Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar

The sea is barely wrinkled, and little waves strike the sandy shore. Mr Palomar is standing on the shore, looking at a wave. Not that he is lost in contemplation of the waves. He is not lost, because he is quite aware of what he is doing: he wants to look at a wave and he is looking at it. He is not contemplating, because for contemplation you need the right temperament, the right mood, and the right combination of exterior circumstances; and though Mr Palomar has nothing against contemplation in principle, none of these three conditions applies to him. Finally it is not “the waves” that he means to look at, but just one individual wave: in his desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object.

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Mr Palomar and me

This seems to me to be the most obvious and wonderful thing in the world: that Italo Calvino is a fantastic genius and his books are extraordinary, universally enjoyable experiences. Recently I’ve discovered that not everyone agrees.

Many times I’ve loaned out his books (sometimes I’ve found a copy in a second hand shop and just bought it for the person I was with, then and there: Read This) and inevitably I end up with a lukewarm response. ‘I never got into it,’ or ‘It was strange,’ or ‘I suppose it just isn’t my thing.’ This was incomprehensible to me. When I read my first Calvino novel (back in my first year of uni) I felt like I’d discovered a best friend and an envelope-pushing playful-trickster Michel-Gondry-type genius all at once. He could twist a story in self-referential knots like a Moebius strip, or be breathtakingly imaginative and poetic, or seem to think in entirely new ways. Best of all, though, through characters like Mr Palomar, he did something I never found in other authors: he described exactly what it’s like to be a real human being.

Of course, that’s not actually what he does. What really happens is this: he describes exactly what it’s like to be a person just like me. What I just took for a (long-awaited) portrayal of universal human experience is, in fact, a portrayal of the exact type of introverted, neurotic, overly-analytical, cripplingly-intellectualising person I happen to be myself. But I was so relieved to read it and have Mr Palomar effectively tell me ‘You Are Not Alone’ that I sucked the book straight into my soul and have held it as something precious ever since.

When packing for our Japan holiday I remembered Mr Palomar visits the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto, so I added the book to my bag to re-read once we’d been there, too. We could compare experiences, Mr Palomar and me.

What it’s about

This is a book of 27 very short stories, all moments in Mr Palomar’s life. In one he’s looking at waves, in another he’s in a queue to buy cheese, in another he’s looking at a zen garden in Japan. In all of them, mundane parts of life quickly get extrapolated to bigger speculations about the universe and everything – but mostly in a way that leaves Mr Palomar with less certainty about anything than when he started.

Palomar’s mind has wandered, he has stopped pulling up weeds; he no longer thinks of the lawn: he thinks of the universe. He is trying to apply to the universe everything he has thought about the lawn.

Some vignettes are hilarious (The Naked Bosom), others are delicate and clever (The blackbird’s whistle), others are earnest and descriptive of Mr Palomar’s conceptual experiments (The world looks at the world). The earlier ones are easier to read as short narrative stories; the later ones are closer to meditations on existence. At the very end is an afterword by the author that is a delightful treat for those of us who, like Palomar, seek reductive laws in the chaotic universe around us.

Some of the stories connect with me more than others. I don’t understand them all. That doesn’t really bother me too much, but at the same time I’m aware I’m no expert on this book.

I am a fellow traveller of Mr Palomar’s though, and like him, the more I try to solve a simple and seemingly well-defined problem (a review of this book), the more other things intrude on the problem at hand (how do I differentiate my experience of reading the book from my experience of being myself; how do I review the book without also having to review myself), and the more I feel overwhelmed by the bigger, more general issues that assert themselves (is it even possible to review a book; is it even possible for a person to understand another’s experience without having already experienced it themselves?). Like Mr Palomar, I start with a small task, decide to tackle it with thoroughness and brio, and get so swamped in the infinite complexities of the universe that are rolled up into this little task that I effectively de-learn everything I was ever sure about and end up with nothing but confusion and uneasiness. This last sentence is actually also a pretty good summary of my recent two-year PhD experience.

As a result, I will leave you to read the book yourself. I will continue to love it and gradually, as I come to know myself better, understand it better too.

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This book was mostly read in Japan

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