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Levi, Primo

(1919-1987) Italian industrial chemist, autobiographer, essayist and author; a survivor of Auschwitz, incarcerated there for eleven months in 1944-1945 (see World War Two), an experience which profoundly afflicted his subsequent life as a Survivor, serving not only as the declared subject of his first book, Se questo é uorno (1947; trans Stuart Woolf as If This Is a Man 1959; vt Survival in Auschwitz 1961), but also as a grave bass note that underlaid his work in general. One of the most distinguished men of letters of his generation, he won international fame late in life. In much of his work – e.g., Il sistema periodica (coll of linked stories 1975; trans Raymond Rosenthal as The Periodic Table 1984), comprising twenty-one stories/essays named after selected Elements of the Mendeleyev Periodic Table (see Oulipo) – metaphors drawn from science illuminate subjects normally thought of as literary or historical, in a manner unusual in Europe generally and especially unusual for a writer in Italy, a country where the gap between the two cultures was especially wide.

This is true also of his sf stories, mostly sharp, ironical fables, almost reductionist, that nevertheless often metamorphose into direct affirmations of the values of life in a way unusual in sf anywhere; they were mostly assembled in two volumes, Storie naturali ["Natural Histories"] (coll 1966) as by Damiano Malabaila, and Vizio di forma ["Flaw of Form"] (coll 1971), selections from both being assembled as The Sixth Day and Other Tales (trans Raymond Rosenthal omni 1990); full translations of these and all Levi titles appear in The Complete Works of Primo Levi (omni 2015), with the two collections above trans Jenny McPhee. A short series of tales from Storie naturali features the discomforting exploitation of strange Inventions introduced by Simpson, who represents a vast firm known as NATKA, the first chronologically of these being "Il Versificator" (17 May 1960 Il Mondo; trans Jenny McPhee [see above] as "The Versifier"), a Wordmill spoof. Taking its descriptive exactitude from Levi's professional work as a chemist, the most original story in this sequence, anticipating the twenty-first century development of the 3D Printer, may be "L'ordine a buon mercata" (22 March 1964 Il Giorno; here trans as "Order on the Cheap"), where Matter Duplication is explained as a manufacturing process in which a multi-element "pabulum" is extruded in "extremely thin superimposed layers" in order exactly to replicate an original, from money to diamonds to living matter; other stories in the sequence deal with Cloning and a Virtual Reality Machine that gives customers a sensation of temporary Identity Transfer that alienates them from "real" life. The darker stories from Vizio di forma include "Procacciatori d'affari" (here trans as "The Hard-Sellers"), in which an Alien civilization from the stars tries unsuccessfully to rescue humanity from itself. The most ominously telling of all may be "Ottima è l'acqua" (here trans as "Excellent is the Water"), where a gradual increase in the viscosity of water in an Italian river spreads to become a worldwide phenomenon, thereby serving as an image of the torpor and lethargy of the heart's flow in our twentieth-century world (see Amnesia; Climate Change; World War Two). Among the previously uncollected tales assembled as A Tranquil Star (coll trans Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli 2007) are some of sf interest: "Gladiators" (1976 L'Automobile) features contests between humans and cars (see Games and Sports) that mysteriously exhaust their spectators; "A Tranquil Star" (1978 La Stampa), contemplates, within an ironized Scientific Romance frame, the destruction of another Sun. Levi's two novels are nonfantastic, but are listed below, along with his translated nonfiction, for the sake of clarity. Opere (coll/omni 1997; trans Ann Goldstein and others of all titles listed below, plus other material, as The Complete Works of Primo Levi 2015 3vols). [PN/JC]

Primo Michele Levi

born Turin, Italy: 31 July 1919

died Turin, Italy: 11 April 1987


Complete Works

individual titles


All translations below represent cut and/or resorted versions of the titles translated.



Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 03:30 am on 30 January 2023.