(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 2185 words.)