Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Periodic Table: A Chemical Narrative Framework for Primo Levi's Life

That is what nature does: it draws the fern's grace from the putrefaction of the forest floor…
The Periodic Table, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge, is author Primo Levi's autobiography told in a series of elements (and translated into English by Raymond Rosenthal). Levi worked as an industrial chemist and survived a year in Auschwitz after being captured while fighting in the Italian resistance against the Nazis. Each chapter in his book centers on a different element and how it ties into some facet of his life.

I loved this unique, poetic approach to the elements. What an element symbolizes or what its association is with his life might be subtle. But it's the organizing principle of his life's narrative (at least the one he shares here) - sometimes because a memorable episode of his life involved the use of a given element, other times because someone or something reminded him of it and its properties.

There might be an important lesson from chemistry.
… one must distrust the almost-the-same (sodium is almost the same as potassium, but with sodium nothing would have happened), the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…
But it isn't as if he spends the entirety of the text talking in chemistry-related terms. There's poetry too, and an exploration of philosophy and emotions. As when he's captured as a partisan.
During those days, when I was waiting courageously enough for death, I harbored a piercing desire for everything, for all imaginable human experiences, and a I cursed my previous life, which it seemed to me I had profited from little or badly, and I felt time running through my fingers, escaping from my body minute by minute, like a hemorrhage that can no longer be stanched.
Or when he falls in love.
In a few hours we knew that we belonged to each other, not for one meeting but for life, as in fact has been the case. In a few hours I felt reborn and replete with new powers, washed clean and cured of a long sickness, finally ready to enter life with joy and vigor…
And the poetry and chemistry freely mix too, as during his stint at a mine analyzing the soil for the presence of certain elements, he compares the elusive nickel to a sprite darting out of reach "with long perked ears, always ready to flee from the blows of the investigating pickax, levying you with nothing to show for it."

The use of the elements lends a certain weight and permanence to his life's story; he's tying himself to the stuff of the Earth. At the same time, his forays into chemistry often mirror the messiness and transitory qualities of his life; it's not all about simple, tidy formulae, though it feels like a triumph when a formula turns out as expected. Throughout the book he unearths episodes of his life and examines them. What holds them together? He constructs a loose narrative framework of chemistry and poetry. And somehow his life's story can hang together on that. (Which raises other questions about what constitutes a narrative, and how does one find meaning in life? He found an approach unique to his own life.)