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THE DOUBLE BOND: Primo Levi: A Biography, By Carole Angier, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 898 pp., $40

June 30, 2002|VIVIAN GORNICK | Vivian Gornick is a contributing writer to Book Review.

After Primo Levi killed himself in 1987, people everywhere believed that Auschwitz had got him at last. But just as many, if not more, believed that if it hadn't been for Auschwitz, he would have killed himself years earlier. The war, in fact, it was thought, had lengthened Levi's life because the experience of the concentration camp gave him writing, and it was writing alone that controlled the lifelong distress under which he apparently labored. Bearing witness had allowed (perhaps commanded) his inner agitation to ease up and retreat sufficiently so that he could enter the talent for philosophical observation that had always been his but, until the war, had been without sufficient content to find form. Auschwitz had freed him to become the artist he so clearly was, and for 40 years afterward, writing held despair in check: Only at the very end did it fail to win the day.

Primo Levi was born in the north Italian city of Turin in 1916 into a family of secular, middle-class Jews who had been living in the Piedmont for generations. He grew up in a neighborhood something like the Brooklyn of 60 years ago, surrounded by aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors who remained solidly in place until the war, and even long after. Levi was smart, overprotected and filled from earliest youth with a trembling inner sensitivity of inexplicable proportion. He seemed to be afraid of everything, most especially of sexual experience. He wanted to be a physicist but became an industrial chemist instead. He longed for the world but did not dare leave home. He fell rapturously, repeatedly in love but only "from the waist up." Except for a year in Milan, a year in Auschwitz, and another getting home, he lived and died in the house in which he was born. When he got married, it was to a woman as fearful as himself who readily agreed to move into the apartment with him and his widowed mother. At the time of his death--he leaped from the third floor into the open stairwell of this very building--his grown son was living across the hall, his daughter down the street and his boyhood friends all over the neighborhood. Auschwitz, as Levi himself said, was his only adventure.

"Survival in Auschwitz" (published originally under the far more apt title "If This Is a Man") is, by any standard, one of the most remarkable books in Holocaust literature. What makes it remarkable is its talent for engaged detachment. The man who trembled before women and had been afraid to leave home, now, having come out of hell and wanting to take the reader back in with him, found that for his purposes nothing could be more useful than a prose stripped of sentiment, informed by observation rather than emotion. And indeed, the calm of its tone, the breadth of its perspective, the originality of its intention makes "Survival in Auschwitz" accumulate into a way of seeing things that produces sentences, in Philip Roth's inspired phrase, "suffused with mind." Herein lies its accomplishment: A man endowed with an unusually lucid intelligence uses this intelligence to describe a world that had been intent not so much on destroying his body as on wiping out that mind.

Once in the camp, Levi quickly realized that what he was witnessing was the phenomenon of men having to reduce other men to the subhuman, so that they could go on killing, without themselves becoming deranged; and, analogously, what it meant, as a prisoner, to be so reduced. In essence, Levi set out to bring us "the evil tidings of what man's presumption made of man in Auschwitz."

Two incidents, in particular, illustrate his thesis neatly. The first concerns the moment when he is brought before the SS officer who is to decide whether he can be put to work as a chemist in the nearby synthetic rubber factory. When Levi is brought into the room, the German is sitting at his desk, writing:

"When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.

"From that day I have thought about Docktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways.... [W]hen I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not from a spirit of revenge, but merely from a personal curiosity about the human soul.

"Because that look was not one between two men; and if I had known how completely to explain the nature of that look, which came as if across the glass window of an aquarium between two beings who live in different worlds, I would also have explained the essence of the great insanity of the third Germany "

The second incident takes place after what proved to be the last selection for the gas chamber in October 1944. A man in his hut is praying aloud, thanking God that he has not been chosen, even though another man in the hut has been chosen. Levi writes:

"Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?

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