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.
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...
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