So, what is this book?
“Some of it is personal memoir, and chapter headings such as Argon, and Iron, seem barely justified by the reflections that follow. Some stories are overtly fiction, which is surely the antithesis of science writing. One or two are attempts to address the process of industrial science from, so to speak, the floor: Sulphur is a compelling account of a wartime factory hand’s hours on the night shift, but what is he making, and why does he need such temperatures, such vacuum readings?
“Some of it is about etymology, about the nature of words and their casual links with the elements around us. And some of it is urgent, cruel, personal history: the story of a young man born into a Jewish family, educated in Fascist Italy, all but destroyed in Auschwitz. The chemistry is important, but often incidental. And finally, it is not Levi’s greatest work. For that, go to If This Is A Man, and The Truce.
“And yet, on the fourth or fifth reading in the 24 years since UK publication, The Periodic Table still seems to me to be the nearest match to the ideal science book. At some point – for me it was page 33 of the original Michael Joseph edition – the reader begins to understand that chemistry is not a “subject”, not an arcane and sometimes bewildering intellectual scaffolding laboriously erected to frame reality: it is reality. Chemistry is what happens when we breathe, when we touch, when we react, and even our behaviour with others is chemistry at some greater level.”
It is a strange mix of stuff, which of itself make this an interesting read. What’s more, what is in here is well written: sparingly narrated, adeptly described and wisely observed. Tim Radford in The Guardian goes on:
“This realisation (once again, for me) came as Levi describes the laboratory preparation of zinc sulphate. He discovers that “the so tender and delicate zinc, so yielding to acid which gulps it down in a single mouthful, behaves, however, in a very different fashion when it is very pure …” The reaction requires impurity, a touch of strangeness, a drop of copper sulphate in the diluted sulphuric acid, or it won’t work. He of course, is a Jew among Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and draws a philosophical lesson: purity protects; but impurities give rise to change, and generate life. “Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that is why you are not a Fascist, it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not.”
“Tropes such as this are a writer’s business, but right through the book, sometimes without comment, Levi offers parallels between the reactions in a test tube and the things that happen in the world at large: there is another beautiful one when he cannot find the sodium necessary to purify and dehumidify the benzene he wants to distil, and so instead uses its twin in the periodic table, potassium, and nearly blows up the laboratory. From it he concludes that one dare not trust the almost-the-same, the practically identical. “The differences can be small, but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switchpoints; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.”
“You cannot, in a book that invokes Auschwitz, fascism and the reconstruction of a devastated continent, disentangle the human drama from the science, but each time I read The Periodic Table I also discover myself marvelling at the excitement locked in obdurate and mundane matter and the chemist’s attempts to transmute it into something new, and fresh, and potent: whoever would have thought that tin could preserve such secrets, that industrial varnish could be so thrilling?”
Levi is one of the great modern writers in Italian for many reasons, not just for his ability to tell what might be the defining story of the twentieth century: that of the holocaust. He is a wise and thoughtful observer of the world and his place in it, and a gifted narrator of our story: he helps us to understand ourselves.