Carole Angier. The Double Bond: Primo Levi--A Biography.
IN A PASSAGE in Lilit regarding the use of real people in memoirs, especially when these people are still alive, Primo Levi speaks about the ethical difficulties of this practice. "Even if conducted with the best of intentions about a person one esteems and loves," he notes, "[such treatment] comes very close to being a violation of privacy that is never without pain for the person involved" (Opere 2:59). In Carole Angier's biography of Levi, The Double Bond, she takes a different position. Defending Levi's description of his friend Alberto Della Volta's probable fate after the lager, despite the pain this account caused Alberto's family, Angier maintains that all works by "real writers" should be "read sub specie aeternitatis, not from the point of view of someone's personal reputation." For her, this is because "all real writers are ruthless, like Primo Levi."
Since Levi has been dead for fifteen years now, the facts of his life are perhaps no longer subject to the reservations that he himself articulated in Lilit. Nevertheless, and even granting that Angier's work is not simply a chronicle but a "psycho-biography," The Double Bond is a very snoopy book. For example, Angier proposes that throughout his life Levi was tormented by the notion that he was not a "real man." According to this view, the title of Levi's first and most famous book about Auschwitz, Se questo e un uomo, is supremely revelatory of Levi's own secret insecurities. For Angier, this book--"If This Be a Man" is the literal meaning of its title--not only counterposes "man" with "Jew" and "beast" but also takes the opposite of "man" to be any human male whose virility or sexual nature is in some way deficient. It was Levi's fear that he was less than a man in this latter regard, she contends, that is the key to understanding this complex person.
In support of her arguments, Angier has amassed a huge amount of information. Her immense book is based on a careful consultation of the historical record as well as numerous interviews with friends and relatives (though not with Levi's mother, wife, or children--all of whom told her firmly that they preferred not to participate in her project). In it she also examines Levi's fiction, which she reads as evidence of the state of his psyche at the time each of his works was written. Whatever aspects of Levi's life that cannot be documented in this way--especially his deeper erotic feelings and his sexual peccadilloes--are then reconstructed in Angier's informed yet nevertheless speculative imagination.
The Double Bond is in many ways an instructive contribution to Levi studies, if only for the amount of meticulous research that went into its composition and the light it shines on the milieus in which Primo Levi lived and wrote. But this reader, at least, closed Angier's volume wondering whether slightly less ruthlessness might not have been appropriate, especially in the many passages in which she speculates about what "must have happened" and how Levi "must have felt."
Ohio State University