Primo Levi

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Primo Levi

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 12:30 pm

My hero: Primo Levi by Siddhartha Mukherjee

'If chemists can write like that, God help the writers'

Siddhartha Mukherjee

guardian.co.uk, Friday 2 December 2011 22.55 GMT


Primo Levi: makes his artistry vanish. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

Primo Levi – who wrote Survival in Auschwitz (published in Britain as If This Is a Man), perhaps the best book I have read – defined himself as a chemist more than a writer. Here he is, for instance, writing about distillation: "Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition … And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries."

If chemists can write like that, God help the writers.

I first read Levi when I was 18, in a single marathon session. I finished not only Survival in Auschwitz but his other masterpiece, The Periodic Table. This was before I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but it was a crucial influence. While writing my own book on the history of cancer, I returned to him for his control of tone, his capacity to talk about very big stories through very small stories, which he does over and over again.

Because his intellect did not separate the sciences from the humanities, he managed to combine them into a sum vastly greater than each part. For Levi, scientific inquiry was only part of a larger investigation into nature and, ultimately, human nature. Levi does not attempt to write as a writer, but as an observer. He is so artful he makes the artistry vanish.

His tone in Survival in Auschwitz is so perfectly controlled, at once clinical, sceptical and humane, that it remains the standard that all fiction and non-fiction writers might aspire to. As a doctor and a writer, who does not discriminate between the two professions, I find his journey between all his worlds an absolute inspiration.

Siddhartha Mukherjee won the Guardian First Book award for The Emperor of All Maladies this week.

eddie
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Re: Primo Levi

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 12:34 pm

I got about half-way through If This Is A man and I had to put it down, sick to my stomach.

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Re: Primo Levi

Post  LaRue on Sun Dec 04, 2011 8:16 pm

Really? I was thinking of reading it.

Our beloved school chaplain Mr Wheatley (peace be upon him I love you ) really rates Levi and used to read a lot of his poems and works in assembly. I would literally do anything he said, so that's why I want to read it.

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Re: Primo Levi

Post  eddie on Sun Dec 04, 2011 8:57 pm

Point taken. It's a book that ought to be read, but it was just too harrowing for me.

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Re: Primo Levi

Post  LaRue on Tue Dec 06, 2011 1:31 am

Oh no, I wasn't making a point. I was just commenting. Now I'm having second thoughts...

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