A review of Hermit in Paris – Autobiographical Writings by Italo Calvino

Hermit in Paris, along with The Road to San Giovanni comprises the extent of Calvino’s autobiographical writings, at least in English. There is still a mystery about Calvino, and that will remain; you won’t be able to understand, from the life, how he created the works that he did.

Reviewed by Paul Kane
Hermit in Paris -Autobiographical Writings
by Italo Calvino
Jonathan Cape, 2003
ISBN: 037542184X

Italo Calvino is one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, yet most of us have very little sense of his life. If we reflect at all on Calvino the man, we probably imagine that he was rather like the character of Mr Palomar, in the novel of that name: a speculative dreamer, not quite at ease in the world.
The absence of any clear image of the life of this writer is due in part, no doubt, to the nature of his fictions. Calvino is not renowned as the master of the roman a clef, rather he is the postmodernist fabulist par excellence. He is both the editor and “reteller” of a book of Italian folk tales and the novelist who gave us such near-pure works of the imagination as The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Invisible Cities and the perhaps-supreme Oulipian work, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. There is little room here for realism, and that in itself is interesting -this is a writer who doesn’t (we feel) wish to be known. In the title essay of the book under review, Calvino comments at one point: “When I find myself in an environment where I can enjoy the illusion of being invisible, I am really happy.” And again, a little later: “I believe that this is the ideal condition for the writer, close to anonymity: 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.”
“Hermit in Paris”, the title essay, is a portrait of Calvino’s adopted city. It is by no means the best piece in this book, but it is pleasant and occasionally interesting. Calvino writes that “in Paris you can always hope to find what you had thought lost,” and he celebrates the city as a giant reference work, a collective memory. For the author of Invisible Cities, living in a city is a kind of encyclopaedic discourse -rather like surfing the web, I’d guess. He enjoys and likes the Metro because it reminds him of his childhood reading: the underground worlds of Jules Verne, the labyrinths of Greek mythology.
Hermit in Paris – Autobiographical Writings is a collection of nineteen writings – consisting of essays, an American Diary, interviews, replies to surveys, and even a couple of autobiographical sketches (such as you might find on the dust jacket or blurb of a book) – all of which reveal something of Calvino the man. There are quite a few slight pieces, some only a page or two long, but you get your fair share of meaty gems. The subtitle of the book, it should be said, is not quite accurate. By and large, Calvino doesn’t write directly about his own life. The title essay, as I’ve said, is primarily a portrait of the city of Paris. The pieces were written between 1953 and 1985, the year of Calvino’s death. The translation is by Martin McLaughlin and reads well.
“American Diary 1959-1960” is the most substantive piece of writing, making up well over a third of the book. Originally written as a series of letters to Daniele Ponchiroli, at that time chief editor at the Einaudi publishing house (Calvino’s publisher in Turin), it records the six months that Calvino spent in America, from November 1959 to March 1960, on a Ford Foundation Scholarship. Esther Calvino, the writer’s widow, calls this “the most spontaneous and direct self-portrait” that we have-and certainly, there are amusing and insightful snapshots here.
In Greenwich Village, Calvino comments that “the third sex is even more widespread than in Rome…The unwitting tourist goes into any outlet to have breakfast and suddenly notices that everyone in the place…are all clearly of that persuasion.” (This is a typical self-characterisation: the unwitting tourist, the Italian newcomer, the innocent writer.) In Texas, at a rodeo, our hero admires the lassoing skills of the cowboys. At a beatnik party in San Francisco, our fastidious Italian abroad turns up his nose at Allen Ginsberg’s dirty beard and is disappointed at not meeting Graham Greene. Calvino continues to write about himself in the third person, complains that the girls aren’t very attractive – and that he doesn’t meet many. And so on. If this were all there were to the Diary, it would be nice, fun and japes, nothing special. The best of the writing in the Diary occurs when Calvino finds himself in Montgomery, Alabama in early Spring. The entry for 6th March 1960:

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. I was present at one of the first episodes of mass struggle by the Southern blacks: and it ended in defeat. (111)

Calvino’s description of the civil rights struggle in Montgomery is partisan, impassioned, committed – and all the greater in its impact for occurring amidst the flotsam of his everyday concerns. We get here a real sense of the man (and of the authentic moral core at the centre of the best of his writing) that Primo Levi admired. Later, Calvino meets Martin Luther King (“a very stout and capable person”) and comments more generally:
These black leaders – I’ve approached several of them in the last few days, of different tendencies -are lucid, decisive people, totally devoid of black self-pity, not terribly kind (though of course I was an unknown foreigner who had turned up to nose around in days which were very eventful for them).
Two of the outstanding essays in the book are the “Political Autobiography of a Young Man” and “Was I a Stalinist Too?” and taken together these two essays constitute the most complete statement of Calvino’s early political development that we have. The latter essay is especially good; in it, Calvino explores the political stance that he took as a young man of twenty-two at the end of the Second World War (he fought as a partisan during the war, at a time when the Nazis held his parents captive) up to the end of the 1950s (he was to leave the communist party in 1957, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary). He begins by answering the essay question: “I had better start by saying: `Yes, I was a Stalinist`, and then try to see more clearly what that might have meant.” What follows then is an attempt to explore and test his understanding of Stalin and Stalinism. There is an extraordinarily subtle analysis of personal intention, a refusal to prevaricate and seek excuses -and an awareness of how memory can deceive. There is an understanding that political belief is central to and rooted in the person (“my Stalinism as much as my anti- Stalinism stemmed from the same nucleus of values”) and of how the zeitgeist, the momentum of the age, can nurture it. Calvino writes of his communist beliefs: “What I wanted to identify with was the history that began with the rescue from Nazism and Fascism which then ruled Europe, and with everything else that had anticipated it in the past.”
In an entertaining essay, “The Duce’s Portraits” Calvino recollects his memories of Mussolini as he was depicted during his childhood and adolescence, in portraits and newsreels. He describes the Duce’s helmet as looking “like a metallic extension of the smooth surface of his head”. He recalls the sarcasm of his parents and family when speaking of the Duce’s pomposity: his military dress and macho gestures, such as the Roman salute. I realized here how much the image of Mussolini has been the model for dictators from Hitler to Saddam Hussain.
I was surprised to find no mention in the book of Queneau or any of Calvino’s other fellow Oulipians (there is, incidentally, an excellent essay on Queneau in Why Read the Classics?), but there is a generous appreciation of Cesare Pavese, someone who was to Calvino’s early development as a writer. Pavese read the first story that Calvino wrote and arranged for it to be published. Calvino, living in Turin, was for five years in “almost daily contact” with Pavese, who (he says) “was the first to read every page I wrote; if I have a profession it is because he was the one who taught me”. It was as a writer, not only a mentor, that Pavese earned Calvino’s respect. A tribute from 1960:
He was the author of a fresco of his time which is without equal and which was articulated throughout his nine brief novels, as though it were a tightly packed and complete comedie humaine.
Hermit in Paris, along with The Road to San Giovanni comprises the extent of Calvino’s autobiographical writings, at least in English. There is still a mystery about Calvino, and that will remain; you won’t be able to understand, from the life, how he created the works that he did. What we are missing in English (perhaps in Italian too) is a biography as insightful as David Bellos’ biography of Calvino’s Oulipian colleague, Georges Perec. Not to reduce the work to the life – of course, a futile task – but to allow us to give the proper weight, allusion, cost (in terms of the life lived) to the fictions that this writer has created. Such a biography will come. In the meantime, the present book – and in particular the “American Diary 1959-1960” – is to be welcomed.
For more information visit: Hermit in Paris
About the reviewer: When he isn’t reading, Paul Kane works in community education, and web design & development. He can be contacted at ludic@europe.com