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The Alchemist

The Periodic Table

by Primo Levi, translated by Raymond Rosenthal
Schocken, 233 pp., $16.95

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 of “dignified abstention,” their curious little dialect of Hebrew words with Piedmontese terminations, their taste for “elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion.” They lived in an age and a community when there was room for inertness, when nobody insisted that they should “combine.” The chapter “Zinc” introduces the young Levi in a Turin chemistry class, listening to the words of a detached, ironic professor whose skepticism about human perfectibility renders him a natural antifascist. They are studying zinc, that gray, boring material that can resist dissolving in acid only in its purest form. “Praise of purity, which protects from evil like a coat of mail; the praise of impurity, which gives rise to changes, in other words, to life.”

By the time of “Iron,” Levi is twenty and the year is 1939. A second-year student, he is doing qualitative chemical analysis. He is impressed by the nature of iron, which is “easy and direct, incapable of concealment,” and his friend Sandro, descendant of a line of peasant blacksmiths, takes him on strenuous walks in the mountains. Sandro was later to be killed after joining the antifascist partisans. But the notion of active resistance comes only gradually to Primo Levi, certainly no “man of iron.” He and his other Jewish friends are, by 1941, already isolated. And yet the historic tolerance of the Italian society in which they grew up makes them incredulous about what is taking place. “Only a voluntarily deaf and blind man could have any doubts about the fate reserved for the Jews in a German Europe…. And yet, if we wanted to live, if we wished in some way to take advantage of the youth coursing through our veins, there was indeed no other resource than self-imposed blindness.” This chapter is named “Potassium.” Levi has found a safe little job preparing and purifying elements for analysis. He uses some potassium to take moisture out of benzene, overlooks a morsel of potassium left in the vessel, and—when he rinses it—produces a blast of flame which sets fire to the curtains.

As a Jewish scientist in wartime Italy, Levi led an existence not unlike that of a learned slave in the Roman world: courted for his indispensable talents, offered jobs which he cannot refuse, treated with a degree of nervous respect, and yet essentially unfree. He worked for a time at a nickel mine in a remote mountain valley, obsessed with his own formula for extracting the metal from mine spoil. He was hired at a large salary by a Milan factory producing hormone extracts and fell half in love with his impetuous, chaotic colleague Giulia, ferrying her about the city between air raids on the handlebars of his bicycle. At the hormone factory, he read Nazi works of science and decided that phosphorus, that sinister, will-o’-the-wisp stuff used by conjurers and illusionists, fitted into “the environment impregnated with black magic of the Nazi court.”

For Levi and his little circle of Jewish friends from Turin, a long period of pupation was nearly over. The bombs fell nightly around them; they wrote their “sad, crepuscular poems” and savored their loneliness. Primo Levi says, cuttingly and memorably, that this mood was nothing especially Jewish but rather a variant of the effect of fascism on almost all Italians, “alienating us and making us superficial, passive, and cynical.” But the chrysalis broke apart, once again in a fashion that reflects Italian experience rather than a specifically Jewish one: the Allies landed in North Africa, the battles for Stalingrad took place, and in September 1943 Italian fascism collapsed, to be replaced within a few days by full-scale German occupation. Levi and his friends went into active resistance.

The young chemist became a guerrilla, a member of “the most disarmed partisans in the Piedmont, and probably also the most unprepared.” When the militia rushed their hideout, most of the partisans got away, but Levi, too sleepy to collect his wits in time, was taken. Torture and the firing squad appeared inevitable, as he sat in a freezing cell in Aosta: “I read a great deal, because I thought the time left me was short.” (I believe that only an Italian writer from this century, from that “school” whose hallmark is thrift with the materials used to convey emotion, could have written that sentence.) But in the same cell there was a man arrested for illegal gold trading, whose family had lived for generations by panning specks of gold from the Dora river. Levi listened to his stories, listened in the cold night to the small sounds of the Dora running over its stones near the prison, and wanted with a new urgency to live and not to die. So this chapter is entitled “Gold.”

Primo Levi was spared the firing squad and was sent to Auschwitz instead, where his qualifications saved his life. “Cerium” is about working in the gigantic IG-Farben chemicals plant a few miles from the camp, about hunger of an intensity difficult to convey. He tried eating fatty acids and glycerin stolen from the laboratory, or furtively toasting pads of sanitary cotton into “fritters,” until he and his companion Alberto found some sticks of cerium—the material used for cigarette-lighter flints. Now they could enter with confidence the muttering whirlpool of the Auschwitz economy: somebody was making lighters and bartering them for food, and his minions would give a bread ration for a flint. The Russians were not far away by then. Through the queer properties of this “equivocal and heretical rare-earth group” mineral, added to a number of other strokes of luck, Levi was still alive when the camp was liberated.

Alberto did not survive. Primo Levi himself took many years to assimilate what he had seen and suffered: “I felt closer to the dead than the living, and felt guilty at being a man,” he writes about his own mood in the first year after the war. The “Cerium” theme, retreating underground for a stretch of this book, surfaces again in “Vanadium.” Twenty years have passed. Levi is now working for a varnish factory which finds that a consignment of resins from West Germany is defective. The Germans recommend a vanadium compound as an additive, in a letter signed by Dr. Müller. Primo Levi wonders if it could possibly be…and indeed it does turn out to be that very Dr. Müller of IG-Farben who helped to run the Buna laboratory at Auschwitz and whom Levi so vividly remembers.

Not a brute, and not a hero either. He writes a long, muddled, sentimental letter to Levi about “overcoming the past” (that German cliché) and about mutual understanding. He neither excuses his own early attachment to National Socialism nor comprehends which injuries can reasonably be treated by apology and which cannot. Then, with a tactlessness that—one must say—belongs uniquely to his nation, Müller goes on to congratulate Levi for the way in which he has overcome his Judaism in order to fulfill the Christian precept of forgiving one’s neighbor. Reading this, Levi repeats what he said to himself at Auschwitz when Dr. Müller, having ordered him some shoes, asked why he looked so anxious: “Der Mann hat keine Ahnung“—he doesn’t begin to grasp what’s going on.

A fable in this book, apparently written during or just after the war, tells of a barbarian metal-worker, originally from the Germanic tribes, who wanders the continent in search of lead deposits. When he discovers a new lode, he sells it to the nearest natives and moves on. This much resembles Levi’s own life, especially in the decades after the liberation. He too kept on the move, a sort of packman-chemist, an alchemist on the road as Zampano was the nomadic showman of La Strada. He won a battle with a chromate monster that was turning cans of varnish into useless lumps with the consistency of liver. He lost an expedition to make alloxan, required by a mafioso lipstick manufacturer to dye mouths indelibly crimson; though Primo Levi and his new wife, in order to extract uric acid for the alloxan, collected bicycle-loads of chicken shit and went begging for the excreta of serpents, all that ever emerged from his efforts were “foul vapors, boredom, humiliation, and a black and murky liquid.” Later, he and his friend Emilio became free-lance chemists and set up a laboratory for stannous chloride (a tin salt used by mirror makers) in the flat of Emilio’s long-suffering parents. They brewed the stuff in chamber pots, soup tureens, bits of chandeliers. They contrived not to inhale too many fumes from hydrochloric acid (“you expel from your nose two short plumes of white smoke, like the horses in Eisenstein’s movies”). They went broke, but without bitterness, and Levi moved on to become a traveling “customer service” representative, selling chemicals and listening to the complaints, the endless anecdotes and fantasies of bored Italian manufacturers.

Flamboyant chemicals, sullen human beings; women living adventurously and organic compounds that live timorously behind many locks, ready to bolt down the fire escape when the analyst rings the front doorbell. This cunning bringing-together of animal and mineral allows Levi entry into a wonderful store of irony, of humor and observation, of literary effect. And behind this is a certain perception that is indeed universal but, with a stylist as delicate as Primo Levi, it would be insulting to drag it out and subject it to tests. It’s enough to point the reader’s attention to the final chapter, “Carbon”: simply a history of how a carbon atom might journey through limestone, the lungs of a falcon, the upper air, a vine, a glucose molecule in a human liver, the compound eye of a moth on a Lebanese cedar…to the particular cell in the brain of the writer which at that instant decides to bring his book to its end. From the atom of carbon comes “a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy [which] guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”

  1. *

    H. Stuart Hughes, Prisoners of Hope: The Silver Age of the Italian Jews, 1924–1974 (Harvard University Press, 1983).

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