A Tranquil Star, stories by Primo Levi, translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli (Norton)

With his two memoirs of Auschwitz, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, Primo Levi (1919-1987) earned his reputation as the greatest writer of the Holocaust. In his preface to the former, he said that the urge to tell his remarkable story had taken on “the character of an immediate and violent impulse.” The Drowned and the Saved, published in 1986, was the last of his memoirs. A year later he committed suicide by throwing himself down the stairwell of his apartment building in Turin. The impulse had played itself out – and it had been an impulse to write, not just to give testimony. Levi was an artist, not a social critic, historian or nostalgist. More than a chronicle of harrowing facts, Levi’s work is about creating something new: the revelation of the shape of a survivor’s mind as it tries to weigh experience and memory in penetrating prose. Emotion is recalled, less a propellant than a target.

levi2.jpgThe 17 stories in A Tranquil Star may seem like ephemera when placed beside his major work. Detached from his Holocaust material, these pieces present a Levi who is fanciful, satirical, and sometimes bizarre. In “Censorship in Bitinia,” his voice is that of an official noting the measures enacted to purge inappropriate expression from the imaginary Bitinia. Primo Levi the chemist, a master of materials, invents the “knall” in a story by that name; the knall is “a small, smooth cylinder, as long and thick as a Tuscan cigar,” non-metallic, that can kill when fired at close range without shedding blood. The knall is also very popular among ordinary citizens and need not be regulated, since it is harmless when fired from further away. “The Molecule’s Defiance” relates the unintended effects of a chemical chain reaction in a paint factory. In “A Tranquil Star,” all of life is obliterated by the explosion of a star, once regarded as harmless. “In the Park” is a frolicking piece about literary figures getting settled in the afterlife. In “One Night,” a train speeding through a mysterious landscape stops suddenly and is attacked by anonymous marauders who destroy without provocation or reason. My favorite story in A Tranquil Star is “Bear Meat,” a straightforward tale that takes place at a mountain stopover where men exchange stories about climbing adventures.

levi.jpgThese pieces show that Levi wrote successfully in a variety of tones – detached, giddy, relaxed -- that differ substantially from the neutral, assessing voiced of his memoirs. But he was a moralist at his core. Some have pointed to the stories’ affinity to Borges or Kafka, but Levi simply wasn't much of a modernist. His detachment isn't the observant aloofness of a Borges, but a withholding of harsh utterance bred by the horrific. A Tranquil Star is meant for Levi enthusiasts, an addition, not an equivalent partner, to The Periodic Table and his memoirs. [$21.95, 164 pp]