The Periodic Table

Primo Levi’s ( account of his time in Auschwitz, If This Is a Man , (first published in 1947 in Italian as ‘Se questo è un uomo’ ), made him one of the first writers to document the Holocaust and it established his name around the world. But Levi was not just a writer. He was a chemist, which gave him the skills that helped save his life in the camp. It was also a day job he never gave up, and his passion for science remained a life-long pursuit. After the War, Levi returned to Turin, married, had a family and wrote books in his spare time. He also became an enthusiastic letter-writer, corresponding with a new generation of Germans, to help them better understand the effects of the Nazi regime. Yet from his youth, Levi suffered from depression. In 1987 he took his own life, throwing himself down the stairwell in the house where he’d been born.

The Periodic Table (1975) is largely a memoir of the years before and after Levi’s transportation from his native Italy to Auschwitz as an anti-Facist partisan and a Jew. It recounts, in clear, precise, unfailingly beautiful prose, the story of the Piedmontese Jewish community from which he came, of his years as a student and young chemist at the inception of the Second World War, and of his investigations into the nature of the material world. As such, it provides crucial links and backgrounds, both personal and intellectual, in the tremendous project of remembrance that is Levi’s gift to posterity. But far from being a prologue to his experience of the Holocaust, Levi’s masterpiece represents his most impassioned response to the events that engulfed him. The Periodic Table  celebrates the pleasures of love and friendship and the search for meaning, and stands as a monument to those things in us that are capable of resisting and enduring in the face of tyranny. An unforgettable read. Enquire at your local library or available at


Do listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘Great Lives’ episode (30 minutes) on Primo Levi at the link Presented by Matthew Parris, with enthusiasts Edmund de Vaal and Ian Thomson.


224 pages in Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition

First published 1975

ISBN 978-0141185149


Primo Levi

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