Whether to four-star, whether to three? Three falls short of a recommendation and, in the end, Hermit in Paris doesn’t quite cut it. It’s too much a mess from which enlightening snippets need to be extracted; too incoherent; too much the ‘lucky bag’.
Calvino is a writer who has fascinated me since my youth, and one I’ve not visited for way too long. Perhaps this is a work which would have read better without so much distance on my part… but then again, perhaps not. It’s as if, in its compilation, someone were given access to an attic to dust off artefacts and make a collection representative of the owner. The portrait ends up blurred, and not a little skewed.
We have Calvino answering for himself in several interviews; the odd thumbnail sketch for some purpose or another; and more extended sections which serve some greater or lesser purpose in giving us the man. Much of the first half of the book is dominated by a series of letters Calvino wrote to his publisher during a trip to America from 1959 to 1960. There was a sense of reading personal emails between friends, such privileged access giving us perhaps a little too much of Calvino as a womaniser for example when, in reality, that’s the sort of thing we may find ourselves writing about to friends when not anticipating broader public consumption of our words. That’s a criticism that extends out through the entire work. Context is needed. Without it, some of the portraiture becomes skewed; too much focus on this, too little on that. It doesn’t help that context is only provided at the end of each section once we’ve read it, necessitating a revisit in recollection to get a sense of what it really is we’ve just read.
It’s no surprise reading the work that Calvino had a great deal of difficulty penning a formal autobiography. Again and again in the book, Calvino stresses the need for distance from the subject if he is to write about it successfully, and in writing himself we may feel he stood way too far back, theorising about himself as an astronomer may theorise about some distant galaxy captured as fuzz on a photograph. Indeed, we may even be given to wonder whether Calvino, in considering himself, ends up extracting too much detail from too little evidence while missing the big picture altogether.
Some sections are more straightforward and revelatory, such as his thoughts – made comfortable by the distance of time – upon his youthful communism, and it would be wrong to say these are rare in the work as a whole. However, in the end it’s all too random. There are diamonds here, but they’re not laid out for us. We have to mine for them.
A work to be recommended for what the reader may learn about Calvino, yes; but equally not to be recommended for what he or she may feel has been missed along the way. Here an arm to the smallest scar; there a leg with every hair accounted for; but never the man as a whole.