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The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi

When did you first read it?

Sitting in Bombay's Hotel Ritz (anything but Ritzy) waiting for the monsoon to subside to moderately torrential rain so I could interview Indian film star Shashi Kapoor about his passion for food.

Why did it strike you so much?

Envy, at first. Funny, witty, sad, uplifting, this book at once erased the world outside and made me look at it differently. I had my head on that self-built guillotine, the writer's block. Levi, a Jewish chemist in Fascist Italy, proved to me that it is possible successfully to transgress the single index entry preferred by our late 20th-century society, and that a good writer can take the most ordinary, elemental things - literally, in his case, the elements - and turn them into magic. Levi begins by naming the so-called inert gases ("xenon: The Alien, as he was to be later in Auschwitz"), and then transforms them into a story about his ancestors. He ends his short tales - part fiction, part essay - with a mesmeric tour de force about the carbon cycle, in which a carbon atom travels from prehistory to meet its brilliant destiny as the last full stop in Levi's book: "this dot, here, now".

What effect did it have on your life?

I had been looking for a way to write on ideas I had about landscape, art and science. Levi's book inspired me to begin a novel about metamorphosis. Set around a Bollywood movie mogul attempting to film The Tempest at the time of the Indian monsoon, it uses scientific theory to play havoc both with Shakespeare's characters and with our perceptions of story versus history. I have since bought serious geek-chic glasses and find myself strangely drawn to the popular science and computer section of the magazine racks. My partner has stopped giving me flowers and started to give me books about the cosmos.

Have you re-read it?

My first copy fell to bits months ago from re-reading and has long since become part of its own carbon cycle.

Do you recommend it or is it a private passion?

I'll go public: any writer who under the title "Nitrogen" can make the metamorphosis of python shit into lipstick a surreal drama deserves many readers. Sort of Einstein meets Cinema Paradiso. Read it whenever you need reminding of how miraculous the world is.

Lesley Forbes's first novel Bombay Ice comes out in paperback next month (Phoenix House, pounds 6.99)