Sunday, January 08, 2006

06.02 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

The Periodic Table

Il sistema periodico (1975) (translation The Periodic Table) by Primo Levi

Primo Levi (July 31, 1919 - April 11, 1987) was an Italian chemist, author and Jewish holocaust survivor. Several years ago I read his memoir of his time in Auschwitz called Se questo รจ un uomo (1947) (translation If This Is a Man, in the U.S., Survival in Auschwitz). A really amazing book - his description of the time was both dispassionate and emotionally wrenching.

Since reading that book I have wanted to read this memoir, The Periodic Table. The book is divided into 21 chapters each headed by and related to a different element of the periodic table. Each chapter is completely episodic unto itself (like a short story) and may be a description of a time in his life, a story told to him by someone, or even a fictional story he wrote in the past.

Like and short story collection, there are hits and misses. The thing that made this book such a good experience for me was the way each chapter tied into an element. As a scientist, I loved the way he described learning about chemistry, how it sustained him through his life and even helped him survive the camps.

In addition, Levi is simply a top notch writer. I would have to agree with a quote from Olman's year end review:

"I was forced to pause several times at the ability of a good writer to capture something (a moment, a feeling, an action, a description, a behaviour, a character) with a combination of words and just re-read that sentence or phrase."

I felt the same thing in many places reading this book and I would recommend you read it if given the chance.


Olman Feelyus said...

Primo Levi rocks! I read a bunch of his books (including this one) after college. Now he has lived a life and is able to tell stories from it, as well as make up good ones, without thinking he's something special. Survival in Auschwitz blew my mind. I'll have to reread the Periodic Table at some point.

Thanks for the quote!

frenchfold said...

Oh I've always wanted to read this! I read Survival at Auchwitz, which was a perfect piece of writing - it seemed dispassionate but the images that Levi rendered in crystal-clear prose have haunted me in the intervening years.

Buzby said...

I concur - Primo Levi does rock! I read a few of his books in college but have not read anything in the intervening years. It's time to pick one up again.