Not long after Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi threw himself down the stairwell of the same Turin apartment building he was born in 67 years earlier, it became fashionable to speak of the suicide as a natural extension of the Holocaust. “Auschwitz,” we’d say, “got him in the end.”
Fifteen years later, a new biography suggests that nothing could have been further from the truth: If anything, Auschwitz gave Levi a reason to live. The man who emerges from Carole Angier’s brilliantly unorthodox study, 10 years in the making, is kind, brittle, acutely sensitive—the saint, almost, that his friends and countrymen thought him to be, but one given to bouts of paralyzing depression. Levi’s call to witness may have signaled a long reprieve from the despair that did eventually overtake him.
Shortly before his death, Levi told Philip Roth that he remembered having lived his Auschwitz year “in a condition of exceptional spiritedness.” Why? At 24, Levi was small (five feet five inches, 108 pounds), studious, painfully shy. Angier suggests that, despite his achievements—he received a chemistry degree at the height of Italy’s race laws and became an avid mountain climber and a reluctant partisan—he felt barely capable of making his way in the world. Then came Auschwitz and the question it posed: “What was a man?” Angier asks. “So far his answers had been painful ones to him. A man was strong and brave, at home in the world, capable of war. . . . So far, in Levi’s own answers to his questions, Levi was not a man.” At Auschwitz, Levi first understood the meaning of a favorite passage in Dante: “A man was made to pursue virtue and knowledge,” Angier continues. “He was mind and will, ideal and reason. This was his essence, that the Lager meant to destroy.”
Levi survived Auschwitz because he willed himself to return, remember, and describe what he’d seen there. The resulting book, which Americans know as Survival in Auschwitz (the British translation, If This Is a Man, is more accurate), is a masterpiece. Levi’s voice was cool, ironic, and unadorned. He’d been a scientist, and on the surface, he wrote like one. But as his later books would show, Levi was also a poet, and bubbling just below were passions that made If This Is a Man not only the most honest but also the most compelling memoir of Hitler’s camps.
Angier needed to breach that surface, and this turns out to be supremely difficult. “Primo Levi’s most characteristic and unvarying trait,” she writes in her preface, “was his reserve.” Because Levi was so reluctant to describe his own life, and his works give so little away, much of Angier’s book is based on the testimony of those who knew him. And because those who knew him were almost as reluctant to speak of Levi as Levi himself, Angier, the author of a relatively conventional biography of Jean Rhys, relies heavily on her instincts, arranging her book so that first-person encounters with those who knew Levi well alternate with chapters of conventional biography.
Here, Angier does something no biographer is supposed to admit—she guesses. “There are so many reasons why people lie,” she writes of an encounter with a woman Levi may or may not have loved. “To themselves, to each other, especially, alas, to me. But when I look into Clara Moschino’s steady, sad brown eyes, I see that she is utterly honest.” With an old friend of Levi’s—now an aged Romeo—she does something more: “I thought: it’s terrible, but he still has the same effect on women he always did. He’s seventy-five years old, and I’m half in love with Alberto Salmoni.”
This might have been an unspeakable liberty: For in biography, as in Levi’s own life, one might fall in love, but one must never say so. But Angier remains unabashed about her love for Alberto, Clara, and above all, Primo Levi. And in this sense, she is Levi’s perfect biographer—a natural foil for his own reluctance to reveal his real self—and her work is the perfect complement to his, daring and justified in each of its liberties.
“Often,” Angier writes of her encounters, “my irrational chapters seem to me more true than the rational ones, because they contain much more of the truth about remembering and reconstructing the past. . . . The sense that there are thicker and thicker layers of time between ourselves and the person we want to remember . . . this is one of the most poignant truths about any act of remembering, but one that histories exist to abolish. The more successful they are, the more they abolish it; which means (and not only here) that there may be more truth in failure.”
Because she is candid about her conclusions and how she reaches them, we believe her. And because we believe her, her book is a remarkable success. Not only for its own achievement, but also because it restores to Levi’s life the dignity his death seemed to betray. As long as he was able to act in accordance with the ideals that saw him through Auschwitz, he willed himself, against all natural inclinations, to live. His final act may not have been courageous, but neither was it cowardly. It was, in accordance with his life, a suicide, not a murder.