Primo Levi and Italo Calvino

Two Parallel Literary Lives
  • Marina Beer
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


Contemporary Italian scholarship has matched up Italo Calvino with a number of Italian writers of his time: Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini, Franco Fortini, Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and even Benedetto Croce, to name just a few. The same cannot be said of Primo Levi: both during his lifetime and after his death Levi cut a solitary figure in the current critical and scholarly discourse—let alone in the eye of the common reader—standing out as unique and extraordinary within the Italian literary scene. An anomalous author who is considered an “outsider to literature,” Levi is unique because of his overtly claimed “hybrid” and amphibious nature: witness to the Holocaust, but also professional writer of fiction; writer and poet, but also chemist and scientist; Jew, but also Italian—and one might go on with a fairly lengthy list of oxymora very familiar to every scholar of Levi. His appartatezza in the literary establishment during his lifetime had as a consequence his belated and posthumous acclamation as a full-fledged writer by most Italian literary critics. His “uniqueness” among the established classics of the Italian literary canon is still reflected by his uncertain position as outsider in current textbooks and general Italian reference works on the Italian Novecento.


Short Story Common Reader Established Classic Uncertain Position Current Textbook 
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  1. 1.
    “Calvino scompare d’improvviso, a metà degli anni Ottanta, nel pieno della sua attività, alla vigilia della diffusione delle nuove tecnologie […] E’ in questo contesto storico-culturale […] che assurge al rango di grande classico contemporaneo: sul piano internazionale, accanto a Primo Levi, il più noto e studiato fra gli scrittori italiani del Novecento.” Mario Barenghi, Italo Calvino: Le linee e i margini (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007), 25.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    See Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi—A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2002). The Italian translation is Il doppio legame: Vita di Primo Levi (Milan: Mondadori, 2004).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    A. Cajumi, “Immagini indimenticabili,” now in Primo Levi: Un’antologia della critica, ed. Ernesto Ferrero (Turin: Einaudi, 1997), 303–5.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Italo Calvino, “Un libro sui campi della morte. Se questo è un uomo” in L’Unità, 6 maggio 1948; now in Primo Levi, ed. Ferrero, 306–7 (my translation). See also Italo Calvino, “La letteratura italiana sulla Resistenza,”, Saggi, ed. Mario Barenghi (Milan: Mondadori, 1995), 1499.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Such as Liliana Millu, Il fumo di Birkenau (Florence: Giuntina, 1947).Google Scholar
  6. Bruno Piazza, Perché gli altri dimenticano (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1956).Google Scholar
  7. Marina Beer, “Memoria, cronaca e storia: Forme della memoria e della testimonianza,”, Storia della Letteratura italiana, vol. XI of Il Novecento: Le forme del realismo, ed. Nino Borsellino and Walter Pedullà (Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 2001), 595–621.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Primo Levi, La tregua (Turin: Einaudi, 1963). See Belpoliti, Note ai Testi, in Primo Levi, Opere, 2:1423–24.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Primo Levi, La giornata di uno scrutatore (Turin: Einaudi, 1963).Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Now in Storie naturali, and in Primo Levi, The Sixth Day and Other Tales, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1990). See Belpoliti, Note al testo, in Levi, Opere, 1:1438. For the original text, see Mladen Machiedo, “Riječ će preživjeti: Razgovors Primom Levijem,”, Republika 1 (1969). Stories from Le cosmicomiche had been first published in Il Caffé in 1964, but there is no evidence of publication of “The Sixth Day” in a periodical. Calvino might have read it in manuscript. See the letter by Calvino to Primo Levi, November 22, 1961 in Calvino, Lettere, 1:695–96.Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    In Primo Levi, Vizio di forma. See I racconti: Storie naturali, Vizio di forma, Lilít (Turin: Einaudi, 1996).Google Scholar
  12. 23.
    Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, trans. Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).Google Scholar
  13. 30.
    Primo Levi, The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, trans. Peter Forbes (London: Allen Lane, 2001).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Risa Sodi and Millicent Marcus 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marina Beer
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Rome “La Sapienza”Italy

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