The Survivor as Author

Primo Levi’s Literary Vision of Auschwitz
  • Lawrence Langer
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


In the Preface to his Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche resolved “to traverse with quite novel questions, and as though with new eyes, the enormous, distant, and so well hidden land of morality—of morality that has actually existed, actually been lived; and does this not mean,” he asked, “virtually to discover this land for the first time?” Some such limited project must have been in the back of Primo Levi’s mind as he began to set down his account of the fate of morality in a place called Auschwitz. As we know, so alien and disturbing was its terrain that editors failed to discern the value of his account, and when it did appear under the imprint of a small publishing house only two years after the war, most general readers proved no more enthusiastic. Why? Alluding to his friend the philosopher and psychologist Paul Rée, Nietzsche announced his desire “to point out to so sharp and disinterested an eye as his a better direction in which to look, in the direction of an actual history of morality, and to warn him in time against gazing haphazardly in the blue after the English fashion. For it must be obvious which color is a hundred times more vital for a genealogist of morals than blue,” Nietzsche continued, “namely gray, that is, what is documented, what can be confirmed and has actually existed.”1


Optimistic Temperament Literary Vision Mass Murder Cultural Memory Camp Experience 
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  1. 1.
    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 21. All passages quoted from Nietzsche can be found on this page in the Genealogy.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Collier Books, 1993), 15. Subsequent page references to this edition will be included in the body of the text.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Marco Belpoliti and Robert Gordon, eds., The Voice of Memory: Primo LeviInterviews 1961–1987, trans. Robert Gordon (New York: New Press, 2001), 250.Google Scholar
  4. 06.
    See Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 208.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Carole Angier, The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), 330.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    Victor Brombert, In Praise of Anti-Heroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830–1980 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 117.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 139.Google Scholar
  8. 19.
    Cynthia Ozick, “A Youthful Intoxication,” New York Times Book Review, December 6, 2006, 35.Google Scholar
  9. 20.
    Tadeusz Borowski, Krystyn Olszewski, and Janusz Nel Siedlecki, We Were in Auschwitz, trans. Alicia Nitecki (New York: Welcome Rain, 2000), 1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Risa Sodi and Millicent Marcus 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lawrence Langer
    • 1
  1. 1.Simmons CollegeUSA

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