The Periodic Table
by Primo Levi

The Periodic Table is a memoir comprised of the experiences of the author, Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi, relating to chemistry, both before and after the Second World War. Levi, almost like a literary narrator of his own story, begins before the War with his education at a university in his homeland of Piedmont, in northern Italy. After this, the memoir progresses to his early work experiences, when he was employed in various factories and chemical supply companies until the War. Once World War II struck Italy more closely, Levi, then working in Milan, was forced to flee to the anti-Fascist guerilla partisan outposts in the hills outside the city. Eventually captured by the Germans, the writer was taken to Auschwitz, where he managed to survive only by obtaining a position as a chemist in a nearby factory.

When the war finally ended, Levi continued to work in the chemical industry, and from here The Periodic Table shifts from a more serious (albeit still humorous) perspective on life and chemistry to a rather lighthearted, anecdotal style. As the author wound down his professional days in chemistry and focused more on writing, he was able to record the most amusing and interesting aspects of working with matter and the reactions it undergoes. In general, The Periodic Table is focused more on providing a slice of the author’s life in chemistry than on the morally and philosophically challenging issues of Fascism or the Holocaust, subjects which he has addressed more fully in other of his works. Thus it suffices to say that Primo Levi’s memoir is something of a chemical analysis of life in general, made from the perspective of a chemist.

Each chapter of the memoir is a self-contained story, and each is named for a specific element from the Periodic Table, around which the story revolves. Of course, the way in which the chemistry interacts with the other facets of Levi’s life varies from tale to tale, and it seems that some elements remind him of very deep, emotionally-charged periods in his life, while others merely make him recall some particularly amusing event in his professional career. Throughout the first section of the book, the primary focus seems to be a combination of his experiences and solitude as one of the few Jews working in his area of interest and his life as a member of the young, bourgeoning, anti-Fascist segment of the Italian populace. Levi first traces his family’s peculiar experience as members of the isolated Jewish segment of the Piedmontese population, an experience which shaped both the writer’s cultural heritage and his particular upbringing. By the time he got to university, Levi began to experience firsthand both the subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of Fascist persecution of the Jews, and the extent to which he could feel his isolation from the rest of society. At the same time, however, the author does indeed meet many who do not seem to notice or care about his religion, and it is inspiring to consider that even in times as trying as those, there were people who remained aloof from societal persecution. On the other hand, in the context of the Holocaust and the tenure in Auschwitz that looms in Levi’s future, this optimism quickly vanishes. Levi, however, seems almost to dismiss the Holocaust from his consideration, for he has discussed his own experiences during that period at length in his book If This is a Man, stopping only to consider the philosophical perspective of the era that is held by a particular German chemical colleague of his, with whom he has occasion to interact again only many years later.

After this brief foray, as already mentioned, The Periodic Table turns notably lighter, and deals with simple, amusing stories of his life in chemistry up until Levi's retirement. At the same time, however, each one of the later chapters still contains a central thema at its heart, and these, as a rule, retain all of the philosophical and artistic insight into the nature of the world that Levi displays in the earlier, darker stories. On the whole, The Periodic Table is inspired, on one level, by the era of social and political upheaval that the author lived through, and on another, by the simple, funny stories of chemistry and chemicals that permeated Levi’s entire life. Thus, the memoir is occasioned not only by the events of World War II and beyond, but by the professional career that might be experienced by a chemist in any time period. It is partly this truly natural conglomerate of the extraordinary and the mundane that shapes The Periodic Table into the fantastic piece of literature that it is.

Through a simple reading it is difficult to come to terms with Primo Levi’s true purpose or reason for writing this memoir. Although he expressly states on several occasions that he is merely tried to present a portrait of a life in chemistry, certain sections of the book display far greater depth and insight than might be expected of such a modest undertaking as that. For instance, when he discusses his professional interaction with a chemist who had been employed at the factory near Auschwitz where he worked during the Holocaust, Levi breaks The Periodic Table’s relatively lighthearted and cheery mood to consider what was going through the other man’s mind when, years after the concentration camps closed, he attempts to reconcile his own guilt by making peace with Levi. This rather thick subject arises from, of all things, a discussion of one of his former employers’ work with the element Vanadium! Thus, consider also other discussions in the memoir concerning anti-Semitism, Fascism, true love, and the spirit of writing fiction and fact, one gets the sense that The Periodic Table was more important an undertaking for Levi than he lets on. In fact, it seems almost that through recounting all the anecdotes, serious and silly, the author is perhaps revealing to his readers who he truly is. Levi was not merely a Holocaust survivor, or a writer, or a chemist, or a husband, or a son; rather, the book’s message is that he was all of these things, and more – that a person cannot be defined by their experiences and activities alone, but only by the way in which these experiences shape him or her as a human being.

It is therefore interesting to consider for whom the author intended his memoir, for one is forced to come to the conclusion that The Periodic Table was not written for chemists, or for laymen, but for people in general! The “clues” that lead a reader to such a determination come primarily from Levi’s manner in presenting his material. This manner is at times humorous and light-hearted, at times serious and mournful, and occassionally a combination of these extremes. That is, there is no single, overriding tone that permeates the entire memoir, save a certain amount of respect, perhaps even reverence, for humans and for the world that they are a part of. This is evident everywhere from Levi’s almost naively romantic view of love and loss to his clear fascination and respect for matter in all of its forms. As such, the very chemical nature of the book itself seems entirely appropriate, accentuating the wonder and delight the author finds in his profession, and yet opening an avenue to very moving stories that appreciables by chemists and laymen alike. For in the end, Levi was an “intellectual” – a scientist, a writer – but he was also a human, with thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It is perhaps the source of the genius of The Periodic Table that Primo Levi knew very well how to be both of these things at once.

noded homework!. This was done for a "Memoir" assignment. There are certainly aspects of this book that break the memoir mold, and, as such, I was forced to downplay these in my report (so that it seemed I had picked a more appropriate book... ;). However, in general, I feel that more than anything, The Periodic Table is a memoir, because, though there are stories included that are fiction and not recollection, the book is mostly structured around life and chemistry. After all, a memoir is distinct from an autobiography in that its purpose is not necessarily to merely describe the authors life.

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