Some men are born writers, while others have writing thrust upon them, but it is hard to say in which category Primo Levi belongs. A quick glance at the arc of his career suggests that it was the pressure of experience, and not an inward calling, that led him to become a writer. Born in Turin in 1919, Levi earned a doctorate in chemistry and spent most of his life as an industrial chemist, helping to formulate enamels and varnishes. Before 1943, he had done little more than dabble in writing, and if his life had continued on its normal course, it is possible that he would have remained a literary amateur.
But at the end of that year, as every reader of Levi's great memoirs will remember, he and the other members of his hapless partisan group were surprised in the mountains and taken prisoner. In the past, Fascist Italy had shown little interest in Nazi-style racism, and even when it followed Germany in promulgating anti-Semitic edicts, they were enforced without fervor. But now, with the northern part of the country under German occupation, the SS had a free hand in dealing with Italy's Jews. In February 1944, Levi and the other 600 Jews at the prison camp in Fossoli were loaded on transports to Auschwitz. Five hundred of them — the old and sick, women and children — were gassed immediately on arrival. Of the remaining able-bodied men, about 20 survived until the end of the war.
Levi was one of the survivors, making it back to Turin and his family at the end of 1945. He went back to work in a factory, resuming as best he could the interrupted course of his professional career. But what really possessed him, as he would later explain in "The Periodic Table," was an overwhelming need to write. "The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside of me. … I felt like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, who waylays on the street the wedding guests going to the feast, inflicting on them the story of his misfortune."
At first, Levi poured out his poems and stories haphazardly, without a plan, as a form of purgative therapy. "By writing," he remembered, "I found peace for a while and felt myself become a man again." But soon he started to develop a more literary goal: not just to unburden himself of his memories, but to shape and form them into a meaningful whole. "No longer a begging for compassion and friendly faces," he insisted, his writing would be "a lucid building." This was the crucial step that turned Levi from a victim of the Holocaust to its chronicler and interpreter, and thus, in some small metaphorical way, its master.
The book that resulted from Levi's first burst of recollection was "If This Is a Man" (its unfortunate American title is "Survival in Auschwitz"), brought out by a small Italian publisher in 1947. At the time, with Europe still recovering from the war, the book made little impact, selling just 1,500 copies. Not until 1958, when it was republished by Einaudi, did "If This Is a Man" begin its life as one of the best-known and most powerful documents of the Holocaust. It was this delayed success, Levi once said, that allowed him to "see a future for my writing." It gave him the confidence to produce his second book — "The Truce" (known in America as "The Reawakening"), a sequel to "If This Is a Man" that told the story of Levi's trek home from Auschwitz.
Even as his reputation grew, however, Levi continued to work as a chemist. It was not until 1975, when his memoir "The Periodic Table" won prizes and acclaim in Italy, that he was able to retire from the factory and write full-time. In his last decade, he produced his fourth major work, "The Drowned and the Saved," a reconsideration of the Holocaust from a distance of 40 years. Yet his other writing — a novel, short stories, newspaper articles — never won as high a reputation as his memoirs. Even today, 20 years after his death — whose anniversary comes on April 11 — we tend to think of Levi not as a writer who had been through the Holocaust, but as a Holocaust writer.
The publication of a new collection of Levi's short stories, "A Tranquil Star" (Norton, 164 pages, $21.95), will not do much to change that; but to admirers of Levi's major works, it will nonetheless come as an unexpected gift. The book includes 17 stories, most of them about five pages long, that have never before appeared in English. (The subtitle "unpublished stories" applies only in this sense; all the pieces were previously published in Italian, some in books, the rest in magazines and newspapers.) A handful are directly autobiographical, based on episodes that Levi went on to treat at greater length in other works. The majority, however, are parables in a science fiction vein, little provocations that sometimes connect to Levi' s largest themes.
Readers of "The Periodic Table" will find the first two stories in "A Tranquil Star" familiar. "The Death of Marinese" is a brief, realistic narrative of a captured partisan's last moments, as he works up the nerve to pull the pin from his captors' hand grenade. It is a wishfully heroic variation on Levi's own experience. Writing about his capture in "The Periodic Table," he recalls, "I could easily have lifted the safety pin [of his guard's grenade], pulled the cord, and done away with myself and several of them, but I didn't have the courage." Marinese has that kind of courage; but, of course, his glorious death means that he never has to test the different kind of courage, moral and psychological as well as physical, that Levi displayed in Auschwitz.
The second story, "Bear Meat," is the tale of a mountain climb gone wrong, spoken here by an anonymous narrator by a campfire; but readers of "The Periodic Table" know it is Levi's own story. Getting lost at night on a freezing mountainside, for Levi, was a frightening but necessary trial, an early proof of his ability to survive. "Eating bear meat" is his friend's slang expression for being in trouble, but it is the kind of trouble that is good for you: "the taste of being strong and free, which means free to make mistakes."
Most of the stories in "A Tranquil Star," however, are less personal. Like the whimsical sketches in "The Mirror Maker," a collection published here in 1989, they are little more than "what-ifs." What if there were a new gadget that could kill at close range, but was harmless past a meter? That's the *donnée* of "Knall," treated with deadpan humor by Levi: "Movie-going has decreased significantly, because audience habits have changed: those who go to the movies, alone or in groups, leave at least two seats between them and the other spectators." What if there were a new form of bullfighting, in which men did battle with automobiles? That's the premise of "Gladiators," an all too believable vision of a futuristic extreme sport.
The best stories, however, use this sort of far-fetched premise to explore deeper, more searching questions. "In the Park," the longest piece in the book, is a jaunty description of a heaven where literary characters go after their authors die. Levi pokes gentle fun at literature's preference for the unusual, in landscape and in character. In this heaven there are several spectacular sunsets a night, and "you'll look in vain for a plumber, an electrician, a welder, a mechanic, or a chemist, and I wonder why."
But Levi has something more serious in mind when, in a list of the inhabitants of the "park" — "Kim with his sword, Iphigenia in Aulis," and so on — he includes Mordo Nahum, whom readers of "The Truce" will remember as the Greek black marketeer Levi encounters after leaving Auschwitz. If you put a real person in a book, Levi leaves us to wonder, do you somehow falsify him? And if posterity lets the book be forgotten, does that mean that the original might as well never have lived? It is a question that Levi, who spent his life memorializing "the drowned" of Auschwitz, must have asked himself many times. It seems typical of the man that he would ask it in such a playful and genial story. Here, as in all his work, Levi believed that writing must confront the most painful subjects, but never surrender to them.
A tribute to Primo Levi will take place tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the South Court Auditorium of the New York Public Library. Joan Acocella, Alessandra Bastagli, Ruth Franklin, Ann Goldstein, and Mr. Kirsch will speak about Levi's legacy, as well as discuss the stories collected in "A Tranquil Star." The actress Maria Tucci will also read from the collection.