The Periodic Table
by Primo Levi
Thomas Mann began his tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, with this sentence: "Very deep is the well of the past." Primo Levi's memoir demonstrates this metaphor in a much smaller, compact space. The lives of Levi and his Piedmont ancestors are explored through stories that illuminate the nature of the past and the source of those people's and our own humanity. This is done through vignettes that demonstrate Levi's love of chemistry and literature, his relations and relationships, while exploring his own attitude and thoughts.
Some of his thoughts are about reading and its meaning for his life. This is a topic that I especially love to explore and learn about; I will take it up in this introductory commentary on his memoir. His reading is based on his love for great literature particularly his appreciation for the writings of Thomas Mann, whom he holds in the highest esteem.
Early in the narrative during his sojourn as a chemistry student he meets Rita, a fellow student, and is attracted to her although, due to his shyness, he does not know how to approach her. He reaches a point where "I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever". Yet one day he found beside her, peeking out of her bag, a book. It was The Magic Mountain. He relates, "it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha." (p 38)
We all may have had a similar experience more than once: finding someone (whether drawn to them by Eros or not) reading a book we love, but not reading the same book.
Levi's love for Mann's writing also provided him solace while working on a demanding project during the war. He was sequestered in a laboratory next to a nickel mine and forced to work long hours. He dared not venture far from the mine, so "Sometimes I stayed in the lab past quitting time or went back there after dinner to study, or to meditate on the problem of nickel. At other times I shut myself in to read Mann's Joseph stories in my monastic cell in the submarine. On nights when the moon was up I often took long solitary walks through the wild countryside around the mine". (p 79)
One can picture Levi pondering while walking by the light of the Tuscan moon finding comfort as did Jacob in Mann's novel when he walked in the moonlight. It is the moonlight with its "magically ambiguous precision" that mirrored for Jacob the way the traditions of the children and grandchildren of Abraham are "spun out over generations and solidified as a chronicle only much later--". ("The Tales of Jacob")
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. The chapters 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 can be roughly characterized as a chronology; however there are chapters which are difficult to date and some that are fictions in part or in whole. While his experience in Auschwitz is almost entirely avoided (he had written a separate book about this, If This is a Man), he does include a brief episode in the chapter "Cerium" that highlights his friendship with a young man named Alberto who buoyed his spirits.
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.
Throughout his memoir Primo Levi shares other literature and experiences as he narrates the lives of his friends, family, and ancestors. Just as he is inspired by reading Thomas Mann and the moonlight that inspired Jacob so many centuries ago he is imbued with the life of the people around him. Yes, The Periodic Table is deep, and one wonders at the lives narrated by this brilliant Jewish Italian chemist and humanist.
There are lessons to be learned in the humanity of people, but also in their frailties and foibles. Ultimately this is one of the most humane works of literature that this reader has encountered. With a unique style and appreciation for the importance of both science and literature for humanity The Periodic Table stands as a twentieth-century classic that I would recommend to all readers.