Monday, 19 November 2007

The Great White Beard

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Primo Levi (1919-1987)
"I wanted very much to learn to draw: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world... It's an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is." From Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman by Physicist (and general hero) Richard P. Feynman.
Richard Feynman was one of the great scientists of the twentieth century, most famous to the physicist for his Feynman Diagram method of modelling subatomic systems (Quantum Electro-Dynamics, it got him his Nobel), and to the layman for his legendary autobiography Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman. As a layman, it's one of the most personally inspirational books I've ever read, with his anecdotes about lockpicking, his personal experiences on the Manhattan project, and his first-principles approach to any social or scientific problem. Whether he was solving the problem of liquid helium, theatrically determining the cause of the Challenger explosion, or drumming in the Rio Carnival, his style was unchangingly playful. However, despite being the archetype of a major physicist, he was a minor (although exhibited) artist, and a relatively minor (although hugely entertaining) writer. His book is rousing and humane, but never quite captures the passionate vision of reality that so obviously hangs behind his world-view — that's left for his lectures, his description of Entropy's role in time's arrow is magnificent.

Primo Levi was a minor scientist — a self-effacing Italian professional chemist who's post-graduate experiences revolved around analysis in manufacturing and industry. But he was the archetype of a major writer. His place in history is guaranteed by his first books If This Is a Man and The Truce, documenting with consummate empathy and humanity his year-long experience when interned in Auschwitz. It is a topic I will gloss over here, for it is not this aspect of his work that makes him one of my favourite writers. Beyond Auschwitz Levi managed to build himself a role as the poet laureate of analytical chemists, and in this respect he is unique. The poetry in his writing on the mechanical and technical raises and emphasises a vision of the world Feynman describes above striving (and failing) to render in pencil.

"I still enjoyed seeing it grow, day by day, and it was like seeing a baby grow: I mean a baby that isn't yet born, when it's still inside its mama. Of course this was a funny baby because it weighed about sixty tons, just the framework, but it didn't grow all anyhow, like a weed; it grew up neat and precise, like it was in the drawings, so when we fitted the ladders... and they were fairly complicated, they fit right off without any cutting or welding, and this is a real satisfaction, like when they made the Frejus tunnel, and it took thirteen years, but then the Italian hole and the French hole met, without any error, not even twenty centimetres" From The Wrench, by Primo Levi.
Levi's work usually took the form of a series of short, discrete stories that say more when taken together than they manage to do on their own. His skills as a poet of the technical are best seen in four of his works: The Wrench, Other People's Trades (sadly out of print), The Sixth Day and Other Tales and most of all The Periodic Table. The Periodic Table is a unique professional memoir, quite unlike anything else I've ever read. In it he describes his life's experience by a series of chapters named and viewed through the the properties of specific chemical elements. The first is titled Argon, through who's ubiquitous but inert properties he describes his people, the Jewish Diaspora. The last is titled Carbon, and is a poetic story of the existence and cycle of a carbon atom. Between these is an utterly humane work on the nature of living, making it clear that for Levi his professional discipline and empiricism carried him on from the camps, binding him to the unyielding nature of matter. Each chapter is intriguing of itself, I am particularly fond of Chromium — about a varnish factory that no longer understands its own recipe — and Gold — about his total abject failure as an armed partisan against Mussolini's regime. Taken together The Periodic Table is one of the strangest autobiographies of the 20th century.

The Wrench is notable as a collection of short stories, following the form described above, used to bring out the blood and satisfaction in the work of an engineer. The lead character is a rigger, engaged in numerous construction projects, and each story relates to steel, tools, and machine oil. There is an aesthetic here that a man should be viewed through his relationship with the physical, making an odd book but one well worth reading. The Sixth Day and Other Tales is equally strange, because it follows all the rules and forms of Science Fiction (a story about the day when water's viscosity spontaneously changed is particularly typical of SF written in the 50's and 60's) but was intended for an entirely different audience, and I suspect conceived mostly in ignorance of the form as it was being developed at the time. Levi would certainly have had success amongst the pulps, but his work is most closely comparable to another hero of mine, Polish SF writer (and major critic of the American version of the form), Stanislaw Lem. They share an ornery but playful intellectualism more pronounced than that present amongst the Americans. Levi's only novel, If Not Now, When?, returns to the topic of resistance in the Second World War, this time set amongst the Jewish population of The Ukraine. It's a good novel, and it holds well with his other holocaust books, but it does not reach the heights of his autobiographical books on the topic.

I am a fan, it's that straightforward. Levi is, and remains, one of my all time favourite writers. His work is not for everyone, there is no action in anything he ever wrote, but his books are intelligent, rich, and very, very human. He is the only writer I know that makes me wish I could read his work in the original language. He died in 1987 of a fall from the third story balcony, one of those Italian internal spiral staircases, in his home in Turin; whether this was suicide is still debated (unfortunately united with his material this makes him something of a Kurt Cobain figure to those who wish to view him that way). Anything he wrote is worthy of attention, and while If This Is A Man is a book of significant importance, such a weighty topic should not blot out the gravity of his less historic works.

Patron saint (Jewish) of analytical chemists.

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