Primo Levi, author of Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table, wrote books that have been called the essential works of humankind. Yet he lived an unremarkable existence, remaining until his death in the house in which he'd been born; managing a paint and varnish factory for thirty years; and tending his invalid mother to the last. Now, in a matchless account, Ian Thomson unravels the strands of a life as improbable as it was influential, the story of the most modest of men who became a universal touchstone of conscience and humanism.
Drawing on exclusive access to family members and previously unseen correspondence, Thomson reconstructs the world of Levi's youth--the rhythms of Jewish life in Turin during the Mussolini years--as well as his experience in Auschwitz and difficult reintegration into postwar Italy. Thomson presents Levi in all his facets: his fondness for Louis Armstrong and fast cars, his insomnia and many near-catastrophic work accidents. Finally, he explores the controversy and isolation of Levi's later years, along with the increasing tensions in his life--between his private anguish and gift for friendship; his severe bouts of depression and passion for life and ideas; his pervasive dread and reasoned, pragmatic ethic.
Praised in Britain as "the best sort of history" and "a model of its kind," Primo Levi: A Life is certain to take its place as the standard biography and a necessary companion to the works themselves.
Thomson's biography of Primo Levi comes a little over a year after Carole Angier's Levi biography, The Double Bond. The merits of the two are sharply distinct from each other. Where Angier considered broader questions of culture and identity, Thomson is brisk and novelistic. Thomson had extensive, exclusive access to Levi papers and family members, where Angier had almost none. For that reason alone, any Leviphile will derive considerable pleasure from Thomson's account. The fast-paced narrative sometimes results in frustratingly concise characterizations ("Chemistry was to be a powerful magnet for the inadequate teenager looking for a focus to his life"), but that may well be the price for a book that follows Levi's comings and goings so closely. Thomson, who has translated the novels of Sicilian crime writer Leonardo Sciascia into English and wrote Bonjour Blanc, is particularly attentive to the often glossed-over later years of the author's life, tracing the twin courses of his publishing career and his deepening struggle with depression. Since Levi's tragic suicide in 1987, the search for the true man behind the mythic Holocaust survivor has only intensified; Levi biographers always find they must compete not only with each other but with their subject, whose immortal memoirs will inevitably have the final say. In the end, Thomson's contribution may concentrate more on the trees than the forest, but its smoothly assembled accumulation of details renders an invaluable service to the Levi legacy.