Monday, April 20, 2009


"A sober, concrete, and symmetrical city"

Last week, in a minor fit of completism, I ordered The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi. No doubt I'll find some edifying things in the book, along with a certain amount of scholarly desiccation. Thumbing through it the other day, I came across this quote from a 1976 panel discussion in Switzerland, where Levi talked about his attachment to Turin and the surrounding Piedmont:
My bond to my "little homeland" [piccola patria] is very strong. I came into the world in Turin, my forebears were all Piedmontese; I found my vocation in Turin, I studied there, I've always lived there, I've worked, had a family, written and published all my books there, with a publisher deeply rooted in the local soil, for all its international renown. I love the city, its dialect, its streets, its pavements, its avenues, the hill and the mountains that surround it, which I climbed as a boy, I like the rural and hill-dweller roots of its people, the conscientiousness of its workers, the flair of its artisans, the rigor of its technicians.... My way of writing is influenced for certain in no small degree by my chemical profession but also in part by having been formed in a sober, concrete, and symmetrical city, a technical city where I have carved out my own niche.
Living as he did in the same apartment where he was born (and where he would later die), Levi was unusually entrenched in his native soil. I visited Turin just once, when I was researching my abortive biography of Levi. It was February, the skies were overcast, the trees dripped and a thick fog alternately hid and revealed bits of the surrounding hills. I found Turin beautiful, but it had the introverted appeal of a Northern European city. Since it kept raining, and since both my wife and myself were nursing colds, we spent much of the time in the low-end hotel near the railroad station, watching snowy RAI broadcasts on television. But I did meet with Levi's son, Renzo, who told me in the kindest possible way that his family was opposed to the prying efforts of biographers like myself. Now I can see that it was much, much too soon: the author had died, an almost certain suicide, less than two years before. The family was still absorbing the shock, and closing ranks at the mere thought of an outsider airing its none-too-dirty laundry. So I halted my research. Yet my memory of Levi's symmetrical city, where everything seemed to be gray or black or the soft green of oxidized metal, remains vivid.

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