Society

Primo Levi, Unearthed Interview Shows Author’s Intimate Struggles

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-born 20th century writer Primo Levi
Giovanni Tesio

TURIN â€" 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 Man and 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 â€" you made veiled references to this in The Periodic Table â€" 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 …

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.

Why?

For various reasons. To start with, for my own reasons, family problems, I don’t get around much, and then … some die, some get sick, some lose interest in life … It’s a chapter that’s coming to an end.

Is this what it is to grow old?

Yes.

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.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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