Momentous is a strong word, yet not so strong as carbon, the sixth element in the Periodic Table of Elements, inspiring the literary masterpiece known by the "scandalous" title, as its author Primo Levi confesses, The Periodic Table. Named in 2006 by the Royal Institution of Great Britain as the best science book ever written, Levi outcompeted Charles Darwin, James Watson, Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks and Bertolt Brecht, to name only a few.

The eminent Italian chemist, writer, and Auschwitz survivor began with carbon to tell the story of his life.

Born in 1919 to an extroverted father, less a family man than a bon vivant, who inspired in his son a love for books, Levi went on to devour Mann, Huxley, Sterne, Werfel, Darwin, and Tolstoy. During the racial laws imposed by the Fascist government throughout Italy in 1938, Levi was among the Jews already enrolled at university, which meant he could continue his studies while Jews across the land were disallowed entry into public schools.

In Auschwitz, his Italian identity became all the more apparent beside Yiddish-speaking European Jews, who considered Italians and Greeks as the lowest strata of society, which he explained in his book, The Voice of Memory. Here, Levi further elucidates the perspective of Italian and Greek Jews, who, he felt, were more accustomed to anti-Semitism, especially in Salonika.

In March of 1944, when the Germans deported the Greek Jews of Janina to Auschwitz, disturbing photographs show them confused, one woman even smiling. They had no idea where they were going. Until 1913, this community lived under the protection of Ottoman governance, which respected minority religionists such as the Jews, arguably more successfully than in Europe. With all due respect to the incomparable nature of Levi's firsthand observation, the Greek Jews were perhaps more naïve than the Italians.

Despite the ethnic nationalism of Jewish identity in the European diaspora, just to identify as a Jew was often a leap in, and of itself, for educated 20th century youth like Levi. Yet, as he said in a 1975 interview with scholar Giorgio de Rienzo, "At Auschwitz, I became a Jew."

It was also during his time in Auschwitz that he conceived the first stirrings for his autobiography. As narrative science, The Periodic Table is a book about chemistry, without being a book of chemistry, as he said in a 1985 BBC interview only two years before his tragic suicide in his birthplace of Turin.

"It is such an incredible story how carbon can become a living element," Levi said in the interview, his humble and wiry frame like a "string quartet," as Liveright editor-in-chief Robert Weil, who once worked with Levi, remembers.

Finally, after 16 inveterately fastidious years at the editorial and translation tables, The Complete Works of Primo Levi was finally published in September of 2015. Longstanding New Yorker editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick expressed profound admiration for his colleague, Ann Goldstein, who edited Levi's works with painstaking care.

In the editor's introduction, Goldstein emphasized how important language had become for the Italian chemist in Auschwitz, where the inability to grasp a word could lead to immediate death.

Similarly, the Complete Works enlighten the lesser known and underappreciated Levi, who, even in his most obscure writing, exudes a most unpretentious pride in this spirit of language as the greatest vessel within which to house the spirit of his people. And such is true for Diaspora Jewry as People of the Book.

The works of Levi proved a most stimulating translation project, where scientific terms and Italian idioms marched through a byzantine array of laboratory processes and literary syntax. More important, the fourteen books, neatly cased into three volumes, are the laborious result of numerous translators, all who set out to represent the unified, lifelong literary development of a single author.

At the New Yorker Festival, held during the first week of October, Morrison spoke of the racism that minorities like Jews and African-American people often harbor. Morrison went on to speak of the unnoticed accomplishments that her father humbly enjoyed to himself while at work as a welder during WWII. One day he returned home happier than ever for perfecting a seam.

For this endurance, Levi is a man who is foremost remembered in the high honors bestowed on his literary craft. To read his stories is to swallow history itself as a hard lump of disquiet and to embark on a spiritual adventure in scientific thinking. The Complete Works prove that Levi is truly dear to American literature, where he is lauded as a scientist whose spiritual transformation in the grip of Nazi extermination crystallized his rare genius into the heart of a pure artist.

Photo Credit: Martin Argles

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From This Author Matt Hanson

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