On Epitaphic Fictions: Primo Levi


Arts & Culture

The final entry in our three-part series on writers’ epitaphs. Read yesterday’s installment here, and Monday’s here.

levi grave

Primo Levi’s grave, in Turin.

The poet and memoirist Primo Levi was buried in Turin in 1987. According to a notice printed in the New York Times shortly after his funeral, “His grave was marked with a simple marble headstone giving his name and the dates of his birth and death.” At some later date, a sequence of six numbers was carved into the stone in the space below his name, the same sequence that had been tattooed on Levi’s left arm upon his arrival at Auschwitz.

I have not been able to discover whether or not Levi himself had left instructions in his will, or had told family members, that the sequence 174517 should be inscribed on his stone. In her biography of Levi, The Double Bond, Carole Angier explains that the six men who lowered Levi’s coffin into the grave were all concentration or death camp survivors, and that among the mourners who followed the body to the cemetery were scores of Holocaust survivors “wearing neck-scarves marked with the names of their camps.” Could the revision of his stone have been the wish of Levi’s “survivors”? However it was, the sequence is the most striking and original part of his epitaph, and, set against even a bare skeleton of Levi’s life story, its use here offers us redeeming fictions. On the marble face of his headstone, the sequence is a kind of postlinguistic, numerical poem.

Levi wrote that his experiences in Auschwitz made him a writer. The implication is that his transformation into a writer began with his being written upon. If this is true—if Levi really would not have written if he had been given a different life—then his poems in particular would seem to trump Theodor Adorno’s edict that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”

levi grave bunny boilerWhen Levi extended—or was forced to extend—the blank page of his left forearm, the gesture expressed the gradual erasure of his identity begun months before, according to protocols such as a proscription from appearing in public without wearing a yellow star, an eviction from a home, the loss of employment, the commandeering and looting of personal property, the restriction of physical movement and freedom of association. Piercing and inking of his skin with a tracking number—174517—was a first draft but also a final draft: those numbers would last for his life’s limited forever. The tattoo was also a revision: it altered an individual human being, a Jewish man, once a citizen of occupied Italy, into an item on its way toward disposal. Levi was “Primo,” the first, numero uno, and then he was 174517. Yet the deliberate revision of Levi’s headstone after his burial both recapitulates and undoes the Nazis’ attempt to revise a man into a thing.

In marble rather than skin, the inscription of this sequence 174517—which now keeps track of nothing, and supplements rather than replaces his name—is an astonishing act of appropriation. Below his name and literally over his dead body, the numbers now flaunt Levi’s survival. This epitaph says, Nobody burned the body that lies beneath this stone.

Levi had published a poem titled “Epitaph,” in the voice of a fictional “Micca the partisan.” Having been “discarded for a not unserious crime,” Micca speaks from the earth where he had been buried “by my tearless companions.” But Levi’s fictional partisan addresses no grandee on a horse; “Epitaph” is addressed to an ordinary “passerby,” and not so much reader as auditor:

Passerby, I don’t ask you or others for forgiveness,
Or for prayers or tears or particular memory.
I ask only one thing: that this peace of mine will last,
Without new blood, filtering through the clods,
Penetrating down to me with its deadly warmth,
Waking to new sorrow these bones already now made stone.

(translated from the Italian by Harry Thomas and Marco Sognoni)


Primo Levi

Yeats’s vision of a reader mounted on horseback is self-aggrandizing, and his admonishments are oddly dismissive. By contrast, Levi’s Micca is respectful, solicitous even, and honest if vague about his betrayal of his countrymen. He’s in no mood to bark imperatives. But Micca’s request that no more blood flow over this particular ground is even more idealizing than Yeats’s commands. The critic George Jochnowitz writes of Levi, “[He] believed in facts. His commitment to reality was linked in his mind to his opposition to fascist theory.” And yet his poem “Epitaph” offers us not facts, but exorbitant fictions: the cold ground speaks, exhorting warm flesh and bones to stop spilling blood where it is not wanted.

This fiction strikes me as the opposite of barbaric—but then, the word barbarian is a kind of fiction, too. The really scary people are civilized. And one of the ways we know they are civilized is that they make things up about death.