Primo Levi A Life

Ian Thomson




Trade Paperback

640 Pages


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Winner of the Royal Society of Literature W. H. Heinemann Award, 2002

Primo Levi, the author of Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table, wrote books that have been counted among the essential works of humankind. Yet he lived an unremarkable existence, remaining until his death (by suicide, in 1987) in the house where he'd been born, managing a paint and varnish factory for thirty years, and tending his invalid mother to the last.

Drawing on exclusive access to family members and previously unseen correspondence, Thomson reconstructs the world of Levi's youth and the rhythms of Jewish life in Turin during the Mussolini years, as well as his experience in Auschwitz and his difficult reintegration into postwar Italy. Thomson presents Levi in all his facets: his fondness for Louis Armstrong and fast cars, his insomnia, and his many near-catastrophic work accidents. Finally, he explores the controversy and isolation of Levi's later years, along with the increasing tensions in his life—between his private anguish and gift for friendship; his severe bouts of depression and passion for life and ideas, and his pervasive dread and reasoned, pragmatic ethic.

In this matchless account, Ian Thomson unravels the strands of a life as improbable as it was influential. Here is the story of the most modest of souls, an "ordinary" Italian Jew who became a universal touchstone of humanism, a mirror of the modern conscience.


Praise for Primo Levi

"Methodical, respectful . . . [An] excellent book."—Michael R. Marrus, The New York Times Book Review

"Drawing on hundreds of interviews with friends, family, and other witnesses, and one long interview conducted with Levi himself shortly before his suicide in 1987, Thomson writes with authority about his subject's thoughts, feelings, and memories . . . [An] authoritative biography."—Booklist

"A rich life of an enormously gifted but deeply troubled Italian Jewish writer . . . In this sympathetic consideration of Levi's life, Thomson well fulfills his pledge, at the outset, to write a biography 'not found in his books' . . . [This work is] aided by Thomson's diligence in seeking out and interviewing those who knew the author."—Kirkus Reviews

"Thomson has surely written one of the best literary biographies of the year . . . Shrewdly, he has provided what any lover of Levi needs close by: not a critical interpretation or reinterpretation, but a reader's companion . . . Thomson writes with an exemplary mastery of detail and rare narrative verve . . . Superb."—Peter Preston, The Observer (London)

"This biography is intelligent, low-key, well-written, and mercifully innocent of big claims. It brilliantly captures what is remarkable about its subject: the life and emotional economy of a man who was 'ordinary' . . . A nuanced and wonderful account . . . An important biography."—Thomas Lacquer, The London Review of Books

"Ian Thomson has done a prodigious amount of research and presents a considerable amount of fresh biographical material . . . Highly persuasive."—The New York Review of Books

"Refreshingly clear, with superb analysis, this book tells us far more about Levi than Levi ever did . . . Truly illuminating, a formidable work of literary biography."—BBC Radio Four

"A model of its kind: beautiful in its arrangement and narration, measured and honest without ever being remotely dull. Thank goodness for Ian Thomson . . . Over and over again it is Thomson who proves himself, through his precision, modesty, and intelligence, the true perfect biographer of Primo Levi."—Craig Brown, The Mail on Sunday

"Modest, useful, well-written, and a credit to its subject."—The Economist

"A masterpiece of fact and revelation clearly written with love and unlikely to be surpassed."—Theo Richman, The Daily Telegraph

"Wonderfully perceptive on so many levels, this biography . . . despite its subject's stressful life, despite the recurring depression that led him to take his life, is so beautifully written, so precise in its construction, that it is a joy to read."—Lesley Chamberlain, The Independent

"A store of detail . . . Thomson tells the story straight, sticking to evidence without overindulging in speculation, and keeping the two separate."—Peter Lewis, The Daily Mail

"Thomson has written a chronicle which is an unfailing, enlightening, and inspiring accompaniment to Levi's work."—Joseph Farrell, The Scotsman

"Thomson reconstructs Levi's life with an honesty and meticulous attention to detail that seem appropriate to its subject."—Paul Bailey, The Sunday Times (London)

"Pacy, straight-down-the-line . . . Coolly authoritative."—0Blake Morrison, The Guardian

"Thomson writes with snap . . . brio and a sense of relevance."—Clive James, The Times Literary Supplement

Reviews from Goodreads



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IAN THOMSON was one of the last writers to interview Primo Levi and devoted ten years to this biography. He lives in London.
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  • Ian Thomson

  • Ian Thomson, a noted critic and journalist, was one of the last writers to interview Primo Levi. Thomson devoted ten years to this biography. He lives in London.