The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi
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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

In the periodic table, the chemical elements are arranged according to their atomic number. The divisions in a person’s life are also periodic but not laid out flat. Because author Primo Levi was a chemist, he arranged his memoir—and in some ways understood his past—in an analogy to the foundations of chemistry. This metaphor is embedded in the book’s organization, with chapters named for elements. His stated purpose is to explain the victories and defeats, even the miseries of chemistry. For Levi, science is anything but detached from human emotional life.

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Charting his youth in a Jewish family in northern Italy, the author moves between his personal experiences and his training in chemistry, and the shadow of Mussolini’s rise. While his family background helped propel him into this training, they were targeted as Jews, and Primo was sent from Italy to Auschwitz. Before publishing this book, Levi had already become known for other works about surviving the concentration camp. Here, his speaks of the preceding years and elaborates on some experiences of his imprisonment and its aftermath, allowing the reader a longer look at suffering and survival. What stores of energy can a person draw on to endure the unendurable? Science as much as faith help Levi through the darkest days.

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Time and chemicals are far from the same, but time affects the results of chemical mixtures. Making a single element the chapter’s theme, Levi imbues its contents with other associations of that element. The mirrored themes of reaction and inaction appear throughout. Talking about chemistry raises questions about human behavior and motivation. Does placing a number of people with different properties in a particular situation mean they interactions will have the same result? The consequences of dehumanizing people, including literally subjecting them to science experiments, fit into that consideration. He takes a question such as what keeps people from moving, resisting, or stemming the tide of tyranny and links it up with inert gas.

Levi was a chemist by training and profession, but more than that, chemistry saved his life. Specifically referencing the element cerium in the chapter’s name, he explains its presence in an alloy he used in the camp. Incorporating the metal into lighters, he created a useable product that he traded for food. The combination of skill and serendipity also symbolically brought a light into his bleak existence, the prospect of survival that usually seemed so remote. More generally, working as a chemist in the Auschwitz lab kept him from other, far harsher labor requirements, again keeping him alive. Later correspondence with the one-time lab director brings up the topics of guilt and blame, redemption, and restitution that survivors grapple with. While being fully immersed in the particular ethical quandaries of World War II-era Nazism, the book connects with post-war survival and rebuilding as universal situations.

The unexpected combustions that occur from mixing elements can be compared to the results of mixtures of memoir and fiction. Levi has commented on the blurring of events in his recollections, largely from hazy memories associated with trauma, for which some readers criticized him. But he also notes that the work is his account of his own life, and that alterations are part of every author’s role. The Periodic Table has also been praised as a work of science, not only in its explanations of scientific ideas but in boldly confronting the ethics and responsibility of research and applied science alike, that was so grotesquely deformed in the fascist regimes.

The Periodic Table

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2616

Primo Levi is best known for his memoirs of the concentration camps, Survival in Auschwitz (1961) and The Re-awakening (1965). The Periodic Table (published in Italy in 1975 as Il sistema periodico) is, in Levi’s own words, an attempt to write “a micro-history, the history of a trade and its defeats, victories, and miseries.” The trade is chemistry, and Levi, a lifelong practitioner, succeeds admirably in describing the unique characteristics of his vocation. Gifted with the imagination of a fabulist as well as with the analytic mind of a chemist, Levi also succeeds in doing much more. He pays tribute to the peculiarly human determination to wrestle with matter, as desperately as Jacob with the angel, so as to obtain the blessing of order in a world of apparent disorder. Accordingly, Levi’s brilliant ability, demonstrated throughout this book, of animating lumpish matter is not mere whimsy or rhetorical dash but a most serious effort to humanize the world, to see primal and primeval matter as irrevocably altered by the impress of human history. Levi’s passion for order is also a search for meaning, an enterprise made all the more urgent by the facts of Levi’s personal history as a Jew and as a survivor of Auschwitz and by the horrors of recent world history, which call into question the meaning and value of human existence.

The structure of the book is an appropriate one. Each chapter takes its name from an element on the periodic table: In some chapters, this element merely serves as a reminder of some incident in Levi’s life, but in others the element serves as a foil, metaphor, or symbol to illuminate a distinct period in Levi’s past. Because Levi’s work as an analytic chemist has focused on problems presented by particular elements, each chapter is problem-centered, simultaneously revealing Levi the chemist wrestling with a chemical problem and Levi the man grappling with a personal problem. Much of the energy, wit, and playfulness of these narratives proceeds from Levi’s consideration of how these two aspects of his life intersect.

Levi’s narrative begins not with his life but with a kind of prologue in a brief account of the Jewish community in Piedmont, Italy, into which he was born. In this chapter, “Argon,” Levi describes the insular, static life of Piedmontese Jews, which was similar to the inert gas argon. As Levi describes them, they were “inert in their inner spirits, inclined to disinterested speculation, witty discourses, elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion.” They enjoyed the evanescent security of a time which tolerated independence and eccentricity, the time before the rise of Fascism. Levi lovingly re-creates their feeling of interrelatedness in their calling every older member of the community either “aunt” or “uncle,” and in their unique dialect, a mixture of Piedmontese and Hebrew, distinct from Italian in being rich not in curses but in “not very decent” terms, which offered the virtue “of relieving the heart without abrading the mouth.” The rich detail of this chapter gives it a particular poignancy in commemorating a culture now long dead.

The first chapter about Levi himself is “Hydrogen,” the first element on the periodic table and the first chemical element that Levi makes in a lab. The young Primo of this chapter sneaks into a laboratory at night to conduct his first chemical experiment, the formation of hydrogen and oxygen from water. Although his product explodes, he is triumphant in his newfound knowledge. The young experimenter is the prototype for the unquenchably inquisitive grown man. This chapter reads like the first chapter in a Bildungsroman: The only difference—if it is a difference—is that the talented young man whom the reader follows will develop into a scientist rather than an artist.

The reader follows Primo from the liceo to the Chemical Institute. In “Zinc,” the young chemistry student tries to solve two problems: to prepare zinc sulfate from zinc and to win over his cold, indifferent lab mate, Rita. Characteristically, he personifies his laboratory endeavor, describing his experiment in imagery befitting his other pursuit. With delicious wit, he describes his laboratory work in sexual terms as an encounter with “the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful.” Rita, however, proves to be made of a more unyielding substance, and he spends so much time talking her into letting him walk her home that he ruins his experiment.

In “Zinc,” he clarifies for himself as well some important ideas. Observing that zinc, when it is very pure, steadfastly resists combining with other elements, he notes that one can use this property to illustrate two conflicting morals, the praise of purity or the praise of impurity. He decides upon the necessity of impurity, telling himself “for life to be lived, impurities are needed.Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.” Thus he comes to pride himself on his distinctiveness.

In one of the most moving chapters in the book, “Iron,” Levi recalls his friendship with a remarkable young man named Sandro. His friend, a man of action rather than of words, was a great lover of nature and an extremely adept mountain climber. Sandro constantly urged the bookish Primo to accompany him on his rambles. These excursions into the mountains, arduous and dangerous as they were, proved wonderfully exhilarating, for they helped the young men to prove themselves and to prepare themselves “for an iron future, drawing closer month by month.”

By January, 1941, Levi and his friends, lacking both the money and the initiative to escape from the lengthening shadow of German domination, lived by blinding themselves to the extent of the threat. Levi subsisted on a series of odd jobs as a chemist, from which he extracted not only necessary chemicals but also guidelines that would prove useful for his life. First he was hired as a lab assistant. Asked to perform a distillation with sodium, he decided to use the more easily obtainable potassium, sodium’s apparent twin. When the experiment catches fire, he learns that “one must distrust the almost-the-samethe practically identical, the approximate,” observing that the chemist’s trade often consists of detecting small differences. He pointedly adds, “And not only the chemist’s trade.”

The chapter “Nickel” finds Levi working to extract nickel from the waste products of an asbestos mine. Working for some time unsuccessfully, he comes up with a hypothetical method for extracting the metal. He is so exhilarated at his brilliance that he temporarily forgets that this process, if successful, will greatly help the German war effort. Fortunately his hypothesis is incorrect, and the procedure fails.

During this period, Levi turned to writing fables in his spare time to escape the anxiety and danger of his daily life. The Periodic Table includes two curious fables written during this period. Read as allegories, they pay tribute to two opposed traits that combine in the talented chemist. The first, “Lead,” is a tribute to dogged persistence. It follows the wanderings of Rodmund, a lead-smith, who tries his hand at many trades, only to return to the one he was born to and loves, knowing that it will result in his early death. He resigns himself to this consequence of his toxic vocation, marrying just in time to ensure the survival of his trade in the child his wife is carrying. The second, “Mercury,” honors the ability to adapt to change. In it, a couple living on a remote island are visited by four adventurers who propose that they all make a living by distilling the mercury to be found there. One of the new arrivals also takes a fancy to the wife. First they import four more females, so that all may marry. Then the husband and the wife change partners and embark on their new occupation, leaving behind their former stable but dull existence.

In a final period of fear and waiting, described in “Phosphorus,” Levi worked without conviction in a laboratory to test the groundless hypothesis that phosphorus is a cure for diabetes. Equally fruitless at the time was his crush on his lab partner, Giulia, engaged to another man. At her request, he carries her, tantalizingly out of reach on the handlebars of his bicycle, to the home of her future in-laws to resolve their differences. Knowing this to be his last chance, Levi nevertheless is unable to tell her how he feels about her. Years later, they meet again and speak of what almost was, agreeing “that a veil, a breath, a throw of the dice deflected us onto two divergent paths, which were not ours.”

In 1943, Levi joined the partisans to fight against the Fascists. Shortly thereafter, Levi was captured and imprisoned by the Germans, who sent him to Auschwitz. The chapter “Gold” tells of his encounter in a holding cell with another prisoner, a gold prospector and seller of contraband, who is about to be released. He urges Levi to try prospecting for gold when he gets out, and Levi thinks of the gold of life itself, so much of which he has yet to experience and may never live to experience.

The most disturbing chapter of the book is “Cerium,” which recalls Levi’s stay in Auschwitz. Suffering from overwhelming hunger, Levi, working as a chemist in a chemical laboratory, tried eating all sorts of indigestible substances: fatty acids, glycerine, and fritters made of sanitary cotton. He soon realized that he had to learn to steal in order to survive. Mastering with difficulty the skills necessary for theft, he looked desperately about him for something worth stealing, something that could be traded for food in the intricate underground market of the death camp. He found a bunch of small rods, which proved to be iron-cerium, an alloy used to make flints for cigarette lighters. These he and his lab partner managed to sell to the makers of clandestine cigarette lighters in exchange for food: one flint for one day’s bread ration. Thus he and his friend were able to buy for themselves enough bread to survive for two months, until Soviet troops entered and liberated the camp. In this instance, Levi’s knowledge of chemistry was literally lifesaving.

After the war ended, Levi’s great task was to recover from his experiences at Auschwitz. He was helped in his recovery by his meeting with a vital young woman who was to become his wife, and by his new job as a chemist-sleuth hired to find out why a certain batch of paint in a paint factory had “livered”—that is, turned to a thick, useless, liver-textured substance. Armed with past lab notebooks and files, he renewed once more his battle with matter. In “Chromium,” he notes that “the adversary was still the same, the not-Istupid matter, slothfully hostile as human stupidity is hostile.” Through an admirable process of detection, Levi finds the faulty entry in a lab notebook and restores the texture of the defective paint by the addition of ammonium chloride. Years later, he learns that his addition of this substance, needed only one time, has been incorporated into the basic formula for the paint. So, quite needlessly, ammonium chloride, for long-forgotten reasons, is still systematically incorporated into every new batch of paint.

In the postwar years, scrambling frantically to make a living, Levi took on all kinds of strange chemical tasks. In partnership with a friend, he worked in a makeshift lab in the home of his friend’s long-suffering parents. There, in a cramped apartment filled with demijohns of hydrochloric acid, they worked to turn tin into stannous chloride to sell to mirror manufacturers; to detect arsenic in a pound of sugar sent to a shoemaker by his jealous and unsuccessful rival; and to correct the lipstick formula of a mafioso lipstick manufacturer whose cheap imitation of a Paris product had an unfortunate tendency to bleed.

Finally Levi left the lab for a customer-service job. The chapter “Vanadium” finds Levi at this job, undertaking to answer a larger and far more difficult question than any he has yet asked. He asks for the answer from his former enemy, now his counterpart at a chemical factory in Germany.

The episode begins with a correspondence between Levi and a Dr. Müller over a company dispute. The company Levi represents has received a batch of varnish that will not harden, and Levi asks the German company to make good on the order, but the German firm denies responsibility for the problem. Then Levi, employing his well-honed sleuthing skills, begins to suspect from a consistent and peculiar spelling error that his correspondent is the same Dr. Müller who managed the laboratory in which Levi worked at Auschwitz. Levi, exhilarated to confront his former enemy (albeit one who had shown some kindness by getting him a pair of shoes), begins a personal correspondence with him. Levi demands in essence that Müller accept responsibility for Auschwitz, but Müller’s reply is neither that of a penitent nor of an unregenerate Nazi. Rather, Müller shows himself to be “neither infamous nor a hero,” but “a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.” To relieve his conscience, Müller pleads for a personal meeting, to which Levi reluctantly consents. Before the meeting takes place, Müller dies unexpectedly. The meaning of Müller’s death and the extent and nature of his responsibility—the answers to these questions is silence. Implicitly, the book acknowledges that there are questions outside the scope of the laboratory that are perhaps unanswerable.

In “Carbon,” a marvelously playful final chapter which serves as a kind of antidote to the previous one, Levi traces the history of a carbon atom from its long imprisonment in a limestone rock, to its liberation into the air, its inhalation into the lungs of a falcon, its exhalation into the air again, and its penetration into a leaf, where, with the aid of sunlight, it enters the chain of life as part of a glucose molecule stored in a bunch of grapes which are made into wine, drunk by an individual, stored in his liver, and exhaled in the form of carbon dioxide. The atom, airborne again, lodges in a cedar in Lebanon, which is burrowed into by a woodworm, is formed into a pupa, and becomes part of one of the moth’s thousand eyes. The moth dies, and the atom reenters the earth until 1960, when it reenters the life cycle through photosynthesis. It is located in a glass of milk which is drunk by the writer Levi, travels through his bloodstream, and enters his brain into the very nerve cell which is in charge of his writing, guiding his hand over the paper. Then, “a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”

Thus, with characteristic elegance and wit, Levi ends his book with carbon, the element of life, in a paean to life itself. The chapter, “Carbon” celebrates life in all of its infinite variety, adaptability, and renewal, looking back briefly to pay tribute to the specific, vanished life form of the Piedmontese Jews, with which the book opened, and looking ahead to the other specific life forms which will emerge, forms as specific as that of the highly individual author of The Periodic Table.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Sources for Further Study

Angier, Carole. The Double Bond: Primo Levi—A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Anissimov, Myriam. Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist. Translated by Steve Cox. London: Aurum, 1998.

Denby, David. “The Humorist and the Holocaust: The Poised Art of Primo Levi.” The New Republic 193 (July 28, 1986): 27-33.

Eberstadt, Fernanda. “Reading Primo Levi.” Commentary 80 (October, 1985): 41-46.

Hartley, James. Suffering Witness: The Quandary of Responsibility After the Irreparable. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Leiter, Robert. “The Science of Life: The Literary Insights of a Chemist Turned Survivor.” Jewish Exponent 216, no. 14 (June 1, 2004): 20.

Leiter, Robert. “Survival of the Fittest.” Jewish Exponent 221, no. 23 (May 1, 2007): 30.

Randerson, James. “Science: Levi’s Memoir Beats Darwin to Win Science Book Title.” The Guardian, October 21, 2006, p. 12.

Roth, Philip. “A Man Saved by His Skills.” The New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1986, p. 1.

Stille, Alexander. “Primo Levi.” Saturday Review 11 (August, 1985): 70.

Thomson, Ian. Primo Levi: A Life. London: Hutchinson, 2002.

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