The Periodic Table

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

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 entire section is 2616 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.