Book of a lifetime: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

From The Independent archive: Peter Forbes on a coming of age for science in literature

Friday 28 January 2022 21:30
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<p>‘Matter is matter’: Levi clung to scientific certainties in the face of Mussolini’s horrors </p>

‘Matter is matter’: Levi clung to scientific certainties in the face of Mussolini’s horrors

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”.

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