Primo Levi: Other People’s Trades.

I can’t believe this book appears to be out of print and only available second hand.

On the surface, an Italian chemist with a flair for autobiographical and discursive writing, with a very sad and turbulent personal history, has very little in common with an english teenager. However, I can pinpoint exactly what it was that made me buy this book when I was much younger. It was because I’d read of Levi and his major work “If This is a Man” in the newspaper. And it was also because, having seen this book by him in a shop, I picked it up and read a couple of pages.

Even at a young age, with barely enough knowledge to follow what I was reading fully, I must have known on some level that this was a very special writer. I think the intriguing titles of the essays got me first. Then the tone of the writing. It’s knowledgable and authoritative, but never patronising and its disarmingly personal. As a result,  I have had this book for many years, and it’s survived numerous house moves and culls of otherwise unwanted books. I always come back to it. It is a collection of essays which the late Italian writer published in the Turin paper La Stampa over a number of years. Of course Levi is most well known for his memoirs of the Holocaust, and the books that dealt with that event are very much the product of a writer forcing himself to recollect, to tell people and to stand as a public witness.

The essays contained in this book, by contrast, show another side to Levi, in which the private man invites his readers to take a look at the world around them in his company. The equally enchanting The Periodic Table is very similar to this book in tone and approach, showing his ability to observe and note things of interest that in turn can alter a reader’s perceptions of things for the better. While Levi’s life and his work in chemistry form the backbone of Table, this book by contrast ranges even wider. Levi was an endlessly curious man it seems, endlessly fascinated by the world about him and the people who inhabit it. Hence the title of “other people’s trades”, as each essay is the work of a man who is not interested in just his own little world and opinions, but someone who is interested in what is going on around him. Thus the essays reflect on many disparate topics, from the moon landings to the language of schoolchildren, from the fear engendered by trying to learn a language in your sixties to the wonders of looking at things through a microscope.

The book, then, contains the Levi mix of autobiography and a fascination with chemistry and natural history that we get in his other works. However, the mood is by and large lighter. When I was  younger I  was in no doubt at all that these were the words of a wise man, and a man with a great deal to teach other people.  As I’ve got older and come back to these essays the quality in them that I have come to value most is their humanity and love of life.  Although written for newspaper consumption, there is nothing throwaway about these pieces. The willingness to stop time for a moment, to think about those things which matter, and then to elegantly sum up your thoughts in writing is a timeless skill. Levi had this ability in spades,  and for this reason I don’t think I will ever tire of this book.

 

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