Italo Calvino has learned to be dead. Like the subject of his novel Mr. Palomar, we have had to see how the world has gotten on without him. In fact, he left us some time ago, much to the consternation of those who are fortunate enough to know and love his books. Calvino is easily one of the most whimsical and fascinating writers that I have been introduced to since entering adulthood. Few authors are likely to remind you about that fantastic place that your books used to take you; maybe he inspires the best remnants of your child’s mind – the sense of wonder, and the ever-present “why?” that so many of us subdue in order to avoid appearing foolish?
The eponymous protagonist of Calvino’s novel Mister Palomar is an observer (his name was taken from the Palomar Observatory at Caltech). The novel is, in the meanest of terms, an exploration of Mr. Palomar’s observations and reflections as he goes about his business. But it’s bigger than that. Mr. Palomar is the kind of novel that you don’t hear about enough any more. Aside from it being an exploration of specific ideas (a tendency often missing from popular books of the day… stupid 50 Shades of Grey), Mr. Palomar considers the question of why we observe the world around us, and where those observations lead. The relatively short chapters all explore different facets of our observational experience, from the visual to the anthropological to our tendency to speculation. In fact, this is the basic structure of the novel – it proceeds in a 3×3 grid, with each chapter emphasizing one or another of these broad categories and adjusting style accordingly.
Okay, that sounds dull. So consider the following excerpt:
“Around Mr. Palomar’s house there is a lawn. This is not a place where a lawn should exist naturally: so the lawn is an artificial object, composed from natural objects, namely grasses. The lawn’s purpose is to represent nature, and this representation occurs as the substitution for the nature proper to the area, of a nature in itself but artificial for this area. In other words, it costs money. The lawn requires expense and endless labor: to sow it, water it, fertilize it, weed it, mow it.”
As the chapter proceeds, the lawn becomes an infinite space within a finite one, perhaps like the mathematical concept of countable vs. uncountable infinities (it should be noted that this was explained to me over drinks with a mathematician friend, so forgive me if I’m completely butchering the concept, but it sounded pretty in my head). The lawn, the grasses, the diversity of chosen species; all becomes a thought experiment that can’t help but expanding and redoubling on itself as Mr. Palomar tries to grasp the impossible complexity of the very small and finds its connection with the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos. As you might imagine, Mr. Palomar doesn’t finish pulling the weeds – the job is a bit too complicated if you really think about it.
The plainness of the novel’s language, its willingness to pursue an idea to its terminus and to extend it beyond itself; these are the tools that Calvino uses with such effectiveness. But he does so with a sense of joy and an easygoing manner that almost seems unburdened by overly complex layers of reference or metaphor. Here is a book of ideas that can be read and understood simply and plainly. That doesn’t mean that the book is simplistic! It is anything but! The charm is that the language is highly approachable, as with all of Calvino’s work.
“Mr. Palomar is walking along a lonely beach. He encounters few bathers. One young woman is lying on the sand taking the sun, her bosom bared. Palomar, discrete by nature, looks away at the horizon of the sea. He knows that in such circumstances, at the approach of a strange man, women often cover themselves hastily, and this does not seem right to him: because it is a nuisance for the woman peacefully sunbathing, and because the the passing man feels he is an intruder, and because the taboo against nudity is implicitly confirmed; because half-respected conventions spread insecurity and incoherence of behavior rather than freedom and frankness.”
The story unfolds as Mr. Palomar attempts to solve the social problem in question. He doesn’t wish to propagate a system that leaves such confused and troubled feelings that might arise when one guiltily spots an attractive sunbather, but nor does he wish to attempt to invalidate the bather’s identity by simply pretending she doesn’t exist, nor can he allow himself to objectify her sexually. In the end, his efforts to find the best compromise result in the young woman angrily covering herself and storming off. After all, as Mr. Palomar works through all of this, he is pacing the beach and attempting to find the best way to stare at a half-naked sunbather.
Calvino uses the novel to touch on an amazing breadth and depth of subjects and ideas. Mr. Palomar can’t help but drive into ever deeper levels of reflection into the motivations that hide behind the mundane in our lives. If the novel, as Herman Broch once said, finds its sole morality through the revelation of knowledge. Mr. Palomar finds its morality in the beauty of the small, often unexamined nuances of the human mind and how it apprehends the pulses and nuances of the world around it. It is, in short, a beautiful book.
Pick it up here: