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.
Freedom of this sort naturally carries artistic risks. Because each of the book’s little meditations stands in some isolation, there is always a danger that Mr. Palomar will abruptly go slack. And in truth a few of the meditations are disappointing: here and there, Calvino slides toward a rather predictable conclusion. Reflections that were obviously intended to be delicate look merely thin. But the best of Palomar’s observations are haunting, and in a way that one is unlikely to find in either a good natural-history essayist (who almost certainly will lack Calvino’s poetic and imaginational powers) or a good fiction writer (who is unlikely to match Calvino’s openness to the animal and the mineral world). It is a rare and admirable sensibility that could envision an iguana in this way:
Then there are other spiky crests under the chin; on the neck there are two round white plates like a hearing aid; a number of accessories and sundries, trimmings, and defensive garnishings, a sample case of forms available in the animal kingdom and perhaps also in other kingdoms—too much stuff for one animal to bear. What’s the use of it? Does it serve to disguise someone watching us from in there?
But it is a still rarer and finer mind that, beginning with these acute, good-tempered observations, could proceed by means of a powerful induction to a large and lovely judgment on the meaning of life itself:
Life in the reptile house appears a squandering of forms without style and without plan, where all is possible, and animals and plants and rocks exchange scales, quills, concretions. But among the infinite possible combinations, only some—perhaps actually the most incredible—become fixed, resist the flux that undoes them and mixes and reshapes; and immediately each of these forms becomes the center of a world separated forever from the others, as here in the row of glass case-cages of the zoo; and in this finite number of ways of being, each identified in a monstrosity of its own, and a necessity and beauty of its own, lies order, the sole order recognizable in the world.
The ultimate subject of Italo Calvino’s final novel is the universe—which, as Mr. Palomar himself might point out, can make quite an interesting subject.
Calvino’s most recent volume is the poignantly mistitled Six Memos for the Next Millennium. It consists of the unfinished lectures he was preparing to deliver at Harvard as the Charles Eliot Norton Lecturer for 1985–1986. There were to be six, or perhaps eight; in any case, only five were found on his writing desk after his death.
Each of the five “memos” or chapters extols a literary virtue: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The missing sixth was to address Consistency. As lectures, they would probably have overwhelmed many listeners, since Calvino’s range of reference proves both encyclopedic and unpredictable. But on the page, where one can pause and backtrack at will, a reader must delight in the way that Calvino convokes Ovid, Dante, Shakespeare, Balzac, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Musil, Borges, and also computer science, Felix the Cat, flying carpets, Puck and Ariel, rebuses, and tarot cards.
The lectures render explicit much that was evident but unvoiced in Calvino’s past work. There is something admirable and perhaps just a little spooky in the dispassionate intelligence that Calvino applies to himself; in Six Memos he details his aesthetic penchants and proclivities with a lucidity that leaves most of his critics looking fuzzy and extraneous. “My working method,” he explains on the first page, “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.” He defines his apprenticeship as a time when
I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque…. Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world—qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.
This sense of art as a necessary “evading” goes a long way toward explaining one’s difficulty in classifying Calvino’s books; from first to last, he was an artist who believed it aesthetically dangerous to stay in one place, or one mode, for very long.
In an essay in these pages, “On Italo Calvino” (NYR, November 21, 1985). Gore Vidal took issue with Time magazine’s characterization of Calvino as a “surrealist.” Calvino “was, of course, a true realist,” Vidal argued, and quoted from a television interview that Calvino gave in the last months of his life:
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.
I would in the end agree with Mr. Vidal’s characterization, although to speak of a writer as a realist in whose pages Marco Polo laments the impersonality of airports and sailors in ships equipped with tall ladders harvest “lunar cheese” may seem to twist the notion of realism out of any useful shape. I would add, then, that this fussing over literary categories—usually the most sterile and logomachous of academic exercises—serves a worthy purpose in Calvino’s case. His work is perhaps not fully appreciated until examined beside our notions of what realistic fiction consists of.
For many of us, literary realism is inseparably bound up with portrayals of poverty—a linking which, in the end, is probably a good thing. Certainly, in a world in which people starve for lack of a little money, we need constantly to be reminded of the hardships some encounter in their search for a raw livelihood. If the notion that the poor are “realer” than the rich is an illusion, it is one we abandon only at our ethical peril. Yet we must also remain aware that this conception of realism ultimately restricts our vision.
Italo Calvino, that fabulist whose final hero, Mr. Palomar, seems to live in a detached and privileged world in which money and the constrictions of indigence hardly exist, earlier in his career wrote hauntingly about the poor. Many of his first stories, composed in the late Forties and early Fifties and collected in English as Difficult Loves and Adam, One Afternoon, offer wrenching visions of need and scarcity. Even more harrowing in many ways is Marcovaldo, which paints a ferociously claustrophobic portrait of the life of an unskilled Italian factory worker. Yet this is a claustrophobia continually loosened by an author whose improbable and antic imagination delights in undoing realism’s tight conventions. When a rooftop avalanche of melting snow so thoroughly buries Marcovaldo that he is taken for a snowman by a group of passing children, the story teeters on the edge of burlesque. And when one of the children inserts into the head of this snowman a carrot, which our beleaguered and ravenous hero begins to nibble on, thereby frightening the children away, we have entered a land of unpredictable comic metamorphoses, of disaster that is distanced and softened by magic: the realm of the fairy tale. (Calvino’s love of the fairy tale glimmers in nearly everything he wrote, realistic or fantastic, and the anthology he assembled in the Sixties, Italian Folktales, already holds a strong claim as a classic of world literature.)
If Calvino subverts the conventions of literary realism on one end by his attraction to the fairy tale, he undermines them on the other through his deep fascination with science. (This was an interest bred at an early age, according to Six Memos, where Calvino, in a rare moment of personal reminiscence, observes that “in my family, a child could read only educational books, particularly those with some scientific basis.”) Calvino was rare among fiction writers in responding so strongly, with both wonder and skepticism, to scientific discovery. His work displays a venturesome eagerness to incorporate even the most awesome revelations (as in Cosmicomics, that paean to the expanded universe uncovered by the “big bang” theorists) and a clairvoyant discernment of its dangers (as in “Smog,” which, though written in the Fifties, seems to foresee an Italy in which the corrosive exhausts of the automobile—that technological marvel of our age—would begin to cannibalize those “timeless” monuments that were themselves the technological feats of an earlier civilization). Calvino seemed to absorb not just rationally, but viscerally, with heart and soul, the notion that as the forces of technology transform the world right before our eyes, a realism that does not change with it is no longer realistic.
This notion certainly sounds obvious enough, and one might suppose it would be common as well in our own realistic fiction. But if one looks at “mainstream” American fiction since the Second World War—since, that is, Calvino embarked on his literary career—one comes away astonished at how little science impinged on just those naturalistic writers whose work might reasonably be expected to chart technology’s effects on everyday life. It is a little hard to believe that, say, John Steinbeck or John O’Hara was still writing books in the space age; the reality they depict seems to belong to an earlier age entirely. Calvino is occasionally criticized in this country for not being “true to life,” and one suspects that the roots of this dissatisfaction may spring from a stunted conception of what life, when “realistically” portrayed, consists of. This is not to suggest that Calvino was always so broad a writer as one might have wished. One would perhaps have liked to see more about family life in his work; and certainly a larger infusion of romantic passion, more courtships and longings, would have been welcome. It was at once Calvino’s great strength and weakness that, although witty and playful and tender, his books reveal the coolness, the preference of the cerebral over the physical, that one associates with the mathematical temperament.
One might turn to the history of mathematics itself for a useful comparison in categorizing Calvino’s work. As Michael Guillen so lucidly sets out in his wonderful little book for the mathematical layman, Bridges to Infinity,* the evolution of mathematics can be viewed as an endless exclusionary struggle, in which the people who erect some pure and satisfying mathematical system are inevitably set upon by a host of unruly, gate-crashing entities. The Pythagoreans were shocked by, and apparently tried to suppress, the discovery of irrational numbers like pi—which, however, could not finally be suppressed, for these “messy,” non-repeating fractions turned out to be indispensable for simple geometric calculations. The emergence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the imaginary numbers, whose very name suggests lingering doubt toward their status and practicality, was met with derision—but in the twentieth century they proved essential for mapping the Einsteinian universe.
Analogously, the literary critic who would keep realism “pure” by excluding a fabulist like Calvino runs into difficulties. Calvino’s wildest fantasies are usually grounded in the equally wild, equally fantastic advances of modern science, and they have an uncanny way of illuminating how it is, and where it is, that we actually live. To read Cosmicomics (probably his best book—a claim made more warmly for my sense of being in a minority on this one) is to experience an exhilarating, altered view of what it means to share a universe with volcanoes and dinosaurs, with light years and black holes. Of course to be a human being at all is—necessarily, organically—to live a drastically occluded existence. The limitations of our intellects and our senses, and the brevity of life itself, ensure that we can accept the immensities of scientific discovery only in a kind of numb, concessive paralysis. Yet one comes away from Cosmicomics feeling that one’s aperture on life has been widened by some tenth of one degree—which is to say, given the extent of our benightedness, widened considerably.
One of the many tonic effects of the work in recent years of the mathematician and essayist Douglas Hofstadter has been a reexamination of the ways in which literature that might seem dryly cerebral often clarifies the features of modern life. In his wonderful book for the mathematical layman, Gödel, Escher, Bach, and even more fruitfully in the volume he edited with Daniel Dennett, The Mind’s I, Hofstadter elucidates how the concerns of philosopher, mathematician, and cognitive scientist all overlap among themselves, and together themselves overlap with the work of the great literary “gamesmen” of our time—writers like Borges, Lem, Nabokov, and Calvino. These are writers for whom puzzle and paradox have limitless appeals, and whose fondness for ideas sometimes has led to accusations of sterility and disengagement. Yet the longer one lives beside their work, and beside the scientific investigations their work so often reflects, the clearer it becomes that in fact theirs are often the ideas we live by, or need to live by. A patient, probing reader will come away broadened by Borges’s reflections on variant worlds and the interrelationship of parts and wholes; by those concealed meditations on time and memory and consciousness that Nabokov was forever weaving into his multilayered fictions; by the speculations on free will and theology that Lem injects into his tales about artificial beings.
No modern writer was more adept than Calvino in that delicate gardener’s art of transplantation by which ideas are inserted, live and fruitful, into a work of fiction. Among his long list of successes, Mr. Palomar might be viewed as an extended meditation on the unavoidable frustrations of solipsism. Like the rest of us, Palomar is trapped for life within the obstruction of a single body, but unlike most of us he feels this limitation as an immediate and continual anguish. He yearns for some escape from the self, for even a momentary glimpse of how the universe is apprehended by a gecko lizard, or by a starling settling onto a sycamore at the close of a glorious autumn afternoon in Rome, or by the world’s only great albino ape from its cage in the Barcelona zoo.
He is obsessed by what is surely one of the central peculiarities of modern life—the way in which continual refinements in our prosthetic devices steadily pull us further away from the reality presented by our naked five senses. Our microscopes and telescopes, our tape recorders and atomic clocks, our laboratories full of gadgetry designed to venture where our senses are too insensitive to go, all increasingly show us that our eyes and ears and fingertips are deceivers. What a position this puts us in! The mind—that lonely and immobile monarch, immured in the throne room of the skull—begins to realize that all of its messengers are liars. Here is Palomar taking a swim at dusk:
Can this be nature? But nothing of what he sees exists in nature: the sun does not set, the sea does not have this color, the shapes are not those that the light casts on his retina. With unnatural movements of his limbs, he is floating among phantoms.
Palomar accepts fresh scientific advances with delight and wonder, but also with a boggled beweilderment at finding that the gulf between the realities of intellect and body continually widens.
A realist only in a most inclusive sense—the one that the term deserves—Calvino looked at the world steadily, doggedly, and amusedly. He was forever trying to figure out how the discoveries being revealed around him should change his sense of what it is to be a human being. He understood that whatever conclusions he drew would be partial and somewhat erroneous. He was pessimistic and good humored. He was humble. To all of which one might add, realistically, that the world is diminished by his loss.
September 29, 1988