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In the far reaches: Calvino

In the far reaches Calvino

Italo Calvino

Posted here and at the 92nd Street Y as part of their 75th Anniversary celebration:

If I were trying to explain to someone what happens when you are reading Calvino and then sit down to write and find that, somehow inevitably, a strange derivation of Calvino has pervaded your own style, I would say that, first of all, you notice that your adjectives are different. Their purpose now is to distinguish types, genres, members of phyla, not to describe a person you would know on the street. Choosing names for characters you find that the names suggest ideas about people, not actual people. Dialogue evaporates, what little there is is estranged, lines are spoken as if and often sound like an imitation of speaking or as though a figure in a myth were speaking. The writing is cool, a little distant, textureless. Even after all these adjustments, however, the lines still probably fail to achieve what Calvino’s writing does, which is to live permanently in the imagination of its readers as depictions of kinds of experiences. Fragment by fragment, he is constructing a great classificatory scheme of experiences.

Reading Calvino has always made me feel at once delighted admiration for the majesty and delicacy of his structures and within that a smaller yearning for a different Calvino, one who would now and again leave a physical trace. I started reading Calvino in 1993, about eight years after his death and some ten years after the reading he gave on March 31, 1983, at the 92nd Street Y. I have, in the twenty years I’ve been on the lookout for Calvino, met a few people who knew him or were related to him, and this has given me ways of guessing something about his presence and manner. Memories of these encounters are important to me. At the same time, I am dubious about them. What they hold is not Calvino as he wrote and chose to present himself, but Calvino constrained by the laws of the planet to leave impressions of his existence. I am not sure if these faint lines constitute the Calvino I am looking for.  

I approached listening to the recording of the reading he gave at the Y with some trepidation, a combination of hope that I would at last encounter a further Calvino and fear that I wouldn’t like him, not as much as I like the ever-elusive Linnaeus of urban life, finding his way through a labyrinth that is also northern Italy and Paris from the 1940s through the 70s. I delayed listening for a long time and, when I finally began, played only a few seconds here and there, forming the mistaken impression that he read chiefly from Mr. Palomar. As this was a book of his I hadn’t read, I thought I’d better order it and read it before listening to the recording. In this matter, too, it was possible to introduce a series of delays.

When at last I forced myself to sit down and begin, I kept my pen ready to hand, although whether my notes would track him or defend my idea of him I didn’t yet know. He began by reading a series of selections from Invisible Cities in English and Italian. The audience laughed at the end of these sections. A slight change in tone—the entrance not quite of warmth but of discernible shared amusement—would come into his voice after this laughter. He had clearly intended to offer a joke just where, on the page, I had felt something more like the writer turning away.

At least two Calvinos could be discovered in the readings of these fragments. The one who read in careful, hesitating English the translations of his own work by William Weaver seemed tactful toward others but awkward. The other spoke in sure, rapid Italian, offhand in its exactitude and as if giving directions, which, especially in the stories of Invisible Cities (a sort of travel-guide to the effortfully-inhabited world), Calvino is. Neither man would be particularly easy to approach, but two routes in make a citadel more accessible than one.

In his design of the program—of course there was a design, and an elaborate one—these few pieces were to be understood as introductory. For now—gently, mildly, as personally as it is possible to speak while giving nothing away—he turned to the body of his intended reading and explained to his audience that he worked by writing many related stories over long periods of time. These, he continued, “I classify in series.” Once filed, they “become my books.” At later moments in the recording, he introduced examples: amorous tales came under the rubric “Casanova’s Memories”; another set concerned “everyday objects as a means of communication between human beings.” The process had just the same sort of structures as the work. I was pleased, relieved, disappointed.

As the reading went on, I noted its progression of elements: 3 stories from Invisible Cities, followed by 2 from Mr. Palomar, then 1 of the everyday objects that mediate between people: “ice.”  Then he said he would read from “Casanova’s Memories,” a series, he pointed out, parallel to Invisible Cities. He read three from this series, and in my notes I marked 3, 2, 1, 3.

In one of my favorite Mr. Palomar stories (in the book it is number 1.3.3., “The Contemplation of the Stars,” in the section “Mr. Palomar Looks at the Sky,” in the group “Mr. Palomar’s Vacation”), Mr. Palomar goes to the beach at nighttime to attempt to look at the stars. He is frustrated by his inability to hold on to the names and locations of the stars, by his slipping glasses and obscure astronomical charts. He has what seem to me very human hopes: to know something thoroughly, to find himself by losing himself in vastness, to be part of the movements of the universe’s time.

Perhaps I particularly like this story because my most cherished report of Calvino also came to me on a beach, though under a warm late September sun. I was staying on an island off the coast of Sicily and had gone down to the rocks to swim. I had gone together with an older woman, L., who had seemed very sympathetic when I first met her, at the one village bar, with some friends. She had heavy glasses and wore a long muumuu over her bathing suit, and, despite trouble with her hip, she climbed resolutely up and down the sandy path that led to the rocks. We sat in the sun watching the sea, and she must have asked what Italian writers I read. When I mentioned Calvino, she said that she had known him when they had both worked at Einaudi. A very precise man, she said, reserved, unto himself, and she made a gesture as if to settle a cravat by pulling it back toward the breastplate while drawing her torso up and back. I try to think of this gesture, of her body physically replaying his body—a gesture I have attempted myself the few times I have told the story—as a little double-humped bridge, an aerie crossing from the island of Calvino to the island of  L. to me.    

In the scene where Mr. Palomar sits on the beach, searching for the stars as he struggles with his chart, chair, and glasses, he is, unbeknownst to him, gradually surrounded by other nighttime beach-goers. “Mr. Palomar hears a whispering. He looks around: a few paces from him a little crowd has gathered, observing his movements like the convulsions of a madman.”

Perhaps a public reading, even one for an adulatory crowd, held for Calvino some element of this scene, the faint ridiculousness of the preoccupied intellectual on display. His crowd at the Y, though, is enthusiastic, applauding vigorously as the third of the romantic interludes, “Irma,” draws to a close. “You want more,” he says, teasing a little. I imagine him raising an eyebrow.

And then he reads another one, an encore, though it must have been planned. It is a long piece, involving the themes of all the other pieces, and it is another “everyday object,” matching the previous one, so that the overall pattern is now 3, 2, 1, 3, 1. This one is on the subject of telephones and is called “Before you say hello.” It is my favorite, one I imagine going back to listen to a long time from now. Some alienated, sleepless night, I will search through my iTunes folder for “19830331-00000-Calvino,” slide the time marker to 21:55 from the end and find some consolation in hearing this again. The first time I hear it, it inverts the reading and my experience of listening to it.

Is it strange or isn’t it that the finale of that evening’s efforts, the longest piece he reads, should be on the topic of estrangement, a meticulous analysis of how it feels to be a business traveler calling one’s lover from a foreign city and failing to get through. The focus of interest is neither of the two characters, but the experience of the telephone. Enumerated are the sequence of specific sensations and emotions wrapped up with pressing the pad of one’s finger into the rotating dial, the despair one feels as one hears by the tones that one has failed to get out of the national network and into the great global one, and, especially, the peculiar desire and frustration that come with knowing that, should the lover in fact answer, there is really nothing to say.

Technologically all of this is obsolete, although it did evoke within me the long-unthought-of physical sensation of the rotary phone. But it is obvious that the experience as a whole—the attempt to reach the loved one through a complex ethereal network whose portal of entry into the physical world is a small imperfect unreliable device to which one hangs on by one’s fingertips—has become so much more the way life feels that I feel, listening to him, that he is only incidentally reading for the people that night, sitting in their chairs and rearranging their sweaters, and really he is reading for me, hunched at my computer, straining to catch in the sound of his voice and careful pronunciations the message he bears for a latter-day civilization now completely encompassed by the paradox of technological ever-presence and alienation in precisely the way his story would seem to predict.

The Calvino gesture that I learned from L. on the rocks on the island off the coast of Sicily, the most familiar thing I have of Calvino, is a gesture of his withdrawal. The paradox of this is too obvious to relish.  But it sits well next to this experience of hearing him read “Before you say hello,” which, in saying so precisely how things are, does, as dark humor will, comfort a little. The exact name for the vast reaches of remoteness has, when it is pronounced, a kind of tender proximity. Perhaps in another forty years Calvino will seem much closer to the readers and listeners of that era than he does to us. No doubt they will reside in still another galaxy of technological experience. Perhaps there will be no writer for whom they feel more affection, or who gives them a like sense of speaking kindly to them from an all-seeing past. On this evening at the Y, after a brief preamble, the first line of his own that he reads is from Invisible Cities: “If you choose to believe me, good.”    

Autobiography Today

When I was teaching more, my students, undergraduates and graduates, people who were somewhere between eighteen and seventy-six years old, were all writing their memoirs.  I railed against this at first, particularly with younger students; such was my reputation for impatience with the form that I even had students hesitatingly ask if it would be all right to use the first person.  I did see that this was a somewhat ridiculous position for an admirer of Montaigne and David Foster Wallace to be in.  

I conceived of different ways to explain the distinction: between essays full of the writers’ personality, even experience [Woolf, Montaigne] essays that nevertheless needed the world in order to become shapely and coherent, and accounts of incident or recovery that held their narrative internally, internal to the life of the writer.  It became increasingly difficult to maintain these kinds of distinctions.  

It is not simply a series of coincidences that in the last ten or twenty years bookstores have sections and special tables devoted to memoir, literary prizes have begun to be awarded in the category of memoir or autobiography, literary careers can be built out of a series of memoirs and serious novelists no longer confine themselves to autobiographical fiction but often write at least one memoir.  There has been one of those large changes in literary expression, like the novel replacing the verse epic, or the irregular poem replacing one with rhyme and meter.  

The puzzle of why, now, the literary endeavor so often begins with the first person is preoccupying.  It certainly does not suffice to point to confessional talk shows, poetry and musical lyrics; or to reality tv; the rise of documentary films; facebook pages, blogs, iphone self-documentation.   All these must be additional results of some common deeper cause.  The isolation of the modern self?  Uneasiness with imagination?  The general distrust of the general principle, felt to be falsely homogenizing, even colonial in intent?  (These may not really be distinct either.)  The fear that one’s own experience will be swallowed up by technology, advertising, the speeding years?  The rootless nation of immigrants, bereft of continuous tradition, trying at least to get something down before everyone moves again?  The end of religion?  The gradual evaporation of the reality of other people?  The focus of capitalism on the individual as acquisitive being, acquirer even of experience?  

Self-absorption, people have said to me impatiently when I broach the subject, sometimes before hurrying on to talk of their own projects.  What if the impulse is a healthy one – to restore, or at least record, the damaged self, to take seriously one’s own corner of the universe, to try to communicate by beginning from a beginning.  If the fragments of ruined culture are what we have perhaps it is right to start with one’s own experience of them.