September 2015

Arts & Letters

Horrors and joys

By Ramon Glazov
‘The Complete Works of Primo Levi’ reveals the Holocaust memoirist’s extraordinary breadth

“As you know, meat was scarce, and my wife thought it a shame to throw all the test animals into the incinerator. So every once in a while we would have a taste of one or another: several guinea pigs, a few rabbits; dogs and monkeys no, never.”

The setting for Primo Levi’s story ‘Versamine’ (1965) is a pharmaceutical laboratory somewhere in Central Europe soon after World War Two. Its narrator, a chemist named Dybowski, needs few words to capture the desperate atmosphere. He and his fellow boffins spend their workdays synthesising new chemicals and trialling them on animals. By chance, one concoction makes rabbits stop eating, cut themselves and die from self-mutilation. Dining on the carcasses, Dybowski realises that the drug has temporarily rewired his brain’s pleasure centres. He no longer enjoys drinking brandy, yet savours the headwound he gets when a tetchy colleague bashes him with a liquor bottle: “I put a Band-Aid on it, but when I touched it I felt that same sensation again, like a tickle, but believe me, it was so pleasant that I spent the day touching the Band-Aid whenever I could without anyone seeing.”

It is material that wouldn’t seem off-course in a JG Ballard novel, or a David Cronenberg cinema nightmare. Certainly, English-speaking audiences who know Levi just as a Holocaust memoirist will be startled by how many more subjects he found for his literary skills, all present in The Complete Works of Primo Levi (Liveright; US$100). Not least of these outlets was science fiction so visceral that Italo Calvino preferred to call it “biological fiction”. (A modern-day label might be “body horror”.) Levi himself was fretful enough about being defined by his early autobiographies that he published his first foray into sci-fi, the short-story collection Natural Histories, under a pseudonym. Unifying its stories, Levi claimed, was “a vague odor of food that has become tainted, an evil alchemy”.

And so we read on. Dybowski’s research team are confident they’ve discovered a new family of drugs – the titular “versamines” – that “convert pain into pleasure”. With mounting unease, their testing escalates from rodents to dogs. Dybowski describes a German shepherd that “gnawed at his paws and his tail with a crazed ferocity, and when he was muzzled he bit his tongue. I had to put a rubber plug in his mouth and feed him by injections: he then learned to run in his cage and crash against the bars with all the strength he had.” A second dog behaves with more caution, keeping up appearances as man’s best friend, but secretly burns its tongue on hot stoves, before at last jumping under a tram. “He lived longer, poor thing; but he wasn’t a dog anymore … He was, in short, an anti-dog …”

Though the scientists had hoped to create the perfect painkiller, their drug proves universally ruinous. A quantity leaks onto the street, leading to reports of a “medieval” student orgy where police confiscate “hundreds of little bags containing needles … along with tweezers, and burners to make them red-hot”. The US military tests versamines on troops in Korea, who gleefully allow the enemy to massacre them. The most tragic victim is Dybowski’s colleague Kleber, a wunderkind scientist who hides his versamine addiction for years, even as noticeable scars appear on his face and hands. Eventually, he takes his own life – after destroying his research to avoid anyone repeating it. The story closes by recalling Macbeth and its “cheerfully sinister chant of three bearded witches, experts in pain and in pleasure and in corrupting the human will”:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair;
Hover through the fog and filthy air.


Levi’s interest in corruption and perversion wasn’t incidental. Eleven months at Auschwitz had left him disturbed by the evil of dehumanisation, a power more insidious than simple physical destruction (though the two were never apart). In The Drowned and the Saved – his final reflection on the Holocaust, published a year before his death in 1987 – Levi cites the 19th-century novelist Alessandro Manzoni: “The troublemakers, the oppressors … are guilty not only of the evil they do but also of the perversion of their victims’ minds.” In Levi’s eyes, the Nazis designed Auschwitz to wipe out an ethnicity and to re-create the depraved natural order their ideology demanded. The infamous Sonderkommando work units were one result. “[It] had to be Jews who put Jews in the ovens,” Levi writes, “in order to prove that Jews, the subhumans, would submit to any humiliation, even their own self-destruction.” The possibility of a force that could erase personhood and human nature – a black hole where his humanist certainties collapsed – haunted Levi’s sci-fi inventions. Another tale, ‘Angelic Butterfly’, concerns a Nazi doctor who experiments on captives, turning them into vulture-like creatures with featherless limbs “like the wings of a roast chicken”. Famished Germans eat them as the Reich implodes.

Underlying this body horror is the cruellest of Levi’s personal demons: so-called survivor guilt. “When a hurricane passes through, the tallest plants fall,” Dybowski the drug chemist laments. “I’m still here. I clearly didn’t bother anyone, not the Russians, not the Americans, not the others, before …” A similar thought troubled Levi himself. “Do you feel shame because you are alive in the place of someone else? A person more generous, sensitive, wise, useful and worthy of living than you?” he asked in The Drowned and the Saved. “It’s just a supposition, or, rather, the shadow of a doubt: that each is a Cain to his brother, that each of us (here I say ‘us’ in a very broad – indeed, universal – sense) has betrayed his neighbour and is living in his place. It’s a supposition, but it gnaws at you; it’s nesting deep inside, like a worm. You cannot see it from the outside, but it gnaws, and it shrieks.”

Levi owed his survival, in part, to a science degree, which saw him assigned to a laboratory at a German rubber factory connected to Auschwitz. By his reckoning, this made him one of the “privileged”. No one, not even in today’s privilege-scrutinising internet climate, has imbued that word with as much tragic anguish. For Levi, the torment was there from the hour of liberation: “At that moment, when you felt human again – responsible, in other words – human despair returned …”


When we say that someone “battled” depression, our true meaning is usually passive: they suffered from it. Levi, however, really did fight back against his black dog, and his tenacity was extraordinary. Scarcely a year after surviving Auschwitz, he had already begun writing If This Is a Man. Published in 1947, it would be one of the earliest Holocaust memoirs. The Complete Works of Primo Levi spans three volumes and more than 3000 pages – 14 books of essays, memoirs, poems and fiction. If we can count the power to avoid writer’s block as one measure of victory against despair, then by itself that output is miraculous. But perhaps Levi’s most impressive achievement here – especially in light of his bleaker visions – is that he managed to create a humorous novel, a 1978 work titled The Wrench, which offers optimism without sinking into mush and naivety.

The novel’s hero, Faussone, is a young construction-site rigger. His profession makes him an unlikely heir to those travelling sailors (Odysseus, Sinbad, Joseph Conrad’s Marlow) that storytellers have always found great use for. Faussone is addicted to the work that takes him from Africa to Alaska; staying too long in his native Turin leaves him hanging out for more assignments “like those motors with malfunctioning carburetors that you have to keep revving so they don’t quit”.

Faussone presents the frame narrator (a chemist-turned-author like Levi, but never named) with yarn after yarn, hoping he could “work it over, straighten it out, hone it, file off the burrs, flatten it with a hammer”, and the narrator notes Faussone’s lack of polish: “He has a limited vocabulary and often expresses himself in platitudes that to him seem penetrating and original; if his interlocutor doesn’t smile, he repeats himself, as if he were talking to a moron.”

Of course, Levi is being sly. Faussone’s uneven voice is the book’s star attraction – rambling, elastic and mesmerising, perfect for shaggy dog stories about foolhardy engineering projects in harsh environments. He describes the Alaskan tundra: “A cold, moist breeze was blowing, it slipped under your clothes and put you in a bad mood, and in the fields all around us grew a hard, short black grass that resembled drill bits.” Riding with an American oil company manager named Compton, Faussone notices a blizzard approaching. The two are stranded in their broken-down Chrysler: “Compton was wearing dress shoes but I was in army boots with rubber soles, so it was up to me to get out and see what could be done.”

Bosses and underprepared supervisors, for Faussone, are just one more absurdity, like the “stupid places” where his contracting jobs take him. An Italian patron he works for has odd neuroses: “Bearings, for instance; he only wanted bearings made in Sweden, and if he found out that someone had used any other type on a job, his face would turn different colours and he’d start jumping this high in the air […] Then, since he was an engineer, he was also obsessed with metal fatigue – he saw it everywhere and I think that he even had dreams about it at night.”

Despite these absurd challenges, The Wrench is a story not of Sisyphean oppression but of the ecstasy of building and crafting things: derricks, bridges, molecules, words on paper, stories around a fire. “I liked seeing it grow, day by day; it seemed to me I was watching a child, a foetus I mean, when it’s still in its mother’s belly,” says Faussone, reminiscing over a 60-tonne truss tower he once welded. Further on, the narrator explains the finesse of rigging molecules together: “We’re blind, and we don’t have those tweezers we so often dream about at night – the way a thirsty man dreams of a well – which would allow us to take a segment, hold it precise and straight, and glue it, facing in the right direction, onto the section that has already been assembled.”

For Levi, wordsmithing had yet more room for error. As his narrator states, “[P]aper is an excessively tolerant material. No matter what absurdity you write, it never protests: it’s not like the wood you use for scaffolding in a mining tunnel, which creaks when it’s overloaded and is about to collapse.”

Meditations like these won The Wrench its most prominent English-speaking admirer, the sculptor-writer Edmund de Waal. “Here, at last, was a book structured round structure,” he writes in the Financial Times. “It was a conversation about how you took one part of learning and took it to another job. This made sense of how deeply connected the hand and the head really are.”

Perhaps, like Dante, Primo Levi is doomed to be better remembered for his Hell than for his Purgatory or Paradise. Even so, he was one of the paramount chroniclers of modern industrial life – in all its horrors and joys.

Ramon Glazov

Ramon Glazov is a Perth-based writer, critic and journalist. His work has appeared in Overland, Jacobin, Tincture Journal and the Saturday Paper.

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