Through the Eyes of Mr. Palomar

By Stan Persky | September 17, 2004

Often, when I find myself contemplating a scene, whether of people at a dinner table, or an advertisement I’m watching on television, or some ducks in the lake I’m looking at from a park bench in the Tiergarten in Berlin, I begin constructing a logic for the occasion. I make observations, and ask questions: Why does the gray duck have dark green iridescent dorsal feathers? I attempt generalizations: Whether you account for them as caused by a god (dubious) or generated by evolution (likely), those iridescent green feathers remain mysterious. Why green? Why iridescent? Why there? I lament my failings. I should have taken the nature course at school. Eventually, and inevitably, I reach a tangle of hopeless absurdity and give up. I allow the world to reappear in its ordinariness, with the ducks bobbing around and hunting for food. At that moment, I realize I have been looking at the world through the eyes of Mr. Palomar, the eponymous character of Italo Calvino’s novel, Mr. Palomar (1983; Vintage, 1999).

Mr. Palomar is Calvino himself, as the American novelist and essayist Gore Vidal mentions in his essay, “Calvino’s Death” (The New York Review of Books, Nov. 21, 1985), and Calvino’s short book, the last one he completed, consists of a number of meditations on different subjects. A photograph of Calvino shows a man in his fifties, with a high forehead, black hair plastered back on either side of his head, heavily-lidded eyes, a wide mouth, lips narrowly pursed shut, a slight chin and cheeks going jowly—the total effect bears a slight resemblance to a contemplative iguana.

The settings of Mr. Palomar’s meditations, according to Vidal, are the familiar landscapes of Calvino’s life. Although born in Cuba—his father was an agronomist working on the island at the time, 1923—Calvino’s home was the town of San Remo, on the Italian Riviera, in the province of Liguria, adjacent to France’s Cote d’Azur. The scenes in Mr. Palomar take place on the beach at Castiglion della Pescaia, in Calvino’s nearby house in the woods at Roccamare, at his flat in Rome (where Vidal also had an apartment), and in such other places as a food specialty shop in Paris, a city where Calvino spent much of his time, or a zoo in Barcelona, or amid the Tula ruins in Mexico.

Mr. Palomar begins his adventures on the beach where he is looking at a wave. “It is not ‘the waves’ that he means to look at,” Calvino notes, “but just one individual wave.” Naturally, that leads to trouble, because “it is very difficult to isolate one wave, separating it from the wave immediately following it, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away; just as it is difficult to separate that one wave from the wave that precedes it and seems to drag it towards the shore, unless it turns against its follower as if to arrest it.” Nor is that the extent of the difficulties in looking at a wave for this “nervous man who lives in a frenzied and congested world.” There are countless considerations to take into account. At one point, while concentrating his attention on the backward thrusting of waves, “it seems that the true movement is the one that begins from the shore and goes out to sea.” Calvino asks, “Is this perhaps the real result that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?” If so, Mr. Palomar has no more success than the legendary King Canute, who in his majesty attempted to command the waves of the sea. Instead, our wave-watcher, just like us, most likely, loses patience and gives up. “Mr. Palomar goes off along the beach, tense and nervous as when he came, and even more unsure about everything.”

There are further adventures on the beach, but the one I like best, because it encapsulates almost everything Calvino is trying to do in his book, is called “The Naked Bosom.” Mr. Palomar is walking along a lonely beach where there are few bathers. However, “one young woman is lying on the sand, taking the sun, her bosom bared. Palomar, discreet by nature, looks away at the horizon of the sea.” As a proto-feminist, Mr. Palomar is sensitive to the situation in which a strange man approaches and the bare-bosomed woman feels obliged to hastily cover herself. “This does not seem right to him: because it is a nuisance for the woman peacefully sun-bathing,” and so he turns his gaze on the outline of a bronze-pink cloud in the distance (which happens to also have the shape of a naked female torso); at least he has shown his “civil respect for the invisible frontier that surrounds people.”

But having passed the young woman and resumed his stroll, it occurs to him that in acting as he has, “I display a refusal to see; or, in other words, I am finally reinforcing the convention that declares illicit any sight of the breast… My not looking presupposes that I am thinking of that nakedness, worrying about it; and this is basically an indiscreet and reactionary attitude.”

So, returning from his walk and again passing the bather, “this time he keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead, so that his gaze touches with impartial uniformity the foam of the retreating waves, the boats pulled up on the shore, the great bath towel spread out on the sand, the swelling moon of lighter skin with the dark halo of the nipple, the outline of the coast in the haze, gray against the sky.” Mr. Palomar is satisfied with himself. He has succeeded “in having the bosom completely absorbed by the landscape.” But wait a minute, he further reflects. “Does it not mean flattening the human person to the level of things, considering it as an object, and, worse still, considering as object that which in the person is the specific attribute of the female sex?” Isn’t he simply perpetuating the old habit of male superiority?

He is compelled to turn and retrace his steps. This time, while gazing at the beach with neutral objectivity, “he arranges it so that, once the woman’s bosom enters his field of vision, a break is noticeable, a shift, almost a darting glance.” Now, he’s made his position quite clear, with no possible misunderstandings. But hold on. “Couldn’t this grazing of his eyes be finally taken for… an underestimation of what a breast is and means, a somehow putting it aside, on the margin… relegating the breast again to that semi-darkness where centuries of sexomaniac puritanism and desire considered as sin…” No, it won’t do. He does an about-face. “With firm steps he walks again towards the woman lying in the sun.” This time, giving the landscape a fickle glance, his gaze “will linger on the breast with special consideration, but will quickly include it in an impulse of good-will and gratitude for the whole, for the sun and the sky, for the bent pines…” etc.

Well, that’s it for the bather. The moment he approaches, she springs up, covers herself, and goes off in a huff, knowing she’s been ogled by a dirty old man, with “the tiresome insistence of a satyr.” As for Palomar, he bitterly concludes that “the dead weight of an intolerant tradition prevents anyone’s understanding… the most enlightened intentions.” He, too, shuffles off, along the beach. And we, the readers, smile or chuckle, understanding that we’ve been presented, in a sophisticated comic mode, with a survey of one of the great issues of the era, the critical evaluation of the assymetric equalities of women and men.

What gradually becomes clear, through the story about the bosom, and succeeding ones about copulating turtles, looking at the moon in the afternoon, whistling blackbirds in the garden where Palomar sits and his wife weeds, going to the zoo to see the giraffes and the iguanas, and all the rest, is that Calvino is providing an almost complete, albeit hilarious, course in philosophy. You could teach Mr. Palomar in an introductory course on reality and knowledge, raising all the basic questions about perception and illusion, time and space, understanding and mortality, with Calvino’s slapstick thrown in for free. One semester I did just that, and it was just as successful (or unsuccessful) as when I teach Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean?, or some other standard textbook.

The stories in Mr. Palomar are organized, as Calvino explains in an “Index” note, in an ingenious, tripartite schema. There are three sets of nine stories each, and each of the parts, “Palomar’s Vacation,” “Palomar in the City,” and “The Silences of Palomar,” correspond to the three thematic areas of the book, each of the sets numbered 1, 2, 3. For instance, “those marked 1 generally correspond to a visual experience, whose object is almost always some natural form; the text tends to belong to a descriptive category.” Stories marked 2 have cultural or anthropological elements and take the form of a story. Those designated with a 3 involve more speculative experience, and are inclined to be meditative. What’s more, each of the parts is subdivided into three parts, also numbered, and each of the subdivisions contains three stories, further numbered.

It sounds a bit complicated, but it’s quite simple. The first story, about looking at a wave is in the first part, which emphasizes visual descriptive experience, and it’s also in the first subdivision, and it’s the first piece in that subdivision, so it’s numbered “1.1.1.” Whereas, the second story about the naked bosom is mainly visual and descriptive, but contains an element of the anthropological and cultural, so it’s marked “1.1.2.” In the second part, which emphasizes the cultural, all the stories begin with the number 2, and a story about Mr. Palomar being in a specialty cheese shop in Paris, which is the second story in the second subdivision of part 2, is designated “2.2.2,” and of course there are other stories that have markings like “2.1.3” or “2.3.1,” etc., until we get to the last story, “Learning to be dead,” a meditative work through-and-through, marked “3.3.3.” Thus, there are “three kinds of experience and enquiry that, in varying proportions, are present in every part of the book.” Of course, Calvino’s “Index,” though accurate, is also part of the fun, though neither Calvino nor Mr. Palomar are in the least fooling around.

Throughout, there are sharp-eyed observations and illuminating apercus. In the story about the mating tortoises (“1.2.1”), amid the clacking turtle shells, Mr. Palomar asks, “What does eros become if there are plates of bone or horny scales in the place of skin?” Considering blackbirds (“1.2.2”), Palomar notices that the blackbird’s whistle “is identical with a human whistle, the effort of someone not terribly skilled at whistling,” and he begins to imagine that if humans “were to invest in whistling” everything normally entrusted to words, “and if the blackbird were to modulate into his whistling all the unspoken truth of his natural condition, then the first step would be taken towards bridging the gap between… between what and what? Nature and culture? Silence and speech?” In the end, they simply “go on whistling, questioning in their puzzlement, he and the blackbirds.”

Visiting the Vincennes zoo (a story called “The Giraffe Race,” number “2.3.1”), Mr. Palomar observes that “every now and then the adult giraffes start running, followed by the baby giraffes; they charge almost to the fence, wheel around, repeat the dash two or three times, then stop. Mr. Palomar never tires of watching the giraffes race, fascinated by their unharmonious movements.” And while Mr. Palomar is pondering the “complicated harmony that commands that unharmonious trampling,” I, as the reader, who am also especially fond of those long-necked, ungainly creatures, start thinking about giraffes too. I see the running giraffes as letters of the alphabet, specifically as lower-case “h”-shaped animals, and more specifically as lower-case “h’s” in italics (to account for the shorter back legs), and all the italic “h’s” are moving backwards across the page, from right to left. Then I catch myself, whoops, realizing I’m turning into Mr. Palomar once again.

At the Ryoanji Zen Buddhist garden in Kyoto, Japan, which consists of raked white sand and groups of positioned rocks, Mr. Palomar tries to get into the meditative spirit of the place and “allow the indefinable harmony that links the elements” of the garden to gradually pervade him. “Or rather, he tries to imagine all these things as they would be felt by someone who could concentrate at looking at the Zen garden in solitude and silence. Because—we had forgotten to say—Mr. Palomar is crammed on the [viewing] platform in the midst of hundreds of visitors, who jostle him on every side; camera-lenses and movie-cameras force their way past the elbows, knees, ears of the crowd, to frame the rocks and the sand from every angle… Swarms of feet in wool socks step over him… numerous offspring are thrust to the front row by pedagogical parents…” Just try to meditate.

Finally—and I say finally because any proper consideration of Mr. Palomar would, in a Borgesian manner, simply present the entirety of the text—there is one story in the book which cannot be passed up. Every reader of Mr. Palomar will have his or her favourite piece, the one that somehow sums up everything. (A friend of mine, for example, who is particularly partial to birds, and who lives in an apartment with an observation terrace, just like Mr. Palomar’s terrace in Rome, would no doubt choose a bird story, since Mr. Palomar is filled with thousands of birds, and since, she too is always noting the doings of birds.) Mine is “Serpents and skulls” (“3.1.2”).

Mr. Palomar is visiting the ruins of Tula in Mexico, the ancient capital of the Toltecs, in the company of a friend who is an impassioned and eloquent expert on pre-Columbian civilization, and can tell Palomar everything about what it all means. This is quite handy, since “in Mexican archeology every statue, every object, every detail of a bas-relief stands for something that stands for something else that stands, in turn, for yet another something. An animal stands for a god who stands for a star that stands for an element or a human quality and so on.” Fortunately, Mr. Palomar’s friend is there to explain what each thing stands for and what it means.

While wandering through Tula, Mr. Palomar and his friend cross paths from time to time with another party of sightseers. “A group of schoolchildren moves among the ruins: stocky boys with the features of the Indios, descendents perhaps of the builders of these temples.” They’re in school uniforms, and resemble Boy Scouts. “The boys are led by a teacher not much taller than they are and only a little more adult, with the same round, dark, impassive face. They climb the top steps of the pyramid, stop beneath the columns, the teacher tells what civilization they belong to, what century, what stone they are carved from, then concludes, ‘We don’t know what they mean,’ and the group follow him down the steps.” At each stop, the teacher supplies some facts, and then invariably adds, “We don’t know what it means.”

Though Mr. Palomar continues to follow the wonderful and rich explanations of his expert friend, filled with a wealth of mythological references, allegorical readings, and the play of interpretation, he always ends up crossing the path of the schoolboys and overhearing the teacher’s words. At last they’re at the Wall of the Serpents. It is perhaps the most beautiful piece in Tula: a relief-frieze consisting of a sequence of serpents, each holding a human skull in its open jaws.

At that moment, “The boys go by. The teacher says, ‘This is the wall of the serpents. Each serpent has a skull in its mouth. We don’t know what they mean.’” This time, Palomar’s friend can no longer contain himself. “Yes, we do!” he bursts out. “It’s the continuity of life and death; the serpents are life, the skulls are death. Life is life because it bears death with it, and death is death because there is no life without death…”

The boys listen, “mouths agape, black eyes dazed.” Palomar reflects that maybe the “refusal to comprehend more than what the stones show us is perhaps the only way to evince respect for their secret; trying to guess is a presumption, a betrayal of that true, lost meaning.” Once the school group has disappeared around the corner, leaving the Wall of Serpents to Palomer and his guide, Mr. Palomar hears “the stubborn voice of the little teacher resume: ‘No es verdad, it is not true, what that senor said. We don’t know what they mean.’” That’s the story’s last word.

When Italo Calvino suddenly and unexpectedly died of a cerebral hemorrhage in September 1985, just three weeks short of his 62nd birthday, his friend Gore Vidal hadn’t yet read Mr. Palomar. On the morning of the funeral, to be held in the beach town of Castiglion della Pescaia, “the first equinoctial storm of the year broke over the city of Rome,” and Vidal woke to thunder and lightning, “and thought I was, yet again, in the Second World War.” Shortly before noon, a car and driver arrived to take Vidal up the Mediterranean coast to the burial.

Vidal remembered their last meeting earlier that spring, when Calvino was working on lectures he planned to give at Harvard University in the winter, a series titled Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985; Vintage, 1996), of which only five were completed. Vidal commended Calvino on his bravery, for he intended to lecture in English, a language he spoke hesitantly, compared to his fluency in French and Spanish. “Italo smiled,” Vidal recalled, “and when he smiled, suddenly, the face would become like that of an enormously bright child who had just worked out the unified field theory.” “At Harvard, I shall stammer,” Calvino said, “but then I stammer in every language.”

But now Calvino was dead. His dying and death were treated in the Italian media as a national calamity for Italian culture. For, “unlike the United States,” remarks Vidal acidly, “Italy has both an education system (good or bad is immaterial) and a common culture, both good and bad.” When Calvino died, Vidal notes, “Italy went into mourning, as if a beloved prince had died. For an American, the contrast between them and us is striking. When an American writer dies, there will be, if he’s a celebrity (fame is no longer possible for any of us), a picture below the fold on the front page; later, a short appreciation on the newspaper’s book page (if there is one), usually the work of a journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work but is at home with the arcana of gossip… and that would be that.” Whereas, when Calvino died, the European press regarded his passing as an event that required daily reports from the hospital, the hauling out of actual literary critics, as opposed to journalists or theorists, to assess the author’s work over a half dozen pages of the paper, extensive coverage of the funeral. Well, vive la difference of Old Europe.

In the car taking him north through the rain, Vidal took up the last novel, Palomar. Calvino had inscribed a copy to Vidal almost two years earlier, and now, with some guilt, he read for the first time the inscription, “For Gore, these last meditations about Nature, Italo.” “Last” is a word artists should not easily use, Vidal reflected. What did this “last” mean?, he wondered. Latest? “Or did he know, somehow, that he was in the process of ‘Learning to be dead,’ the title of the book’s last chapter?” On the way to the cemetary at Castiglion della Pescaia, Vidal read and reflected on his friend’s short final novel.

Suddenly, up ahead, on a hill overlooking the sea, there was the town. “To my left is the beach where Palomar saw but sees no longer… The sea has turned an odd disagreeable purple color.” The cemetary is on another hill in back of the town. “We park next to a piece of medieval wall and a broken tower. I walk up to the cemetary which is surrounded by a high cement wall [and] am reminded of Calvino’s deep dislike of cement,” which he saw as the emblem of an economic boom burying the Italian Riviera where he had grown up. “To the right of the cemetary entrance a large section of wall has been papered over with the same small funeral notice, repeated several hundred times. The name ‘Italo Calvino,’ the name of Castiglion della Pescaia, ‘the town of Palomar,’ the sign says proudly.”

Inside, there are a row of vast floral wreaths, “suitable for an American or Neapolitan gangster,” Vidal remarks, and a new grave, “the size of a bathtub in a moderately luxurious hotel.” The TV camera and photographers are there. Vidal is interviewed by a young journalist. At the foot of the cemetary hill, a van filled with police arrives, for crowds are anticipated. Eventually several hundred friends of Calvino, writers, editors, publishers, press, local dignitaries fill up the cemetary. The ceremony unfolds.

Calvino is known for the oddly realistic surreality of his most famous books: Mr. Palomar; Invisible Cities (1972; Minerva, 1997); and above all, If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979; Vintage, 2002). The latter book begins with a self-reflexive flourish: “You’re getting ready to read the new novel by Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Collect yourself. Put all other thoughts aside. Let your surroundings fade.” In this paean to the art of reading, which underscores the entire book, Calvino discusses the business of buying and reading books, from adventures in the bookstore, where you’re assaulted by bestsellers, and books-you’ve-meant-to-read, and books-you-should-read, and all the rest, to the dangers at home. You especially have to watch out for the television. “Tell the others, ‘No I don’t want to watch television!’ Raise your voice, or else they won’t hear you. ‘I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!’ Maybe they haven’t heard you with all the noise, so say it louder, shout, ‘I’m just beginning to read the new novel by Italo Calvino!’ Or say nothing, if you don’t want to; hopefully, they’ll leave you in peace.”

Like a great shaggy-dog story comic, Calvino can run his routine through all the aspects of the activity of reading, from finding a comfortable position to getting the right light. And when we get to the first chapter of the novel proper, which opens, “The novel begins in a railway station…”, with locomotive smoke enveloping “part of the first sentences,” even as we make our way into the station café, we’re know we’re in for something other than a conventional tale. That’s enough to get one started, I can skip the full-blown precis.

What is less known about Calvino’s writing, at least outside of his native land, is how precisely, without surreality or slapstick, he writes about political issues and his literary apprenticeship in the 1940s and 50s. Hermit in Paris (Vintage, 2004), a posthumous gathering of scattered autobiographical pieces, provides a nice sense of how Calvino got to Mr. Palomar. Several of the essays recount the experience of a provincial in obscure San Remo who, toward the end of World War II, is drawn into the nearby hills, fighting as an anti-fascist partisan for some 20 months. He becomes a youthful, non-ideological member of the Communist Party, and moves to the great city of Turin. There, he acquires a mentor, the Italian novelist Cesare Pavese, writes cultural journalism for L’Unita, the Communist newspaper, and gets a job in publishing.

It’s interesting, especially now, some fifteen years or so after communism, when we can be ideologically more neutral, to recognize how for post-war European intellectuals, not only in Italy, but elsewhere (in France, say, for Sartre and Camus), that the central question that everyone had to respond to was what was one’s relationship to communism, the one plausible alternative to both the recently-defeated fascist totalitarianism and to looming international capitalism. Calvino remained in the Communist Party until 1957, leaving it in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and the failure to reform communism after the death of Joseph Stalin. Still, as late as 1980, he asks in the title of one essay, “Was I a Stalinist, Too?”, and, as might be expected, the answers are subtle. Other essays are simply enjoyable for their mastery: the title piece, “Hermit in Paris,” that deals with his long residency in that city, or “The Duce’s Portraits,” an account of the iconography of Mussolini that pervaded his youth.

In his later interviews, the self-mocking mode is tempered by melancholic irony. For somebody’s idiotic project called Behind the Success, a collection in which “some of the most important people of our time” reveal “the secrets of their success,” Calvino says, “I would very much like to be one of those writers who have something really clear in their head to say and throughout their life they promote this idea in their works. I would like to be like that, but I am not… I always think of the pros and cons in everything and each time I have to construct a very complex picture. This is the reason why I can even go many years without publishing anything, working on projects which constantly end up in crisis. So you see that coming to interview me on the subject of success is really barking up the wrong tree.” He concludes, “Perhaps the time has come for me to accept myself as I am, and write just as it comes, for the remainder of the life that is left to me, or even to give up there and then if I saw that I had nothing more to say.”

Meanwhile, at the funeral in Castiglion, where Calvino has nothing more to say, but Vidal does, “with a crash, the pallbearers drop the box into the shallow bathtub. Palomar’s nose is now about four inches beneath the earth he used to examine so minutely. Then tiles are casually arranged over the coffin; and the box is seen no more… We look at one another as though we are at a party that has refused to take off.” Vidal gazes around at well-known writers; he recognizes Natalia Ginzburg, and sees “someone who looks as if he ought to be Umberto Eco, and is.” Calvino’s daughter “and buckets of cement arrive simultaneously. One of the masons pours cement over the tiles; expertly, he smooths the viscous surface with a trowel. Horrible cement.” The cement Calvino hated.

Then there’s a final Calvinoesque moment. Vidal looks up “from the gray oblong of fresh cement and there, staring straight at me, is Calvino. He looks anguished, odd, not quite right. But it is unmistakably Mr. Palomar, witnessing his own funeral. For one brief mad moment we stare at each other; then he looks down at the coffin that contains not himself but Italo.” The man is Calvino’s younger brother.

I look at the photo of Calvino again, the one that makes me think of a contemplative iguana. But then I think, Do photos really tell us anything about what someone thinks, or what he is like? Isn’t too much made of interpretive descriptions of photographed faces?

Just then my eyes happen to light on a nearby photo of the writer Primo Levi, Calvino’s compatriot, on the cover of a book of Levi’s to which Calvino has contributed an “Afterword.” There is Levi, survivor of Auschwitz, who died two years after Calvino, in 1987, in a fall believed to have been suicide. He sits at a desk with his hands resting passively on its surface; he’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a sleeveless sweater over it, and you notice his somewhat hairy forearms. Is there a faint tattoo on one of them, from Auschwitz? His face is a burnished tan, his grey hair is in a brush cut, he has a mustache and a trimmed white beard. Behind his glasses, his eyes are intense and possibly anguished; altogether, he has a spidery quality… Then, just as I’m about to arrive at an enthusiastic generalization, I once more catch myself: Aha, I’m looking at the world through the eyes of Mr. Palomar.

Berlin, Sept. 17, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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