Authors · Books · Obituaries

Primo Levi, John Leonard and Me

  I was watching the Japanese channel when a documentary came on about a man making a pilgrimage to the gravesite of Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, author, and Auschwitz survivor. On his grave is his name, the years of  his birth and death, and a 6 digit number, 174517.  This number was tattooed on his arm by the Nazis in the concentration camp.

Primo Levi

I was mesmerized by the devotion to Levi demonstrated by the pilgrim, who had made the journey to Levi’s grave twice before, and decided to read some of his works. The library had a ready collection of his stories, essays, and recorded interviews as well as his writings about living in and surviving Auschwitz.  Such quiet horror resonates from the pages of his Auschwitz writings. 

As I was preparing to leave the library, I stopped by the new arrivals shelf and found a book by John Leonard, my favorite critic. He died in 2008. I picked up Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures. I didn’t look at the table of contents. Didn’t need to. John Leonard always delivers.

Reading Levi was different. His stories are clearly written, lucid. Some of them are quite fanciful, fantastic. He included all his interests in his work.  He loved scientific topics, but he also had a flair for whimsy.  After reading as much of Levi as possible without having The Periodic Table at hand, I decided to have a look at Lonesome Rangers.

Know what the first essay was titled? Primo Levi Reads Franz Kafka. Coincidence?  I think not.  The essay explains the context of Levi’s suicide at age 67 and tells us that not only did he kill himself but also our wishful thinking.

I’m recommending any and all of Primo Levi’s writings to you and also the works of John Leonard.  The world is much poorer without their continued output, but at least they left behind plenty of thought provoking writings for us to reflect upon.

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