The Last Interview by Primo Levi, Polity, 160pp, £12.99
It is more than 70 years since the publication of If This is a Man, the account of Primo Levi’s 11 months in Auschwitz, and just over 30 since he died, falling into the stairwell below the third floor family apartment in the Corso Re Umberto in Turin.
Giovanni Tesio, a friend and literary critic, knew that Levi had been enduring severe depression which left him unable to write, and believed that conversations about his life might be therapeutic – hence this record of three interviews. Tesio was already preparing to write Levi’s authorised biography, and whatever their therapeutic value to Levi might have been, they were also part of Tesio’s research.
It should be said that most of the interview is very low-key – by design, one supposes. It stops well short of Auschwitz, though inevitably that casts a dark shadow over the conversation. This is mostly about Levi’s family, his schooldays, his adolescent shyness and timidity, his interests as a boy, and then his time at university, the difficulties caused him as a Jew by the racial laws – these a later development in the life of what Mussolini had decreed to be the “fascist era”. There is the story of Levi’s arrest, along with friends who were trying in an amateurish way to establish a partisan group in the weeks after the Italian government’s armistice with the Allies and the German invasion of north Italy. Then Tesio asks him about his post-war life as a chemist and the burgeoning of his literary career.
No doubt because Tesio regarded the conversations as having a therapeutic intention, his questioning is always sympathetic, never challenging. This gives the book a certain, perhaps unexpected, charm. Obviously many, perhaps most, will read the book only on account of their interest in Levi and the effect Auschwitz had on him. But it also gives a pleasing picture of middle-class provincial Italian life in the 1930s and early years of the war.
The Levi family were not observant Jews. “Judaism as a religion was not passed on to me,” he says, “Judaism as a way of life, to a certain extent, yes.” His father was “very conflicted … He had scruples about eating ham, but he ate it all the same”.
What Levi owed most to him was a passion for books. “My father would try to seduce my mother’s women friends, by telling them about Schopenhauer, without much success,” he recalls.
At school he was sometimes bullied – but apparently not because he was a Jew – and often bored. The curriculum was classical and literary. Thanks to an educational reform these subjects were taught by men, some of them distinguished scholars, the sciences by women: second-class teachers for second-class subjects. Nevertheless, he remembered several of his teachers with respect and affection, while finding others bores or incompetents. In short, his education and memories of school were much like most people’s.
One is struck by how little the early years of the war (after Mussolini took Italy into it in May 1940) seem to have affected Levi’s life, apart from constraints on employment resulting from the racial laws. Nevertheless, he had a job, and he and his friends would still spend weekends and holidays in the mountains north of Turin.
No doubt this was partly because of the chronic inefficiency of the fascist regime, quite incapable of putting the country on a war footing as was done in Britain. “These were,” he says, “extremely fruitful years … We were crazy about mountaineering, all of us, including the girls.” He fell for one of these girls, herself Jewish, but was too shy to declare his love. This was to lead to guilty regret, since she was arrested with him as a member of the would-be partisan group, and perhaps things would have been different – they might have gone off together – if he had spoken up. But perhaps not. Some may see his speculation about this so long after the event, as an example of what has come to be called “survivor’s guilt”.
Levi broke off his conversations with Tesio because he had to go into hospital for an operation. When he recovered and was home again, he spoke to Tesio on the telephone and said he was “ready to resume”. They were to make an appointment for the following week.
So, as Judith Woolf, who has made a lucid and flexible translation of Tesio’s text, says, “the last interview” – of the title – “was one that didn’t happen”.
There was naturally an inquest into the circumstances of his death; the court decided he had committed suicide. Early biographers have accepted the verdict. Woolf, surely correctly, writes that the true circumstances will never be known: “There is no witness and no suicide note to tell us whether it was caused by momentary black-out as he leaned over the banisters or the different blackness of a moment of overwhelming despair.”
For what it’s worth, I would think a chemist like Levi might have chosen another way out, not one quite so dramatic and so distressing to his family.