A collection of 36 interviews conducted by various journalists and authors with Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi between 1961 and 1987.
Although best known as a witness to the horrors of Nazi concentration camps (If This Is a Man, 1947), Levi had wide-ranging concerns, and his literary achievements reach from full-fledged fiction (If Not Now, When?, 1982) to a reflection on the nature of labor (The Wrench, 1987) and various short works of science fiction. These interviews limn a chemist-by-day, writer-by-night whose morality, optimism, curiosity, and thoughtfulness guided him while a prisoner in Auschwitz and later as a factory worker and internationally acclaimed author. Overall, the anthology successfully portrays a highly consistent, deeply introspective writer. This success, however, engenders the work’s greatest weakness: due to Levi’s reluctance to discuss his private life and what appears to be an unfortunate lack of imagination on the part of his questioners, the collection is dominated by his repeated and repetitive demonstrations of intellectual and moral consistency, while the intimacy and personal insights that also characterize a good interview are decidedly scanted. There are marked exceptions. Edith Bruck’s 1976 portrait, “Jewish, up to a point,” offers a rare glimpse into Levi’s personal side, and the section entitled “Auschwitz and Survival” contains many superlative pieces, notably “A Self-Interview: Afterword to If This Is a Man.” Gems scattered throughout include Levi’s reflections on chemistry, computers, growing old, science fiction, the relationship between art and society, the nature of racism, his trouble with Kafka, and his ambivalence toward Israel.
The life and ideas of this fascinating figure certainly warrant in-depth attention, but this is not the best introduction to the man behind the art.