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A Master’s Legacy

Mr. Palomar

by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 130 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

by Italo Calvino, translated by Patrick Creagh
Harvard University Press, 144 pp., $12.95

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 be confidently stated. One can say with certainty that he is thoughtful, quiet, and inquisitive (especially about the natural world), and with near certainty that he is regarded as kindly and absent-minded by those around him. One learns in the book’s 126 pages almost nothing about Palomar’s marriage or his past, the aims behind his travels (he seems to spend most of his time in Rome, but is also found in Paris and Barcelona and Kyoto) or the means by which he pays the bills. The book consists of a series of short reflections that might be called essays. At times, especially when Palomar as a physical presence retreats to the periphery (in the chapter entitled “Moon in the afternoon,” a lovely meditation on what our dream-haunted moon undergoes when exposed to the rational light of day, he appears only in the last sentence), we might almost have stepped into a fine collection of popular scientific essays. We are not far from the work of Stephen Jay Gould or Loren Eiseley.

In the first of the book’s short chapters, Mr. Palomar stands on a beach contemplating the flow of the sea. He himself would deny that his activity is anything so grand as contemplation, which for Palomar requires the “right temperament, the right mood, and the right combination of exterior circumstances.” No, he is merely “looking.” (To that brief list of adjectives which describe Palomar, one might add “modest” and “circumspect.”) His goal, as he peers at the sea, would appear simple enough. He wishes merely to isolate one wave from the rest and to follow its progress until it collapses on the shore. This goal proves troublesome, however, for Mr. Palomar finds it difficult to separate one wave from another. The sea presents no clear boundaries. What Mr. Palomar seems to be reflecting upon is the age-old, and still unresolved, question of whether time is continuous or discrete—whether, that is, time proceeds as an indivisible continuum or, like film projected onto a screen, in a series of imperceptibly short frames. Toward the end of the chapter, the correspondence between oceanic and chronological motions is made explicit:

In addition, the reflux of every wave also has a power of its own that hinders the oncoming waves. And if you concentrate your attention on these backward thrusts, it seems that the true movement is the one that begins from the shore and goes out to sea.

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? No, he feels a slight dizziness, but it goes no further than that.

This tinge of vertigo is characteristic of Palomar, a man whose psyche trembles at the edge of what may be either illumination or dissolution—one cannot say for certain. Meditation seems to be a hazardous undertaking in, as Palomar defines our age, “the era of great numbers.” Whether he seeks to isolate a single wave, or to comprehend the essence of a plot of grass, his hunt for a narrow and secure base from which to observe the larger universe—a search for “the key to mastering the world’s complexity by reducing it to its simplest mechanism”—inevitably founders. He never finds anything solid and simple enough to serve as his observational base. It is Palomar’s blessing and hardship to perceive always the underlying intricacy that any apparent simplicity masks, to move through life with a preternaturally, almost microscopically, sharp eye that is forever turning up tiny, subtle individualities.

Calvino chose well in opening his final novel at the seashore, for the flow of Palomar’s mind might also be described as wavelike. Again and again in the book’s succeeding chapters, the reader witnesses a gathering of cerebral energies, a push and fling at some resistant object, a dispersion and a regathering; to Mr. Palomar, a man whose mental energy seems boundless, a retreat is merely the preparation for another advance. As the currents of Palomar’s thinking begin in time to grow familiar, the reader no longer regrets knowing so little about his marriage or his past. For all of Palomar’s sketchiness as a fictional character, one begins to recognize how his mind works—and given the supernal regions in which Palomar spends so much of his time, this is actually to feel one knows him rather well.

He is a man whose search for self-knowledge begins outside himself. He instinctively looks to the natural world for illumination of his own interior. The little chapter entitled “The gecko’s belly,” for example, presents a lizard in such detailed, anatomical precision that the reader never feels the gecko has been chosen as a mere symbol; the creature is clearly regarded as a marvel in itself. Yet the chapter is equally an attempt to come to terms with the cold-blooded reptile in oneself.

Although a reader can scarcely be expected to detect it on a first reading, the book’s far-flung reflections are in fact fitted around an extraordinarily intricate, architectonic scheme—as Calvino reveals in a curiously curt note at the close of the volume. Mr. Palomar is composed on a system of triads within triads. Each of its three main sections (“Mr. Palomar’s Vacation,” “Mr. Palomar in the City,” and “The Silences of Mr. Palomar”) contains three subsections, which themselves are each composed of three sub-subsections. The first element within any particular triad focuses upon some visual experience; the second, upon some cultural or linguistic phenomenon; and the third, upon “more speculative experience, concerning the cosmos, time, infinity, the relationship between the self and the world, the dimensions of the mind.” In its tiered intricacy, and in its prominent and thematic use of numbers, Mr. Palomar may remind readers of the marvelous invisible Cities (1972), the seventh of Calvino’s books to be translated into English, but the first to win him a solid reputation in America.

The complicated patterns of so many of Calvino’s fictions prove difficult to describe in large part because the art of prose fiction, unlike that of poetry, supplies the critic with so few fixed forms that might serve either for an analogy or a departure point. Where are the prose forms that would correspond to the sonnet, the villanelle, the rondeau, the pantoum, to blank verse and ottava rima and the Rubáiyát stanza? Certainly the language of versification, despite its egregious clumsiness (the result of its ancestry in classical poetry systems that have little in common with ours), provides a range of analytical methods and expectations subtler than anything found in the lex-icon of fiction criticism. Italo Calvino’s career, particularly in its last years, might well be viewed as an ongoing attempt to create a compendium of useful new prose forms. One might call him a prose prosodist. The peculiar structure of Invisible Cities, for example (with its identical stanzalike blocks or sections, its strict pattern of predictable repetitions, and a newness that emerges each time from within the block), might be seen as a kind of hybrid prose counterpart to poetry’s sestina and terza rima—both Italian inventions, happily enough.

Yet the formal intricacies of Mr. Palomar somehow enrich the book less than one would hope. The beauty of its overarching symmetries does not quite manage to flow down to the lowest level of the text, where one sentence follows another. Structurally, the book remains something of a cool tour de force. This failure is only in part a result of a scheme of organization so unobtrusive that the reader may not initially perceive it. Even on a rereading, Mr. Palomar lacks the reciprocal magic (present in earlier volumes like If on a winter’s night a traveler, or Cosmicomics, or Invisible Cities) by which, somehow, rich complexities of form create complex richnesses of content. On the other hand, Mr. Palomar is clearly not intended, as those earlier books were, to boast any such strict inter-connectedness. Much of the book’s considerable charm lies in its air of freedom, which allows Calvino to drift a bit, to sail on the waves of Palomar’s thinking.

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