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Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist Paperback – March 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1987, the literary world was shocked when the Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi died after falling down the stairs in the very home where he had been born 78 years earlier. The reason his death caused such surprise was the widely held suspicion that it was suicide--Levi, a man who had lived through 18 tortured months in Auschwitz, was known as a survivor.

What kept him alive through the Holocaust was an intense yearning to tell the world exactly what had happened, and when the war was over he immediately began writing. His books about the horrors he had lived through include If This Is a Man and the brilliant The Periodic Table. Levi also lectured, gave interviews, and led tours to Auschwitz, yet he always wondered if he had done enough. Once, pointing to the number tattooed on his arm, he said, "That is my disease." His tombstone in Turin bears his name; his dates of birth and death; and his number, 174517.

Myriam Anissimov, a Paris-based writer and journalist, painstakingly recorded Levi's life using hitherto unpublished letters and poems. She also consulted archives and interviewed Levi's colleagues and friends. Levi believed writers should be concise and clear, avoiding embellishments and convolutions, and that's exactly what Anissimov has accomplished. Her work will prove to be an invaluable resource for scholars and researchers, but readers who desire some insight into Levi's personality may be disappointed. His marriage is dealt with in just a few paragraphs and there's barely a mention of his children or any other significant relationships in his life. After reading this 450-page book, readers will have gained an excellent understanding of Levi's work, but little of him. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

At Auschwitz, Levi once broke off an icicle to relieve his desperate thirst, only to have it snatched away by a German guard. "Warum?" he asked, and the guard retorted, "Here there's no why." This first biography of Levi, who died an apparent suicide in 1987, begins with the compelling problem of why a man who was able to turn even his Auschwitz experience into a reason to live (in his mission to bear witness to others), would suddenly choose to end his own life. Unfortunately, this is another "why?' that can't be answered, or at least isn't here, as this book swerves away from close attention to Levi's later life, which might have supplied the most relevant material. The story is extraorindary, nonetheless. Levi was an assimilated Jewish chemist in a prewar Italy mostly free from anti-Semitism; it was only after Mussolini's accommodation of the Nazis that his yellow star and tattoo made him a Jew (as the hideous irrationality of the gas chambers made him a writer). Even at Auschwitz, Levi recorded observations like a good chemist, furnishing Anissimov with her best source material. One thing is clear: the camps left Levi scarred and suffering from "the survivors' disease," as he came to feel at times that "the best all died" in the camps. Although Anissimov usefully identifies the creative fictionalizations in Levi's wartime narratives, she fails to delve into his troubled postwar years. Levi's wife, Lucia, remains a shadow, and the couple's family life?they cared for their 90-ish mothers, one senile, the other blind, in their flat in Turin until the end?is never clearly evoked.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 604 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press (March 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585670200
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585670208
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,119,668 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
As many reviewers have noted, this English translation whittles down the original French two-volume work, so perhaps an English-language reader's perspective is likewise narrowed; perhaps the publisher and translator of the English version are also responsible for the admittedly scattershot coverage given by Anissimov to Primo Levi's inner complexity. Again, Levi was certainly not the most forthcoming of men, even as he was a writer most famous for his autobiographical accounts. His wife and children receive little more than fleeting mention in the hundreds of closely-printed pages, and inevitably her treatment serves sometimes more as a commentary on the works of Levi himself than a fresh work. How difficult it must be, after all, to write the biography of an autobiographer! Yet, having pointed out some faults, this biography is worthwhile for its picture of the Piedmontese Jewish community into which Levi was born and returned to; its explanations of how Fascist Italy differed from Nazi Germany in its anti-Semitic actions; and most of all how the inner workings of the lager--Auschwitz-Birkenau--played out in Levi's classic accounts as well as the larger context of the privations endured by many of his fellow inmates. Here, the two lengthy chapters on the camp are astoundingly detailed and intimately rendered, and would make an ideal follow-up to readers who have read Levi's own descriptions, for Anissimov is alert to what Levi says and what he leaves out.Read more ›
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By David Light on April 30, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I bought this book with great expecations--partly on the strength of Victor Brombert's NYT review and partly because I was midway through the wonderful Periodic Table when the biography came out. My hopes were disappointed--big time. The problem is, the writer has collected a lot of details, only to be confronted with the necessity of doing something with the details. She was not up to the task. In many cases, information is put forth without any attempt to integrate it into Levi's life story. The reader asks, What does this have to do with Levi? How did it have an impact? How should we interpret the information--should we interpret it at all? Alas, one senses that the author dug up some fact or other and said, well, now I'm going to cram it into my book. You figure it out, reader. Another problem with the author's treatment of detail is her very annoying repetition of facts. Sometimes the language is close to verbatim in different places throughout the book. Levi's books are constantly being published and then, a few pages later, published again (and I'm not talking about different translations). A third problem is that much of the information seems to have been gleaned from Levi's published books. And yet there are no new interpretive glosses that add anything to what Levi himself wrote. Finally, as the Amazon review notes, Levi the man does not emerge from the pages. If you want to know about Levi, stick with Survival in Auschwitz, the Periodic Table, and his other works. Wait for a better biography than this one.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on August 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
Primo Levi: Tragedy Of An Optimist is a major biography which delves deeply into the life, mind and work of an influential writer, philosopher, and Holocaust witness. Drawing from exhaustive research, interviews with friends and relatives, as well as numerous unpublished texts and testimonies, biographer Myriam Anissimov explores the complex nature of a most singular, shy, intelligent, and diffident man who was both a strong-spirited survivor and a sufferer of depression, a man who felt misunderstood, certain that future generations would inevitably forget, and even deny, that the Holocaust happened. Indeed, on April 11, 1987, his self-deprecating depression was to lead him to suicide by throwing himself down the staircase of the building in which he was born. Primo Levi is a superbly presented biography and an important, singular contribution to Holocaust studies.
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