Primo Levi: A life broken down to its elements

In my experience, telling humanities students that they should really read The Periodic Table tends to make them widen thir eyes, their complexions paling as they cover their ears and moan about the trauma of GCSE chemistry. Really? Even I know letters and numbers in boxes on the wall are not enthralling reading. The book I’m referring to is Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. The book is semi-autobiographical, each of its chapters finding a central metaphor in the properties of a chemical element. 

Levi was Italian, Jewish by birth, born just a few months after the First World War, and persecuted for his ethnicity up to and during the Second. Most of his writing revolves around his experience of Auschwitz, where he was held for 11 months in 1944. Indeed this is the subject of his most famous work, If This is a Man. 

Unlike many of his other books, The Periodic Table does not have his experience in the concentration camp as its main focus. Indeed, there is only one chapter which really touches on it, and even this refuses to get wholly engulfed by the events that no doubt shaped the rest of his life. In this sense, the title is highly apt: a life comprised of many elements which form the set. Levi was a chemist, an author, a husband and father, among many other things, and in his book he gives the defining moments of his earlier life a single box and nothing more. I specify earlier life, because it is a point to note that in the book, he mentions nothing of his wife, Lucia, or any of his time later on, and though he appears to put on display every personal aspect of the first half of his life, he consciously excluded the life that surrounded him as he wrote. 

Levi’s writing style possesses straightforwardness; events are stated simply, and the language leaves the reader room for their own imagination. He somehow adds a fantastical tint to his life, trimmed with sardonic wit that I personally very much enjoyed. He has an appreciation, one that I find common to grandparents and scientists, of his own mistakes and those of others, and of the flaws in humanity as a whole. His directness and honesty are at points disarming: when he talks of the work he did in chemistry, he does not make out that his science was groundbreaking, but instead tells us of its most mundane aspects.

This includes descriptions of paint factories where he worked, or his obviously misguided experiments to develop a diabetes cure. The science he sketches out is very much not the fashionable impression given by the likes of Hawking or Dawkins, though he includes it as he does other significant parts of his life, unconcerned as to whether a reader will find it exciting. It matters to Levi and this is what comes across. In this respect, he is not a self-conscious writer. This humble view of himself, however, does not impede his ability to look at the world as a whole in a fantastical way, full of emotion and humanity that is never associated with the cold and unfeeling world of science. He writes on “the borderline between chemistry and white magic”, and I believe it is his ability to write about the science which has meaning for him which allows such imaginative expression. 

In seeing such snippets of his struggles through short stories centred around elements, coupled with a writing style that has all the humble clarity of mathematics, I often found the need to remind myself that his life was not a rambling walk through a wood, but a series of battles, from the racial laws that almost prevented him obtaining a degree, to his imprisonment in Auschwitz and his drawn-out journey home.

“I will tell just one more story, the most secret, and I will tell it with the humility and restraint of him who knows from the start that his theme is desperate, his means feeble, and the trade of clothing facts in words is bound by its very nature to fail.”

What went on in Levi’s mind after his experiences, psychologists can only theorise and the rest of us only guess. Among all the knowledge of the evil humans can do, and the horror of the real world, he manages to convey a comfort known to every chemist: that however incomprehensible life may seem, you can always break it back down into its elements.