The life of celebrated essayist, novelist, poet and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi (1919–1987), told in swift succinctness by the author of such philosophical and historical works as Philosophical Witnessing: The Holocaust as Presence (2009).
Lang (Emeritus, Philosophy/SUNY, Albany) approaches this entry in the publisher’s Jewish Lives series from a variety of perspectives. He presents the facts of Levi’s life but also looks closely at his writings, philosophy and identity as a Jew. Lang organizes his text in a way both playful and educative: His first chapter is “The End,” and the preface comes at the end. The author begins with the controversy surrounding Levi’s death—suicide or no? (Lang says yes.) Then he carries us back to 1943 and Levi’s arrest by the Nazis in Italy and his transport to Auschwitz. Lang offers some Italian history and notes that the tiny Jewish population of Italy tended to support Mussolini—at first. After the war, Levi began writing, and Lang takes us through several of the works, observing that Levi had admired the writing of Jack London and that his relationship with Elie Wiesel was uneasy. He continually reminds us of Levi’s education as a chemist and the jobs in the chemical industry he held. He shows the considerable influence of chemical training on Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975). A tricky chapter is the one he devotes to Levi’s Jewishness. The author argues that Levi’s later contention that the Holocaust accentuated that identity is a bit disingenuous: Levi was immersed in the Jewish secular world before the war. He’d been an early supporter of Zionism but not for himself. Lang’s philosophical bent emerges clearly in his chapter about Levi’s thought, and he discusses five aspects of it, including thoughts about human nature, justice and God.
A sketch of the writer, but one with crisp lines and sure-handed strokes.