Nearly thirty years after Levi had stepped out of the hell of Auschwitz, he felt that he was ready to write The Periodic Table, an imaginative map of the world that he loved. In an instance of inspiration, he planned a kind of memoir with interludes of fantasy in which elements arranged on the periodic table would operate as emblems of the personality traits of people who had mattered to him. The originality of his conception is evident, but he was working in an archetypal tradition that includes the medieval European idea of a man controlled by various “humors” based on different organs of the body.
His friend, Italo Calvino, called the book “a moral biography,” since Levi celebrated the work he did as a chemist as a counter to the hideous parody of valuable work encapsulated in the notorious sign at the entrance to Auschwitz, Arbeit macht frei (work makes one free). At the start, Levi set his own motto, a Yiddish proverb, Ibergekumene tsores iz gut tsu derseylin (troubles overcome are good to tell).
The book is composed of twenty-one chapters, each one under the heading of a particular element. The first one, “Argon,” is a capsule history of Levi’s family, a reclaiming of the heritage that the Nazis tried to wipe out. It establishes a tone of genial expectancy as Levi fondly recalls how a hybrid language developed from a convergence of Spanish, Italian, and Yiddish, as his family adjusted to the particularities of a new habitation. The metaphor that informs the chapter is the...
(The entire section is 632 words.)