“Just as among the Italian Jews this shock [of fascist persecution] came with redoubled force because they had felt themselves little different from their neighbors, so its literary repercussions resonated on a corresponding level of universality. When an Italian Jew wrote of the sufferings he or she had endured, it was not simply as a Jew: it was as someone giving testimony on behalf of all the victims of oppression, wherever and of whatever religious origin they might be.”
In his Prisoners of Hope, H. Stuart Hughes wrote these words about a constellation of Italian writers of Jewish origin. Primo Levi and Svevo, Moravia, Bassani, Natalia Ginzburg, and Carlo Levi—all registered in very different ways the impact of the twentieth century, above all, this century’s insistent, barking commands that every man and woman should march to a collective identity and line up behind it. Some experienced that impact in its most terrible form through the racial persecution of fascism. Primo Levi was in that last category. He went to Auschwitz, and survived to write a book about it which was extraordinary for its lack of hatred, its avoidance of superlatives, even for its gentleness. And what Hughes says about literary repercussions “on a level of universality” applies to Primo Levi and to his autobiographical “periodic table” in a quite literal way.
For Primo Levi was a chemist. Not an apothecary, not an academic or a supervisor of pharmaceutical production in some enormous multinational concern, but a struggling free-lance chemist who has moved from place to place, from isolated mines to dilapidated laboratories, staining his fingers and scorching his lungs in close-quarter work with that which is most universal of all: elements, salts, molecules. There can be few major writers who have supported themselves by this profession. But after reading The Periodic Table, one wonders why there are not more. As the sea imposed respect and its own severe morality on Conrad, imposed a nearly infallible test of character for people who tried to make a living from it, so Primo Levi refers to an obstinate physical universe that reveals a truth about all who strive to make something useful out of it, to break it down, to challenge its identity, or—most absurd of all—to transcend it. The first thing about fascism that repelled Levi was its emphasis on the life of the spirit, distilled to an intoxicating purity. Levi liked the material world for its impurity, its obscene mixture of ashes and diamonds, its sullen reluctance to obey the abstract laws of chemistry and physics.
Each chapter of his enchanting, original book bears the name of an element. But the relationship of the element to the matter of the chapter is never constant, acting sometimes as a profound symbol, sometimes as a mere memory-tag used to develop a reminiscence. “Argon,” one of the “inert gases” that “do not combine,” leads off the book with an account of Levi’s Jewish ancestors in Piedmont, of their attitudes …