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Tess

The Periodic Table

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Primo Levi, an Italian Jew survived Auschwitz because of his knowledge of industrial chemistry. Here he takes 21 elements from the Periodic Table to create a series of largely autobiographical tales. Each chapter has a chemical element for its title and that element somehow appears in the story, either literally or metaphorically.

 

The book starts with a long rambling chapter about relations in Piedmont before the war, a collection of memories of people from Levi’s past. I found this chapter very hard going but would encourage other readers to persevere with it as the book becomes much more readable thereafter.

 

There are then stories about his interest in chemistry as a child (experimenting and causing explosions) his university education and how as a young man Fascism gradually become a crippling factor in his life until one day he was captured as an anti-fascist fighter and sent to Auschwitz. There is one Auschwitz chapter and then stories of Levi's life after the war when he became the head of the chemistry department at a paint factory, leading to a heartbreaking chance encounter with one of his Nazi guards. There are also a few fictional chapters, including the story of a carbon atom which I absolutely adored.

 

Non-chemists have no fear. It may help knowing a bit of chemistry but it’s all pretty basic stuff. Levi has used the elements as a platform to take you on a journey into his memories, questioning what it means to be human. He observes the horrors and beauty of life through the eyes of a chemist and through the language of atoms and particles. The book is touching and funny, and at times incredibly sad.

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I shall get this, Tess, having also read his If This Is a Man, (but might it have been better placed in the biography and autobiography section?).

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My father, who seems to have a rather morbid fondness for Holocaust memoirs, praises Levi's writing above all others, so I will be giving him a shot one day.

 

I've also been considering this for my Jewish reading group if I'm able to re-start it. So far, we've shied away from tackling anything, fictional or otherwise, related to that period but it is the elephant in the room. Since we're focussed on modern Jewish writers and themes, it is going to be hard to avoid.

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I shall get this, Tess, having also read his If This Is a Man, (but might it have been better placed in the biography and autobiography section?).

 

Chuntzy, you are quite right. I just plonked it in here without thinking! Perhaps one of the moderators would be so kind as to move it?

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My father, who seems to have a rather morbid fondness for Holocaust memoirs, praises Levi's writing above all others, so I will be giving him a shot one day..

 

Your father and I concur on this one Grammath. Levi is indeed a fine writer. 'If not now When' is another novel I would recommend, along with his many collections of short stories and articles.

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Perhaps one of the moderators would be so kind as to move it?
Kindly done for you, my dear. (My first grown-up moderating :D )

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    • By katrina
      Bill 27th October 2006 02:58 PM

      If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi

      My apologies for not having posted a forum for this a lot earlier. I clearly haven't been paying enough attention. It took megustaleer's return to alert me to my remissness - in future, I suggest you don't just leave it to her! PM me if you need me to do something.
      ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

      Tess 27th October 2006 03:32 PM

      What great timing, I just finished this last night!

      Overall I really enjoyed the book, or as much as can be expected considering the content. I liked how Levy left some incidents to our imagination, stating that "it shall not be told". The story was tragic but also uplifting, it depicted both the best and worst of human nature.
      ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

      katrina 28th October 2006 05:21 PM

      Hey, I enjoyed this book but found it hard going in some places. I think, apart from my lack of knowlege about history, I found parts of the book difficult because I couldn't imagine the characters or the setting. And I have no idea why this was.
      I on the other hand did enjoy it, because it's one of those books which is about the human need and fight for survival, and about the relationship between people.




      I also find that I have forgotten a lot of this book already dispite having finished reading it only 5 days ago (although that maybe a result of having read a couple of book since and marking loads of pieces of kids work).
      ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

      LesleyMP 30th October 2006 07:52 PM


      I finished the book last night and am really glad I have read it. I don't have time to go into any real detail right now so will come back later and post something I have had time to think about.

      My gut reaction to the book was that Levi really captured the sense that the war touched every single person, in so many different ways and that people had to survive on their instincts, all sense of any kind of normality gone.

      Added 5/11
      I thoroughly enjoyed this book, though it is of course at times a very difficult read just because of the nature of the content. I felt that it came across more as a narrative of events, rather than a novel because Levi touched on so many lives and hinted at so many other events and stories that he left untold - as noted by Tess:


      Maybe this is because Levi had experienced such things first hand, and had already written his own war memoirs.

      You really did get a sense that even though the group of partisans featured in the story had all gone through the most horrific ordeals that life could throw at them, they were just a handful of people and that globally millions and millions of people would have had similar stories. This idea I found quite overwhelming.

      You feel that adapting back to 'normality' at the end of the story will be almost as daunting for the characters, their lives of survival during the war years having become the norm for them.
      ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

      Brightphoebus 13th November 2006 06:14 PM

      If Not Now, When? is not Primo Levi’s own story, but that of the Eastern European Jewish, and other, partisans who roamed through Russia, Poland and Germany between 1943 and1945. He himself had been a partisan for a brief time, but in Italy. His heritage was that of the Sephardic Jew and it was not until he arrived at Auschwitz that he encountered Jews who spoke Yiddish and had been encountering pogroms for years by their fellow citizens, and unimaginable Nazi atrocities even before the extermination camps. The book is a homage to them and an attempt to keep the history alive “fighting for three lines in the history books”.

      If you want to read a book that is character led then you might be a little disappointed. There are vivid characters but it is who and what they represent that is far more important. He does an excellent job of showing the vast array of persons and cultures, of attitudes and beliefs, of courageous acts, stoical acceptance, charisma and brutality. There is not one type of Jew, one Pole, one Red Army officer. It is not necessarily an easy book to start, as you are immediately plunged, like the main character Mendel, into an unknown world in every sense, hard to place in any particular part of Eastern Europe. His journey, across Byelorussia, Poland, Germany and Italy, and the story, eventually takes shape. Things become clearer in one sense but so much more muddy in another as the allies’ victories off stage are not necessarily mirrored as times of good fortune by Mendel and the group that he eventually joins as they fight for their lives.

      The image of Mendel’s wife, who was buried their village in a pit she had dug herself before being shot by the Nazis, recurs many times but Levi is deliberately not telling this story here. When the members of the large family camp hidden in the woods and marshes at Novoselki are massacred, all Levi recounts is “(Mendel) saw the manhunters search them, laughing, and question them and line them up against the wall. But what happened in the courtyard of the Novoselki monastery will not be told here: this story is not being told in order to describe massacres.”

      The story, rather, is of the Jews who go against learning, tradition and character, who decide not to “die of despair” but to take up arms and fight. This change was witnessed by one Red Army group, themselves fighting he Germans by any means they could: “In those haggard but determined faces they didn’t recognise the zhid of their tradition, the alien in the house who speaks Russian to swindle others but thinks in his strange language, who doesn’t know Christ but instead follows his own incomprehensible and ridiculous precepts, armed only by his cleverness, rich and cowardly. The world had been turned upside down: these Jews were allies and armed…they would have to accept them, shake their hands, drink vodka with them.”

      Such anti-Semitism did not disappear. Russian and Polish partisans continued to mistrust and kill the Jewish partisans even though on the face of it you would imagine they would unite against the common enemy; but they were beginning to take control of their future “The Russians want us present in the West as Russians; we’re interested in being present as Jews, and for once in our history, the two things aren’t contradictory”. Even so, as the war began to come to an end, there is the terrible realisation that uncertainty and suffering for the partisans was not likely to end soon, as a character they find hiding underground tells them, whose group were shot by “Everybody. Germans, Hungarians, Ukranians, sometimes also the Poles, though we were all Polish”.

      A young woman of their band is shot dead even as they enter a defeated Germany, to illustrate the point. However, along the way there is a wedding, violin playing, a baby , a Christian Pole so attached to the group that he want to go to Palestine with them, and other moments of human warmth.

      Levi, who was able to return to his childhood home in Turin, felt keenly the anguish of those Jews whose “regret for their houses was not a hope but a despair…their homes no longer existed, tomb houses, of which it was best not to think, houses of ashes”. He understands why the group are desperate to reach Palestine via Italy and you triumph with them whist feeling the weight of their struggle, and that of all the displaced persons in Europe, and that in fact for none of them would there be one particular moment of freedom.

      Years ago I read and loved “The Periodic Table” by Levi. I am Jewish and find it was easier to read such things when I was younger. For years I kept postponing my reading of this book and I am very grateful to BGO for giving me the impetus to read it, and for not giving myself reasons to give it up as I struggled with the first few chapters.
      --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

      Momo 22nd November 2006 05:50 PM

      Just finished this book and must say I loved it. The language was great, the story interesting, the people well described. Will put my thoughts together and post again later.
       
    • By nonsuch
      Primo Levi, If This is a Man
       
      Because he was a chemical engineer and because he was lucky Primo Levi survived the death camps. This memoir of his life before and after incarceration is less a protest at the Holocaust than an enquiry into the nature of human beings capable of participating in the greatest evil of our time. The power of the book lies in its bare and factual approach, based wholly on one man’s responses. In his Afterword Levi, who has lectured extensively to diverse audiences in Italy and elsewhere, replies to frequently asked questions: Does he feel hatred for the Germans? Did the Germans know what was happening? Why were there no large-scale revolts? What about the Russian camps? And so on. He gives full and detailed responses, showing for example that death in the Russian camps was usually a by-product of hunger, cold, infections, hard labour and indifference, but not basically intended. One can, he says, picture a Socialism without concentration camps, but never a Nazism.
       
      Why should one read about the horrors we all know about? What is the point after all this time in reopening old wounds? I would say because this is a human document that attempts to understand the dark side of our nature, not through theory or speculation, but by simply recounting facts, clearly and unemotionally. Thus we find not every Kapo was a monster, nor every inmate a saint. The writing, understated and often poetic, endears us to the author, now dead but living in his words, such as these: ‘When the music plays we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills. There is no longer any will; every beat of the drum becomes a step, a reflected contraction of exhausted muscles. The Germans have succeeded in this. They are ten thousand and they are a single grey machine; they are exactly determined; they do not think and they do not desire, they walk.’ The Will to Power is set to music and doing its work in flattening out humanity. ‘We all look at each other from our beds, because we all feel that this music is infernal.’
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