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Primo Levi | Biography

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Childhood

Primo Levi was born in Turin, Italy, on July 31, 1919. His family was well educated. His father and grandfather were engineers. Both Levi's parents read widely, and consequently, Levi grew up with an extensive home library. As a slightly built and introspective Jew, he faced bullying at school from his Catholic classmates. However, he excelled academically, particularly in literature and the sciences. During his high school years, Levi read voraciously, including science fiction, French literature, contemporary Italian fiction, and the classics.

Young Adulthood

In 1937 Levi entered the University of Turin to study chemistry. Once again, he found academic success. However, that achievement was impeded in 1938. Benito Mussolini's fascist government imposed laws prohibiting Italian Jews from being educated or teaching. Furthermore, Jews from outside Italy were not allowed to enroll in Italian universities or live in Italy. Because Levi had entered the university prior to 1938, he was allowed to continue, but he had difficulty nonetheless. At this time, Levi became friends with another chemistry student, Sandro DelMastro, who was an anti-fascist.

In 1941 Levi graduated summa cum laude. His diploma, in the language of that time, notes that he was "Of Jewish Race." Initially Levi could not find a job—until he acquired forged papers. With those papers, he worked in Milan for a mining company and a pharmaceutical company. A year later, in 1942, Levi's father died. Levi returned home to discover that his mother and sister were in hiding from fascist forces.

Resistance and Imprisonment

With his family, Levi went to northern Italy in September 1943. He decided to join a small group of underground resistance fighters in the Italian Alps but was soon captured by Italian fascists and taken to Fossoli di Carpi, an Italian deportation camp, in February 1944. At that time, Levi was one of 650 Jews transported to Auschwitz. Of the 650, 96 men and 29 women were interned at Auschwitz. The other 525 men, women, and children were murdered upon arrival. By October, only 21 of the men were still alive, and in the end, only 3 survived.

Levi's best-known work, If This Is a Man (later retitled Survival in Auschwitz), is the account of his 11 months in Auschwitz. He was freed on January 27, 1945, almost one year after arrival. Following that, he spent another nine months traveling under difficult and painful conditions across Eastern Europe to return to his home in Turin, where he lived the remainder of his life.

After Auschwitz

After returning to Turin, Levi took a job at a paint factory. He began to write If This Is a Man (Survival in Auschwitz), which was initially published by a very small press in 1947.

Levi married Lucia Morpurgo and fathered two children, Lisa and Renzo. He also became the technical director of a chemical company but then returned to the paint factory.

A second edition of If This Is a Man was released in 1958 by a much larger Italian publisher and translated into English and German. The book found some success in translation. Levi stopped his scientific career and continued writing over the next couple of decades. His publications—many of which won awards—included poetry, short fiction, novels, and nonfiction. The Reawakening (1963) was called "The Truce" in Italian and was a sequel to If This Is a Man, covering the events of Levi's return trip to Italy. It won the Campiello Prize, an Italian literary award in which five experts select a panel of books that are then voted on by readers. The book was further translated into six languages. The Reawakening was issued under the title The Truce in the United Kingdom. A 1997 film based on the book uses this title.

Storie Naturali (1966) is a collection of short stories that Levi published under the pseudonym Damiano Malabaila. In 1971 Levi published a second collection, Vizio di Forma, under his own name. Critics have speculated as to why Levi used a pseudonym, but doing so is not an unusual choice for writers when switching genres, especially after a successful text in another genre.

Levi published his most successful work, The Periodic Table, in 1975. There are 21 stories in the book, each one based on an event from Levi's life. Each story is named for and connects to a chemical element. Hailed as a masterpiece by reviewers, it was his first book to appear in the United States. The Monkey's Wrench (1978) was also successful, winning the Strega Prize (arguably the most prestigious Italian literary award). Other notable works include If Not Now, When? (1982) and The Drowned and the Saved (1986), again an autobiographical work. If Not Now, When? also won the Campiello Prize as well as the Viareggio Prize, another prestigious Italian literary award.

Death and Legacy

Primo Levi died on April 11, 1987 in Turin, Italy, after a fall. He was 67. The coroner ruled the death a suicide, although there is some debate by those who suggest that he experienced vertigo. He was in a period of deep depression at the time.

Levi's body of work is significant not only for its literary merit but also for the way he is able to "bear witness" to the atrocities of Auschwitz. His works on the Holocaust approach the subject matter with a clarity and scientific objectivity that critics have noted.

His works have also reached audiences via film and stage. In addition to Truce, a second film, The Grey Zone, was adapted in 2001 from the last chapter of The Drowned and the Saved. An adaptation of If This Is a Man played on Broadway in July 2005.

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