I’m a great Primo Levi fan but I have sometimes struggled to explain what it is about Levi that makes his prose so magical, even when he is writing about one of the must wretched hours in human history (link). Lucid? Well, sure, but a good 12th-grade term paper is lucid. Unadorned? Very often, but he can slide into flights of powerful rhetoric. Writes like a chemist? In an odd sense, perhaps he does write like a chemist, but it’s probably misleading, obscuring the true flavor.
Just I just now stumbled on the best possible account of Levi’s writing from—Levi himself. He’s comparing himself to Kafka:
In my writing, for good or evil, knowingly or not, I’ve always strived to pass from the darkness into the light, as…a filtering pump might do, which sucks up turbid water and expels it decanted: possibly sterile. Kafka forges his path in the opposite direction: he endlessly unravels the hallucinations that he draws form incredibly profound layers, and he never filters them. The reader feels them swarm with germs and spores: they are gravid with burning significances, but he never receives any help in tearing through the veil or circumventing it to go and see wht it conceals. Kafka never touches the ground, he never condescends to giving you the end of Ariadne’s thread.
So, how does Levi write? Not like Kafka. Oddly enough, I think this gets it exactly right.
Source: Anita Desai, quoting, in “What If?” a review of a collection of Levi stories, New York Review of Books 51, July 19, 2007.