The Last Interview

by Primo Levi, Polity, 160pp, £12.99

It is more than 70 years since the publication of If This is a Man, the account of Primo Levi’s 11 months in Auschwitz, and just over 30 since he died, falling into the stairwell below the third floor family apartment in the Corso Re Umberto in Turin.

Giovanni Tesio, a friend and literary critic, knew that Levi had been enduring severe depression which left him unable to write, and believed that conversations about his life might be therapeutic – hence this record of three interviews. Tesio was already preparing to write Levi’s authorised biography, and whatever their therapeutic value to Levi might have been, they were also part of Tesio’s research.

It should be said that most of the interview is very low-key – by design, one supposes. It stops well short of Auschwitz, though inevitably that casts a dark shadow over the conversation. This is mostly about Levi’s family, his schooldays, his adolescent shyness and timidity, his interests as a boy, and then his time at university, the difficulties caused him as a Jew by the racial laws – these a later development in the life of what Mussolini had decreed to be the “fascist era”. There is the story of Levi’s arrest, along with friends who were trying in an amateurish way to establish a partisan group in the weeks after the Italian government’s armistice with the Allies and the German invasion of north Italy. Then Tesio asks him about his post-war life as a chemist and the burgeoning of his literary career.

No doubt because Tesio regarded the conversations as having a therapeutic intention, his questioning is always sympathetic, never challenging. This gives the book a certain, perhaps unexpected, charm. Obviously many, perhaps most, will read the book only on account of their interest in Levi and the effect Auschwitz had on him. But it also gives a pleasing picture of middle-class provincial Italian life in the 1930s and early years of the war.

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