The Periodic Table

by JDP

This excellent and small tome is outright polymathic; quasi-autobiographical in the main, the author writes in short, punchy chapters that are composed with both scientific precision and high literary sensibility.

Primo Levi / Italian / 1975 / 240 pages
Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

I have problems when I begin to think about authors as entities distinct from their work. Name an author (hopefully, if you’re the least bit charitable, someone not too terribly obscure) and I can ramble off a few of his major works, the rough time period in which he wrote, some of his major themes and prose tools, and — perhaps — the general critical appraisal of his novels. The thing I’m comparatively horrible at, however, is telling you anything at all about the author’s personal life. To a great extent, I take steps to insulate myself from the intimate details of the authors I enjoy reading. Sometimes this is due to the fact that, with a bit of investigation, it turns out that he was a horrible person (ahem, Naipaul). At other times, it’s because learning something about an author can involve more time and resources than I am willing to dedicate to the project (here I have in mind the enigmatic Pynchon). Occasionally, we when look into biographical details, we get drug into the dark psychological underbelly of the artist, a tortured soul who writes because she or he cannot find peace in the world (Woolf, Hemingway, etc.) But beyond the dangers of intimacy lurks another fact: if we’re being honest with ourselves, we come to the realization that novels stand on their own. Sometimes the public persona serves as a decent PR ploy, but if the novel is any good, we really don’t need to talk to the guy who wrote it. I like my novels spontaneously arisen from primordial ooze. I like them deus ex machina. I am comfortable keeping at arm’s length the black box of artistic creation.

But for all my misanthropic posturing, if Primo Levi were still alive today, I would want to shake his hand and buy him a cappuccino. Rarely have I read a book where the author’s personal life so deeply informs and motivates the prose as in the case of The Periodic Table. One cannot separate the man from the book and this has less to do with the quasi-autobiographical nature of its composition than it does the evident love this chemist harbors for writing about chemistry in largely metaphorical capacities. While much of the book is culled from the author’s personal experiences, large swathes of it seem to be only loosely tied to actual happenings and additional portions are pure fiction. What unites these disparate and episodic components is an accessible, almost colloquial writing style that frames persons and plots in symbolic terms. While these things happened to Levi personally, they nonetheless harbor universal truths for all of us; real life presents us with literary moments nearly as often as fiction and Levi is all the keener for being able to diagnose these instances in his own life rather than having to invent them wholesale.

The periodic table of elements lends its individual entries as titles to each chapter in the book. Sometimes these titles are literally interpretable (for instance, a chapter entitled “lead” is really about the mining of lead from the earth) while at others they serves as metaphors that emerge out of the characteristics of the element itself (the chapter entitled “argon” — a noble gas that does not mix well with other elements — charts the Piedmont Jews’ ability to live among other Italians for many generations without culturally assimilating). Levi was famous for his ability to render the complexities of the real world in objective, leveled writing that nonetheless elicits heartfelt responses from the reader. This facility is perfected in The Periodic Table where Levi’s considerable scientific knowledge allows him to creatively meditate on obtuse chemical processes and, surprisingly, capture our attention at the same time. While I cannot say that I retained many of the chemical particulars, I can say that I appreciated the worldview of an expert, of looking at a common, everyday occurrence through the eyes of someone who understands it on a much deeper level than myself. It’s the same type of fascination I feel when listening to a stamp collector talk about stamps, a professional photographer talk about film development, the anthropologist about cultural symbology; when passion matches expertise, the substance of the discourse is of little consequence. I remain rapt.

Levi writes many of the episodes utilizing a formulaic structure: there is some chemical phenomenon taking place that he has been charged with explaining scientifically. A cobbler brings him a pound of sugar that he fears has been laced with arsenic by a competing cobbler; Levi tests the sugar at length and confirms his client’s suspicions. Later on, Levi’s employer in a warehouse is curious about what chemical process has ruined hundreds of cans of paint he just ordered for the company. While in college, Levi is put to the test of deducing the chemical composition of a small sample of some unknown compound. These repeated diagnostic sessions are telling, however, in what they reveal about the human participants. Indeed, the recurring theme here is that humans are thrust into a world of powerful, yet inanimate, materials that play a substantial role in governing their day-to-day lives. When humanity first began to garner some understanding of these materials it was in the guise of the alchemist, the pseudo-chemist. As superstition yielded to scientific inquiry, the scope of chemical investigation expanded far beyond the question of how one might convert coal into gold. By the time Levi was studying chemistry in 1940s fascist Italy, it was possible for the chemist to see the natural elements and their inherent order in all walks of life. The power of Levi’s premise is that chemicals are, literally, all around us.

But there were other, more insidious forces at work in Levi’s life during this time and these elements infiltrate his narrative as well. In bits and pieces, we observe the ramp-up to the German occupation of Italy toward the end of World War II as well as the ensuing deportation of many Italian Jews to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Although Levi’s actual experiences in a chemical lab at Auschwitz only occupy a couple of brief chapters in the book, his identity as a holocaust survivor informs the totality of The Periodic Table and, indeed, the entire body of his work. Some of the most poignant passages of the book deal with Levi’s reentry into Italian society after the war, reconvening with surviving childhood acquaintances at a high school reunion, and accidentally running across one of his Nazi persecutors in the course of negotiating an international business deal. For all of the chemically-based conundrums Levi solves in the course of the novel, he emphasizes all of the human-created conundrums that can never be solved, let alone made sense of. Even for the scientist, the purveyor of order, the world is too unruly; despite the beautiful logic of the inanimate, the directionless and explosive powers of the animate threaten us fundamentally. It was a juxtaposition that would haunt Levi to the premature end of his life.

Despite the fact that I’ll never buy him that cappuccino, I still feel as if I know him. I enjoyed his book immensely and, as a fellow scientifically predisposed individual, I appreciate his outlook. The final chapter of The Periodic Table is entitled “carbon” and, as the elemental building block of organic life, Levi leverages this chemical to close with a brilliant essay bridging the gap between the animate and the inanimate. It constitutes a skilled and creative closing to a most excellent book that I would recommend as required reading for any lover of science, history, or fine writing.

Rating: 8 / 10

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