“The Pain of Remembering”: Primo Levi’s Poetry and the Function of Memory

  • Jay Losey
Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)


In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi makes a claim that distinguishes all his work: “And finally, among the testimonies, written or spoken, some are unconsciously stylized, in which convention prevails over genuine memory.”1 Levi’s greatness as a Holocaust memoirist rests precisely on his ability to convey accurately his experience at Auschwitz III (Buna-Monowitz). But such testimony has serious consequences, as Levi acknowledges: “In this case, all or almost all the factors that can obliterate or deform the mnemonic record are at work: the memory of a trauma suffered or inflicted is itself traumatic because recalling it is painful or at least disturbing.”2 As time passes and memory diminishes, the very act of writing about his concentration camp experience causes Levi “trauma.” Perhaps this tension between “genuine memory” and “the memory of a trauma” is most succinctly revealed in his poetry, first in L’osteria di Brema (later titled Shemà), a volume of twenty-seven poems written between June 1946 and December 1974, and then in Ad ora incerta (Coleridge’s At an Uncertain Hour), a volume of thirty-four poems written between May 1978 and June 1984.3 These two volumes contain a total of sixty-one poems. A majority of the poems in L’osteria di Brema (sixteen) were written between February 1943 and June 1946 and reveal the immediacy, anger, and emotional trauma Levi felt upon his return to Turin.


Emotional Involvement Cement Dust Emotional Trauma Unfinished Business Labored Breathing 
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  1. 1.
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 71.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Ross Feld, “Taking Time,” Parnassus, 16, 1 (1990): 9.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Nicholas Patruno, “At an Uncertain Hour,” Memory and Mastery: Primo Levi as Writer and Witness, ed. Roberta S. Kremer (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 95.Google Scholar
  4. Patruno has in mind the following statement by Levi in his conversation with Tullio Regge: “[N]ow I have the impression that I have exhausted the reservoir. I write poetry, without much believing in it; as for prose, it seems to me the time has come to go up a new path, both in terms of theme and language.” Primo Levi and Tullio Regge, Dialago, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 63.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Primo Levi, The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961–1987, ed. and trans. Marco Belpoliti and Robert Gordon (New York: Macmillan, 2001), 132. The word “rash” appears in English in the original.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), 151.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Primo Levi, Collected Poems, trans. Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), 10.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    See Dante, Inferno, VII. The complete statement is as follows: “Bogged in this slime they [sighing souls] say, ‘Sluggish we were / in the sweet air made happy by the sun, / and the smoke of sloth was smoldering in our hearts; // now we lie sluggish here in this black muck!’ ” (ll., 121–124). Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1984).Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Paul Steinberg, Speak You Also: A Survivor’s Reckoning, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 130.Google Scholar

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© Stanislao G. Pugliese 2005

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  • Jay Losey

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