The Book That Changed My Life

David Kirby

David Kirby was a 2007 National Book Award Finalist in Poetry for The House on Boulevard St.

Greatness is always just around the corner—how unbearable life would be if it were always there nudging us and insisting that we do better! Fittingly, then, the book that changed my life is (a) not all that well known, (b) exists under different titles, and (c) is really two books. Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce can be found in a single 400-page volume published by Abacus, but as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, it appears as separate books by other publishers. But no matter what form it takes, this is a single story, which is that of Levi’s imprisonment in the notorious concentration camp and then his loopy wanderings from Poland back to his family home in northern Italy.

The best part about Levi’s writing is its spare concretion. A lot of writers gave up on the Holocaust because they say they couldn’t describe the indescribable, but Levi did. When the train arrives at Auschwitz, you’re there. When you get down from the car, you can hear the gravel crunch under your feet. And when the war stops and the gate swings open, you can’t believe in your freedom yet, but you can see it down a muddy road.

After style, the second great thing about Levi’s memoir is its sustained narrative, especially on the trip home, where he meets people who live in trees and other tokens of life’s essential weirdness. The third is that the story ends exactly where it starts, and once again we are reminded how much we like tales that, like the ones by Homer and Dante, come full circle.

The fourth point about Levi is that, with subtlety and even charm, he reminds his readers, especially we history-hating Americans, of the importance of our shared past; elsewhere he writes, “We too are so dazzled by power and money as to forget our essential fragility, forget that all of us are in the ghetto, that the ghetto is fenced in, that beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is waiting.”

Despite all that, Levi maintains an open-eyed, almost chipper attitude throughout his chronicle, which is the fifth and final reason why I love him. As he said later, he was never depressed in Auschwitz, only after. He was a great poet, too, and one of the three marquee-name fiction writers of the twentieth century who were also paint factory managers (the others are Italo Svevo and Sherwood Anderson). In the end, he couldn’t keep it up, and he took his own life. I wish there were a way for me to thank a Jewish chemist from Turin who, better than anyone I know, explains me to myself.

David Kirby