Sunday, January 08, 2006
06.02 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
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 è 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.
Posted by Jason L