Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chemistry

I'm currently reading Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" and an odd thing has occurred - I find myself wanting to discuss the book at every moment. And I'm not even halfway into the book. It used to happen very rarely that a book made its way into my life so casually, but this is the third time in recent months where I've found a book that even as I'm reading it affects me so profoundly. This is one that can be discussed along the way.

"The Periodic Table" has perhaps the strangest structure I've encountered in a while. Told in short stories, it's basically a memoir that focuses on science. Each story is centered around one element. Some are long stretches (the opening story, for instance, serves much more as an introduction to Levi's background than any actual relation to chemistry) but others are chemistry stories: the second story tells of how Levi first fell in love with chemistry and a foolish experiment he conducted. Levi practically assumes anyone reading the book knows exactly what he's talking about when he mentions oxidation reduction, various textbook experiments, and many properties of certain elements. And if you don't know chemistry? Tough luck understanding some of the humor.

One of the points that keeps coming up for me is how different the book is. Even though I know it's a memoir, that this is Levi telling me straight-up about his life, the book doesn't feel like a memoir. And it definitely doesn't feel like a novel. It's somewhere in between, where the author is at once so close and so far from the reader, creating the mistaken sense that Primo Levi is currently sitting in front of me and is telling me a story. All the while confusing me further.

A final thought: The last story I finished (Nickel) made me realize that I'm not simply enjoying the book (for its writing, its chemistry, and its cleverness), but also that I now must read every other work Primo Levi wrote. Levi describes his struggles in extracting nickel from the mined rocks. The entire chapter built up my own need to see this problem solved and when Levi finally thinks of the correct (if slightly unorthodox) way to fix his problem, I, the reader, felt happy. Then Levi says how at the time, he tried not to think about the consequences of this discovery, that this method would assist the fascist war effort. He tried not think that this would assist Nazi Germany in continuing the destruction of his (Levi's) rights and life. Levi conveys this flat, distant emotion in an instant and it's impossible not to swallow hard, realizing the truth in his words. As a testament to this incredibly written book, I too discovered that I had tried not to think about those crucial points.

6 comments:

  1. Primo Levi is a writer I have yet to read- and must get round to him soon.

    I wonder if you'd be interested in this one by Paulo Giordano - The Solitude of Prime Numbers?

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  2. I am forever confusing Primo Levi with Carlo Levi, who wrote a wonderful book called Christ Stopped at Eboli.

    I've been meaning to read If This is a Man forever but The Periodic Table sounds like it might be worth reading first, then going back to Levi's earlier work.
    -Verbivore

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  3. This must be a sign from the book gods. I've had this book on my shelf for years but have never gotten around to reading it. Now, within the past week, you are the second blogger I know of who is reading this! Or maybe you are part of a conspiracy and it has nothing to do with the book gods? :)

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  4. Levi's writing is phenomenal. I think much of the chem-speak would go over my head with this one, but I think I got a sense of what you're saying about his writing from A Tranquil Star, which is a collection of his short fiction. Each piece is only a few pages long but that's all the longer it takes for Levi to really capture you with his words.

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  5. I read a couple of his—If This is a Man & The Truce—a few years back, and thought they were terrific. This one's on the list...

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  6. I enjoyed this book very much too. I was wary of such a different form for a book, but it was Levi so I knew it would be interesting at least. I gave it to my husband whose university majors were physics and chemistry. He enjoyed it too.

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