The noted Italian writer Primo Levi (1919–1987), an Auschwitz survivor and the author of such acclaimed works as If This Is a Man and The Periodic Table, is sometimes referred to as a Holocaust writer. But Liveright publisher Bob Weil, who is publishing the forthcoming Complete Works of Primo Levi, believes that’s not an adequate description of Levi’s literary legacy. “I believe he’s Italy’s greatest postwar writer,” Weil asserted, emphasizing that “the subtlety of his writing, the insights, and the storytelling, mark him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.”
In September, W.W. Norton’s Liveright imprint will release a boxed three-volume hardcover collection presenting the complete works of the great Italian writer for the first time in English. The collected books will be arranged in the chronological order of their original publication, with new English translations of 13 of the books and minor corrections made to the translation of the 14th.
Novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has written an introduction to the collection, and the distinguished translator Ann Goldstein, a New Yorker editor and Guggenheim Fellow, is the editor of all three volumes. Goldstein recruited a dream team of nine Italian-language translators (add Goldstein who translated three of the 14 books herself) that includes Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, who translated Levi’s poetry, and Stuart Woolf, who added minor revisions to his original translation of If This Is a Man, produced with Levi’s assistance in the 1950s.
Goldstein said that they did not plan initially to retranslate all the works, but many of Levi’s books “were not published in English the way they were in Italian.” Sometimes the books were published out of sequence or in incomplete editions—“split up and messy. We found we needed to retranslate,” she explained. Weil said approximately 25% of the Complete Works will be completely new, never before published in English.
Liveright plans a 20,000-copy first printing of the boxed hardcover set, which will sell for $100. There will be no e-book. In fact, Weil’s ability to bring all of Levi’s scattered English-language rights together—a process that took him five years—hinged on creating an edition so elaborate and complete it wouldn’t compete with individual editions of Levi’s work still in print from other houses. Levi’s English-language rights are split among Schocken, Simon & Schuster, Viking, and Faber USA. Einaudi, Levi’s Italian publisher, encouraged Weil’s efforts.
“It was very hard to get all the rights,” Weil said, calling the project “a foolish dream” that first occurred to him when he was an editor at St. Martin’s Press, but stayed with him when he moved to Norton. “Levi still speaks to our time with insights into brutality, madness, and genocide,” Weil said.
He described the complete works project as “the book I’ve always wanted to own,” packaged as a set of high-production gift books though designed to deliver the full range of Levi’s writing. Weil was quick to emphasize that Levi not only wrote memoir and essays, but was also the author of highly regarded poetry, short stories and science fiction, and If Not Now, When?, his only novel. Weil described it as a Western of sorts, which chronicles a band of Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis during World War II (Levi himself was a partisan fighter who was captured by Nazis and sent to Auschwitz). “He was a chemist, a geek,” Weil said, “and we felt a responsibility to show all his writing.”
Long known for combining literary scholarship (he’s published six National Book Award winners) and commercial success, Weil is confident the boxed set will find an audience, although he acknowledged translations can be a tough sell in the U.S. “The American literary public will respond to these books; there’s nothing like them,” Weil said. “Levi was ahead of his time.”