NEW YORK (AP) — The fall’s most ambitious literary release took 17 years to complete, runs more than 3,000 pages, draws upon the talents of more than a dozen translators and has a list price of $100.
It also features an introduction from Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.
“The Complete Works of Primo Levi” is a 3-volume set of writings by the late Italian author and Auschwitz survivor whose memoir “If This is a Man” remains a standard work of Holocaust literature. The anthology was conceived in 1998 by W.W. Norton & Company executive editor Robert Weil, who had had surprising success with a two-volume compilation of Russian author Isaac Babel and thought Levi a worthy follow-up.
“But if the publisher had known back in 1998 how long this would take I would never have gotten it approved,” Weil said during a recent interview.
Levi was world famous at the time of his death (widely believed a suicide), in 1987, but his work in the US suffered from the random treatment given to so many foreign-language authors. At least seven publishers had rights to various editions and the quality of translations was erratic enough that new translations were commissioned for virtually all of the books. Many stories and poems had never been collected in English before.
Literary works in general depend on critics’ support and strong reviews are especially vital for “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” which like a 4-hour movie needs to be regarded as something extraordinary, as an event. So far, reviewers have duly applauded. The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda praised it as “old-school publishing on a grand scale,” while James Wood of The New Yorker called it a “monumental and noble endeavor.”
Estimating that he has devoted more than 6,000 emails to the Levi project, Weil brought in a wide range of collaborators. To oversee the new translations and work on some of the books, he recruited New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, already known to many readers for her English-language editions of the novels of Elena Ferrante. Other contributors include authors Simon Rich and Jenny McPhee, and, for Levi’s poetry, Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and a leading translator of Italian verse.
Morrison’s participation wasn’t planned when Weil thought of the Levi anthology and came about through a conversation in early 2014 with Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards. Augenbraum recommended that Weil contact the author of “Beloved” and “The Bluest Eye” and other novels, citing her singular gift for capturing “the human cost of holocaust,” he told The Associated Press in a recent email.
According to Weil, Morrison initially turned him down because she had other writing commitments. Weil responded by sending Morrison a package of Levi books, plus an essay he had written about him. Within three weeks, Morrison changed her mind.
“She was hugely enthused about his writings,” Weil said.
Levi, born in 1919, was a promising young chemist and member of an anti-Fascist organization when arrested late in 1943 and the following February stuffed by the Nazis with hundreds of others on a train to Auschwitz. “At Auschwitz I became a Jew,” he would recall. “The consciousness of feeling different was forced upon me.”
Russian troops liberated Auschwitz early in 1945 and after months in a Soviet transit camp Levi returned to Turin, where he soon began writing “If This is a Man.” The book was published in Italy in 1947, but took more than a decade to find an international audience, only reaching the United States in 1959.
Over the last quarter century of his life, Levi was acclaimed for the force and clarity of his prose, for the welding of lyricism, wisdom, imagination and logic. He proved gifted not just at nonfiction, but poetry, short fiction and with such novels as “The Wrench” and “If Not Now, When?” In “The Periodic Table,” he told the story of his life through chapters dedicated to gold, silver and other elements.
In her introduction to the complete works, Morrison notes that “The triumph of human identity and worth over the pathology of human destruction glows virtually everywhere in Levi’s writing.”
“Primo Levi understands evil as not only banal but unworthy of our insight — even of our intelligence, for it reveals nothing interesting or compelling about itself,” Morrison writes. “It has merely size to solicit our attention and an alien stench to repel or impress us. For this articulate survivor, individual identity is supreme; efforts to drown identity inevitably become futile.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.