Carlo Levi, Italian (1902 - 1975)

Carlo Levi

Italian writer, journalist, artist, and doctor, whose first documentary novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945), became an international sensation and introduced the trend toward social realism in post-war Italian literature. Although Levi's masterpiece was set in the times of Fascist oppression before World War II, it still has not lost its broad appeal. The book did much to make the world understand the situation of the regions south of Rome, which have long been exploited for economic or political reasons.

Carlo Levi was born in Turin. His mother was the sister of Claudio Treves, one of the leaders of the Italian Socialist Party. After studying medicine he became a practising physician. During his earliest formative years, Levi came into contact with socialist ideology, and in 1930 he joined the social reform movement 'Giustizia e Libertà'. Its other members included Carlo Rosselli and Primo Levi. As a Jew and for his antifascist activities he was exiled from 1935 to 1936 in two isolated villages in the province of Lucania, where his house is now a tourist attraction. The years of his banishment Levi spent in fruitful activity - he continued as a painter and worked as physician to the villagers. After release he lived in France between 1939 and 1941.

In 1939 there appeared Levi's essay 'Paura della libertá,' a meditation which constitutes an impassionate demonstration of the coercive irrationality of dictatorship. During World War II, when hiding in a room for several months in order to avoid deportation as a Jew by the retreating Nazis, Levi wrote CRISTO SI È FERMATO A EBOLI, an extension of his meditation.

On one level Levi chronicled his own life in the village Gagliano, Lucana, and on the other he gives a gallery of portraits of individuals, such as the Fascist mayor, Giulia, who had more than a dozen pregnancies with more than a dozen men, and the town crier. The narrator, a doctor, is living there as a political prisoner, to learn obedience. He is occasionally allowed to visit Eboli, the central town of the region. He helps people who are suffering from malaria, and sees their daily struggle under totalitarianism. Through his sister he also receives medicine, and witnesses how the hard conditions drive people to emigrate to the United States. When Italy's war against Abyssinia was drawing to its close in 1936, the narrator's detention ends. The documentary report on the archaic life in a society cut off from civilization is skillfully developed into a work of conscious literary art. As a result of his observations Levi appeals for a new order in which the south would assume a form of autonomy from Rome. "The individual and the State coincide in theory, they must be made to coincide in practice," Levi wrote in the book.

After the war Levi served as editor of L'Italia libera, the mouthpiece of the Action Party, to which he belonged. He contributed to major Italian publications and as a painter he sought to express arcane reality. In the late 1940s the American translator William Weaver arrived in Rome and became friends with a number of writers, among them Carlo Levi, and made their work known in the United States. The Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg met Levi in the early 1960s in Rome, where Levi lived near the Pincio park. He painted Ehrenburg's portrait. "He appears lazy and walks slowly," noted Ehrenburg, but he was impressed how much this seemingly slow author had published, and also painted in his atelier. When they were discussing the concept of eternity, Levi absentmindedly stopped in the middle of a busy street. Ehrenburh managed to persuade a policeman not to fine him.

Levi's commitment to the lot of victims pervaded his work as an editor and journalist, and he was also active in politics. In 1963 he was elected to the Senate, serving there until his death on January 4, 1975. Though Levi's first novel gained a huge success, and made him one of the leaders of Neo-realism, he wrote other important non-fiction works. In Of Fear and Freedom (1946) he proclaimed intellectual freedom despite an inherent human dread of it. L'OROLOGIO (1950) was set in the disillusioned period after the war. "Now, after seven years of pain and slaughter, the wind had fallen, but the old leaves still could not return to their branches and the cities looked like naked woods, waiting under a modest sun for the haphazard flowering of new buds." The protagonist works in Rome for a newspaper. He is summoned to Naples to visit the sickbed of a favorite uncle. His friends, family and partisan comrades are all trying to cope with post-war society, the confusion, bitter acceptance of loss after the Liberation, action and hope. Words Are Stones (1955) and IL FUTURO HA UN CUORE ANTICO (1956) were vivid travel books on Sicily and Russia. The Linden Trees (1962) deals with post-war Germany and examines the roots of a society that tolerated the rise of Nazism.

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