I live in my house as I live inside my skin: I know more beautiful, more ample, more picturesque skins: but it would seem to me unnatural to change them for mine.
—Primo Levi, ‘My House’ in Other People’s Trades, 1990
Primo Levi lived in the house he was born in all his life except for his year of enforced exile in Auschwitz. He described himself as an extreme case of a sedentary person, like a family of human molluscs that ‘attach themselves to a sea-rock, secrete an outer shell and stay put for the rest of their lives’. It is within the protective shell of Levi’s house at Corso Re Umberto 75 in Turin that he wrote If This Is a Man, his testimony and analysis of the Nazi death camps. It is here that his life and quest for measured understanding of the most terrible twentieth-century evils ended.
On 11 April 1987 at around 10 a.m. Primo Levi stepped out of Flat 3a onto the third floor landing, pitched himself over the railing and fell to his death. No suicide note was left, no explanation offered. He wrote in his last book that the best defence against death was to focus on the ‘the aims of life’, to busy oneself in palpable everyday tasks. He lost his aim and the shell became a tomb.
Primo Levi worked as an industrial chemist for most of his life, concentrating on his writing after work at the plant was over. He survived the industrial murder of Auschwitz because the regime found a use for his trade. He turned his forensic eye and his literary skill on the regime, becoming perhaps the most brilliant ethnographer of the Nazi terror.
His books The Drowned and the Saved, Moments of Reprieve and The Truce documented what he saw and heard from inside the vortex of the Shoah. For Levi, the brilliant evil of Nazism was its ability to make the victims in its own image, to strip them of their humanity. The ‘saved’ were drawn into what he called the ‘zone of grey consciences’, summed up in the acts of compromise and compliance that became the price of survival. Many survivors paid for this later, Levi wrote, when they abandoned hope and took their own lives.
The circumstances of Primo Levi’s death are much contested and pored over. In the immediate aftermath of his death The New Yorker published an editorial claiming Levi had cheated his readers through taking his own life. Others like Diego Gambetta maintain that he did not commit suicide; it had been a terrible accident.
The publication of two biographies in 2002 reinvigorated the controversy. Between them, these books – by Carole Angier and Ian Thomson, respectively – amount to over 1,500 pages of conjecture on the true nature of Primo Levi as a man. The only good sentences in these books are there by proxy. They are there in the citations, the epigrams, in the voice of Primo Levi himself.
It is perhaps the same puzzle and the mystery of Levi’s death that took me to Turin in search of something. I am not sure what that something is, or was, even now. But I know that there is, or should be, a line past which curiosity should not go. The problem is that one is often aware of that line only at the point that it has been overstepped. What follows is perhaps a cautionary tale or, looked at another way, a posthumous lesson from the twentieth century’s greatest witness.
It’s a hot August day. The long drive from Nice has taken almost six hours. Turin at 1 p.m. is almost completely deserted. The Fiat factory is closed for its annual holiday and everyone has left town to holiday on the Riviera. My wife and three children have made the long drive with me, sacrificing a day on the beach.
After some quick advice from a taxi driver we find our way to Corso Re Umberto. The first thing that is immediately striking is the horse chestnut trees that line the street. There it is, number 75, the building immediately recognizable from the photograph in Carole Angier’s biography. The building is early twentieth century, made of red brick with a grey stone façade at street level.
This district to the west of the city is called Crocetta (‘Little Cross’), a middle-class district that has seen better times. We park and the children get out and play in the empty street. As I walk towards the dark wooden door there is a list of names on a brass plate; among them is written the name ‘Levi’.
Two women brush past my shoulder to open the door and I follow in behind them. The external plainness of the building gives way to a turn of the century elegance. The internal courtyard opens to the sky and has white walls. A few paces to the right and another door and my chest tightens. There is the foot of the staircase and the mosaic floor where Primo Levi fell.
The staircase coils upwards like a misshapen spring. A lift rises up through the centre and the box and pulley structure looks like an angular steel arachnid. The concierge, a small, friendly, Latin American man, comes out to ask me something. I try to explain but he doesn’t understand. I start to climb the stairs and he waves his arms: ‘Signora Levi’, he says pointing upstairs. Signora Levi is home? He runs up to the first floor to see if there is anyone who can interpret.
A middle-aged, bespectacled, bald man comes out of the offices of a sun bed company located upstairs. I explain that I am an admirer of Primo Levi’s writing and that I have come here as a kind of pilgrimage. He explains that Primo Levi’s wife, Anna Maria Levi, along with her son, Renzo, live in the building. He signals three with one hand while holding his other hand flat just above his hip. ‘With three children?’ I ask. ‘Yes, three children’, he replies. I ask him if I can walk up the stairs. The concierge looks nervous. The middle-aged man speaks to him in Italian. The concierge shrugs and gestures with an upturned palm toward the staircase. ‘You are not to disturb Signora Levi’, he says in broken English.
The cold stone stairs have slight curves worn smooth by the many feet that have climbed them. The clanking sounds of the steel lift echo around the walls. By the time I reach the third floor the concierge is waiting for me. He shows me the door and there to the right of the door, next to the bell is a small plate with the name ‘Renzo Levi’. As a reflex I reach out and touch it. The concierge points to an adjacent door with number 10 on it.
The door is large, dark wood, tanned by time. He indicates that the family occupied the whole floor. I look up and there is a window open, possibly a bathroom or a kitchen. I turn towards the banister and look down. The tightness in my chest increases. The concierge gestures with his hands that this is where Primo Levi dived over the edge. It is a fall of at least 60 feet.
The banister is high, too high to have tumbled over by accident even for a tall man, which Primo Levi was not. The view is terrifying. Saul Bellow once commented that death is like the dark side of the mirror, impenetrable but at the same time necessary. I look down once more. The chilling drop is like the dark side of the mirror, nothing beyond it, nothing reflected back.
‘My God’, I hear myself say. The tightness in my chest moves to my stomach. I don’t remember walking down the stairs. The concierge is less anxious now. He points to the area next to the lift. While the fall smashed Levi’s skull and broke most of his bones, his face remained unmarked. The concierge sees my old-fashioned camera on my wrist and mimes taking a photograph. I take the camera and in a split second the picture is taken.
I am suddenly awake to the shameful intrusion crossing the line between homage and voyeurism. Perhaps I had crossed it before the shutter clicked. Walking back to the entrance I pass a man without seeing his face. The concierge stops and bows his head slightly. The man disappears up the stairs. I turn to leave but the concierge signals me to stop and wait. He holds his index finger to his lips. We pass through the grand wooden door onto the steps of Corso Re Umberto 75. ‘E il figlio’, he says. Figlio? Son? Was that Primo Levi’s son Renzo, I ask? ‘Si . . . si, Renzo.’
Outside, I wander around the house slightly dazed, not quite believing what happened. I watch my own three children play among the horse chestnut trees by the road. Looking up at the third floor balcony I imagine Primo Levi throwing money wrapped in paper to pedlars and beggars below.
‘Did you find him, Dad?’, asks one of my daughters as we get in the car. ‘No, love, no I didn’t.’ Leaving Turin we head for the coast and begin the long drive back to Nice. She was right – I guess I had been looking for Primo Levi. There was no sign of him, just the shape of the life he had left behind – his son, the three grandchildren he had never known and his wife. I had been an intruder in the world that he left behind.
It made me think again about his recent biographers’ attempts to divine the inner working of his thoughts, the nature of his sexuality, the quality his marriage, not least the attempts that those who have written about him to know what was in his mind when he walked out onto the third floor landing before falling to his death.
In the republic of letters biographers are the body snatchers. I guess I had always wanted to believe that his death was an accident. Perhaps, that is what I was here for. I had become a body snatcher too. Standing there looking down from his last vantage point convinces me of the error of that hope. Primo Levi always insisted on the injunction to communicate. His writing was his attempt to hold up a mirror to the world and to himself. That is where I should be looking for him, in his books, and not some backstreet in Turin.
For a long time I did not know what to do with the camera film I had used that day. It remained in the camera for months, hiding the illicit and shameful cargo. It was autumn by the time the film returned from being developed. I opened the package and saw – blank, all blank, the dark side of the mirror.