Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, published in Italian in 1975, is a literary memoir of high art and broad ambition. It covers the waterfront.
The periodic table, of course, is a major subject — that list of chemical elements, now totaling 118, that comprise everything in the Universe. All matter. (The sole exception is dark matter which, according to scientists, is made up of something other than the chemical elements but no one’s sure what that something is.)
Levi, who worked all his life as a chemist — indeed, his chemical expertise saved his life during the Holocaust — constructs his book with 21 chapters, each keyed to an element on the periodic table.
Two of these, the ones for lead and mercury, are short stories that a 22-year-old Levi wrote when he was working off by himself in a plant on an island in 1941. He was, he writes, in semi-hiding as a Jew in Fascist Italy, pondering “my freedom, a freedom I would perhaps soon lose.” He writes, in Raymond Rosenthal’s English translation:
From this rocky love and these asbestos-filled solitudes, on some other of those long nights were born two stories of islands and freedom, the first I felt inclined to write after the torments of compositions in [high school]: one story fantasized about a remote precursor of mine, a hunter of lead instead of nickel; the other, ambiguous and mercurial, I had taken from a reference to the island of Tristan da Cunha that I happened to see during that period.
The rest of the chapters are essays that intertwine many threads, including the story of Levi’s life, the rather lackadaisical Italian reaction of the attempted regimentation of Fascist authoritarianism, detective tales of Levi’s investigations of the properties of various elements and his anxieties as a Jew before he was sent to Auschwitz and after he survived to freedom.
(In two earlier books, he dealt with his time in the concentration camps: If This Is a Man (1947), published in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, and The Truce (1963), published in the U.S. as The Reawakening.)
However, it’s somewhat misleading to list these subjects because Levi has a deeper purpose in The Periodic Table. He wants to look into the heart of life, to examine human life, as it were, on the atomic level.
A handful of sentences that, to my mind, capture this, come in his essay on zinc. He notes:
The [high school] course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a very different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists the attack.
Savor that long, complicated but beautifully phrased sentence for a moment. First, there is that delightful metaphor of the “acid which gulps [zinc] down in a single mouthful.” And the phrase “tender and delicate zinc” which captures the usual character of the element in four words.
Even more, though, consider how, in just over 50 words, Levi explains, pleasantly, amiably, engagingly, to the non-chemist reader the double-headed nature of zinc.
But Levi is writing this not to just to wonder at the delectable complexity of zinc, but also to recognize in it something about human life and life in general. He goes on:
One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.
Levi explains that he discards the first one as “disgustingly moralistic.” But he lingers thoughtfully on the second, saying to himself:
In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as it is known, if it is to be fertile.
Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.
Levi looks at life in all its complexity as an adventure in which he and everyone else plays a sort of fool’s role, going along for the ride.
So there is wide wonder that he communicates in his essay on silver when he considers a long-ago college classmate:
“[T]he honest, clumsy, eager Cerrato, to whom life had given so little and who had given so little to life….an inert man, not shipwrecked: a shipwrecked man is he who departs and sinks, who sets himself a goal, does not reach it, and suffers because of it; Cerrato had never set himself anything, he had not exposed himself to anything, he had remained safely shut up in his house, and certainly must have clung to the ‘golden’ years of his studies since all his other years had been years of lead.”
By contrast, there was Levi and Levi’s college friend Enrico who was not inert but also not high flying:
He had a slow, foot-dragging imagination: he lived on dreams like all of us, but his dreams were sensible; they were obtuse, possible, contiguous to reality, not romantic, not cosmic. He did not experience my tormented oscillation between the heaven (of a scholastic or sports success, a new friendship, a rudimentary and fleeting love) and the hell (of a failing grade, a remorse, a brutal revelation of inferiority which each time seemed eternal, definitive). His goals were always attainable. He dreamed of promotion and studied with patience things that did not interest him…
We had no doubts: we would be chemists, but our expectations and hopes were quite different. Enrico asked chemistry quite reasonably, for the tools to earn his living and have a secure life. I asked for something entirely different; for me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those had hidden Mount Sinai.
But not just that.
Levi, it seems, also demanded of chemistry a window into the sheer oddness of life.
It was just after the war when Levi was trying to get off the ground professionally in a partnership with another chemist when, into their shop, came a man who wanted them to find a way to produce a supply of an unusual chemical, alloxan, for a perfume he was making.
The only way, however, to get it was through the use of uric acid which, Levi explains, was “very scarce in the excreta of man and mammals, [but] constitutes 50 percent of the excrement of birds and 90 percent of the excrement of reptiles.” So the chemist found himself on the search for a lot of, well, shit.
Which delighted him:
[F]ar from scandalizing me, the idea of obtaining a cosmetic from excrement, that is, aurum de stercore (“gold from dung”), amused me and warmed my heart like a return to the origins, when alchemists extracted phosphorous from urine.
It was an adventure both unprecedented and gay and noble besides, because it ennobled, restored, and reestablished. That is what nature does: it draws the fern’s grace from the putrefaction of the forest floor, pasturage from manure…
The puzzle-solving aspect of the adventure of chemistry — and of living — was also a deep attraction for Levi. Indeed, many of the chapters in The Periodic Table have to do with some search in the world of elements for elusive answers.
Such as when, early in the war, he was attempting to find a way to extract nickel from a huge quantity of rocks. He went at his task with a vengeance and didn’t flinch at the idea of helping the Axis war machine:
I was not thinking that if the method of extraction I had caught sight of could have found industrial application, the nickel produced would have entirely ended up in Fascist Italy’s and Hitler Germany’s armor plate and artillery shells.
Instead, he was enjoying the chase, and, in coming up with what he thought was an answer, he was envisioning payback against all anti-Semites:
I was thinking of something that nobody else had yet thought…I was thinking of having had a far from ignoble revenge on those who had declared me biologically inferior.
Alas, his solution didn’t work.
Levi and his friends had “no precise information, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews and other people deemed unfit to live, “only vague and sinister hints.”
He would, shortly, find out firsthand, but, early in the war, he and his friends were whistling by the graveyard.
Our ignorance allowed us to live, as when you are in the mountains and your rope is frayed and about to break, but you don’t know it and feel safe.
He probably doesn’t completely mean “feel safe.”
As a Jew, he knew that he and his people were being marginalized and squeezed out of the central culture and society and Italy. He knew enough to worry, probably more than a bit.
But it’s unlikely he could imagine what he would soon experience. As he writes about his life immediately after the war:
The things I had seen and suffered were burning inside me; I felt closer to the dead than the living, and felt guilty at being a man, because men had built Auschwitz, and Auschwitz had gulped down millions of human beings, and many of my friends, and a woman who was dear to my heart.
There’s that word again: “gulp.” When writing about zinc, Levi employs it to create a convivial image, whimsical, cheery.
Here, his use of “glup” is anything but cheery.
In The Periodic Table, Levi engages in the fullness of life — the physical elements, the many choices people make in how to live their lives, the brutality of some people toward others, the adventure of discovery, the essential nature of impurities, the irony of perfume from crap and, above all else, the wondrously quirkiness of life.
He knows how bad life can be. He knows how much fun it can be.
He knows that, to see as much of life as possible, you have to keep your eyes wide open.
And accept the reality — and necessity — of the impurities.
Patrick T. Reardon