The life (and, some have speculated, the death) of Primo Levi (1919-87) epitomises the tragedy of Jewish existence in Europe in the 20th century. Levi was born into a highly educated and highly assimilated middle-class Piedmontese family; his Jewishness, he was later to write, was to him "an almost negligible but curious fact, like having freckles''. A shy adolescent, he trained as a chemist and spent his spare time climbing mountains, while some of the wealthiest Jewish families in Italy found it convenient to support Benito Mussolini's Fascist Party.
Levi later blamed Mussolini for having invented the evil that spawned Auschwitz. Be that as it may, it was Mussolini's embrace of Nazi racist ideology in 1938, and the Italian anti-Jewish legislation in which that embrace resulted, that confronted Levi with the reality of his own Jewishness. Levi, to his credit, joined a resistance group, but was captured, and in February 1944 found himself an inmate of the Auschwitz extermination camp, along with 650 other Italian deportees. Of these, 525 were immediately despatched to the gas chambers; of the remainder only a handful - Levi among them - survived. He devoted the rest of his life to recording and telling the story of his 20-month ordeal as a prisoner and slave labourer; in so doing he earned for himself an international reputation as a writer and man of letters.
It was in Auschwitz that Levi grew up. "The racial laws and the Lager ,'' Myriam Anissimov explains, "had made him a Jew. 'Since then, I am Jewish. They sewed the star of David on to me, and not only on to my clothes'.'' Levi used his scientific training to record, dispassionately, the inhumanity and degradation to which all - well, almost all - in Auschwitz succumbed. Auschwitz was a hell in two senses. First, because of what was done in that place. Second, because in Auschwitz morality was turned on its head: the persecuted became the persecutors. This, as Levi was later to admit, represented the essential triumph of Nazism over its victims. The extermination programme could not have been carried out without the willing participation of those who were themselves to be exterminated. There were, to be sure, some heroic acts of resistance. The grim truth was, however, that like any other overcrowded prison, Auschwitz functioned because those whom it held captive cooperated in its functioning. Only the resourceful and the ruthless could survive that ordeal.
It was in Auschwitz that Levi learnt to be resourceful and to appreciate the grammar and beauty of ruthlessness. His inhibitions quickly disappeared. He was later to explain how the experience of Auschwitz dissolved his shyness towards the other sex: "Before Auschwitz I was a man without women; after, I met the woman I was to marry (Lucia Morpurgo) ... Before, I was inhibited - I don't know why. Maybe because I was Jewish.'' Before Auschwitz, Jews had been the objects of history; after, they became its subject - what Yehuda Bauer has characterised as the Jewish emergence from powerlessness. Whatever his own private religious views, Levi was married in a religious ceremony, and he gradually made - or was it, perhaps that fame compelled him to make? - an accommodation with his Jewish roots.
In large measure, this return took the form of a stern dialogue with the State of Israel, whose Lebanese adventure (1982) Levi publicly condemned. It is difficult to disagree with Anissimov's verdict that "he was no believer and no Zionist''. Anissimov has painstakingly researched Levi's life, and she has rightly allowed Levi to speak to us through his writings, which she weaves sensitively into the story she tells. But even in this formidable biography, the inner engines that drove Levi throughout his life escape us. For all his scholarship and intellect, Levi never really seems to have understood why Jews were persecuted, and why he was sent to Auschwitz. Having no Jewish faith, he could not comprehend the faith that fuels anti-Jewish prejudice.
On April 11 1987 Levi fell down a flight of stairs in his house, in Turin, and died at once. Anissimov wants us to believe that he had become depressed, especially on account of the activities of Holocaust denial literature. Relying, it seems, on a newspaper account (which her publisher has made available to me), she quotes the testimony of Elio Toaff, the present chief rabbi of Rome, who a decade later apparently revealed at a symposium that Levi had telephoned him on the morning of his death, between 10.20 and 10.30am, declaring: "I don't know how to go on. I can't stand this life any longer. My mother has cancer, and each time I look at her face I remember the faces of the men lying dead on the planks of the bunks in Auschwitz.'' I find this story difficult to accept, since Levi died on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, when observant Jews are (save in cases of emergency) prohibited from using the telephone, even to receive calls made by others. What was Rabbi Toaff doing answering the telephone? Why was he not at prayer in his synagogue?
Anissimov is at fault in offering us this story at face value. Levi's death was widely interpreted as suicide, but the fact is that he left no suicide note and, as Anissimov herself points out, he had argued against suicide in his book. She - and others - have wasted time and energy interpreting as a suicide what I suspect was nothing more than an act of God.
Geoffrey Alderman is pro vice-chancellor, Middlesex University.
Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist
Author - Myriam Anissimov
ISBN - 1 85410 503 5
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £20.00
Pages - 452