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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 188

The Periodic Table is a book by Primo Levi, who was a Jewish Italian chemist. It’s a collection of short stories that all share the theme of talking about the Holocaust and that are all named by one of the chemical elements. The reason for this approach is partly because...

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The Periodic Table is a book by Primo Levi, who was a Jewish Italian chemist. It’s a collection of short stories that all share the theme of talking about the Holocaust and that are all named by one of the chemical elements. The reason for this approach is partly because Primo Levi was a chemist before the war.

The stories he chose to write about carefully avoid certain topics, such as anything to do with his children, for example. The chapters vary widely in their style and content. Some are anecdotes about his life, while others are stories about people that Levi knew. There are a few that even have fantasy elements.

Examples include “Hydrogen” and “Potassium” which share the subject of the experimentation Levi did when he was a student. A story set during the Holocaust directly is called “Cerium,” and this one is about how Levi stole Cerium while in a camp. He was selling it for others to use in cigarette lighters. An example of just how different the stories get would highlight “Carbon,” which is about the adventures of a single carbon atom.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2185

Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish novelist, short-story writer, poet, and memoirist, was also a chemist for most of his professional life. As The Periodic Table demonstrates, his careers as chemist and writer were inseparable. Each chapter of the memoir is named for a chemical element, explores Levi’s work in the laboratory, and relates that work to his personal, social, and political experience. It is a cliché to speak of human chemistry when discussing human nature. The virtue of Levi’s book is that he refreshes the cliché and shows the profound connections between chemical elements and the elements of human behavior.

Each chapter can be read as a discrete piece of work, concentrating on some episode or period in Levi’s life. Nevertheless, the chapters are also unified by the author’s growth in perception. As he learns more about specific chemical elements and about the procedures required to study those elements, so he also discovers life in more depth, encountering unusual characters who teach him about the meaning of their lives and about existence as a whole. The form of The Periodic Table is unified by chronology. After the first chapter, “Argon,” which describes Levi’s ancestry, subsequent chapters chart his life and career from the years just before World War II and his incarceration in a concentration camp to the decade or so following the Holocaust.

By titling his memoir The Periodic Table, Levi suggests that there is a structure to his writing about experience that is analogous to the way elements are analyzed in chemistry. Like the various substances the chemist tests in his laboratory, the author’s experiences have different degrees of purity, different weights, and different reactions, depending on what he uses to stimulate them. Human character in the memoir, in other words, has certain properties from the beginning, but it can be transformed in a number of ways given the changing nature of environments.

Altogether, there are twenty-one chapters or elements in The Periodic Table, each of which presents a peculiar problem or story Levi tells about his life and his chemistry. Some of the chapters read like mystery stories and have clear resolutions; others remain open-ended, puzzling and tantalizing. Two chapters, typeset entirely in italics, are fables of life suggested to the author by his career in chemistry. Each chapter has its own style, for Levi strives to achieve an absolute perfection of form and content, so that the words he uses seem to grow out of the experiences they render.

Although Levi is an autobiographical writer, he does not write autobiography as such. He prefers the more flexible form of the memoir, which allows him to concentrate on certain episodes or periods without the need to cover his life in its entirety. Each chapter reads like a short story. He is careful to point out, however, how actual events often do not have the clean shape of fiction. As a result, several chapters of The Periodic Table do not have neat conclusions. For example, after providing a sensitive narrative of his correspondence with a German chemist who had supervised his work in the concentration camp, and just before their fateful reunion after the war, Levi receives a message announcing the man’s death in his “sixtieth year of life.” In one sense, the death is accidental. It could have happened before or after their correspondence. In another sense, it seems determined by the correspondence, for while the German has rationalized the death camps, it is also clear that the extermination of millions has haunted him to the “sixtieth year of [his] life” and that he wants some sort of absolution from a reluctant Levi. Levi does not say the man dies of a bad conscience, but it is difficult not to draw that conclusion. Much of The Periodic Table has this understated yet insistent significance.

The Periodic Table begins with a discussion of inert gases:They are indeed so inert, so satisfied with their condition, that they do not interfere in any chemical reaction, do not combine with any other element, and for precisely this reason have gone undetected for centuries.

The phrase “so satisfied with their condition” is clearly an affectation. Chemists do not believe that gases are sentient. A gas does not reflect on its own condition. Human beings do, however, and human beings are chemists. This is Levi’s point: His work in chemistry has stimulated him to reflect on the human condition and to realize that “the little I know of my ancestors presents many similarities to these gases.”

In other chapters of The Periodic Table, the author is not so explicit. The connections between chemistry and human lives are not always specified, although the connections are there in the way Levi writes, in the way he lives. His ancestors, for example, have been inert in the sense that they have been “relegated to the margins of the great river of life.” Again, the sense of something elemental suffuses Levi’s style. By the second page of his memoir, it is clear that chemistry has become a part of his writer’s vocabulary and that his way of life—and by extension all lives—is chemistry.

This constant parallel between chemistry and life might prove tiresome if it were not for Levi’s elegant, concrete style. His ancestors may be like inert gases, but he can make them as colorful and all-absorbing as gases are to a chemist. There is his vivid memory of Barbarico, a fine doctor who disliked everything that went along with having a career. Barbarico hated hard work, schedules, appointments, commitments, politicking—in short, all the things a professional normally does to advance in the world. He loved men and women and nature. He let various women take care of him. While he was an excellent diagnostician, he preferred spending the day reading books and newspapers. If a patient sent for him, he would readily go, never asked for his fee, and accepted whatever goods his poor clients handed him. His needs were simple. He was more than ninety when he died “with discretion and dignity,” Levi concludes.

In his evocation of Barbarico, Levi conveys his deep affection for a relative, but he also views the man with considerable objectivity, measuring him like a scientist, a chemist curious about how this individual combines with other elements of life. Using another cliché, Levi suggests that “the comparison to inert gases with which these pages start fits Barbarico like a glove.” “Like a glove”—the very terms of comparison make Levi’s point that whether one is comparing gases or human beings, the principle of comparison is the same. If the elements fit, it is like the fit of glove to hand.

The Periodic Table, like the table of elements for which it is named, is constructed on the principle of making comparisons, of weighing and analyzing substances and experiences. Although Levi never says so explicitly, his memoir begins with a discussion of his inert relatives because he himself has been inert. In “Potassium,” for example, he explains why he and his family did not leave Italy when each day brought fresh evidence that the Fascists were bent on destroying the Jews: “We pushed all dangers into the limbo of things not perceived or immediately forgotten.” Their life was Italy. In the “abstract” they could have escaped, but they would have “needed a lot of money and a fabulous capacity for initiative.” Having neither, and wanting to live, they imposed on themselves a blindness, trying not to witness how circumscribed their lives had become.

Like an impure element, the Jews were driven out of Italy and into the extermination camps—a hideous irony for Levi, who spends his career examining the impurities of elements and who is constrained, as well, to contemplate the imperfections of human beings. In “Nickel” he presents what amounts to a fable of human history, a story about a mine he worked, where many years earlier (so the story was told to him) the workers had given way to every kind of chaotic behavior and sexual promiscuity, forcing the “governors in Milan to carry out a drastic, purifying intervention.”

Levi’s own mind, as presented in The Periodic Table, is like an impressionable metal that retains its own structure while becoming amazingly adaptable to the pressures exerted on it. During the war, he worked for a Swiss scientist who involved him in fruitless projects such as discovering an “oral anti-diabetic.” Although Levi put forth a few objections to his superior’s wacky scheme, he immediately complied when he found the scientist’s attitude “hardened like a sheet of copper under a hammer.” Levi’s friend Giulia became angry with him for humoring the superior’s weird ideas, but that is Levi’s strength: his pliable yet resistant nature. He goes along with nonsense without ever becoming nonsensical himself.

Levi’s memoir is both a historical and a philosophical work. It is also remarkable for the way it can blend history and philosophy in a single passage, thereby showing once again the unity of all things. For example, Levi describes his feelings as a chemistry student, learning about the periodic table, treating it as a kind of densely packed poetry he has to unravel. It provided “the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things.” Working in a laboratory was also an “antidote” to the dogmas of fascism, those unproved but deeply held prejudices. Chemistry and physics “were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers.”

Chemistry, for Levi, is at once a study of nature and of human nature. As he suggests in his conclusion, chemistry has taught him that he is a collection of cells, which is “the me who is writing.” No one has yet been able to explain how it is that a human personality has evolved in this way or exactly how out of the multitude of choices available to him, the writer selects the signs that are put on the page. The Periodic Table ends with this chemical mystery, which is also an assertion of human will. The memoir ends by focusing on the process of writing itself, on “this dot, here, this one,” and suggests that Levi has accounted for as much of his life—and of life itself—as is possible.

The Periodic Table is the third volume of Primo Levi’s autobiographical trilogy. Se questo è un uomo (1947), translated in England as If This Is a Man in 1959 and in the United States as Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity in 1961, may still be his best-known work. The American title is somewhat misleading, for it emphasizes only the documentary quality of the memoir and not Levi’s philosophical and literary concerns, which he continues in La tregua (1958), translated as The Truce: A Survivor’s Journey Home from Auschwitz (1965) in England and as The Reawakening (1965) in the United States. Translations of his work—as these titles indicate—have varied enormously in quality, and some have done him a disservice. The Periodic Table, however, is widely regarded as a faithful rendering of Levi’s Italian. In cases where the translator has not been able to duplicate Levi’s vocabulary—especially where the author plays on words—footnotes offer explanation. Even a reader unfamiliar with Levi’s reputation in Italy will receive a glimmer of his exquisite literary sensibility in The Periodic Table. Levi is a master of the Italian language who makes frequent and subtle allusions to Italian literature from Dante to the late twentieth century.

The Holocaust is the central event in Levi’s life and in his work. As many discussions of his memoirs note, his writing is remarkable for its compassion, detachment, objectivity, and lack of personal bitterness. Nevertheless, there is plenty of passion in Levi. He does not, for example, readily forgive the German chemist who seeks a meeting with him. He is aware, however, of his own complicity, his own inertness, in the face of profound evil. He does not scapegoat the Germans, making them into the source of all evil, but he also does not simply make their crimes the burden of humanity. He is specifically historical in his description of how the Jews were exterminated while realizing that the deaths of millions do raise important questions about human nature.

The Periodic Table has attracted a large audience outside of Italy because of its perfection of form. Many of Levi’s previous volumes are just as well written, but the imaginative conception of The Periodic Table is at once the most ambitious, most profound, and most perfectly executed of the author’s works to appear in English. In this memoir, Levi finds the perfect link between his personal experience and the history of humankind. In elaborating the metaphor of the periodic table, he does justice to the complexity of reality while simultaneously making it concrete and analyzable, like the elements in his chemistry laboratory.

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