Showing posts with label Primo Levi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Primo Levi. Show all posts

11 June 2017

Corrado Alvaro - writer and journalist

Novelist from Calabria won Italy's most prestigious literary prize

Corrado Alvaro
Corrado Alvaro
The award-winning writer and journalist Corrado Alvaro died on this day in 1956 at the age of 61.

Alvaro won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, in 1951 with his novel Quasi una vita – Almost a lifetime.

The Premio Strega – the Strega Prize – has been awarded to such illustrious names as Alberto Moravia, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Elsa Morante, Primo Levi, Umberto Eco and Dacia Maraini since its inception in 1947.

Alvaro made his debut as a novelist in 1926 but for much of his life his literary career ran parallel with his work as a journalist.

He was born in San Luca, a small village in Calabria at the foot of the Aspromonte massif in the southern Apennines. His father Antonio was a primary school teacher who also set up classes for illiterate shepherds.

Corrado was sent away to Jesuit boarding schools in Rome and Umbria before graduating with a degree in literature in 1919 at the University of Milan.

He began his newspaper career writing for Il Resto di Carlino of Bologna and Milan’s Corriere della Sera, both daily newspapers, for whom he combined reporting with literary criticism.

Gente in Aspromonte was Alvaro's breakthrough novel in 1931
Gente in Aspromonte was Alvaro's
breakthrough novel in 1931
After serving in the Italian army during the First World War, in which he was wounded in both arms and spent a long time in hospital, he resumed his journalistic career as a correspondent in Paris (France) for the anti-Fascist paper Il Mondo. In 1925, he supported Benedetto Croce’s Manifesto of the Anti-Fascist Intellectuals.

Alvaro’s debut novel L’uomo nel labirintothe Man in the labyrinth, published in 1926, explored the growth of Fascism in Italy in the 1920s, when his politics made him the target of surveillance by Mussolini's Fascist regime. Worried about the possibility of arrest, he moved to Berlin in 1928, and subsequently spent time in the Middle East and the Soviet Union.

On his return to Italy, having had little success with his early novels, he made a breakthrough in 1931 when Gente in Aspromonte, his 1930 novel about an uprising in the area around his home village, won a 50,000 lira prize sponsored by the newspaper La Stampa after impressing a judging panel including the novelist and playwright Luigi Pirandello.

Ironically, given that he was previously under scrutiny as an anti-Fascist, his 1938 novel L’uomo è forte – Man is strong – led him to be accused of being a Fascist sympathiser because its content was strongly critical of communist totalitarianism. Nonetheless, the book won the literary prize of the Accademia d’Italia in 1940.

Alvaro lost his father in 1941 but retained his connection with Calabria through his mother, who had moved from San Luca to nearby Caraffa del Bianco, where his brother, Massimo, was parish priest.

The monument to Corrado Alvaro in Reggio Calabria
The monument to Corrado Alvaro in Reggio Calabria
During the Second World War, Alvaro was briefly editor of the Rome newspaper Il Popolo but he was forced to flee Rome in the later years of the war to escape the Nazi occupation, taking refuge in Chieti, where he assumed a false name, Guido Giorgi, and made a living by giving English lessons.

In 1945 he was co-founder of the Italian Association of Writers, of which he became secretary two years later, a position he retained until his death.  He continued to write for prominent Italian newspapers and penned several more novels and a number of screenplays.

His Strega Prize in 1951 came in a vintage year for Italian literature, coinciding with the publication of L'orologio – the Clock – by Carlo Levi , Il conformista – the Conformist – by Alberto Moravia , A cena col commendatore – Dinner with the commander – by Mario Soldati and Gesù, fate luce – Jesus, make light – by Domenico Rea.

Alvaro died in Rome from lung cancer, having previously undergone surgery for an abdominal tumour. He is buried in the small cemetery of Vallerano in the province of Viterbo in Lazio, about 80km (50 miles) north-west of Rome, where he had bought a large country house in 1939.

His memory is celebrated both in Lazio and Calabria.

In Vallerano, a street, a library and an elementary school are named in his honour, with a statue at the entrance to the library.  The city also established a Corrado Alvaro literary prize in 2015.

In Calabria, the Aspromonte National Park contains a cultural itinerary that includes San Luca and a ‘literary park’ in his name. The regional capital, Reggio Calabria, honoured him with a monument in Piazza Indipendenza.

San Luca is on the eastern slope of Aspromonte
San Luca is on the eastern slope of Aspromonte
Travel tip:

That Alvaro’s home town of San Luca, situated on the eastern slopes of Aspromonte, could produce a literary giant of his standing is remarkable given its history as a stronghold of the N’drangheta – the Calabrian mafia – and the fact that in 1900, when Alvaro was five, it had no drinking water and a 100 per cent illiteracy rate. The only way to reach the village during his childhood was on foot. The convent known as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Polsi, founded in 1144 by Roger II of Sicily, is situated in a spectacular setting at the foot of a deep gorge just outside the town.

The Loggia del Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo
The Loggia del Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo
Travel tip:

Viterbo in Lazio is regarded as one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy, with the historic San Pellegrino quarter, which features an abundance of typical external staircases, at its centre.  The Palazzo dei Papi, which was the papal palace for about 20 years in the 13th century, and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, which dates back to the 12th century, has a 14th century Gothic belfry and was largely rebuilt in the 16th century, are among a number of impressive buildings.

11 April 2016

Primo Levi - Auschwitz survivor

Celebrated writer killed in fall in Turin

This photograph of Primo Levi was taken in around 1950
Primo Levi: a photograph taken
in about 1950
Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who wrote a number of books chronicling his experiences of the Holocaust, died on this day in Turin in 1987.  He was 67 years old and his body was found at the foot of a stairwell in the apartment building where he lived, having seemingly fallen from the third floor.

A chemist by profession, Levi died in the same building in which he was born in July 1919, in Corso Re Umberto in the Crocetta district of the northern Italian city.  Apart from his periods of incarceration, he lived in the same apartment, a gift from his father to his mother, almost all his life.

His death was officially recorded as suicide, the verdict supported by his son's statement that his father had suffered from depression in the months leading to his death.  He had undergone surgery for a prostate condition and was worried about the failing health of his 92-year-old mother.

Some of his friends, however, doubted that he would have taken his own life and believed he had fallen accidentally.  They argued that while other survivors never recovered from the mental scarring, Levi had emerged with "soul and psyche intact" and retained a hopeful and positive outlook.

Many of Levi's books were autobiographical and drew upon the atrocities he witnessed in the notorious concentration camp, where he was spared death because his chemistry skills were useful to the Nazis. His first book, If This Is a Man, which described daily life in the death camps in harrowing detail, was published in 1947.

Sometimes known by another title, Survival in Auschwitz,  If This Is a Man was the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy which was followed 16 years later by The Truce and 12 years after that by The Periodic Table.

The latter was hailed as his greatest work, an account of his life from his childhood to his postwar employment as an industrial chemist, each story bearing the name of a chemical element to which he felt each episode was symbolically connected.

Primo Levi was a descendant of Jews who had settled in Piedmont after being expelled from Spain. He studied chemistry at the University of Turin, managing to remain there despite the Mussolini regime imposing a ban on Jews from institutes of higher education and graduated in 1941.

He found work in Turin by giving a false identity but as the city became more dangerous he left to Milan, where he was taken on by a Swiss-run pharmaceutical laboratory that was not subject to the new race laws, returning to Turin after Mussolini was deposed by King Umberto III in 1943.

A view of the Crocetta district, where Levi lived almost all  his life in the same apartment. (Photo: Gianpiero Actis)
A view of the Crocetta district, where Levi lived almost all
 his life in the same apartment. (Photo: Gianpiero Actis)
His father was by now dead and he found his mother and sister had fled to the family's holiday home in the mountains.  After Mussolini, imprisoned by the King, was freed by the German forces occupying northern and central Italy, Levi joined Italian Partisans fighting German and Italian Fascist forces.

Betrayed by a Fascist informer, he was soon captured, after which he was sent initially to an Italian prison camp near Modena and then shipped by train with hundreds of other Jews to Auschwitz.

Levi was given a job in a synthetic rubber factory at the Auschwitz complex.  He was liberated by the Russian Red Army in January 1945, fate having probably saved his life a second time.  Shortly before Russian troops arrived, the Germans had attempted to march the Auschwitz inmates to another location and many of them died en route. Levi was stricken with scarlet fever, however, and left behind.

It took him almost nine months to get back to Turin.  He met his wife, Lucia - with whom he would have a son and a daughter - at a Jewish New Year party in 1946 and eventually settled into a job at a paint factory outside Turin.  At first, the limited train service meant he had to stay in a dormitory at the factory during the week, returning to Corso Re Umberto only at weekends, but the time gave him the opportunity to write.

At the time of his death, the novelist Philip Roth said of Levi:

''With the moral stamina and intellectual poise of a 20th-century titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible.''

Travel tip: 

The paint factory in Settimo Torinese where Levi worked from 1947 to 1975 was abandoned in the 1990s but reopened in 2014 as a museum and cultural center for Holocaust memory.  It includes an exhibition prepared by the Holocaust Memorial Museum at Auschwitz and an exhibit on Levi’s life located in the office he used when he worked as the plant manager.

The house is typical of those in Crocetta, a prestigious residential district
A typical house in the Crocetta district
Travel tip:

The Crocetta district of Turin, through which Corso Re Umberto runs from north to south as one of the main thoroughfares,  is located just to the south of the historic city centre and is considered one of the most prestigious residential areas in the city.  It is famous for a large outdoor market that is held every day and is notable for many good restaurants.

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