First of all, there is a memory, an image. Primo Levi and Calvino are walking side by side at dusk in the summertime, talking animatedly (Calvino is taller), along the road that goes towards the village of Rhêmes Notre-Dame. It was at Rhêmes, a little side valley of the Aosta Valley, that the co-workers and friends of the Einaudi publishing house used to meet each summer. The discussions would go on for about a week.
That was the only time when, at least when I was there, that Primo Levi participated. It must have been 1980 or 1981. The meaning of that image imprinted in my memory became evident in retrospect when Sergio Solmi’s translation into Italian of Raymond Queneau’s Petite cosmogonie portative was published by Einaudi in 1982. Calvino wrote an afterword for it, entitled Piccola guida alla Piccola Cosmogonia (little guide to the little cosmogony,) where he thanked Primo Levi, “who with his professional knowledge as a chemist and the agility of his sense of humor managed to get a handle on many of the passages that had remained inaccessible to me.”
In an enthusiastic review dedicated to the Petite cosmogonie portative, Levi referred to Calvino’s Piccola guida as “very sharp.” In 1986 he evoked his recollections of the work he did on Queneau “with happiness and amusement” at Rhêmes Notre-Dame as the “happiest hour” of his friendship with Calvino, who had died the year before.4
The chemist who had helped Calvino decipher Queneau’s arcane allusions to Mendeleev’s periodic table was also the author of The Periodic Table (1975), that very fine book where the table of the elements was used as a metaphor for the various and sundry way of impersonating the human condition. However, can we really detect a non-metaphoric equivalent of Mendeleev’s table in the sphere of human relationships? In his exploration of the “transversal bonds which link the world of nature to that of culture,” Primo Levi implicitly asked this kind of question and sought an answer.