Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Mr. Palomar was the last novel published by Calvino before his death in 1985. In one sense, it harks back to a realism present in his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956), but in structure it is more closely related to the tales-within-tales of Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981) and the mathematical arrangement of Le citta invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974). As Calvino wrote in 1976, explaining his earlier turn away from social realism toward tales of allegorical fantasy and scientific wit, such as in Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968), “now we can no longer neglect the fact that books are made of words, of signs, of methods of construction. We can never forget that what books communicate often remains unknown to the author himself,...that in any book there is a part that is the author’s and a part that is a collective and anonymous work.” It is not for literature to express a political order or even to teach the values of society; rather, literature must bring something new into the world by a partnership with the reader in co-creation. Calvino is widely recognized as one of the great modern writers, in the stream of Jorge Luis Borges, Stanislaw Lem, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Like Palomar, Calvino left a wife and daughter at his death. Locations in Mr. Palomar—the beach, the apartment in Rome, the Paris shops—were Calvino haunts. It is tempting to count the novel as autobiography, and the last chapter, “Learning to Be Dead,” as Calvino’s envoi. Yet it would be more fitting to say that, while Calvino evoked Mr. Palomar’s aspects within himself, new directions surely lay ahead for his creative insight. Calvino’s literary legacy is difficult to characterize, but that too is fitting. Only through time, as readers are provoked into making connections within the gaps left by the novelist, will the fruit of his labors be realized. For Mr. Palomar, “Before, by ‘world’ he meant the world plus himself; now it is a question of himself plus the world minus him.” This may well describe Calvino’s estate. It is in his precarious silences that he is most profound.