Robert Jan van Pelt was born in the Netherlands and now lives in Canada. He teaches in the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. An internationally recognized authority on the history of Auschwitz, he appeared in Errol Morris's film Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr and contributed to the BBC series Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. He chaired the team that developed a master plan for the preservation of Auschwitz, and served as an expert witness for the defence in the notorious libel case Irving vs Penguin and Lipstadt (1998-2001). His most recent books are The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial, and (co-authored with Deborah Dwork) Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933-1946 and Holocaust: A History. He is currently preparing a biography of David Koker, a young Dutch victim of the Holocaust who left a remarkable diary of life in the Vught concentration camp. Here Robert writes about Primo Levi's The Periodic Table.
Robert Jan van Pelt on The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day
Out in the yard with your wife and children
Working on some stage in LA
Did you stand there in shock at the site of
That black smoke rising against that blue sky
Did you shout out in anger
In fear for your neighbor
Or did you just sit down and cry
'Where were you when the world stopped turning... ?' I found myself in a suburban parking lot near Richmond, Virginia, just off interstate 64. But it was not on September 11, 2001 when my world stopped turning. On 9/11, I was shocked and aghast when I saw the second tower coming down on CNN, but I realized that a few hours later I would face a class of students who needed answers to tough questions and a strong shoulder to lean on, and so I began to prepare for my adult responsibility. My world continued to turn - as it had done in the early evening of November 22, 1963 when my nanny arrived earlier than arranged to pick me up at the house of a school friend in Zeist, the Netherlands. My mother feared that the shots fired in Dallas would resonate like those fired almost 50 years earlier in Sarajevo, and trigger another world war. Yet at that time I was an eight-year-old boy, and the assassination of an American president seemed less of an issue than an interrupted play date. My world also continued to turn on August 31, 1997 when, looking at me through his mirror, a Jerusalem cabbie greeted me with the question: 'Are you English?' 'No, I come from Canada.' 'Don't you Canadians have the Queen on your money?' 'If you mean Queen Elizabeth, yes, we do.' Then he turned to me: 'Your Princess has died in a traffic accident, in Paris!' 'My Princess?' 'Princess Di...' From the grave silence that followed I understood that I was supposed to be shaken, but I was not. That summer tragedy had a different dimension in a city under assault of Hamas suicide bombers. When someone asks me when my world stopped turning, I say it was on April 11, 1987, when I heard of the apparent suicide of the Italian writer, chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi.
That day, in the late afternoon, I drove down what Alan Jackson's song identifies as 'some cold interstate'. I was heading to 'Colonial' Williamsburg, Virginia, where my friends Joan and Ben Weinreb had checked in the Williamsburg Inn. A famous antiquarian bookseller from London, Ben had just negotiated the sale of B. Weinreb Architectural Books Ltd, and he and Joan were travelling the world and having a good time. Ben had called earlier that morning with the request (or better command) to join them for dinner. And so, after my seminar at the University of Virginia had ended, I left Charlottesville for a two-hour drive east on interstate 64. I tuned the car radio to National Public Radio, and as I approached Richmond I heard the announcement that stopped my world. 'Earlier today the Italian writer Primo Levi fell to his death in the stairwell of the apartment building where he lived in Turin. He was 67 years old.' The story continued with talk of possible suicide.
It took some time for the news to penetrate my thick skull. I thought to myself: 'So Umberto Eco died, that is a real pity. I really liked his The Name of the Rose.' I continued driving, somewhat faster than the posted speed-limit of 55 miles per hour. 'It is really remarkable that NPR reports on the death of Umberto Eco,' I thought. 'Really, perhaps this country is not that distant from Europe after all.' Denial, we are told, is the first stage of grief - and as I continued to drive, I was in denial. I must have driven some five miles before it hit me: 'F***, it isn't Umberto Eco who has fallen to his death, but Primo Levi!' At that moment I felt a wave of anger. Phase two. 'F***, f***, f***!' I slowed down at the first exit, left interstate 64, and parked the car at the first opportunity that offered itself: a largely empty asphalt expanse surrounding an outlet mall in the Richmond burbs. I turned off the engine. Something had snapped inside me: I had never met Primo Levi, but I knew that my world had changed.
'Where were you when the world stop turning...?' The very question assumes some communality of experience - one that demands either a cosmic event like the darkening of the skies that allegedly happened when a certain Joshua ben Joseph died on a cross just outside Jerusalem, or a world held together by the instant communication offered by the electronic media. Thanks to television, the deaths of John Kennedy, Princess Diana and the more than 3,000 people who died in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and flights 11, 77, 93 and 175 spoke to all of us. But if television explains how these deaths became a global experience, it does not explain why. Yet there is no mystery here: the president and the princess had come to represent a sense of hope and renewal, while the 3,000 who had just arrived in their offices for an honest day's work, or who had boarded planes, were people like the rest of us. We could have been in their place. How many did not think on that September day, 'There but for the grace of God go I'?
The death of a writer normally does not trigger such a collective moment of awareness of a here and now. Many writers whose works I treasure have died in the past decades, but I don't recall where I was when I learned about their death, and I have never asked anyone else where they were when they heard that so-and-so had died. But Primo Levi's death was different. In his introduction to the Everyman Library edition of Levi's The Periodic Table, Neal Ascherson observed that when a writer dies, many people feel deprived. But when Levi died, 'thousands upon thousands of his readers felt not simply deprived but bereaved'. Many cried when they heard the news. Ascherson believed that there were two reasons for this extraordinary sense of bereavement. First of all, the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi might have taken his own life by throwing himself into the stairwell of the building in which he had been born and where he had lived for almost all his life. 'How could anyone who had been so statistically fortunate as to emerge not only alive but - a tinier category still - mentally and morally intact, then throw that precious life away?' Ascherson asked. Survivors do commit suicide at times, even survivors who become well-known authors. I think of Nelly Sachs or Jean Améry. Their deaths did not lead to universal grief amongst their readers. But Levi's death did. Ascherson speculated that this also had to do with his particular 'classical' style of writing that related his own journey to Hell and back 'without concealment but without rhetoric'. Levi addressed the reader as an old, trusted and even beloved friend, and the reader returned the affection.
I agree with Ascherson's analysis, but would like to add that the very book to which he wrote his introduction, The Periodic Table, played a significant role in my own response to Levi's death - the cause of which remains unresolved to this day. Published in 1975 as Il Sistema Periodico, the English translation appeared in 1984, and it was the book that sealed his reputation as a major contemporary writer. It consisted of 21 stories, each of which was named after a chemical element: beginning with Argon, Hydrogen and Zinc, the book ended with Silver, Vanadium and Carbon. The chapters provided an autobiography of sorts, comprising stories that included events and personalities that had shaped Levi's youth, his education, and his life as an adult. Chemistry is present in two ways. Symbolically it indicates his desire to understand 'the matter' both of his own life and of life in general. In the story entitled 'Iron', Levi recalled how he tried to articulate his love for chemistry to his friend Sandro Delmastro.
I tried to explain to him some of the ideas that at the time I was confusedly cultivating. That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev's Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed!
Chemistry was, in other words, a perfect preparation for the life of an observer of Man. In addition, it had been Levi's trade. At the beginning of the last story, 'Carbon', Levi describes the book as 'a micro-history, the history of a trade and its defeats, victories, and miseries, such as everyone wants to tell when he feels close to the arc of his career, and art ceases to be long'. Levi had worked as a chemist, and he realized that as he had his trade to understand his world, his trade had shaped the man he had become.
I had bought a copy in 1986, and read and re-read the 21 stories that very year. I was thirty-one at the time, and at the beginning of my career as an academic. In 1985, after having seen Claude Lanzmann's 10-hour movie Shoah, I had decided to study the construction of the German death camps, and amongst the first books I had read to orientate myself in a new field was a volume that contained Levi's Survival in Auschwitz and his The Reawakening [British titles: If This Is A Man and The Truce - NG]. I liked his lucid prose, with its unusual blend of ironic detachment and gentle affection, and in February 1987 I turned with anticipation to The Periodic Table. As a straightforward historical source and reflection on the world of the camps, it proved less useful than his earlier books: only one of the 21 stories, 'Cerium', focused on his experience in Auschwitz. Another story, 'Zinc', proved of historical interest as it showed a great insight into the nature of fascism. And one story, 'Vanadium', proved useful as it reflected on the way both victims and perpetrators try to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust.
If The Periodic Table didn't prove as 'useful' as his other books, it did speak much louder on an existential level. Most stories touched a question that had acquired a burning intensity in the Wanderjahre between the completion of my doctoral dissertation and the opportunity and relative stability of a tenure-track position at a decent university. How does a person's evolution as a human being shape his evolution as a worker, tradesman, or professional, and vice versa? What is the nexus between being and acting? Standing at the beginning of what I hoped to be a career that would both make me happy and help to make me as a human being, I looked for a guide. Levi came to my aid. In a single paragraph he taught me more about the life of a science and, by implication, scholarship than most of my professors in years.
We are chemists, that is, hunters: ours are 'the two experiences of adult life' of which Pavese spoke, success and failure, to kill the white whale or wreck the ship; one should not surrender to incomprehensible matter, one must not just sit down. We are here for this - to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce it and probe it, look for the opening or make it.
I read The Periodic Table shortly after I had severed my future from my past, at least in geographic terms. Unable to begin a university career in Europe, I had packed my bags and moved to North America. The pain of separation and the difficulties of a new beginning were acute. I was alone in Charlottesville, and missed my friends - and especially so when I read the story entitled 'Iron', which chronicles Levi's friendship with Sandro Delmastro, the fellow student to whom he had tried to explain the humanism of chemistry and the lofty poetry of the Periodic Table. Levi and Delmastro were very different. Levi belonged to the city. Delmastro was an outdoor man who loved the mountains. Levi loved words. He did things in order to talk about them. Delmastro did not like words, and he did not like to talk about what he had done. 'It appeared that in speaking, as in mountain climbing, he had never received lessons; he spoke as no one speaks, saying only the core of things.' Yet Levi just revelled in accompanying and observing his friend in his natural habitat. 'To see Sandro in the mountains reconciled you to the world and made you forget the nightmare weighing on Europe... He aroused a new communion with the earth and the sky, into which flowed my need for freedom, the plenitude of my strength, and a hunger to understand the things he had pushed me toward.' Delmastro prepared himself and Levi for 'an iron future, drawing closer month by month'. If not for the time spent with Delmastro, Levi would not have survived his time in Auschwitz.
Delmastro joined the resistance after the German occupation of Italy; he was captured by fascists and executed. So many years later Levi, the master of words, reflected on the bitter irony of his attempt to create a monument to his friend. 'Today I know it is a hopeless task to try to dress a man in words, make him live again on the printed page, especially a man like Sandro. He was not the sort of person you can tell stories about, nor to whom one erects monuments - he who laughed at all monuments: he lived completely in his deeds, and when they were over nothing of him remains - nothing but words, precisely.'
The Periodic Table revealed to me a man who loved his work, and who loved other people. It also revealed a man who loved the world. The relation between being as such and the particular human being that is each of us represents the great mystery that arises from the clash posed by the infinity of our mind and the limitations of our existence in space and time. In the mid-1980s I struggled with Martin Heidegger's prose in order to obtain some insight into this question. I finally abandoned my attempt to grasp the musings on Sein, Dasein and In-der-Welt-Sein when I read 'Carbon', the 21st and most wonderful of the stories of Levi's masterwork. Whatever I needed to know about the relationship between the microcosm of the atom, the macrocosm of the universe, and everything in between - including life as such and my own life - I found in that story that traces the many lives of a carbon atom, as it moves from its bondage with oxygen and calcium in limestone, its absorption into the lungs of a falcon, its dissolution into water, its existence into a vine, its place in a molecule of glucose, and so on. It continues on, from a sojourn in wine to one in a human liver, from there back into the sky in union with two oxygen carbons, to ultimately end up after many adventures as part of a long, complex chain in a glass of milk. Swallowed, the chain is broken down, and the carbon atom that is the protagonist of the final story enters the bloodstream.
It migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters, and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic miniscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.
With these beautiful lines The Periodic Table ends. I read them first at some time in February 1987. I don't think that a few words written in a book by a far-away writer have ever given me so much joy, insight, and confidence in the world. Primo Levi made the world dance - all of it. Therefore, on April 11, 1987, the world stopped turning as I tried to comprehend the news of his sudden death, parked on a suburban parking lot somewhere off interstate 64.