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Mr. Palomar, whose name purposely evokes that of the famous telescope, is a seeker after knowledge, a visionary in a world sublime and ridiculous. Whether contemplating a cheese, a woman’s breasts, or a gorilla’s behavior, he brings us a vision of a world familiar by consensus, fragmented by the burden of individual perception. Translated by William Weaver. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book
|Publisher:||Key Porter Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
ITALO CALVINO (1923–1985) attained worldwide renown as one of the twentieth century's greatest storytellers. Born in Cuba, he was raised in San Remo, Italy, and later lived in Turin, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere. Among his many works are Invisible Cities, If on a winter's night a traveler, The Baron in the Trees, and other novels, as well as numerous collections of fiction, folktales, criticism, and essays. His works have been translated into dozens of languages.
Read an Excerpt
Mr. Palomar's Vacation
MR. PALOMAR ON THE BEACH
Reading a wave
The sea is barely wrinkled, and little waves strike the sandy shore. Mr. Palomar is standing on the shore, looking at a wave. Not that he is lost in contemplation of the waves. He is not lost, because he is quite aware of what he is doing: he wants to look at a wave and he is looking at it. He is not contemplating, because for contemplation you need the right temperament, the right mood, and the right combination of exterior circumstances; and though Mr. Palomar has nothing against contemplation in principle, none of these three conditions applies to him. Finally, it is not "the waves" that he means to look at, but just one individual wave: in his desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object.
Mr. Palomar sees a wave rise in the distance, grow, approach, change form and color, fold over itself, break, vanish, and flow again. At this point he could convince himself that he has concluded the operation he had set out to achieve, and he could go away. But isolating one wave is not easy, separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away; and it is no easier to separate that one wave from the preceding wave, which seems to drag it toward the shore, unless it turns against the following wave, as if to arrest it. Then, if you consider the breadth of the wave, parallel to the shore, it is hard to decide where the advancing front extends regularly and where it is separated and segmented into independent waves, distinguished by their speed, shape, force, direction.
In other words, you cannot observe a wave without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself originates. These aspects vary constantly, so each wave is different from another wave, even if not immediately adjacent or successive; in other words, there are some forms and sequences that are repeated, though irregularly distributed in space and time. Since what Mr. Palomar means to do at this moment is simply see a wave — that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them — his gaze will dwell on the movement of the wave that strikes the shore until it can record aspects not previously perceived; as soon as he notices that the images are being repeated, he will know he has seen everything he wanted to see and he will be able to stop.
A nervous man who lives in a frenzied and congested world, Mr. Palomar tends to reduce his relations with the outside world; and, to defend himself against the general neurasthenia, he tries to keep his sensations under control insofar as possible.
The hump of the advancing wave rises more at one point than at any other, and it is here that it becomes hemmed in white. If this occurs at some distance from the shore, there is time for the foam to fold over upon itself and vanish again, as if swallowed, and at the same moment invade the whole, but this time emerging again from below, like a white carpet rising from the bank to welcome the wave that is arriving. But just when you expect that wave to roll over the carpet, you realize it is no longer wave but only carpet, and this also rapidly disappears, to become a glinting of wet sand that quickly withdraws, as if driven back by the expansion of the dry, opaque sand that moves its jagged edge forward.
At the same time, the indentations in the brow of the wave must be considered, where it splits into two wings, one stretching toward the shore from right to left and the other from left to right, and the departure point or the destination of their divergence or convergence is this negative tip, which follows the advance of the wings but is always held back, subject to their alternate overlapping until another wave, a stronger wave, overtakes it, with the same problem of divergence-convergence, and then a wave stronger still, which resolves the knot by shattering it.
Taking the pattern of the waves as model, the beach thrusts into the water some faintly hinted points, prolonged in submerged sandy shoals, shaped and destroyed by the currents at every tide. Mr. Palomar has chosen one of these low tongues of sand as his observation point, because the waves strike it on either side, obliquely, and, overrunning the half-submerged surface, they meet their opposites. So, to understand the composition of a wave, you have to consider these opposing thrusts, which are to some extent counterbalanced and to some extent added together, to produce a general shattering of thrusts and counterthrusts in the usual spreading of foam.
Mr. Palomar now tries to limit his field of observation; if he bears in mind a square zone of, say, ten meters of shore by ten meters of sea, he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval. The hard thing is to fix the boundaries of this zone, because if, for example, he considers as the side farthest from him the outstanding line of an advancing wave, as this line approaches him and rises it hides from his eyes everything behind it, and thus the space under examination is overturned and at the same time crushed.
In any case, Mr. Palomar does not lose heart and at each moment he thinks he has managed to see everything to be seen from his observation point, but then something always crops up that he had not borne in mind. If it were not for his impatience to reach a complete, definitive conclusion of his visual operation, looking at waves would be a very restful exercise for him and could save him from neurasthenia, heart attack, and gastric ulcer. And it could perhaps be the key to mastering the world's complexity by reducing it to its simplest mechanism.
But every attempt to define this model must take into account a long wave that is arriving in a direction perpendicular to the breakers and parallel to the shore, creating the flow of a constant, barely surfacing crest. The shifts of the waves that ruffle toward the shore do not disturb the steady impulse of this compact crest that slices them at a right angle, and there is no knowing where it comes from or where it then goes. Perhaps it is a breath of east wind that stirs the sea's surface against the deep drive that conies from the mass of water far out to sea, but this wave born of air, in passing, receives also the oblique thrusts from the water's depth and redirects them, straightening them in its own direction and bearing them along. And so the wave continues to grow and gain strength until the clash with contrary waves gradually dulls it and makes it disappear, or else twists it until it is confused in one of the many dynasties of oblique waves slammed against the shore.
Concentrating the attention on one aspect makes it leap into the foreground and occupy the square, just as, with certain drawings, you have only to close your eyes and when you open them the perspective has changed. Now, in the overlapping of crests moving in various directions, the general pattern seems broken down into sections that rise and vanish. In addition, the reflux of every wave also has a power of its own that hinders the oncoming waves. And if you concentrate your attention on these backward thrusts, it seems that the true movement is the one that begins from the shore and goes out to sea.
Is this perhaps the real result that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits? No, he feels a slight dizziness, but it goes no further than that. The stubbornness that drives the waves toward the shore wins the match: in fact, the waves have swelled considerably. Is the wind about to change? It would be disastrous if the image that Mr. Palomar has succeeded painstakingly in putting together were to shatter and be lost. Only if he manages to bear all the aspects in mind at once can he begin the second phase of the operation: extending this knowledge to the entire universe.
It would suffice not to lose patience, as he soon does. Mr. Palomar goes off along the beach, tense and nervous as when he came, and even more unsure about everything.
The naked bosom
Mr. Palomar is walking along a lonely beach. He encounters few bathers. One young woman is lying on the sand taking the sun, her bosom bared. Palomar, discreet by nature, looks away at the horizon of the sea. He knows that in such circumstances, at the approach of a strange man, women often cover themselves hastily, and this does not seem right to him: because it is a nuisance for the woman peacefully sunbathing, and because the passing man feels he is an intruder, and because the taboo against nudity is implicitly confirmed; because half-respected conventions spread insecurity and incoherence of behavior rather than freedom and frankness.
And so, as soon as he sees in the distance the outline of the bronze-pink cloud of a naked female torso, he quickly turns his head in such a way that the trajectory of his gaze remains suspended in the void and guarantees his civil respect for the invisible frontier that surrounds people.
But — he thinks as he proceeds and resumes, the moment the horizon is clear, the free movement of his eyeballs — in acting like this, I display a refusal to see;or, in other words, I am finally reinforcing the convention that declares illicit any sight of the breast; that is to say, I create a kind of mental brassiere suspended between my eyes and that bosom, which, from the flash that reached the edge of my visual field, seemed to me fresh and pleasing to the eye. In other words, my not looking presupposes that I am thinking of that nakedness, worrying about it; and this is basically an indiscreet and reactionary attitude.
Returning from his stroll, Palomar again passes that bather, and this time he keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead, so that his gaze touches with impartial uniformity the foam of the retreating waves, the boats pulled up on shore, the great bath towel spread out on the sand, the swelling moon of lighter skin with the dark halo of the nipple, the outline of the coast in the haze, gray against the sky.
There — he reflects, pleased with himself, as he continues on his way — I have succeeded in having the bosom completely absorbed by the landscape, so that my gaze counted no more than the gaze of a seagull or a hake.
But is this really the right way to act? — he reflects further. Or does it not mean flattening the human person to the level of things, considering it an object, and, worse still, considering as object that which in the person is the specific attribute of the female sex? Am I not perhaps perpetuating the old habit of male superiority, hardened over the years into a habitual insolence?
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 adarting 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 midair, making a curve that accompanies the swell of the breast from a certain distance, elusively but also protectively, and then runs on as if nothing had happened.
In this way I believe my position is made quite clear — Palomar thinks — with no possible misunderstandings. But couldn't this grazing of his eyes finally be taken for an attitude of superiority, an underestimation of what a breast is and means, as if putting it aside, on the margin, or in parentheses? So, I am relegating the bosom again to the semidarkness where centuries of sexo-maniacal puritanism and of desire considered sin have kept it. ...
This interpretation runs counter to Palomar's best intentions, for though he belongs to a human generation for whom nudity of the female bosom was associated with the idea of amorous intimacy, still he hails approvingly this change in customs, both for what it signifies as the reflection of a more broad-minded society and because this sight in particular is pleasing to him. It is this detached encouragement that he would like to be able to express with his gaze.
He does an about-face. With firm steps he walks again toward the woman lying in the sun. Now his gaze, giving the landscape a fickle glance, will linger on the breast with special consideration, but will quickly include it in an impulse of good will and gratitude for the whole, for the sun and the sky, for the bent pines and the dune and the beach and the rocks and the clouds and the seaweed, for the cosmos that rotates around those haloed cusps.
This should be enough to reassure once and for all the solitary sunbather and clear away all perverse assumptions. But the moment he approaches again, she suddenly springs up, covers herself with an impatient huff, and goes off, shrugging in irritation, as if she were avoiding the tiresome insistence of a satyr.
The dead weight of an intolerant tradition prevents anyone's properly understanding the most enlightened intentions, Palomar bitterly concludes.
The sword of the sun
When the sun begins to go down, its reflection takes form on the sea: from the horizon a dazzling patch extends all the way to the shore, composed of countless swaying glints; between one glint and the next, the opaque blue of the sea makes a dark network. The white boats, seen against the light, turn black, lose substance and bulk, as if they were consumed by that splendid speckling.
This is the hour when Mr. Palomar, belated by nature, takes his evening swim. He enters the sea, moves away from the shore; and the sun's reflection becomes a shining sword in the water stretching from the shore to him. Mr. Palomar swims in that sword, or, more precisely, that sword remains always before him; at every stroke of his, it retreats, and never allows him to overtake it. Wherever he stretches out his arms, the sea takes on its opaque evening color, which extends to the shore behind him.
As the sun sinks toward sunset, the incandescent-white reflection acquires gold and copper tones. And wherever Mr. Palomar moves, he remains the vertex of that sharp, gilded triangle; the sword follows him, pointing him out like the hand of a watch whose pivot is the sun.
"This is a special homage the sun pays to me personally," Mr. Palomar is tempted to think, or, rather, the egocentric, megalomaniac ego that dwells in him is tempted to think. But the depressive and self-wounding ego, who dwells with the other in the same container, rebuts: "Everyone with eyes sees the reflection that follows him; illusion of the senses and of the mind holds us all prisoners, always." A third tenant, a more evenhanded ego, speaks up: "This means that, no matter what, I belong to the feeling and thinking subjects, capable of establishing a relationship with the sun's rays, and of interpreting and evaluating perceptions and illusions."
Every bather swimming westward at this hour sees the strip of light aimed at him, which then dies out just a bit beyond the spot where his arm extends: each has his own reflection, which has that direction only for him and moves with him. On either side of the reflection, the water's blue is darker. "Is that the only non-illusory datum, common to all: darkness?" Mr. Palomar wonders. But the sword is imposed equally on the eye of each swimmer; there is no avoiding it. "Is what we have in common precisely what is given to each of us as something exclusively his?" The sailboards slide over the water, cutting with sidelong swerves the land wind that springs up at this hour. Erect figures hold the boom with arms extended like archers', competing for the air that snaps the canvas. When they cross the reflection, in the midst of the gold that enshrouds them the colors of the sail are muted and the outline of opaque bodies seems to enter the night.
"All this is happening not on the sea, not in the sun," the swimmer Palomar thinks, "but inside my head, in the circuits between eyes and brain. I am swimming in my mind; this sword of light exists only there; and this is precisely what attracts me. This is my element, the only one I can know in some way."
But he also thinks, "I cannot reach that sword: always there ahead, it cannot be inside me and, at the same time, something inside which I am swimming; if I see it I remain outside it, and it remains outside."
Excerpted from "Mr. Palomar"
Copyright © 1983 Giulio Einaudi Editore, S.p.A., Torino.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Mr. Palomar's Vacation,
Mr. Palomar on the Beach,
Mr. Palomar in the Garden,
Mr. Palomar Looks at the Sky,
Mr. Palomar in the City,
Mr. Palomar on the Terrace,
Mr. Palomar Does the Shopping,
Mr. Palomar at the Zoo,
The Silences of Mr. Palomar,
Mr. Palomar's Journeys,
Mr. Palomar in Society,
The Meditations of Mr. Palomar,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,
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