The Periodic Table is a well-written book, giving us insight into the scientific mind, thoughts and emotions of its author, Primo Levi. The book is basically a memoir, and the 21 stories are written through the perspective of a chemist and also through the perspective of a writer. Chemistry and writing were the two primary passions of Levi.
“There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. They bear curious Greek names of erudite derivation which mean “the New,” “the Hidden,” “the Inactive,” and “the Alien.” They are indeed so inert, so satisfied with their condition, that they do not interfere in any chemical reaction, do not combine with any other element, and for precisely this reason have gone undetected for centuries.”
Thus begins the book, and each of the 21 stories are named for a chemical element in the Periodic Table (not to be confused with the Title of the book). The actual Periodic Table contains 118 elements.
After finishing The Periodic Table, one might assume that it is a book that was written about the Holocaust. The primary structure of the book (including the opening lines), has an undertone of the Holocaust within its pages, as it was of extreme importance to Levi to bear witness. If one pays attention to the titles of the individual stories, it is obvious the Holocaust has an important “between-the-lines” synthesis tying the stories together, subtly, without being mentioned outright. The element of Fascism has strong overtones in the book. Levi is astutely cognizant of the fact that many Italian Jews grasped Fascism, without realizing its consequences. A large percentage of these Jews were not “practicing Jews”, and were assimilated within the Italian culture, ignorant of the possible outcome their choices would inflict on them and their families.
The main reflection in Levi’s book is the growth of Levi from his childhood and chemical experimenting with a friend, attending a university where Levi studied chemistry and experimented in university labs, and to finally graduating and becoming a chemist by profession. He also become a well-known author of novels and poetry, mingling his scientific mind with poetic emotions, creating chemistry and chemical reactions of his own, in written form.
Each element in the book coincides with a time period of Levi’s life, and we see him move through prewar Fascism to World War II where he was sent to Auschwitz. His brilliance in formulating this book and its structure has amazed me. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was not disappointed, and in fact, I was in awe of Primo Levi as an author, in extremely impressed with his ability to blend chemistry and prose and create such a compelling book. After finishing The Periodic Table, I wanted to read more of his works, especially his poetry, and I have done just that.