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Primo Levi: Biography & Literary Contributions

Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will provide a brief biography of the Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi. We will also take a look at some of Levi's literary contributions.

Biography of Primo Levi

Primo Levi was born on July 3, 1919, in Turin, Italy. His family were middle-class Italian Jews. Levi started studying at the University of Turin in 1937. He graduated with honors in chemistry in 1941 but had trouble finding work due to discrimination against Jews.

Primo Levi in the 1950s
Primo Levi

In 1943, as World War II raged on, Levi joined a resistance group. He was arrested and sent to an Italian prison camp in 1944. Soon thereafter, Levi was transferred to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. As he endured life in the camp, Levi recorded his experiences, hoping that he would survive and share the atrocities with the world.

In January 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, and Levi returned home. He felt a strong calling to write about his experiences, and by 1947, he had completed If This Is a Man. This work served as a memoir of his time at the camp. He went on to write several more important works and achieved critical success.

On April 11th, 1987, Primo Levi was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in his apartment building. His death was ruled a suicide, but some people refused to believe this. Several friends of Levi's have offered theories on how his fall could have been an accident. The circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day.

Literary Contributions

Levi was a prolific writer and philosopher whose output included memoirs, short stories, novels, and poems. The following are just a few examples of his best-known works.

If This Is a Man

Levi's first memoir was written two years after he left Auschwitz. It describes Levi's experiences in harrowing detail. Levi's intention was to bear witness to the horror and to make sure we never forget what happened. His book is straightforward, matter-of-fact, and serious in its details of day-to-day life in a Nazi concentration camp. The memoir ends with the liberation of the camp.

The Truce

Published in 1963, The Truce tells the story of Levi's journey home to Italy after the liberation of Auschwitz. In this book, Levi paints vivid sketches of the many characters he encounters on his journey back home. The tone here is much more optimistic and even has touches of comedy and joy as Levi recounts his journey and the relief of being free.

The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table is not just a memoir. Written in 1975, it was hailed as a wonderful book of science and extremely well reviewed. In it, Levi writes much about his life, but also uses chemistry as a unifying concept to tie the book together. It is a collection of anecdotes and stories about people Levi knew, illustrating his talent for portraying individuals with all their quirks and idiosyncrasies.

If Not Now, When?

Primo Levi's only true novel, published in 1982, was If Not Now, When? It tells the story of a band of Jewish freedom fighters in World War II. These fighters come from a branch of Judaism called Ashkenazim, which consisted of Eastern European Jews who spoke Yiddish. This ancient Jewish culture was fascinating to Levi and very different from his own upbringing as an Italian Jew.

Literary Characteristics

Some of the characteristics typically found in Primo Levis work reflect his morality and virtue, as well as his background as a scientist.

Moral

Levi's writing reflects his strong moral virtue. He was completely committed to bearing witness to the atrocity of the Holocaust, and we see this in his work. Never does his writing resort to self-pity or sentimentality. His descriptions are exact and unflinching, describing events as they occurred. As such, they achieve his goal of preserving these historical memories and making sure we never forget the horrors of the Holocaust.

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