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Primolevi's Universe

Local writer and activist attorney talks about his biography of Italian memoirist, novelist, poet, and chemist

Sam Magavern

Sam Magavern is no stranger to these pages: His poetry has appeared in this column from time to time, and he frequently pops up in the news pages as co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, a research and advocacy group. Earlier this month, Palgrave MacMillan brought out Primo Levi’s Universe, Magavern’s critical biography of the Italian author and chemist, renowned for his memoirs of Auschwitz.

Magavern will read from and discuss his new book on Thursday, August 6, at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center. Earlier this week he told AV a little about Primo Levi’s Universe.

AV: How did you come to Primo Levi as a subject?

Magavern: I was writing a novel about a group of law students, and I decided to have one of them become obsessed with the mystery of Levi’s death in 1987—the question of whether his fall down the stairwell was accident or suicide. I began reading more and more of his work and became obsessed myself—not with his death, but with his life and his remarkable literary talent.

AV: Describe how you approached Levi’s life as a writer? How was your approach different than those taken by other biographers and critics?

Magavern: My book weaves Levi’s life and work together to explore his view of the world and how it evolved over time. It is much shorter—and hopefully more lyrical—than the big biographies of him, and it is written for the general reader. I focus more attention than most on Levi’s very beautiful and very underrated poetry, and on some of his lesser known stories and essays, presenting him not just as the masterful memoirist of Auschwitz but as a renaissance man: novelist, journalist, mountain-climber, scientist, and science-fiction writer.

AV: As the work progressed, did Levi surprise you at any point? What did you learn about him?

Magavern: For such a wise and temperate man, Levi can be shockingly harsh about his fellow inmates at Auschwitz, particularly in his early work. One reason is that, as an Italian Jew who spoke no Yiddish, he felt quite alienated from most of the other prisoners, who were from Eastern Europe. Another reason is that he wants to show very plainly that the human soul is not indestructible—that when a totalitarian power decides that some people are subhuman and sets out to demolish their spirits, it can succeed.

AV: When Levi died, Elie Wiesel famously said, “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.” Clever, for sure, but do you think there’s any truth in that?

Magavern: Not really. Levi suffered from chronic depression all his adult life, and probably also as a youth, before Auschwitz. He himself did not feel that his depression related to Auschwitz. It’s impossible to know exactly why—or even if—he took his own life, but it did not appear to have much to do with his experiences under the Nazis. It’s easy to mythologize his sadness, but it’s probably better to think of it as something like heart disease. When he was not depressed, he had an exuberant love for life.

AV: Got a favorite poem or favorite lines of Levi’s to share?

Magavern: Levi identified very strongly with Odysseus, the great adventurer and storyteller. He once said that he wanted his tombstone to be inscribed with a phrase Homer uses for Odysseus, “polla plankte,” which means “forever wandering.” I think it’s too bad that his tombstone does not have this line; it just has his name, date, and Auschwitz number. I am hoping my book will help people to think of him more as a modern Odysseus, “forever wandering” in search of adventure, knowledge, and freedom.

geoff kelly

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