Sunday, October 11, 2015

The collected works of Primo Levi: The power of 'ordinary witness'

'Some prayed, some drank to excess, others became intoxicated by a final unseemly lust. But the mothers stayed up to prepare food for the journey with tender care, and washed their children and packed the luggage; and at dawn the barbed wire was full of children’s washing hung out to dry in the wind. Nor did they forget the diapers, the toys, the pillows, and the hundred other small things that mothers remember and children always need. Would you not do the same? If you and your child were going to be killed tomorrow, would you not feed him today?'
 Primo Levi, writing about the last night of Jewish prisoners in Italy before being deported to Auschwitz, from If This is a Man
For those influenced by the writing and life of Primo Levi comes news that a new three edition 14 book The Collected Works of Primo Levi has been published in the Penguin Classic series, with an introduction by Toni Morrison.

The new book contains all Levis's best known books, as well as as non-fiction work not previously published in English.
Primo Levi is best known for his harrowing account of survival and suffering in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man, as well as The Periodic Table, 21 stories in which Levi connects aspect of his life in pre- and post-war Italy to an element from the periodic table and The Drowned and The Saved.
In an extract from her introduction to the book, published in the Guardian, Toni Morrison writes:
The Complete Works of Primo Levi is far more than a welcome opportunity to re-evaluate and re-examine historical and contemporary plagues of systematic necrology; it becomes a brilliant deconstruction of malign forces. The triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing. For a number of reasons, his works are singular amid the wealth of Holocaust literature.

As an admirer and reader of Levi's poetry, I was interested to read Morrison's claim that:
'Melancholy and sorrow reside more in the poetry than in his prose'
Tony Judt argues something similar in his magnificent essay The Elementary Truths of Primo Levi (in his 2008 book of essays Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century) arguing that Levi was drawn to pessimism, particularly towards the end of his life, in the face of the revival of revisionism around the Holocaust and the exploitation of human suffering  in movies and popular culture.
Reviews of the book and essays in honor of Primo Levi are herehere and  here

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