HERMIT IN PARIS

Autobiographical Writings

By Italo Calvino

Translated from the Italian

By Martin McLaughlin

Pantheon. 255 pp. $23

In her preface to this collection of Italo Calvino's autobiographical writings, journals and interviews, Esther Calvino remembers suggesting to her husband that he return to writing The Road to San Giovanni, his autobiography. Calvino refused: "Because that's my biography, and my biography is not yet . . . " Not yet finished? An autobiography by definition leaves out one key moment in a life, and Calvino might have been thinking of a way he might wait to experience that moment before completing his own. In a Calvino story, it would certainly have been possible.

Instead, we have this collection of autobiographical writing and other pieces, which his wife found after his death, gathered in a folder; they are presented here in the order in which they appeared in print. The collection includes a diary of Calvino's trip to America in 1959-60, in the form of letters to a friend. Calvino was inclined to publish this diary as a book, the title of which was to be "An Optimist in America," but he decided it was too slight; it is the centerpiece of this volume, the longest and certainly to Americans the most interesting of the pieces included. The title A Hermit in Paris comes from a very late piece in which he describes his life as an outsider in Paris: odd, because the bulk of the volume describes his childhood, coming of age and maturity as an Italian and an Italian writer in Italy.

Italo Calvino's work is unique in the literature of the 20th century; it would be impertinent in this brief notice to try to characterize it, since almost anything said about Cosmicomics or Invisible Cities or Mister Palomar wouldn't apply to any of the other works. In a 1978 piece, he addressed this from the maker's point of view: "Writing as such is a boring and solitary occupation; if you repeat yourself, an infinite sadness seizes hold of you." It doesn't of most writers, actually; but it may be the reason for what Calvino calls with (false) modesty "that collection of fragments that is my oeuvre."

Calvino's self-revelation in these pieces is delicate, frank yet circumspect, and entirely winning. He grew up in rural Italy, the child of left-wing agricultural experts, humanist and nonreligious, who were imprisoned and pestered by the fascists; he himself became a partisan at the end of the war and a communist afterward. (Many of the pieces here included recount these facts and their implications, to interestingly different effect as Calvino gets older.) He broke with the Party after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and thereafter grew more and more apolitical. The moral purpose, worthwhile work and humane vision that he ceased to find in political programs he found, somewhat reluctantly, only in writing.

In "American Diary 1959-1960," though, we have Calvino not as a mature skeptic but a younger optimist, who wanders the huge country he has known about and read about all his life (he went fishing with Hemingway in Italy in 1948!), becoming or revealing himself in the process to be -- what else? -- a Calvino character. "In America all the cars are enormous. . . . I am very tempted to hire immediately an enormous car, not even to drive it, just for the psychological sense of being in control of the city." "The beatniks naturally fraternize with [Calvino's traveling companion, Spanish writer Fernando] Arrabal, who is also bearded. . . . [Allen] Ginsberg lives with another bearded man as man and wife and would like Arrabal to be present at their bearded couplings." He visits at Sarah Lawrence: "Girls in trousers and big socks and multicolored jerseys, just like in films about college life, flutter down from the . . . dormitories. Lunch is very meagre because in any case the girls want to keep their figure." In class they discuss The Brothers Karamazov, "but these young girls are surely as far from Dostoevsky as the moon. Seeing Dostoevsky and Russian religious thought skimming over that gathering of young heiresses in Westchester brings on the kind of astonishment and enthusiasm that would be provoked by a collision of planets."

Astonishment and enthusiasm -- mild and wise -- characterize the piece, as they do Calvino's later imaginary journeys through space and time. Even the commonplaces of his encounters with America from New York to Los Angeles are fresh; he has what Samuel Johnson called the necessary quality of a good traveler, the "willingness to be pleased." This brief book, engaging for students of Calvino and interesting for all, is indispensable for its account of a moment in America. We owe thanks to Esther Calvino for including it. *

John Crowley's most revent novel is "The Translator."