Mr. Palomar

This novel by Italo Calvino is barely a novel, with only the title character and no plot. Susan says she knows of a movie version, but even Calvino, with his prodigious imagination, probably couldn’t imagine selling screen rights to a story like this. Mr. Palomar mainly gazes and sometimes just ponders. He is anxious and withdrawn and avoids interacting with other people. Instead, he devotes himself to trying to quantify the unquantifiable, to deterimine the infinite from the finite.

In the opening chapter, Mr. Palomar stands on a tongue of sand at the edge of the sea, reading the waves. He tries to see a single wave all the way to its end but finds himself distracted by complications. Waves inconveniently run into each other, foam mixes up the picture, the surge carries onto the beach and disappears. He watches until the waves seem to run backward from the shore. Is he trying 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?” Can he extrapolate what he learns to the entire universe? No, he can’t, for he is tense and nervous and loses patience and goes away “even more unsure about everything.”

The effect is comical. In fact, “Mr. Palomar” is a metaphysical cartoon. It marches along beside Calvino’s “Cosmicomics.” We follow Mr. Palomar along the beach as he tries to find the proper way of passing a topless sunbather. Should he stare into the void? Look straight ahead and take in her presence as part of the whole scene? Neutrally glance at her? Stare at her boobs? On his fourth pass, when the sunbather should be feeling reassured that his intentions are just right, she jumps up, covering herself, and runs away. “The dead weight of an intolerant tradition prevents anyone’s properly understanding the most enlightened intentions, Palomar bitterly concludes.”

A recurring idea is that if only the ego could be “canceled,” he could see without impediment. If only he could drop the cultural messages that have accumulated! He listens to a blackbird, which proves overwhelming. Close scrutiny of his lawn reveals a “lawless jungle.” (This fits with my assessment of my own lawn as a miscellaneous collection of plants.) Turning from “that place of superfluous complications and confused approximations”—namely, the earth—he looks at the moon, the planets, the stars, finding they’re just the opposite of the luminous impressions he sees upon closing his eyelids. Back in Rome on his terrace, he loses himself in details that are discernible in the surrounding rooftops and concludes that surfaces are “inexhaustible.”

The best part is when he does the shopping and stands in line at a cheese counter. He would like to “establish the simplicity of a direct physical relationship between man and cheese” but instead finds himself suffused with cheesy concepts and histories. He can imagine the salty brine in a seaside pasture, which affected the flavor of one cheese, whereas the next was partly flavored by dry winds of another region. When it’s time to order, he crumbles before “a young cheese-girl, dressed in pink” and selects some disappointingly ordinary cheeses. Later he finds himself wearing a pair of mismatched slippers, sold at an eastern bazaar. He concocts a scenario in which someone else got the other odd slipper. It would all even out in the end, except that the other odd slipper might have been sold centuries ago (the merchant goes on forever in the bazaar) and the symmetry is extended across centuries.

Finally he goes mute. “Good opportunities for keeping quiet are never in short supply.” He has no real authority to speak, and the model he devises for dealing with the world works better as the model for other models. Insignificant objects beg to be minutely observed, and he tries to comprehend the seashell, the leaf, while also being mindful of astronomical reality, the supernova in a distant galaxy. This same serene approach could be applied to humanity, his neighbors, if only they would cooperate and quit elbowing their way through the world.

At last he decides to act dead and see how the world does without him. “For some while he has realized that things between him and the world are no longer proceeding as they used to…” But being dead isn’t so easy—not even for one as feckless as Mr. Palomar. Being dead must be distinguished from not being, for one thing, and it doesn’t seem to lead to the end of his anxiety. His observations continue but it’s a difficult adjustment as he finds himself trapped in his own ambiguous history. Anyway, if you left behind a genetic heritage, you’re not exactly dead. And even an idiot creates a historical heritage that is perpetuated “in the memory and language of those who go on living…” The ending of the human race will merely postpone its absolute extinction, as “the memory…is reborn from its ashes and is spread through the inhabited zones of the universe.” Ultimately, though, this memory will crystallize. And then time will end. Mr. Palomar decides to prepare by describing each moment of his life, which will expand infinitely, and “until he has described them all he will no longer think of being dead. At that moment he dies.”

One thought on “Mr. Palomar

  1. From Kathy (passed along by me):

    Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.” Mark Twain countered with, “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all.”

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