Primo Levi, chemist and writer

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Primo Levi in his study; photo Giansanti/Sygma

"I write because I am a chemist. My trade has provided my raw material, the nucleus to which things join ... Chemistry is a struggle with matter, a masterpiece of rationality, an existential parable ... Chemistry teaches vigilance combined with reason."

Primo Levi (1919-1987) lived almost his entire life in the same apartment building on Corso Re Umberto in Turin, Italy. He received a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Turin in 1942. After the Second World War, he developed a process for varnishing copper wire, and eventually became manager of the manufacturing plant where the process was commercialized. During his career as an industrial chemist, he wrote only in his spare time, and apparently never considered a career as a fulltime writer. His study, the place where he wrote all his books, was the room where he had been born.

Levi might never have written at all, or been published, except for the time he spent away from Turin: he survived a year in Auschwitz and eight months afterwards as a refugee in Russia before he could make his way home. As a biographer, Myriam Anissimov (Primo Levi: Tragedy of An Optimist, trans. Steve Cox) states, "Levi needed to tell his story and to be listened to. 'I returned from the camp with an absolute, pathological narrative charge.'"

His survival in the camp depended on several chance factors; he befriended an Italian POW, a Piedmontese bricklayer, who at the risk of his own life stole extra soup to sustain Levi and another friend. He was one of three Jewish inmates chosen to work in a chemistry laboratory in the camp, so he spent the winter of 1944-45 working in a heated building rather than doing manual labor outside in the equivalent of pajamas. He contracted scarlet fever just before the Russians reached the camp, thus avoiding the death march that the healthier inmates faced; the Germans ordered to kill all the remaining prisoners instead fled from the Russians. But without much doubt, it was his determination to survive and bear witness to what he had seen that was a major factor. His books, Survival in Auschwitz, The Truce, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Periodic Table chronicle those events, in crystal clear prose.

Levi's approach to science and to writing were one and the same. He wanted to bring the same precision of observation and expression to both. Anissimov writes, "In Levi's words, these are the duties of a writer, stated like the laws of the Ten Commandments:

'You will write concisely and clearly.

You will avoid embellishments and convolutions.

You will say of each word you have used why you have used that one and not another.

You will love and imitate those who have followed this same path.'

He derived this need for clarity and exactitude from his experience as a chemist. Every word is weighed in the precision balance of the laboratory ... Primo Levi practiced his trade as a chemist with a sense of exaltation. He never entered his laboratory without the feeling that he was, like the God of Genesis, coming to restore order to the "tohu-vavohu" of the universe. Far more than textbook abstractions, it was his daily, solitary work in the laboratory that yielded his knowledge about matter. There he confronted matter heroically, with his hands and his reason. This clash with hyle, "Matter," which Levi was so attached to, and whose key metaphors enrich his work [especially in The Periodic Table, where the properties of particular elements organize Levi's memories), would no longer be possible today, because the procedures he used to build molecular structures have become obsolete, replaced by a sophisticated technology that uses computerized modeling."

Although that is an inaccurate view--certainly computational chemistry has not replaced experiment--it is true that the kind of descriptive chemistry Levi studied is not much taught any more, and instrumental methods of analysis (what I do for a living included) have done away with much of the "wet" quantitative analysis Levi practiced. Practically everyone who survived any length of time in Auschwitz "organized" (stole) whatever could be traded in the underground economy for food. One of Levi's key thefts from the laboratory in the camp (recounted in The Periodic Table) was a jar of cerium rods. These could be used as flints in homemade cigarette lighers, and turned out be extremely valuable. I wonder if one in a hundred of today's chemistry majors could determine they were cerium by inspecting them and performing a few simple physical tests.

Levi fell to his death in his apartment building in 1987. Because he left no note behind, it will always be a matter of speculation whether his death was indeed a suicide, or to what extent Holocaust denial, and widespread indifference about the events he lived through, led to his suicide. He did not ever choose categorically to forgive his oppressors; but neither did he categorically refuse to forgive. "Forgiveness is not a word of mine. It is wished upon me, because all the letters I receive, especially from young Catholic readers, take that stance. They ask me if I have forgiven. I believe that I am a just man, in my own way. I can forgive one man and not another. I can only consider justice case by case."

The Anissimov biography, while not without its faults, does present a convincing portrait of a scientific mind--one that is immediately recognizable to other scientists. Although I haven't yet read the newer biography by Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi, A Biography, I gather (from the book review by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker, June 17 & 24, 2002) that Angier's book may have fundamentally missed the boat in that regard.

Levi and Turin links: