Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Italo Calvino: Tales From the Cities

Recently, I wrote a guest review of The Long Goodbye for the website Booksellers Without Borders. I was pleased with my submission, yet looking back on my introduction to the piece, I found myself incredibly harsh with my critiques of the memoir industry. Granted, I was careful to specify that my arguments were directed at certain memoir sub-genres, and certainly not the entire category. Meghan O'Rourke definitely amazed me with her work, and I recently finished Italo Calvino's Hermit In Paris: Autobiographical Writings. With Calvino's work, even more potential disclaimers arose, at least initially. I've been an admirer of his fiction for many years, so it's (personally) odd that I haven't read his non-fiction writings beyond Six Memos For the Next Millennium. While this is an older collection, a lot of regarded writers have had their personal writings published, sometimes posthumously, with those volumes sometimes seeming like no more than collectible items for completists, rather than worthy additions to a given canon.

However, I was grateful to find that none of those initial worries ended up applying to Hermit In Paris. It's a collection of autobiographical sketches from magazines, translated/transcribed interviews, and the occasional insight into his writing process and political leanings. The majority of the pages are devoted to his then-unpublished "American Diary 1959-1960," an illuminating, vastly entertaining account of his first American visit. In Six Memos, Calvino shared his views on the few qualities of fiction that have multiple impacts. As I've mentioned previously, his enthusiasm for the subject permeated that text, creating a work that was a combination of the technical and the joyous. In Hermit In Paris, Calvino's non-fiction style goes in a different direction. While there's no doubt that he feels passionately about his work and life, most of the topics are explored in a very matter-of-fact tone. For someone noted for grand, fabulist novels and stories, it's interesting to note how his takes on reality are equally as grounded. At the same time, the wealth of information and detail are gripping, with no need for stylistic embellishments.

"American Diary 1959-1960" is the heart of the collection, but not for the obvious reasons. His entries provide sketches of mid-twentieth century America that seem to fit the understood mental images that people have of that era, even if he or she didn't live through it. However, being an Italian visitor, his descriptions are intended to be neutral, even with his accounts focusing on the positive and the negative. He's looking at the country through new eyes. Some of the scenes and writings apply perfectly to today's American landscape, but having them exposed back then was probably jarring.

"In the land of consumption where everything must be thrown away so you can rush and buy new goods, in the land of standardized production, one learns, surprisingly, that there is a whole underworld market of goods which no one would ever imagine could be bought or sold in America. There are huge stores of second-rate goods, as in the Italian area of Chicago, which are the same as the stores downtown except that the goods are rejects which exude an air of poverty even when they are new (Calvino 71)."

I'm not trying to fit his older passages to modern times, but really, his accounts of some Texas citizens could nicely apply to the likes of Rick Perry and his supporters:

"What comes over is an impression of a country in uniform, these middle-class families marching in formation all wearing stetsons and fringed jackets, proudly displaying their practicality and anti-intellectualism which has developed into their mythology, fanaticism, and alarming belligerence (Calvino 105)."

Arguably the most famous and stirring accounts in the American diaries are Calvino's travels to Montgomery, Alabama. He witnessed the most savage examples of American racism, and depicted it honestly. Some of the most shameful acts in American history are written about without moralizing or grandiose images. These accounts and images are painfully well-known, but coming from the voice of an outsider who's witnessing it firsthand makes the racism, segregation, and violence even more shocking.

"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. I don't know if you are aware that after decades of total immobility black protests began right here, in the worst segregationist State in the country: some were even successful, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, advocate of non-violent protest. That is why I came here to Montgomery, the day before yesterday, but I did not expect to find myself right in the middle of these crucial days of struggle (Calvino 111)."

"This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism which survives intact after a century, as though they were talking of things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous (Calvino 116)."

In terms of this essay, it's difficult to make such a vast transition from Calvino's sobering accounts of the segregated South to his more personal writings, but his detailed autobiographical chapters are insightful. Some of the information is repeated multiple times (his youth, his parents' occupations, his growth as a writer), since some of the pieces are interviews, but for the most part, every piece provides a wonderful look at his views. His travels, embrace and rejection of Communism, and fighting in the Italian Resistance are detailed honestly, but some of his best quotations come in abstract forms. In "Political Autobiography Of a Young Man," he states his views on literature in a global community, hypotheses that, again, apply to our modern times without being an act of "picking and choosing" statements that just happen to apply to the twenty-first century; instead, these are the views of a keen mind in an expanding world.

"I would like to point out here at least two things which I have believed in throughout my career and continue to believe in. One is the passion for a global culture, and the rejection of the lack of contact 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.)(Calvino 155)"

Calvino is also very candid about his own work, much along the same lines as his views on future literature in Six Memos. Many authors, past and present, seem to take no middle ground in discussing their own works: they have a tendency to be overtly dismissive of how their literature works, or they can be unnecessarily overwrought. Calvino seems to know that his canon has its ups and downs, and regards his critics openly, rather than spitefully.

"The few critics who have been unfavourable are those who intrigue me most, the ones from whom I expect more: however, I have not been lucky enough to have received a negative critique which is both serious and in-depth, one which teaches me useful things. I did receive an article by Enzo Giachino, when The Path to the Spiders' Nests came out, a total, absolute dismissal of the book, a real hatchet-job, but also extremely witty, which is perhaps one of the best articles written about my books, one of the few which every so often I like to reread, but not even that taught me anything really: it attacked only external aspects of the novel, which I could have improved by myself (Calvino 8-9)."

And even in the most metaphysical atmospheres, he manages to make a description of his writing honest and true:

"My desk is a bit like an island: it could just as well be in some other country as here. And besides, cities are turning into one single city, a single endless city where the differences which once characterized each of them are disappearing. This idea, which runs through my book Invisible Cities, came to me from the way that many of us now live: we continually move from one airport to another, to enjoy a life that is almost identical no matter what city you find yourself in (Calvino 168-169)."

Hermit In Paris is one of the rare essay collections that works on its own, being accessible to someone unfamiliar with Italo Calvino's fiction. But then again, non-fiction and fiction collections seem to go hand in hand for fans of a given writer (for example: would someone who has not read John Cheever's fiction be inclined to pick up The Journals of John Cheever? That's unlikely). The essays provide their own merit, and are not just a random assemblage of posthumous writings. These are excellent examples of an intellectual mind that navigates fiction and sociology with ease. Given that idea, doing a concrete "review" of Hermit In Paris is almost impossible; one is either going to agree or disagree with his opinions. I would assume that most Calvino readers have already read this work, but also, for anyone curious who consumes political and personal essays, its admirable to have a book that manages to stand on its own merit, rather than being an add-on to a diverse bibliography.

Work Cited:
Calvino, Italo. Hermit In Paris: Autobiographical Writings. Copyright 2003 by the Estate of Italo Calvino. Translation copyright 2003 by Jonathan Cape.

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