A life scientific

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, Penguin Essentials, RRP£7.99, 208 pages

On April 11 1987, 25 years ago this month, the Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi fell to his death down the stairwell of the block of flats where he lived in Turin. The authorities pronounced a verdict of suicide. Levi’s chronicle of his captivity under Nazism, If This is a Man (published in Italy in 1947, and in the UK and US in 1959), remains one of the essential books of our age. However, Levi was not simply a witness to contemporary barbarism. By profession he was an industrial chemist. In much of his journalism, fiction and poetry he explored the border zone between science and literature. The republication of Levi’s literary-scientific memoir, The Periodic Table, provides an opportunity to appraise a figure who bridged the divide between the two cultures and became one of the most important and best-loved writers of our time.

First published in Italy in 1975, The Periodic Table gathers up an extraordinary range of writing, from detective fiction to learned scientific commentary. Daringly, Levi structured the book round elements of the chemist’s periodic table. Certain elements in the table seemed to Levi to evoke images of his past experiences, so he used them as aides-mémoires, drawing from potassium, say, or titanium a thread of reminiscence to weave his life history. Chronicled are the fumes, stinks, bangs and fiascos (as well as the occasional triumphs) of Levi’s early chemistry experiments in 1930s Turin, his deportation to Auschwitz and postwar recovery as a writer and manager of a paint and varnish factory on the outskirts of Turin.

In Italy The Periodic Table was well reviewed and attracted new scientific readers for Levi. Still the book had not won any of Italy’s first-division literary prizes and was not a bestseller. Inevitably there was a question mark over how well it might fare in the English-speaking world. Such hybrid merchandise would never sell, editors feared. There was still a big divide between the two cultures in the UK. Levi’s book was not quite autobiography and it was not a chemistry treatise either. So what was it? Incredibly, The Periodic Table was turned down by no fewer than 27 publishers in Britain before it was finally brought out by Michael Joseph Ltd in 1985. It was published the year before in the US, where sales were better thanks partly to Saul Bellow’s advocacy (“everything this book contains is essential”); but even then the book had initially been slow to catch on.

Levi was ahead of his time. It is only in recent years that science has become, in publishing terms, popular and attractive. Long before Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould, Levi had sought to make science accessible to the layperson. The Periodic Table, a lapidary integration of science and literature, continued a tradition of scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin that vanished in the 20th century following academic specialisation. Levi’s influence is very much in evidence today. Siddartha Mukherjee’s award-winning history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies (2011), for example, is profoundly indebted to The Periodic Table as it cuts across the two cultures with humility and intelligent generosity.

As an industrial chemist, Levi understood better than most that the world’s most destructive transformations (Zyklon B, anthrax, sarin) are born in the laboratory. Auschwitz itself, in Levi’s scientific interpretation, was a giant laboratory experiment designed to transform the substance of humankind. In his two science fiction volumes published in Italy, Storie naturali (1966) and Vizio di forma (1971), Levi had warned against man’s potentially destructive misuse of technology. Central to The Periodic Table, however, is the notion that chemistry at least is a reassuringly earth-bound science, whose “clean, distilled quality” served as an antidote to the Fascist regime’s egregious demotion of science in favour of nebulous values of the so-called spirit. As a teenager growing up in Fascist Italy, Levi saw how chemistry had been sidelined at his school as “stinks”.

The Fascist school reforms of 1923 had ensured that the classics provided the core curriculum, not science. The dictatorship’s philosopher-in-residence and education minister, Giovanni Gentile, had scorned laboratory disciplines as “grossly materialist” and “vulgar”. Prominent Blackshirt ideologues such as Benedetto Croce (later, a convinced anti-Fascist) regarded science as “dangerous” and feared that children would be corrupted by studying it. Levi never forgave Croce for his dictum that “scientific problems are not real ones”.

More so than in Britain or the US, familiarity with Latin and Greek is still considered a mark of breeding in Italy. During the postwar years the gap between the two cultures had consequently been greater in Italy. Most of those at the top of Italian society had been to a classical school or lieco classico. (Levi himself went to one.) Taken together, Levi’s books can be read as a riposte to Fascism’s anti-science bias. Charles Darwin had been discredited by Fascism as “materialist” yet the teenage Levi found in The Origin of Species a “grand design” for the universe and a sober delight in extracting order from chaos. And this was the attraction, too, of chemistry – chaos giving way to order in the periodic table.

Levi was not the only Italian writer who worked in a chemical industry (the novelist Italo Svevo had specialised in anti-corrosive paints for ships), yet he encouraged an image of himself as a man caught between the exigencies of the factory and the typewriter. In his 1961 fantastic tale, “An Official Investigation into the Centaurs”, Levi imagined himself as a 260-year-old half-man, half-horse creature. Beneath the equine whimsy was a writer who was clearly proud to set himself apart from Italy’s salon-frequenting literati who could speak solely of literature. The Periodic Table had appeared at a time when authors with a scientific bent were much less published than they are today. Only now is it recognised by Italian critics as one of the most original and audacious works of postwar European literature.

Levi had first mooted the idea for the book in 1963 when he argued, in an article for an Italian newspaper, that chemistry was not an “arid” subject for literature at all. (“That’s a colossal nonsense!”) Material for his chemical autobiography had appeared in different form in an Italian magazine as early as 1948. And, as old material was expanded and rehabilitated, so The Periodic Table had grown steadily more ambitious in scope.

In many ways, the book is Levi’s attempt to give his life meaning and justification. The “Carbon” chapter, a poetic fable about the infinitude of matter, dates to December 1943, when Levi faced likely execution in a jail in German-occupied northern Italy. Frightened, he had pondered the notion of a novel (as it was then to be) about a carbon atom’s odyssey. It is certainly remarkable that Levi was able to reflect on the miracle of life born of carbon at a time when his own life was probably about to end. In reality, the story was rooted in Levi’s schoolboy reading.

The Latin poet Lucretius’s long philosophical poem “On the Nature of Things” was disapproved of by Fascism owing to its “whiff of impiety”. In Lucretius Levi found an alternative theology that recognised no God but which anticipated a large part of contemporary science. He came to regard the work as a luminous celebration of the mysteries of the natural world; the deeper he read into it, he said, the more he was awed by its grandeur and modernity. With uncanny prescience, Lucretius wrote of how rivers, foliage and pastures are “transformed” into cattle, and how these cattle are consumed by humans, who in turn provide sustenance for predators. Lucretius did not know it but he was writing about the quintessential atom of life – carbon – at a time when atomic theory did not exist. During the two-year composition of The Periodic Table, 1973-75, Levi often consulted Lucretius, who formed the bedrock of Levi’s mature knowledge of organic chemistry.

In fact, the “Two Cultures” debate initiated by the English novelist and physicist CP Snow in 1959 made little impact on Levi, who already had a lifelong love of both science and literature. Of the 30 authors he chose to include in his personal anthology of favourite writings, The Search for Roots (1981), one was German organic chemist Ludwig Gattermann. Levi had read Gattermann in the original in 1937 while studying chemistry at Turin University. If he managed against all the odds to survive at Auschwitz it was thanks in part to his ability to understand German orders. Italo Calvino, for one, found in Levi a bracing alternative to the tradition of casalingo or “domestic” Italian literature as represented by Pier Paolo Pasolini or Alberto Moravia. With his interest in chemistry and molecular science, Levi was anything but parochial. (The strangest piece in The Search for Roots is a paper on how to prevent cockroach attack on industrial varnishes.)

Contrary to expectations, The Periodic Table reached the UK bestseller list alongside Dick Francis. Sales had been bolstered by a 1985 BBC Bookmark documentary on Levi by the poet and critic Ian Hamilton. In it, Levi is seen walking through the sunlight and shadow of an arcaded street in his native Turin, and smoking cigarettes in a café. In one marvellous scene a group of elderly women relatives share family gossip with Primo, who beams among them like the adored primogenito – first born – he had always been. It is impossible not to warm to Levi in the documentary and British viewers were charmed by it. In America, too, Levi had been feted and was about to become an unforgettable name.

In 1986 Levi arrived in London for a week-long book tour. It was to be a glorious spring interlude for him, the last of his life. British readers were finally curious to meet the softly spoken Italian who had been to hell and back. At the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square he gave a talk, “From the Lab to the Writer’s Desk”; the audience listened rapt as Levi spoke of science and literature. There was no incompatibility between the Two Cultures, as CP Snow had warned there might be, only “mutual attraction”. Aldous Huxley, whose early novels had teemed with laboratory imagery, had exercised a “biological approach to writing” that served Levi well, he said, when writing If This is a Man.

In many ways, Levi’s British success was provident. By the early 1980s Italian literature had become quite fashionable among English-speaking readers. Publishers had been alerted to the impending trend by Gore Vidal, who since the late 1970s had championed Italo Calvino, Natalia Ginzburg and the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia in the pages of the New York Review of Books. More than anything, however, it was the triumph of Umberto Eco’s literary-alchemic whodunit The Name of the Rose that helped pave the way for Levi’s UK reception. By the time Levi arrived in London in 1986 Eco’s novel had sold more than 5m copies worldwide and become Italy’s best-known literary export.

Levi’s British publishers were sure that he would be back within the year. The following year, however, Levi fell to his death. His suicide that spring weekend in 1987 was provoked by a long-term clinical depression, which was compounded by a number of factors (among them fear of memory loss and, possibly, guilt at having survived Auschwitz). Yet, however accommodating it is to see the concentration camp, or mental illness, as the explanation, the real causes for Levi’s death remain fugitive, because the suffering of those who kill themselves is private and inaccessible. Primo Levi’s books remain, however, and these are a marvel.

Ian Thomson is author of ‘Primo Levi: A Biography’ (Vintage). It won the Royal Society of Literature’s WH Heinemann Award

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