Conversation with a stranger: Italo Calvino

This review was first published in the journal Space: New Writing published by Whitmore Press in 2004. I’ll post it here as Calvino is still a favourite author. Reproduced by permission.

Italo Calvino, Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings, trans. Martin McLaughlin, Pantheon Books 2003, 256pp.

For all the diversity of the fiction of Italo Calvino, the experimentation with forms, and the widely ranging times and places in which it is set, a similar character turns up repeatedly. It is the solitary man, perplexed by life’s mysteries, doggedly holding on to his own ideas in the hope that eventually he will get to the bottom of things. Various incarnations of this character are: the rustic peasant trying to make sense of the city in Marcovaldo; the 18th century aristocrat who spends his life living alone in the branches in The Baron in the Trees; the reader in If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller who tries to unravel literary conspiracies that become more and more preposterous. Reading The Hermit of Paris we find ourselves meeting this character again; but this time he is called ‘Calvino’. Perhaps those fictional characters are reflections of their author; but it would be more Calvinoesque to suggest that the author is a reflection of his characters.

Hermit in Paris is a collection of occasional pieces, autobiographical notes and interviews, compiled by Calvino’s widow Esther. Autobiographical writings by Calvino are something of a paradox, because he did not believe that writers’ lives were of interest. He told one of his interviewers:

I believe that writers lose a lot when they are seen in the flesh. In the old days the really popular writers were totally anonymous … I believe that this is the ideal condition for a writer … that is when his maximum authority develops, when the writer does not have a face, a presence, but the world he portrays takes up the whole picture. Like Shakespeare … Today, by contrast, the more the author’s figure invades the field, the more the world he portrays empties.

We would not, then, expect from Calvino startling revelations of childhood abuse or accounts of youthful experiments with acid, nor is there anything about his feelings for his wife and daughter, who are hardly mentioned. Esther Calvino says of the pieces: ‘There is no doubt that they refer to the most important aspects of his life, with the explicit intention of explaining precisely his political, literary and existential choices.’ And if at times the book seems fragmentary, with some of the pieces very slight and occasionally repetitious, by and large it lives up to the claim Esther Calvino makes for it.

The title is slightly misleading. Calvino did spend his later years in Paris, where he became a friend of theorists such as Barthes whose influence pervades the later works. Despite this, there is little about Paris in the collection, apart from the brief but brilliant essay which gives its title to the book. Nor is there anything here about his relationships with the celebrated savants of the Sorbonne. Instead, the book contains a collection of pieces about America and Italy. Upsetting your expectations, of course, is typical Calvino.

The most entertaining piece in this collection, as well as the longest – over 100 pages – is ‘American diary 1959–60’. Calvino wrote this while one of a group of writers visiting the United States on a Ford Foundation Scholarship. The ‘diary’ is actually a collection of letters sent to his friend and colleague Daniele Ponchiroli, chief editor at the Turin publishing firm Einaudi. Calvino’s stated aim was to brief his colleagues about how the American publishing industry worked, and to spot promising American writers for Einaudi. But in the early days of his trip he was more interested in tracking the progress of The Baron in the Trees, which had just been published in America. ‘Is my book displayed in the bookshops, either in the window or on the shelves? No. Never. Not in one single bookshop.’ Partly the problem was technical: ‘There have been mix ups in distribution because of the IBM machines that Random House has just installed in its sales department: two machines had faults and so tiny bookstores in villages in Nebraska have received dozens of copies of The Baron, while major bookshops in Fifth Avenue have not received a single one.’ This sounds like one of the publishing conspiracies that Calvino would satirise, years later, in If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller; but at the time it just made him grumble: ‘Mr Klopfer [the owner of Random House] has no faith in the commercial possibilities of my book … the Americans don’t appreciate fantasy, it’s all very well getting good reviews … I manage to wring a promise from him to send Cerati to talk to the bookshop owners, but I don’t believe it will happen.’

But soon the letters home became a more general account of Calvino’s adventures as he travelled around the country trying to come to grips with American society. Calvino is sometimes critical, sometimes admiring, often baffled. He quickly shakes off the company of his fellow scholarship recipients: ‘I hate being in a group: only if I am alone and constantly changing company do I feel I’m travelling.’ Starting from his favourite city, New York, he travels to the mid west, the deep South, New Mexico, the west coast. At times his observations seem banal, the kind of thing that anyone might say. On suburbia, for example:

The middle-classes live in avenues of small two-storey houses that are all the same, even though no two are alike, with a few metres of green lawn in front … [they] all have to change their car once a year because if they have last year’s model they lose face with the neighbours. The man goes out every morning to work and returns at 5p.m., puts on his slippers and watches TV.

Other observations are funnier and more acute, such as his opinions of the beatniks: ‘Allen Ginsberg came to Rosset’s party, with his disgusting black straggly beard, a white t-shirt beneath a dark double-breasted suit, and tennis shoes. With him there was a whole crowd of beatniks who were even more bearded and filthy … At home the beatniks are very clean, they have a beautiful house complete with fridge and television, and they live as a quiet bourgeois menage and dress up in dirty clothes only to go out.’ Of course, Calvino’s dislike for Ginsberg and the beats was more than a distaste for their beards. His own work sought to efface the writer’s personality; Ginsberg and co centred their work on themselves.

Calvino quickly immersed himself in American political debates: the Democratic primaries were under way, and he argued furiously against John F. Kennedy, regarding him as a part of a reactionary Catholic conspiracy. In Alabama he found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest, where he was the sole pro-black white among a crowd of racist hooligans. ‘This is a day that I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of a society’s fundamental rules.’ In New Mexico he called on Freda Lawrence’s Italian husband (whom he claims to be the original of the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover); he loved the spectacle of the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but was unsuccessful in his attempts to pick up women. ‘I ended up going from one burlesque joint to another, drinking awful whiskey and trying to start discussions with the girl dancers about unionisation, but they were only interested in making me buy them drinks, the usual racket.’

By turns funny, fierce, insightful and self-contradictory, the ‘Diary’ is the best thing in this collection, and gives us a memorable picture of Calvino’s quixotic progress round the United States. The trip was to have a huge effect on him; in 1984 he told an interviewer: ‘My physical encounter with America was a truly marvellous experience … I felt I was a New Yorker: my city is New York.’

Another substantial article is ‘The political autobiography of a young man’, in which Calvino recounts his youthful experiences and the ways they moulded his thought. As a child living under fascism, he saw a professor beaten up by right-wing thugs; as a young man he fought as a partisan against the Germans (experiences that became the raw material for several short stories in Adam, One Afternoon); this experience led him by a natural progression into the postwar Communist Party. ‘Having “been a partisan” seemed to me as it did to many other young people an irrevocable event in our lives … From that point on we saw our civilian life as a continuation of the partisan struggle by other means.’ He remained a communist until 1956, when Soviet suppression of the Hungarian rising and the Italian party’s failure to de-Stalinise led to his resignation. A 1979 essay, ‘Was I a Stalinist too?’ is a self-critical examination of his own motives, up to 1956, for supporting Stalin, and the events that led to his resignation. He concludes with the remark:

I believe in the strength of what is slow, calm, obstinate, devoid of fanaticisms and enthusiasms. I do not believe in any liberation either individual or collective that can be obtained without the cost of self-discipline, of self-construction, of effort. If this way of thinking seems to some people Stalinist, well all right, I will have no difficulty in admitting that in this sense I am a bit Stalinist still.

An appealing aspect of this collection is that it brings us Calvino in his youth, his middle age and his later years (he never got far into old age, dying at 62). In the title essay, ‘The hermit of Paris’, which originated as a 1974 TV interview, we find the mature Calvino living in Paris with a young daughter. The political storms are past and he claims to have no sense of adventure left: ‘In my relations with the world I have moved from exploration to consultation.’ Only eight pages long, this essay is full of intriguing ideas about what a city is and how we relate to it. The essay is well worth reading alongside his classic Invisible Cities, also published in 1974.

Hermit in Paris is a highly enjoyable experience, especially if you are already familiar with Calvino; if not, read it alongside his other works, beginning with Marcovaldo and Adam, One Afternoon; move on to Difficult Loves before tackling If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Invisible Cities. You finish this collection with the impression of just having passed a long conversation with an intriguing stranger, much given to paradoxes but with a fierce sense of morality, whose austerity is occasionally broken by engaging flashes of humour. At the end of the conversation he quickly finishes his drink and slips out of the door, and you realise that you do not really know the first thing about him. Which is exactly how Calvino would have liked it.

Nick Gadd, 2004