What is life? … The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

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The Periodic Table (1975) by Primo Levi (1919-1987) is a collection of essays loosely tied together by the elements making up the periodic table of elements created by Dimitri Mendeleev in 1869. Of course, Levi does not use all the elements; there are 116 of them. He picks out ones that have some sort of relevance to the story he wants to tell. Some elements are merely metaphorical, that is, a person in his life reminds him of a certain element; while others are work related and provide the structure around which he wraps his story.  Levi selected 21 elements, making 21 stories, which are for the most part autobiographical. There are two stories (lead & mercury), however, that are fictional or if there were such a genre, historical fantasy.  I must admit, when I first encountered these two fictional stories (they are completely italicized), I wondered what in the world was going on. Did I not understand something or did things change? Yes, the italicization of the entire text helped somewhat, but still, I was expecting another story that related to Levi’s life, and I spent half the reading of the story trying to figure out what that relation was. There are also one or two stories, which are not italicized that seemed made up or not related directly to Primo Levi. One in particular is meant for the Italian language, Titanium. This story story comes with a couple of footnote explanations from the translator about the play on words, which could only be appreciated in Italian. It was still a good story English, and the play on words could be appreciated with the help of the notes.

If you are familiar with Primo Levi then you will know that he is a survivor of the Nazi labor camp, Buna, a part of Auschwitz. He has written several books on his experience in the camps and his journey home after liberation by the Russians. Levi’s degree was in chemistry, which he received with honors, and he was for many years an itinerant chemist, packing up his backpack and traveling where he could find work.

His writing reflects his scientific mind, both curious and organized. He is not overly sentimental and does not write in a lyrical prose the way Carlo Levi does (they are not related, but they have both written about their experience in Italy during fascism).  Some describe Primo Levi writing as detached, but, I found it to be engaged and exact. When reading Levi it is hard to mistake where he stands in the world. He does not hide his thoughts, but neither does he speak in excess.

If you do a search on Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table you will be surprised to find a great many reviews of this work. All the reviews are positive and full of praise. The UK goes as far as declaring this book the best book on science ever. I’m not sure why the UK went that far. Guilt, maybe? I do not know. To be sure, The Periodic Table is a very unique book using the elements as guiding metaphors — no doubt there were a lot of scientists who were upset with themselves for not coming up with such an idea. But, if you read it because you want to learn more about science you might be disappointed.  Although, if you read it not knowing much about the elements you will learn about them as well as about humans, who we often forget, are forged from the elements.

I read The Periodic Table with an anticipation that there would be a philosophical point to it. And I do believe Levi provided the bridge between chemistry — a subject in which I have never had one adequate, never mind good, teacher, and philosophy — a subject which interests me greately. His book is a balance of philosophical and scientific.  I found that Levi was able to reinforce an understanding of the elements through the people and situations he explained, and the reverse is also true; he strengthened his portraits by placing them within the background of a particular element.

Levi begins The Periodic Table at the beginning by discussing his ancestry, which is placed in the context of the element, Argon.

“There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. They bear curious Greek names of erudite derivation which mean ‘the New,’ ‘the Hidden’ ‘the Inactive,’ and ‘the Alien.’ They are indeed so inert, so satisfied with their condition, they do not interfere in any chemical reaction, do not combine with any other element, and for precisely this reason have gone undetected for centuries … They are also called the noble gases — and here there’s room for discussion as to whether all noble gases are really inert and all inert gases are noble. And, finally, they are also called rare gases, even though one of them, argon (the Inactive), is present in the air in the considerable proportion of 1 percent, that is, twenty or thirty times more abundant than carbon dioxide, without which there would not be a trace of life on this planet.” Pg. 5

Levi has described these noble/inert/inactive gases beautifully. He has handed us in very condensed form the metaphor for this particular chapter, which concentrates on his ancestors who migrated from Spain, arriving in Piedmont around the 1500s. The chapter is a mix of explaining names, prefixes and suffixes, teasing out the origin of particular unkind gestures toward Jews, Jewish Piedmontese expressions and curses, and wonderful vignettes of specific relatives. My favorite is the story of his uncle, Barbaricô, who Levi sees as the very human manifestation of that Inert and Noble gas Argon:

“My uncle was a fine doctor, full of human wisdom and diagnostic intuition, but he spent the entire day stretched out on his cot reading books and old newspapers: he was an attentive reader, eclectic and untiring, with a long memory, although myopia forced him to hold the print three inches from his eyeglasses, which were as thick as the bottom of a beer glass. He only got up when a patient sent for him, which often happened because he almost never asked to be paid; his patients were the poor people on the outskirts of town, from whom he would accept as recompense a half-dozen eggs, or some lettuce from the garden, or even a pair of worn-out shoes. He visited his patients on foot because he did not have the money for the streetcar; when on the street he caught a dim view, through the mist of his myopia, of a girl, he went straight up to her and to her surprise examined her carefully, circling, from a foot away. He ate almost nothing, and in a general way he had no needs: he died at over ninety, with discretion and dignity.” Pg.17

Throughout The Periodic Table, Levi braids together the chemical element and its manifestation in human form with subtle skill. He never burdens the reader with tiresome explanations of why he has paired an element with a person. He relies on his description of the element and his description of person to be self-evident. His friend, Sandro, for instance, is Iron. A perfect fit you conclude as you get to know Sandro. Sandro was a friend from college. He took Levi out of the safe confines of the lab and into the real world of matter where Levi, for the first time, interacts on a raw human level with the elements he so loves.  This rugged face to face encounter with the elements, Levi suggests, prepared his body for the ultimate test of his life, the Nazi camps.

“For him all seasons were good. In the winter he skied, but not at the well-equipped, fashionable slopes, which he shunned with laconic scorn: too poor to buy ourselves the sealskin strips for the ascents, he showed me how you sew on rough hemp cloths, Spartan devices which absorb the water and then freeze like codfish, and must be tied around your waist when you ski downhill. He dragged me along on exhausting treks through the fresh snow, far from any sign of human life, following routes that he seemed to intuit like a savage. In the summer, from shelter to shelter, inebriating ourselves with the sun, the effort, and the wind, and scraping the skin of our fingertips on rocks never before touched by human hands: but not on famous peaks, nor in quest of memorable feasts; such things did not matter to him at all. What mattered was to know his limitations, to test and improve himself; more obscurely, he felt the need to prepare himself (and to prepare me) for an iron future, drawing closer month by month.” Pg. 49.

As much as Primo Levi wants to leave Auschwitz out of The Periodic Table; most of the stories touch upon it in some way. How can they not? They are told in chronological order and the ones prior to his imprisonment deal with the ever narrowing restrictions placed on Jews in Italy. He has one story that covers an aspect of his time at Buna, and then another toward the end, after the war, when he is made to revisit this time through his employment and dealings with a German chemical company employee, Dr. Müller, who, at the time of the war, was a German civilian charged with overseeing the lab at Buna. It is an eerie chapter that was structured rather mundanely around the element vanadium and its contribution to the drying of varnish. It was an innocent business transaction and transmittal from one company to another: one German company and the one for whom Primo Levi worked in Italy. What is the probability that Primo Levi would, by dint of a peculiar manner of pronunciation, which manifested in writing as well, recognize through such a strange peculiarity a former German inspector?

“To find myself, man to man, having a reckoning with one of the ‘others’ had been my keenest and most constant desire since I had left the concentration camp. It had been met only in part by letters from my German readers: they did not satisfy me, those honest, generalized declarations of repentance and solidarity on the part of people I had never seen, whose other face I did not know, and who probably were not implicated except emotionally.  The encounter I looked forward to with so much intensity as to dream of it (in German) at night, was an encounter with one of them down thre, who had disposed of us, who had not looked into our eyes, as though we didn’t have eyes. not to take my revenge: I am not the Count of Montecristo. Only to reestablish the right proportions, and to say ‘Well?’ If this Müller was my Müller, he was not the perfect antagonist … but, as it is known, perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.” pg. 221-222.

Primo Levi writes without shame or fury. He looks back on his life and offers up the wisdom he gained without any bitterness. The world, for Levi, was always a play of elements, and it is through the eyes of a chemist, who could gently and creatively impart his knowledge that we receive these elements back again as a reminder that they are part of our lives and our human stories.

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