AFTER a sheltered, almost Finzi-Contini-like childhood in Piedmont, Primo Levi went on to specialize in chemistry and during World War II worked in a semi-clandestine laboratory before joining an Italian Resistance group and, ultimately, was shipped off with other Jews to Auschwitz. After the war, he worked for an Italian company that imported vanadium from Germany, and he eventually mopped up all the Italian literary prizes as his almost posthumous literary career prospered. Of the 650 people he was deported with, only 31 came back, a quotient for whom Levi has spoken again and again. The man's energy, tenacity and will give one pause, as does his publicity photograph: a bearded version of the English actor Michael Wilding, with an expression of debonair sagacity. Levi looks 20 years younger than the mid-sixties he is in, and he has a young, powerful, holistic mind.
Best known for his two books on Auschwitz, If This Is a Man and The Truce, Levi published The Periodic Table 10 years ago: an extraordinary, nimble, fluent book from an extraordinary life, part autobiography, part fiction, but essentially somthing like a memoir of elemental matter (21 elements from the periodic table, from Argon to Carbon). Here are the rites of passage -- young man hunting a career in science, falling in love, winning the highest academic honors, doing vital and also trivial experimnts, mountaineering, getting sucked into the rapids of power politics -- intimately related to the ineluctable matrix of all life. Huck Finn of Piedmont grows into a Faust who never loses his sense of awe at what those powders, liquids, sludges and ores can really do to one another, and to us.
Scores of lively figures bring the chemistry to dramatic life -- "hydrochloric acid . . . is one of those frank enemies that come at you shouting from a distance" -- but Levi's main aim is to get across what almost any sentient mind ought to find in its context, savoring the intricate and invisible and quirky material relationships that surround us. Like Dreiser, he sees the human as a chemism, but goes far beyond, humanizing his chosen chemicals into performers in an erudite drama whose rules framed themselves in the first few seconds of the Big Bang. It is an amazing, delightful conception, linking Levi to such writers as Sir Thomas Browne and Francis Ponge; he doesn't stick as closely to the periodic table as I'd hoped (he ignores atomic weight, as well as 82 of the elements), doesn't always give the titular element full play in the chapter named for it, and doesn't seem to want to exploit the table as a structure-conferring device.
Yet such carping is the measure of the man's originality. This is one of the most intelligent books to come along in years, not only because it reveals a fine mind having sport with things it knows backwards, but also because, with articulate and near-mystical infatuation, it exposes the riddles of material being. Look, says Levi, chemistry is like architecture. Look: to support himself, the chemist fornicates with matter. Certain none too sociable Levi ancestors resemble inert gasses. Fritters made with sanitary cotton have "a vague taste of burnt sugar." And, if you are are tempted to try selling stannous chloride to the makers of mirrors, remember, "It is aggressive but also delicate, like certain unpleasant sports opponents who whine when they lose." This particular comparison goes on for another eight lines: copious and cogent, yet not half so telling as cosmetics made from excrement (the comic mode of alchemy) or the analogy drawn between chemistry and genocide (the tragic mode of it): "The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz) teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatever." That is surely one way of coping with Nazism, but as bogus as the vindication of human violence by the violence in stellar evolution. Levi makes you think, and, then, after you have thought, makes you want to think more.
THE MOST brilliant chapter is the one about carbon (carbon "says everything to everyone"), one atom of which we observe transmigrating from limestone to a falcon's lung, thence to wine, a drinker's liver, an insect's eye, a glass of milk, and finally the brain of an author called Primo Levi. The chapter is a classic and should be anthologized all over the world. Like the carbon chapter, the entire book is what Levi calls "a micro-history" of such humans as have tied their fates, "indelibly, to bromine or propylene." Whatever your fancy -- argon, potassium, mercury, tin, silver -- this book will give you not only chapter and verse, but also an imaginative flight of high caliber. "The number of atoms is so great," Levi writes, "that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story." Some of the stories in this book are more capricious than others, but behind them all there is always the history of the element, its etymology even, its reputation and its honors, its shortcomings and its future. Processes, too, attract his eye, all of them inexhaustible objects of contemplation ("distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation . . ."). And there is a lovely opening chapter on the culture of Jewish Piedmont, which Raymond Rosenthal with many deft touches (as throughout) makes sparklingly readable.
Essentially this is a book of changes, epitomized perhaps by students' making silver nitrate from 5-lire coins and chloride of nickel from "the 20-cent pieces with the flying naked lady." The same loving eye for curiosa retrieves the Yiddish word for the vomit of infants; the "inexplicable imprecation . . . May he have an accident shaped like an umbrella"; and the infinitive laetari ("to rejoice") in the Latin word, laetamen, for manure. Nothing is alien to Levi (who must not be confused with another Italian author, Carlo Levi, the "illustrious namesake" mentioned in this book). My only complaint is: Why have we had to wait 10 years to read The Periodic Table in English when so much twaddle we could have done without made it in one?