Primo Levi and the Elements of Literature

1. Neon.
I’ve always been ambivalent towards Holocaust writings. As a kid I learnt a lot in school about the Holocaust and WWII; indeed I feel that it has a prominent place in culture still today, almost 80 years after it took place, whether you have a personal and family connections to it or not. I think the reason lies in its uniqueness. No, the Nazis did not invent genocide, and neither was Hitler a pioneer in the field of racism; and yet the unparalleled magnitude – the cold-hearted execution of the ideology – the sheer evilness – has no match in human history. That’s why movies are still being made and watched and books are still being written and read about it. Nazism’s specific style of evil is so pure that it makes the subject of the Holocaust somehow very readable and easy to connect to. It’s human suffering at its extreme, and nothing could be more emotional.
Which is exactly the cause for my ambivalence. I am automatically suspicious of anything that makes people so emotional, and in this case so emotional so easily. Make no mistake: I strongly support the notion that discussing the Holocaust is of great human importance, that there are endless lessons to be learned, and that sharing one’s story as a survivor is an amazing way to deal with one’s experience. At the same time, sometimes there’s something almost ‘too easy’ about it. You are guaranteed an emotional turmoil without any effort on your side as a reader. What’s more, our automatic classification of Holocaust writers as nothing but that assigned role leaves little room to appreciate the writing itself. That is not to say that books about the Holocaust are bad – not at all – just that even when they are excellent, it is sometimes hard to see past their classification and understand the other qualities of the text.
2. Helium
Primo Levi had first hand experience with the Holocaust. He was in Auschwitz for eleven months during 1944. He went on to write several books on the subject, most notably If This is a Man, which is indeed a very well written book with a very deep discussion of the human (or rather, inhuman) condition. Here’s what I like about Levi: his strong insistence on being more than just a Holocaust survivor, or a Holocaust writer. In the way he describes himself, he is first and foremost a chemist. His most famous book, The Periodic Table, is an autobiography told through elements of Mendeleev’s chart, each chosen element relating to a different part of his life: from childhood, school, studies of chemistry – and then, suddenly, adulthood and the financial difficulties of post-war Italy. The story skips entirely his time in Auschwitz without so much as a reference. Description of his life as a Jewish man in Italy are vast: the difficulty of finding work, the need to remain below radar… There is also a brief retrospect of life as a prisoner, when he encounters by chance a familiar (German) name from the camp. But where is “the big H” itself? For first time Levi readers this might sound like the second-generation syndrome: growing up with parents who went through the Holocaust meant, for many people, not uttering a single word about it. A complete silence from mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts who were so traumatized and scarred that they could not even bring themselves to explain their feelings to their confused children. However, this is not the case with Primo Levi. He has told his story many times and in great detail, and is in no way being scared into silence in the matter. Instead, it is a brave statement: there is more in me than a Holocaust survivor. It represents a strong need for individualism – ever present in us as people, and even more so for those who were classified to death, quite literally. And so, besides enjoying the book for its language and storytelling, I feel I must firstly acknowledge this creative choice.
3. Oxygen
Every chapter in The Periodic Table is named after a certain element, which connects to the chapter’s theme; sometimes in straightforward ways (“Nickel”: “The final data was written in fire on the slide rule: 6% Nickel”) and sometimes in deeper, more philosophical ways (“Argon”, literally meaning inactive: “The little I know about my ancestors draws them near to these [noble/inactive] gases”) . But chemistry is not only in the names; it is all around. Levi sees and responds to the world through his fascination with chemistry and his belief that it is the best tool at our disposal for understanding life and reaching the Ultimate Truth. Levi’s is a very poetic

A beautiful Italian version of "The Periodic Table"

interpretation of a scientific process, one which brings back the romantic notions of learning which society held before this modern cost-and-effect ideology killed our curiosity. It is science for the sake of science, which happens to correspond very well with my annoyingly childish and naive world view. Personally I am more into the humanities and the liberal arts, but any learning for the sake of learning is to be admired in my eyes. True, we need income, we need economy and profit-makers, we need money (as a student I know that only too well! there is no money to be made with my upcoming diploma). But if we want to stay human, if we want to stay mentally alive, we need learners too. And we could definitly use more people that can say things like “there is beauty in distillation […] it involves metamorphosis: from liquid to (invisible) fume, and back to liquid; but in this double journey, upwards and downwards, we achieve purity, a charming, ambiguous state […] you produce out of an imperfect matter its essence, its spirit” (“Potassium”).

Well. Who knew I was this sentimental?

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