Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mr Palomar

Mr Palomar (recommended to me by Sam Vega) is a short work of fiction by Italian write Italo Calvino. It’s a fascinating book, summarised by Wikipedia thus:-

In 27 short chapters, arranged in a 3 × 3 × 3 pattern, the title character makes philosophical observations about the world around him. Calvino shows us a man on a quest to quantify complex phenomena in a search for fundamental truths on the nature of being.

The first section is concerned chiefly with visual experience; the second with anthropological and cultural themes; the third with speculations about larger questions such as the cosmos, time, and infinity. This thematic triad is mirrored in the three subsections of each section, and the three chapters in each subsection.

This summary doesn’t convey the subtly innocent honesty of Mr Palomar’s neurotically enquiring nature. What am I to think, given my limitations? What am I to do when faced with those inevitable frustrations Mother Nature always springs on me just as I begin to think I may be on the right track?

In fact the naive, detailed  subtlety of Mr Palomar’s enquiring mind is not easy to summarise without quoting most of the book, because Calvino presents us with an extraordinarily human portrait which is at the same time generic. We all have a Mr Palomar within us, but only to the extent that we are aware of ourselves interacting so imperfectly with that delightfully impossible complexity which is the natural world.

The book is almost excessively quotable too. Here are a few, beginning with Mr Palomar’s baffled attempts to cope with the sight of a topless woman on the beach.
He turns and retraces his steps. Now, in allowing his gaze to run over the beach with neutral objectivity, he arranges it so that, once the woman’s bosom enters his field of vision, a break is noticeable, a shift, almost a darting glance. That glance goes on to graze the taut skin, withdraws, as if appreciating with a slight start the different consistency of the view and the special value it acquires, and for a moment the glance hovers in mid-air, making a curve that accompanies the swell of the breast from a certain distance, elusively but also protectively, to then continue its course as if nothing had happened.

I particularly like this one, possibly because of how close it is to Spinoza's view:-
Or what if everything that exists were language, and has been since the beginning of time? Here Mr Palomar is again gripped by anguish.

And these two – the worrisome thought that there are things we ought to know and notice about the natural world in order to become a rounded person.
When it is a beautiful starry night Mr Palomar says: “I must go and look at the stars.” That is exactly what he says: “I must,” because he hates waste and believes it is wrong to waste that great quantity of stars that is put at his disposal. He says “I must” also because he has little practical knowledge of how you look at the stars, and this simple action always costs him a certain effort.

This observation of the stars transmits an unstable and contradictory knowledge – Palomar thinks – the exact opposite of what the ancients were able to derive from it. Is this because his relationship with the sky is intermittent and agitated rather than a serene habit?

This one is a favourite too. 
“It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” he concludes, “that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.”

Finally, an example of Calvino’s intriguing view of time.
A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but rather corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, “How could I have lived without having read it!” and also, “What a pity I did not read it in my youth!” Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.


Sam Vega said...

Glad you liked it. Lots of the quotes seemed unfamiliar, which is the good news that a re-read is in order!

A K Haart said...

Sam - I did like it and I'll probably spin another post out of one or two quotes.

A useful of the Kindle is that you can highlight bits of text, save them to a text file and copy the file onto your PC.