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Autobiographical Stories, Beautifully Translated
on 21 June 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. Chemistry is not the most obvious raw material for a writer of Levi's calibre, that is what makes the book unique. He lays out how it crisscrossed the path of his life from the nineteen-thirties through to the eighties. Some of the incidents are exotic or dangerous, others are prosaic, but Levi's extraordinary power of observation, his eye for a curious detail, runs all the way through. You have to concentrate to make the most of this book, but it is worth the effort. And, by the end, you have learnt a little chemistry too.
Really, I cannot recommend The Periodic Table highly enough to do it justice. Raymond Rosenthal's translation is beautifully done; the English doesn't disturb the original. Translated Italian can easily become very turgid, but Rosenthal has avoided that. There is an introduction by Philip Roth in which he tells of meeting Primo Levi in the 1980s. I love this book. And for the price, what a deal.