He was born in Turin, where he completed medical school, but he never practiced as a doctor. Instead, he embarked on a variety of other, more radical careers.
He was arrested three times for his political activities. The second time, at the outbreak of the Abyssinian War (1935), he was sent into internal exile in Lucania.
Levi was indeed hard to classify. After he left southern Italy, he moved to France to join the Resistance. He returned, however, to his native Italy during World War II and was once again arrested on political charges.
During the postwar years, Levi wrote several other books, among them Of Fear and Freedom (1950), Words Are Stones (1956), and The Linden Trees (1962). He also continued his left-wing political activity and served in the Italian senate as a communist from 1963 to 1972.
As a painter, Levi was influenced by French masters, but later developed his own style. Near the end of his life, his paintings fetched a high price.
His best-known book, Christo si efermato a Eboli (1945; Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1948), tells about his experiences there. The book, which describes life deep in the heart of southern Italy, where he lived fora year under police surveillance, shocked the world and Italians alike with its view of the primitive lifestyle of the people. Its title came from the local saying. “We’re not Christians.... Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.” Levi added. “Christian, in their way of speaking, means human being, and this almost proverbial phrase... may be no more than the expression of a hopeless inferiority."
The New York Times reviewer, Paolo Milano, called the book “a diary, an album of sketches, a novelette, a sociological study, and a political essay.” “It has”, he wrote, “more than a trait of each genre; yet it remains as hard to classify as every beautiful book, oras the man who wrote this one."