In 1985, Primo Levi was known in Britain and America for a single book, If This is a Man, his memoir of survival in Auschwitz. Then came The Periodic Table, which arrived in this country garlanded with eulogies from Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Italo Calvino and Umberto Eco. I fell upon it avidly, not primarily because of those recommendations, but because Levi was by original trade an industrial chemist: here was a man who had somehow put chemistry at the heart of a book acclaimed by the literati.
For me, a former chemist, about to edit a poetry magazine, Poetry Review, the timing was perfect. The Periodic Table is an autobiography in which every chapter takes the title of a chemical element. This isn’t formulaic. Sometimes Levi’s story really does have the quest for a particular chemical element as its core; at other times it is the subtlest of metaphors, as in Argon, in which that gas’s almost total inertness symbolises the marginal status of his Piedmontese Jewish forebears.
I read the book originally in English but later came to appreciate Levi in Italian (many of his stories and essays have still never been translated). His style translates exceptionally well because Levi weighs every word; there is, as Bellow says “nothing superfluous”. In his books Levi is grave, serene, dignified and all the more heartbreaking for his modest restraint. For me, the most touching story is Phosphorus. Levi was immensely shy with women and, in a laboratory in 1942, on a wild goose chase for a diabetes cure, he met Giulia, a girl he felt unable to woo properly: “A veil, a breath, a throw of the dice diverted us onto two divergent paths, which were not ours”.
The Periodic Table shows how chemistry was just as animated a realm for Levi as nature was for Thomas Hardy – the stink of chemistry a pleasant effluvium that pervaded his life. It was also a source of moral strength. In the skewed human world of Mussolini’s racial laws and the nightmare inversion of humanity that was Auschwitz, chemistry’s tangible knowledge was an incorruptible bastion to which he could cling: “Matter is matter, neither noble nor vile”. It also saved his life.
Levi was a slightly built man and only the strongest could survive many months of the camp in winter. In the summer of 1944 Levi was detailed to work in the laboratory. The chapter Cerium recounts how he found a store of alloy that could be whittled down to make lighter flints and bartered for food. It was this that kept him alive. The Periodic Table marks a coming of age for science in literature. For Levi there was only one culture and he delighted in trespassing on specialised domains. It is a book that is also a catalyst, one that opens the prospect of a whole world of delighted exploration, an expansion of the literary franchise.