Tales of Militant Chemistry

levithematterofalifeComprehensive existence is not easily rendered on the page. The biographies of even the most fascinating man or woman, told cradle to grave, become saggy and overlong: the song of a life crushed beneath a sashweight of names, places and dates. Berel Lang takes a better approach in his Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, with short chapters that are thematically arranged.

An appropriate method. The one thing everyone knows about Levi is the eleven months he spent in Auschwitz. We’re so far away from that experience that it takes that extra effort to understand the impact that had on him. The imaginative leap gets longer. The tragedy of a survivor is that the evil thing he or she survived, rape or torture or unjust imprisonment, becomes in public eye the defining feature of a life and cancels out all else. Evil is defeated but still leaves its mark.

How much was Levi touched by the camp? When he committed suicide, at sixty-seven off his apartment landing, fellow survivor Elie Wiesel said that ‘Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.’ A Turin rabbi judged his death ‘delayed homicide’ (Jewish religious custom prohibits burial of suicides in Jewish cemeteries) and his camp number, 174517, was carved into his tombstone. Levi grappled with the camps all his life as a novelist. In 1960 he dedicated a poem to Adolf Eichmann, condemning the SS killer to ‘live longer than anyone ever lived./… sleepless five million nights,/And may you be visited each night by the suffering of everyone who saw.’

And yet as Lang argues, to define Levi by the camps alone is to diminish him, and the forty-two years of life he enjoyed after, his success as a chemist and a novelist, the quieter victories of marriage and fatherhood. Levi himself resisted such definition. (On Elie Wiesel, ‘[a]ware that Wiesel’s writings on the subject of the Holocaust were, at least initially, much more widely known than his’ Levi said that Wiesel ‘chose a different path from mine, but in my opinion his personal history justified him… I do not find any artifice in his keeping faith.’ As Lang says, this is literary judgement by way of evasion.) He had suffered from depression for a long time (describing it as ‘in certain respects… even worse than Auschwitz’) and had numerous physical complaints. When he explicitly linked suicide and the camps, it was not the expected link: Levi argued that self-slaughter was impossible in Auschwitz because it required ‘sufficient freedom to allow a person to step back and consider whether he or she wishes to continue to live’ – not an option in the environment where the instinct, the intellect, every thought and muscle was engaged in a scrabble for the next greenish crust of bread. Lang points out: if Levi had dropped dead from a standard cardiac arrest, it would ‘only confirm the pattern: stress from the Lager was exacting its toll forty years later.’

A testament to Levi’s survival skills is how little the camps changed him. He graduated as a chemist in 1941 and became a professional chemist after the war was over. Others in the camps got religion, and no disrespect to them. (Wiesel: ‘I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.’) Levi wrote that ‘I entered the Lager (Auschwitz) as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated and have lived to this day.’ There follows an anecdote:

I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death… naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed; one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected the temptation; I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.

He wrote that ‘Chemistry led to the heart of Matter, and Matter was the ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy.’ His writing was in part a rebellion against the high style of dictatorship: ‘since the political values of fascism and totalitarianism,’ Lang writes, ‘force, imperative, repetition, hyperbole – imposed themselves on all the expressive forms: on writing and rhetoric as markedly as on architecture, painting, or music.’ Leni Riefenstahl, the Berlin Olympics, the Thule Society, Gabriel D’Annunzio – Levi’s mild and sane voice cut through all of autocracy’s petty glammers.

That does not make him any less an artist. He did not believe in a Berlin Wall between the ‘two cultures’ of science and art: for him they overlapped and complemented each other. (As Michel Houellebecq said: ‘All that exists is a magnificent interweaving, vast and reciprocal.’) Nor was he a terse and bitter New Puritan kind of artist. Although Levi always dismissed his time with the Piedmont partisans as of little account, his novel If Not Now, When?, about a Jewish partisan army, has the same sense of fun and adventure you get from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. His favourite writer, little known, was Rabelais, and he had a friendship, in the 1980s, with Philip Roth. Lang’s style is dry but you come away with the impression that Primo Levi had a sense of fun. Because of his circumstances, he had to conceal it better than most men do.

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