August 15, 2010

Why They Write: Primo Levi

In a recent post, I gathered some quotes from writers on their reasons for writing; in some ways substantially different from the motivations of visual artists, but at their core there's a similarity. I've been rereading The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, a marvelous amalgam of memoir, fiction, scientific inquiry and philosophical musings. Levi lived through the unimaginable: the triumph of Fascism in Italy and internment at Auschwitz. In the chapter titled "Chromium" he tells of how falling in love with the woman who will become his wife reawakened him to life; he then goes on to describe what writing means to him. I found this passage very moving.
My very writing became a different adventure, no longer the dolorous itinerary of a convalescent, no longer a begging for compassion and friendly faces, but a lucid building, which now was no longer solitary: the work of a chemist who weighs and divides, measures and judges on the basis of assured proofs, and strives to answer questions. Alongside the liberating relief of the veteran who tells his story, I now felt in the writing a complex, intense and new pleasure, similar to that I felt as a student when penetrating the solemn order of differential calculus. It was exalting to search and find, or create, the right word, that is, commensurate, concise, and strong; to dredge up events from my memory and describe them with the greatest rigor and the least clutter. Paradoxically, my baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; it seemed to me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant.


  1. a rich passage, thanks for posting it.

  2. Thanks for presenting on this writer and his work Altoon. Amazing last sentence in the quoted text.

    I think this imagery of a seed germinating and coming to life lives in us...we are nourished by sensing our own capacity for growth, regeneration in this way...whatever the circumstances or prompts.

  3. thanks rappel and Sophie. Levi is such a great writer, turning his experiences into high art; I'm pleased that this passage touched you.

  4. This particular book has been an inspiration for me, too. Your post reminded me that I should reread it soon. Thanks.

    1. Connie, I think there are books that we can reread and they give us something new each time. The Periodic Table is one of those.