• How (And Why) Primo Levi’s Work Was Once Rejected

    Marco Belpoliti on Collective Memory and Publishing in Post-War Italy

    Looking back over cuttings of reviews, leafing through old newspaper and magazine articles, rereading the cultural climate and literary criticism of the time, it becomes clear that Primo Levi was not fully accorded the status of writer until the beginning of the 1980s.

    This corresponded almost perfectly with international recognition of his work, which came about even though the early translations of his books in the United Kingdom and the United States had soon gone out of print. It was a random event—a book blurb written by the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Saul Bellow for The Periodic Table (not a book on his experience in the concentration camps)—that shot Levi’s star up into the international literary firmament.

    It is important, therefore, to analyze more closely why Einaudi rejected Levi’s first book. Examining the publisher’s reasons is rather like finding Edgar Allen Poe’s “Stolen Letter,” because all the facts (nearly all of them) have always been there right under our noses. The real scandal, if we can call it a scandal (rejecting a book, even when it turns out to be an important book, is not in itself scandalous because significant books sooner or later have a way of resurfacing) lies in the fact that nobody ever looked for them in the right place.

    A good place to start is in the general cultural climate in Italian postwar society. Levi described it in an interview in the 1980s, when he had already been hailed as a great writer. In this conversation, Levi was conciliatory, not just because he had achieved recognition and had been gratified by it but also because he naturally sought explanations for things rather than recriminations.

    After touching on the difficulties that Natalia Ginzburg, a Turin Jew like him, had met with after her husband Leone’s death, Levi said that he understood why his book had been rejected. In his words, ‘it expressed a wider, collective rejection. At that time people had other things to do […]. A book like mine, and like many others that came along after mine, was almost an act of rudeness, it was like spoiling a party.’ Levi was expressing a form of pietas (duty) not only towards what took place in the concentration camps but also towards those who wanted to forget (the theme of voluntary oblivion, and the conflictual relationship between memory and oblivion, was to return in The Drowned and the Saved).

    Often sanctifying authors is the quickest and most effective way to avoid settling accounts with them.

    A play written by Eduardo De Filippo, Napoli milionaria!, provides ample evidence of this cultural attitude towards concentration-camp survivors, Italian soldiers (an estimated 700,000 of whom were deported to Germany after the 8 September 1943 armistice), and war veterans in general. Written hastily and staged in Naples in March 1945 (later published by Einaudi in 1950), the play’s protagonist comes back from the war to find his wife and daughter so busy making money in various ways that they have no patience with his stories, and refuse to listen to them (Levi has referred to De Filippo’s piece as “fraternal work”).

    More in general, events of the Second World War were “shared memories,” as historians put it. Italy had lost the war, negotiated the Armistice with the allied forces in 1943, and transitioned from a Fascist to a post-Fascist regime which left all the state structures intact under Marshall Badoglio’s command. It had then suffered terrible bloodshed under German occupation in the centre and north of the country, followed by a civil war in a country divided between the Kingdom of the South, under the Italian King and the Allied Forces, the Republic of Salò, and the Partisan Resistance. The situation was complex, to say the least, and the memories of ordinary Italians were not necessarily ‘shared’.

    The post-war period was equally drawn out, marked by a highly charged political conflict between the parties that had participated in different ways in the Resistance. The Christian Democrat Party, and other parties on the right, largely discredited the experience of the Resistance, while the other side of the political spectrum—the Action Party, the Socialist Party and most of all the Communist Party— enshrined and exalted it.

    Memories of war are often suppressed in a divided country, and this has repercussions on the collective memories of the most atrocious elements of the Second World War. The first book about the deportation of Italian Jews and soldiers came out in 1944. October 16, 1943, was written on the spur of the moment by the writer and literary critic Giacomo De Benedetti. Ten books on the subject were published in 1945, fourteen in 1946, only three in 1947, including Levi’s, and then nothing until the early 1950s.

    Only four books were published up to 1954, including Oblìo e colpa (Oblivion and Blame) edited by the association of former deportees (ANED). A decade after the end of the war, in 1955, Levi wrote an article in a pamphlet distributed in Turin entitled “The Deported. Anniversary.” The text is heartfelt, dignified and filled with moral fortitude. At the same time, it reveals an important consideration on the relationship between victim and executioner that was developed 20 years later in The Drowned and the Saved. Levi quite simply reminded his readers that the concentration camps had been completely forgotten.

    The suppression of memory was thus still firmly in place; part of the generalized oblivion concerning the Second World War. While the First World War altered Europe’s memory, as historians have shown, the Second World War was relegated to oblivion in at least the 20 years that followed. This is a very important aspect that historians will have to shed light on in the future, as the linguist Harald Weinrich pointed out in Lete concerning the construction of a European identity.

    Levi quite simply reminded his readers that the concentration camps had been completely forgotten.

    Returning, however, to the circumstances of If This Is a Man’s early rejection, the book was read by Franco Antonicelli, who had founded the De Silva publishing company in 1942 but also collaborated with Einaudi and later joined their author list. Unlike Cesare Pavese, Antonicelli had taken part in the Resistance efforts to free the country of Nazi control and was thus more likely to have been willing to accept Levi’s work bearing witness to Nazi atrocities. Pavese was Einaudi’s editorial director at the time, and Levi’s book was most probably placed in his hands.

    The question of why Pavese, who was a declared anti-Fascist and exiled by the regime, never took part in the Resistance is too loaded to go into here. This question, alongside his repeated declarations that he was extraneous to politics, certainly contributed to Pavese’s attitude towards manuscripts written by partisans and deportees that arrived on his desk at Einaudi in the immediate post-war years.

    The first series to be published by the Turin-based publishing house Einaudi in 1933 was called “Problemi Contemporanei” (Contemporary Problems). It comprised mostly books on economics and politics, and the series continued until 1944 when it ceased for two years and then reopened in 1946. In 1934, a second series of scientific, economic and financial monographs was launched, followed by the third in 1935 called Memorie di guerra e documenti (War Memories and Documents) which was closed almost immediately after the Fascist regime confiscated Leonida Bissolati’s Diario di guerra (War Diary). Immediately after the Second World War, Einaudi editors felt it was essential to launch a new series, to be called Testimonianze (Testimonies), and to include works on fascism, war and the partisan struggle.

    In 1945 alone, five books were published in the series, including works by the secretary of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, and by Luciano Bolis, Il mio granello di sabbia (My Little Grain of Sand) on his experiences with the partisans and the torture that was meted out to him by the Nazi-Fascists. This book was re-printed several times in the years to follow. However, the series did not meet with commercial success. Nothing came out in the series until 1955, when “I coetani” (The Peer Group) by Elsa De’ Giorbi was published in the series because nobody knew where else to place it.

    A similar series, which aimed to use testimonies as a way to narrate recent historical events, was launched in 1946 with the name “Mondo Contemporaneo” (“The Contemporary World”). The only work to be published before a similar market failure shut it down was a book by the Socialist Party leader Pietro Nenni entitled Storia di quattro anni (A History of Four Years).

    The Einaudi archive, painstakingly researched by Luisa Mangoni (Mangoni 1999), reveals that, in October 1945, Lisa Dresner asked Elio Vittorini where the two books about Polish concentration camps she had talked to him about when she was in Milan had got to. These two books were the abridged and translated version of the book published in Germany by a committee of former internees, and another book about Auschwitz written by Dresner herself.

    Vittorini answered in a letter that he had spoken to his editors “rather hastily” and that he didn’t think it was possible to publish them in the series he was responsible for. He went on to reassure Dresner that he had written to Antonio Giolitti and Felice Balbo to see whether the two books might come out in the “Testimonianze” series. The distinguished series editors answered that, by the time the editions were ready for print, “the subject would already be out of date.”

    Anybody with any experience in publishing in Italy knows that finding the right series for certain books is a recurrent problem. Einaudi, moreover, had always promoted a holistic cultural project. In-house debate about which series to publish new arrivals in was of vital importance, as all the various histories of the publishing house prove. Giolitti and Balbo’s answer, highlighting what they saw as being the speed of change in the publishing world, just goes to show how confused and uncertain the cultural climate was at the time.

    There was certainly anxious internal debate about the “Testimonianze” series. Giolitti called for the urgent publication of a book on the partisan war, while Balbo was better disposed to a collective volume on the same subject. And yet the impression gleaned from the correspondence among Einaudi editors and consultants is that the need to keep up with events, not to be left behind by the times, and to break with the past, meant that editors were highly susceptible to market response and reader opinion—following the natural inclination in the population to suppress the memory of the war.

    The need to keep up with events, not to be left behind by the times, and to break with the past, meant that editors were highly susceptible to market response and reader opinion.

    It is not by chance that the first book on the history of the Resistance movement by Roberto Battaglia did not come out until 1953. This was precisely when Einaudi decided to recover the memory of the Partisan war, with its militant anti-Fascist tradition, by publishing and continuously reprinting books which were destined for new generations of readers. Einaudi had its wake-up call in 1960 when the Christian Democrat leader Tambroni was propped up by the neo-Fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano, whose votes saved the government. This was when the decision was taken to publish the series “Letture per la scuola media” (“Readings for Middle Schools”), which was the vehicle used to bring Levi’s works into schools.

    After the “Testimonianze” series, which had been the most suitable for publishing memoirs of the deportations, was closed, testimonies regarding concentration camps were invariably rejected. Rousset’s book on the subject was considered, and Vittorini even reputed it to be an important piece of work with historical significance, but he doubted it would enjoy commercial success (the final decision not to go ahead with publication, in Pavese’s papers at Einaudi, was made in December 1946).

    In-house papers in the archive up to 1948 tell the same story. The importance of testimonies of concentration camps was recognized, but it was felt they would not be a commercial success. Antonio Bandini Buti, chief editor at the Italian Touring Club magazine, sent Einaudi a manuscript in 1948 written by a Jew from Zagabria, Egon Berger, who had spent four years in a concentration camp run by the Ustasha regime and told the story of the atrocities committed there. Pavese wrote back: “We generally reject every book on this subject. Primo Levi’s book, If This Is a Man, published by De Silva, had been previously submitted to us and rejected. We advise you to try De Silva.”

    The rejection of If This Is a Man was not the fruit of incomprehension but, rather, a deliberate editorial decision. The trend is confirmed by Natalia Ginzburg’s letter to Sergio Antonielli, author of Il Campo 29 (Camp 29). Ginzburg provided detailed feedback on the book but advised the author to send it to De Silva, whose general editor, Franco Antonicelli, “publishes a series with contemporary documents where your book would fit perfectly.” The book was finally published in 1949 by the Milan house, Edizioni Europee, and won the Bagutta Prize in 1950.

    In 1947—as a letter later published by Einaudi in 1977 under the title Gli anni del “Politecnico” (The Years of “The Polytechnic”) proves—Vittorini proposed Roberto Antelme’s book, La specie umana (The Human Species), which was not published until 1954 in the series Gettoni (Tokens). In the letter, Vittorini explained that Antelme’s book was rejected at the time, as If This Is a Man had been, because there was no suitable series to publish it in. The other reason he cited was that, in 1947, “the subject seemed to us to be unbearable for the general public; it had become over-exploited and rhetorical, while nowadays, with distance, it can be read with its interest intact.” A few years later, Levi’s books were reprinted by Einaudi.

    There’s another more subtle, but equally important, issue that influenced the attitude of Einaudi editors, especially Pavese, towards literature in general in the early post-war period. Today we consider that period one of great literary ferment, when many of the most influential writers of the second half of the 20th century published their first novels. The fact of the matter is that 1945 to 1950 was a period of inertia—the kind of sudden stasis that is typical of transitions. In order to understand what took place, in particular at Einaudi, it is necessary to go back a few years to the outbreak of the war and examine the fiction series and authors Einaudi started to publish then.

    The rejection of If This Is a Man was not the fruit of incomprehension but, rather, a deliberate editorial decision.

    In 1941, in the early stages of the war, Cesare Pavese debuted with Paese tuoi (Your Country), Natalia Ginzburg, under a pseudonym because she was Jewish, published her first novel La strada che va in città (The Road That Leads to the City), and Arrigo Benedetti, future editor of the weekly news magazines Europeo and L’Espresso, also became an Einaudi author.

    By 1946, however, the series Narratori Contemporanei (Contemporary Narrators) had become inactive. Both Pavese and Vittorini, who had published his Uomini o no (Men and Not Men) in 1945, were well-aware, as Mangoni reveals after studying Einaudi’s publishing correspondence, that Italian literature was undergoing a period of crisis, and that their own novels were part of that same crisis. The crisis was more in general that of European culture since the 1930s, which had been the starting point for all Italian writers and intellectuals born in the first decade of the century.

    The Second World War could have been a turning point, but in the early post-war years Einaudi editors were increasingly convinced that real-life accounts were beginning to prevail over novels. Manuscripts poured in reporting war experiences and recounting the Resistance, but there was nothing “new” on the literary front. Literature seemed to have been confined by its content, as Mangoni put it.

    This was one reason why Pavese pushed for Calvino’s Il sentiero del nido di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders), which Vittorini did not like at all, to the point where it was nearly rejected. It was finally published in 1947, owing in part to Giulio Einaudi’s enthusiasm. At the same time, however, Pavese rejected yet another war account which, as he wrote to the author, Costanzo Aurelio in 1947, had the same “defect” as nearly all the novels inspired by the civil war period. “For the last two years,” the editor continued,

    we have seen innumerable manuscripts on partisan, clandestine, prison, or zebra-striped life—and the author has always been convinced that the enormity of the things they experienced, or believed they experienced would be enough to produce a piece of literature. It is not the case. These books oscillate between news reporting and venting steam. They are essentially ‘sentimental’ and, apart from their political point of view, they are all the same.

    Mangoni, who reports this extract of Pavese’s letter, stresses that Vittorini felt very much the same way. It was not until the early 1950s, in fact, with the launch of the series “Gettoni” (“Tokens”) that the new post-war generation of writers began to emerge. Vittorini, ten years after his 1947 letter, writing in Diario in pubblico (Public Diary) defined this new crop of writers as “youth without a past,” with “no roots in anything but their own generation.”

    Returning to If This Is a Man, one could say that the book fell into Einaudi’s hands at an unfortunate time, owing to both the editorial difficulties in keeping the “Testimonianza” series going and to the fear that the manuscript did not have the requisite literary value (which, however, two critics as influential as Calvino and Cajumi, recognized immediately). Unfortunately, we do not have Natalia Ginzburg’s report on her reading of the manuscript, if it was ever compiled. We can conjecture at least one thing, however: the manuscript of If This Is a Man did not resemble any other book of that period, neither in its language nor in its narrative style.

    One could say that the book fell into Einaudi’s hands at an unfortunate time.

    Nowadays, the label “neorealist” is used more often for the films of the post-war period, while it seems to be used less and less in literature. In Calvino’s preface to the 1964 reprint of The Path to the Nest of Spiders, he denied the very existence of neorealist literature. What is certain is that writers sought a new voice, and tried to adopt a “new language” in their stories and testimonies of that time. This language was more immediate and fresher than before, and bore a close relationship to spoken Italian, with a great deal of dialogue and rapid descriptive sketches.

    Not everyone succeeded, but the search for a “new” voice in literature was on. The manuscript that Levi submitted to Pavese and Natalia Ginzburg was very different from the neorealist works of the time. It was full of explicit and hidden literary references (to Dante, Manzoni, Foscolo, Gozzano, and Latin Classics, among others), which were more common than they are now.

    If This Is a Man, as has already been observed, was carved in marble. It was tainted here and there with technical terms, but Levi’s style aimed to achieve extreme precision, at the same time relying on the concise, effective style of the Italian tradition. It is the language of the Classical liceo, the most traditional branch of high school, the same language adopted by Fascism in its intent to train a new elite.

    In this sense, in its classicism, Levi’s style is related to the language that lost the war. It is the rhetorical language of the 19th century, that of Carducci (an important influence on Levi’s poetry), which was appropriated and later owned by Fascism. There’s nothing fascist in Levi’s style—far from it. And yet the lexical and syntactical similarities are so evident that it would be impossible for Pavese or Ginzburg, with their sensitive ears, not to detect them. After all, these two authors were themselves trying to find a very different style in their own writing. Levi’s language would have sounded “old-fashioned” to them, and this may well be the primary reason for their rejection of his work.

    Just as Franz Kafka wrote in a foreign language, as Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari pointed out in Kafka, per una letteratura minore, Levi’s language in If This Is a Man was equally “foreign” to the period when it was written. It is not by chance that the book did not meet with critical success for many years: very few critics understood the linguistic significance of Levi’s style. Readers, by contrast, took immediately to his style, partly because many of them were his contemporaries. It was in fact his readers who decreed the slow but inexorable success of the book.

    The origins of Einaudi’s notorious rejection of If This Is a Man, as we have seen, are complex. Responsibility did not lie so much with a publisher and two illustrious authors as with an entire epoch and its intricate issues. Aside from this historical context, and the problems related to a brief period of this era, If This Is a Man later imposed itself as one of the greatest books in Italian post-war literature.

    The real scandal was not that it was published by De Silva and not by Einaudi, but that so many critics for so long, with so few exceptions, parroted the same old clichés about Levi, without ever stating simply and clearly why his books were important. Easy inclusions in a publisher’s author list are as suspect as exclusions. Often sanctifying authors is the quickest and most effective way to avoid settling accounts with them.


    Excerpted from Primo Levi: An Identikit by Marco Belpoliti, translated by Clarissa Botsford. Copyright © 2022. Available from Seagull Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. 

    Marco Belpoliti and Clarissa Botsford
    Marco Belpoliti is an essayist, writer, and professor at the University of Bergamo. He edits the series Riga for Quodlibet and the online magazine Doppiozero.

    Clarissa Botsford teaches English and translation studies at Roma Tre University. She lives in Rome.

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