Levi, Primo. The Periodic Table

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. All are written with characteristically understated eloquence and shot through with deep humanity.

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year: 2000
ISBN: 0141185147

(afraid Hull currently only has in the original Italian
“Il sistema periodico”, but you are a cosmopolitan bunch.)

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This was the first book I read by Primo Levi, it is a real mix. Each chapter has the title of an element, and develops (loosely) round that topic. If you find one chapter ‘heavy’ (the first one can seem a bit dull on first read) try another, they are all free-standing and all very different. I just re-read the chapter on ‘carbon’ that simply tells the life-story of a carbon atom. I don’t think this is Levi’s best work – his writing on his time in Auschwitz ‘If this is a Man’ is, for me, one of
the last century’s truly great books – but, sticking to our brief of the suggestions for where art throws lights on science and medicine I think its the best fit for ‘Worth a Look?’

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