The premature death of Italo Calvino made front-page news in Italy. In the Corriere della Sera John Updike, the writer responsible for introducing him to the Americans, wrote that Calvino’s death had ‘deprived world literature of its most refined and civil voice’. Umberto Eco’s obituary nearly took precedence over news about the Mexican earthquake. Messages of condolence came from the Vatican and Signor Cossiga, President of the Republic.
In France, where Calvino had found his most appreciative audience, Monsieur Jack Lang, Minister of Culture, delivered a long eulogy in which he expressed his deepest grief at the writer’s passing.
Calvino was perhaps the most international of Italian writers. When I spoke to him a year ago he was keen to stress what he called his laico or laic upbringing. His father had given an unusually liberal education as only a scientist quite cut off from the concerns of the Catholic Church could.
Catholicism was an intellectual game for Calvino. Olympian mythology, Hindu mythology or the King James version of the Holy Bible were all a part of his library.
The contents of Calvino’s flat near the Pantheon in Rome were a testament to his mandarin eclecticism. Tables were piled with technical journals, shelves lined with books from Orlando Furioso to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, and there was a record collection which ranged from Bessie Smith to Luciano Berio. His eclecticism was, as Calvino admitted, remarkably similar to J L Borges’, and books like Cosmicomics (1965) and Time and the Hunter (1967) in which he explored the origins of the universe whilst creating myths out of modern science, were indeed ‘Borgesian’ in their tight, mathematical style, their fearsome erudition (much of it apocryphal) , and their imaginative speculation. To which one ought to add their marvellous, whimsical sense of humour.
It is easy to see why the French took to Calvino. A cerebral manipulator of narrative patterns, his late writing is informed by the kind of literary theorising to which the English are temperamentally opposed. But Calvino was that very rare thing: an experimental writer who could at the same time be read by anyone. The Non–Existent Knight (1959), the third part of Calvino’s classic Our Ancestors trilogy, is even sold as a children’s book in Italy.
Calvino was too much of a sceptic to take literary theory entirely seriously, and often likened himself to a magpie, picking out ideas from here and there and then discarding them. He likewise balked at the gratuitously outlandish and all his work is rooted, one way or another, in the familiar.
In Invisible Cities (1972), regarded by many (including its author) as Calvino’s finest book, we see Marco Polo describing the magical cities he has visited on his voyages. Their exotic names – Isidora, Diomira, Berenice – are deliberately deceptive and all are in fact part of the very real city of Venice. And Venice in turn branches out into discussion of other cities, of their historical and literary treatment throughout the ages, and of Utopias and anti-Utopias. Beneath the etiolated, almost decadent prose of Invisible Cities is a man who had been a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party – until 1957 that is, when he resigned after Soviet tanks had crushed the Hungarian uprising in Budapest.
Calvinos reputation as a kind of troubadour of the space age began in 1947 with the publication of The Path to the Nest of Spiders. It was the first installment of what has always been Calvino’s concern: the allegorical or symbolic transfiguration of the humdrum stuff of life. Cesare Pavese, perhaps Calvino’s closest and earliest of literary friends, afterwards nicknamed him the ‘squirrel with the quill’, a partisan who had seen the Resistance ‘come una favola di bosco, clamorosa e variopinta’, ‘like a fairy tale from the forests, clamorous and multicoloured’.
Although he has always managed to fashion the fantastical without writing an escapist fiction, there was always a part of him that shied away from the trivialities of the everyday. Not a writer to put anything of himself overtlv into his fictional characters, Calvino is nevertheless irresistibly like the young Cosimo in The Baron in the Trees (1957). Bored by his censorious father he takes to the tree tops, there to remain for the rest of his life. Even those trees were rooted in the very palpable soil of Calvino’s boyhood memories of San Remo.
It is not surprising, given Calvino’s French connections, that Mr Palomar should be his homage to Monsieur Teste. Calvino, like Borges, was a great admirer of Paul ValCry, a writer who was also more inclined to the severity of abstraction and the lucid pleasures of thought than the obviousness of images. Just as Edmond Teste is really Valéry’s Doppelganger, so Mr Palomar is Calvino’s. The book, he said, was ‘largamente autobiografie’. (And that coming from a man who was wary of an autobiographical approach to literature.)
Like his inventor, Mr Palomar is an incorrigible theoriser and something of a cerebral solipsist. Possessed of a mind so curious that it performs everything that occurs to it, he has at the same time come dangerously close to cutting off all relations with the outside world.
Like his French namesake, Mr Palomar dislikes indeterminate sensations, and unlike the giant telescope in California which shares the same name, observes life close up, inspired to unusual thoughts by such potentially uneventful actions as buying cheese and pate in a Parisian charcuterie, observing an albino gorilla in a zoo in Barcelona or watching starlings circle above Rome. ‘In the disintegrating world,’ writes Calvino, ‘the thing he would like to save is the most fragile.’ Hence Mr Palomar’s meditations on whether or not birds look down when in flight. Only by indulging in such musings will Mr Palomar escape from Planet Earth and all ‘its superfluous complications and confused approximations’, a very different place to the Planet Calvino with its sphinxes, chimeras, dragons, harpies, basilisks, knights, spaceships and Viscounts both cloven and whole.
The accusation of ‘slight’ might be levelled against Mr Palomar, as indeed against much of Calvino’s writing (Calvino himself called The Cloven Viscount a mere ‘divertimento’). But it is the sharp and lucid prose, the incisive wit and analytical precision which make Mr Palomar such a delight to read. Beneath the sensuous surface there lurk philosophical meditations on immortality, the nature of time and the role of language in our lives. As Calvino says: ‘It is only after you have come to know the surface of things . . . that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.’
The final chapter of Mr Palomar, entitled by a morbid coincidence Learning to be Dead will now assume a mythical sincerity:
And so, after one postponement or another, the moment comes when it is time to wear out and be extinguished in an empty sky, when the last material evidence of the memory of the living will degenerate in a flash of heat, or will crystallise its atoms in the chill of an immobile order.
That moment came too soon for Calvino and the evidence of Mr Palomar suggests that he had not exhausted the possibilities of his extraordinary writing. One can only hope that Calvino has gone, like Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, to build another life in the trees.