A shy man sent among Nazi beasts

The Double Bond - Primo Levi
April 19, 2002

Peter Atkins on Primo Levi, the varnisher who tired of his own veneer.

"Cerebral crushing... severe lacerations of the heart... multiple fracture of vertebral column, sternum, of all ribs, clavicles, pelvis, right femur, right wrist." Thus death came to Primo Levi on April 11 1987, as a result, like his grandfather a century before him, of precipitazione dall'alto .

Although lingering doubts remained, he had thrown himself from the third-floor landing down the stairwell of the apartment block where he had lived all his life, apart from those months in Auschwitz that made him and then doomed him. Now, 15 years later, this respected Italian author has earned himself a double dose of thick biography, each written seemingly in pretended ignorance of the other but emerging on almost the same day.

Turin and Auschwitz. These are the backdrops to a life and a death. In the foreground stands a sensitive, inward man fashioned by these influences, the former of secrecy and aloofness, the latter of bestiality and horror. The mirrors, though, are held up to Levi's life in such strikingly different ways. Angier brings herself into a sensitive inner communion with her subject; Ian Thomson sees Levi's life played out within the framework of the history of Italy in the mid-20th century. Neither author received help from Levi's family - Turinese aloofness and privacy again - and neither had direct access to any of his papers, except those already rendered public, as in the book that brought him to the attention of the world, If This is a Man , published only after rejection by two dozen other publishers and now a set text in Italian schools; and then later the book that brought him to the affectionate attention of scientists, of chemists at least, The Periodic Table , published in 1975, as an allegorical union of the chemical elements and his acquaintances and friends.

Angier uses the devices that Levi developed, to present his life, growing up in Turin, studying chemistry to discover the heart of things but unconsciously moulding the terseness and directness of his prose style. Later he regretted that he had not studied physics (which might have given us "The Eightfold Way" rather than The Periodic Table ); but being a Jew in those increasingly intolerant days, he was lucky to be allowed to complete his degree but forbidden to change course.

Angier puts her analytical eye close to Levi's inwardness, and sees him as bullied at school, then bullied again by Hitler's myrmidons, and coming late to something approaching love but perhaps never reaching it. His mother looms powerfully in the background, from before his birth to after his death. Angier finds this a powerful unifying theme in her exploration of his development. The Double Bond , the repressed and depressed title of Angier's volume, is the title of Levi's incomplete sequel to The Periodic Table . As she points out, it is a double entendre in Italian, where, as Il doppio ligame , it also conveys the sense that in English we refer to as "double bind".

Thomson's biography is set more in the actions of history than in the inner world of a tortured, ironic self. Here, Levi is more of a coracle out on the raging ocean of events, a condensation of major events mapped on to an individual. Thomson stays well clear of psychological analysis, or perhaps projection of the writer's self, and gives a more direct portrayal of his subject and his time.

Levi's life can be summarised in a paragraph or so (but how a timeline would have helped in both these bulky volumes). Born in the house where he would later die, Levi was introverted and bullied at school, too shy to join in with his companions, belonging to no group, standing apart, separate and serious, and - the inevitable price of such unconscious preparation for the future - regarded as snobbish and standoffish to non-bookish types.

No wonder, then, that he turned to that reputedly most introverted of the sciences, chemistry, to find the secret of life without the burden of too much interaction with other humans. That introversion and the practicality that was etched into him by the rigours of the old-fashioned classical course of chemistry he had to endure was to be the spine of his survival when the horrors came and are reflected in the distance of his style, standing back from the events, as a chemist stands back from the superficialities of reaction and change, reflecting on the inner mechanisms, of which the outer is but paint and varnish.

Thomson stays well clear of the chemical details of his studies and his work, but Angier dares to tread on this thin ice, and presents us with some very odd remarks as she falls through. Thus, the Walden inversion, we are told, has to do with something called "double oscillation", whatever that is. Even death can be in doubt: Thomson tells of a colleague's death by drinking hydrocyanic acid, but Angier has him drinking sulphuric acid. Angier also writes, bizarrely, that she has learnt from Levi that the "molecules of inorganic matter attach to each other at one point only". Organic molecules, in contrast, were joined by double bonds. To be charitable, Angier is reflecting her subject, for The Periodic Table is not a textbook of inorganic chemistry.

It seems that all his life Levi's inward strength was unconsciously cultivated for what was to come. His studies were a part of it. His treks to the mountains with friends were another part. On the mountains he had learnt patience, persistence and endurance; he also learnt how to come to terms with hunger, fatigue and faintness, and how to survive on the little that had been granted.

Even here there are tiny discrepancies in the biographies, which make one unsure about which to believe. At one point, according to Angier, when friends were in danger on a mountain, when they changed places in the bitter cold it was "as though time itself had frozen". The same scene is reported by Thomson, but in his account it was the fact that Levi's watch has stopped that stimulated exactly the same observation. This is a point of little significance, but it does suggest that an intercalation of the two accounts might be fuller than either aloneI or more discrepant. But how does a biographer know, as Angier writes, that "not a single one of Levi's companions in chemistry ever offered him a hostile look or word"?

Levi grew up as an assimilated Jew in Turin, initially confident that he was safe from the excesses being perfected over the border in the north, but gradually realising that the cancer of anti-Semitism was spreading even into Piedmont. He joined the resistance on October 1 1943, but survived for only a couple of months. On December 1 of that year, Mussolini sanctioned the final solution in Italy, and in less than two weeks Levi was arrested as a Jew. It was better to be a Jew than a partisan, for at least there was a chance that one might survive and not be executed on the spot. He was packed off to Auschwitz and survived until the camp's liberation by the Russians a year later. He survived in part by keeping his head down, but also by a wily deployment of his chemistry that made him invaluable. We have, of course, all read the texts of Verrichtungswissenschaft before, where the lice that lie within mankind have broken their bonds and stalked the world spreading horror and bestiality, but it is right that we be reminded and it is correct to see the impact on individuals, which is what matters. Levi underwent the demolition of self, the aim of the camps - the demolition of persons into people, and then their demolition into nonentities. His, though, was an inner resourcefulness, a detachment, a standing apart that enabled him to survive. But why him?, he wondered. Perhaps he knew that he had somehow cheated, that weaker ones did not cheat as he had cheated, and that he was an undeserving survivor.

Survival, even of shipment around eastern Europe following his release from Auschwitz as the Russians slowly got round to repatriating those they had liberated, ultimately brought Levi back to Turin, where he took up his role as industrial chemist once again, to become the manager of a paint and varnish factory where he must have enjoyed the superficiality of his product, the varnish, that could conceal the imperfections of humanity. Angier truly gets inside the smashed cranium of her subject, and reflects his increasingly burdensome world, the world of a survivor who came to regret his surviving.

Levi, by his own ironical admission, though, was lucky. He was truly lucky to be born into a Jewish family that respected books and become imbued with literature and learning. He was lucky to have been trained as a chemist, which arguably fashioned his style, provided him with themes that are somewhat off-centre in normal literary traditions and caught the eye of the unwashed end of the educated (I mean scientists) as well as the washed. Indeed, If This is a Man begins: "It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944", for that gave him a chance against its awful, sickening, inhuman, murderous regime. And he was lucky to have been there at all, for although neither biography is the exploration of "what ifs", there would have been no biography of the manager of a paint and varnish factory.

Levi had to suffer as he did before he could write as he did, before he had material to write about, which no amount of paint and varnish alone would have provided. That suffering would also bring him sympathy, which is perhaps good compost for the growth of admiration, and the publicising of the horrors of fascism was perhaps well timed, luckily timed, at least, in an Italy that was sensitive to its immediate past.

Finally, in this litany of luck, he was lucky to contract scarlet fever at the very moment that the Germans were killing any surviving evidence in the death camps, an illness that by various lucky twists achieved his freedom, or at least delayed for 40 years his execution.

From the moment he returned from Auschwitz he never stopped writing, finding it a release to tell his story, perhaps reliving the hell to keep its memory alive. But in doing so, Levi was not always completely honest, and his biographers have had to be alert to his enhancing of the legend that he had become, in Italy at least, and was starting to in other countries too. Thus, he claims that If This is a Man was written in furious haste, an outpouring of passion immediately on his return from exile. But in fact, he did not start it until 16 weeks had passed and went through many drafts, including different styles of presentation. Nevertheless, it is written with passion, and Levi's nocturnal typing sessions led some to think that he was a spy in league with the Red Army.

He was not wholly lucky in his writing. He had to wait years before he was recognised as a writer, until If This is a Man was republished with modifications, by Einaudi, in 1958. The republication was a turning point for Levi, but the publication of The Periodic Table was more decisive, as it marked out Italians as either well read or ignorant. In this book, Levi came closest to being what perhaps he longed to be but never quite attained, a novelist. But outside Italy, acceptance was still slow, and no fewer than publishers turned down the gold mine. They saw it as neither chemistry text nor autobiography. Science was simply not very interesting, either as a subject or as a handle. In Britain, publication had to wait until 1985, when the rights were bought for a song, with the last 119 copies of If This is a Man awaiting death by pulping.

Levity, understandably, was not Levi's second name. He was serious about most things, and especially about principle. That principle he adhered to in respect of making comments about his mother, whom he fiercely protected from intrusion, and in respect of his wife, from whom he seemed more distant. They reflected this protection by expressing interest in the work of compiling these biographies, but offering no assistance. They undoubtedly knew that the subjects of Levi's own vignettes had been offended by even his benign portraits of them, and were protecting him from prying eyes and pens. Above all, Levi managed to detach himself, outwardly at least, from the misfortunes and horrors that dogged him. The same inwardness, the ability to reach out to other hearts only through his prose, was in the end to kill him.

Even home, still as always 75 Corso Re Umberto, was not a restful nest, for here Levi lived with the mother he adored, the sister who adored him, and the wife he had married and who had recently borne him a daughter. Although he was the centre of the menage, he was central as a telephone exchange is central, for the women steadfastly refused to communicate directly with one another. Levi's response to this faint shadow of Auschwitz was to regress inside himself, and cling to his hope that one day he would become a professional writer.

Perhaps, in the end, he simply could not take the pettiness of the domestic tensions. The summer of 1986 was Levi's last. Now he was suffering from shingles, and ulcers on his feet, a relic of Auschwitz at each end of his body. At this point he appears to have lost his way in the one path that interested him, his writing. The bouts of depression began to invade him more insistently, and acquaintances were starting to kill themselves, or be killed by disease, more frequently than was safe for one so inward and principled. Even his mother came close to death with a stroke, and he was faced with the prospect of being denied the absolute adulation for his achievements that only parents can provide. Lucia, his wife, was quick to take advantage, and, as Thomson writes, she "enjoyed the martyred sense of being put upon... From the day he got married, Levi had made Lucia a prisoner in his own home: now she wanted her husband to know what a pass he had brought her to."

Levi spiralled into despair, and became wholly negative about his future yet continued to present a normal aspect to those around him. The inwardness and self-sufficiency were dominant. Pills stabilised him for a time, as did his upbringing, and we and his biographers can only wonder at the thoughts of destruction that were going through his still-intact head. On his doctor's advice he doubled his intake of antidepressant, but the effect was to block his bladder. Now he feared cancer of the prostate, and cancer had killed his father.

There was so little hope, and so little progress with his own "The Double Bond", begun a decade previously and still no more than a sketch and in a style that gave his friends pause. There were external anxieties too, for the revisionist interpretations of the Holocaust were gaining ground, and Levi saw the basis of his entire being doubted. An operation relieved him of the painful condition of his bladder, but it shortly recurred. This prospect brought out the most deep seated of Levi's fears, that of losing his memory under the surgeon's knife or, if that were to fail, with the decrepitude of old age through Alzheimer's disease.

Then Levi fell from the high place. Angier wonders about the rumours that surrounded his death, for the stairwell is not so much a void as a narrow, spiral, vertiginous channel, no wider than 170cm at its widest and barely a 1m wide at its narrowest. But both biographers are in no doubt that it was suicide, even of such an uncertain and messy kind.

Literary critics will tell us in a future generation whether Levi's opus has stood the test of time, when he can be read in a time more distantly removed from the atrocities he managed to survive. I suspect that it will be the case that his time is brightest now, and that he will be placed on the shelf beside other minor writers of the 20th century. There will be other biographies, and perhaps in future what remains of his papers, if any are allowed to survive, will reveal a little more about the way he thought and wrote; but for the present these 1,500 pages are an appropriate memorial and jointly illuminate this reflective, sensitive recorder of the shame of mankind and what should never have been. I cannot judge - no one can judge, not even insightful, learned, literary critics - how Levi will be judged half a century hence. I suspect that he will seem a shooting star, a significant brief moment of incandescence when he caught the mood of a people, and then will be forgotten. Future judges then will disinter these two massive volumes, and see that they spoke in their different ways kindly, interestingly, and sensitively of a man who suffered, and survived to articulate his survival.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford. His books include The Periodic Kingdom .

The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography

Author - Carole Angier
ISBN - 0 670 88333 6
Publisher - Viking
Price - £25.00
Pages - 898

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