Lives of the Poets: A Novella and Six Stories
When the early work of a famous writer rides in on the coattails, so to speak, of the later work that has made him famous, one is inclined either to dismiss it with a knowing wink at the cupidity of publishers or else, if a devotee of the writer in question, to examine it for signs pointing to subsequent maturations and triumphs. Neither response is appropriate in the case of Difficult Loves. Calvino’s stories stand on their own as finished performances, as distinctive and seductive in their own way as the more spectacular “metafictions” that followed them. The author of Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities seems to have sprung fully armored from the head of his muse.
The first section of Difficult Loves consists of the “Riviera Stories,” which date back to the beginning of Calvino’s career in the 1940s. For the most part they are nearly plotless sketches, many of them dealing with children, that shift delicately between realism and fantasy; a major pleasure in reading them is to watch the way Calvino maintains a light but perfect control as he allows the material to veer slightly to one side of the line and then to the other. In “Adam, One Afternoon,” a gardener’s boy, Libereso, woos a kitchen girl, Maria-nunziata, by presenting her with a series of innocently phallic creatures. “D’you want to see something nice?” he asks as he leads her to a moldy corner of the garden where he reveals a toad. “Mammamia!” cries the girl, but Libereso tries to convince her that it is pretty and that she should stroke it. The toad is followed by a handful of rose chafers, a lizard, a pair of copulating frogs, snails, a snake, a goldfish—all of which he tries to persuade her to touch. At the end, saying, “I want to give you a surprise,” the boy releases a whole basketful of the creatures in the kitchen, and the girl’s future is symbolically prophesied:
Maria-nunziata stepped back, but between her feet she saw a great big toad. And behind it were five little toads in a line, taking little hops toward her across the black-and-white-tiled floor
In this piece, as in “The Enchanted Garden” and in “Lazy Sons” (the droll account of two narcoleptic young men who shamelessly resist all appeals for help from their hard-working, hard-pressed parents), one keeps expecting a metamorphosis into fairy tale that never quite takes place. The slightly teasing effect is nicely calculated.
In “Wartime Stories” and “Postwar Stories” the cruelties of partisan warfare and the exigencies of poverty invite a more grimly realistic treatment of the peasants, migrant workers, prostitutes, and black marketeers who populate them. These stories are the fictional counterparts of the great Italian films of the period—Paisan, Rome, Open City, and The Bicycle Thief. But metaphysical, fabulist, or farcical elements keep breaking in. In the most impressive of the war stories, a trigger-happy soldier-boy, “a mountaineer with an apple face,” keeps shooting, with miraculous accuracy, at everything that catches his eye—birds, pine cones, trout, toadstools, and the gilt buttons on the uniforms of German soldiers—in an effort to transcend his separateness from the rest of creation:
It was strange, thinking it over, to be so surrounded by air, separated from other things by yards of air. When he aimed the gun, on the other hand, the air was a straight invisible line drawn tight from the mouth of the rifle to the target, to the hawk flying up there in the sky with wings that did not seem to move. When he pressed the trigger, the air was still as empty and transparent as before, but up there, at the other end of the line, the hawk was folding its wings and dropping like a stone.
At the end, a cornered German soldier tries to divert the boy’s attention to a crow circling overhead—only to have the boy place a bullet through the middle of an embroidered eagle on the German’s tunic, while the crow continues its slow downward circling.
The humor of some of the “Postwar Stories” is of a kind that Boccacio might have relished. Crowded sleeping arrangements figure in two of them, “Sleeping like Dogs” and “Transit Bed,” while in another, “Desire in November,” a poor old man, Barbagallo, who wears a military overcoat and nothing else (his clothes having been stolen from the river-bank the preceding summer), forces his way into an elegant furrier’s shop where, in the company of one of the saleswomen, he spends the night lapped in the softest and richest pelts that luxury can provide.
The final section, “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” consists of eight “adventures,” which, far more than the earlier pieces, resemble the Calvino we have come to know. Translated by William Weaver with his usual grace and precision, each adventure proposes a problem which is then explored with a kind of philosophical thoroughness, mitigated by wit. While the explicitly Italian setting is retained, character and action are strictly subordinated to the working out of the chosen perplexity. In “The Adventure of a Bather” we meet a respectable woman who loses her bikini bottom while enjoying a swim at a populous beach. The sea is crowded with men eager for a look. Exhausted after swimming for hours, Signora Isotta cannot even allow herself the “indefensible, excessive remedy” of drowning:
When she was about to faint and couldn’t manage to keep her chin up,…she saw a rapid, tensed alertness among the men on the surrounding boats, all ready to dive in and come to her rescue. They were there only to save her, to carry her naked and unconscious among the questions and stares of a curious public; and her risk of death would have achieved only the ridiculous and vulgar result that she was trying in vain to evade.
The wittiest of all is “The Adventure of a Reader,” in which Amedeo, whose interest in an active life has given way to a passion for reading thick novels—especially those of the nineteenth century—settles himself on a rocky shelf overlooking a secluded patch of beach with just such a volume. The identity of the work changes as he reads. sometimes it is War and Peace, sometimes Crime and Punishment, The Charterhouse of Parma, Lost Illusions, or Remembrance of Things Past. His absorption in the narration of events, the tangle of human situations, is nearly total. Nearly total—for occasionally, at the end of a chapter, he dives into the tepid, translucent water. Even as he swims, he can’t wait to get back to the story of Albertine—“would Marcel find her again, or not?”
He has also become aware of a deeply tanned lady sunning herself on a rubber mattress not far from his perch. One thing leads to another, they take a dip together, and a desultory conversation ensues, interrupted by long intervals during which Amedeo returns to his book with a devouring curiosity to find out what happens next. The day is waning. The lady, whose intentions are clearly amorous, undoes the halter of her bathing suit under the pretext of getting dressed. Having reached a climax in the book, “Amedeo didn’t know whether to look at her, pretending to read, or to read, pretending to look at her.” Finally aroused, he embraces the lady, falling onto the mattress with her, but as he does so he slightly turns his head toward the book to make sure it has not fallen into the sea. Even in the ecstasy of his lovemaking, Amedeo tries “to free one hand to put the bookmark at the right page. Nothing is more irritating when you’re eager to resume reading than to have to search through the book, unable to find your place.” As Calvino develops the situation, his ambivalence toward the entire world of traditional fiction (the same ambivalence, compounded of nostalgia and despair, that animates If on a winter’s night a traveler…—that marvelous work of narratio interrupta) becomes incandescent, shedding gleams of comic irony in every direction.
The collection possesses great charm. It can only enhance Calvino’s already towering reputation. The stories are “lightweight” in the most favorable sense of that term: never, in his exploration of the possibilities latent in each “adventure,” does Calvino allow himself to become tedious. More obviously than his later books, with their cosmopolitan or cosmological settings, Difficult Loves reveals Calvino as a classically Italian writer—a writer, that is, for whom clarity of outline and brilliantly lighted surfaces seem preferable to thickness of atmosphere and the weight of social and psychological documentation. Gesture and act count more than introspection; shame, as in the case of the poor bather, is a more palpable emotion than guilt. While Calvino plays with abstractions, is engaged by conundrums, and is drawn toward symmetry, his inventions, however fanciful, are always embedded in sharply observed or vividly imagined sensory detail. Boccaccio, Pirandello, and the early De Chirico—these are among the Italian artists with whom his genius is aligned.
Calvino and E.L. Doctorow dwell on different planets, and there is little point in comparing their fiction. I will merely say that Mediterranean lucidity is not a quality one would expect to find in Lives of the Poets. Beyond that, a reader never knows what to expect in a new work by Doctorow, who has not been a writer to stay put—much less to repeat himself. One would be hard pressed to think of three major novels by the same author that differ so strikingly in subject and technique as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Loon Lake. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that the six stories and the novella included in Lives of the Poets should be an almost defiantly mixed lot.
The mode of the first piece, “The Writer in the Family,” is that of autobiographical realism; it is set in the 1950s, in a cramped Bronx apartment, where the narrator, a teen-aged boy, lives with his recently widowed mother and his brother. The boy, at the instigation of his aunt, becomes involved in a plot to conceal from his aged grandmother the fact that her son—his father—has died. He agrees to write letters to the senile old woman in his dead father’s name, letters purportedly from Arizona, where the father, a chronic business failure, has purportedly gone to regain his health and to make a fresh start. In the scope of a very few pages Doctorow creates what seems almost a miniature novel of Jewish family life. The boy’s complicated feelings for his father, his proud mother’s antagonism toward her late husband’s affluent family, the rivalries, the patterns of condescension and defiance, the sorrowing for an unfulfilled life and an early death—all of this matter is skillfully and persuasively condensed in the boy’s first-person account, which manages to bring freshness to some very familiar themes.
Placed as if in deliberate contrast, the second story, “The Water Works,” is a grim, hallucinatory excursion into what is roughly the era of Ragtime. On a bleak November day the narrator, for no given reason, follows a black-bearded man to a reservoir where the man discovers a drowned child—his own?—in the water works. The language of the piece is heightened, somewhat florid, very much in the style of its (assumed) epoch:
He was bent over the rail with a rapt expression of the most awful intensity. I thought he would topple, so unaware of himself did he seem in that moment. I found the sight of him in his passion almost unendurable. So again I looked at what he was seeing, and there below, in the yellowing rush of spumed currents and water plunging into its mechanical harness, a small human body was pressed against the machinery of one of the sluicegates, its clothing caught as in some hinge, and the child…went slamming about, first one way and then the next, as if in mute protest, trembling and shaking and animating by its revulsion the death that had already overtaken it.
Like much of Ragtime, this less-than-four-page story is dazzling in its virtuosity; it is also nightmarish in the sequence, as well as in the vividness, of its images.
“Willi” provides another excursion into the past, this time in the form of an old man’s memoir of a traumatizing event in his early life. Almost ostentatiously “Freudian” in its content, the story begins with the thirteen-year-old boy’s “oceanic” experience of a mystical union—and communion—with nature, an ecstatic condition promptly shattered by a “primal scene” involving his mother and tutor. All of this takes place on an estate in Galicia in 1910. Here Doctorow evokes not only the far-off Austro-Hungarian world but also the claustrophobic intensity that we encounter in one of Freud’s case histories—one can imagine it called “The Case of Willi Z.” The boy’s horror and revulsion at the revelation of his mother’s errant sexuality lead him to betray her, and he then experiences the further horror of his father’s brutal reaction. Sexuality is fused with violence, copulation with blows and cries, and young Willi suffers an emotional crippling that will presumably endure (I am imagining a further chapter in the memoir) until he finds himself in the famous consulting room at 19 Berggasse. The pastiche is expertly done, again revealing Doctorow’s mastery of period styles.
Each of the first three stories seems to me to work effectively within its particular mode, the remaining three much less so. The disjunctive quasi surrealism of “The Hunter” and “The Foreign Legation” is simultaneously too contrived and too easy; the episodes become little more than a succession of images evoking loneliness, deprivation, boredom, and frustration—a dispiriting conglomerate—enlivened (or rather galvanized) in each case by an act of violence. “The Leather Man” strikes me as the only outright failure—an obscure and turbid discourse reflecting the paranoia of men who seem to be FBI agents when they are confronted with holdouts against the American Dream.
The collection’s major claim to our attention is of course the novella, “Lives of the Poets,” that gives the book its title. A somber work, it assumes the form of a sourly humorous confession by a successful writer of fifty, Jonathan, who, claiming the need to isolate himself, to create a separate space for his work and his own development, has left his family home in Connecticut and moved into a studio apartment overlooking Houston Street. His marriage has neither broken up nor held together. Jonathan continues to see his “quick-witted and attractive” wife, Angel, but mostly at dinner parties; she is resentful of his move, skeptical of his announced motives, and suspects that his real intention is to have a place for affairs. She is partly right: he has been receiving postcards from the woman he refers to as “the Dark Lady of his Sonnets,” who is currently traveling in the East. Meanwhile, Jonathan is beset by anxieties, ranging from the state of his health (a sore, perhaps gouty, thumb, a stitch in the kidney, a possible lump in his scrotum) to the state of the city (awful) and to the state of the nation (which, pursuing its mad policies, forces Latin Americans to flee their own countries and seek refuge in the country that has forced them to flee in the first place).
Then there is his own vocation as a writer to worry about. At a literary party at the Dakota (a party that includes Norman and Kurt, Joyce, Bill and Rose, Phil, Bernie, and two Johns), he meets his colleague Leo, a heavy-drinking, brilliant, but constipated writer who has never made a dime from his work.
Tell me, he says, looking me in the eye, is there a writer here who really believes in what he’s doing? Does any one of us have a true conviction for what he’s writing? Do I? Do you?
Just what I needed. Tearful eyes of umbrage await my answer. Oh Leo, I think, when you make a little money from your work you’ll see what trouble is….
Oh Leo, I wanted to say, each book has taken me further and further out so that the occasion itself is extenuated, no more than a weak distant signal from the home station, and even that may be fading.
Finally, Jonathan is concerned over what has happened to his political convictions, presumably those of a once-committed leftist. The novella ends with his last-minute attempt to salve his humanitarian conscience—an attempt that has absurd consequences for his newly chosen way of life.
Meanwhile, there are other lives to contemplate—lives which all around him are—like the city, like the nation—beginning to unravel. Most of the couples he knows are “neither married nor divorced but no longer entirely together. There is a moving of husbands into their own digs, their own long days and nights.” Angel collects stories of male perfidy, and some of these provide the most entertaining sections of the novella. Jonathan records them with relish, with mordant wit that the narrator quickly turns against himself.
The form and tone of “Lives of the Poets,” as well as its correspondence to certain known facts of Doctorow’s career, invite us to read it as a self-mocking, self-lacerating cri de coeur from the author of Ragtime. Furthermore, the jacket copy suggests that the book in its entirety may be read as a novel about the writer of the stories, which are unified and illuminated by the novella. I see no sense in either reading. Whatever the autobiographical parallels (and I am happily ignorant of their extent), the story works well enough if regarded as fiction, while the recurrence of certain images or associations from the stories hardly makes the collection a unified work. The writing itself is clumsy at times, with lots of strung-together clauses, as if Doctorow were deliberately roughing up his prose for the sake of a spurious authenticity; but there are also passages of driving power and eloquence. The evocation of the blasted city is especially effective—a city that has become the goal of wave after wave of new immigrants who seem alien and frightening to the descendants of the now “old” immigration of the Jews. While “Lives of the Poets” is hardly comparable to Doctorow’s best work, it provides us with a grimacing, arresting portrait of an artist who, in midlife, finds himself consumed by that which he was nourished by.