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The Periodic Table (Penguin Modern Classics) [Paperback]

Primo Levi , Raymond Rosenthal
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Sep 2000 Penguin Modern Classics

Primo Levi's The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories that elegantly interlace the author's experiences in Fascist Italy, and later in Auschwitz, with his passion for scientific knowledge and discovery. This Penguin Modern Classics edition of is translated by Raymond Rosenthal with an essay on Primo Levi by Philip Roth.

A chemist by training, Primo Levi became one of the supreme witnesses to twentieth-century atrocity. In these haunting reflections inspired by the elements of the periodic table, he ranges from young love to political savagery; from the inert gas argon - and 'inert' relatives like the uncle who stayed in bed for twenty-two years - to life-giving carbon. 'Iron' honours the mountain-climbing resistance hero who put iron in Levi's student soul, 'Cerium' recalls the improvised cigarette lighters which saved his life in Auschwitz, while 'Vanadium' describes an eerie post-war correspondence with the man who had been his 'boss' there.

In his essay, Philip Roth reproduces a conversation with Primo Levi, delving into the process of Levi's authorial technique, his sense of identity and distinctiveness and the relationship between science, writing and survival.

Primo Levi (1919-87), an Italian Jew, did not come to the wide attention of the English-reading audience until the last years of his life. A survivor of the Holocaust and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Levi is considered to be one of the century's most compelling voices, and The Periodic Table is his most famous book. Levi is the author of Moments of Reprieve and If Not Now, When?, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.

Philip Roth is the author of Nemesis and The Plot Against America, and winner of the both the Pulitzer prize, and the Man Booker International prize.

If you enjoyed The Periodic Table, you might like Levi's If Not Now, When?, also available in Penguin Modern Classics.

'A book it is necessary to read'

Saul Bellow, author of Herzog

'One of the finest writers in post-war Italy'

The Times

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (7 Sep 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141185147
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141185149
  • Product Dimensions: 1.3 x 12.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 7,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Writer Primo Levi (1919-1987), an Italian Jew, did not come to the wide attention of the English-reading audience until the last years of his life. A survivor of the Holocaust and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Levi is considered to be one of the century's most compelling voices, and The Periodic Table is his most famous book. Taking the knowledge he gained from his training as a chemist, Levi uses the elements as metaphors to create a cycle of linked, somewhat autobiographical tales, including stories of the Piedmontese Jewish community he came from, and of his response to the Holocaust. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"I immersed myself in "The Periodic Table" gladly and gratefully. There is nothing superfluous here, everything this book contains is essential. It is wonderful pure, and beautifully translated...I was deeply impressed." -Saul Bellow "The best introduction to the psychological world of one of the most important and gifted writers of our time."-Italo Calvino "A work of healing, of tranquil, even buoyant imagination." -"The New York Times Book Review" "Brilliant, grave and oddly sunny; certainly a masterpiece." -"Los Angeles Times" "Every chapter is full of surprises, insights, high humor, and language that often rises to poetry." -"The New Yorker" "One of the most important Italian writers." -Umberto Eco With a new Introduction by Neal Ascherson

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
There are the so-called inert gases in the air we breathe. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
50 of 52 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Autobiographical Stories, Beautifully Translated 21 Jun 2008
I want to defend this book from a couple of unfair reviews. Not that the great Primo Levi should need me, but The Periodic Table is one of the books I have most enjoyed reading in the past couple of years and so I don't want people to get the wrong impression of what it is.

For most of his working life, Levi was a professional chemist who also wrote on the side. Almost every chapter is a story from his remarkable life (two chapters are fiction). Each chapter has a chemical element for its title and that element appears somehow in the story, either literally or metaphorically. In the first chapter Primo Levi tells something of the history of his family: Jews in southern France, Venice and lastly in the city of Turin, where Levi grew up (except during the war he lived in the same apartment for his whole life). The first chapter is slightly harder going than the rest of the book (it has interesting information about some Hebrew names and how they were twisted via French into the local Piedmontese dialect), and I think that's where some readers got stuck -- too bad, because once you get further it's a nice balance to the rest. Then there are stories about his interest in chemistry as a child, mixing things up and causing explosions, his university education, how Fascism started to become a factor in his life as a young man, and then the story of how as a captured anti-fascist fighter he, amazingly, got himself sent to Auschwitz as a Jew in order to avoid being shot by the Fascists as a 'traitor'. There is one Auschwitz chapter; then stories of Levi's return after the war to Turin, where he became the head of the chemistry department at a paint factory. He became an expert in the chemistry of varnishes, though the book doesn't mention it.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, fascinatin, wonderful 20 Aug 1999
By A Customer
A beautiful book, filled with a real fascination and amused respect for the intricacies of creation and the vagaries of humanity. Levi survived Auschwitz because of his knowledge of industrial chemistry, and here he takes 21 elements from the Periodic Table as starting points for fragments of autobiography and fiction. Touching and funny, and sometimes unutterably sad. Far, far more than "a good read on a train"!
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eyes in the kingdom of the blind 18 Nov 2003
In a largely autobiographical synthesis (fictional tales of mercury and lead are neatly slid into the melting-pot), Primo Levi assesses his life in terms of the chemical elements. And as Levi says, this story is not invented, and reality is always more complex than invention: less kempt, cruder, less rounded out.
Non-chemists have no fear. This is a wonderfully rich alloy of science and history, language and memory. Forget gold and iron: it was hard, grey, obscure vanadium that stood out like a thorn for the troubled, hopeful times in which we live. Vanadium’s is a story of the real world, where the armed exist and the honest and the unarmed clear the road for them, and where all men must later answer for mankind. Profound and life-affirming stuff indeed.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read 'If This is a Man' First 6 Aug 2011
The life story of a gentle and intelligent man, missing out the most important part.

Voted the best science book ever written by the Royal Academy, this isn't a science book at all but an autobiography of Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. Levi is completely defined by these two points in his life, he survived the camp because of his usefulness as a chemist and so he and his subject are bound together. It is fitting then that he chose to tell the story of his life by basing each chapter around one of the elements in the periodic table.

He is a lovely writer, gentle and yet penetrating, able to turn a good phrase and to find an arresting analogy. he is clever in the way he uses quite detailed descriptions of chemical problems and solutions to illustrate turning points in his life and uses both the metamorphosis inherent in chemistry and the reluctance of elements to change and combine to brilliant literary effect. His friendships and career and all neatly described in this way.

However, this is not the (first) volume of his work to read if you want to understand his life, since, with one exception, it misses out his experiences in Auschwitz, which are contained in his masterpiece 'If This is a Man'. There is a second flaw, I would say, in that it does not really lift the curtain on Levi's deepest thoughts and feelings - he is too self analytical and concerned with his theme. So at the end, I could not understand why a man who survived Auschwitz would later take his own life - although he was not the only survivor or surviving author to do so.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Primo Levi is always a joy to read 27 Jun 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is the second book I read after 'If this is a man' and 'The Truce' (and I would recommend reading them in that order). I love Levi's writing style - detached but not unemotional. This book is a somewhat strange mix - mostly autobiographical but with some fictional short stories in the middle - but you can't help but feel involved. I even started getting interested in Levi's work, which, given that I know nothing about chemistry whatsoever, can only be put down to his fantastic writing! The penultimate chapter where he accidentally comes into contact with a former chemist from Auschwitz is incredibly gripping. I can't wait to read more.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Well...
I'm a chemist and a chemistry enthusiast. Also, the Holocaust and the horrors it entails has always fascinated me. Read more
Published 24 days ago by Athina Meletiou
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 1 month ago by Claire Sayer
5.0 out of 5 stars Master Chemist At Work
Brilliantly conceived and written. A blend of philosophy, science and autobiography. Writers and poets could learn a lot from Primo, the use of the extended metaphor. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Bell Tower
5.0 out of 5 stars very interesting on the activities in Sicily, All the more disturbing...
very good transation of an excellent author who draes on hiw incarsaration by he Nazis and the activities of Mussolini.
Published 10 months ago by Terry Welch
4.0 out of 5 stars The Periodic Table
I am a contemporay of the author and was trained like him as a chemist. He graduated from Turin in 1941, I graduated from Liverpool (UK) in 1943. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Frank Gunstone
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't let the title (or first chapter) put you off
Levi is a slow burning reader, much like many of the compounds and elements he describes in his short novel. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Yaya
5.0 out of 5 stars A genius, with a sad and poignant history
If you like science, especially Chemistry, you'll love it..full of childhood funny and yet sad tales, related to his discovery of elements as he became a very accomplished... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Brendan Quinn
5.0 out of 5 stars More than a book on the elements
A beautifully crafted set of episodes by such an intelligent and insightful writer as Primo Levi does not disappoint. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Mustelid Senior
5.0 out of 5 stars The more I read Levi the more I enjoy it.
I started with "If this is a man", as I imagine most people do, but there is so much more to Primo Levi. Read more
Published on 27 May 2012 by danny s.
1.0 out of 5 stars Cramped edition - beware
A wonderful book, no qualms in recommending it whatsoever.

I wish I culd say the same about this horrible edition which shoves the text into a small format using a... Read more
Published on 11 April 2012 by Dourscot
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