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Levi, Primo

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionBooks & Authors: Award-Winning Fiction (Ke-Ma)

(Italian, 1919–87)

Levi worked as an industrial chemist before and after the war. In 1943 he joined a partisan group in northern Italy, was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Jews who entered the camp with him, 525 went to the gas chamber. In his novel If Not Now, When (1982) Levi describes a group of Russian and Polish Jews stranded in occupied territory and offering resistance to the German army. The novel is based on truth and explores the complex relationships within the refugee band, as well as the hardships they endure.

His autobiographical writing includes If This is a Man (1958) and The Truce (1963), which describe his experience in the death camp. He writes simply and precisely, without sensation. In his preface he describes the need to tell the story of the period of incarceration as ‘violent, competing with other elementary needs’, and says that writing the book was an interior liberation. It works in the same way for the reader, by calmly presenting the worst that man can do, and revealing that the best cannot be destroyed by it. The Truce describes his tortuous journey home to Italy via Russia, Romania, Hungary, and Austria. The Periodic Table (1975) is more widely autobiographical, ranging from Levi's childhood to his later working life. Each chapter title is the name of a chemical element which is connected sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically with the chapter's events, people, and memories.

David Grossman, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn  JR

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