Primo Levi: A Life

Winner: Royal Society of Literature W.H.Heinemann Prize 2002.


On 11 April 1987 the Italian writer Primo Levi fell to his death in the house where he was born. More than forty years after his rescue from a Nazi concentration camp, it now seemed that Levi had committed suicide. Levi’s account of Auschwitz, If This is a Man, is recognized as one of the essential books of mankind. No other work interrogates our recent moral history so incisively or conveys more profoundly the horror of the Nazi genocide. Ian Thomson, one of the last to interview Primo Levi, spent over ten years in Italy and elsewhere researching and writing this rich and definitive biography. New light is shed on Levi’s recurring depressions and vital information is unearthed regarding the writer’s premature death. This matchless book unravels the strands of a life caught between the factory and the typewriter, family and friends.



“One of the best literary biographies of the year… superb… Levi, I think, would have appreciated it. Shrewdly, Ian Thomson has provided what any lover of Levi needs close by: not a critical interpretation or reinterpretation, but a reader’s companion… Thomson writes with an exemplary mastery of detail and rare narrative verve… his biography illuminates what Levi wrote by its scholarship, piecing together the people and influences with measured perception”

Peter Preston, Observer


“Ian Thomson writes with snap… brio and a sense of relevance”

Clive James, Times Literary Supplement


“A model of its kind: beautiful in its arrangement and narration, measured and honest without ever being remotely dull. Thank goodnesss for Ian Thomson… over and over again it is Thomson who proves himself, through his precision, modesty and intelligence, the true and perfect biographer of Primo Levi”.

Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday


“A formidable work of literary biography… an absolutely brilliant account of wartime Italy… very, very powerful”

Richard Holmes, BBC Radio Four


“Clearly written with love, and unlikely to be surpassed”

Theo Richmond, Sunday Telegraph


“Pacy, straight-down-the-line…. cooly authoritative”

Blake Morrison, The Guardian


“This biography is intelligent, low-key, well-written, and mercifully innocent of big claims. It brilliantly captures what is remarkable about its subject: the life and emotional economy of a man who was ‘ordinary’… A nuanced and wonderful account… Ian Thomson is excellent on the details of Levi’s industrial career and gives us a clear picture of the man… An important biography”

Thomas Laqueur, London Review of Books


“A masterpiece of tact and revelation”

James Hamilton-Paterson


“Modest, useful, well-written, a credit to its subject”

The Economist


“Where Carole Angier’s biography becomes speculative and unwieldy, Thomson’s closely argued account remains clear-sighted. His tidy organisation helps him to corral much of the material that appears in Angier’s biography, and include a great deal of fresh research, in a book that is shorter by almost 300 pages. Thomson’s study is a confident navigation of disaster and despair. It has shrewd things to say about Levi’s depressions, though it also glances at his light-hearted pleasures.”

Daily Telegraph, review of paperback


“Ian Thomson’s biography will no doubt be the standard work for years to come. Lucid, informative and with deft sketches of the historical context, this is a model biography, and a deeply provocative work”

Scotland on Sunday


“Wonderfully perceptive on so many levels, it is all the more remarkable that this biography was written by a man who is neither Italian nor Jewish, born 16 years after Levi’s release from Auschwitz. Thomson’s account of Levi’s wartime experience is graphic and chilling… This book is so beautifully written, so precise in its construction, that it is a joy to read”.

The Independent


“How does one write the life of such a man? Mr Thomson has done so with great respect… Brief, fact-packed sketches… illuminate the worlds that Levi inhabited… Mr Thomson never pretends, as many biographers do, to know his subject better than he could. At times his discretion seems astounding, even admirable… Mr Thomson’s reserve enables him to deal frankly with Levi’s emotional struggles and personal shortcomings, while avoiding the modern biographer’s overpowering temptations: to treat his main character as a moral inferior or a patient to be diagnosed”

New York Times, Anthony Grafton