We would like to remember Philip Roth (1933-2018) —in addition to his extraordinary literary production— for his pivotal role in introducing Primo Levi to the English-speaking world. In this essay, Marco Belpoliti examines the encounters between Roth and Levi that led to three versions of a memorable interview.-Centro Primo Levi
One of Phillip Roth’s best books is not a novel, nor even a collection of short stories; rather it is a book of interviews, entitled Shop Talk (in Italian Chiacchiere di bottega). Published in English in 2001, the volume contains a series of conversations with fellow writers. The interviews are preceded by vivid portraits of the people that Roth met, from Aharon Appelfeld to Ivan Klima, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Milan Kundera; then there is a visit with Edna O’Brien and an exchange of letters with Mary McCarthy, a portrait of Philip Guston and a series of quick reviews of the books of Saul Bellow. These are wonderful pieces in which Roth displays not only that he is an excellent reader – and how could it be otherwise given that he is a writer? – but also that he is capable of stepping into the role of critic, a role not familiar to all authors, particularly if they are celebrities. A critic is someone who enters the depths of the books he reads, to travel through the fine web of their substance and from this travel glean general observations about literature, the world and himself. Roth demonstrates in his ‘shop talk’ that he is possessed of extraordinary humility. He never puts himself above the authors he meets and never looks down at their books: he asks questions, eye to eye. He does so as a friend, as well as an admirer, with an intensity of interest that is stunning in a writer who is so complex, rich and profound. His depth derives from his intelligence, for as sharp as he is Roth is never cynical or sentimental, and is always ready to understand.
The book, now incorporated into the collection of his essays, Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013 (The Library of America, New York 2017), features as its opening chapter a conversation with Primo Levi, the writer whom Roth probably admired most, at least among non-Americans. It is a genuinely fascinating conversation which has an interesting story behind it, starting with the fact that this version is not the only one which you can read. It’s an interview which, notwithstanding the innumerable variations, is available in at least three different versions. The interview tells us something of the rapport between Roth and Levi, but it also informs us about the ways in which Levi thought about his work. Einaudi has recently published the third volume of the Complete Works of the Torinese writer, which bears the subtitle: Conversations, interviews and statements, and which I curated; this volume contains two of the versions of this conversation. But let’s start at the beginning, when Roth and Levi meet each other.
In London and in Torino
The first time that the two writers meet is in April of 1986 in London. Levi had gone there for a conference at the Italian Institute of Culture, which was directed by Giorgio Colombo. This was Levi’s second trip as a now acclaimed writer to an English-speaking country, after his visit to the United States the previous year. He is accompanied by his wife Lucia. At home in Torino they have left the two aged people that they cared for with the help of housekeepers and nurses: Primo’s mother and Lucia’s mother, two very old and infirm women.
Gaia Servadio arranges the meeting with the American writer. A journalist and writer herself, Servadio, who had been living in London since 1956, works with various publications, among which is “La Stampa”, with whom Levi also collaborates. Furthermore she is the daughter of a chemist who Levi had known at Siva, one Luxardo, whose mother and grandmother died at Auschwitz. The Italian journalist knows Roth. The request to meet comes from Roth, who is an admirer of Levi’s. The meeting happens at the Italian Institute of Culture, at 39 Belgrave Square. They stroll and converse. When it is over the American confides to Gaia that he has met a remarkable man. It is Wednesday, 16 April 1986.
On a September weekend of the same year Roth arrives in Torino. He had arranged to interview Levi for “The New York Times Book Review” for which he wrote. Accompanying him to the Piedmont city is his wife, Claire Bloom, the actress, who was an idol to Levi for having been the star of Limelight, which was a cult film for him. They go immediately to Siva, because Roth is curious to see the place where Levi had worked for thirty years. There they are accompanied by Paola Accardi, daughter of the owner of the business and Director of the factory. Paola had lived in England and spoke English well. She had also married an English chemist who had taken Levi’s position at the factory when he retired. Primo asks her to drive the car and to help him converse with Roth. It seems that he said to Paola: “I can’t drive and talk at the same time”. The new Director of Siva knows Primo well, not only because she is the daughter of the business owner, Federico, known as Rico (who is an important figure in Levi’s life professionally and otherwise), but also because for some years she had lived nearby the writer and so rode with him to work. Paola once told Carole Angier about how trying these car rides had been, given that Primo was almost always silent and made her feel uneasy. (The Double Bond. Primo Levi. A Biography, Farrar, Straus and Giraud, New York, 2002.) She had once hosted Levi in London, when she lived there, on which occasion she had found the chemist from her father’s factory to be lively and friendly.