Books: Chemistry Becomes a Muse the Periodic Table by Primo Levi

by Primo Levi; Schocken; 233 pages; $16.95

Many great writers have been obliged to moonlight, some at seemingly incongruous occupations. Christopher Marlowe was a government spy, Henry Fielding a criminal-court justice, Franz Kafka an insurance-company clerk and Herman Melville a customs inspector. Among living writers, Primo Levi has held perhaps the most improbable job. For two decades the Italian author worked as a commercial chemist, analyzing resins and rock samples for makers of varnish and other products. Can literature spring from such mundane matter? Chemistry would seem as impenetrable to the literary imagination as lead is to the X ray.

Nonetheless, as this affecting memoir demonstrates, chemistry in...

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