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The Periodic Table 
by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal.
Joseph, 233 pp., £9.95, October 1985, 9780718126360
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Once in an unguarded moment when I was trying to illustrate the unbounded nature of human vanity, I shamefacedly admitted to my daughter that I, too, outwardly so cool-headed and realistic about my slender talents, cherished in the back of my mind a dream of being awarded the Nobel Prize. I could see myself, I confessed, walking up an aisle of red plush carpet, flanked by applauding onlookers and heralded by fanfares, dressed in my best, blushing becomingly as I prepared to receive this the highest accolade currently available in the profession. Strange to say, and pathetic though I must have sounded, my daughter did not scoff at me in the least. ‘There’s nothing wrong in that,’ she said encouragingly, patting my arm. ‘I know exactly what you mean. You’re right. Why not? It would be wonderful’ – here she stopped and became thoughtful – ‘only what do you suppose they could award it to you for?’

Much the same question, and with much the same genuine lack of irony, posed itself to me when I read on the back of the cover of this book that its author, Dr Primo Levi, was being spoken of as a possible candidate for the Nobel. Would it be for literature, I wondered? Or for chemistry? Or would it conceivably be the Peace Prize, seeing that in this book of his he strives so painstakingly to unite these two apparently divergent disciplines? For – and I had better be quick about saying this if my lack of irony is to be believed – Dr Levi is not merely a writer, nor even a writer plus thinker: he is writer plus thinker plus scientist all rolled into one, and judging from the wise and tolerant tone of his writing, he also appears to be an extremely clever and sympathetic human being. However, since the best books do not necessarily proceed from the best thinkers or the best scientists or the best human beings (or even, come to think of it, from the best writers), and if, as I suspect, it is the Nobel Prize for Literature that the blurb-writer has in mind, the claim made on Levi’s behalf needs a little more investigating – at least in so far as this particular work of his is concerned.

The title of the book, The Periodic Table, is taken from the name of a classificatory list of elements which form the basis of the chemist’s stock-in-trade: a list which normally hangs – so I am told – neglected, dust-covered, taken for granted, in some corner of every practitioner’s laboratory, as fundamental as a diagram of the human skeleton or venous network is to a doctor and as little consulted. Dr Levi seems to be one of the few who have consulted it, however, and after a long and successful scientific career, he has taken from the list a score or so of items – iron, lead, mercury, gold, uranium and so forth – and used them as aides-mémoire, not to mention chapter headings, drawing from each item a thread of reminiscence with which to weave an unusual autobiography. The result is not so much the story of a life – there is no full-scale coverage in the strict sense, although chronological order had been respected – as the contents of a photograph album: a series of independent and often barely related stills culled through the years; all of the same subject, of course, but in different poses and settings.

Starting with argon, an inert, gaseous element which serves as a metaphorical touchstone for their condition and behaviour, Dr Levi introduces us to his relatives and family, all respected members of Turin’s Jewish community. We meet Uncles Gabriel, Aaron and Bonaparte, dignified and ineffectual, sheltering from reality behind inch-thick lenses or barriers of learned books, aunts with tormented pasts who never leave their rooms, gourmet grandmothers, great-aunts, uncles of grandmothers ... The pick of an eccentric and cultivated community is sympathetically brought to life, its quirks and foibles carefully explained. The explanation, mind you, is a little over-careful in parts – there are explanations of single words and explanations of their derivations and explanations of the explanations themselves – but to my mind it is here, in these thumbnail sketches of the family oddballs, that Levi’s photographic technique is at its liveliest and most effective. Accents, tricks of speech, jokes – Jewish jokes – are precisely recaptured.

The headings ‘Hydrogen’, ‘Iron’ and ‘Zinc’, with the memories that they evoke, take us through the years of school and university – years spent under the menace of a waxing but as yet not fully fledged Fascism; while the following chapters, with a few interruptions and exceptions, lead us into the war years, following the itinerary of a highly gifted and sensitive young man in search of work in an ever more hostile environment, and showing us how, slowly and painfully, from the rebuffs and humiliations he received, he awakens first to social and then to political awareness. From rock-climbing, one of the favourite pastimes of the young Turin bourgeoisie of the period, Levi graduates to a more earnest form of mountaineering, taking to the hills with the Partisans of the Italian resistance movement, though, unlike most Italian intellectuals who joined the Partisans, he is so modest about his exploits that the episode risks seeming insignificant. From the Resistance we are whisked on to a chapter concerning his captivity in Auschwitz; and then, with a disarmingly stoical shrug of the shoulders, to his post-war professional career. Dr Levi’s account of the Thirties and Forties is that of an honest post-war intellectual. Unfortunately, his reserve, though unusual and in personal terms commendable, tends to trammel his narrative and to flatten it somewhat. The war episodes – which you would think were more or less guaranteed to give him his most stirring and interesting material – are among the least vivid and successful.

Each of the book’s chapters has the inner structure of a self-contained story, or anecdote, and in those dealing with the post-war period the threads are pulled together in a more commanding way, moving to a climax in which, in the second-to-last episode, a figure from the past, a former inspector of the laboratory at Auschwitz where Levi worked as a prisoner, reappears in the author’s present, occupying the position of manager of a firm of suppliers which has furnished Levi’s own concern with faulty material. The confrontation between the two men, their roles now reversed by circumstance, never takes place except in the most roundabout way, but for all that, none of the potential drama is wasted or underplayed as it is in the preceding chapters. It is a bitter, pregnant, sad and fascinating piece of human experience, in the telling of which the author’s remarkable powers of restraint are for once an unmixed asset. The book would still be worth reading if it contained this episode alone.

The last chapter, ‘Carbon’, sets forth what we may call the author’s philosophy or way of looking at the world, and acts as justification and framework for the somewhat uneven material which has preceded it. I should mention that, tucked in between the chronologically-ordered chapters of the life-history proper, there are fragments of purely imaginative writing – stories, flights of fancy – often of exquisite craftsmanship. My favourite, is the tale of a little girl captured by an impatient house-painter anxious to get on with his job but ‘imprisoned’ within a circle drawn on the floor. The theme is Brechtian, and so is the simplicity of its handling, but the whimsicality and the very Jewish delight in the magic of words and sounds, represents Levi’s literary gift at its best.

Seeing that there are at least three of them, which of the Levis is it who is seated at the writing-desk: Levi the scientist, Levi the narrator or Levi the thinker? And is there friction between them? And if there is, who is it who ultimately gets the upper hand and resolves the friction? As regards matters of style, there can be little doubt that it is the man of science who predominates: the writing is purified, measured, distilled, controlled at every turn, almost as if the author had sat there with a sieve, throwing aside every phrase, expression or word that would not pass through the mesh of his exacting filter. How about subject matter then? Well, here the narrator holds full sway. Chemistry comes into it a good deal, of course, but only as a pretext. It provides the author with a fount of inspiration, a novel way of getting purchase on things. Although, as I have already intimated, it is nearly always when he forgets about the label on his jar and escapes into the realm of pure storytelling that the inspiration he derives from his years of practice as a chemical researcher is most fecund.

So no friction here either: the artistic hierarchy is respected, and Levi’s many-sidedness brings in its fruits. In fact friction – which there definitely is – only becomes noticeable when one considers the composition as a whole. Let me explain. As I said earlier, the structure all along is avowedly fragmentary, and it is for Levi the thinker to tie it up in his last chapter, to justify it and make it hold to gether. And it is here that things somehow go wrong. It could be that the thinker’s thread, or glue or whatever it is, is not strong enough – that he should never have been entrusted with the work in the first place. Or it may be that the scientist with his microscope has taken over once again and contrived to rob the narrator of his macroscopic vision. In either case, the upshot is that when the finished work is held up to the light the rag-bag origin of Dr Levi’s material – beautiful though some of the single pieces are – shows through, and on finishing the book one is left with the impression that all these episodes are in reality odds and ends that the author has found lying in a drawer somewhere after his other writings finished, and felt it was a pity to waste. If Levi the artist (and there undoubtedly is such a person) had been in charge when it came to the final assembly, I can’t help feeling he could have made a better job of it.

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