1980s Books in Translation Classics

The Periodic Table – Primo Levi

  Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal

Five words from the blurb: chemist, element, metaphorical, human, society

Primo Levi was an Auschwitz survivor and the majority of his books focused on his experience in the concentration camp. This book is different in that the time in the concentration camp is barely mentioned, but instead we see the importance that chemistry played in his life – from his earliest school boy experiments to the difficulties of dealing with his former captors in a professional capacity. The book is made up of twenty-one short stories, each titled with the name of a different chemical element; each revealing a different aspect of the human condition.

This book is clearly very important, but as a reader I had mixed feelings. It was very hard to start – requiring a dictionary, an enormous amount of patience and a fair bit of googling to understand anything that was happening. It got easier to read as it progressed, but could never be read at any speed greater than a snail’s pace.

As a former chemist I am normally keen to read about science in literature, but I’m afraid that many sections reminded me of doing some tedious chemistry homework. The complete descriptions of various experiments bored me and I found the passion for chemistry a bit too strong.

Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.

Perhaps I don’t think deeply enough about things, but I always found distilling to be a frustrating past-time and so a passage like this didn’t connect with me.

The problem/genius of this book is that chemistry is a metaphor for so many different things and spotting the underlying meaning behind can be hard. Levi helps by dropping in a few obvious statements, but I’m sure that a lot of the symbolism went over my head.

The differences can be small, but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switch-points; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.

This is one of those books that needs to be studied to be fully appreciated. I don’t think that reading it at home, in isolation, will ever reveal the full power of the words. I’m really pleased that I completed the book, but can’t say it was an enjoyable or enlightening experience.


This is my first Primo Levi book, but I suspect that I might enjoy some of his other books more.

Have you read any of his books? Which do you recommend?

12 replies on “The Periodic Table – Primo Levi”

Oh boy. Well if my favorite chemist had a hard time with it, I’m sure I’d be totally lost. We have a rule in one of my book clubs that if it sounds like homework, we pass on it. Life is too short.

Sandy, I wonder if this book might appeal to non-chemists more. I was already familiar with a lot of the processes described, so perhaps it will appeal more to people who are learning about it. I don’t know, but I do know it felt a lot like homework!

I have a degree in chemistry so I feel as if I should probably read this book, but I admit it doesn’t really appeal to me at all. I never found distilling very interesting but I suppose it’s a good thing that some people are passionate about it!

Helen, I think the chemistry degree is a setback for reading this book. We already know how reactive potassium is with water and we know the truth about how tedious distilling is. Perhaps non chemists could be convinced otherwise, but I find the Passion a bit odd.

The Periodic Table introduced me to Primo Levi a few years ago and remains one of my favorite books. There’s something about the chemistry setting that worked wonderfully for me – I was immediately drawn into the stories, loved Levi’s detached, analytical style and the stories themselves, the way they made me think and feel simultaneously. I’ve never read another book quite like it.

Every reader reacts differently to each book. The Periodic Table came at the perfect time for me (just as I was studying for my chemistry exams, actually!) and this experience clearly influenced my opinion of the book. I understand what you mean about this being a book to study and think about, but I don’t think this sort of study need necessarily be in a classroom…

Biblibio, “The Periodic Table came at the perfect time for me (just as I was studying for my chemistry exams, actually!)”
LOL! I could joke and say it is perfect revision material!! 😉
Joking aside, I can see why some people love this book, but that detached writing style wasn’t for me – I craved more emotion. I guess I’m just not interested in that kind of studying at home. I am not good enough to do it on my own and prefer to work as part of a study group, but you are right that some people are perfectly capable of doing it at home on their own – it is just me who can’t 🙁

Rebecaa, You don’t have to be a chemist to enjoy this book as it is all explained along the way. In fact I think it is better if you are not a chemist as it will all be new and exciting for you. I look forward to seeing what you think of it, if you decide to read it.

speaking as a professionally trained non-chemist I loved this book & would suggest trying If This Is a Man, which is on my TBR & uses memoir as Its template but goes beyond.

I have been putting off reading this book precisely because of the chemistry element (excuse the pun). But I really want to give it a go because I was so very impressed by If This is a Man and The Truce. I definitely recommend those two.

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