The Wisdom of Mr Palomar

Swallow Dance (1878) by Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Hiroshige III [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

Mr PalomarMr Palomar by Italo Calvino

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harold Bloom mentions in How to Read and Why (pp.64-66) why Italo Calvino was one of the greatest short story writers and refers specifically to Calvino's "wisdom" (p. 64). Calvino's wisdom is not wanting in this collection of short stories centred on the life of Mr Palomar. 

Each section of the book focuses on a particular activity of Mr Palomar's in various locations, with each story within the theme based around a particular sub-theme. I have often read of literary "constellations" (p. 107), where literature in sum forms "an imaginary outline or meaningful pattern" not in the sky, but in the mind. 

At first, Mr Palomar appears to be suffering from some kind of introverted social awkwardness. Yet as the stories progress, Calvino's wisdom shines through as I began to identify with Palomar and to see his own wisdom beyond his apparent social ineptitude. What I discovered was that Mr Palomar was self-aware, to the point where he is conscious of his failings yet continues to deceive himself. Yet (p. 107):
The universe can perhaps go tranquilly about its business; he surely cannot. The road left open to him is this: he will devote himself from now on to the knowing of himself, he will explore his own inner geography, he will draw the diagram of the moods of his spirit, he will derive from it formulas and theories, he will train his telescope on the orbits of the course of his life rather than those of the constellations.
Here is where I made the connection with Bloom. Bloom often writes of characters "overhearing" themselves, but Calvino makes Mr Palomar "overlook" himself, finding:
We can know nothing about what is outside us, if we overlook ourselves... the universe is the mirror in which we can contemplate only what we have learned to know in ourselves.
This link between the individual and environment echoes James Allen's "environment is but his looking glass" (Calvino writes "The universe as mirror") when writing of the interaction between inner and outer life (but with a sense of manifestation of inward conditions on the outside). Palomar laments that he is not like this (104):
To the man who is friend of the universe, the universe is a friend.
Recently, I have been learning more about induction versus deduction in terms of my academic work. Here, Calvino outlines how Mr Palomar is a deductivist (p. 98), rather than an inductivist, and how Palomar likes to construct models of principles and experience, and to force things into the model when experience fails to live up to his model.

Yet for all Mr Palomar's attempts to remain aloof, his models never fit, and when he looks away from the rational geometric designs of his models, he sees human suffering, much like a person who tries to deny their emotions until the pot boils over and the emotions spill out. I came to see much of myself, and dare I say much of all of us, in Mr Palomar. 

The stories seem to grow like a human, from childhood to adolescence, to age and wisdom. My fondness for Mr Palomar grew as his journey progressed. There is much material for introspection in this work, and I found that my selfish desire to introspect through, rather than with, Mr Palomar, was forgiven by Calvino at the conclusion. 

A remarkable work with a tenor that does not, to the best of my knowledge, exist anywhere in Anglophone writing.

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