Amor sacro e amor profano di Tiziano by Federico Zeri

By Federico Zeri

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Virgil asks for one to tell the story of his last journey, the one that ended in death. Ulysses, the larger flame, speaks, saying that neither the sweetness of his son, the piety of his father, nor the love he owed the ever-faithful Penelope could curb his appetite for more experience of the world, particularly the virtues and vices of human beings. He recounts his journey in a small ship with loyal followers beyond the Pillars of Hercules and then five months onward into the open sea. He encouraged the men by saying they were not born to live as brutes but to seek virtue and knowledge.

After all, there are no reasons to be given for there are no sins the Jews and many others have committed that call for the punishment being inflicted upon them. Levi’s references to Dante, in If This is a Man and elsewhere, are not an act of literary boasting. It is simply a matter of Levi finding in Dante a metaphorical closeness to his own predicament and, consequently, of adopting verbal expressions that reflect adequately that experience. In the first canto of Paradiso (vs. 70–71), Dante makes known his difficulty to find words that adequately describe the beauty of Paradise that he is about to witness.

After the editorial rejection of Se questo è un uomo by Natalia Ginzburg at the Einaudi publishing house, Levi continued writing occasional short stories—if, that is, we define short stories as isolated creations. But there would be much to say for considering the various chapters of If This is a Man and The Truce,4 The Periodic Table, and The Wrench5 as short stories (or in some cases, as essays). In this case, the whole perspective that Levi’s work is usually fitted into would, of course, change radically.

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