Levi explains what drove him to study chemistry:
We began studying physics together, and Sandro was surprised when I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there, in our Autenrieth, in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.
One of the delights of the book is the brief character sketches Levi gives of his friends and acquaintances, presenting a full person in only a few words. There was the Sandro, mentioned above, who wanted to understand himself (in contrast to Levi’s desire to understand matter) and constantly challenged himself, unwilling to be conquered by man or nature. There are only a few brief mentions of Levi’s wife, but in presenting a woman willing to help her husband collect chicken droppings he manages to convey a lot about her. In the chapter titled “Vanadium”, we are even given a character sketch from a distance of one of the industrial mangers connected with Auschwitz that he encountered through his work (and never met, other than through correspondence). Levi’s interaction with people throughout his life discloses a complex and generous man—while the book is far from autobiographical, the reader gets a revealing look at the author.
Many chemistry-related themes run throughout the book, with Levi showing both chemical and personal examples:
- distances between theory and practice,
- the complexity of matter, people and reality,
- purity vs. impurity,
- passive vs. active,
- the ability of minute things to ignite much greater action or cause unwanted reactions,
- divergent possibilities that hinge on minor differences,
- order vs. chaos, and
- the importance of inertia in people and institutions.
The final chapter tells “the story of an atom of carbon.” It would be interesting to know if Levi ever read The Maias by Eça de Queirós since the character Ega proposes authoring Memoirs of an Atom, for which he is hailed as a promising writer (even though he never even attempts to write it). Just as Levi imagines the history of a carbon atom finding its way into his brain, The Periodic Table gives the reader unique insight into the mind of Levi. He envies one character’s “boundless freedom of invention” to build “the past that suits him best,” yet Levi’s experiences show that simple humaneness can yield disproportionate (and unwarranted) optimism in constructing his rich life.
A few online resources for Primo Levi can be found here.
Update (5 Jan 2018): Carole Angier provides not just a nice overview of the book, but also includes the chapter “Cerium” with detailed commentary on that chapter at Aeon.