Hermit In Paris, by Italo Calvino
2003, 255 pp.
One need read only a few books by the great man to realize that while he may have been a hermit in Paris, Calvino is a giant in literature. Born on the 15 October 1923 in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, two months after which his family moved back to their native Italy, we find our protagonist spending his first 25 years in San Remo, Italy, fighting along side the partisans against fascism, and finally moving to Turin to join the ranks of returning combatants seeking a university degree. His rushed thesis was on ‘the Opera Omnia of Joseph Conrad’. In twenty days in December of 1946 Calvino wrote his first novel The Path to the Spider’s Nest. A novel which his mentor and fellow author Cesar Pavese passed along to a publisher, and went on to sell 6,000 copies in post-war Italy, no small feat. If one was active in Politics in Italy in the 40’s and 50’s one had few options, on the one hand was fascism on the other was communism. Calvino gravitated toward communism, and broke with it in 1957 in light of the failure of Khrushchev to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union, the exit of one of the leading communists in the Italian party, and in the Soviet’s response to Hungary and Budapest (as well as the support for these actions by the PCI leadership).
The book itself is a collection of interviews, essays, and critical reflections upon the travels of the human through the mediums of life, literature, and politics. We follow Calvino as he fought the Nazi’s in one of the most important regions for the Germans the Maritime Alps, ‘a back route to the font lines’ where “Even in the final days of the war the Germans had reappeared by surprise and we had suffered mortalities.” He writes tellingly of war, “As long as our lives hung by a thread, it was pointless conjuring up even the notion that a new life was about to dawn, one without machine-gun fire, reprisal raids, the fear of being caught and tortured. And even afterwards when peace had come, rediscovering the habit of functioning in a different way would take time.”
In “American Diary 1959-1960” he describes his time in America in perhaps one of the greatest series of letters, here collected and presented with subtitled journal entries, and insightful accounts of the US. Calvino’s trip across country led him to conclude, rightly I might add as testified by my own car trip across country, “A few outings on the motorway are enough… you realize that 95 per cent of America is a country of ugliness, oppressiveness, and sameness, in short of relentless monotony.” He actually met Martin Luther King during his sojourn in Alabama. He was there on the 6th of March, 1960 and witnessed, “what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of society’s fundamental rules.” This passage of a Calvino merits an extended quotation, Calvino writes of the day’s proceedings when racial tensions flared their ugly ways as black people simply were exiting a meeting at a Baptist church,
‘The most admirable ones are the black girls: they come down the road in twos or threes, and those thugs spit on the ground before their feet standing in the middle of the pavement and forcing the girls to zigzag past them, shouting abuse at them and making as though to trip them up, and the black girls continue to chat among themselves, never do they move in such a way as to suggest they want to avoid them, never do they alter their route when they see them blocking their path, as though they were used to these scenes right from birth.’
He speaks about Texas and the Texan mentality in incisive terms as well reminding us that they in fact went into WW2 a year before the rest of the country following along with a Canadian bomber squadron. He was present during Mardi Gras in Louisiana, and found a home in New York, the city that of all the cities he lived in Calvino immediately felt in possession of and at home in.
In one interview we find out that Calvino knew people who were particularly close to Gramsci, he met the Hungarian literary critic and Marxist Gyogry Lukác’s in the Summer of’56, and that he was a diligent communist who actually fought as one, worked as one in a publishing house, and believed in it with a youthful zeal. He faced the continuing failure of communism in praxis, and gradually grew less interested in Politics as an active participant. However, Calvino points out two things that are immediately relevant to our understanding of what this means. “One is the passion for a global culture, and the rejection of the lack of content caused through excessive specialization: I want to keep alive an image of culture as a unified whole, which is composed of every aspect of what we know and do, and in which the various discourses of every area of research and production become part of that general discourse which is the history of humanity, which we must manage to seize and develop ultimately in a human direction. (And literature should of course be in the middle of these different languages and keep alive the communication between them.” And “My other passion is for a political struggle and a culture (and literature) which will be the education of a new ruling class … if class means only that which has class consciousness, as in Marx. I have always worked and continue to work with this in mind: seeing the new ruling class taking shape, and contributing to give it a shape and profile.” Thankfully, as a result of this combination of factors he did not leave us with a scant amount of literature. If I quote in length it is because the erudition of Calvino is such that I do not want to cheapen it by paraphrasing his lifetime of deep thinking and articulations.
I could go on quoting and write about what to me is largely the pivot point of the book, his Hermitude in Paris, how his living in different cities as a writer contributed to the concept of Invisible Cities, but I’d prefer to simply say read the damn book. One is never cheapened by reading Italo Calvino, he wrote each book in a different way and he can only enhance one’s understanding of the world by showing us the multitudinous forms of his narrators, his imagination, his fantasy, and his exploration of what literature can and should be. He writes this advice, “First of all live, and then philosophize and write. Writers above all should live with an attitude towards the world which effects a greater acquisition of truth.” And he reminds us, “What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.”