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BOOKS & THE CULTURE If On a Winter’s Night a Hermit BY ROGER BOYLAN Hermit in Paris By Italo Calvino Pantheon 288 pages, $23. I talo Calvino’s widow Esther assembled these autobiographical odds and ends, unpublished at her husband’s death in 1985, into a very fine collection. More a scrap book of a life than an organized biography, the book is full of Calvino’s memories, opinions, and ideas, all with his characteristic lightness of touch and wry humor. Unless Signora Calvino or someone else unearths a hithertounknown memoir, Hermit in Paris is the closest thing to a genuine autobiography we will ever have from the pen of this reclusive and modest giant of modern Italian literature, author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Marcovaldo, Invisible Cities, Mr. Palomar, and other weird and wonderful works. Calvino once remarked that the raw truth of a writer’s life is useless in interpreting the written work. Paradoxically, this sentiment is in direct opposition to these pieces, in most of which he reveals his affinity with what he claimed most interested him: “daily life as the constant nourishment for writing,” the raw truth of his life. He thereby sheds light on his own work. Indeed, reading through this collection is a little like having a long lunch with Mr. Palomar, that eccentric seeker after order and reason in Calvino’s eponymous novel. Of course Mr. P., like his creator, can be a bit of a bore from time to time, like so many brilliant people teeming with ideas and only words with which to express them, but the boring parts of Hermit in Paris are far outweighed by the interesting bits, which not only provide an insight into Calvino’s evolution as an author but also recount twentieth-century history from his viewpoint as a participant. He tells of his memories of Fascism in the 1930s, his participation in the Resistance in the ’40s in his native Northern Italian region of Liguria, his ardent communism in the early ’50s, and his departure from the Italian Communist Party in 1957.The two best pieces, “American Diary; 1959-1960″ and the title piece,”Hermit in Paris,” are of great geographical and cultural interest, especially “American Diary,” which takes up two-thirds of the book and in which, with Mr. Palomar-like thoroughness, Calvino dissects the everyday miscellany of American life during the six months he spent, on a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, traveling around this country. In November 1959, an outwardly world-weary butas it were inwardly wide-eyed 35-year-old Italo Calvino sailed across the Atlantic in the company of four other literary beneficiaries of the Ford Foundation’s generosity, including the Spanish surrealist playwright and professional enfant terrible, Fernando Arrabal. On arrival, awe-struck by New Yorkwhich Calvino describes in his odd, Calvino-esque way as having “the appearance of a German city,” with its “massive, grey, fin-de-siecle look” when viewed from the harbor \(perhaps he was thinking of that great German metropolis and Arrabal hang out together for a while, two out-of-towners in Sin City. Uptown, in what Calvino calls “the most beautiful image of New York at night,” they watch the skaters at the Rockefeller Center ice rink and gaze up at the illuminated skyscrapers. Downtown in Greenwich Village they meet such celebrated specimens of the local fauna as Lee Strasberg, director of the Actor’s Studio and originator of the Method style of acting \(“a load of rubGinsberg, “with his disgusting black straggly beard.” Ginsberg, says Calvino, “lives with another bearded man as man and wife and would like Arrabal to be present at their bearded couplings.” Arrabal, the enfant terrible, is shocked. Barney Rosset, the famous editor of Grove Press and friend of Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller, “ever the nonconformist,” pretty much forms another odd couple with his distinctive tiny red Isetta car which he drives everywhere, at a time when most Americans were driving be-finned land yachts, the even thirstier ancestors of today’s SUVs. Cars fascinate Calvino, good Italian that he is, so he devotes considerable space to describing 1960 Detroit iron: the power windows, the air conditioning, the mighty V-8s, the smooth transmissions.”I am very tempted to hire immediately an enormous car,” he says, and suits action to word by getting behind the wheel of a Ford, perhaps as a gesture of respect to his benefactors, like a Renaissance painter including a portrait of his patron in one of his canvases. Ever Mr. Palomar avant la lettre, Calvino also 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 616103