Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings

by Italo Calvino

Translated by Martin McLaughlin

(Pantheon) $23

Italo Calvino is best known as a fabulist, a spinner of otherworldly tales that sometimes read allegorically (The Baron in the Trees) and sometimes are pure fantasy (Invisible Cities). As it turns out, he was also an intensely political man, born into a family of ardent antifascists. This facet of his life has rarely been brought to bear on his work, so that what comes to mind is never so much the social realist as the gentle magic realist.

In Hermit in Paris, a new volume of autobiographical texts, you sense a kind of revulsion Calvino feels when the fame of the writer overtakes the book. "In the old days the really popular writers were totally anonymous," he said in a 1974 interview, "just a name on the book cover... I believe that this is the ideal condition for a 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 seems to want to be a kind of Calvino-esque exercise, an autobiography that undermines itself by retelling itself from different vantage points and in different voices, ending in different places.

Which is fine, except that in the end it's a posthumous book of scraps, not a work assembled by Calvino with his magnificent structural awareness. The best piece in Hermit is the tart and graceful "American Diary," composed by Calvino out of letters he sent to his editors and colleagues while on a six-month trip in America in 1959 and 1960. Somehow he lucks into the most picaresque America possible: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a Lee Strasberg class at the Actor's Studio in New York, the biggest livestock show and rodeo of the year in Houston, race riots in Montgomery, Alabama.

"American Diary" is by turns funny, incensed, and trenchant, especially when Calvino blithely comments on social class, that most uncommentable of American topics. But Hermit in Paris is also an accumulation of ideas about place--what it means to live in one, and what it means to write about one. "Maybe to write about Paris I ought to leave, to distance myself from it," he wrote in the titular essay, "if it is true that all writing starts out from a lack or an absence."

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