Book Review: The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal

As someone who reads my fair share of memoirs, I am always struck by those memoirs which present a puzzle to their reader that has to be put together from different pieces.  As I have written such a memoir of my own childhood, and as such a memoir was written by Vladimir Nabakov [1], I am perhaps a bit biased to that sort of memoir, but even so, it is highly inventive that Levi would use his background as a chemist to provide an inventive and complex memoir of a complicated life, and the structure of his memoir provides a way that one can avoid simple narrative arcs, which the author likely sees as inappropriate to his own life.  Reading the various parts of the memoir, there are certainly large aspects of the author’s life that are not covered, but at the same time one gets a coherent sense of a life and its complexity in these pages and therefore the book certainly succeeds at presenting a life that has some major fragmentary elements in a way that allows a wide variety of aspects of the author’s thinking to be seen by the attentive reader.

This book is organized in the fashion of the periodic table, with its chapters labeled by particular relevant elements.  In all of the cases, the element fits, and though the periodic table is not complete (there is no chapter, for example, on Tungsten or Neptunium, or any other number of elements), the elements chosen are strikingly chosen.  Giving a connection of the elements chosen and the contents of the chapter will help reveal just how complex this narrative is.  The author begins with Argon, a noble gas, and compares it to the politically inert Jewish ancestry that the author has, telling a variety of stories that reveal the small domestic tragedies of a people on the margins.  Hydrogen spurs the author to recollect his early clandestine experiments in chemistry, while Zinc allows the author to talk about a memorable experience in his education of making zinc sulfate.  Iron prompts a discussion of the relationship between fascism and science.  Potassium allows the author to discuss a painful experience of trying to find a substitute for unavailable pure sodium, and so on.  Nickel is the theme of a narrative of a sub rosa job that the author had trying to refine nickel from asbestos tailings, while lead and mercury allow the author to tell a couple of interesting fictional stories, one of them about an island that is a shared fascination between the author and I [2].  Phosphorus is the hero of a story about a job the author had during the 1940’s to engage in a foolish quest to isolate phosphorus to plants.  Gold provides the context of an intriguing story about the author’s imprisonment as an Italian partisan after the German invasion, while Cerium allows the author to interact with a German scientist from his days in Auschwitz.  Chromium provides a tale of the author’s work in the postwar varnish industry where he came up with a way to counteract the negative tendencies of the chromates being used at the time.  And so it goes throughout the whole memoir as the author provides fragmentary pictures of a richly diverse life.

It is worthwhile to examine the many elements of Levi’s life that are touched upon here.  The author discusses his family background, at least some of the effects that his Jewish identity had in the period during and after his graduation where he was officially forbidden from working in his industry because of racial laws but benefited from people willing to disobey the law.  We read a bit about his experiences in the lager of Auschwitz, which is discussed in more detail in other writings, see some of his fiction and read some modest discussions of the author’s professional achievements as a chemist in postwar Italy, including at least one tale where someone hires him to investigate poisoned sugar.  If one has read quite a bit from the author in terms of his writing, one can see that his life richly influenced his fiction, both in his experience as an outsider of a noble but often oppressed tribe, his experiences as a partisan and in prison, his work as a chemist, his fiction writing, and his experience as an occasional correspondent for a couple of newspapers, an aspect of his life that he strangely does not cover here, perhaps because he thinks it will not be of general interest.  Even so, this is a worthwhile memoir that gives a good flavor of the man and his writing.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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