The Italian writer Primo Levi died a year ago, on 11 April 1987, to the dismay of his readers, and The Drowned and the Saved may well be the last of his writings to be translated and reviewed in this country. There was a time when it must have seemed to many that he would never receive a bad review, or even a cross word. His first book, If this is a man, about his months in Auschwitz, and its sequel, The Truce, were hard to fault, and the successive publications of his middle age have been greeted by an admiration responsive both to his skills as a writer and to his character as a man. In October 1985, however, the chauvinistic American-Jewish magazine Commentary did succeed in performing the outlandish act of disparaging Levi and his books. 'Alas,' wrote Fernanda Eberstadt, a German-American, the later ones are inferior to the first two, and alas, the personal character freely imparted in his writings is flawed. 'Reading Primo Levi' is in some respects a strong essay. The later books are in large measure accurately described, and the experience of the assimilated Jew in Italy, where the Jews came to harm under Mussolini but where they were never the strangers they have been in several other countries, is summarised in a well-informed and pertinent fashion. At the same time, the article is tainted by what seems to be a desire to inflict damage on Levi's reputation, of a kind which may be thought to serve the ideological tendency of the magazine in which it appeared.
LRB 4 August 1988 | PDF Download