Calvino emerges as 'hermit' in writings

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Italo Calvino, who died in 1985, is best known to American readers for "Italian Folktales," an anthology of his country's most significant stories passed by word of mouth from generation to generation. A major figure in 20th-century letters, he wrote novels, short fiction and literary criticism.

Throughout his life, Calvino maintained strict privacy. He thought biographical information was embarrassing, and readers who were interested in his personal life had the difficult task of ferreting out his experiences and opinions.

This has changed with the publication of "Hermit in Paris," which collects 12 pieces published in various books, as well as "American Diary," a series of entries that fills half this present volume.

The short essays and interviews are mostly political. They include reminiscences and thoughtful commentaries about Mussolini, the German occupation and Allied liberation.

Always inventive, Calvino traces Mussolini's place in Italian life by recounting how Il Duce's public portraits changed over time, from Calvino's first year of grammar school through the caricature dropped to the partisans by Allied planes. In that cartoon, the Italian leader was pictured with Hitler, the two trying on dresses and readying their escape to Argentina -- a far cry from the statesmanlike portraits that had appeared in every Italian municipal building.

The final image in Calvino's psychic gallery is the famous photograph of Mussolini's ignominious death near Lake Como. This is typical of the way Calvino's extraordinary mind worked -- he traces the movement of history through a static portrait in a way that reveals his country's evolving response to its dictator.

The most personal section of the book is its first half, the diary that Calvino kept when he visited the United States in 1959, when he was 36. This material, published for the first time, shows Calvino in a new light -- as a wide-eyed explorer who is struck by American culture, including TV dinners, Broadway premieres and the weight of the Sunday New York Times, "a bundle of paper you can hardly carry in your two arms." These entries are written with wit and precision.

He describes horseback riding in Central Park, and the dilemma of arriving in New Orleans for Mardi Gras without having booked a room in advance. He is amused at the size of American sedans, commenting that "even the taxis have really long tailfins." It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities.

"Hermit in Paris" recounts the life and times of a man who traveled widely and thought deeply. It brings the hermit out of hiding, giving us a Calvino we had not seen before, the writer who, in his own words, "sought to keep his distance from the world."