There was some fuss the other day (you may have seen Jonathan Beckman's Observer review?) about Verso's packaging of our Book of the Month Auschwitz Report. Beckman was cross because "Verso has dolled this up as the work of Levi, blazoning his name on the front of the book, at least five times bigger than the words 'with Leonardo De Benedetti'." But this is really rather silly. Beckman himself says, "De Benedetti's name does not sell books" (indeed so: who, bar a few experts will have heard of him?).
Michael Orthofer says this this sounds "pretty typical of the games publishers play. Can any of them be trusted?" But if Verso had not described this as a work of Primo Levi many, many readers would simply have missed it and that, surely, would have been a dereliction of their duty? Verso should be congratulated for bringing back a forgotten document into wide circulation: publishing Auschwitz Report is a good thing!
The exploitative packaging of Auschwitz Report is misleading. This 48-page document, with preface, introduction and postscript desperately swelling it to book length, is basically a report by two survivors of medical care in the Buna-Monowitz, a satellite camp of the Auschwitz complex. It is clear that this was written by Leonardo De Benedetti with the assistance of Primo Levi, not the other way around. Internal evidence also suggests De Benedetti as the main author. When discussing the selection of people for gassing, the report spends a page on the procedure for choosing invalids (events experienced by De Benedetti alone). When the report was published in 1946 in an Italian medical journal, it was almost certainly as a result of De Benedetti's influence, and named the authors as 'Leonardo De Benedetti and Primo Levi'.
My understanding is that Beckman is wrong to say that Levi had no knowledge of the procedure for choosing invalids. The preface, introduction and postscript may "swell" the report, but I found them to be useful and informative. Beckman also objects to the cover suggesting that the spectacles are representations of "Levi's distinctive bottle-lensed glasses", but the glasses are obviously not the kind Levi wore (just look at the cover). Indeed, the cover is probably a visual synecdoche for the vast piles of glasses so often seen in Nazi propaganda shots. But Beckman again, despite what seems like rather comically affected apoplexy, gets it right when he says, "Auschwitz Report provides an important corrective to the accepted view of Auschwitz ... [it] is a small but significant addition to Holocaust documentation."
Primo Levi is one of the most important writers of the 20th century – a work co-written by him is important as a work written by him. And, again, who would buy a book by De Benedetti!?
Addendum: Rowan Wilson, the Publishing Manager at Verso (and an old and very dear friend of mine) has just brought my attention to Robert Gordon's response to Beckman's "shrill assault" (Gordon is the editor of Auschwitz Report; his response was published in yesterday's Observer). Gordon's letter has been edited; I'm trying to get hold of the unexpurgated version which I'll publish later.