Primo Levi: The Last Interview – Conversations with Giovanni Tesio by Giovanni Tesio

The Blurb On The Back:

At the start of 1987, Primo Levi took part in a remarkable series of conversations about his early life with a friend and fellow writer, Giovanni Tesio.  This book is the result of those meetings, originally intended to be the basis for an authorised biography and published here in English for the first time.

In a densely packed dialogue, Levi responds to Tesio’s tactful and never too insistent questions with a watchful readiness and candour, breaking through the reserve of the public persona to allow a more intimate self to emerge.  Following the thread of memory, he lucidly discusses his family, his childhood, his education during the Fascist period, his adolescent friendships, his reading, his shyness and his passion for mountaineering, and recounts his wartime experience as a partisan and the terrible price it exacted from him and his comrades.  Though we glimpse his later life as a writer, the story breaks off just before his deportation to Auschwitz due to his sudden death.

In The Last Interview, Levi the man, the witness, the chemist and the writer all unite to offer us a story which is also a window onto history.  These conversations shed new light on Levi’s life and will appeal to the many readers of this most eloquent witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. 

You can order Primo Levi: The Last Interview – Conversations with Giovanni Tesio by Giovanni Tesio from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Giovanni Tesio is Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Eastern Piedmont and was a friend of Primo Levi.  This book (translated from Italian by Judith Woolf) consists of 3 interviews with Levi for a planned authorised biography but Levi died before they were completed and Tesio was reluctant to press him when he became uncomfortable so what’s here seems a bit shallow and dull and I’m not sure what they add to Levi’s legacy.

I didn’t know a huge amount about Primo Levi before picking up this book, other than that he was a writer and scientist who had written a moving account of his time at Auschwitz.  I therefore came into this book hoping to learn a bit more about the man, how he thought and what he felt and this is probably why I felt so disappointed by this book because Tesio’s interest is very much on Levi’s childhood and school career and he asks a lot of questions about who Levi’s teachers were at secondary school and what Levi thought of them.  From the footnotes, it seems that some of Levi’s teachers were well known in Italian academia so if you’re interested in that topic then there’s something for you here but for more casual readers like me, it was pretty dull.

To be fair, Tesio says at the outset that he didn’t really have a plan for his interviews with Levi (carried out on 12th January 1987, 26th January 1987 and 8th February 1987) and Levi died in April before they could be taken any further so it may be that Tesio would have come back to some of the subjects here and sought to develop them further (certainly the last 2 interviews do circle back to questions and people Tesio raised in the first).  Tesio also says in his foreword that he deliberately didn’t press Levi on subjects that he seemed reluctant to discuss or explore and would frequently turn the recorder off (indeed, there are a couple of places in the interview where Tesio explicitly offers to do so).  I would have liked to have had an explanation for why Tesio took that approach and whether he regrets it in retrospect.

The interviews themselves are set out in a bald format with Tesio essentially transcribing questions and answers without adding anything about tone or pauses or anything to flesh them out and much of what’s discussed appears to echo THE PERIODIC TABLE (the short stories that Levi produced that draw on his real life) with Tesio’s extensive footnotes providing further context and explanation but also giving credit to information set out in other biographies of Levi.  Judith Woolf (who translated this book) writes a useful foreword that sets out some facts about Levi’s life, which provides additional context to what’s in the interviews.

All in all, it’s not that this is a bad book and I did come away with some idea of who Levi was as a person but it’s very bare bones and lacking in context.  Additionally, for me I kept wondering why Tesio was publishing it such a long time after Levi’s death (this was originally published in Italy in 2016) and what he wanted readers to take away from it and there’s just no information on that.  As such, I think this is really for Levi completists and even then, I have to wonder what this book would give you that isn’t already available elsewhere.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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