cover image Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist

Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist

Myriam Anissimov. Overlook Press, $37.95 (452pp) ISBN 978-0-87951-806-6

At Auschwitz, Levi once broke off an icicle to relieve his desperate thirst, only to have it snatched away by a German guard. ""Warum?"" he asked, and the guard retorted, ""Here there's no why."" This first biography of Levi, who died an apparent suicide in 1987, begins with the compelling problem of why a man who was able to turn even his Auschwitz experience into a reason to live (in his mission to bear witness to others), would suddenly choose to end his own life. Unfortunately, this is another ""why?' that can't be answered, or at least isn't here, as this book swerves away from close attention to Levi's later life, which might have supplied the most relevant material. The story is extraorindary, nonetheless. Levi was an assimilated Jewish chemist in a prewar Italy mostly free from anti-Semitism; it was only after Mussolini's accommodation of the Nazis that his yellow star and tattoo made him a Jew (as the hideous irrationality of the gas chambers made him a writer). Even at Auschwitz, Levi recorded observations like a good chemist, furnishing Anissimov with her best source material. One thing is clear: the camps left Levi scarred and suffering from ""the survivors' disease,"" as he came to feel at times that ""the best all died"" in the camps. Although Anissimov usefully identifies the creative fictionalizations in Levi's wartime narratives, she fails to delve into his troubled postwar years. Levi's wife, Lucia, remains a shadow, and the couple's family life--they cared for their 90-ish mothers, one senile, the other blind, in their flat in Turin until the end--is never clearly evoked. (Jan.)