“The Wrench” by Primo Levi

Levi’s life & literary career are inevitably defined by his experiences in Auschwitz. His writings on Auschwitz – both autobiographical and polemical – are required reading; if there’s any book that really must be read, it’s If This is a Man. And one should also, perhaps, read The Truce, which describes his long journey back from Auschwitz, and which is, surprisingly, exuberant and life-affirming. Or his last book – The Drowned and the Saved – in which he reflects furiously on the Holocaust. Given Levi’s well-deserved reputation for level-headedness and generorosity of spirit, many readers were shocked by the sheer ferocity of this book, but it served to remind one – should reminding be necessary – there are certain crimes so atrocious that they neither could nor should be forgiven.

But is he to write only about the Holocaust? Is it possible for him to address other themes?

Here, he addresses a theme rarely addressed by fiction: work. Usually, in fiction, we are either shown people wealthy enough to not have to work; or we are shown people whose work is exciting, or made to appear exciting (soldiers, detectives, etc.); or we are shown characters during their non-work hours. The truth is that most of us we spend a large proportion of our lives at work, and this is an area that fiction barely touches on at all. People at a desk doing paperwork, analysing data on PCs, mending gas pipes, taking blood samples in clinics … these are usually considered too dull to depict.

And yet, work is Levi’s theme. The narrative takes the form of a series of anecdotes, told mainly by Faussone, a rigger. (Faussone, Levi explains in an afternote, is a fictional character, but is an amalgam of various real people he had known.) In various chapters, Faussone tells us of the various jobs he has had around the world, often going into technical details. And, after a while, this job which he carries out to earn his pennies emerges as nothing less than heroic. And, much to our surprise – much to my own surprise – we find ourselves caught up even in what may atfirst sight appear to be dry, technical details.

Towards the end, Levi gives us a couple of stories relating to his own job (he was a professional chemist). It’s a very different job from Faussone’s, but it is clearly a job he loves. And once again, the details of his work, though presented in Levi’s characteristic down-to-earth tone, emerge as curiously compelling. And at this point, anothertheme seems to emerge: Levis’ other job – that of a writer, and the conflict between the two vocations.

Loving one’s work, and being good at one’s work, is, Levi says, one of our great “freedoms”. I was struck by his use of the word “freedom” in this context, but I think I see what he means: if our work is mainly a chore to be put up with, or even something we dislike, then we are chained: freedom only comes from liking what we do. But it is a freedom that, perhaps, not too many people enjoy.

For those readers used to Levi’s memories of and reflections on Auschwitz and the Holocaust, it is too easy to say that this theme is slight. But I don’t think it is. Levi was a heroic man in every sense – physically as well as morally – but it is unreasonable to expect him to write solely about the Holocaust. This very short book was a wonderful and refreshing surprise. Perhaps it will always  remain under the shadow of his books on the Holocaust, but it doesn’t deserve to.

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9 responses to this post.

  1. I’d also recommend “The Periodic Table”, a brilliant book (somewhere between fiction and non-fiction) also grounded in Levi’s other professional existence. I remember this coming out around the same time as Italo Calvino’s “Mr Palomar” and being delighted to find that great contemporary Italian writers were like the apocryphal London buses.

    Reply

    • I read “The Periodic Table” last year, and yes, it’s a fascinating book, although I must admit that the chapters dealing with the Holocaust were, perhaps inevitably given the earth-shaking enormity of that event, more compelling than the other ones.

      We seem to know very little of Italian authors. I haven’t frankly read much Calvino: only “If on a Wointer’s Night a Traveller…” – but it’s not really my kind of thing: but then again, postmodernism never really was my kind of thing … perhaps we can keep that for another thread. Alberto Moravia I haven’t read: I know many rate him highly. Last year, I read “I Promessi Sposi” by Alessandro Manzoni, the classic 19th century Italian novel, but i can’t honestly say it made too great an impression on me. “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa is, however, magnificent.

      Reply

  2. A classic example I’m afraid – of the way that evil can succeed – it only needs the Good to do nothing and to look the other way

    Reply

    • Hello Patricia, I am afraid explaining why something like the Holocaust happened is way beyond me. Whatever understanding we may come to it is necessarily incomplete: I suspect much of it is beyond human understanding. But Levi’s books on teh subject are essential reading, I think.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • Well you may have heard of the American General who said “Men – go and take pictures I have some cameras – take pictures everywhere – one day some son of a bitch will say this did not happen” I believe it to have been Eisenhower speaking – I know for sure that it was said – my husband – long before I knew him – was a long lean and lanky British Corporal and he saluted the General and asked “May I please help” – reply – “Sure thing Son” my husband got to helping a young American boy who was sick on sight and sobbed his heart out to Arthur – who was lost for something to say, but they got their pictures taken.
        Sure !! I have some reading to do thanks for the recommend

  3. Thanks for the review–much appreciated. I’ve wanted to explore more by Levi but haven’t read much about his other works (not that comments aren’t out there…I just haven’t explored yet).

    Reply

    • Hello Dwight, thanks for that. If you do want to explore Levi, I suppose his most indispensible works are “If This is a Man” and “The Truce”, which are usually published in a single volume.
      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Posted by Caro on March 24, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    I haven’t read any of Levi’s work (you won’t be surprised to learn), but your comments about work in literature has made me wonder. I enjoyed most in Anna Karenina the character of Levin, and I think that might be in part because of his musings over his farming work. That is no doubt in part because I come from a farming background but I think the importance Levin gave to his work and how it would best be improved was a serious contrast to the rather empty lives of Tolstoy’s other main characters. Ultimately work wasn’t enough to fully satisfy Levin but it was still important.

    I’m thinking of other books with an emphasis on work. Might put this onto our reading board. But quickly I can think of The Forsyte Saga.

    But there’s no doubt work is a major part of people’s lives – even someone like me whose actually working hours takes up only a few hours a week nevertheless spends much more time thinking about it and planning it. And I consider the voluntary research I do for families work, too. (All my work is fun and that’s the way it should be, but then who would do the dirty jobs?)

    Sorry, off topic mostly here.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • “The Wrench” isn’t really the kind of work Levi is best known for. Levi was a survivor of Auschwitz, and his writings of his experiences there, and of his thoughts on the Holocaust in general. I’d say the most indispensable of his works are “If This is a Man”, his account of his time in the death camp; and “the Truce”, his account of teh journeyback. And I’d also recommend Alan’s recommendation of “The Periodic Table”.

      On the matterof work in fiction, I see you’ve started a thread on the Books Board, so I’ll put whateverthoiughtsi have on the matter (not a lot, to be frank!) over there.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

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