Hermit in Paris

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In a series of essays and interviews, Italo Calvino in Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings builds up a picture of the evolution of his political views and the progress of his career as a writer of fiction.

Born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents who named him Italo as a reminder of his Italian heritage, Calvino grew up in the town of San Remo in the Ligurian district of northern Italy. Raised in a non-religious family in a Catholic country, he felt somewhat isolated in his childhood, a feeling that faded for a while during World War II, when he joined the Communist partisans fighting against the Nazis.

He remained a member of the Communist Party until 1957, but left after the crimes of Stalin were revealed and after the Soviet Union crushed the 1956 anti-Communist uprising in Hungary. He became increasingly apolitical, returning in a way to the isolated situation of his childhood and praising detachment. In the meantime, he pursued a literary career, though in a tentative manner: in his later essays he says that he resisted his vocation as a writer, not completely believing anyone would want to read what he had to say.

In addition to the autobiographical essays, this collection contains Calvino’s previously unpublished American Diary: a record of his trip to the United States in 1959-1960. It is actually not so much a diary as a series of letters home describing life in New York City and other parts of the country, and reflecting his love-hate relationship with America.

There is little about Calvino’s personal life in the collection, but what does emerge is a clear picture of his intellectual interests and the progress of his career, along with some interesting comments on Communist ways of thought and on the process of writing.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 14 (March 15, 2003): 1268.

Contemporary Review 282, no. 1647 (April, 2003): 256.

Library Journal 128, no. 6 (April 1, 2003): 96.

London Review of Books 25, no. 8 (April 17, 2003): 8-9.

Los Angeles Times, April 20, 2003, p. R13.

The New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2003, p. 16.

Review of Contemporary Fiction 23, no. 2 (Summer, 2003): 155.

The Washington Post, April 13, 2003, p. T5.

Hermit in Paris

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In one of the pieces near the end of this collection of autobiographical writings, Italo Calvino says that the task he has pursued throughout his writing career has been to search for himself, to try to discover his true nature. In a sense, that is what he does in this book. In a series of autobiographical essays and responses to interviewers and questionnaires, he tells the story of his life as a writer, over and over, and yet with new insights emerging each time, so that only at the very end does a full picture of this writer emerge.

The book thus resembles a musical composition in which a simple theme is presented and then added to, elaborated on, until something much more complicated emerges. The image that emerges here is that of a man full of contradictions: a writer who was very uncertain about his writing, a former supporter of workers’ movements who was never comfortable around working people and the poor, a political activist who grew tired of politics, a former Communist who adopted Communism almost by accident, a critic of the United States whose favorite city was New York, and so on.

One of the most interesting essays in the book, dating from 1979, is “Was I a Stalinist Too?” In it, Calvino describes his time in the Italian Communist Party at the time that Joseph Stalin was the leader of the Soviet Union and the worldwide communist movement. He describes how Communists could discount the stories of atrocities in the Soviet Union. It was not that they did not know of them or disbelieved them; they merely downplayed them, saying such things were inevitable or that mistakes should not shake one’s faith in the Soviet achievement.

In 1956, when the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the atrocities, the effect, Calvino says, was somehow liberating for loyal Communists. They felt their movement could start anew, put the atrocities behind it, and develop a more humane form of Communism. Then Khrushchev’s Soviet Union crushed the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary. This was the last straw, and many Communists, including Calvino, left the party.

In fact, Calvino soon left politics altogether and began more and more to seek isolation from the world. The title of this collection, Hermit in Paris, sums up the situation of his later life: He withdrew from his native Italy and lived in Paris, not so much because he loved Paris but because he wanted to keep at a distance from Italy. In a 1978 interview reprinted in the book, he remarks that the best place to be might be the Moon, for there a person could have a good vantage point from which to see what was going on and yet remain detached.

This desire for detachment, according to some of the other pieces here, stemmed from his childhood. Because of his nonreligious upbringing he felt isolated from the other children in school. They all attended religious classes while he waited outside in the corridor. At university he remained isolated at first but then joined the Communist Party because the Communists were the ones taking action against the Nazis during World War II. He became a member of the Communist resistance during the war and remained a Communist for more than a decade afterward.

It is possible to think that if not for the accident of the war, he would never have joined a party committed to the rule of the workers and to government control of the economy and society. He notes in these pieces that he felt uncomfortable around workers and the poor, and his instinctive tendencies were to oppose governmental institutions. It is instructive that the one Communist text that appealed to him was a work by Vladimir Lenin which talked of the withering away of the state.

What slowly emerges in these pieces is the suggestion of another reason Calvino became a Communist. It was not...

(The entire section is 1568 words.)