Mr. Palomar

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Mr. Palomar (published in Italy in 1983 as Palomar) joins an ample body of work by the late Italo Calvino, the best-known author of Italian fiction in the twentieth century. Calvino’s works, both short stories and novels, seem to run in two streams or extremes. On the one hand, he is known as a masterful storyteller, as is suggested by his popular Italian Folktales (1956). On the other, he has attained even more fame as an innovator of and experimenter with fictional form (see, for example If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1979). While it may seem contradictory to acclaim an author as both a grand storyteller and as one who shuns traditional narrative to focus on form, both extremes work for Calvino, perhaps because of his clear devotion to writing and to language.

The fact that so many of Calvino’s works have been translated into English, as well as into many other languages, attests the universal appeal of his writing. Mr. Palomar should prove equally successful. As to which stream it follows, readers should be aware that there is no full story here. Instead, Calvino offers glimpses into the thoughts (rather than the life) of one Mr. Palomar, about whom the reader knows very little, at least in terms of conventional characterization. Yet, what Mr. Palomar thinks about his surroundings finally does reveal much about his own character and about twentieth century man in his technical world.

Mr. Palomar consists of a series of anecdotal visions and analyses. One follows the protagonist as he moves from place to place, contemplating aspects of nature and civilization. The basic divisions of the novel are three: “Mr. Palomar’s Vacation”; “Mr. Palomar in the City”; and “The Silences of Mr. Palomar.” Following Calvino’s attachment to numerical symmetries, each of these sections is subdivided into three, and these, in turn, have three sections. Thus in the vacation segment, Mr. Palomar’s thoughts are focused on phenomena that he encounters at the beach (a wave, a topless bather, and a sun ray); in the garden (tortoises mating, blackbirds’ whistles, and the idea of a lawn); and in contemplation of the sky (the moon, the planets, and the stars).

Mr. Palomar seems obsessed by his personal relationship with the cosmos. In the segment on the sun’s ray, for example, he resists leaving the sea, for he perceives a direct link with the sun based on the fact that, as he swims westward, the sun’s sword appears to move with him. He has a similar reaction to his viewing of the moon, although he finally gives that up, too: “At this point, assured that the moon no longer needs him, Mr. Palomar goes home.”

This personalized relationship is but one way to establish a link with his surroundings. Another, even more prevalent, is to analyze, in minute detail, all that he sees. It is not a coincidence that the protagonist shares his name with a famous observatory (Mount Palomar in California). To make sure that no reader misses the connection, Calvino includes a specific reference to the telescope in the section devoted to the planets. By examining his environment so closely, Mr. Palomar would seem to make it his own. His desire would be to master one element, then move on to another, slowly but surely conquering the universe.

The pattern is announced in the very first section, entitled “Reading a wave.” At first glance, the reader might well mistake the “reading” for “riding,” as the letters are very close, and riding is an activity one associates with waves. Mr. Palomar, however, is not an active...

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man, as the reader will soon learn. Instead, he is a passive individual who analyzes, in addition to those things mentioned from the first section, such items as going shopping to buy goose fat or cheese, going to the zoo, and thinking about death. For Mr. Palomar, even a trip to the cheese shop can turn into an allegory of life.

One might very well question the type of life Mr. Palomar leads, if he spends so much time analyzing. If he is thinking all the time, it seems that there would be few moments left for feeling or for enjoyment. This is precisely Calvino’s message, as shown particularly in the segment concerning the topless bather. Mr. Palomar passes her by several times, always conscious of what his actions might convey as a communication to the young woman or to society in general. Once again, the activity is to read a sign into the scene. Mr. Palomar is so lost in his thoughts, however, that he fails to realize how annoying his frequent passings have become. The woman finally departs in disgust.

The drawing on the dust jacket of the English-language edition suggests the same theme. Against a white background and within a pink frame, there is a copy of Albrecht Dürer’s Draftsman with Reclining Woman. The black-and-white drawing shows a draftsman gazing from a special optical device through a rectangular-netted screen enclosed in a wood frame. In the past, it was common for artists to use such devices to make drawings of landscapes as accurate as possible. The object of this draftsman’s gaze, however, is not a landscape but a woman in a very seductive pose. The frame is appropriately placed in the center of the drawing, with the two figures on either side—appropriate, in that analysis is incompatible with eroticism. Thus, the frame separates the two, establishing a space, or a distance, between them.

This notion of pitting what is natural against what is imposed through science or through other artificial means is consistent with the rest of the book. An important theme soon emerges: that twentieth century man, as a true child of his civilization, tries to relate all that he sees to what is technical. Even phenomena that are the very essence of Nature are in this book compared to man-made or man-conceived things. Examples abound, and they generally appear in the form of similes—thus Calvino, through Mr. Palomar’s thoughts, moves from relatively obvious comparisons (birds are like airplanes) to others which are quite unusual, if not startling or even silly. To Mr. Palomar, for example, a giraffe’s neck resembles the arm of a mechanical crane; the iguana’s skin is like a dress; the white plates on the iguana look like a hearing aid; and Jupiter has something in common with a scarf.

Mr. Palomar observes, describes, questions, and analyzes all that meets his gaze. He considers everything from objects to ways of thinking and states of being. This pattern is established quickly and developed carefully throughout the novel. At this level of meaning, the reader should recognize Calvino’s underlying contention that man has become too involved in analyzing life to live it. Yet there is more to be gained from a reading of Mr. Palomar. At the end of each segment, contained in a mere couple of sentences or in a short paragraph, a parallel pattern soon emerges. After the meditation, after the abstractions, Mr. Palomar, the thinker, returns to his status as Mr. Palomar, the man. The reader is able to catch him at his most vulnerable moments, as he reacts with unmasked feelings to what is happening. It is this vulnerability which contributes to the reader’s appreciation of the character of the protagonist. Mr. Palomar might well protest that he wants to be a detached observer, a thinker who tries to keep sentiment or feelings out of his perceptions, but in his effort to represent modern man, or Homo sapiens, as a thinking creature, he remains a man after all, a man of feelings as well as knowledge.

Beyond this level of appreciation, there is a more serious aspect to the novel. As Mr. Palomar focuses on his environment, there is a progression from the somewhat frivolous to the more serious, from the mating of tortoises to the contemplation of death. One can learn from this book as from a series of essays treating aspects of the condition of man. Thus the reader is invited to contemplate philosophical issues and to evaluate the questionable value of certain of civilization’s “contributions.”

Finally, one must appreciate Mr. Palomar as a delightful work that engages the reader on the level of language. Although there is a certain loss from any translation, the prose of this novel has a wonderful rhythm; it is clear that Calvino takes great care in his selection of words and in their effect when assembled in particular ways. A striking example can be found in the section that begins Mr. Palomar’s experiences in the city, “From the terrace.” Calvino takes his time in describing, little by little, the assortment of buildings and traces of humanity, of colors and textures. The beauty of the prose suggests a verbal painting. At the same time, the slowness of the description and the sense of movement as the gaze falls on new delights makes one think of a panoramic shot by a gifted filmmaker. This effect is enhanced by the slow progression within the lengthy paragraphs, almost unbroken by periods which would disturb the flow.

Occasionally, one has the feeling that the narration has escaped the author’s control, such as when describing the delights to be found in a Parisian special-foods store or the array of meats in the butcher shop. The same thing happens at times in an extended comparison, in which an item is likened to one thing, then to another, then to another, as if each simile inspired yet one more. Frequently these gushes of language are cut off, but gently, by the use of ellipsis points. One senses that the narration could go on and on, so full is it of the joy of the moment. The reader then can share Calvino’s pleasure of language, an almost erotic enjoyment of words and their power.


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Sources for Further Study

Adler, Sara Maria. Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker, 1979.

Andrews, Richard. “Italo Calvino,” in Writers and Society in Contemporary Italy: A Collection of Essays, 1984. Edited by Michael Caesar and Peter Hainsworth.

Calvino, Italo. The Uses of Literature, 1986.

Carter, Albert Howard. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy, 1987.

Library Journal. CX, September 15, 1985, p. 91.

The London Review of Books. VII, October 3, 1985, p. 17.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 6, 1985, p. 3.

New Statesman. CX, September 27, 1985, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 29, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, October 21, 1985, p. 80.

The Observer. December 2, 1984, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 9, 1985, p. 63.

Time. CXXVI, September 23, 1985, p. 81.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 22, 1985, p. 5.


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