When Primo Levi the chemist and well-loved writer, died in 1987 at age 67 after falling headfirst into a third-floor stairwell in the same house and in the same city (Turin) where he had lived for virtually his whole life, there were no witnesses. Some believe that he fell, weak after an operation and perhaps dizzy. Carole Angier makes a convincing case for suicide but claims his Auschwitz experience was not the cause. Levi had said: "It was better at Auschwitz. At least there I was young, and believed" (p713).
In her preface to this powerful but flawed biography, Angier disconcertingly notes that she has written two: a rational one, and a sometimes more truthful irrational or intuitive one. Clues to the latter are phrases like "I think". This method can yield interesting conclusions. About Levi's wife, Angier writes: "Lucia always stopped him doing what he wanted. That is what he needed her to do"(p730). Angier then hypothesizes that he stepped out of his apartment and looked into the stairwell for Lucia who was out shopping. "I think he looked for Lucia to stop him. He leaned and looked, but she wasn't there; and he let go"(p731).
Some readers may find the first part of the book daunting. Until page 262, where Levi arrived at Fossoli, the Italian concentration camp from which he was shipped to Auschwitz for almost a year, Angier obsessively details Levi's ancestors and early life and speculates about the real-life counterparts of Levi's fictional characters. Before the details of his early life catch up with his published stories, her method of paraphrasing these stories without their context, is confusing. Her habit of using only first names for the large cast of fictional and real characters, and sometimes not specifying whether or not the character under discussion is real, compounds the problem.
But relief comes. When Angier meets Levi's friend and fellow chemist Alberto Salmoni and climbs a mountain with him that Levi would have climbed, she writes about placing her feet in the marks Salmoni had made. "He turned his left foot out, I noticed, as though he were always about to turn left. Now I was sad: that was the sort of small, living detail I would never know about Primo" (p163). I begin to understand Angier's longing to know her subject, a longing she tries to assuage with near-pathological attentiveness to detail and by calling him "Primo" although she never met him.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Angier explains: "We feel we know and love him from his work, because we know and love his gentle, rigorous, witty, open mind. But the rest of him is completely closed. Primo Levi is, in fact, one of the most secretive writers who ever lived. And not only in his work."
Angier is scrupulous. In 898 pages plus 26 introductory pages, there are footnotes in the main text, 113 pages of notes, a 16-page bibliography and a 33-page index. But she could have used another editor in addition to the array she thanks in her acknowledgments, someone who could have toned down her stylistic excesses, shortened the first part of the book, and helped her find a better path into the story. She should have been weaned from some of her favourite phrases, like "being Primo", or "since he was Primo". She overuses paradox, seeks symbols in the obvious, and creates unnecessary contradictions. In a typical passage she notes that Levi began to write more about himself in the guise of writing about others. "But the opposite is also true." What does this mean?
By the end, I no longer mind if Angier fusses about which restaurant Levi and Philip Roth went to in 1986. She makes up for such quirks with passages such as this one about the trip to Auschwitz in the cattle cars: "...their only relief was to lick the rusty pipes that ran near the ceiling, where their own breath had risen, condensed and frozen into ice...But above all it was already the Lager in its essence: in the contempt of the perpetrators and the degradation of the victims" (p284).
Tormented by thirst in Auschwitz, Levi leans out a window to grab an icicle. A guard snatches it away. When Levi asks why, the guard answers: "Here there is no why" (p294). Levi wrote in his last book: "The worst¨that is, the fittest¨survived. The best all died"(p295). How did he survive in Auschwitz, when the average person doing hard labour died within three months? In addition to the friends he made, the natural sympathy others had for him, and a number of breaks, he studied Auschwitz. He was obsessed with surviving in order to tell what he had seen. His methods, like those of a poet or photographer, were heightened sensibility and an "anthropologist's attitude". Levi told Philip Roth that in Auschwitz he lived "'in a condition of exceptional spiritedness,' constantly pervaded by curiosity: 'the curiosity of a naturalist who finds himself transplanted into an environment that is monstrous but new, monstrously new'"(p669).
Originally rejected by four publishers Levi's first memoir, If This Is a Man (also known as Surviving Auschwitz) did not initially sell many copies. His second book, The Truce (also known as The Reawakening), covered his zigzag nine-month return to Italy. As both Levi's reputation and book sales increased in the 1960s and he began winning literary prizes, his life, Angier speculates, became increasingly restricted with his mother and wife in the same house in which he had been born and to which he had moved his wife soon after their marriage in 1947. "It is a classic ploy of artists. . .to have fierce wives: to have someone else to guard their gate, and to take the blame for turning their friends away" (p526). Both Levi's wife and mother refused to meet Angier or to allow her access to his papers.
Angier's paraphrases may be all English-speakers will ever get to read of much of his science fiction and allegories. In the "moral fable" Full Employment, "Simpson...has learned the language of bees, and through them he has begun to contract with other insects for their services¨with dragonflies to harvest berries, with flies to carry messages. . .Simpson's partner has been arrested for bribing eels to carry heroin to the Sargasso Sea" (p496).
About his "third masterpiece", The Periodic Table, Angier notes in the same Guardian article: "He wrote often about chemistry. . . in an indirect, metaphorical way, to describe people he had known in his early life. .. a wonderful book, but one of the strangest autobiographies ever written. . ."
Sometimes Angier the literary stalker goes too far. She interviewed several women with whom Levi may have had affairs, identified only by pseudonyms or by the names of their characters. She quotes "Lilith": "He simply wasn't capable of strong emotions. They just weren't there" (p588). "I gaze at her in shock and sadness" writes Angier, who believes Lilith ". . . does not think he was capable of love. For that must be what she means." Could it not be that Lilith meant something else? "She would never tell me her story: so I had decided to tell it to her."
Another "lioness" is "Gisella". "Since I have a pathologically detailed knowledge of everyone he ever met, I identified her without difficulty"(p652). And Angier shamelessly continues. "So Gisella and I began a long battle. She refused to tell me anything personal about her relationship with Primo"(p652). One battle was over diaries Gisella kept about his depressions. Not once does Angier consider anyone's right to privacy.
In 1974 Levi resigned as Director General of the chemical factory SIVA to write full time, but his life became increasingly troubled. His mother's health worsened and world events disturbed him. He said he could no longer write, yet he still was able to publish a good deal more including If Not Now, When?, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Monkey's Wrench, a book about work in a language he called "Piedmontese-techno-Italian."
In his introduction to a late collection of essays, Levi asked readers not to look for messages and not to treat him as a prophet, but as "'an ordinary man of good memory' who had stumbled into an abyss, and who had retained an interest in abysses ever since (p681)." Angier calls this "depressive fear". Now even the morning mail and its responsibilities terrified him. But Angier admits: "I shall do worse, and look for secret messages. . ." (p690); for a suicide message he didn't leave.
Levi died before finishing a book he began writing in the form of letters from a chemist to a young woman. Angier appropriates his title "The Double Bind" for her biography. I wonder if she identifies with that young woman.
The only words on his grave are: "Primo Levi/174517/1919-1987." He always wore short-sleeved shirts to reveal the Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm: 174517. Angier has made me want to read every word Primo ever wrote. ˛