HERMIT IN PARIS BY ITALO CALVINO, TRANS. BY MARTIN McLAUGHLIN. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 288 PAGES. $23 BUY NOW
     
 

The Italian writer Italo Calvino was in the middle of preparing Six Memos for the Next Millennium for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard when he died suddenly in 1985. It's intriguing to imagine the delight he might have taken in the prospect of telling an American audience that "lightness" and "quickness" can perfectly coexist as literary values with their apparent opposites "multiplicity" and "exactitude." What a perfectly Continental and postmodern propositionˇall those opposing ideas intermingling. And the Memos were for us; the Italian title of the book translates as "American lessons." Don't doubt that he intended to stun us, or at least startle us, for the US was to Calvino "monotonous," "anonymous," "deadly boring." "Deep down now that I know the terrifying dullness of American life," he wrote, "I understand more the people who come to live here, just as I understand more the way they love Italy, which previously got on my nerves."

Calvino's impressions of America were formed and recorded in his "American Diary 1959˝1960," an epistolary travelogue he wrote for his colleagues back home at the Einaudi publishing house during a glamorous Ford Foundation˝sponsored trip he made across the United States when he was thirty-six years old, shortly after the English-language publication of his second major book, The Baron in the Trees. This slender account is the core of Hermit In Paris, a newly published collection of autobiographical scraps finely translated by Martin McLaughlin. They are valuable scraps, no doubt, to Calvino scholars, researchers, and devoted readers alike, all those with a vested interest in everything issued from the maestro's penˇbut potentially frustrating to a reader looking for an answer to that implicit and most central biographical question: What made Calvino, Calvino? This hodgepodge of interviews, personal statements, and sketches, presented here at every stage of completion, is far from a sepia-toned confessional yarn portraying the forces that shaped the artist. Fourteen of these nineteen selections were retrieved by Calvino's widow from a folder marked "Autobiographical Pieces" after the writer's death. They were part of an embryonic project that "seemed quite different," according to Esther Calvino, "from the one hinted at" in the personal essays posthumously collected in 1994 under the title The Road to San Giovanni. Calvino never actually wrote an autobiography; instead he put pieces with personal elements into several folders and labeled them for future use. Calvino, his widow submits, was reluctant to bring any autobiographical project to conclusion. He would say to her, "my biography is not yet . . ." The sentence was left incomplete, and the word "over" or "finished" dangled threateningly in the silence. In her preface, Esther Calvino wonders if he meant his biography wasn't finished because his life wasn't or whether there was something yet to be written that would somehow manage to tell the whole story.

In the biographies of other writers, we accumulate real clues as to what made them tick: blind Borges in his library; drunken Marguerite Duras and her too young, too homosexual lover; exiled German Jew Hannah Arendt and her secret love for Heidegger, the Nazi sympathizer. What made Calvino write the way he wrote? Some of the answer is here, of course, but it's tucked into the folds of a perfect Calvino-esque riddle.

Calvino implicitly mistrusted the straight autobiographical mode (as he mistrusted most "straight" narrative modes). He was an unreconstructed formalist, so we can assume that whatever narrative structure he'd have used would have been both a means of telling the tale and its protagonist. Hinting just barely at such a project, Calvino left instructions that "three of these fourteen pieces appear in two successive versions"ˇa somewhat cabalistic mandate. The idea of successive versions of any autobiographical account, representing the author's shifting perspective over the course of his life, seems indicative of Calvino's instinct. He is a self-conscious memoirist, often engaging rhetorically with his younger self and commenting, disembodied, on his narrative choices: "To make everything that you will see and hear in your life stem from your first childhood memory is a literary temptation."

Calvino wrote prodigiously and was never secretive (despite his self-consciousness), and so we do already know something about the biographical impulse in his work. We know that Calvino tired of social realism after his first novel, The Path to the Spiders' Nests, and that this stylistic turn coincided with his departure from the Communist Party after Khrushchev invaded Hungary in 1956. We know from other essays and from the historical setting in Liguria that The Baron in the Trees (the story of a little boy who escapes his family hearth to live in the trees) reflects at least in part Calvino's own decision to leave his family of well-grounded scientists to live in the "netherworld" of literature. But the trajectory grows less legible after that. What made him split a character in two (The Cloven Viscount) or start inventing planets (Cosmicomics) or build plots out of tarot cards (The Castle of Crossed Destinies)? What made him want to write a novel with ten different beginnings embedded in one another (If on a Winter's Night a Traveler)? What, exactly, gave birth to the extraordinary construction of Invisible Citiesˇall those haunting metaphysical settings without any stories?

As to the propensity for multiple beginnings, what we might apprehend in the pieces collected here is not an answer so much as a pattern. Hermit In Paris offers six versions of the beginning of an autobiography, each one calibrated slightly differently according to when it was written. Calvino's aversion to the conclusion of his own story suggests the significance of these various, open-ended overtures. But the distaste for endings possibly extends beyond just his autobiography. Calvino's formalist fictions threw traditional plot out the window, allowing him as many beginnings as he liked, as many settings as he could contriveˇinvisible settings if he so desiredˇbut he would never really be obliged again to reach an end. Calvino wrote the individual pieces contained in Hermit In Paris but didn't construct this collectionˇand so, half of his own answer to the question, What made Calvino? is lost to speculation. The other half is blissfully (and constantly) in evidence: Calvino's genius lies in his way of seeingˇnot just his powers of observation but his filterˇa way of seeing that keeps opening outward, reflecting light like the crystal that was his favorite metaphor for literature. That crystal refracts an infinite play of light through an earthbound source.

Two strong themes emerge in Hermit In Paris. The notion of "source" is the first. Calvino's political formation in particular is a key to his life, the inspiration behind his earliest work and the character of his public presence. He was born into a staunchly Socialist family and grew up under Fascism. Mussolini was no subtle presence. In "The Duce's Portraits," Calvino writes, "You could say that I spent the first twenty years of my life with Mussolini's face always in view." As a young man, he fought with the partisans, as a writer he was very much a public intellectual, heavily invested in Italian politics. Most of the pieces that Calvino tucked into this folder are in fact attempts to explain his politicsˇnot an obviously "literary" facet of his formationˇleading one to deduce that the autobiographical project would have resulted in a portrait of the writer as a political creature. In answer to the question "Do you think writers should be involved in politics?" Calvino says, "I believe that all men should be involved in politics. And writers too, inasmuch as they are men. I believe that our civic and moral conscience should influence the man first and then the writer. . . . I believe that the writer must keep open a discourse which in its implications cannot but be political as well."

The other strong current that runs through this collection is placeˇan equally important preoccupation in the life of Calvino's mind. Reflections on the metropolis, "Stranger in Turin," "The Writer and the City," " Hermit In Paris," will be dear to Calvino readers who can't help but make associations with Invisible Cities. Again, a suggestive pattern emerges that might explain something of Calvino's consuming interest in setting and in the city above all as an object of fascination. Turin was not only the place where he began his life as a writer and editor but also of a piece with his mentor and beloved friend Cesare Pavese. "The Turin that was for me a world of literature," he writes, "was identified with one single person, to whom I had been lucky enough to be close for a number of years but whom all too soon I lost. . . . And I can add that for me, as for others who knew and saw him regularly, what Turin taught us amounted to what Pavese taught us." Pavese, notes Calvino, was "the great enemy of traveling" and used to say that "poetry comes from a germ that you carry in you for years, perhaps for ever; what influence can having spent a day or week here or there have on this incredibly slow maturation process?" Calvino, on the other hand, loved to travel, and the elaborate meditations on place that recur throughout his writing are revealed here as the fruit of a lifelong debate with his mentor.

Perhaps this continual return to the writer and his place inspired Esther Calvino to round out the "autobiographical pieces" with the long epistolary essay "American Diary 1959˝1960," which was not in the original folder. This is a hugely entertaining section of the bookˇnot only because it satisfies that morbid curiosity to see ourselves as others see us (though at times Calvino's impressions are so eccentric they almost resemble Kafka's absurd vision of the "Amerika" he never laid eyes on) but because this is the most finished piece in the collection. Calvino had prepared these letters for publication and then canceled the book at the last minute, apparently because he found the project "too slight." Interestingly, these pages, worked over extensively by Calvino, the writer, provide also the roundest portrait of Calvino, the man. It is no surprise that a writer whose crystalline fictions never lacked for heart reveals a personal style that can only be described as droll. "Yesterday evening," he tells his colleagues back in Italy, "I saw some color television. Perry Como's show was interrupted every so often by advertisements for a firm that makes food products, and for ten minutes you saw plates of spaghetti with a hand pouring sauce over them, all in color, and plates of meat and salad, with explanations about how to prepare it all. Wonderful. It should be introduced as soon as possible into underdeveloped countries."

The itinerary that Calvino plots out for himself in the United States encompasses all facets of his abiding interests. He seeks out literature, politics, technology, and the "authentic America" with intrepid aplomb. In New York ("Not Exactly America") he visits the UN, the recently constructed Guggenheim designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (which he declares himself alone to be a "fanatical supporter of"), Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio (where the "passion for improvement" is "the umpteenth proof of the weakness of American thought"), and Wall Street, where he is enchanted by the technology of the IBM 705, "which in one minute can perform 504,000 additions or subtractions, 75,000 multiplications, 33,000 divisions and can take 1,764,000 logical decisions and in three minutes can read all of Gone with the Wind and copy it on to a tape as wide as your little finger." This fascination brings him to the IBM factory in Poughkeepsie, where he is struck above all by the spooky, almost idolatrous worship of the company's president, Thomas Watson Jr.

In New York, Calvino is also an ambassador of Italian publishing and a debut (in translation) novelist. "Is my book," The Baron in the Trees, "displayed in the bookshops," he asks in a fury, "either in the window or on the shelves? No. Never. Not in one single bookshop." He visits editors, bookstores, and luminaries, learning the inner workings of American-style publishing (not always approving of it) and scouting out new writers for Einaudi. He attends cocktail parties with Barney Rosset, James Laughlin, Giuseppe Prezzolini, and Sheila Cudahy, vice president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. From her, Calvino learns to his surprise that FSG is not terribly enthusiastic about their novelist James Purdyˇwhom Einaudi publishes as well. They prefer Bernard Malamud. Calvino's subsequent portrait of Purdy is remarkable: "Purdy is a very pathetic character, middle-aged, big and fat and gentle, fair and reddish in complexion, and clean-shaven: he dresses soberly, and is like Gadda without the hysteria, and exudes sweetness. If he is homosexual, he is so with great tact and melancholy." Purdy gives Calvino a list of good novels, "but they are nearly all unpublished," which leads Calvino to conclude that "Good literature in America is clandestine, lies in unknown authors' drawers, and only occasionally someone emerges from the gloom, breaking through the leaden cloak of commercial production." He meets Allen Ginsberg and a "whole crowd of beatniks who were even more bearded and filthy." Ginsberg tries to seduce one of the other European writers visiting on the Ford Fellowship, and Calvino is delighted to learn from this unsuspecting fellow (who had studied to become a Jesuit priest) that "at home the beatniks are very clean, they have a beautiful house complete with fridge and television, and they live as a quiet bourgeois mÚnage and dress up in dirty clothes only to go out."

On the road in Middle America, Calvino learns that the cities are hard to find; it's all shopping centers and suburbs. In Cleveland, he visits a community center that promotes interracial educational and cultural programs, which strikes him as so paternalistic and propagandistic that it makes him think he's "back in the USSR." He hits Montgomery, Alabama, on March 6, and the long description of a race riotˇ"This is the day that I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of a society's fundamental rules"ˇoffers an especially keen perspective on what America must have looked like to the rest of the world during those violent years. (Weirdly, even the anti-Fascist intellectuals in Italy were hard-pressed to draw any connection between the genocide of World War II and American racism.) He goes to Taos, "Lawrenciana," bypassing Death Valley ("which can be nothing other than a desert more deserted than anything I have seen") and the Grand Canyon ("which must only be a canyon that is more of a canyon than the others"). And he expresses fleeting admiration for Chicago, "the genuine big American city: productive, violent, tough . . . which deserves to be understood in all its ugliness and beauty." Then he flies off to San Francisco, where he socializes with union organizers (longshoremen) and Kenneth Rexroth, "the most notable person I have met." In the end, he can't stand Los Angeles, which he had determined contentiously to love because everyone told him it was odious ("Since the Chaplins are no longer here, life is not the same, etc."), and so he races back to his true love, New York, "rootless city."

In 1959 Calvino found much of America dullˇdespite the apparent voraciousness with which he consumed it in this travelogue. But in 1984, the year before he came back to give the Norton Lectures, it wasn't the dullness of suburbia and the brain-killing sprawl of Los Angeles that he was contemplating; it was the emasculated literary scene. Both Pavese and Calvino, indeed a whole circle of postwar Italian writers, had been hugely influenced by the American literature of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Poeˇwho, Calvino said, was an author of "limitless possibilities" and the "founder of all the narrative genres that would be developed after him." But then in the '50s and '60s, American literature seemed to take a turn toward Europe with the popularity of novelists like Saul Bellow and Henry Miller. Calvino quotes the writer Elio Vittorini, who said, "This lot are like European writers, they're more intellectual, we are not so interested in them." That intellectualism eventually gave way to a certain kind of even less-compelling placidness. "This image of an America that is barbaric and full of vital energy certainly no longer exists," laments Calvino (making exception for Norman Mailer); the American writer today is "someone who works in a university, who writes novels about campus life, about the gossip surrounding the adulterous affairs between lecturers, which is not the big wide world, not something genuinely exciting, but that is the way things are: life in American society is like that."

So, it's no surprise that Calvino expressed some bewilderment over the fact that in America, he became known best for Invisible Cities, "the one that you would have said was the furthest from American reading habits." Yet Invisible Cities, he reports, "is apparently loved by poets, architects and in general by young students." I probably exaggerate the extent to which Calvino planned to provoke his Harvard audience. The Norton Lectures themselves are a love letter to the literary art. If they provoke at all, it's not a gratuitous provocation. After all, Calvino was the author of Invisible Cities, and we were well prepared, even eager, for his idiosyncratic vision.

It's a stunning accident, then, that even in this partially constructed collection of autobiographical pieces, augmented by the sardonic and wide-eyed travelogue, Calvino reveals so much of himself: Calvino, the brilliant young buck, and Calvino, the barely wizened, even more brilliant master. We see the evolution of Calvino's distinctive vision through the yearsˇhis eccentric, generous, insatiable, complex, laconic way of seeing. In "American Diary" we see him particularly clearly, reflected in the mirror in which he is seeing us. Though not entirely by design, this funny kind of game, two mirrors facing each other, is a perfectly Calvino-esque solution to the problem of autobiography. What the writer observes, what he chooses to recount, is nothing less than a gateway to his heart. In the end there is no autobiographical problem, no confessional indiscretion that will reveal everything; there's just the indelible image of Calvino and his crystal mind.

Minna Proctor is working on a book about the idea of religious calling for Viking.

 

 
     
     
 
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