Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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Primo Levi’s
Unorthodox Judaism
Not sin ce scu lp tor -pa in ter
Modigliani arrived in Paris in 1906 has the “translation” of an Ital-
ian-Jewish artist from his country of origin made such a profound
international impact as the arrival on American shores of the writ­
ings 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
succes d ’es-
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 insignificant factor
The Periodic Table
won the Present Tense Literary Award for
Autobiography. It is also not without importance that in his book
on what he called the “Silver Age of Italian Jews,”H. Stuart Hugh­
es singled Primo Levi out from among a long list of twentieth-cen-
tury Italian-Jewish writers, calling him “at l ast . . . 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 ban­
ner in America.3
Recognizing the growing importance of Primo Levi for Ameri­
can readers of serious literature, a major American publishing
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
19 24 -1974 . (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 74.