Date to note July: Centenary of Primo Levi’s birth

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
15th – Centenary of the birth of Iris Murdoch
31st – Centenary of Primo Levi’s birth.

While I am a fan of Murdoch’s wonderful novels and consider her to be one of the greats of the last century, this month I chose the centenary of Primo Levi’s birth to write about because of the great significance of his contribution. Levi is celebrated and honoured all over the world this year, with readings, research and commentaries on his work.

Levi was born in Turin in July 1919.  He is, of course, a noted Holocaust survivor and a worthy Nobel Prize laureate, the latter awarded for his three extraordinary memoirs – scripts perfectly nuanced with words painstakingly chosen to ensure unclouded understanding of his message.  His books are translated into over forty languages.

Few have achieved the incisive clarity of Primo Levi’s prose.

In 1947, just three years after liberation from Auschwitz, Levi Published his account of his time in the camp – If this is a Man. In his writing of his time in the camp Levi does not try to be either historian or philosopher – thought there is much of each in his words – but instead focuses on everyday ‘ordinary’ detail of the experience of life in the camps through which the ‘ordinary’ becomes deeply disturbing. He tells of the conditions of the camps and the impact of the brutality upon the men he lives alongside and observes. Following liberation, Levi documented and reflected upon his experience considering why he, rather than so many others, survived and in these reflections, he considered the morality of survival between complicity and coercion.

Levi was not able to conclude any sense or reason to the Holocaust – neither that it was simply the result of evil or absence of voices of challenge but he did argue that it becomes more understandable if we understand individual human motivations – the fundamentals of what humans can be and the choices they make. 

Primo Levi continues to be profoundly relevant not just because of the importance of his documentation of experiences of immeasurable brutality or because of his lucid and compelling reflections upon being a witness to them but because of the intellectual and emotional acuity he brings to the analysis of human behaviours.

Levi’s work reminds us that ‘it happened, and it can happen again’.

His words are a powerful reminder to us to learn, to consider what we know, what we choose to know, and how we choose to act.  His work is arguably more important today as it has ever been and the centenary of his birth is indeed a date worthy of note.