Years ago, as an apprentice reporter, I saw my first corpse. It was of a deranged pistol-waver who had been shot dead by the police in a New York subway car. Afterward, I remember riding the subway home at 3:30 in the morning, and noticing that what normally seemed scruffy--grimy cars, a drunk or two--suddenly shone. Simply because they were alive, or served life.
That was something of Primo Levi's art. An Italian Jew, a student chemist from a comfortable family and with comfortable prospects; he found himself, after a spell in the Resistance, in the wreckage of Auschwitz.
With death and degradation everywhere, what he noticed was life. The prisoner who hummed Mozart all day through his oversize nose, as if to announce: There is a world elsewhere. The slave laborer who practiced juggling with the building materials he was shifting. A cheerful con man who explained that no matter what happened, he had got the best of Hitler. Looking back, he found more good times than bad.
The theme is in Levi's works of direct testimony: "Survival in Auschwitz," "The Reawakening," "Moments of Reprieve." It is in his masterpiece, "The Periodic Table," where the properties of different chemical elements are metaphors for a series of reflections, anecdotes and fictions about life. It is voiced by the protean construction rigger in "The Monkey's Wrench," a figure who travels the world building things and showing that "What a Piece of Work Is Man!'656434017Piece of Work!"
Such a theme could easily have taken the form of sermonizing. With Levi, it never did. Every bit of cheerfulness was paid for by pain; his flowers were not decorations but tiny muscles that broke the heavy soil they grew in. And there were no generalities; everything was as minutely particular as a chemistry experiment. Together, pain and particularity transformed message into art, of such idiosyncratic quality and with such a unique voice, that it was clearly only a matter of time until Levi's work received a Nobel Prize.
Time was not available, of course. Levi died in April, at 67. And the Italian authorities treated it as a suicide.
The death of a great artist is a special kind of loss. Suicide adds an even more special note of shock. With our literary suicides--Hart Crane, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath--we register the shock, look at their work and see, or think we see, the mortal risk-taking.
But this death produced anguish of a far different kind. The man of life who kills himself--far from confirming his work, did this to negate it?
The depths of feeling for Levi in the world of letters has been remarkable these last few years. A great deal has been written about him--I think of Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, to mention a few--and every reader I know seems to regard him as a private discovery. Something about his vision was recalcitrant to fame, to its generalizing. He was just about fame-proof.
And so, the shock and the question: Are we betrayed? Only in the last couple of weeks--as if it took a while to react--there have been editorials in The New Republic and The New Yorker. A writer's suicide is not, to say the least, an easy or customary subject for editorializing. The New Republic seemed inclined to think that a shadow had fallen on Levi's work. The New Yorker thought differently. It summarized the question about as well as can be done:
"Our fear, naturally, was that the efficacy of all his words had somehow been canceled by his death--that his hope, or faith, was no longer usable by the rest of us." But it went on to draw an image from his work. It was in the "Hydrogen" chapter of "The Periodic Table." It portrayed two young would-be chemists blowing glass, and the moment at which the burgeoning, shimmering bubble burst "with a sharp little snap."
In a way, there is not much to add except a gloss. If Levi's special retort to the Holocaust was on the order of "in the midst of death we are in life," he never suggested that this was more than a corollary to the reverse principle. The chemist achieves, temporarily, a more highly organized state for his elements, but entropy will decay them. The structures put up by the rigger in "The Monkey's Wrench" will not last forever. If the chemist, the artisan and the artist create orders that will survive them, that is exactly the point: They themselves will not survive.
Levi wrote of life as an immortal principle, not an immortal possession. The stubborn radiance of his notion of what it means to be human is universally accessible but individually transient. It is because the mortal Levi, with whatever depressions and despairs he may have possessed, could write as he did that what he wrote is so valuable.
In "Story of a Coin," Levi wrote of a camp inmate who lived in luxury in return for helping the Nazis keep his fellow Jews in order. Finally, he too went off to the gas chambers; his only reward being to ride in a special coach hooked up to the rest of the death train.