the 20th century in Italy — apart from Italo Calvino perhaps — who has approached that extreme purity and transparency of his writing.- Ian Thomson

Ian Thomson: "I absolutely agree. We can touch on chemistry as well. Chemistry is very much a science of measuring and qualitative analysis. From chemistry, Levi derived a kind of personal cult of concision and precision in his own writing, which he saw, in some ways, as a sovereign politeness toward the reader.

"He was absolutely a master prose writer in Italian. There's no writer from the 20th century in Italy — apart from Italo Calvino perhaps — who has approached that extreme purity and transparency of his writing."

A man walks through the gate of the Sachsenhausen Nazi death camp bearing the phrase 'Arbeit macht frei' (work sets you free). (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

Understanding evil

Amis: "Levi is the visionary of the Holocaust, its presiding spirit and the most perceptive of all writers on this subject. I owe him a great debt. What I and others have found is that you read about the Holocaust and your knowledge increases — but your understanding does not.

Levi is the visionary of the Holocaust, its presiding spirit and the most perceptive of all writers on this subject.- Martis Amis

"As I was settling down to attempt my second novel about the Holocaust, The Zone of Interest — which was Social Realist and not mythopoetic like my 1991 Holocaust novel Time's Arrow  — I was discouraged by the fact that I got nowhere in understanding it.

"There's a marvellous written interview that's included in the appendix of Levi's The Truce where he says not only can we not understand the Holocaust, but we should not understand and we must not understand it. 

"To understand something is to somehow accept it. No one can understand the Nazi leaders and Hitler himself, who is famously opaque. Many a thinker and historian has said the more they read about Hitler, they find it more and more difficult to explain. Levi says we should be relieved that we can't understand it, because these people and their actions are anti-human.

"I was amazed to read this and felt an instant liberation, where a weight was lifted from me."

Thomson: "Levi proclaimed himself a non-believer but he was culturally Jewish. He was, from an early age, interested in Old Testament stories of survival and deliverance.

"The morality of If This Is a Man, although secular, contains within itself a whole kind of moral history of Jewish condemnation of inhumanity. I think that it's a mistake to see Levi as purely a secular writer and somehow to claim him for the secular cause. He's much more complicated than that."

A journey of discovery

Amis: "Levi's moral stance — his moral penetration — sets him apart as a writer. The Drowned and The Saved is perhaps philosophically at the centre of his thoughts about Auschwitz and moments of reprieve. There's this marvellous resiliency as he concentrates on those happier days spent at Auschwitz.

"There are kinds of shades and subtleties to sort out, but you wouldn't call it the force of condemnation... it's a journey of discovery. He didn't stop to write about the Holocaust with a great fuel tank of indignation. It was rather tentative and exploratory."

Thomson: "I think a lot of readers have remarked, not so much with his final book The Drowned and The Saved but with his first book If This Is a Man, that it has flashes of quiet humour. Its affirmation of human dignity instills a kind of almost paradoxical joy in the reader.

Levi doesn't ever dwell on the mechanics of mass murder, but on what remained of the human face in the camp.- Ian Thomson

"Levi doesn't ever dwell on the mechanics of mass murder, but on what remained of the human face in the camp. He obviously didn't describe the gas chambers or the assembly line murder of people because he didn't see any of it. He limited himself, like a true scientist, to what he saw and heard. To stray beyond this would have been morally indefensible. He would have started to make things up."

Martin Amis and Ian Thomson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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