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But he is also a limited writer, both in talents and in range.It does no favors, to the reader or to him, to try to rank him with the likes of Joyce, Proust, Kafka, and Beckett.His achievement, in his work about the Holocaust and its aftermath—If This Is a Man, The Truce, and The Drowned and the Saved, as well as parts of Lilith and The Periodic Table—is significant enough.Surrounding that achievement with masses of ephemera only obscures it.Before his deportation, in the transit camp, it is elegiac, noble.A large extended family prepares for the journey from which they know they will never return: When all was ready, the food cooked, the bundles tied up, they loosened their hair, took off their shoes, placed the funeral candles on the ground, and, lighting them according to the customs of their fathers, sat on the bare soil in a circle for the lamentations, praying and weeping through the night., that wise and cultivated voice departs. The language switches to the present tense: Every moment is the last; there is no place from which to stand and say “it was.” For many pages afterward, the facts come at us one by one, just as he encountered them and from the same perspective—that of total, vulnerable naïveté.The tone at times reminds you of a children’s book, if there were children’s books about the inferno. My name is 174517.”At last he starts to get his bearings.After five months, he has become an “old prisoner.” Time begins again.

I say this with reluctance—The Complete Works, which was 15 years in the making, is clearly a labor of love, meticulously edited by Ann Goldstein and seamlessly carried over from Italian, in fresh renditions, by a team of 10 translators—but the claim, on the volumes’ own evidence, is manifestly false. He is a vivid writer, an unflinching writer, an indispensable writer.

He must pass an oral examination administered by a Doktor Pannwitz, “tall, thin, blond.” Pannwitz looks at him.

It is a look, Levi tells us, that “did not pass between two men.” Earlier, after a comparable incident, he had felt “as if I had never in all my life suffered a more atrocious insult”—that of being treated as a beast.

Levi is the rare writer about whom it can be said that his literary virtues originate in, and are largely inseparable from, his moral ones.

His ability to guide us through the hell of the camps depends upon his powers of precise observation as well as on an eidetic memory of the 11 months of his enslavement.

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