Lately, we’ve been reading the collection of Italo Calvino’s bric a brac published this spring as A Hermit in Paris. The book contains some essays, some autobiographical musings, and a journal of Calvino’s first journey to the U.S., in 1959, under the auspices of a Ford Foundation grant. We were fascinated to learn that the Ford Foundation, no doubt doing its cold war duty to advertise the culture of the free world, brought four European writers to America that year: Calvino, Hugo Claus, Arrabal, and Claude Ollier. Gunter Grass was supposed to be part of this merry band, but couldn’t make it. Calvino is nicely bitchy about his comrades -- Claus he doesn’t know and takes for granted is a minor from a minor country, Ollier – the nouveau romaniste -- he considers to be an ignoramus, and Arrabal the anarchist amuses him with his ceaseless complaints (for instance, Arrabal accuses Goytisolo of blocking his career in Francist Spain because he doesn’t write in the socialist realist strain and isn’t anti-Franco enough), in addition to which Calvino relishes the fact that, once the four land in New York, Arrabal is almost physically frightened of the beatniks he meets (like Alan Ginsburg, who comes to a party with a ‘disgusting black straggly beard, mistakes Arrabal for a kindred soul, since Arrabal also boasts a beard, and makes some moves on him): “Ginsburg lives with another bearded man as man and wife and would like Arrabal to be present at their bearded couplings. When I get back to the hotel, I find Arrabal looking frightened and scandalized because they wanted to seduce him.” Arrabal, Calvino claims, reveals that his set of beatniks in Paris are very clean, live in beautifully appointed houses with refrigerators and televisions, and “only dress up in dirty clothes to go out.”
Cold War culture, o saisons! o chateaux! Calvino loves New York. Nevertheless, he pulls himself out of it to travel around the country in 1960. Some of his comments have that visitor from another planet air about them, especially for an American. For instance, Calvino is a communist at this time. So he takes an interest in the 1960 presidential election. It is, he assures people in letters he sends back home, pretty much given that the Republican will win. This is good, because his opponent is a conservative Catholic. Calvino has seen enough conservative Catholics back in Italy. So much for the international charm of JFK.
One of Calvino’s autobiographical essays, Portraits of Duce, was published in the New Yorker last year. It is a catalogue of the images of Mussolini that Calvino remembers from childhood. And of how Mussolini’s face figured as more than an image of fascist power – it infiltrated the space of all faces in Italy in the fascist years.
Here is a graf::
“The other salient feature of these first official images of the dictator was the pensive pose, the prominent forehead seeming to underline his capacity for thought. In one of the affectionate games that people used to play at the time with children of one or two years, the adult would say, "Do Mussolini's face," and the child would furrow his brow and stick out angry lips. In a word, Italians of my generation carried the portrait of Mussolini within themselves, even before they were of an age to recognize it on the walls, and this reveals that there was (also) something infantile in that image, that look of concentration which small children can have, and which does not actually mean that they are thinking intensely about anything.”
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