The agonised self. Primo Levi, clear-eyed chronicler of horror, survived Auschwitz only to commit suicide in late middle age. Lavinia Greenlaw explores the mysterious life of this "unheroic" Italian

The Double Bond - Primo Levi: A Biography

Carole Angier <em>Viking, 898pp, £25 </em>

ISBN 067088

Primo Levi admired his grandfather, who was known for never using more than six words at a time. So what would Levi, famous for his own concision and restraint, have made of these 1,522 pages? Does his entire oeuvre even add up to as much?

One of the finest writers on the Holocaust, Levi distilled his work from a great weight of metaphysical anguish, private disturbance, scientific knowledge and terrible fact. Although Carole Angier and Ian Thomson are unsurprisingly overwhelmed by all this, both biographies are worth reading. Angier actively occupies her pages, making this a live-action, opinionated and exhausting account. Thomson is more disciplined, coherent and respectful, but less imaginative and fluent.

Levi was born into the Turin bourgeoisie in 1919 and spent his life, with the exception of his war work and time in Auschwitz, in the same apartment. It was owned by his mother, who remained there with her son and his family, and outlived him. Set against such monolithic constancy were schisms between art and science, imperative and fear, and, above all, the personal and the historical. Within this last tension, the biographer is faced with too little information on the one hand, and too much on the other. As if to compensate, and confronted by a lot of closed doors, Angier in particular sets out to disinter secrets. Where Thomson is content to pass on what can sound like well-worn tales, Angier sets out to lift lids and turn tables.

Levi turned his life into art with a rare kind of success, perhaps because he understood the need to unanchor fact in order to illuminate truth. This freedom is what makes his testament so remarkable. Who else could take liberties with such subject matter? Some friends and fellow survivors were deeply hurt to see themselves altered - made more peasant-like, more flighty or more calculating - and to see important memories rearranged, but Levi was unrepentant. He called this "rounding out" a story, a method he applied to his own life. Both biographers are aware of what Thomson calls Levi's "elaborate autobiographical fictions", but it is Angier who teases them out, lapsing into excited italics when clues fall into place.

Thomson's starting point, his one meeting with Levi, is determinedly low-key. He describes the writer as ever in shirtsleeves, his Auschwitz tattoo visible, sitting "in a worn chintz armchair, smoking the occasional 'Alaska' menthol cigarette. His beard was neatly clipped and he wore metal-rimmed glasses." The last thing Thomson mentions is a sketch of a broken-down fence at Auschwitz. He reminds us that, for many years, Levi managed a paint and varnish factory outside Turin. He is also "struck by how stock Levi's answers seem".

Thomson is more interested in the process and less in the implications. Both he and Angier pursue the story behind the suicide of Levi's grandfather, who jumped from a window. Whereas Angier tries to discover exactly why he did it, Thomson concentrates on newspaper and police reports. He notes the parallel with Levi's own "precipitazione dall'alto", or fall from a great height; Angier wrings it dry.

Either of these biographies will satisfy the reader's curiosity about Levi's milieu, but the man himself remains at a distance. His family would not talk to Angier at all, while Thomson met his son once and interviewed his sister. Angier, without any apparent embarrassment, launched campaigns to persuade the now elderly people who had been Levi's most private passions and confidantes to talk. She decides for herself how truthful they are being and worries that Levi's wife will destroy his papers, complaining with astonishing petulance that Lucia guards them "like Cerberus".

Descriptions of Levi at 16 or 60 suggest the same distinctly unheroic man: shy, physically agonised, acutely observant, repressed and fearful. These biographies are full of courage, sacrifice and salvation, but mostly other people's. Levi seems to have followed the crowd, becoming a compliant fascist youth when it was like joining the Scouts, and half-heartedly acting for the Resistance. He had an instinct for protecting himself, from marking his tennis balls with silver nitrate to ensuring that he could never leave home. It is suggested that he was a negligent boss who risked being held responsible for a number of industrial accidents; and he describes himself as having the "Olympian selfishness of all husbands". He never wrote about his invalid mother, and only briefly about his wife. His intense relationships with other women remained inert.

Locked into family, city and history, Levi was attracted to space and weightlessness: mountaineering, ice skating and astronomy. He seems as essentially volatile and superficially blanked out as ice, snow and stars. He pales beside large personalities: the chemistry professor who liked to wear a fez, the one who wove tapestries, and the one who sizzled steak over a gas flame, devised artificial lemon juice and disposed of bombs. Levi was an authority on lacquer-coated insulation cables. He worked at the same factory for almost 30 years.

He achieves a kind of artistic escapology. In an essay on his home, "My House", he borrows Le Corbusier's phrase "a machine for living" and describes the place as "characterised by a lack of character". He claims to be little affected by environment, but bumps into memories with every step: the key that hung on a hook for 20 years, or the realisation that his favourite armchair sits on the spot where he was born. The reader is immobilised, surrounded, while Levi slips out the door behind them.

The trajectory of Levi's life is not a natural one, which adds to the challenges of writing about it. His picturesque childhood prompts Thomson to unleash story-book caricatures: the grandmother who was a "sharp-tongued, sour-faced woman who did not suffer fools gladly"; the girl who had "dark curly hair, expressive eyes and a knowing smile"; and "a rock of a man with dark, intelligent eyes . . . a lone wolf with a wolf's snarl for the coming danger". Angier is also very taken with all the background characters, but then so was Levi, and they are best viewed in his work.

As the war closed in, Levi continued to study and take holidays. Thomson skilfully negotiates the wider context from the Nuremberg Laws to Kristallnacht and inexorably on, while emphasising the all-round failure to grasp what was to come. Some Jews took boxing lessons and others learnt English, while the Levi family hatched a scheme, never realised, to escape to Brazil.

Angier and Thomson have chosen to process their material so thoroughly that both books often read like fiction, leaving one to wonder "Who said?" and "How come?". The few direct observations stand out, such as this naive letter from an Italian-run holding camp: "Dearest Nella . . . The Jewish company is most dull; the Aryan, excellent . . . I'd like if possible to have a pair (or two) of shoes and a couple of dresses . . . a towel and a table cloth . . . good toilet and laundry soap!" A cousin describes Levi's father thus: "His arms were too long for his body, but he was so full of enthusiasm and bookish charm that you didn't notice how ugly he was." Thomson talks more crudely of his "bumpkin gaucheness" and "tendency to swank". Another cousin describes Levi and his sister as "poised between angels and nonentities", telling us more about Levi's nature than anything else.

The trajectory rises towards the climax of Auschwitz, which comes a third of the way through Levi's life, before he has written a single book. This leaves Angier and Thomson with the difficulty of making what follows as interesting. In fact, it is when dealing with Levi's later life and chronic difficulties that these biographies come into their own: his struggle for literary recognition, his depression and his pathologically symbiotic relationship with his mother. Angier is most alert to the poignancy of Levi's agonised self and the demands he made on others.

The ease with which we can now gather knowledge is reflected in such excess. Both books would be more lucid at half the length, especially that of Angier, whose valuable insights lie buried in runaway expanse. As the poet Elizabeth Bishop said, if you want to get to know a writer, by all means read their life and letters, but first read all of their work.

Lavinia Greenlaw is a poet and critic. Her novel, Mary George of Allnorthover, is out in paperback (Flamingo, £6.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Cutting Tony down to size