In a never-before-published interview shortly before his suicide, the Jewish-Italian author opens up about his adolescent angst and traumas beyond Auschwitz.
TURIN — Primo Levi was a unique figure in 20th-century literature, an Italian-born Holocaust survivor, successful industrial chemist and a singularly limpid author of such works as If This Is A Manand The Periodic Table.
The following is an extract from Io che vi parlo ("I Who Speak to You"), a new book published in Italy that presents a lengthy conversation between Levi and Giovanni Tesio, an Italian linguist and literary critic.
The meeting took place over the course of three weeks in 1987: on Monday, Jan. 17; Monday, Jan. 26; and Sunday, Feb. 8. Just over two months later, Levi was found dead at the bottom of the interior stairwell of his apartment building, in an apparent suicide.
Here is an excerpt of the interview:
GIOVANNI TESIO: Let's briefly return to the topic of friendship. Did you feel a difference between male and female friendship?
PRIMO LEVI: Here you're hitting on a very sensitive subject, because I was very shy, pathologically shy, so I had female friends, but that's as far as it went. The transformation, the jumping over the barrier, for me arrived very late, after Auschwitz. It's a topic that I speak of with a certain embarrassment, a certain difficulty. The fact remains that I was inhibited, you can see that from the things that I wrote. I was deeply inhibited, also because of the racial campaigns, because that was a sharp break. Many girls, the good ones, no offense, distanced themselves, but I was interested in the very girls with whom I couldn't have relationships.
Pursuing those who rejected you?
Perhaps, but I leave that to others. The fact is that I had many female friendships, but none of them led to love.
Not even with your university classmate with whom — you made veiled references to this in The Periodic Table — you exchanged letters?
Not even with her. That is, yes. I was vaguely in love with her, but in an extremely chaste way.
And did you suffer from this?
Yes, I suffered terribly from it, I suffered frightfully because I saw all my friends who went through this experience, who had sexual experiences. I did not and I suffered horribly for this, to the point that I thought of suicide.
Maybe also because you had friends who boasted all too much about their conquests â€¦
Certainly. Some went to the casino, they'd go with fake IDs. I would never have done something like that.
Any female friendships that lasted over the years?
Oh, many, yes, many. There was, for example, the one with the girl from "Phosphorus" in The Periodic Table. She's still my friend today. But there was a specific time, two or three years, during which many friendships fell apart.
For various reasons. To start with, for my own reasons, family problems, I don't get around much, and then â€¦ some die, some get sick, some lose interest in life â€¦ It's a chapter that's coming to an end.
Is this what it is to grow old?
To see the environment around one fall apart?
Yes, that is very painful, very painful and irreversible.
But overall, do you consider yourself a successful person?
Well! I consider myself someone who has fought many battles. Who has lost some and won others. I must have a certain inner strength, because I survived Auschwitz, that is a great battle. Also as a chemist I experienced failure, but I also won numerous times. Then, as a writer. I found myself becoming a writer almost in spite of myself, I opened up a new chapter. It came over me in small steps, first in Italy and then abroad, this wave of success that set me profoundly off balance, it put me in the position of someone I am not.
Is a writer's job the most burdensome?
The most burdensome?
Yes, that's the question.
In terms of the effects it has, without a doubt, yes. In terms of exertion and duration I'd say no, because I generally wrote my books gladly, easily, without feeling the weight of the task.