Book Of A Lifetime: The Periodic Table, By Primo Levi
Friday 06 November 2009
In 1985, Primo Levi was known in Britain and America for a single book, If This is a Man, his memoir of survival in Auschwitz. Then came The Periodic Table, which arrived in this country garlanded with eulogies from Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco.
I fell upon it avidly, not primarily because of those recommendations, but because Levi was by original trade an industrial chemist: here was a man who had somehow put chemistry at the heart of a book acclaimed by the literati. For me, a former chemist, about to edit a poetry magazine, Poetry Review, the timing was perfect. The Periodic Table is an autobiography in which every chapter takes the title of a chemical element. This isn't formulaic. Sometimes Levi's story really does have the quest for a particular chemical element as its core; at other times it is the subtlest of metaphors, as in 'Argon', in which that gas's almost total inertness symbolises the marginal status of his Piedmontese Jewish forebears.
I read the book originally in English but later came to appreciate Levi in Italian (many of his stories and essays have still never been translated). His style translates exceptionally well because Levi weighs every word; there is, as Bellow says "nothing superfluous". In his books Levi is grave, serene, dignified and all the more heartbreaking for his modest restraint.
For me, the most touching story is 'Phosphorus'. Levi was immensely shy with women and, in a laboratory in 1942, on a wild goose chase for a diabetes cure, he met Giulia, a girl he felt unable to woo properly: "a veil, a breath, a throw of the dice diverted us onto two divergent paths, which were not ours".
The Periodic Table shows how chemistry was just as animated a realm for Levi as nature was for Thomas Hardy the stink of chemistry a pleasant effluvium that pervaded his life. It was also a source of moral strength. In the skewed human world of Mussolini's racial laws and the nightmare inversion of humanity that was Auschwitz, chemistry's tangible knowledge was an incorruptible bastion to which he could cling: "matter is matter, neither noble nor vile". It also saved his life. Levi was a slightly built man and only the strongest could survive many months of the camp in winter. In the summer of 1944 Levi was detailed to work in the laboratory. The chapter 'Cerium' recounts how he found a store of alloy that could be whittled down to make lighter-flints and bartered for food. It was this that kept him alive. The Periodic Table marks a coming of age for science in literature. For Levi there was only one culture and he delighted in trespassing on specialised domains. It is a book that is also a catalyst, one that opens the prospect of a whole world of delighted exploration, an expansion of the literary franchise.
Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' is published by Yale
Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants
Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards
TV ReviewThe intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron
Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days
Oscar voter speaks outfilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The black and blue dress: Makers considering a white and gold version
- 2 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 3 What color is The Dress, white and gold or blue and black? An eyewitness gives a definitive answer
- 4 The remarkable archaeological underwater discovery that could open up a new chapter in the study of European and British prehistory
- 5 Fearne Cotton quits Radio 1 after ten years for 'family and new adventures'
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East