Primo Levi, “The Periodic Table” (translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal) (1975) – What is there to say about Primo Levi? As far as I can tell, he might be the most universally respected of the great twentieth century literary figures. No late-career slump, no shilling for oppressive regimes, no ego spiral, no sexual predation… just a dude saying what he saw, as best he could.
I’m both trying to be more brief with these reviews (especially of fiction) and am about two weeks late with this one- between my birthday and everything, stuff just got pushed. This is a book of short stories about Levi’s life, mostly before and after his time in Auschwitz. Each is themed after one of the elements on the periodic table- Levi was a chemist by vocation. They range a lot. There’s a discussion of the old Italian Jewish community the came from. You see young Primo learning how to climb mountains with a boy who went on to be the first partisan killed from his town. There’s a bunch of amusing chemical industry anecdotes (apparently varnishes turn into gross little livers after a while?). Perhaps most interesting is his meeting with one of his supervisors in Auschwitz years later and trying to figure out how much of his repentance is sincere or relevant. All of it in the straightforward but humane prose of a man who, in the depths of the worst of the century, decided that if he survived, he would remember and recount all of it, as clearly as he could. That one of the few uncompromised figures of twentieth century literature is also one of the clearest and most readable is a miracle. *****