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On Italo Calvino

On the morning of Friday, September 20, 1985, the first equinoctial storm of the year broke over the city of Rome. I awoke to thunder and lightning; and thought I was, yet again, in World War II. Shortly before noon, a car and driver arrived to take me up the Mediterranean coast to a small town on the sea called Castiglion della Pescáia where, at one o’clock, Italo Calvino, who had died the day before, would be buried in the village cemetery.

Calvino had had a cerebral hemorthage two weeks earlier while sitting in the garden of his house at Pineta di Roccamare, where he had spent the summer working on the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that he planned to give during the fall and winter at Harvard. I last saw him in May. I commended him on his bravery: he planned to give the lectures in English, a language that he read easily but spoke hesitantly, unlike French and Spanish, which he spoke perfectly; but then he had been born in Cuba, son of two Italian agronomists; and had lived for many years in Paris.

It was night. We were on the terrace of my apartment in Rome; an overhead light made his deep-set eyes look even darker than usual. Italo gave me his either-this-or-that frown; then he smiled, and when he smiled, suddenly, the face would become like that of an enormously bright child who has just worked out the unified field theory. “At Harvard, I shall stammer,” he said. “But then I stammer in every language.”

Unlike the United States, Italy has both an educational system (good or bad is immaterial) and a common culture, both good and bad. In recent years Calvino had become the central figure in Italy’s culture. Italians were proud that they had produced a world writer whose American reputation began, if I may say so, since no one else will, in these pages when I described all of his novels as of May 30, 1974. By 1985, except for England, Calvino was read wherever books are read. I even found a Calvino coven in Moscow’s literary bureaucracy; and I think that I may have convinced the state publishers to translate more of him. Curiously, the fact that he had slipped away from the Italian Communist party in 1957 disturbed no one. Then, three weeks short of Calvino’s sixty-second birthday, he died; and Italy went into mourning, as if a beloved prince had died. For an American, the contrast between them and us is striking. When an American writer dies, there will be, if he’s a celebrity (fame is no longer possible for any of us), a picture below the fold on the front page; later, a short appreciation on the newspaper’s book page (if there is one), usually the work of a journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work but is at home with the arcana of Page Six; and that would be that.

In Calvino’s case, the American newspaper obituaries were perfunctory and incompetent: the circuits between the English departments, where our tablets of literary reputation are now kept, and the world of journalism are more than ever fragile and the reception is always bad. Surprisingly, Time and Newsweek, though each put him on the “book page,” were not bad, though one thought him “surrealist” and the other a “master of fantasy”; he was, of course, a true realist, who believed “that only a certain prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can’t make anything.” This homely analogy is from an Italian television interview, shown after his death.

The New York Times, to show how well regarded Calvino is in these parts, quoted John Updike, our literature’s perennial apostle to the middlebrows1 (this is not meant, entirely, unkindly), as well as Margaret Atwood (a name new to me), Ursula K. Le Guin (an estimable sci-fi writer, but what is she doing, giving, as it were, a last word on one of the most complex of modern writers?), Michael Wood, whose comment was pretty good, and, finally, the excellent Anthony Burgess, who was not up to his usual par on this occasion. Elsewhere, Mr. Herbert Mitgang again quoted Mr. Updike as well as John Gardner, late apostle to the low-brows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university.

Europe regarded Calvino’s death as a calamity for culture. A literary critic, as opposed to theorist, wrote at length in Le Monde, while in Italy itself, each day for two weeks, bulletins from the hospital at Siena were published, and the whole country was suddenly united in its esteem not only for a great writer but for someone who reached not only primary school children through his collections of folk and fairy tales but, at one time or another, everyone else who reads.

After the first hemorrhage, there was a surgical intervention that lasted many hours. Calvino came out of coma. He was disoriented: he thought that one of the medical attendants was a policeman; then he wondered if he’d had open-heart surgery. Meanwhile, the surgeon had become optimistic; even garrulous. He told the press that he’d never seen a brain structure of such delicacy and complexity as that of Calvino. I thought immediately of the smallest brain ever recorded, that of Anatole France. The surgeon told the press that he had been obliged to do his very best. After all, he and his sons had read and argued over Marcovaldo last winter. The brain that could so puzzle them must be kept alive in all its rarity. One can imagine a comparable surgeon in America: only last Saturday she had kept me and my sons in stitches; now I could hardly believe that I was actually gazing into the fabulous brain of Joan Rivers! On the other hand, the admirer of Joan Rivers might have saved Calvino; except that there was no real hope, ever. In June he had had what he thought was a bad headache; it was the first stroke. Also, he came from a family with a history of arterial weakness. Or so it was said in the newspapers. The press coverage of Calvino’s final days resembled nothing so much as that of the recent operation on the ancient actor that our masters have hired to impersonate a president, the sort of subject that used to delight Calvino—the Acting President, that is.

As we drove north through the rain, I read Calvino’s last novel, Palomar. He had given it to me on November 28, 1983. I was chilled—and guilty—to read for the first time the inscription: “For Gore, these last meditations about Nature, Italo.” “Last” is a word artists should not easily use. What did this “last” mean? Latest? Or his last attempt to write about the phenomenal world? Or did he know, somehow, that he was in the process of “Learning to be dead,” the title of the book’s last chapter?

I read the book. It is very short. A number of meditations on different subjects by one Mr. Palomar, who is Calvino himself. The settings are, variously, the beach at Castiglion della Pescáia, the nearby house in the woods at Roccamare, the flat in Rome with its terrace, a food specialty shop in Paris. This is not the occasion to review the book. But I made some observations; and marked certain passages that seemed to me to illuminate the prospect.

Palomar is on the beach at Castiglion: he is trying to figure out the nature of waves. Is it possible to follow just one? Or do they all become one? Or do they all become one? E pluribus unum and its reverse might well sum up Calvino’s approach to our condition. Are we a part of the universe? Or is the universe, simply, us thinking that there is such a thing? Calvino often writes like the scientist that his parents were. He observes, precisely, the minutiae of nature: stars, waves, lizards, turtles, a woman’s breast exposed on the beach. In the process, he vacillates between macro and micro. The whole and the part. Also, tricks of eye. The book is written in the present tense, like a scientist making reports on that ongoing experiment, the examined life.

The waves provide him with suggestions but no answers: viewed in a certain way, they seem to come not from the horizon but from the shore itself. “Is this perhaps the real result that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?” But it doesn’t quite work; and he cannot extend “this knowledge to the entire universe.” He notes during his evening swim that “the sun’s reflection becomes a shining sword on the water stretching from shore to him. Mr. Palomar swims in that sword….” But then so does everyone else at that time of day, each in the same sword which is everywhere and nowhere. “The sword is imposed equally on the eye of each swimmer; there is no avoiding it. ‘Is what we have in common precisely what is given to each of us as something exclusively his?”’ As Palomar floats he wonders if he exists. He drifts now toward solipsism: “If no eye except the glassy eye of the dead were to open again on the surface of the terraqueous globe, the sword would not gleam any more.” He develops this, floating on his back. “Perhaps it was not the birth of the eye that caused the birth of the sword, but vice versa, because the sword had to have an eye to observe it at its climax.” But the day is ending, the wind-surfers are all beached, and Palomar comes back to land: “He has become convinced that the sword will exist even without him.”

In the garden at Roccamare, Palomar observes the exotic mating of turtles; he ponders the blackbird’s whistle, so like that of a human being that it might well be the same sort of communication. “Here a prospect that is very promising for Mr. Palomar’s thinking opens out; for him the discrepancy between human behavior and the rest of the universe has always been a source of anguish. The equal whistle of man and blackbird now seems to him a bridge thrown over the abyss.” But his attempts to communicate with them through a similar whistling leads to “puzzlement” on both sides. Then, contemplating the horrors of his lawn and its constituent parts, among them weeds, he precisely names and numbers what he sees until “he no longer thinks of the lawn: he thinks of the universe. He is trying to apply to the universe everything he has thought about the lawn. The universe as regular and ordered cosmos or as chaotic proliferation.” The analogy, as always with Calvino, then takes off (the jam on the bread) and the answer is again the many within the one, or “collections of collections.”

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    Although the three estates, high, middle, and lowbrow, are as dead as Dwight Macdonald, their most vigorous deployer, something about today’s literary scene, combined with Calvino’s death, impels me to resurrect the terms. Presently, I shall demonstrate.

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