Primo Levi  On the friday in September 1986 that I arrived in Turin to renew a conversation with Primo Levi that we had begun one afternoon in London the spring before, I asked to be shown around the paint factory where he’d been employed as a research chemist and, afterward, until retirement, as manager. Altogether the company employs Tfty people, mainly chemists who work in the laboratories and skilled laborers on the toor of the plant. The production machinery, the row of storage tanks, the laboratory building, the Tnished product in man-sized containers ready to be shipped, the reprocessing facility that puriTes the wastes—all of it is encompassed in four or Tve acres seven miles from Turin. The machines that are drying resin and blending varnish and pumping off pollutants are never distressingly loud, the yard’s acrid odor—the smell, Levi told me, that clung to his clothing for two years after his retirement—is by no means disgusting, and the thirty-yard Dumpster loaded to the brim with the black sludgy residue of the antipolluting process isn’t particularly unsightly. It is hardly the world’s ugliest industrial environment, but a long way nonetheless from those sentences suffused with mind that are the hallmark of Levi’s autobiographical narratives.
However far from the spirit of the prose, the factory is clearly close to his heart; taking in what I could of the noise, the stink, the mosaic of pipes and vats and tanks and dials, I remembered Faussone, the skilled rigger in The Monkey’s Wrench, saying to Levi, who calls Faussone "my alter ego," "I have to tell you, being around a work site is something I enjoy." As we walked through the open yard to the laboratory, a simply designed two-story building constructed during Levi’s managerial days, he told me, "I have been cut off from the factory for twelve years. This will be an adventure for me." He said he believed that nearly everybody once working with him was now retired or dead, and indeed, those few still there whom he ran into seemed to strike him as specters. "It’s another ghost," he whispered to me after someone from the central ofTce that had once been his emerged to welcome him back. On our way to the section of the laboratory where raw materials are scrutinized before moving to production, I asked Levi if he could identify the chemical aroma faintly permeating the corridor: I thought it smelled like a hospital corridor. Just fractionally he raised his head and exposed his nostrils to the air. With a smile he told me, "I understand and can analyze it like a dog." He seemed to me inwardly animated more in the manner of some quicksilver little woodland creature enlivened by the forest’s most astute intelligence. Levi is small and slight, though not so delicately built as his unassuming demeanor makes him at Trst appear, and seemingly as nimble as he must have been at ten. In his body, as in his face, you see—as you don’t in most men—the face and the body of the boy that he was. The alertness is nearly palpable, keenness trembling within like his pilot light.
It is not as surprising as one might initially think to Tnd that writers divide like the rest of mankind into two categories: those who listen to you and those who don’t. Levi listens, and with his entire face, a precisely modeled face that, tipped with its white chin beard, looks at sixty-seven youthfully Panlike and professorial as well, the face of irrepressible curiosity and of the esteemed dottore. I can believe Faussone when he says to Primo Levi early in The Monkey’s Wrench, "You’re quite a guy, making me tell these stories that, except for you, I’ve never told anybody." It’s no wonder that people are always telling him things and that everything is already faithfully recorded before it is written down: when listening he is as focused and as still as a chipmunk spying something unknown from atop a stone wall.
In a large, substantial-looking apartment house built a few years before he was born—indeed the house where he was born, for formerly this was the home of his parents—Levi lives with his wife, Lucia; except for his year in Auschwitz and the adventurous months immediately after his liberation, he has lived in this apartment all his life. The building, whose bourgeois solidity has begun slightly to give way to time, is on a wide boulevard of apartment buildings that struck me as the northern Italian counterpart of Manhattan’s West End Avenue: a steady stream of auto and bus traffic, trolley cars speeding by on their tracks, but also a column of big chestnut trees stretching all along the narrow islands at either side of the street, and the green hills bordering the city vvisible from the intersection. The famous arcades at the commercial heart of the city are an unswerving Tfteen- minute walk straight through what Leviiiii has called "the obsessive Turin geometry." The Levis’ large apartment is shared, as it has been since the couple met and married after the war, with Primo Levi’s mother. She is ninety-one. Levi’s ninety-Tve-year-old mother-in-law lives not far away; in the apartment next door lives his twenty-eight-year-old son, a physicist; and a few streets farther on is his thirty-eight-year-old daughter, a botanist. I don’t know of another contemporary writer who has voluntarily remained, over so many decades, intimately entangled and in such direct, unbroken contact with his immediate family, his birthplace, his region, the world of his forebears, and, particularly, the local working environment, which in Turin, the home of Fiat, is largely industrial. Of all the intellectually gifted artists of the twentieth century—and Levi’s uniqueness is that he is more the artist- chemist than the chemist-writer—he may well be the most thoroughly adapted to the totality of the life around him. Perhaps in the case of Primo Levi, a life of communal interconnectedness, along with his masterpiece on Auschwitz, constitutes his profoundly spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his every sustained connection and tear him and his kind out of history.
In The Periodic Table, beginning with the simplest of sentences a paragraph that describes one of chemistry’s most satisfying processes, Levi writes, "Distilling is beautiful." What follows is a distillation too, a reduction to essential points of the lively, wide-ranging conversation we conducted, in English, over the course of a long weekend, mostly behind the door of the quiet study off the entrance foyer to the Levis’ apartment. His study is a large, simply furnished room. There is an old towered sofa and a comfortable easy chair; on the desk is a shrouded word processor; neatly shelved behind the desk are Levi’s variously colored notebooks; on shelves all around the room are books in Italian, German, and English. The most evocative object is one of the smallest: an unobtrusively hung sketch of a half-destroyed barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz. Displayed more prominently on the walls are playful constructions skillfully twisted into shape by Levi himself out of insulated copper wire—that is, wire coated with the varnish developed for that purpose in his own laboratory. There is a big wire butterty, a wire owl, a tiny wire bug, and high on the wall behind the desk are two of the largest constructions: one the wire Tgure of a bird-warrior armed with a knitting needle and the other, as Levi explained when I couldn’t make out what the Tgure was meant to represent, "a man playing his nose." "A Jew," I suggested. "Yes, yes," he said, laughing, "a Jew, of course."
Roth: In Th...