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
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Michael Brown shooting: Police shoot and kill second young black man near Ferguson
- 2 James Foley 'beheaded': Isis video shows militant with British accent 'execute US journalist' – and warns Obama of more to come
- 3 Why are UK rail fares so expensive?
- 4 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 5 Cilla Black defends Cliff Richard: 'I am positive that the allegations are without foundation'
Calvin Harris named highest-paid DJ in the world ahead of David Guetta and Avicii
JK Rowling releases new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing Celestina Warbuck, the 'Singing Sorceress'
Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermeister and vodka
Kate Bush: Previously unseen photographs reveal new side to comeback star
The funniest joke at Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Tim Vine wins for second time
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head