Italo Calvino is one of those authors – like Graham Greene – whose works I devoured in my early twenties, and haven’t read much since. Calvino in fact has continued to publish new work regularly since his death in 1985, from the bran tub of unpublished and uncollected writings his relatives keep dipping into. I think it is safe to say that none of these will overturn the major works – If on a winter’s night a traveller, Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, Marcovaldo, and so on. Then there is this book, which I recently remembered I didn’t finish first time around.
Mr Palomar (1983, tr. William Weaver 1985) was the last book Calvino published in his lifetime. From that you might assume that this innovative author, forever progressing and never writing the same book twice, was at the apogee of his ingenuity. You would be right. It is a series of short pieces – twenty-seven in 111 pages – describing moments in the life of the title character. What to call these pieces: stories? Vignettes? Essays? Meditations, even? They do not really have storylines, but they do move forward, or outward, from the initial moment. The character of Mr Palomar is crucial, yet sometimes seems little more than an observer from to which to hang the observations made in the piece. The best way of defining this book – beautiful, perfect, unique, challenging – for the wary browser would be to categorise it on the back cover as Fiction/Philosophy.
This is a book of attention to everything. (Suddenly Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, published five years later, doesn’t seem so novel.) Calvino’s comic lightness of touch is evident early on, from ‘The naked bosom’, where Mr Palomar is at pains to avoid looking at a young woman’s breasts as he walks along the beach. However, he realises that “my not looking presupposes that I am thinking of the nakedness, worrying about it; and this is basically an indiscreet and reactionary attitude.” He passes her again, worries more and tries in different ways to avoid looking, and to avoid avoiding looking. Eventually Mr Palomar has walked past her so often that the woman covers herself up and makes off, “as if she were avoiding the tiresome insistence of a satyr.” Elsewhere, Mr Palomar observes two tortoises mating, and wonders if their lack of sensory stimuli might “drive them to a concentrated, intense mental life, lead them to a crystalline inner awareness”?
Inner awareness is what Mr Palomar wants, and he hopes to achieve it by increased consciousness of his surroundings. But he looks so hard that sometimes he cannot see what matters. Rather than enjoy it, he feels guilty when he cannot identify the bird a song belongs to. He feels he “must go and look at the stars … because he hates waste and believes it is wrong to waste the great quantity of stars that is put at his disposal.” Looking down as well as up, he contemplates his lawn: “the lawn’s purpose is to represent nature, and this representation occurs as the substitution of the nature proper to the area with a nature in itself natural but artificial for this area.” (Yes, there are many sentences in Mr Palomar that you need to read twice. Really, it is a book that you need to read twice.) He watches the daytime moon, “porous as a sponge”, solidify as night falls into a “lake of shininess … brimming in the darkness with a halo of cold silver.” As he considers the world around him, questioning everything he sees, he reflects that “perhaps it is this same distrust of our senses that prevents us from feeling comfortable in the universe.” He extends his discomfiture to mankind generally: to think as he does is to bring on unsettling uncertainties. Ignorance is bliss, if only he could see it.
This is a book too which challenges understandings of what is important. In ‘From the terrace’, Mr Palomar looks at his city from the viewpoint of the pigeons, who see only elements of the upper layer, a lovingly imagined list of which Calvino provides over almost a full page (Calvino loved lists). “It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” Mr Palomar concludes, “that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.” The same might be said for the book itself. The pieces are arranged precisely and Calvino explains their almost geometric structure in an index at the end of the book. I’ll leave it to him:
Viewing the index itself, then, we can see that the pieces in the book move from the purely visual and descriptive of natural forms (“1.1.1. Reading a wave“) to a fully speculative meditation on the relationship between the self and the world (“3.3.3. Learning to be dead“). Each intervening story moves a little closer from the external to the internal.
This is what we get in terms of character development. Mr Palomar may begin the book fully formed, as a man who needs order in a chaotic universe, but his personality, his curiosity and his innate sadness are gradually peeled down as we read more about him. His need for meaning is frustrated when he visits the ruins of Tula in Mexico. He knows that “in Mexican archaeology every statue, every object, every detail of a bas-relief stands for something that stands for something else that stands, in turn, for yet another something.” He knows that “every translation requires another translation and so on … to weave and re-weave a network of analogies.” (My own search for meaning made me wonder if this paragraph was a sly reference to Calvino’s longtime translator, William Weaver, with whom he collaborated on his English language translations. “I had problems with Calvino,” says Weaver, “because he thought he knew English.”) Yet he overhears a school teacher assuring his class, visiting the same ruins, that “we don’t know what they mean.” By this time in Mr Palomar’s story, we feel like smiting the teacher ourselves. Our hero, ever enquiring, never certain, is far slower to state his conclusions.
In a time and in a country where everyone goes out of his way to announce opinions or hand down judgements, Mr Palomar has made a habit of biting his tongue three times before asserting anything. After the bite, if he is still convinced of what he was going to say, he says it. If not, he keeps his mouth shut. In fact, he spends whole weeks, months in silence.
If everyone followed such a principle, the world would be a more peaceful place (and this blog largely empty). It is the reader’s empathy for Mr Palomar as he struggles with the universe – and his place in it – which provides the book’s emotional heart. His persistent desire to “live in harmony with the world” leads him to direct all his efforts “towards achieving harmony both with the human race, his neighbour, and with the most distant spiral of the system of the galaxies. To begin with, since his neighbour has too many problems, Palomar will try to improve his relations with the universe.” This is a lovely joke, but also indicates Mr Palomar’s difficulty with people, and his wish to rely on cold science (while forgetting that science reflects chaotic nature, of which people are a representative part). People and the stars are more alike than he would like to think; the universe is other people:
He opens his eyes. What appears to his gaze is something he seems to have seen already, every day: streets full of people, hurrying, elbowing their way ahead, without looking one another in the face, among high walls, sharp and peeling. In the background, the starry sky scatters intermittent flashes like a stalled mechanism, which jerks and creaks in all its unoiled joints, outposts of an endangered universe, twisted, restless as he is.
Even when he pretends to be dead, in the last piece, his initial relief at no longer having “to give a damn about anything” is short-lived, when he begins to worry about how he will be remembered for posterity, if at all. Even this “is simply a postponement of the problem, from one’s own individual death to the extinction of the human race.” That line, I hope, makes it clear that there is comedy serious as well as light in Mr Palomar – the terrible comedy of the human condition, which leads his creator to open the final section of the book with the words, “After a series of intellectual misadventures not worth recalling…”