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Primo Levi’s Defiant Molecule

Twenty years after his death, Primo Levi is still being read, and now we have something new to explore. This year Norton has published A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, and one of the stories — "The Molecule's Defiance" — is … Read More

By / April 16, 2007

Twenty years after his death, Primo Levi is still being read, and now we have something new to explore. This year Norton has published A Tranquil Star: Unpublished Stories, and one of the stories — "The Molecule's Defiance" — is featured in full over at Nextbook. The last paragraph of the story reads:

Among all my experiences of work, none is so alien and inimical as that of a batch that spoils, whatever the cause, whether the damage is serious or slight, if you're guilty or not. A fire or an explosion can be a much more destructive accident, even tragic, but it's not disgraceful, like a gelatinization. The spoiled batch contains a mocking quality: a gesture of scorn, the derisiveness of soul-less things that ought to obey you and instead rise up, defying your prudence and foresight. The unique "molecule," deformed but gigantic, that is born and dies in your hands is an obscene message and symbol: a symbol of other ugly things without reversal or remedy that obscure our future, of the prevalence of confusion over order, and of unseemly death over life.

I feel very close to Primo Levi — I spent all of last summer trying to translate his The Drowned and the Saved, or, excuse me, I sommersi e i salvati, from Italian to English in preparation for a foreign language translation exam I was scheduled to take. To get a PhD in English one must prove that she can speak a language other than English. Funny how that works. Tragically, I realized that it would be easier to memorize the book in English in preparation for the exam, than to rely on my own minimal reading knowledge of Italian. My point being: Primo Levi was a complicated and articulate writer, which made him difficult (for me) to translate, but incredibly rewarding to read in one's native language. So regardless of your views on posthumous publishing, we're lucky to have more Levi.

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