Page 37 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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house, under one of its more eminent imprints, published between
1985 and 1987, no fewer than five titles by Primo Levi.
These include both a reissue of Levi’s classic Holocaust memoir,
Survival in Auschwitz
,4
and the appearance of what may well be
Levi’s finest artistic achievement,
The Monkey's Wrench
, a paean of
praise to “work-well-done.”5 To note that this latest volume is
only remotely connected to Levi’s Jewishness is to imply nothing
about Jewish attitudes to fine craftmanship. Rather it is to empha­
size that while Levi has graciously accepted the epithet of “Jewish
writer,”6 it would be literary folly to try to read into every one of
his works a Jewish focus.
Nevertheless, it is a fact that Levi is a writer in the Jewish mode.
It is curious therefore that the one book in which Levi is most
self consciously Jewish and consciously in search of a particularly
Jewish form of expression has caused considerable uneasiness
among some of his otherwise fervent admirers.
HIS ‘ FINEST WO R K ’
True, Irving Howe believes that the novel
I f Not Now, When?
is
possibly Levi’s finest work. For Howe, the author of
The World o f
Our Fathers,
it is no small achievement for an Italian-Jewish author
to have written “a tribute to those East European Jews who tried
Primo Levi's Judaism
3. See, for example, Irving Howe. “How to Write About the Holocaust.”
New York Review o fBooks (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 Holocaust.”
The New Republic (October 27, 1986). pp. 27-39.
4. Primo Levi. Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening. Trans, by Stuart
Wolf. (New York: Summit Books, 1986). Both of these books appeared in English
earlier under different tides, the first as I f This is a Man, the second as The Truce.
References to Survival in Auschwitz will be made, in the body of the text, to the
paperback edition, (New York: Collier Books, 1961).
5. Primo Levi. The Monkey’s Wrench. Trans, by William Weaver. (New York:
Summit Books, 1986). For the sake of completeness: Primo Levi. Moments o f
Reprieve. Trans, by Ruth Feldman. (New York: Summit Books, 1986).
6. Primo Levi. “Beyond Survival.” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 9.