Earlier this week, in the express line at the grocery store, I actually looked up from my iPhone to spot the man behind me in the line, an older quirky but friendly looking guy wearing a strange black t-shirt depicting the element V on the Periodic Table, or Vanadium.
Me: Where did you get that shirt?
Guy: Well, I’m a chemist. I work on Vanadium.
Me: Have you heard of Primo Levi?
Guy: Oh, yes, he’s a very famous chemist.
Indeed, Levi is a very famous chemist, but also a prolific and powerful author.
If you haven’t heard of him, do look him up. Briefly, Levi was a brilliant chemist. He was also Jewish. He was rounded up into numerous concentration camps and used by the Nazis because of his chemistry skills. After he escaped the final camp, he was obviously a very wounded soul. As he re-entered society and continued with his craft of being a chemist, he wrote about 6-7 memoirs about his experiences from childhood, the camps, and reintegration into society. As fair warning, these books aren’t for the faint of heart, but they are beautifully written and reveal so much about basic human interactions we mostly take for granted.
My favorite in the Levi collection is called, “The Periodic Table.” Each chapter is titled after an element on the periodic table, and Levi uses these few elements, such as Argon, Chromium, and Zinc, among others, to take the reader back in time to his childhood, his days under Nazi rule, and his post-incarceration life as a professional chemist. Many literary critics have dubbed this particular book as Levi’s most original work and contribution, and I would second that opinion.
In the chapter, “Vanadium,” Levi shares a strange realization. While working as a chemist, his firm has a contract to sell materials to a German firm. There’s a problem in one shipment with the vanadium, which forces him to correspond with the person who placed the order for the German firm. After a few letter exchanges, Levi recognizes the correspondent’s name to be his boss at the chemistry lab while he was in Auschwitz. These two men kept corresponding, neither of them interested in bringing up their past connection.
The book is filled with little sharp vignettes like this. It makes his story even more powerful. My favorite passage is early in the book from the chapter, “Zinc.” Levi has a flashback to childhood, when he first fell in love with chemistry. There was a girl in his class, Rita, whom he liked because she was both plain yet mysterious. He never had the guts to talk to her, but was eventually forced to be her partner in a chemistry experiment. After class that day, he offered to walk her home in their hometown of Turino. As he’s about to drop her off at home, he writes:
Trembling with fear, I slipped my arm under hers. Rita did not return the pressure, nor did she pull away…I fell into step with her and felt exhilarated and victorious. It seemed to me that I had won a small but decisive battle against the darkness, the emptiness, and the hostile years that lay ahead.