Things I Said No To

Michael Wood

  • Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings by Italo Calvino
    Cape, 255 pp, £16.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 224 06132 1

A certain monotony characterises saints’ lives, at least when viewed from the outside, and the same goes for writers. The chosen career flattens out the visible differences. If it wasn’t for the lion who traditionally accompanies St Jerome, Italo Calvino suggests in The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973), you could hardly tell him from St Augustine. Both saints are often pictured as writers, and ‘a man at a desk resembles every other man at a desk.’ By the same token, all writers resemble themselves even when they change desks, and even at quite different stages of their career. ‘I can write really well in hotel rooms,’ Calvino says in the title-piece of this volume,

in that kind of abstract, anonymous space which hotel rooms are, where I find myself facing the blank page, with no alternative, no escape. Or perhaps this is an idealised condition which worked most of all when I was younger, and the world was there just outside the door, packed with signs . . . Now something must have changed, I write well only in a space which is mine, with books to hand, as though I always needed to consult something or other. Maybe it is not so much for the books themselves, but for a kind of interior space they form, as though I identified myself with my ideal library.

‘Now’ is 1974. Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923, and died in Siena in 1985. He grew up in San Remo, was active in the Italian Resistance towards the end of the war, moved to Turin after the Liberation, and worked as an editor for the publisher Einaudi. ‘For fifteen years . . . I devoted much more time to other people’s books than my own,’ he says in a 1984 interview included here. Around 1963 he gave up full-time editorial work, but stayed on with Einaudi as a consultant. He lived in Paris for most of each year from 1967 to 1980, then settled in Rome.

Gradually, the varied, infallibly inventive books mounted up: among others, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (1947), Cosmicomics (1965), Invisible Cities (1972), If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (1979), Mr Palomar (1983). Each book a fresh start, it seems. Well, an attempt to fend off a particular form of misery. ‘Writing is such a boring and solitary occupation; if you repeat yourself, an infinite sadness seizes hold of you.’ That’s a little more plangent than Calvino usually sounds. His more frequent tone is one of ironic diligence, which suggests the struggle is hard but not depressing, and not without rewards: ‘Every time I have to invent, alongside the book I have to write, the author who has to write it, a kind of writer who is different from me.’

These are tangible inventions, but the act of inventing remains hidden. The hotel room, the library, the saint’s study, the inevitable desk: what else is there to see when we see a writer at work? We could add the landscape with the hermit’s cave: St Jerome is often painted as writing and praying outdoors, away from the city, and Calvino pictures himself as living this way in Paris. ‘My desk is a bit like an island: it could just as well be in some other country as here.’ But then why would we want to reduce the writer to what we can see or paint of him or her? Why would Calvino, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, have two sets of characters struck dumb and able to tell their stories only by pointing to sequences of Tarot cards? Why would he suggest that we could do the same thing with paintings – that is, ‘make stories come out of them’? And why would he inform us in his introduction that he had thought of writing a Motel of Crossed Destinies, where people would tell their tales by means of comic strips from the newspapers? There are all kinds of answers to these questions, but two in particular seem relevant to the picture of the writer. First, the human animal, for Calvino, is a storytelling animal, and if one means of expression is denied us we shall resort to another: the need to tell is paramount. And second, all the best stories have to be found, they are not just given to us. Even in ordinary language, whether we are telling stories or listening to them, we still have to work at the words, ‘make stories come out of them’, just as we do with pictures: otherwise a desk is just a desk and all writers are the same. ‘Imagine me,’ Humbert Humbert cries in Lolita, about to tell the truth for once: ‘I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.’

Perhaps not coincidentally there are interesting little echoes of Lolita in Calvino’s ‘American Diary 1959-60’, included in Hermit in Paris. It’s as if he had followed Humbert to Charlotte Haze’s house (Mexico is ‘a rich source of decorative furnishings’) and seen more than one of Humbert’s dreary watering places (‘America keeps its promises: there is the bar with its wall adorned with hunting trophies of deer and reindeer; in the public bar there are farmers with cowboy hats playing cards, a fat prostitute seducing a salesman, a drunk trying to start a fight’). In another 1984 interview, Calvino himself says that of ‘the authors of these years’ the one he likes best and had been influenced by is Nabokov, ‘one of the greatest writers of the century and one of the people with whom I identify most’. The admiration isn’t surprising, but the identification is, and Calvino quickly qualifies his extreme praise: ‘Of course he is also someone of extraordinary cynicism, of formidable cruelty.’ This is one of the rare moments when the translator Martin McLaughlin’s careful devotion to idiom and fluency lets him down. Nabokov was one of ‘the authors of these years’, but he wasn’t, in 1984, a ‘living author’, as McLaughlin calls him. The only other slip I found in this excellent version was cultural: a Jewish (‘israelita’) temple in Cleveland Heights is almost certainly not an ‘Israeli Temple’.

St Jerome had his lion as well as his desk, and although Calvino doesn’t tell us about the beasts in his own hotel room or ideal library, he does wonder about the saint’s companion. It looks calm enough. Does it represent the forces of nature or the human passions tamed by words, or a violence always ready to break out? Calvino says he likes to recognise himself ‘not in the saint or even in the lion but in both of them together’. In any case, he adds, the lion and the saint resemble each other. Two of the images of St Jerome that Calvino mentions are by Dürer, and I took the opportunity of making a small comparative study of the lions in the five St Jeromes in the recent Dürer exhibition at the British Museum. Two of the creatures are just large sleeping tabbies, one looks like an obedient dog, but the other two not only resemble the praying saint but look altogether more saintly: stricter, more human, and more on the ball.

Calvino’s lion is history; he has a habit of ‘casting every problem as a historical problem’, he says. In his writing life, these autobiographical pieces suggest, history has meant learning to live with invention and diversity rather a dream of integration. In 1956, Calvino thought it was worth looking for the ‘poetic and moral unity’ of his work, even if he was modest enough to imply it might not be found. In 1978, he was speaking casually of that ‘collection of fragments that is my oeuvre’. ‘My whole life has been a process of recognising the validity of things I said no to.’

Or the invalidity of things he said yes to. This shift towards pluralism is not unrelated to Calvino’s responses to the public and political aspects of the history of his time, notably Communism and Stalinism in Italy. Calvino would not say, with Adorno, that the whole is the false, and he always knew how many differences can hide inside a monolith. What he didn’t know at first was that hidden differences have a way of dying over time, and that silent doubts are in the end just the same as no doubts at all. He joined the Communist Party in 1944, when an admired Resistance leader was killed fighting the Germans. He left the Party in 1957, not during but after all the ferocious debates, in Italy and elsewhere, about the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when the Party under Palmiro Togliatti continued to toe the Moscow line. It’s striking that as late as January 1956, in another interview reprinted in Hermit in Paris, Calvino is saying, ‘my conscience as a Communist and my conscience as a writer have not entered into those agonising conflicts which have tormented so many of my friends,’ though the claim isn’t compatible with the assertion he made in 1978 that he spent many years of his life ‘trying to square the circle that was involved in living the life of literature and Communism at the same time’. He adds that this was ‘a false problem’, but ‘still better than no problem at all’. Why wasn’t the problem real? And why was Calvino pretending earlier that there was no problem? In some of the more substantial pieces in the volume, especially ‘Political Autobiography of a Young Man’ (1960, 1962) and ‘Was I a Stalinist Too?’ (1979), Calvino gives scrupulous and painfully precise answers to these questions. Even in pain, though, his irony never deserts him – ‘irony always warns of the other side of the coin,’ he says in another piece – and he knows that by the 1960s many people thought the very notion of hard work was Stalinist.

But let’s look at the pieces of the puzzle. In 1960, Calvino insists: ‘Men always count more than ideas. For me ideas have always had eyes, nose, mouth, arms and legs.’ This is too simple, and a little disingenuous, as Calvino later sees, but it is also a rough version of a truth: that in 1944 Communism for Calvino and many others meant action (‘above all I felt that at that juncture what counted was action, and the Communists were the most active and organised force’); and that even later the ‘burning questions’ (forced confessions, purges, the murder of Trotsky, the Nazi-Soviet Pact) could be discussed among colleagues as if they were not final or determining, as if the jury was still out and the verdict would come in later. ‘A perspective,’ Calvino says, ‘which turned out to be – at least vaguely – accurate’. ‘I had become involved with the problematics of Communism during Stalin’s time but for reasons that were to do with Italian history, and I had to make a constant effort to bring the Soviet Union into my frame of reference.’ Calvino is not offering this circumstance as an excuse, but he is offering it as a fact.

In another piece, he cites a Party loyalist as saying, in answer to a question about why they had waited so long to de-Stalinise, that ‘between the revolution and the truth a revolutionary always chooses revolution.’ Calvino comments (he is writing in 1980): ‘I do not think that things are like that and I do not feel that answer was acceptable. But at that time . . . our perspective on things was more or less that.’ And in a more complex, earlier statement, where regret and explanation seem to flicker on and off like warning lights, he writes of that period as one ‘when every truth had to be paid for with many lies’. Too many lies; too little truth.

At the beginning of his essay on Stalinism Calvino lists the tempting but phony positions he can’t inhabit: that he wasn’t a Stalinist at all; that he was but didn’t know what it meant; that he thought he was but really he wasn’t. He thinks there may be something to be said for all these claims, but not enough, so the position he decides to take is that he was a Stalinist but that it remains to be seen what that meant. For him and the Italians of his generation, it meant the rescue of Europe from Nazism and Fascism, it meant belonging to a movement. Compared with returning conservatisms, it appeared to be enlightened and in tune with the movement of history. It ‘possessed the power and the limitations of all great simplifications’, in Calvino’s words, and it seemed, as I have said, to offer real choices within its narrow confines. It even seemed pragmatic rather than ideological, and to meet what Calvino calls his ‘utopian desire to attain a non-ideological conception of the world’. In line with this principle Calvino says he noted, on his trip to Russia in 1952, ‘almost exclusively minimal observations of daily life’. ‘This non-monumental way of presenting the USSR seemed to me the least conformist approach,’ he says, and in many senses it was. But he is closing in on himself now.

In fact the real Stalinist sin I was guilty of was precisely this: in order to defend myself from a reality which I did not know, but which in some way I sensed but did not want to articulate, I collaborated with this unofficial language of mine; it presented to official hypocrisy as a picture of serenity and smiles something that was trauma and tension and torture.

There are worse sins, but Calvino has found a way of saying just where he stands, and stood.

In 1956 Calvino wrote one of his funniest and most memorable stories, ‘Becalmed in the Antilles’, in which a certain Uncle Donald tells his nephews once again the story of one of his adventures with the fleet of Sir Francis Drake. The English ship is becalmed within sight of a Spanish galleon, also unmoving. Nothing happens except lots of warlike talk. Even when one of the English sailors discovers the principle of the steamship, nothing happens, because his companions throw him overboard for having Popish ideas. Neither ship moves, the nephews clamour for an ending, but the story ends with their clamour. This looks like, and no doubt is, a fable of the Cold War, but it is also a picture of the Italian Left at the time, and ‘evidence of a state of mind’, Calvino remarks. The ways out of this stasis in Italy, he suggests, were into either revolution or reform, and he followed neither, lacking ‘the temperament and conviction to be a revolutionary’, and finding ‘reformist aims’ all too modest. ‘So although I remained friendly with both groups, I gradually whittled down the room that politics occupied in my interior space.’

In The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino defines the writer at one point by means of three cards: the Knight of Swords, the Hermit and the Conjuror. But he is not inviting us to conflate these roles, or to discover some tricky balancing arrangement to keep them all in place at once. He is proposing a sequence. A writer who is a knight would be different from one who is a hermit, and the hermit would be different from the conjuror. The figure we are looking at, in his hotel room or in his library, where the ghost of a lion snoozes on the floor, is a conjuror who used to be a hermit; and who before that was a knight. The conjuror ‘obtains a certain number of effects’, Calvino says. He obtains them by remembering his former lives as well as by practising his new skills.