Book Review – The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Oh my goodness. I have just written about 300 words of intro to this book review, and just managed to loose it all because I went to look up which airport you need to go to if you want to climb Everest! I was in the middle of a pretty good descriptive passage and WHAM, lost the lot. Thanks interweb. Much appreciated.

I will do the cut down, whistle stop version of what I had written to give you a hint of the wonderful whitterings that have been lost to the digital aether:

  • I don’t write reviews and blog posts during the week as my brain is too full of work.
  • Writing is hard.
  • Blogs are not too bad, but I don’t get to edit much. Brain dump, press publish.
  • I want to write a book.
  • That must be hard?
  • A bit like climbing Everest.
  • I will get to the top one day.
  • Thought: How do I manage to get this great piece of writing back on track as a review of The Periodic Table by Primo Levi?
  • I know, I will suggest, using the metaphor of climbing Everest, that I might have travelled to Nepal by plane and therefore needed a good book to read on my pretend trip to the figurative mountain that I might one day climb…

Anyway, it’s bloody well Tribhuwan International Airport. In case you ever need to know!!

**The author of this blog post has now managed to calm down, and normal post content will now resume **

20150209_201833The Periodic Table is a very clever book that winds tales about Primo’s life into the fabric of the table that defined his vocation. Each chapter of the book represents a different element, and they blend together into a more or less coherent chronology of a life defined by chemistry and pulled in every other way by uncontrollable events. The reviews on the front and back of the book suggested a very well written, must read book. I can’t disagree with either of those statements.

I was expecting a much darker book than The Periodic Table actually is: the reviews and blurb suggest that Primo’s experiences of the war are part of the story. They are, they run throughout the book, but are always just out of sight, dark and malevolent; like a murder in the next room. There are one or two footnotes, and one of these states that Primo wrote other books that cover his war experiences in all their hateful detail. Primo’s description of his writing after the war suggest that it was a cathartic expungement of those experiences. A cleansing of as much of his soul as was possible. It must also be said that given Primo’s ability to so descriptively and eloquently describe the events in the Periodic Table, I would expect his other books to be amongst the best of his contemporaries who wrote about what so many went through during those dark times.

This is the first Premo Levi book that I have read, and it hints at a power and and honesty in the written word that is not commonly seen. Primo managed to describe the events in the book in a multifaceted way that conveyed; his experience, the universal truth of all human experience and the emotions of everyone involved with reference to the particular element that was the basis for that chapter and that story. The honesty in the way that Primo writes bought memories of Out of Chingford, but with a much darker story to tell. A soul laid bare: Primo manages to add to this with a prose that is almost poetic in its construction. There were so many individual instances where I could have tweeted a profound sentence that I would have almost serialised the book onto Twitter; I’m pretty sure that would not be allowed?

Even though the backdrop is dark, and events described not usually particularly happy, the book left me with a positive feeling when I read it. I think that there was an optimism to the book, and this emotion becomes all the more effective when employed during dark times. Primo also played with words and created an enjoyable, almost fun prose. I’m realising as I type this review that the book I already really liked was in fact a beautifully balanced juxtaposition of dark and light. Painful times told in a light way with a chemical structure to diffuse, yet set the story in iron.

The Periodic Table on Goodreads

Rating 9/10

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