Sample text for Shop talk : a writer and his colleagues and their work / Philip Roth.

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Counter Primo Levi

On the friday in September 1986 that I arrived in Turin to renew a
conversation with Primo Levi that we had begun one afternoon in
London the spring before, I asked to be shown around the paint factory where
he"d been employed as a research chemist and, afterward, until
retirement, as manager. Altogether the company employs Þfty people,
mainly chemists who work in the laboratories and skilled laborers on
the þoor of the plant. The production machinery, the row of storage
tanks, the laboratory building, the Þnished product in man-sized
containers ready to be shipped, the reprocessing facility that
puriÞes the wastes—all of it is encompassed in four or Þve acres seven
from Turin. The machines that are drying resin and blending varnish
and pumping off pollutants are never distressingly loud, the yard"s acrid
odor—the smell, Levi told me, that clung to his clothing for two
years after his retirement—is by no means disgusting, and the thirty-yard
Dumpster loaded to the brim with the black sludgy residue of the
antipolluting process isn"t particularly unsightly. It is hardly the
world"s ugliest industrial environment, but a long way nonetheless
from those sentences suffused with mind that are the hallmark of Levi"s
autobiographical narratives.
However far from the spirit of the prose, the factory is
clearly close to his heart; taking in what I could of the noise, the stink,
the mosaic of pipes and vats and tanks and dials, I remembered Faussone,
the skilled rigger in The Monkey"s Wrench, saying to Levi, who calls
Faussone "my alter ego," "I have to tell you, being around a work
site is something I enjoy."
As we walked through the open yard to the laboratory, a
simply designed two-story building constructed during Levi"s managerial
days, he told me, "I have been cut off from the factory for twelve years.
This will be an adventure for me." He said he believed that nearly
everybody once working with him was now retired or dead, and indeed,
those few still there whom he ran into seemed to strike him as
specters. "It"s another ghost," he whispered to me after someone from
the central ofÞce that had once been his emerged to welcome him back.
On our way to the section of the laboratory where raw materials are
scrutinized before moving to production, I asked Levi if he could
identify the chemical aroma faintly permeating the corridor: I
thought it smelled like a hospital corridor. Just fractionally he raised his
head and exposed his nostrils to the air. With a smile he told me, "I
understand and can analyze it like a dog."
He seemed to me inwardly animated more in the manner of some
quicksilver little woodland creature enlivened by the forest"s most
astute intelligence. Levi is small and slight, though not so
delicately built as his unassuming demeanor makes him at Þrst appear, and
seemingly as nimble as he must have been at ten. In his body, as in
his face, you see—as you don"t in most men—the face and the body of the
boy that he was. The alertness is nearly palpable, keenness trembling
within like his pilot light.
It is not as surprising as one might initially think to Þnd
that writers divide like the rest of mankind into two categories: those
who listen to you and those who don"t. Levi listens, and with his entire
face, a precisely modeled face that, tipped with its white chin
beard, looks at sixty-seven youthfully Panlike and professorial as well, the
face of irrepressible curiosity and of the esteemed dottore. I can
believe Faussone when he says to Primo Levi early in The Monkey"s
Wrench, "You"re quite a guy, making me tell these stories that,
except for you, I"ve never told anybody." It"s no wonder that people are
always telling him things and that everything is already faithfully
recorded before it is written down: when listening he is as focused
and as still as a chipmunk spying something unknown from atop a stone
In a large, substantial-looking apartment house built a few
years before he was born—indeed the house where he was born, for formerly
this was the home of his parents—Levi lives with his wife, Lucia;
except for his year in Auschwitz and the adventurous months
immediately after his liberation, he has lived in this apartment all his life.
The building, whose bourgeois solidity has begun slightly to give way to
time, is on a wide boulevard of apartment buildings that struck me as
the northern Italian counterpart of Manhattan"s West End Avenue: a
steady stream of auto and bus traffic, trolley cars speeding by on
their tracks, but also a column of big chestnut trees stretching all
along the narrow islands at either side of the street, and the green
hills bordering the city visible from the intersection. The famous
arcades at the commercial heart of the city are an unswerving Þfteen-
minute walk straight through what Levi has called "the obsessive
Turin geometry."
The Levis" large apartment is shared, as it has been since
the couple met and married after the war, with Primo Levi"s mother. She
is ninety-one. Levi"s ninety-Þve-year-old mother-in-law lives not far
away; in the apartment next door lives his twenty-eight-year-old son,
a physicist; and a few streets farther on is his thirty-eight-year-old
daughter, a botanist. I don"t know of another contemporary writer who
has voluntarily remained, over so many decades, intimately entangled
and in such direct, unbroken contact with his immediate family, his
birthplace, his region, the world of his forebears, and,
particularly, the local working environment, which in Turin, the home of Fiat,
largely industrial. Of all the intellectually gifted artists of the
twentieth century—and Levi"s uniqueness is that he is more the artist-
chemist than the chemist-writer—he may well be the most thoroughly
adapted to the totality of the life around him. Perhaps in the case
of Primo Levi, a life of communal interconnectedness, along with his
masterpiece on Auschwitz, constitutes his profoundly spirited
response to those who did all they could to sever his every sustained
connection and tear him and his kind out of history.
In The Periodic Table, beginning with the simplest of
sentences a paragraph that describes one of chemistry"s most satisfying
processes, Levi writes, "Distilling is beautiful." What follows is a
distillation too, a reduction to essential points of the lively, wide-ranging
conversation we conducted, in English, over the course of a long
weekend, mostly behind the door of the quiet study off the entrance
foyer to the Levis" apartment. His study is a large, simply furnished
room. There is an old þowered sofa and a comfortable easy chair; on
the desk is a shrouded word processor; neatly shelved behind the desk are
Levi"s variously colored notebooks; on shelves all around the room
are books in Italian, German, and English. The most evocative object is
one of the smallest: an unobtrusively hung sketch of a half-destroyed
barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz. Displayed more prominently on the
walls are playful constructions skillfully twisted into shape by Levi
himself out of insulated copper wire—that is, wire coated with the varnish
developed for that purpose in his own laboratory. There is a big wire
butterþy, a wire owl, a tiny wire bug, and high on the wall behind
the desk are two of the largest constructions: one the wire Þgure of a
bird-warrior armed with a knitting needle and the other, as Levi
explained when I couldn"t make out what the Þgure was meant to
represent, "a man playing his nose." "A Jew," I suggested. "Yes,
yes," he said, laughing, "a Jew, of course."

Roth: In The Periodic Table, your book about "the strong and
bitter þavor" of your experience as a chemist, you tell about Giulia,
your attractive young colleague in a Milan chemical factory in 1942.
Giulia explains your "mania about work" by the fact that in your
early twenties you are shy with women and don"t have a girlfriend. But she
was mistaken, I think. Your real mania about work derives from
something deeper. Work would seem to be your chief subject, not just
in The Monkey"s Wrench but even in your Þrst book, about your
incarceration at Auschwitz.
Arbeit Macht Frei—"Work Makes Freedom"—are the words
inscribed by the Nazis over the Auschwitz gate. But work in Auschwitz is a
horrifying parody of work, useless and senseless—labor as punishment
leading to agonizing death. It"s possible to view your entire
literary labor as dedicated to restoring to work its humane meaning,
reclaiming the word Arbeit from the derisive cynicism with which your
employers had disÞgured it. Faussone says to you, "Every job I
undertake is like a Þrst love." He enjoys talking about his work
almost as much as he enjoys working. Faussone is Man the Worker made
free through his labors.
Levi: I do not believe that Giulia was wrong in attributing
my frenzy for work to my shyness at that time with girls. This shyness,
or inhibition, was genuine, painful, and heavy—much more important for
me than devotion to work. Work in the Milan factory I described in The
Periodic Table was mock work that I did not trust. The catastrophe of
the Italian armistice of September 8, 1943, was already in the air,
and it would have been foolish to ignore it by digging oneself into a
scientiÞcally meaningless activity.
I have never seriously tried to analyze this shyness of mine,
but no doubt Mussolini"s racial laws played an important role. Other
Jewish friends suffered from it, some "Aryan" schoolmates jeered at us,
saying that circumcision was nothing but castration, and we, at least at an
unconscious level, tended to believe it, with the help of our
puritanical families. I think that at that time work was for me a
sexual compensation rather than a real passion.
However, I am fully aware that after the camp my work, or
rather my two kinds of work (chemistry and writing), did play, and still
play, an essential role in my life. I am persuaded that normal human beings
are biologically built for an activity that is aimed toward a goal
and that idleness, or aimless work (like Auschwitz"s Arbeit), gives rise
to suffering and to atrophy. In my case, and in the case of my alter
ego, Faussone, work is identical with "problem solving."
At Auschwitz I quite often observed a curious phenomenon. The
need for lavoro ben fatto—"work properly done"—is so strong as to induce
people to perform even slavish chores "properly." The Italian
bricklayer who saved my life by bringing me food on the sly for six
months hated Germans, their food, their language, their war; but when
they set him to erect walls, he built them straight and solid, not
out of obedience but out of professional dignity.
Roth: Survival in Auschwitz concludes with a chapter
entitled "The Story of Ten Days," in which you describe, in diary form, how
endured from January 18 to January 27, 1945, among a small remnant of
sick and dying patients in the camp"s makeshift inÞrmary after the
Nazis had þed westward with some twenty thousand "healthy" prisoners.
What"s recounted there reads to me like the story of Robinson Crusoe
in hell, with you, Primo Levi, as Crusoe, wrenching what you need to
live from the chaotic residue of a ruthlessly evil island. What struck me
there, as throughout the book, was the extent to which thinking
contributed to your survival, the thinking of a practical, humane
scientiÞc mind. Yours doesn"t seem to me a survival that was
determined by either brute biological strength or incredible luck. It was rooted
in your professional character: the man of precision, the controller
of experiments who seeks the principle of order, confronted with the
evil inversion of everything he values. Granted you were a numbered part
in an infernal machine, but a numbered part with a systematic mind that
has always to understand. At Auschwitz you tell yourself, "I think
too much" to resist, "I am too civilized." But to me the civilized man
who thinks too much is inseparable from the survivor. The scientist and
the survivor are one.
Levi: Exactly—you hit the bull"s eye. In those memorable ten
days, I truly did feel like Robinson Crusoe, but with one important
difference. Crusoe set to work for his individual survival, whereas I
and my two French companions were consciously and happily willing to
work at last for a just and human goal, to save the lives of our sick
As for survival, this is a question that I put to myself many
times and that many have put to me. I insist there was no general
rule, except entering the camp in good health and knowing German. Barring
this, luck dominated. I have seen the survival of shrewd people and
silly people, the brave and the cowardly, "thinkers" and madmen. In
my case, luck played an essential role on at least two occasions: in
leading me to meet the Italian bricklayer and in my getting sick only
once, but at the right moment.
And yet what you say, that for me thinking and observing were
survival factors, is true, although in my opinion sheer luck
I remember having lived my Auschwitz year in a condition of
exceptional spiritedness. I don"t know if this depended on my professional
background, or an unsuspected stamina, or on a sound instinct. I
never stopped recording the world and people around me, so much that I
still have an unbelievably detailed image of them. I had an intense wish to
understand, I was constantly pervaded by a curiosity that somebody
afterward did, in fact, deem nothing less than cynical: the curiosity
of the naturalist who Þnds himself transplanted into an environment
that is monstrous but new, monstrously new.
I agree with your observation that my phrase "I think too
much . . . I am too civilized" is inconsistent with this other frame of mind.
Please grant me the right to inconsistency: in the camp our state of
mind was unstable, it oscillated from hour to hour between hope and
despair. The coherence I think one notes in my books is an artifact,
a rationalization a posteriori.
Roth: Survival in Auschwitz was originally published in
English as If This Is a Man, a faithful rendering of your Italian title, Se
questo è un uomo (and the title that your Þrst American publishers should
have had the good sense to preserve). The description and analysis of your
atrocious memories of the Germans" "gigantic biological and social
experiment" are governed precisely by a quantitative concern for the
ways in which a man can be transformed or broken down and, like a
substance decomposing in a chemical reaction, lose his characteristic
properties. If This Is a Man reads like the memoir of a theoretician
of moral biochemistry who has himself been forcibly enlisted as the
specimen organism to undergo laboratory experimentation of the most
sinister kind. The creature caught in the laboratory of the mad
scientist is himself the epitome of the rational scientist.
In The Monkey"s Wrench, which might accurately have been
titled This Is a Man, you tell Faussone, your blue-collar Scheherazade, that
"being a chemist in the world"s eyes, and feeling . . . a writer"s
blood in my veins" you consequently have "two souls in my body, and
that"s too many." I"d say there"s one soul, enviably capacious and
seamless; I"d say that not only are the survivor and the scientist
inseparable but so are the writer and the scientist.
Levi: Rather than a question, this is a diagnosis, which I
accept with thanks. I lived my camp life as rationally as I could, and I
wrote If This Is a Man struggling to explain to others, and to myself, the
events I had been involved in, but with no deÞnite literary
intention. My model (or, if you prefer, my style) was that of the "weekly
report" commonly used in factories: it must be precise, concise, and written
in a language comprehensible to everybody in the industrial hierarchy.
And certainly not written in scientiÞc jargon. By the way, I am not a
scientist, nor have I ever been. I did want to become one, but war
and the camp prevented me. I had to limit myself to being a technician
throughout my professional life.
I agree with you about there being only "one soul . . . and
seamless," and once more I feel grateful to you. My statement
that "two souls . . . is too many" is half a joke but half hints at serious
things. I worked in a factory for almost thirty years, and I must
admit that there is no incompatibility between being a chemist and being a
writer—in fact, there is a mutual reinforcement. But factory life,
and particularly factory managing, involves many other matters, far from
chemistry: hiring and Þring workers; quarreling with the boss,
customers, and suppliers; coping with accidents; being called to the
telephone, even at night or when at a party; dealing with
bureaucracy; and many more soul-destroying tasks. This whole trade is
incompatible with writing, which requires a fair amount of peace of
mind. Consequently I felt hugely relieved when I reached retirement
age and could resign, and so renounce my soul number one.
Roth: Your sequel to If This Is a Man (The Reawakening, also
unfortunately retitled by one of your early American publishers) was
called in Italian La tregua, "the truce." It"s about your journey
from Auschwitz back to Italy. There is a legendary dimension to that
tortuous journey, especially to the story of your long gestation
period in the Soviet Union, waiting to be repatriated. What"s surprising
about The Truce, which might understandably have been marked by a mood
mourning and inconsolable despair, is its exuberance. Your
reconciliation with life takes place in a world that sometimes seemed
to you like the primeval Chaos. Yet you are engaged by everyone, so
highly entertained as well as instructed that I wonder if, despite
the hunger and the cold and the fears, even despite the memories, you"ve
ever really had a better time than during those months you call "a
parenthesis of unlimited availability, a providential but
unrepeatable gift of fate."
You appear to be someone who requires, above all, rootedness—
in his profession, his ancestry, his region, his language—and yet when
you found yourself as alone and uprooted as a man can be, you considered
that condition a gift.
Levi: A friend of mine, an excellent doctor, told me many
years ago: "Your remembrances of before and after are in black and white;
those of Auschwitz and of your travel home are in Technicolor." He
was right. Family, home, factory are good things in themselves, but they
deprived me of something that I still miss: adventure. Destiny
decided that I should Þnd adventure in the awful mess of a Europe swept by
You are in the business, so you know how these things happen.
The Truce was written fourteen years after If This Is a Man; it is a more
"self-conscious" book, more methodical, more literary, the language
much more profoundly elaborated. It tells the truth, but Þltered
It was preceded by countless verbal versions. I mean, I had recounted
each adventure many times, to people at widely different cultural
levels (to friends mainly, and to high school boys and girls), and I
had retouched it en route so as to arouse their most favorable
reactions. When If This Is a Man began to achieve some success, and I
began to see a future for my writing, I set out to put these
adventures on paper. I aimed at having fun in writing and at amusing my
prospective readers. Consequently I gave emphasis to strange, exotic,
cheerful episodes—mainly to the Russians seen close up—and I
relegated to the Þrst and last pages the mood, as you put it, "of mourning
inconsolable despair."
I must remind you that the book was written around 1961;
these were the years of Khrushchev, of Kennedy, of Pope John, of the Þrst
thaw and of great hopes. In Italy, for the Þrst time, you could speak
of the USSR in objective terms without being called a philo-Communist
by the right wing and a disruptive reactionary by the powerful
Italian Communist Party.
As for "rootedness," it is true that I have deep roots and
that I had the luck of not losing them. My family was almost completely
spared by the Nazi slaughter. The desk here where I write occupies,
according to family legend, exactly the spot where I Þrst saw light. When I
found my-self as "uprooted as a man can be," certainly I suffered, but this
was far more than compensated for afterward by the fascination of
adventure, by human encounters, by the sweetness of "convalescence"
from the plague of Auschwitz. In its historical reality, my Russian
"truce" turned to a "gift" only many years later, when I puriÞed it
by rethinking it and by writing about it.
Roth: You begin The Periodic Table by speaking of your Jewish
ancestors, who arrived in Piedmont from Spain, by way of Provence, in
1500. You describe your family roots in Piedmont and Turin as "not
enormous, but deep, extensive, and fantastically intertwined." You
supply a brief lexicon of the jargon these Jews concocted and used
primarily as a secret language from the Gentiles, an argot composed
of words derived from Hebrew roots but with Piedmontese endings. To an
outsider your rootedness in this Jewish world of your forebears seems
not only intertwined but, in an essential way, identical with your
rootedness in the region. However, in 1938, when the racial laws were
introduced restricting the freedom of Italian Jews, you came to
consider being Jewish an "impurity," though, as you say in The
Periodic Table, "I began to be proud of being impure."
The tension between your rootedness and your impurity makes
me think of something that Professor Arnaldo Momigliano wrote about the
Jews of Italy, that "the Jews were less a part of Italian life than
they thought they were." How much a part of Italian life do you think
you are? Do you remain an impurity, "a grain of salt or mustard," or
has that sense of distinctness disappeared?
Levi: I see no contradiction between "rootedness" and being
(or feeling) "a grain of mustard." To feel oneself a catalyst, a spur to
one"s cultural environment, a something or a somebody that confers
taste and sense to life, you don"t need racial laws or anti-Semitism
or racism in general; however, it is an advantage to belong to a (not
necessarily racial) minority. In other words, it can prove useful not
to be pure. If I may return to the question: don"t you feel yourself,
you, Philip Roth, "rooted" in your country and at the same time "a
mustard grain"? In your books I perceive a sharp mustard þavor.
I think this is the meaning of your quotation from Arnaldo
Momigliano. Italian Jews (but the same can be said of the Jews of
many other nations) made an important contribution to their country"s
cultural and political life without renouncing their identity, in
fact by keeping faith with their cultural tradition. To possess two
traditions, as happens to Jews but not only to Jews, is a richness—
for writers but not only for writers.
I feel slightly uneasy replying to your explicit question.
Yes, sure, I am a part of Italian life. Several of my books are read and
discussed in high schools. I receive lots of letters—intelligent,
silly, senseless—of appreciation, less frequently dissenting and
quarrelsome. I receive useless manuscripts by would-be writers. My
"distinctness" has changed in nature: I don"t feel an emarginato,
ghettoized, an outlaw, anymore, as in Italy there is actually no anti-
Semitism. In fact, Judaism is viewed with interest and mostly with
sympathy, although with mixed feelings toward Israel.
In my own way I have remained an impurity, an anomaly, but
now for reasons other than before: not especially as a Jew but as an
Auschwitz survivor and as an outsider-writer, coming not from the literary or
university establishment but from the industrial world.
Roth: If Not Now, When? is like nothing else of yours that
I"ve read in English. Though pointedly drawn from actual historical
events, the book is cast as a straightforward picaresque adventure tale about
a small band of Jewish partisans of Russian and Polish extraction
harassing the Germans behind their Eastern frontlines. Your other
books are perhaps less "imaginary" as to subject matter but strike me as
more imaginative in technique. The motive behind If Not Now, When? seems
more narrowly tendentious and consequently less liberating to the
writer—than the impulse that generates the autobiographical works.
I wonder if you agree with this: if in writing about the
bravery of the Jews who fought back, you felt yourself doing something you
ought to do, responsible to moral and political claims that don"t
necessarily intervene elsewhere, even when the subject is your own
markedly Jewish fate.
Levi: If Not Now, When? is a book that followed an unforeseen
path. The motivations that drove me to write it are manifold. Here
they are, in order of importance.
I had made a sort of bet with myself: After so much plain or
disguised autobiography, are you or are you not a fully þedged writer,
of constructing a novel, shaping character, describing landscapes you
have never seen? Try it!
I intended to amuse myself by writing a "Western" plot set in
a landscape uncommon in Italy. I intended to amuse my readers by
telling them a substantially optimistic story, a story of hope, even
occasionally cheerful, although projected onto a background of
I wished to assault a commonplace still prevailing in Italy:
a Jew is a mild person, a scholar (religious or profane), unwarlike,
humiliated, who tolerated centuries of persecution without ever
Þghting back. It seemed to me a duty to pay homage to those Jews who, in
desperate conditions, found the courage and the skill to resist.
I cherished the ambition to be the Þrst (perhaps the only)
Italian writer to describe the Yiddish world. I intended to "exploit" my
popularity in my country in order to impose upon my readers a book
centered on the Ashkenazi civilization, history, language, and frame
of mind, all of which are virtually unknown in Italy, except by some
sophisticated readers of Joseph Roth, Bellow, Singer, Malamud, Potok,
and of course you.
Personally, I am satisÞed with this book, mainly because I
had good fun planning and writing it. For the Þrst and only time in my
life as a writer, I had the impression (almost a hallucination) that my
characters were alive, around me, behind my back, suggesting
spontaneously their feats and their dialogues. The year I spent
writing was a happy one, and so, whatever the result, for me this was a
liberating book.
Roth: Let"s talk about the paint factory. In our time many
writers have worked as teachers, some as journalists, and most writers over
Þfty, in the East or the West, have been employed, for a while at
least, as somebody or other"s soldier. There is an impressive list of
writers who have simultaneously practiced medicine and written books
and of others who have been clergymen. T. S. Eliot was a publisher,
and as everyone knows Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka worked for large
insurance companies. To my knowledge, only two writers of importance
have been managers of paint factories: you in Turin, Italy, and
Sherwood Anderson in Elyria, Ohio. Anderson had to leave the paint
factory (and his family) to become a writer; you seem to have become
the writer you are by staying and pursuing your career there. I
wonder if you think of yourself as actually more fortunate—even better
equipped to write—than those of us who are without a paint factory
and all that"s implied by that kind of connection.
Levi: As I have already said, I entered the paint industry by
chance, but I never had very much to do with the general run of
paints, varnishes, and lacquers. Our company, immediately after it began,
specialized in the production of wire enamels, insulating coatings
for copper electrical conductors. At the peak of my career, I numbered
among the thirty or forty specialists in the world in this branch.
The animals hanging here on the wall are made out of scrap enameled wire.
Honestly, I knew nothing of Sherwood Anderson till you spoke
of him. No, it would never have occurred to me to quit family and
factory for full-time writing, as he did. I"d have feared the jump into the
dark, and I would have lost any right to a retirement allowance.
However, to your list of writer–paint manufacturers I must
add a third name, Italo Svevo, a converted Jew of Trieste, the author of
The Confessions of Zeno, who lived from 1861 to 1928. For a long time
Svevo was the commercial manager of a paint company in Trieste, the
Venziani, that belonged to his father-in-law and that dissolved a few
years ago. Until 1918 Trieste belonged to Austria, and this company
was famous because it supplied the Austrian navy with an excellent
antifouling paint, preventing shellÞsh incrustation, for the keels of
warships. After 1918 Trieste became Italian, and the paint was
delivered to the Italian and British navies. To be able to deal with
the Admiralty, Svevo took lessons in English from James Joyce, at the
time a teacher in Trieste. They became friends and Joyce assisted
Svevo in Þnding a publisher for his works. The trade name of the
antifouling paint was Moravia. That it is the same as the nom de plume of the
novelist is not fortuitous: both the Trieste entrepreneur and the
Roman writer derived it from the family name of a mutual relative on the
mother"s side. Forgive me this hardly pertinent gossip.
No, as I"ve hinted already, I have no regrets. I don"t
believe I have wasted my time in managing a factory. My factory militanza—
compulsory and honorable service there—kept me in touch with the
world of real things.

Copyright © 2001 by Philip Roth. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Authors Interviews