I first read Primo Levi when I was in my late teens, starting with his collection of newspaper essays Other People’s Trades, and moving soon on to his first and possibly most important book If This is a Man/ The Truce.
It’s satisfying to know that The Periodic Table (which I should have read back then, but better late than never) is something of an amalgam of the above two books. It consists of 21 chapters, each one named after a chemical element. No chapter is about any of the named elements per se. What Levi gives us instead is a sideways take on chemistry, revealing some of the myriad ways in which it influences lives. Each chapter stands alone to a certain degree, but taken together they add up to something like an autobiography, Levi describing a specific episode or aspect of his life through the way in which a given element featured in it.
Why read this book? I think the main reason is because it is a great work. In many ways it is very serious (how could it not be, given a large part of it deals with Levi’s war time experiences, including his time in the Death Camps?). However, the seriousness is balanced by moments of levity and humour, and also by Levi’s intense curiosity about life. He wrote, he said, partly to bear witness to the Holocaust, so that it never be forgotten. But I think in a more general sense he also wrote because he basically loved life, he loved the world and he wanted to explore it more through his writing.
Being based on personal recollection, the book provides an insight into what pre-war Italian Jewry was like, and how things changed over time under Fascism. Likewise it affords some insight into civilian life in Europe during the Second World War and its aftermath, which is a subject I always find interesting.
Perhaps most importantly the book reveals some of the many ways in which chemistry can touch upon everyday life. Levi remained a working chemist for all of his professional life, and it’s fascinating for me as a non-scientist to see, thanks to this book, the world through the eyes of a specialist.
The almost perfect comparison to this book is another one that I found in my local library when I was halfway through Levi’s work. The Periodic Table published by Quercus Books is an illustrated element-by-element guide to the building blocks of life and their role in world around us. It’s a lovely book in it s own right, and it allowed me to see those elements in their raw form that Levi went on to transform on the page.