Six Memos for the Next Millennium
In the courtroom of the literary journal, book reviewers should rarely be permitted to plead the ineffable. As a general rule of advocacy, paragraphs that begin It is impossible to describe the pleasures…or No mere summation can…should be strictly debarred. And yet what is a reviewer to do with a writer like Italo Calvino, whose books with such fine, lawless abandon seem to leap free of all critical regimentation, eluding equally any easy condensation or categorizing? How, for example, is one to do justice to a book like Cosmicomics (1965), that endlessly inventive re-creation of our myths of Creation, whose main character, one Qfwfq by name, remembers the passing of the dinosaurs? One might matter-of-factly point out that it’s the sort of book that contains a sparklingly comic domestic argument taking place moments before the solar system is born and an affecting account of the first queasy stirrings of love in a Carboniferous protoreptile. But this is only a covert variation on the ineffability plea.
Of course to be tongue-tied can itself prove a pleasure, particularly in regard to an author who wrote at such eloquent length about the meanings and richnesses of silence. Those same complexities that make his work so difficult to describe are often what make it so rewarding to read. And a state of quiet gratitude might seem especially appropriate now, not so long after his death, which came on September 19, 1985 at the age of sixty-one—the result of a stroke that had left him in a coma for a week. But while his loss is cause for universal mourning, his many books—now that he has slipped into a silence that does indeed look eloquent—call anew for celebration.
The special difficulties that a critic encounters when dealing with Calvino are only enhanced in the case of Mr. Palomar, the last of his novels. Whenever an author dies prematurely and unexpectedly, as Calvino did, his last work is often lent a wholly extrinsic and yet all-but-ineradicable sense of fatefulness. A reader will detect everywhere in its pages premonitions of mortality and attempts at a final summing up. And yet even while a conscientious reader will resist such temptations, Mr. Palomar contains hints of a ghostly prescience which are not easily dismissed. Its last chapter is entitled “Learning to be dead.” The book has an autumnal, conclusive feel that can scarcely be a result of the mere timing of its appearance. Although Calvino during the last years of his life remained both an unflaggingly vigorous writer and a man apparently blessed with sound physical health, the book echoes with the tolling tones of a last will and testament.
The Mr. (first name unknown) Palomar of Mr. Palomar provides a puzzling hero to a puzzling book. We learn nothing about his origins, and of his last name only that “perhaps because he bears the same name as a famous observatory, [he] can boast some friendships among astronomers.” Little else about him can …