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Kevin Cryan
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Primo Levi & Clive
« : 18.09.07 at 13:22 »
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Clive has written a number of very fine pieces about the life and writings of the Jewish  Italian  Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. I'm sure that several readers have passed over these particular pieces, either because they deal with the work of someone whose name less familiar to them than some of the other names Clive has written about – and this although  his classics If This Is a Man is available in good English translations – or because the subject matter itself  - survival in Auschwitz – is something they feel uncomfortable and out of their depth with.  What all this means is that they are missing out on what Clive has called "one of the great books of the twentieth century, and possibly the greatest among its sad category of great books we wish had never needed to be written at all"
 
In 2004, in an praiseworthy endeavour to bring Levi’s writing and to a new audience,  the actor Antony Sher took upon himself the task of condensing If This Is a Man into a 90 minute one-man stage piece, Primo, which, with the help of director Richard Wilson, he staged to some acclaim at the National Theatre.  
 
This play, now recorded for television as a drama-documentary to be shown or BBC4 Thursday the 20th of September, proved to be much better than it was expected to be.  Although never an alternative for a careful reading the original, and probably never conceived as such,  it did, I'm assured by some who saw it, capture of the spirit of the original and the spirit of man who wrote it. It has, I have also heard, had the effect of getting people so interested in Levi that they have actually begun to read him.
 
Michael Billington, writing in The Guardian in October 1, 2004 had this to say of the National stage production:
 
I was sceptical of a stage version of Primo Levi's classic account of his Auschwitz experiences, If This Is a Man. But Antony Sher, as adapter and performer, and Richard Wilson as director, have such aesthetic tact and imaginative sobriety that they capture precisely the book's controlled outrage.
 
The presentation, from Sher's self-effacing performance to Hildegard Bechtler's grey-walled design, shows it is possible for theatre to match the unrhetorical honesty of one of the 20th century's great books.

 
Of the TV production The Observer's TV previewer, Sloan Freer, writes that  "it's simple theatre, staging Levi's honest yet intensely descriptive prose without artifice or theatricality".  
 
In other words, the 80 minutes viewing times are to be highly recommended. They may give the viewer some idea of why Levi is such an important figure and such and important writer. Clive once observed that Levi was a writer who " wrote the truth as though it were worth telling even if there was nobody to listen". The short time we spend listening some of that truth can hardly be deemed time ill spent.
 
Kevin Cryan
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Re: Primo Levi & Clive
« Reply #1: 19.09.07 at 17:41 »
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In 1977 when I was reading Chemistry, a polyglot lecturer at my University commended Levi's Il Sistema Periodico but Italian was (and remains) beyond my ken so I did not get to read it until the English translation appeared in 1984 as The Periodic Table. I was entranced by this ingenious framework for a set of fascinating short stories, each named for a chemical element.  This drove me to seek more of his writings and I can recommend everything I have read. Take Clive's advice: read any Primo Levi book that you find.
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Kevin Cryan
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Re: Primo Levi & Clive
« Reply #2: 19.09.07 at 22:03 »
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For those of you who may be thinking about reading Levi for the first time, here are three (posthumously published) short stories that may help to whet ypour appatite. They do not represent Levi at his very best, but from them the reader does get a fair inkling of what the very best Levi must be like.
 
The Molecule's Defiance
 
Bear Meat
 
A Tranquil Star
 
Here we have three poems which touch on some of the themes that crop up in Levi over and over again.
 
The Survivor
 
Shema*
 
Reveille**
 
---------------
*The Shema
 
The Shema is an affirmation of Judaism and a declaration of faith in one God. The obligation to recite the Shema is separate from the obligation to pray and a Jew is obligated to say Shema in the morning and at night (Deut. 6:7). ..............
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**The Polish “Wstawac” ( meaning “raise up”) was the brutal word of command Jewish prisoners in  Auschwitz during the Second World could expect to hear every morning. (I seem to recall Levi suggesting somewhere that the word, for the Jews, also came to mean “to survive”, or “raise up” above the conditions they found themselves in. I'd have to check that out at another time)
 
When Levi returned home from the concentration camp he had a continual nightmare in which his present life turns out to be an illusion and he wakes up with Auschwitz's morning call: "Wstawac".
-----------------
 
Kevin Cryan
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