The Books: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:

Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, is one of the great books of the 20th century. In 2006, the Royal Institute of Britain named it “the best science book ever written”. Praise, indeed, but it’s not just a science book. It’s a memoir, it’s a diary, it’s philosophy, it’s a contemplative book. Levi uses as his overall structure the periodic table: each chapter is given the name of an element: Hydrogen, Zinc, Iron, Potassium, Mercury – and uses the qualities of each element as the jumping-off point into a story. It sounds clever, right? But it is more than clever. It is perfect. There is no other book like it. Emotional, poetic, transcendent, the chemistry of the book is not just a metaphor, or some New Agey symbol. Levi was a chemist. He knew what he was about. So it is a science book, in a way. You get to know each element intimately: its history, its discovery, its qualities. But it is what Levi does with each element that takes the breath away. His periodic table structure elevates it from other memoirs, although the stories he tells here are deeply personal. He connects our human experience to the experience of the elements that make up our world, in a way that now makes me think of Malick’s Tree of Life, with its sweeping connectivity between the birth of the universe and our everyday lives. There is no separation between the two events.

Levi had already written a couple of memoirs by this point, including the harrowing Survival in Auschwitz about his 11 months imprisoned in the German death camp. Auschwitz could have defined his entire life. It did for many writers. If you experience something like that, then what else is there to write about? But Levi, somehow, was not stuck in time. Somehow. I don’t know how he did it. But this is not a memoir about Auschwitz. Auschwitz gets one chapter. The rest has to do with school and love and friends and work. In some quarters, Levi is looked upon suspiciously because of this. Oh well, you can’t please everyone. Levi wrote what he wanted to write.

Memoirs can be a dime a dozen. Everyone has a story to tell, I suppose, but not every story is worth publishing. Levi’s experiences in Auschwitz are obviously of global interest, but here, in The Periodic Table, he shows his uncanny gift as a writer. The periodic table motif distinguishes the book from other books entirely.

Of course, it is common knowledge that Primo Levi is believed to have committed suicide in 1987. He fell from a third-story landing in his own home. The coroner said it was suicide, although he left no note. The truth of the matter is still in dispute, although Levi had been open about his struggle with suicidal depression in the past. There is more to say about the suicide: it caused a maelstrom of publicity, a lot of it judgmental, as in: “How dare he kill himself after he was such a symbol of hope to so many?” or “How dare he kill himself after he cheated death at Auschwitz?” or “You survive Auschwitz and then you kill yourself?” And on and on. It was a big op-ed column war. I’ll get into that more when I get to William Styron’s Darkness Visible, because it was that very op-ed column war about the suicide of Primo Levi that caused him to publish his own memoir of suicidal depression. The stigma towards depression, and the confusion about what it actually IS, was still obviously rampant in the judgmental shrieks of response to Primo Levi’s apparent suicide. Styron was outraged.

Published in 1975, The Periodic Table is still Primo Levi’s most well-known book. I would imagine that scientists would get even more out of the book, picking up on connections not made explicit between Levi’s life and the periodic table. The metaphor goes so deep, you cannot extract the metaphor from the book itself.

The Periodic Table is a masterpiece.

In the chapter titled “Zinc”, Levi describes being a college student studying under the dreaded “Professor P.” Professor P was a chemistry teacher, and so feared that there were fantastical rumors swirling around the campus about him. But Levi liked him:

I liked the sober rigor of his classes; I was amused by the disdainful ostentation with which at the exams he exhibited, instead of the prescribed Fascist shirt, a comic black bib no bigger than the palm of a hand, which at each of his brusque movements would pop out between his jacket’s lapels. I valued his two textbooks, clear to the point of obsession, concise, saturated with his surly contempt for humanity in general and for lazy and foolish students in particular: for all students were, by definition, lazy and foolish; anyone who by rare good luck managed to prove that he was not became his peer and was honored by a laconic and precious sentence of praise.

It was difficult to even be accepted into Professor P’s class, and over the course of the first year, most of the original students dropped out and most changed their majors entirely. They realized the difficulty and thought, “Well. Clearly this is not for me.” Levi stuck it out.

Here, Levi describes his first day in Professor P’s class. “Caselli” was Professor P’s loyal technician-assistant.

Watch how he acquaints us with the properties of zinc and then moves seamlessly into a human experience.

Excerpt from The Periodic Table

The first day it was my fate to be assigned the preparation of zinc sulfate: it shoud not have been too difficult; it was a matter of making an elementary stoichiometric calculation and attacking the zinc particles with previously diluted sulfuric acid: concentrate, crystallize, dry with the pump, wash and recrystallize. Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is gray and its salts are colorless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded with the glamour of their discovery.

Caselli handed me my zinc; I returned to the bench and prepared to work: I felt curious, shy, and vaguely annoyed, as when you reach thirteen and must go to the temple to recite in Hebrew the Bar Mitzvah prayer before the rabbi; the moment, desired and somewhat feared, had come. The hour of the appointment with Matter, the Spirit’s great antagonist, had struck: hyle, which, strangely, can be found embalmed in the endings of alkyl radicals: methyl, butyl, etc.

There was no need to get from Caselli the other raw material, the partner of zinc, that is, sulfuric acid: it was there in abundance in every corner. Concentrated, of course: and you had to dilute it with water; but watch out! it is written in all the treatises, one must operate in reverse, that is, pour the acid in the water and not the other way around, otherwise that innocuous-looking oil is prone to wild rages: this is known even to the kids in liceo. Then you put the zinc in the diluted acid.

The course notes contained a detail which at first reading had escaped me, namely, that the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a very different fashion when it is very pure: then it obstinately resists the attack. One could draw from this two conflicting philosophical conclusions: the praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life. I discarded the first, disgustingly moralistic, and I lingered to consider the second, which I found more congenial. In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist: it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable. So take the solution of copper sulfate which is in the shelf of reagents, add a drop of it to your sulfuric acid, and you’ll see the reaction begin: the zinc wakes up, it is covered with a white fur of hydrogen bubbles, and there we are, the enchantment has taken place, you can leave it to its fate and take a stroll around the lab and see what’s new and what the others are doing.

The others are doing various things: some are working intently, perhaps whistling to give themselves a nonchalant air, each one behind his particle of hyle; others are roaming about or gazing out the windows at Valentino Park, by now entirely green; still others are smoking and chatting in the corners.

In one corner there was a hood, and Rita sat in front of it. I went over to her and realized with fleeting pleasure that she was cooking my same dish: with pleasure, I say, because for some time now I had been hanging around Rita, mentally preparing brilliant conversational openings, and then at the decisive moment I did not dare come out with them and put it off to the next day. I did not dare because of my deep-rooted shyness and lack of confidence, and also because Rita discouraged all contact, it was hard to understand why. She was very thin, pale, sad, and sure of herself: she got through the exams with good marks, but without the genuine appetite that I felt for the things she had to study. She was nobody’s friend, no one knew anything about her, she said very little, and for all these reasons she attracted me; I tried to sit next to her in class and she did not take me into her confidence, and I felt frustrated and challenged. In fact I was desperate, and surely not for the first time; actually at that period I thought myself condemned to a perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman’s smile forever, which I nevertheless needed as much as air.

It was quite clear that on that day I was being presented with an opportunity that should not be wasted: at that moment between Rita and myself there was a bridge, a small zinc bridge, fragile but negotiable; come on now, take the first step.

Buzzing around Rita, I became aware of a second fortunate circumstance: a familiar book jacket, yellowish with a red border, stuck out of the girl’s bag; the image was a raven with a book in its beak. The title? You could read only IC and TAIN, but that’s all I needed: it was my sustenance during those months, the timeless story of Hans Castorp in enchanted exile on the magic mountain. I asked Rita about it, on tenterhooks to hear her opinion, as if I had written the book: and soon enough I had to realize that she was reading the novel in an entirely different way. As a novel, in fact: she was very interested in finding out exactly how far Hans would go with Madame Chauchat, and mercilessly skipped the fascinating (for me) political, theological, and metaphysical discussions between the humanist Settembrini and the Jewish Jesuit Naphtha.

Never mind: actually, it’s ground for debate. It could even become an essential and fundamental discussion, because I too am Jewish, and she is not: I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard. Impurity, certainly, since just during those months the publication of the magazine Defense of the Race had begun, and there was much talk about purity, and I had begun to be proud of being impure. In truth, until precisely those months it had not meant much to me that I was a Jew: within myself, and in my contacts with my Christian friends, I had always considered my origin as an almost negligible but curious fact, a small amusing anomaly, like having a crooked nose or freckles; a Jew is somebody who at Christmas does not have a tree, who should not eat salami but eats it all the same, who has learned a bit of Hebrew at thirteen and then has forgotten it. According to the above-mentioned magazine, a Jew is stingy and cunning; but I was not particularly stingy or cunning, nor had my father been.

So there was plenty to discuss with Rita, but the conversation I had in mind didn’t strike a spark. I soon realized that Rita was different from me: she was not a grain of mustard; she was the daughter of a poor, sickly storekeeper. For her the university was not at all the temple of Knowledge: it was a thorny and difficult path which led to a degree, a job, and regular pay. She herself had worked since childhood: she had helped her father, had been a salesgirl in a village store, and had also ridden about Turin on a bicycle, making deliveries and picking up payments. All this did not put a distance between us; on the contrary I found it admirable, like everything that was part of her: her not very well cared for, rough-looking hands, her modest dress, her steady gaze, her concrete sadness, the reserve with which she accepted my remarks.

So my zinc sulfate ended up badly by concentrating, turning into nothing more than a bit of white powder which in suffocating clouds exhaled all or almost all of its sulfuric acid. I left it to its fate and asked Rita to let me walk her home. It was dark, and her home was not close by. The goal that I had set myself was objectively modest, but it seemed to me incomparably audacious: I hesitated half of the way and felt on burning coals, and intoxicated myself and her with disjointed, breathless talk. Finally, trembling with emotion, I slipped my arm under hers. Rita did not pull away, nor did she return the pressure: but I fell into step with her, and felt exhilarated and victorious. It seemed to me that I had won a small but decisive battle against the darkness, the emptiness, and the hostile years that lay ahead.

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8 Responses to The Books: The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

  1. george says:

    There are times when I get into the character of some troll in a cave, mumbling-grumbling about there being nothing good to see, read, hear, and then you come along with a post about something great and inspiring, something/someone I’d never heard of – thank you for disillusioning my darker side.

  2. Paul H. says:

    Even after all he had been through, Levi was willing to acknowledge that life isn’t black and white. It’s zinc grey. That’s the act of a very brave man.

  3. DBW says:

    My Lord, I have never read this. I am a little embarrassed, but mostly just excited. I can tell I will love this book. Running for my Kindle….

  4. Kate says:

    Ralph introduced me to The Periodic Table in June 2007. We were at a party—the annual party where he and I both bring paper and pencil so we can scrawl the titles of each other’s recommendations. It doesn’t matter if there are others at the party, we each only want to see the other. It’s just that way with us. Six months can pass, or a year, and when we see each other again, everyone else evaporates.

    So, he slid The Periodic Table off of Beatrice’s bookshelf (the party was at her house) and said, “You. Must. Read. This.”

    I did, and it was the kind of earth-shaking, tremendous experience that only comes around once or twice in a lifetime. After that earthquake I needed to share Levi’s book with someone else. It was Dad’s kind of book—all scientific but with humanity as well, a little like Loren Eiseley, but with a depth all its own. I HAD to share it with someone. But with whom? Of course there was Ralph, but he had suggested it to me, and I needed someone to read it right now, and talk about it with me.

    I walked home from the library one day, pondering again about who would actually read the book if I shared it. I remember I was on the corner of Johnson and Lewis, when the thought of a salesman I’d talked to a few times came into my mind. I knew his name was Roger, but I couldn’t remember the company he worked for. He would call to sell me overpriced DVDs for the library collection, but instead of a sales spiel, we would just talk about books or music or life. Sometimes the sales pitch wouldn’t even appear. Once, after a particularly good conversation, I hung up and the telephone rang again. It was that Roger, just calling to say that the conversation had meant a lot to him.

    I remembered that after a year or so, I found the quality of Roger’s company’s merchandise was dwindling rapidly, and the price was escalating, so I asked the technical services librarian to request that we be taken from the call list. I enjoyed our conversations, but I knew I wouldn’t buy anything else, and I didn’t want to waste Roger’s time. So the calls, infrequent to start with, stopped.

    Why, then, did he come to mind as I was contemplating The Periodic Table? I thought about it some more, then decided to jump into the unknown and write. I finally recalled the name of the company he worked for, and on the last day of July 2007, wrote a short note. It said, “Dear Roger the Salesman, Have you ever read The Periodic Table by Primo Levi? What about (and here I put in the titles of two other books, only because I thought it was too short to mention only one). . . I just wondered. Sincerely, Kate Poulter”

    I sent the note through the US Post because there was no email address associated with the company, and then I waited. I didn’t hold my breath, but I did expect an answer. Somehow it just seemed that one would come. About a week later I received a squarish envelope at the library. I hadn’t given Roger my actual address, only the library address up in the corner. Inside was a card with a beautiful, stylized, hand-drawn tree. The letter read, in part, “Dear Kate, What a surprise to receive your letter. I do actually have a last name: Veinus. It rhymes with Linus—Peanuts or Pauling, take your pick. . . . I have not read the other books you mentioned, but The Periodic Table happens to be one of my all-time favorites, and Primo Levi is a hero of mine! . . . Write again, Roger.”

    Thus began an amazing, beautiful friendship and love. Over the next two years we wrote hundreds of letters. I wrote just over one hundred, he sent at least three hundred, each a thoughtful, loving, insightful letter. After a few months we began to talk on the telephone, and I found him to be a careful listener and brilliant conversationalist. Though he was a fine letter writer, he excelled in verbal exchanges, and he would often talk long into the night, a few times to a snoozing Kate on the other end of the line.

    We never met in person. But our connection was such that we could communicate even without the phone or by mail. We each just KNEW what the other was thinking. We each carried the other within our private solitude. It was a companionship of the spirit, perhaps such as Maud Gonne and Yeats seemed to have shared.

    Then in September 2009 I received a telephone call from a woman who lived near Roger in Seattle. She called to tell me that Roger had collapsed in front of his apartment that afternoon and had died, probably instantly, from a thrombo-embolism.

    My world, which had been in a sort of slow but powerful motion ever since reading The Periodic Table, rocked again, this time with a lurch that almost capsized me. I wrote the obituary, contacted friends scattered all across the continent, communicated with new acquaintances in Seattle, and tried to keep on breathing.

    For two years I’ve trod a path of grief and quiet awareness. I am now almost at the second anniversary of his death, and finally something is happening. For the first year, the grief was so fresh, so painful, so excruciating, that I couldn’t think very carefully. Oh, I finished graduate school, and wrote a lot, and kept on with my other responsibilities, but there was the rent inside that couldn’t be mended.

    At first I could only read poetry—nothing else could hold my attention. Rumi and Merwin and Rilke were my only consolation. Then a year passed, and I could read again, but only just. And now? Rumi speaks of a man who dreamed of gold in Cairo so he left Baghdad to find it. When he arrived, a soldier scoffed at him and said he himself had dreamed of gold in Baghdad, at the man’s own address. So the man returned to Baghdad and found the gold under his own hearth. So it is with me.

    I discovered that the solitude I carry is still a companionable solitude. I now have all our letters, and the memories, but more than that, I have myself. I still see things with an awareness that Roger would recognize. Just as we both found The Periodic Table independently, but were enriched by the other’s discovery, so does our connection continue. I have finally learned that I don’t need to search any longer.

    As Rumi wrote,
    It may be that the satisfaction I need
    depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone
    and come back, I’ll find it at home.

    I will search for the Friend with all my passion
    and all my energy, until I learn
    that I don’t need to search.

    And that is why The Periodic Table is so important to me.


  5. sheila says:

    DBW – I am so excited for you. Please come back and let me know your thoughts once you’ve read it. It’s a special special book.

  6. sheila says:

    Kate – My God, thank you for sharing that story. I am so moved by it. What a beautiful coincidence/miracle that you two were able to find each other. I am so sorry for your loss. I know about that kind of grief that somehow stops you from reading and how disorienting it is. You’re a wonderful writer – thank you so much.

  7. Kerry says:

    Primo Levi is one of my all-time favorites. Thank you for showcasing him. And thank you Kate for that beautiful and moving tribute to your friend.

  8. David Fillingham says:

    I am Jewish and Primo Levi speaks to my soul as a scientist and a Jew. Everyone should read something by Mr Levi, and this would be a great choice to start with.

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