Professor Alessandro Perissinotto: “Primo Levi’s ‘Argon’ & the Jews of Piedmont: about a noble working class”

Education, News Writing, Published

The following was published on January 30, 2018 on YourHub.denverpost.com. Read it here

At the University of Denver, Professor Alessandro Perissinotto gave a guest lecture on Jan. 24 regarding a chapter in Primo Levi’s notable work, “The Periodic Table.”

Perissinotto spoke of complex issues such as identity formation, the effect of crises on the human condition, and the theme of work throughout Levi’s and his own novels.

The lecture began with a short biographical introduction from Professor Roberta Waldbaum, who teaches an Italian Jewish Literature and Cinema course at the University of Denver. The lecture took place during Waldbaum’s regularly scheduled class in Sturm Hall.

A novelist and professor of Narrative Theories and Techniques at the University of Turin in Italy, Perissinotto has written 15 novels, including historical crime fiction and nonfiction works, which have been translated into various European and Asian languages.

“Even now, in my second job as a writer of novels,” said Perissinotto, “I remember my first job in the factory.”

In the classroom at the University of Denver, Perissinotto recounted his first work experience in an auto assembly plant and its influence on his writing. This is similar, he said, to chemistry’s influence on the work of Primo Levi, a novelist from whom Perissinotto draws inspiration.

“It’s not the sight,” said Perissinotto, regarding his work in the auto plant. “It’s the auditory sensations…the smells.”

Perissinotto explained that one cannot see the complexity of the factory, much like one cannot completely grasp the complexity of Levi’s work, initially.

“Every time I start a novel,” he said, “it is like the first time I am entering the factory. You hear the banging of machines and the smell of oil.”

Perissinotto discussed the theme of work in Italian Jewish communities as well as in Levi’s fiction, commenting on the comparisons of his identity development and of Levi’s. Having spent the later part of his life as a writer (1946-1960), Levi and his novels were directly influenced by his time as a chemist.

“The Periodic Table,” explained Perissinotto, is a combination of fiction, memoir, and nonfiction, but “it is not an autobiography.”

A Holocaust survivor and an Italian Jewish chemist and writer, Levi was transformed by the 1938 racial laws in Italy from “a regular, middle-class boy,” said Perissinotto, “to a regular, middle-class, Jewish boy.”

Levi was born in a Jewish community, and never arrived at faith until the law of the Italian state forced him to reconcile with his Jewish identity and ostracized him from his goyim community, said Perissinotto.

This problem of identities began to concern communities after WWII. Jewish communities were not the only communities affected, said Perissinotto. The University of Turin professor, who was visiting DU, stressed that the issue of other cultural and national identities began to come into question with the introduction of Hitler’s lagers, or concentration camps.

Hitler’s concentration camps, argued Perissinotto, were not only a physical place, but a mechanism for social ostracization. “[They were] a strategy for mental and physical extermination,” said Perissinotto.

Nazi ideology was designed to destroy a specific kind of identity – to eradicate the Jewishness from civilization, noted Perissinotto.

“What is your identity?” Perissinotto asked the audience of DU college students. One raised his hand, stating he was Chinese first and Christian second.

“Very good,” said Perissinotto.

Perissinotto added that national identity usually comes first in modern society. During WWII, Hitler and the Nazis sought to remind Levi and other Jews continuously of their Jewish identity.

“My readers say I am a Jewish writer,” said Perissinotto, commenting on his own identity, “but I think I am just a writer.”

Perissinotto remarked on the interconnection between place, language, religion, and identity.

“If no one believes in the place,” he said, “the identity dies.”

Communities persist, with a common shared identity, however, if kept alive through language, Perissinotto said. For Jews in WWII, said Perissinotto, the Yiddish language was uniquely tied to the identity of a Jewish community.

Discussing the chapter “Argon” in Levi’s “The Periodic Table,” Perissinotto argued that these elements as chapter headings in the novel comprise Levi’s Judeo-Piedmont identity. Rhetorical devices like humor, understatements, and anti-phrases, explained Perissinotto, speak to the culture and identity of Levi.

“In Piedmont culture,” said Perissinotto, “understatement is a way of life.” Similarly, said Perissinotto, “Work is a way for the Jewish community to respond to the mistrust it was greeted with…a kind of consequence of the racial laws.”

When recounting the theme of work in Levi’s fiction, Perissinotto gestured to an image of Levi on the screen.

“My writing experience,” he said, “has been influenced by Primo Levi.”

“I was born in the same city as Primo Levi,” continued Perissinotto. “Like him, I lived in a Turin that was pregnant with work and factories. Like Levi, I worked for a long time in those factories. The opportunity to be here today, speaking of my love for Primo Levi and for our Piedmont at the other end of the ocean, is a gift I never expected to receive.”

When asked by a student why he chose to become a writer, Perissinotto said he was always a “little writer,” always making up stories, that it was his destiny, his way to escape.

“I am a writer,” he said, “because I escaped from the factory.”

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