- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2003


By Italo Calvino

Translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin

Pantheon, $23, 255 pages


As his wife notes in her preface to “Hermit in Paris,” a collection of 14 autobiographical pieces by the

late Italo Calvino, the volume will be of most interest to the author’s fans. The memoirs, reflections and interviews assembled here for the first time in English are reprints from Italian editions, with the exception of “American Diary 1959?1960,” never before published, and the title essay, which appeared as a limited edition in Switzerland. Fortunately, these two writings are the best in the book, although Calvino’s journal of his six-month tour of the United States, courtesy of the Ford Foundation, is sketchy, and his hesitant celebration of Paris, his adopted city, is scant.

The majority of “Hermit in Paris” recounts Calvino’s political awakening and subsequent disillusionment — his involvement in the Italian resistance during World War II, his embrace of the Communist Party, and his quarrel with the Stalinists — as well as his development as a writer. He talks a good deal about his childhood in San Remo, his decision to move to Turin, and his relationships with colleagues and mentors (in particular, with Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini and Guilio Einaudi, men of letters in Italy during the mid-20th century).

Calvino also addresses his preference for fable over realistic fiction and comments candidly on his own work, as in the following passage, a nice example of Calvino’s charming, self-effacing manner:

“I would very much like to be one of those writers who have something really clear in their head to say and throughout their life they promote this idea in their works. I would like to be like that, but I am not; my relationship with ideas is more complex and problematical; I always think of the pros and cons in everything and each time I have to construct a very complex picture. This is the reason why I can even go many years without publishing anything, working on projects which constantly end up in crisis.”

Calvino was born in 1923 in Cuba, where his father, an agronomist, and his mother, a botanist, were working at an experimental agricultural institute.

“My birth overseas now boils down to an unusual detail on official forms,” notes Calvino, “a bundle of family memories, and a first name which was inspired by the pietas of emigres towards their own household gods, but which back in their homeland sounded brazen and pompously patriotic.” His parents wanted him to pursue science, as did his brother, a future geologist, but Calvino preferred the world of words, captivated by the dialects still spoken in the Italian Riviera and Alps.

If he rejected his parents’ vocation, he embraced their liberal politics, a choice made easier and more difficult by Benito Mussolini’s Fascism. When war broke out, Calvino fought the Germans in the Ligurian mountains as a member of the Garibaldi Brigades, an experience he turned into a novel, “The Path to the Nest of Spiders,” published in 1947.

After the war, he joined the PCI, the Partido Comunista Italiano, and began writing for left-wing papers like L’Unita. He joined the Einaudi publishing house as an editor and started selecting and translating the stories he would include in “Italian Folktales,” at the same time forging his own literary style, a mixture of fantasy and fable which he would refine and perfect in “Invisible Cities,” “Cosmicomics” and “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.”

The critical success of these works placed Calvino at the forefront of an international literary movement variously labeled metafiction, postmodernism or, in John Barth’s phrase, the literature of exhaustion, along with Jorge Luis Borges, Roland Barthes, Robert Coover and others. Unlike his brooding contemporaries, however, Calvino infused his work with light and humor, one reason his books, while never big sellers, remain in print around the world.

“Hermit in Paris” offers no samples of his fiction, but it does provide examples of his wit and droll humor. Describing his visit to Sarah Lawrence College in “American Diary,” where he attends a seminar on comparative literature, he finds himself delighted and dumbfounded by the student body. “Seeing Dostoevsky and Russian religious and revolutionary thoughts skimming over that gathering of young heiresses in Westchester brings on the kind of astonishment and enthusiasm that would be provoked by a collision of planets.”

His view of the United States is likewise conflicted. On the one hand, he marvels at tailfins, TV dinners and other late-Fifties phenomena, not to mention the lack of prostitutes and abundance of homosexuals in Greenwich Village. On the other hand, he is piqued at Americans’ lack of knowledge about Europe, their dearth of intellectual curiosity generally. “I am aware I am saying things that are incredibly banal,” he admits while recording his observations of the American West, “but I am travelling through a banal country and I cannot find a better way to cope than living and thinking about this in a banal way.”

At the same time, Calvino foregoes a visit to the Grand Canyon. “Nature in America does not arouse powerful emotions in me,” he says, revealing his own lack of curiosity. “It is just a question of checking things you have seen in the cinema.”

Calvino was no 20th-century Tocqueville, which he himself realized, withdrawing from publication the travelogue he wrote based on his diary. He’s more original when discussing himself rather than observing the world, or to put it epistemologically, when discussing the world observed through the prism of his own history. The sections of “Hermit in Paris” detailing his political autobiography — pretty much the rest of the book, since Calvino reveals almost nothing about his family life or personal friendships — convey the fervor with which continental writers (and cineastes, too) engaged ideas in the middle of the last century.

For Calvino, engagement meant working out a series of moral and intellectual problems that would mesh his deeply felt revulsion to Fascism with utopian notions about society. “In defining my youthful ideas I used the terms anarchism and Communism,” he writes. “The first stands for the need for the truth about life to be developed in all its richness, over and above the deadening effect imposed on it by institutions. The second represents the need for the world’s richness not to be wasted but organized and made to bear fruit according to reason in the interests of all men living and to come.”

Calvino failed to reconcile the conflict between anarchism and communism, or even the contradictions within the communist movement itself. “We Italian Communists were schizophrenic,” he says in an interview about his withdrawal from the party following the Red Army’s march into Budapest.

“One side of our minds was and wanted to be a witness to the truth, avenging the wrongs suffered by the weak and oppressed, and defending justice against every abuse. The other side justified those wrongs, the abuses, the tyrannies of the party, Stalin, all in the name of the Cause.”

Siding with the reformist faction of the party seemed to him dispiriting, while the radicals were worse still. “As for the intransigent or revolutionary tendencies (whether they supported the workers, the Chinese model or called themselves ‘third-worlders’), despite recognizing their idealizing approach, abstractions, blind faith, apocalypticism, their ‘the worse it gets, the better’ mentality, were such as to make me establish a very clear distance between myself and even friends whom I valued intellectually.”

After the spring of 1956, politics played an ever shrinking role in Calvino’s life. “I think today that politics registers very late things which society manifests through other channels,” he said in 1980, five years before his death, “and I feel that often politics distorts and mystifies reality.”

Fortunately, the author redirected his energies into his fiction, “into the construction of a poetic world.” Yet unsurprisingly, Calvino’s definition of the novel par excellence (Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”) isn’t so different from the existential dilemma that has come to define political life in the modern world: “The adventure and solitude of an individual lost in the vastness of the world, as he moves towards an internal initiation into the world and a construction of the self.”

Rex Roberts is a writer and graphic designer living in New York.

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