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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.”

Observations and meditations continue. He notes, “Nobody looks at the moon in the afternoon, and this is the moment when it would most require our attention, since its existence is still in doubt.” As night comes on, he wonders if the moon’s bright splendor is “due to the slow retreat of the sky, which, as it moves away, sinks deeper and deeper into darkness or whether, on the contrary it is the moon that is coming forward, collecting the previously scattered light and depriving the sky of it, concentrating it all in the round mouth of its funnel.” One begins now to see the method of a Calvino meditation. He looks; he describes; he has a scientist’s respect for data (the opposite of the surrealist or fantasist). He wants us to see not only what he sees but what we may have missed by not looking with sufficient attention. It is no wonder that Galileo crops up in his writing. The received opinion of mankind over the centuries (which is what middlebrow is all about) was certain that the sun moved around the earth but to a divergent highbrow’s mind, Galileo’s or Calvino’s, it is plainly the other way around. Galileo applied the scientific methods of his day; Calvino used his imagination. Each either got it right; or assembled the data so that others could understand the phenomenon.

In April 1982, while I was speaking to a Los Angeles audience with George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and the dread physical therapist Ms. Fonda Hayden, “the three ‘external’ planets, visible to the naked eye…are all three ‘in opposition’ and therefore visible for the whole night.” Needless to say, “Mr. Palomar rushes out on to the terrace.” Between Calvino’s stars and mine, he had the better of it; yet he wrote a good deal of political commentary for newspapers. But after he left the Communist party, he tended more to describe politics and its delusions than take up causes. “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.” But then, “having had the correct view is nothing meritorious; statistically, it is almost inevitable that among the many cockeyed, confused or banal ideas that come into his mind, there should also be some perspicacious ideas, even ideas of genius; and as they occurred to him, they can surely have occurred also to somebody else.” As he was a writer of literature and not a theorist, so he was an observer of politics and not a politician.

Calvino was as inspired by the inhabitants of zoos as by those of cities. “At this point Mr. Palomar’s little girl, who has long since tired of watching the giraffes, pulls him toward the penguins’ cave. Mr. Palomar, in whom penguins inspire anguish, follows her reluctantly and asks himself why he is so interested in giraffes. Perhaps because the world around him moves in an unharmonious way, and he hopes always to find some pattern to it, a constant. Perhaps because he himself feels that his own advance is impelled by uncoordinated movements of the mind, which seem to have nothing to do with one another and are increasingly difficult to fit into any pattern of inner harmony.”

Palomar is drawn to the evil-smelling reptile house. “Beyond the glass of every cage, there is the world as it was before man, or after, to show that the world of man is not eternal and is not unique.” The crocodiles, in their stillness, horrify him. “What are they waiting for, or what have they given up waiting for? In what time are they immersed?…The thought of a time outside our existence is intolerable.” Palomar flees to the albino gorilla, “sole exemplar in the world of a form not chosen, not loved.” The gorilla, in his boredom, plays with a rubber tire; he presses it to his bosom by the hour. The image haunts Palomar. ” ‘Just as the gorilla has his tire, which serves as tangible support for a raving, wordless speech,’ he thinks, ‘so I have this image of a great white ape. We all turn in our hands an old, empty tire through which we would like to reach the final meaning, at which words do not arrive.’ ” This is the ultimate of writers’ images; that indescribable state where words are absent not because they are stopped by the iron bars of a cage at the zoo but by the limitations of that bone-covered binary electrical system which, in Calvino’s case, broke down September 19, 1985.

Suddenly, up ahead, on a hill overlooking the sea, is Castiglion della Pescáia. To my left is the beach where Palomar saw but sees no longer the sword of light. The sea has turned an odd disagreeable purple color, more suitable to the Caribbean of Calvino’s birth than the Mediterranean. The sky is overcast. The air is hot, humid, windless (the headline of today’s newspaper, which has devoted six pages to Calvino’s life and work: Cataclisma in Messico). I am forty minutes early.

The cemetery is on a hill back of the town which is on a lower hill. We park next to a piece of medieval wall and a broken tower. I walk up to the cemetery which is surrounded by a high cement wall. I am reminded of Calvino’s deep dislike of cement. In one of his early books, La Speculazione Edilizia, he described how the building trade had managed, in the 1950s, to bury the Italian Riviera, his native Liguria, under a sea of “horrible reinforced cement”; “il boom,” it was called. To the right of the cemetery entrance a large section of wall has been papered over with the same small funeral notice, repeated several hundred times. The name “Italo Calvino,” the name of Castiglion della Pescáia, “the town of Palomar,” the sign says proudly; then the homage of mayor and city council and populace.

Inside the cemetery there are several walled-off areas. The first is a sort of atrium, whose walls are filled with drawers containing the dead, stacked one above the other, each with a photograph of the occupant, taken rather too late in life to arouse much pity as opposed to awe. There are plastic flowers everywhere; and a few real flowers. There are occasional small chapels, the final repository of wealthy or noble families. I have a sense of panic: They aren’t going to put Italo in a drawer, are they? But then to the right, at the end of the atrium, in the open air, against a low wall, I see a row of vast floral wreaths, suitable for an American or Neapolitan gangster, and not a drawer but a new grave, the size of a bathtub in a moderately luxurious hotel. On one of the wreaths, I can make out the words “Senato” and “Communist…,” the homage of the Communist delegation in the Italian Senate. Parenthetically, since Italy is a country of many political parties and few ideologies, the level of the ordinary parliamentarian is apt to be higher than his American or English counterpart. Moravia sits in the European parliament. Sciascia was in the chamber of deputies. Every party tries to put on its electoral list a number of celebrated intellectual names. The current mayor of Florence was, until recently, the head of the Paris opera: according to popular wisdom, anyone who could handle that can of worms can probably deal with Florence.

Over the wall, the purple sea and redtiled whitewashed houses are visible. As I gaze, moderately melancholy, at Palomar country, I am recognized by a journalist from Naples. I am a neighbor, after all; I live at nearby Ravello. Among the tombs, I am interviewed. How had I met Calvino? A few drops of warm rain fall. A cameraman appears from behind a family chapel and takes my picture. The state television crew is arriving. Eleven years ago, I say, I wrote a piece about his work. Had you met him before that? Logrolling is even more noticeable in a small country like Italy than it is in our own dear New York Times. No, I had not met him when I wrote the piece. I had just read him, admired him; described (the critic’s only task) his work for those who were able to read me and might then be inclined to read him (the critic’s single aim). Did you meet him later? Yes, he wrote me a letter about the piece. In Italian or English? Italian, I say. What did he say? What do you think he said? I am getting irritable. He said he liked what I’d written.

Actually, Calvino’s letter had been, characteristically, interesting and tangential. I had ended my description with “Reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.” This caught his attention. Politely, he began by saying that he had always been attracted by my “mordant irony,” and so forth, but he particularly liked what I had written about him for two reasons. The first, “One feels that you have written this essay for the pleasure of writing it, alternating warm praise and criticism and reserve with an absolute sincerity, with freedom, and continuous humor, and this sensation of pleasure is irresistibly communicated to the reader. Second, I have always thought it would be difficult to extract a unifying theme from my books, each so different from the other. Now you—exploring my works as it should be done, that is, by going at it in an unsystematic way, stopping here and there; sometimes aimed directly without straying aside; other times, wandering like a vagabond—have succeeded in giving a general sense to all I have written, almost a philosophy—’the whole and the many,’ etc.—and it makes me very happy when someone is able to find a philosophy from the productions of my mind which has little philosophy.” Then Calvino comes to the point. “The ending of your essay contains an affirmation of what seems to me important in an absolute sense. I don’t know if it really refers to me, but it is true of an ideal literature for each one of us: the end being that every one of us must be, that the writer and reader become one, or One. And to close all of my discourse and yours in a perfect circle, let us say that this One is All.” In a sense, the later Palomar was the gathering together of the strands of a philosophy or philosophies; hence, the inscription “my last meditations on Nature.”

I let slip not a word of this to the young journalist. But I do tell him that soon after the letter I had met Calvino and his wife, Chichita, at the house of an American publisher, and though assured that there would be no writers there but us, I found a room ablaze with American literary genius. Fearful of becoming prematurely One with them. I split into the night.

Two years ago, when I was made an honorary citizen of Ravello, Calvino accepted the town’s invitation to participate in the ceremony, where he delivered a splendid discourse on my work in general and on Duluth in particular. Also, since Calvino’s Roman flat was on the same street as mine (we were separated by—oh, the beauty of the random symbol!—the Pantheon), we saw each other occasionally.

For the last year, Calvino had been looking forward to his fall and winter at Harvard. He even began to bone up on “literary theory.” He knew perfectly well what a mephitic kindergarten our English departments have become, and I cannot wait to see what he has to say in the three lectures that he did write. I had planned to arm him with a wonderfully silly bit of lowbrow criticism (from Partisan Review) on why people just don’t like to read much anymore. John Gardner is quoted with admiration: “In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is this: a central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose or draw.”’ For those still curious about high, middle, and lowbrow, this last is the Excelsior of lowbrow commercialities, written in letters of gold in the halls of the Thalberg Building at MGM but never to be found in, say, the original Partisan Review of Rahv and Dupee, Trilling and Chase. The PR “critic” then quotes “a reviewer” in The New York Times who is trying to figure out why Calvino is popular. “If love fails, they begin again; their lives are a series of new beginnings, where complications have not yet begun to show themselves. Unlike the great Russian and French novelists” (this is pure middlebrow: which novelists, dummy! Name names, make your case, describe), “who follow their characters through the long and winding caverns [!] of their lives, Calvino just turns off the set after the easy beginning and switches to another channel.” This sort of writing has given American bookchat (a word I coined, you will be eager to know) a permanently bad name. But our PR critic, a woman, this year’s favored minority (sic), states, sternly, that all this “indeterminancy” is not the kind of stuff real folks want to read. “And Calvino is popular, if at all, among theorists, consumers of ‘texts’ rather than of novels and stories.” I shall now never have the chance to laugh with Calvino over this latest report from the land to which Bouvard and Pécuchet emigrated.

At the foot of cemetery hill, a van filled with police arrives. Crowds are anticipated. The day before, the President of the Republic had come to the Siena hospital to say farewell. One can imagine a similar scene in the United States. High atop the Tulsa Tower Hospital, the Reverend Oral Roberts enters the hushed room. “Mr. President, it’s all over. He has crossed the shining river.” A tear gleams in the Acting President’s eye. “The last round-up,” he murmurs. The tiny figure at his side, huge lidless eyes aswim with tears, whispers, “Does this mean, no more Harlequin novels?” The Acting President holds her close. “There will always be Harlequins, Mommie,” he says. “But they won’t be the same. Not without Louis L’Amour.”

Now several hundred friends of Calvino, writers, editors, publishers, press, local dignitaries fill up the cemetery. I hold Chichita’s hand a long moment; she has had, someone said, two weeks of coming to terms not so much with death as with the nightmare of dying.

The last chapter of Palomar begins, “Mr. Palomar decides that from now on he will act as if he were dead, to see how the world gets along without him.” So far, not too good, I thought. Mexico has fallen down and his daughter is late to the burial. On the plus side, there is no priest, no service, no words. Suddenly, as a dozen television cameras switch on, the dark shiny wooden box, containing Calvino, appears in the atrium. How small the box is, I think. Was he smaller than I remember? Or has he shrunk? Of course, he is dead but, as he wrote, “First of all, you must not confuse being dead with not being, a condition that occupies the vast expanse of time before birth, apparently symmetrical with the other, equally vast expanse that follows death. In fact, before birth we are part of the infinite possibilities that may or may not be fulfilled; whereas, once dead, we cannot fulfill ourselves either in the past (to which we now belong entirely but on which we can no longer have any influence) or in the future (which, even if influenced by us, remains forbidden to us).”

With a crash, the pallbearers drop the box into the shallow bathtub. Palomar’s nose is now about four inches beneath the earth he used to examine so minutely. Then tiles are casually arranged over the coffin; and the box is seen no more. As we wait for the daughter to arrive, the heat is disagreeable. We look at one another as though we are at a party that has refused to take off. I recognize Natalia Ginzburg. I see someone who looks as if he ought to be Umberto Eco, and is. “A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole….” I notice, in the crowd, several dozen young schoolchildren. They are fans of Calvino’s fairy tales; plainly, precocious consumers of “texts” and proto-theorists. Then daughter and buckets of cement arrive simultaneously. One of the masons pours cement over the tiles; expertly, he smooths the viscous surface with a trowel. Horrible cement. “Therefore Palomar prepares to become a grouchy dead man, reluctant to submit to the sentence to remain exactly as he is; but he is unwilling to give up anything of himself, even if it is a burden.” Finally, the cement is flush with the ground; and that’s that.

I am standing behind Chichita, who is very still. Finally, I look up from the gray oblong of fresh cement and there, staring straight at me, is Calvino. He looks anguished, odd, not quite right. But it is unmistakably Mr. Palomar, witnessing his own funeral. For one brief mad moment we stare at each other; then he looks down at the coffin that contains not himself but Italo. The man I thought was Italo is his younger brother, Floriano.

I move away, before the others. On the drive back to Rome, the sun is bright and hot; yet rain starts to fall. Devil is beating his wife, as they say in the South. Then a rainbow covers the entire eastern sky. For the Romans and the Etruscans, earlier inhabitants of the countryside through which we are driving, the rainbow was an ominous herald of coming change in human affairs, death of kings, cities, world. I make a gesture to ward off the evil eye. Time can now end. But ” ‘If time has to end, it can be described, instant by instant,’ Palomar thinks, ‘and each instant, when described, expands so that its end can no longer be seen.’ He decides that he will set himself to describing every instant of his life, and until he has described them all he will no longer think of being dead. At that moment he dies.” 2 So end “my last meditations on Nature,” and Calvino and Nature are now one, or One.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    Now that Calvino’s work is done, one must praise the faithful William Weaver for his elegant translations over many years.

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