Primo Levi practiced anthologizing as a form of autobiography. In The Need for Roots: A Personal Anthology, he invites us to read selections from the mixed bag of writers in his private pantheon who reflect and refract his personal history. As we move through the book, a multi-lensed image of the elusive author of The Periodic Table comes into focus. In the preface he writes:
“…I have read a great deal, above all in my apprentice years, which in memory seems strangely extended; as if time, then, could be stretched like an elastic band, doubled, tripled. Perhaps the same thing happens to those animals of short life and rapid reproduction like the sparrows and squirrels, and, generally, in anyone who manages, in the same span of time, to do and perceive more things than the average middle-aged man: subjective time becomes longer.”
It’s unsurprising Levi likens himself to backyard animals. In the preface he adopts the woodworm as a persona. He prized routine and quiet over the exotic and shrill. He worked as an industrial chemist in paint factories for more than 30 years, specializing in electrical resins. He lived in the same apartment in Turin for most of his life, excluding the 11 months he spent in Auschwitz. He died in 1987, probably by suicide, in a fall from the third-floor landing of his building. Elie Wiesel said, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later.”
Of the 30 selections in the anthology, two are devoted to the Holocaust, the defining event of the 20th century and Levi’s life -- excerpts from Hermann Langbein’s Menschen in Auschwitz and Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfuge,” translated as “Death Fugue” by the late Michael Hamburger. The first I had never before read, but in the 37 years since I first encountered “Death Fugue” I have read it hundreds of times. In his introduction to Celan’s poem, Levi writes:
“The idea of writing `for everyone’ flirts with utopianism, but I feel distrust for whoever is a poet for the few, or for himself alone. To write is to transmit; what can you say if the message is coded and no one has the key? You can say that to transmit this particular message, in this specific way, was necessary to the author, but with the rider that it is also useless to the rest of the world.
“I think that this is the case with Paul Celan, the Jewish-German poet, upon whose shoulders fell burden after burden, grief after grief, culminating in his suicide at the age of fifty in 1970. I have not succeeded in penetrating the sense of many of his lyrics; the exception being this `Death Fugue.’ I read that Celan repudiated the poem, not considering it among his most typical poetry; that doesn’t matter to me, I wear it inside me like a graft.”
To reduce Levi and Celan to the category of “Holocaust writers,” as though they were punched out along the assembly line, is simple-minded. Both were masters, but their approaches to writing and language are unimaginably different. Levi’s prose is transparent. He told an interviewer: “I believe it is the task of every writer to describe what he sees in plain language, and I hope I have achieved this. Not that it is impossible to write about the death-camps in a highly experimental prose with all manner of linguistic pyrotechnics (although I think, a priori, this would be somehow indecent)…”
When Philip Roth visited Levi as the paint factory in Turin in 1986, Roth wrote, “It is hardly the world’s ugliest industrial environment, but a very long way, nonetheless, from those sentences suffused with mind that are the hallmarks of Levi’s autobiographical narratives.”
Celan’s poetry grew increasingly hermetic – allusive, fractured, approaching the dead end of language. “Todesfuge” dates from the immediate postwar period and is accessible to any attentive reader. It may, indeed, be the best known work written by a survivor of the camps. But reading late Celan, even with the aid of trots and good translations (like Hamburger’s) is a frustrating exercise is decryption. Meaning is rare and uncertain, and must rely on educated speculation. In an interview, Levi referred to Celan’s “extremely obscure, not to say hermetic poems.” In yet another interview, given in 1981 when he published The Need for Roots in Italy, Levi mentions Celan again while explaining his inclusion of two stories by Isaac Babel:
“I think the desperation we see in Babel is posthumous, attributed to him only in the light of his murder. He seems to me rather a man of adventure, an explorer of the spirit. There is pure despair, however, in Celan, and yet I have also put him in my anthology.”
I find Levi’s vacillation over Celan very moving. The human content of Celan’s poems, the terrible bond they shared, makes it impossible for Levi to dismiss Celan as beyond meaning. Yet, his own his strategy for transmuting unspeakable experience into language was to strive for a chemist’s clarity. He wished to be understood, and believed understanding was possible and every writer’s obligation.
“To write is to transmit; what can you say if the message is coded and no one has the key?”