Other People’s Trades

Why certain books, out of the thousands published each month, gain a following is a mystery which retrospective explanations only partially dispel. Primo Levi was no Umberto Eco. Still, a few years ago only a specialist in Italian literature or Holocaust literature would have been likely to recognize Levi’s name. By the time of his death in April, 1987, an apparent suicide, he was widely read in the United States, discussed in general-interest magazines, and featured by book clubs.

Born in 1919 to a nonobservant Jewish family in Turin, Italy, where he lived for most of his life, a survivor of Auschwitz, a chemist by profession, Levi was a part-time writer until his retirement in 1977. His wartime ordeal and his many years as an industrial scientist and administrator gave him a distinctive perspective that set him apart from many of his fellow writers.

The freshness of Levi’s viewpoint is immediately apparent in OTHER PEOPLE’S TRADES, a collection of short essays most of which first appeared in the Turin newspaper LA STAMPA. While a few of these essays are on literary topics (among them “Writing a Novel,” “Francois Rabelais,” and “On Obscure Writing”), most of them are not. There are essays on butterflies, beetles, fleas, and the fear of spiders, on travel to the moon, the Rorschach test, and playing chess against a computer. Two essays on “The Language of Chemists” reveal some of the rich history behind the names of the chemical elements. Whatever the subject, Levi approaches it with unpretentious erudition, understated humor, and a thoughtful detachment--not aloof, but analytical. In several autobiographical essays he views himself as a young boy or a teenager with the same objectivity.

Levi is Levi, and not exactly like anyone else, but readers who enjoy E.B. White, Stephen Jay Gould, or Lewis Thomas might well find Levi to their taste. OTHER PEOPLE’S TRADES is excellent bedtime reading, marred only the execrable quality of the translation.