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Primo Levi: You Must Read It

May 13, 2011

This week I spoke about Primo Levi’s book If This Is a Man at a book club, meeting at the home of Andrew and Renata Kaldor. Always an honour to speak about Levi, which I’ve done twice this year at the Sydney Jewish Museum.

In my 2008 book, My Reading Life, I argued If This Is a Man was the most important book of the 20th century.

I praised it in these terms because the last century was dominated by totalitarian dictatorships, each of which murdered millions of people. Levi’s book, in my opinion is the best of the books that give testimony of these horrors. This young Italian chemist who survived a year in Auschwitz set out to give an objective account of a concentration camp. Concentration camps are a defining invention of the 20th century.

The book provides individual pen pictures of prisoners and some of their tormentors. It examines why some prisoners survived and others perished. It is written in a gentle, magical style that charms and persuades all readers.

Levi survived because of a chain of chance events: he was a chemist and got recruited to work at a neighbouring synthetic rubber plant. That gave him the capacity to trade for extra food. A bowl of soup was infected with scarlet fever and, sick, he came to be in the camp hospital when the Auschwitz complex was evacuated. Those who left in the death march vanished in the snow. Levi and a small number of comrades survived to be liberated by the Russian army.

I won’t go on, except to insist you read If This Is a Man and its accompanying volume, The Truce, which tells the story of Levi’s odyssey through devastated Europe and his return to home in Turin.

  1. alan taylor permalink
    May 13, 2011 7:05 pm

    it is almost a statistical probability that in the coming years australia will produce its own primo levi, one who will arise from our own concentration camps. we may call them what we will. whatever the name ~ razor wire is still razor wire ~ they are concentration camps, perhaps not as horrific as auschwitz or bergen-belson but worse places than, say, the internment camps on the isle of man during WWI and II which could not dampen the human spirit and gave rise to the amadeus quartet. with luck, this country will be fortunate enough for at least some good to come from these dreadful places …similar to levi’s “if this is a man”, the early work of wittgenstein and the life’s work of peter cundall. this is not to recommend them. as with every other, our own concentration camps stand as testament to our stupidity and the crassness of certain politicians.

  2. Anthony Porter permalink
    May 13, 2011 10:20 pm

    I have read the reviewed books by Levi, and his writing is a testament not only of the Nazi death camps, but also to Levi’s humanity and generosity of spirit.

    Bob, I’m glad your review of the Levi book ended where it did. Reviewers often want to tell you the whole story. For that reason I don’t read introductions to books that were not written by the author.

  3. May 14, 2011 9:45 am

    Yeah great book. Has anyone read Maus?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      May 14, 2011 3:04 pm

      Yes. See my comments on my visit to Sydney Holocaust Museum and the Spigelmans. Maus was written by a cousin – lives inNew York- and is a masterpiece.

      • May 14, 2011 5:26 pm

        Maus was written by a cousin – lives inNew York- and is a masterpiece.

        Wow! You’re hip. Do you mean Art Spiegelman is your cousin?

        It’s still terribly difficult to get the Literati interested in graphic novels. And Maus is a masterpiece, most definitely.

        I have to be a wanker now and drop the fact that I first read it in serial form in Raw. 🙂

      • Bob Carr permalink
        May 14, 2011 9:30 pm

        No, not my cousin but of Jim Spigelman and his brothers ( Jim was NSW Chief Justice ). See my story of a month or two back.

  4. May 15, 2011 4:51 pm

    You coward, you should have made it compulsory reading when you were Premier!

    Actually I’ve shied away from reading If This Is A Man though I’ve read and loved several other Levi books – The Periodic Table, The Sixth Day, and a posthumous collection of essays and stories. He is a fantastic writer – I just don’t like thinking of him as ‘that guy who wrote If This Is a Man’, as if that’s all he did.

  5. May 22, 2011 3:32 pm

    I’m sorry but I’ve had a bit of trouble finding your article on Maus. Would you mind providing a link please?

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