The chemistry and physics on which we fed were the antidote to Fascism

The Periodic Table book coverThe Periodic Table
by Primo Levi
translated from Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

This is my Italy book for my EU Reading Challenge and is also on my Classics Club list. It seemed appropriate right now in multiple ways. I’ve seen a few people recommending we all read Primo Levi this year to remind us what Fascism and Second World War concentration camps were like (to refute the argument that the US detainment camps aren’t really concentration camps). Plus, 2019 is the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, as designated by UNESCO.

This is a difficult book to describe. Not quite a memoir, but not quite popular-science either, and certainly more than just a loose collection of tales. Each of its 21 chapters is framed around one element – sometimes abstractly, sometimes very directly. Levi was a professional chemist and himself describes this book as “events, mine and otherwise…to convey to the layman the strong and bitter flavour of our trade…stories of the solitary chemistry…which with few exceptions has been mine: but it has also been the chemistry of our founders…who confronted matter without aids, with their brains and hands, reason and imagination.”

Levi begins with his ancestors and a dissection of the language he spoke as a child, a product of the Jewish community in the Piedmont region that combined Italian, Piedmontese and Hebrew. I’ll admit that the link is a little tenuous between the inert gas argon and Levi’s assessment of his ancestors’ general character, but I do love a bit of etymology and Levi has a knack for turning anything into a great story.

Through hydrogen we hear anecdotes from Levi’s later school years, and in particular his first dabbles in chemistry. Through zinc we follow him to university and his flirtation with a fellow chemistry student, complicated by the Italian Racial Laws. Through iron, his friendship with a fellow student who introduced him to mountaineering. Through nickel, his first postgraduate job, a rather extraordinary situation whereby an army lieutenant hired him to work at a mine under a false name (to hide his Jewish identity). Through phosphorus, his second job, another discreetly arranged affair, this time for a pharmaceutical company with obsessive levels of secrecy.

“Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by centuries…in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence.”

Levi doesn’t completely skip his time spent as a prisoner of war (“Gold” tells of his initial capture and questioning; “Cerium” his work at a rubber factory while a prisoner at Auschwitz) but as he had already written two books about that experience (If This is a Man and The Truce) it’s understandable that this volume doesn’t linger there. The last third of the book is a little lighter, on the whole, dealing with how he met his wife and the petty problems that arise in any career. But the book ends with two chapters that are extremely moving, in very different ways.

In the penultimate chapter, Levi recounts how, when making a complaint to a supplier in Germany, he recognised the name of his correspondent as that of a Nazi officer he had interacted with several times at the Auschwitz rubber factory. After two decades of wishing for a confrontation with one of the actual Nazis he had encountered, he finds the opportunity staring him in the face. Levi is brutally honest about how their correspondence unfolds and its emotional effect on him.

And then, the final chapter that inspired countless school assignments around the globe: the story of an atom of carbon. Which sounds cheesy, but Levi perfectly balances science and imagination to create a readable and indeed profound ending to his book.

Levi was a great writer, astute at identifying the details of life that are interesting. He also had great passion for science, and especially chemistry, and spent years compiling this love letter to his profession.

There was only one dud note for me. About halfway through, two chapters are short stories, each of course centred around an element. One of them is a fun little tale set on a remote island. The other is narrated by a journeyman prospector who I must admit I actively hated. He is misogynistic, racist and looks down on the uneducated and poor. I know he’s a fictional character (and Levi himself certainly never displays any of those tendencies) but it spoiled my enjoyment of this book for a while.

I really do recommend this, though. I want to end with a longer excerpt than I would usually quote, because this really gets to the heart of the whole book, and who Levi was.

“We began studying physics together, and Sandro was surprised when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo…

“And finally, and fundamentally, an honest and open boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky? Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproved affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?”

First published in Italian 1975 by Giulio Einaudi editore.
This translation published 1984 by Shocken Books.

Source: I think I got this from the Bookbarn in 2009 when it was closing down in Bristol and giving away whatever could be saved from pulping. It was certainly already on my TBR when I first created it in 2010.