Melancholy overcome

The Search for Roots: a personal anthology

Primo Levi, edited by Peter Forbes <em>Allen Lane, The

Scholars, students and lovers of Primo Levi are more indebted to Peter Forbes and the Penguin Press than they say. In his introduction, Forbes describes The Search for Roots as the last of Levi's books to be translated into English. But actually The Search for Roots is hardly by Levi at all. It is, as it says on the cover, "a personal anthology": a collection of pieces by his favourite authors, with only short introductions by himself. It is less by Levi, in other words, than about him. That is no doubt why it has not been translated so far; and also why it is so valuable to have now.

Levi was notoriously modest, and would never have compiled such a book by himself. As he says in his preface, the proposal came from his publisher, and was made not only to him, but to several other of Einaudi's most famous authors: Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia, Paolo Volponi. Typically (he was the most responsible man in the world), Levi was the only one of the four to complete his anthology, and in record time: he handed it in three months early. Einaudi surprised him into producing not only a self-portrait, but an extraordinarily revealing one. Levi is the most unusual of writers - especially of writers of the Holocaust, but of writers of any kind. Most people write, in one way or another, about themselves. Levi wrote almost exclusively about others, especially, but not only in, If This is a Man. He is one of the most outward-looking writers we have ever had. We feel we know him (and love him) from his books, because he is very directly and personally in them. But it is his humane mind and morality that are in them, and that we know; there is almost nothing about his feelings, his personal relationships, his background, himself. Even in his "autobiography", The Periodic Table, this is largely true. There is more about his ancestors, his friends, his adventures as a chemist, than about his own hopes and fears.

But in The Search for Roots, he is writing about other people - or even about other people's books; and with his guard thus lowered, he finds himself telling us more than ever before about himself. "Strangely," he wrote in his preface, "I felt more exposed to the public, more unbosomed, in making [these] choices than in writing my own books." And it is true, he is. "I would not have foreseen," he went on, "that among my authors I should not find a rogue, a woman, nor anyone from a non-European culture." Nor, he notes, is there anything about music, painting or "the world of sentiment". Now, anyone who has read his books carefully will not be surprised. These absences define the core of Levi: European culture, Judaeo-Christian morality, rationality, reticence about private affairs. That core emerges very clearly here.

But it is not only that. Levi is always presented, and presented himself, as a great optimist, our most meaningful optimist, given that he had even less reason than the rest of us to be any such thing. He was an optimist; but of a complicated kind. He was an optimist about science, for example, although many of his stories were about its dangers. He thought that, whatever problems science had created, only science could solve; and that, in any case, there was no turning back. And he was an optimist, most famously, about mankind. But this was his most complicated optimism of all. It was largely an optimism of the will, like Gramsci's: a moral optimism, one that is sustained, and largely created, by an act of will. In Auschwitz, you never knew what would happen. Hitler might die, the Allies might arrive, and you would all be saved. People could give up hope and die, and miss salvation by a day. It was a moral duty, therefore, to spread hope and not despair, and this is one of the lessons which could be transferred (not all could be) from that infernal world to the one outside.

Levi was also more of an optimist than merely one of will, because he himself needed to be. None the less, this Pascalian wager was at the root of his view, and of his books - except, perhaps, the last one, as his readers noticed after his death. But if we had had a chance to read The Search for Roots earlier, we might have seen even below the roots before, into "the ecosystem that lodges in my depths", as Levi says here.

Apart from his main loves, requited and unrequited - chemistry and adventure respectively - this book has nothing to do with optimism at all. It begins with the Book of Job, which Levi entitles "The Just Man Oppressed by Injustice", and ends with an extraordinary essay on black holes by the professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology, which Levi entitles "We Are Alone". ("Not only are we not the centre of the universe," he wrote in the introduction to this last choice, "but the universe is not made for human beings: it is hostile, violent, alien.")

In between, he arranges his authors along four paths, which he plots in a diagram at the start: the path of "Salvation Through Laughter", which contains great favourites of his, such as Rabelais and Sholem Aleichem; one called "Man Suffers Unjustly", which includes, for example, T S Eliot and Paul Celan; one called "The Stature of Man", including one of his greatest favourites of all, Conrad; and the path of "Salvation Through Knowledge", which contains his scientific heroes, from Lucretius to Darwin and Arthur C Clarke. On the way, we also meet his other greatest favourites: Thomas Mann, for instance; and Bertrand Russell on "Why We Are Not Happy"; and wonderful inhabitants of his chemical life, such as his "chemical father", Ludwig Gattermann; as well as a chilling extract from an American manual for testing materials (on this occasion, using "ten healthy American roaches, starved for 48 hours": "If more than three roaches die during the test, discontinue and repeat").

These four paths, Calvino pointed out in his review (happily included here), are "four lines of resistance to all forms of despair, four responses that define Levi's stoicism". That is the right word. Levi was not an optimist, he was a stoic: a realist, even a pessimist, who believed in us despite everything. That is what faith is, after all; otherwise it is just drawing conclusions from the evidence. The Search for Roots is an anatomy of melancholy overcome. It is Primo Levi's best autobiography.

Carole Angier is completing a biography of Primo Levi for Viking

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, In the line of fire