The Path to the Nest of Spiders
The Watcher and Other Stories
Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, there was a burst of creative activity throughout the American empire as well as in our client states of Western Europe. From Auden’s Age of Anxiety to Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye to Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire to Tudor’s ballets and to Bernstein’s enthusiasms, it was an exciting time. The cold war was no more than a nip in the air while the junior senator from Wisconsin was just another genial pol with a drinking problem and an eye for the boys. In that happy time the young American writer was able to reel in triumph through the old cities of Europe—the exchange rate entirely in his favor.
Twenty-six years ago this spring I arrived in Rome. First impressions: Acid yellow forsythia on the Janiculum. Purple wisteria in the Forum. Chunks of goat on a plate in a trattoria. Samuel Barber at the American Academy, talking Italian accurately. Harold Acton politely deploring our barbarous presence in his Europe. Frederick Prokosch at Doney’s, eating cakes. Streets empty of cars. Had there been traffic of any kind, Tennessee Williams would have been planted long since in the Protestant cemetery for he drove a jeep although “I am practically blind in one eye,” he would say proudly, going through the occasional red light, treating sidewalk and street as one.
I visited George Santayana in his hospital cell at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. He wore a dressing gown; Lord Byron collar open at the withered neck; faded mauve waistcoat. He was genial; made a virtue of his deafness. “I will talk. You will listen.” A sly smile; black glittering eyes—he looked exactly like my grandmother.
“Have you met my young new friend Robert Lowell?” I said no. “He will have a difficult life. To be a Lowell. From Boston. A Catholic convert.” The black eyes shone with a lovely malice. “And a poet, too! Oh, dear. Now tell me who is a Mr. Edmund Wilson? He came to see me. I think that he must be very important. In fact, I believe he said that he was very important. You sent me a book, he said. I said that I had not. He said but you did, and got very angry. I tried to tell him that I do not send books. But later I recalled that when we were rescued by the American army—and how glad we were to see you!” A fond glance at me (one still wore khakis, frayed army belt). “A major, a very forceful man, came to see me, with a number of my books. He stood over me and made me sign them…for this one, for that one. I was terrified and did as requested. Perhaps one of those books was for Mr. Wilson.”
The only books in Santayana’s cell were his own—and a set of Toynbee’s recently published history, which he was reading characteristically; that is, he first broke (or foxed) the spine of the book and undid the sections; then, as he finished reading each section, he would throw it in the wastebasket. “Some sort of preacher, I should think,” he said of Toynbee. “But the footnotes are not entirely worthless.”
Santayana signed a copy of The Middle Span for me; he wrote “from” before his name. “I almost never do that,” he said. An appraising look. “You look younger than you are because your head is somewhat small in proportion to your body.” That was in 1948 when the conquering Americans lived in Rome and Paris and strolled streets as yet uncrowded with automobiles or with the billion or so human beings who have since joined us.
In that far-off time, the people one met talked about novels and novelists the way they now talk of movies and directors. Young people today think that I am exaggerating. But novelists mattered then and the Italian novel, in particular, was having a fine flowering. Yet the American writers in Rome and Paris saw little of their counterparts. For one thing, the Italians were just getting around to reading Dos Passos and Steinbeck—the generation that had gone untranslated during the Fascist era. Also, few Italian writers then (or now) spoke or read English with any ease while the American writers then (though not so much now) proudly spoke no language but English.
I do remember in 1948 coming across a book by Italo Calvino. An Italian Calvin, I said to myself, fixing permanently his name in my memory. Idly, I wondered what a man called Italo Calvino would write about. I glanced at his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947). Something about partisans in Liguria. A fellow war novelist. No, I thought; and put it down. I did note that he was two years older than I, worked for the publisher Einaudi, lived in Turin.
During the last year, I have read Calvino straight through, starting with the book I only glanced at in 1948, now translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders.
Calvino’s first novel is a plainly told, exuberant sort of book. Although the writing is conventional, there is an odd intensity in the way Calvino sees things, a closeness of scrutiny much like that of William Golding. Like Golding he knows how and when to inhabit entirely, with all senses functioning, landscape, state of mind, act. In The Spire Golding makes the flawed church so real that one smells the mortar, sees the motes of dust, fears for the ill-placed stones. Calvino does the same in his story of Pin, a boy living on the Ligurian coast of Italy, near San Remo (although Calvino was brought up in San Remo, he was actually born in Cuba, a detail given by none of his American publishers; no doubt in deference to our attempted conquest of that unfortunate island).
Pin lives with his sister, a prostitute. He spends his days at a low-life bar where he amuses with songs and taunts the grownups, a race of monsters as far as he is concerned, but he has no other companions for “Pin is a boy who does not know how to play games, and cannot take part in the games either of children or grownups.” Pin dreams, however, of “a friend, a real friend who understands him and whom he can understand, and then to him, and only to him, will he show the place where the spiders have their lairs.”
It’s on a stony little path which winds down to the torrent between earthy grassy slopes. There, in the grass, the spiders make their nests, in tunnels lined with dry grass. But the wonderful thing is that the nests have tiny doors, also made of dried grass, tiny round doors which can open and shut.
This sort of precise, quasi-scientific observation keeps Calvino from the sort of sentimentality that was prevalent in the Forties, when wise children learned compassion from a black mammy as she deep-fried chitlins and Jesus in equal parts south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Pin joins the partisans in the hills above the Ligurian coast. I have a suspicion that Calvino is dreaming all this for he writes like a bookish, nearsighted man who has mislaid his glasses: objects held close to are vividly described but the middle and far distances of landscape and war tend to blur. It makes no difference, however, for the dreams of a nearsighted young man at the beginning of a literary career can be more real to the reader than the busy reportage of those journalist-novelists who were there and, seeing it all, saw nothing.
Although Calvino manages to inhabit the skin of the outraged and outrageous child, his men and women are almost always shadowy. Later in his career, Calvino will eliminate men and women altogether as he re-creates the cosmos. Meanwhile, as a beginner, he is a vivid, if occasionally clumsy, writer. Two thirds of the way through the narrative he shifts the point of view from Pin to a pair of commissars who would have been more effective had he observed them from outside. Then, confusingly, he shifts again, briefly, into the mind of a traitor who is about to be shot. Finally, he returns us to Pin just as the boy finds the longed-for friend, a young partisan called Cousin who takes him in hand not only literally but, presumably, for the rest of the time Pin will need to grow up. Calvino’s last paragraphs are almost always jubilant—the sort of cheerful codas that only a deep pessimist about human matters could write. But then Calvino, like one of Pin’s friends, Red Wolf, “belongs to the generation brought up on strip cartoons; he has taken them all seriously and life has not disproved them so far.”
In 1952 Calvino published The Cloven Viscount, one of the three short novels he has since collected under the title Our Ancestors. They are engaging works, written in a style somewhat like that of T. H. White’s Arthurian novels. The narrator of The Cloven Viscount is, again, an orphan boy. During a war between Austria and Turkey (1716) the boy’s uncle Viscount Medardo was cloven from top to crotch by a cannon ball. Saved by doctors on the battlefield, the half Viscount was sent home with one leg, one arm, one eye, half a nose, mouth, etc. En route, Calvino pays homage (ironic?) to Malaparte (“The patch of plain they were crossing was covered with horses’ carcasses, some supine with hooves to the sky, others prone with muzzles dug into the earth.” A nice reprise of those dead horses in The Skin).
The story is cheerfully, briskly told. The Half Viscount is a perfect bastard and takes pleasure in murder, fire, torture. He burns down part of his own castle, hoping to incinerate his old nurse Sebastiana; finally, he packs her off to a leper colony. He tries to poison his nephew. He never stops slashing living creatures in half. He has a thing about halfness.
“If only I could halve every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying face down on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind. If you ever become a half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you’ll understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole. You’ll have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious.”