The 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.