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The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table

Author(s): Primo Levi

Location(s): Italy, Auschwitz/Birkenau

Genre(s): Historical, Short Stories

Era(s): WW2

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table is a collection of short stories that elegantly interlace the author’s experiences in Fascist Italy, and later in Auschwitz, with his passion for scientific knowledge and discovery. This Penguin Modern Classics edition of is translated by Raymond Rosenthal with an essay on Primo Levi by Philip Roth.

A chemist by training, Primo Levi became one of the supreme witnesses to twentieth-century atrocity. In these haunting reflections inspired by the elements of the periodic table, he ranges from young love to political savagery; from the inert gas argon – and ‘inert’ relatives like the uncle who stayed in bed for twenty-two years – to life-giving carbon. ‘Iron’ honours the mountain-climbing resistance hero who put iron in Levi’s student soul, ‘Cerium’ recalls the improvised cigarette lighters which saved his life in Auschwitz, while ‘Vanadium’ describes an eerie post-war correspondence with the man who had been his ‘boss’ there.

In his essay, Philip Roth reproduces a conversation with Primo Levi, delving into the process of Levi’s authorial technique, his sense of identity and distinctiveness and the relationship between science, writing and survival.

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