Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life, by Berel Lang. Yale University Press, 192 pages. Hardcover $25.00.
Professor Lang has developed an unusual plan to explore the life of an unusual writer. Modeling the approach in part on one of Levi’s books, Lang begins with a chapter called “The End” and concludes with one called “The Beginning” followed, naturally, by “Preface.” This somewhat playful strategy enacts Lang’s concern with possible confusions of chronology and causality. It allows him, as well, to guide us with proper tentativeness through such issues as whether or not Levi would have become an author without the experience of surviving the Holocaust.
The inside chapters, the meat of the meal, consider “The War,” “Writing,” “The Jewish Question,” and “Thinking.” Lang provides the necessary wartime context for understanding the exceptional situation of Italy and of Italian Jews before, during, and after World War II. He also examines the transition in Levi’s professional identity from chemist (chemical engineer and chemical plant manager) to writer. In this discussion, he underscores Levi’s insistence that the scientific and artistic modes are not adversarial. Lang sees Levi as feeling his way into a balancing act. While the precision and clarity necessary in scientific work find their way effectively into Levi’s prose style, perhaps his poetry is handicapped by literalism. . . .
To see the entire review, as posted on the Jewish Book Council blog this past week and slated for a forthcoming issue of Jewish Book World, click here: Review of Primo Levi: The Matter of a Life by Berel Lang | Jewish Book Council