Philip Roth is talking to Primo Levi about writers who have also been “something else” in an interview that took place in 1986 and is published in Roth’s essay collection Shop Talk (2001). It is scarcely surprising that the mysterious business of what other people do should have been a topic of interest to the two writers. Levi, of course, worked as an industrial chemist. In his preface to Other People’s Trades, a collection of short pieces originally published, for the most part, in the Turin paper La Stampa, he wrote:
My destiny, helped by my choices, has kept me far from the agglomerations; too much a chemist and a chemist for too long to consider myself a real man of letters; yet too distracted by the vari-coloured, tragic or strange landscape to feel a chemist in every fibre.
Roth, for his part, has often in his fiction evoked the dignity ‑ and the complexity ‑ of trade and business (the Newark glove manufacturer Lou Levov in American Pastoral, miner and union activist Ira Ringold in I Married A Communist).
Roth: There is an impressive list of writers who have simultaneously practiced medicine and written books and of others who have been clergymen. T. S. Eliot was a publisher, and as everyone knows Wallace Stevens and Franz Kafka worked for large insurance companies. To my knowledge, only two writers of importance have been managers of paint factories: you in Turin, Italy, and Sherwood Anderson in Elyria, Ohio. Anderson had to leave the paint factory (and his family) to become a writer; you seem to have become the writer you are by staying and pursuing your career there. I wonder if you think of yourself as actually more fortunate – even better equipped to write – than those of us who are without a paint factory and all that’s implied by that kind of connection.
Levi: As I have already said, I entered the paint industry by chance, but I never had much to do with the general run of paints, varnishes, and lacquers. Our company, immediately after it began, specialized in the production of wire enamels, insulating coatings for copper electrical conductors. At the peak of my career, I numbered among the thirty or forty specialists in the world in this branch …
Honestly, I knew nothing of Sherwood Anderson till you spoke of him. No, it would never have occurred to me to quit family and factory for full-time writing, as he did. I’d have feared the jump into the dark, and I would have lost any right to a retirement allowance.
However, to your list of writer-paint manufacturers I must add a third name, Italo Svevo, a converted Jew of Trieste, the author of The Confessions of Zeno, who lived from 1861 to 1928, For a long time Svevo was the commercial manager of a paint company in Trieste, the Società Veneziani, that belonged to his father-in-law and that dissolved a few years ago. Until 1918 Trieste belonged to Austria, and this company was famous because it provided the Austrian navy with an excellent anti-fouling paint, which prevented incrustation, for the keels of warships. After 1918 Trieste became Italian, and the paint was delivered to the Italian and British navies. To be able to deal with the Admiralty, Svevo took lessons in English from James Joyce, at the time a teacher in Trieste. They became friends and Joyce assisted Svevo in finding a publisher for his works. The trade name for the antifouling paint was Moravia. That it is the same as the nom de plume of the novelist is not fortuitous: both the Trieste entrepreneur and the Roman writer derived it from the family name of a mutual relative on the mother’s side. Forgive me this hardly pertinent gossip.