Page 176 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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Primo Levi’s Unorthodox Judaism
o t
s in c e
s c u l p t o r
p a in t e r
m e d e o
o d ig l i a n i
arrived in
Paris in 1906 has the “translation” of an Italian-Jewish artist from
his country of origin made such a profound international impact
as the arrival on American shores of the writings of Primo Levi, a
chemist who has admirably succeeded at turning ink into art.
It all began with
The Periodic Table,
Levi’s autobiography, pub­
lished in English in 1984.1
The Periodic Table
was both a
garnering positive reviews and prestigious prizes, and,
despite its quirky design organized around the metaphor of the
chemical elements, a popular success. It is perhaps not an insig­
nificant factor that
The Periodic Table
won the Present Tense Lit­
erary Award for Autobiography. It is also not without impor­
tance that in his book on what he called the “Silver Age of Italian
Jews” H. Stuart Hughes singled Primo Levi out from among a
long list of twentieth-century Italian-Jewish writers, calling him
“at las t. . . a ‘real’Jew.”2 It is extremely fateful, in addition, that
no less an influential critic in both academic circles and the
popular mind than Irving Howe should have taken upon himself
to carry aloft the Primo Levi banner in America.3
Recognizing the growing importance of Primo Levi for Ameri­
can readers of serious literature, a major American publishing
house, under one of its more eminent imprints, has, between
1 Primo Levi.
The Periodic Table.
Trans, by Raymond Rosenthal. (New York:
Schocken Books, 1984).
2 H. Stuart Hughes.
Prisoners o f Hope: The Silver Age o f the Italian Jews,
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 74.
3 See, for example, Irving Howe. “How to Write About the Holocaust.”
York Review of Books
(March 28, 1985), pp. 14 ff. This essay appeared as the
introduction to Primo Levi’s novel,
I f Not Now, When?
Trans, by William
Weaver. (New York: Summit Books, 1985). References in the present essay to
this novel will be to this edition. See also Irving Howe. “Writing and the Holo­
The New Republic
(October 27, 1986), pp. 27-39.