Hidden in the Distance: Reading Calvino Reading

Michael Wood

Italo Calvino once wrote that he “spent more time with the books of others than with my own.” He added, “I do not regret it” (Literature 341). That must be an unusual remark for a writer to make, even (or especially) a writer who worked in a publishing house. We may think of Mr. Cavedagna in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, who is described as “a little man, shrunken and bent” (77), not because he is like that, or looks like that, or even because he seems to have emerged from a book where little men are always shrunken and bent. No: “He seems to have come from a world in which they still read books where you encounter ‘little men, shrunken and bent’” (79).

It is Mr. Cavedagna who puts galley proofs on a table very gently, “as if the slightest jolt could upset the order of the printed letters” (80). Much of Calvino’s sense of literature lives in that small image, and not only of literature. “I still have the notion that to live in peace and freedom is a frail kind of good fortune that might be taken from me in an instant”(Literature 340). An order may be a modest form of art, the model of the good society, or it may be thoroughly repressive. We don’t always have the choice of orders, but we do have the choice of ways of thinking about them. “The ideal library,” Calvino says,

is one that gravitates towards the outside, toward the “apocryphal” books, in the etymological sense of the word: that is, “hidden” books. Literature is a search for the book hidden in the distance that alters the value and meaning of the known books; it is the pull toward the new apocryphal text still to be rediscovered or invented. (60-61)

In his Norton Lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, a work not quite complete at his death in 1985, Calvino speaks of Invisible Cities as “the book in which I think I managed to say most” (71). He achieves this in the face of the most scrupulous sense of the difficulty of saying anything—as distinct, for example, from merely asserting things or announcing them, or pretending you have said them. Calvino loves and distrusts and displaces language, drives it to its limits and beyond them, devises tests and defeats for it. It would be a mistake, I think, not to take seriously his conviction that language is often a form of failure rather than success. “When you kill, you always kill the wrong man,” he says in a gloss on the story of Hamlet in The Castle of Crossed Destinies. It’s not that Hamlet is “incapable of killing”: “Why, that is the only thing he succeeds in doing!” (119). First Polonius, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then Laertes, finally Claudius. Is Claudius the wrong man? Well, if he’s the right man, he comes pretty late in the series. And Calvino’s fiction, with its dazzled and dazzling allusions to the denser meanings of the visible world, is a monument to one of literature’s most important half-truths: when you write, you always write the wrong book. Of course, you have to write pretty well for this proposition to make any interesting sense, and the other half of the truth is that the wrong book can also be just right. There are failures and failures.


Calvino’s failure is substantial and willed, a discreet and calculated punctuation of silence. Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn, in Invisible Cities, converse among the fountains and magnolias of the Khan’s hanging garden. At first, the Venetian is unable to speak the Khan’s language, and can recount his travels in the empire only with gestures, leaps, and cries, and by exhibiting various objects he has brought back with him. He also resorts to pantomime:

One city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused. (21-22)

Before long Marco masters the Tartar idiom (or the Emperor begins to understand Italian), and the dialogue proceeds with greater precision. But then a certain nostalgia for the emblem sets in: “You would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past” (38-39).

Marco Polo and the Great Khan experience the shift from gestures to words chiefly as a loss. Words are more precise, of course, “more useful than objects or gestures in listing the most important things of every province and city,” but Marco Polo finds he can’t put the daily life of those places into words, and goes back to “gestures, grimaces, glances” (39).

So, for each city, after the fundamental information given in precise words, he followed with a mute commentary, holding up his hands, palms out, or backs, or sideways, in straight or oblique movements, spasmodic or slow. A new kind of dialogue was established: the Great Khan’s white hands, heavy with rings, answered with stately movements the sinewy, agile hands of the merchant. (39)

But then this language in turn becomes stable, conventional, closed. “The pleasure of falling back on it also diminished in both; in their conversations, most of the time, they remained silent and immobile” (39).

We must guard against too literal a reading of this situation. The decay of dialogue is part of the beautifully elegiac and speculative movement of the whole of Invisible Cities, which begins with the Khan seeing his vast empire as a sumptuous, corrupt ruin and takes us deeper and deeper into his melancholy, his “sense of emptiness” (5) and loss. We are repeatedly invited to wonder whether anything of what we read is actually happening, even within the world of the fiction. Do the Khan and Marco Polo, historical figures already thoroughly reimagined in the mind of the writer, really communicate with each other in this story, or do they dream they do? “The foreigner had learned to speak the emperor’s language or the emperor to understand the language of the foreigner” (38). This is to say they had turned to words, but not to whose words. And the supposed communication is often located more openly within the minds of the characters: “Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer)”; “Kublai Khan interrupted him or imagined interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted”; “Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself” (29). The characters imagine themselves to be in dialogue, which is a way of saying that we have to imagine them at it, and that is the dialogue we imagine that matters. The book raises further doubts about the (fictional) reality of the speakers by having them wonder philosophically who and where they are. “Perhaps,” Marco Polo says, “this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids, and we have never stopped: you, from raising dust on the fields of battle; and I, from bargaining for sacks of pepper in distant bazaars….” “Perhaps,” Kublai Khan replies, “this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo; as they sift through a rubbish heap, piling up rusted flotsam, scraps of cloth, wastepaper, while drunk on the few sips of bad wine, they see all the treasures of the East shine around them” (103-04).

There are fabulous cities here, architectural dreams, haunting conclusions to scarcely imaginable journeys. Each city is a story—“Tell me another city,” the Great Khan says to Marco Polo at one point (85). There are cities of intricate memory—“the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening . . . is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time” (7) —cities of desire, cities of signs, cities of the living and the dead. There is a city you can’t arrive in, which is only the city you see as you approach; there is a city which “knows only departures” (56); another is all outskirts, which has no center that anyone can reach.

Certain cities have an ecological look, or the look of an ecological parody. Leonia discards so much rubbish that it piles up like mountains on all sides of the city. This rubbish would take over the globe if other cities were not doing just as Leonia does. “Perhaps the whole world, beyond Leonia’s boundaries, is covered by craters of rubbish, each surrounding a metropolis in constant eruption. The boundaries between the alien, hostile cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of both support each other, overlap, mingle” (115). The situation is dangerous: “a tin can, an old tire, an unraveled wine flask, if it rolls toward Leonia, is enough to bring with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of bygone years, withered flowers, submerging the city in its own past…” (116).

Above all there are cities within cities, implied or invisible or unknown second worlds within or alongside second worlds, dreams within dreams. The city of Valdrada, for instance, is built on the shores of a lake, and the traveler always sees the city and its exact reflection. “Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror . . . ” (53). When the inhabitants of the shoreside city make love or murder each other those gestures are repeated in the lake, and “it is not so much their copulating or murdering that matters as the copulating or murdering of the images, limpid and cold in the mirror” (53). Of course the mirror image is not exactly the same: it is a symmetrical inversion.” The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them” (54).

Another double city allows Marco Polo (and Calvino) a light and perfectly placed gag, a simple reversal but one we are not ready for. “Sophronia is made up of two half-cities”: the fairground city, with its roller coaster, Ferris wheel, circus tent; the solid city of “stone and marble and cement,” with its bank, factories, palaces, slaughterhouse, school.

One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city.

And so every year the day comes when the workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers…. (63)

The situation of the city of Beersheba is more complicated. Its inhabitants believe that their terrestrial city is shadowed by a celestial one where all their “most elevated virtues and sentiments” are stored, and by a subterranean one, “the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them” (111). They are right about the two shadow cities but wrong in their identification of them: the supposed celestial city is really infernal, driven only by a “grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself;” the supposed infernal city, a place of waste and neglect and refusal, is the real celestial city, representing the “only moments of generous abandon” known to Beersheba, “a city which only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy” (112-13). Similarly, although in a different register, the city of Raissa is full of sadness, and doesn’t recognize the scattered moments of happiness which are also part of its fabric, the “invisible thread that binds one living being to another, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence” (149).

Andria is built according to a celestial pattern. Its denizens live, the traveler assumes, in an unchanging world, an elegant reflection of the “meticulous clockwork” of heaven. He is right about the reflection, but the inhabitants are astonished that he should think the place doesn’t change. They point to the ceaseless shifts and new buildings of the city. But then what about the matching with the stars? “Our city and the sky correspond so perfectly,” they answered, “that any change in Andria involves some novelty among the stars.” The astronomers, after each change takes place in Andria, peer into their telescopes and report a nova’s explosion, or a remote point in the firmament’s change of color from orange to yellow, the expansion of a nebula, the bending of a spiral of the Milky Way. Each change implies a sequence of other changes, in Andria as among the stars: the city and the sky never remain the same. This is why the inhabitants of Andria are so confident and so prudent. “Convinced that every innovation in the city influences the sky’s pattern, before taking any decision they calculate the risks and advantages for themselves and for the city and for all worlds” (151).

In the city of Eudoxia, the mirror and secret design of the place is found in a carpet. This is at first sight surprising, since the city is full of “winding alleys, dead ends,” refusals of straight lines and symmetry.

At first sight nothing seems to resemble Eudoxia less than the design of that carpet…. But if you pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced that each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things contained in the city are included in the design, arranged according to their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving. (96)

The stars are part of this city’s sense of itself too. When an oracle was asked about the mysterious resemblance of the carpet and the city, it said one of those objects had “the form the gods gave the starry sky and the orbits in which the worlds revolve,” while the other was “an approximate reflection, like every human creation.” For some time the interpreters were sure that the carpet mirrored the work of the gods and the city represented human labor.

But you could, similarly, come to the opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness. (97)

No city seems to be able to live without some sort of refraction of perfection as its opposite or model or echo. This is clearest of all in the last two cities Marco Polo describes. Theodora banishes, destroys the whole animal kingdom, leaving no other species than man in existence. Anyone who wants to know about the old fauna will have to look it up in one of Theodora’s well-stocked libraries. And yet, the animals return: not the former animals, but the wildest animals in the books, leaping from the pages in the library, perching on the edge of the citizens’ sleep. “Sphinxes, griffons, chimera, dragons, hirocervi, harpies, hydras, unicorns, basilisks were resuming possession of their city” (160). Berenice is described as “the unjust city,” but it contains a just city within it, the hope of tomorrow. However, that city in turn will contain the seeds of its opposite, injustice stirring in the heart of justice itself. The cities are not sequential, however.

From my words you will have reached the conclusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession of different cities, alternately just and unjust. But what I wanted to warn you about is something else: all the future Berenices are already present in this instant, wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable. (163)

Marco Polo’s warning anticipates the wonderful last words of this book. The Khan thinks this quest for cities is finally hopeless. The perfect city will never be found, even by putting some sort of ideal city together from the pieces of all the rest. “The last landing place can only be the infernal city.” Marco Polo doesn’t disagree, but replaces all the implicit worries about paradise with the stronger, more practical suggestion of a resistance to hell. The inferno, he says, if there is one, is where we already live, “what is already here.” There are two ways to escape the sufferings of hell, Polo suggests:

The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. (165)

But even if we are careful not to take too literally the question of language in Invisible Cities, we still need to attend the remarkable moment when Marco Polo rescues the Khan’s empire from a desolate and terminal abstraction by “reading” his chessboard.

Returning from his last mission, Marco Polo found the Khan awaiting him, seated at a chessboard. With a gesture he invited the Venetian to sit opposite him and describe, with the help only of the chessmen, the cities he had visited. Marco did not lose heart. The Great Khan’s chessmen were huge pieces of polished ivory: arranging on the board looming rooks and sulky knights, assembling swarms of pawns, drawing straight or oblique avenues like a queen’s progress, Marco recreated the perspective and the spaces of black and white cities on moonlit nights…. Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on distant expeditions: he kept him playing endless games of chess. (122)

The empire becomes a game; a game is an empire. But what is a game? “Each game ends in a gain or a loss,” the Khan thinks, “but of what? What were the true stakes?”

By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes. It was reduced to a square of planed wood: nothingness…. (123)

At this point, for the only time in the book, the linguistic situation is made perfectly clear: Marco Polo fluently speaks the language of the Khan. Yet it is not the fluency that amazes the Emperor, but what that fluency permits, an extraordinary combination of vision and articulation. Without the vision, there would be nothing to say; without the articulation, almost nothing of this vision could be evoked, since it is a vision of absence, of just what images cannot show. They can show the traces of absent people and things, of course, but the reading of those traces requires a syntax, a logic which goes beyond that of visual juxtaposition or sequence.

What Marco Polo sees in the chessboard, to be more precise, is not exactly an absence, but a presence filled with other, older presences, the past of the present case, what was there (here) before the chessboard became what it now is.

“Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged?… Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down…. This edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding…. The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows…. (131-32)

Calvino sees “the use of words . . . as a perpetual pursuit of things, as a perpetual adjustment to their infinite variety” (Six Memos 26). You could look at the inlay and fibers and scorings of the chessboard without needing words—although you might have needed words to learn some of the things that helped you to look closely enough. But you couldn’t read the board’s richness without words, or make clear that your reading was a reading. It is only in words that you would be able to speak of the “trunk that grew in a year of drought,” and a long dead caterpillar and a probably dead wood-carver, and the rafts and logs and docks of the past, and the imagined women at the windows of the mind.


In the frame story, in both frame stories, of The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a group of travelers is struck dumb by some terrible, unnamed experience, and each can tell his or her story only by pointing to and arranging in sequence certain cards of the tarot pack. The suggestion, it seems, is that we can abstain from the excessive and illusory clarities of verbal language only through some sort of calamity, as here, or through a shift beyond our own linguistic boundaries, like Marco Polo’s travels to China. Calvino reinforces this suggestion by retaining all the noises around the travelers—“the drumming of spoons, the rattle of goblets and crockery . . . the sounds of chewing and the smacking of lips gulping wine” (5)—so that we understand that speech is what is lost, not sound. These are people, we may say, not without language but without a language, without the language they think of as their own, without what we mostly think of as language. The tarot cards “conceal more things than they tell,” we learn at one point, but they tell plenty, and the travelers are eager to get hold of them, to signal and recount their own adventures”: As soon as a card says more, other hands immediately try to pull it in their direction, to fit it into a different story” (71).

The urge to tell stories survives language, finds languages of its own. The ambiguity of the images on the cards is an opportunity, not just a compensation or replacement for the speech that is lost, but a new field, a place where stories glitter and mingle as they cannot do in other modes. “Each story runs into another story,” Calvino says, and “the same cards, presented in a different order, often change their meaning” (41). The besieged city represented in the tarot of the World, for instance, is both Paris and Troy, a celestial city in yet another story, and a subterranean city in still another one.

The tarot pack, Calvino says, is “a machine for constructing stories”( 126), and he allows the look of the cards, rather than any occult meaning, to speak to him. He sees forests, for example, wherever crossed staves begin to look thick on the ground, and the King of Swords followed by the Ten of Swords produces this wonderful effect:

Our eyes seemed suddenly blinded by the great dust cloud of battles: we heard the blare of trumpets, already the shattered spears were flying; already the clashing horses’ muzzles were drenched in iridescent foam; already the swords, with the flat or the cutting edge, were striking against the flat or cutting edge of other swords…. (29)

Calvino is working with two versions of the pack: the sumptuous Visconti deck, painted by Bembo, and the fairly common Marseilles deck, which can be bought in any decent occultist’s shop. For the first deck, he imagines travelers staying at a castle, or perhaps an inn—the place is rather too grand for an inn, and rather too disorderly for a castle. Their stories are those of an unfaithful lover, of an unpunished grave robber, of a man who met the Devil’s bride. We also hear of Faust, and of Roland as he is portrayed in Ariosto. The narrator’s interpretations of the cards that are displayed are confident but frankly speculative, articulated through phrases like “our fellow guest probably wished to inform us” (7), “this row of cards . . . surely announced” (8), and “we could only venture some guesses” (12); and when he needs the story of Astolpho, the English knight in Ariosto who recovers Roland’s wits for him, he seems simply to conscript a fellow guest, who “might well be that English knight” (35). The narrator doesn’t tell us his own tale, but it is there, he says, buried in the pattern the cards make on the table once several crisscrossing stories have been dealt out. More precisely, he says his story is there but he can “no longer say which it is” (41), and a little later announces that he has “lost” his story, “confused it in the dust of the tales, become freed of it” (46). The hint, an echo of Borges perhaps, is that everyone has a story but that those who tell many stories lose their own, not because it is buried or repressed but because it is dispersed, played out in all kinds of figurative or displaced forms. “A man,” Borges writes,

sets himself the task of sketching the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses and persons. Shortly before dying, he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face. (111)

For the second deck Calvino imagines another set of silent travelers, but they seem more clearly to be at an inn, as befits the less aristocratic nature of the cards themselves, and for some reason the stories deduced from these cards are much more vivid and ingenious. They include the tale of the waverer, a narrative that finds impossible choices at every turn of the card, and also the stories of Faust (again) and Parsifal, and of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. At one point Calvino decides to interpret the picture card of the Pope as signifying a latinized Freud, “the great shepherd of souls and interpreter of dreams Sigismund of Vindobona” (102), and starts to look for, and of course soon finds, the story of Oedipus in the pack, “that story which, according to the teachings of [Sigismund’s] doctrine, is hidden in the warp of all stories” (102). In this deck the writer does dig out his own tale, but it is a tale of writing, not a confession of worldly adventures or sentimental secrets. Among his cards are the Devil, because “the raw material of writing” is “a rising to the surface of hairy claws, cur-like scratching, goat’s goring, repressed violences that grope in the darkness” (101), and the Juggler, a figure “who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a certain number of effects” (105). Among his models are Stendhal and the Marquis de Sade, because “in writing, what speaks is what is repressed” (102). If we are lucky. Calvino worries a little about the portentousness of some of this—“will I not have been too pontifical?” (troppo edificante) he says a little later (111)—and has his narrator deflate his own claims even as he makes them. “Writing, in short, has a subsoil which belongs to the species, or at least to civilization, or at least to certain income brackets” (103-04).

In such a view, or in such an income bracket, the tarot pack is not only a machine for constructing stories, it is a labyrinth where all the world’s stories can be found. But they have to be found, and finding them, it seems, does not interfere with the inexhaustible mystery of the labyrinth itself, which is organized, Calvino says, around “the chaotic heart of things, the center of the square of the cards and of the world, the point of intersection of all possible orders” (33). Calvino experiments briefly (and brilliantly) with “reading” other pictures in the same way, famous paintings of Saint Jerome and Saint George, for example, and he says he thought of completing his “Castle of Crossed Destinies” (the Visconti pack) and “Tavern of Crossed Destinies” (the Marseilles pack) with a “Motel of Crossed Destinies,” in which the mute survivors of an unnamed catastrophe would tell their tales by pointing to the various frames of the comics page of a scorched newspaper.

In the last chapter of The Castle of Crossed Destinies Calvino “discovers” the stories of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, described as “Three Tales of Madness and Destruction,” lurking among the tarot cards already laid out, already used for other stories. He can do this, of course, only if he and we are willing to believe that almost any story can be found in the tarot deck, and we know these stories already, so the idea of reading takes an interesting turn here. The images of the cards no longer suggest to us stories we do not know and must piece together, or stories we have lived and wish to communicate to others, but stories we can, with a little ingenuity, recognize in the images set before us—stories we literally discover, or discover again.

The stories are “told” by, attributed to, members of the company in the tavern of crossed destinies, who are identified first as “a young man,” “a lady” and “an old man,” later as Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, and Lear. The attribution of the Macbeth story to Lady Macbeth—she is the one who thinks about the witches and their prophecies, sees Banquo’s ghost; it is her life, more lucid than her husband’s, that the witches make nonsense of—is a delicate shift, consistent with the focusing on madness in these narratives. The card of the Ruined Tower is Elsinore and its haunted battlements in the night; it is Dunsinane, Birnam Wood advancing upon it; it is Lear’s castle, from which he has been driven, “emptied from the walls like a can of rubbish” (115)—the card shows figures falling, a tilted crown at the top of the tower, a feather licking at the broken edifice, perhaps representing lightning, perhaps an emblematic suggestion of how lightly the agencies of destruction may seem to proceed. The card of the Moon is the night in which Hamlet’s father’s ghost walks; the night the witches invoke and in which they work; the blasted landscape which is all Lear has left of his possessions. The card of the Hermit is Polonius in the arras, Banquo’s ghost, or perhaps even Macbeth himself, the man “who has murdered sleep” and stalks the guest rooms of his castle; and Lear on the heath, with the Fool (another card) as “his only support and mirror of his madness” (115). The card of the Star, which depicts a set of stars and a naked woman pouring water from two pitchers, is Ophelia gone mad; Lady Macbeth seeking to wash away the stain that nothing will remove; and (in a little riff Calvino has added to the story, or found in the cards) Cordelia in exile, “drinking water from the ditches” (118) and depending on the birds for her nourishment. The Chariot, finally, is Fortinbras come to clear up the mess in Elsinore; Malcolm arriving to assume his rightful place on the throne of Scotland; and the King of France, Cordelia’s husband, crossing the channel a little too late to save the mad king and his murdered daughter.

Other cards overlap in two of the three stories—Hamlet plays the Fool and meditates on the Fool’s skull; Temperance, represented by another lady with pitchers, this time pouring water from one into the other, is both Ophelia and the virtue that Lear has lost, perhaps the daughter he has lost for lack of that virtue—and some cards appear in only one story. The whole thing is a virtuoso exercise on Calvino’s part, lightly done, full of mischief and amusement. Hamlet’s method in his madness becomes, “If this is neurosis, there is a method in it, and in every method, neurosis” (115). Both Hamlet and Lear are seen as plays about problems between the generations, the young haunted by the authority of the old, the old beset by everything the young refuse to bury. “With daughters, whatever a father does is wrong: authoritarian or permissive, parents can never expect to be thanked” (117-18). The Macbeth marriage is one of equals: “They have shared the roles like a devoted couple, marriage is the encounter of two egoisms that grind each other reciprocally and from which spread the cracks in the foundations of civilized society…” (117). The suggestion of anachronism, of twentieth-century tackiness creeping up on these august old tales, mocks us gently for thinking we could tame and understand such wildnesses. We have found the stories, they are stories we know; but in what sense do we know them?

The largest suggestion here, though—and Calvino’s placing of this material at the end of his book is important—is that these stories, found in this way, take us deeper into reading than we have probably been before, deeper into what reading is. Calvino’s interpretations are not simply imposed on the cards—not any cards would do for any story—but they are not simply taken from the cards either. The stories are familiar already, but still need finding, and finding is itself a notion we now need to linger over a little. To discover the (very different) watery associations of Ophelia and Lady Macbeth in a particular card, as Calvino elsewhere finds the figure of the writer in the King of Clubs, who does indeed, in the Marseilles pack, seem to be holding something that looks like a ballpoint pen, is not to read these cards according to an intention ascribed to them, it is to make associations, whether theatrical and Shakespearean or technical and twentieth century. The associations may operate as a joke, like the ballpoint pen, or as an extension of a metaphorical universe, like the water in the card of the Star.

There is a sense here of the curious, punning crossover between one fiction and another, or between fiction and fact, which we meet when characters from novels by Cortázar and Fuentes show up in a novel by García Márquez, or when we read about the Gents’ Outfitters shop in Dublin, both Joyce’s and history’s, which is called Henry and James. The names are common enough in the second case, there is no mystery here; but for a moment the city seems mischievously to refer to a famous writer, to make a literary joke, and Joyce didn’t miss it; recorded it for us, precisely, since the shop has gone and the text remains. There is a more elaborate instance of such interplay between given and taken associations in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The German pronunciation of the letter V is fau (rhymes with how), so that the names of V-I and V-2 rockets sound like the word for a peacock, a Pfau, whose tail when spread has the color of the rainbow, and the shape of the rainbow and of the trajectory of those rockets as they fly from north Germany to England: gravity’s rainbow. The deliberate construction of such a network of associations, either by the novelist or by the critic, would be an absurd piece of pedantry. As it is, it would be pretty pedantic to brood on it much. But there surely is an eerie little shock here, as if we had stumbled on an order we had not suspected and which is not ours. The German language, or a pun which is lurking in this language and not in others, seems to connect the rocket with the peacock and to bring natural and technical shapes and colors together in the wake of this connection. Dublin similarly, not Joyce, made the joke Joyce found.

Yet of course Joyce, or someone, had to find it. Perhaps both writing and reading are larger affairs than our narrow notions of communication allow; and certainly reading understood as finding pieces of a world, as distinct from imagining whole worlds, assembled, disassembled, reassembled, has a peculiar richness of its own. We can’t dispense with the imagination, of course—there is no reading without it, and not much life of any kind—but we shouldn’t allow it all the honors, exclusively. The world as it is has surprises for us too; to impose, as Stevens said, is not to discover (230).

And then it’s important that single cards can be read in so many different ways. Here I interpret Calvino as suggesting—I interpret his text as allowing us to think—that the images of the tarot pack may not only remind us of everything articulated language flattens and misses, and not only invite us to pick up the dialogue between image and speech so beautifully dramatized in Marco Polo’s reading of the Great Khan’s chessboard, but they may also picture for us language itself in its most ordinary sense: what words are like. They are not just the pale and harassed servants we push around when we want to get things, ask for directions, food, love. Words, even the smallest, most insignificant-seeming, most abused of them, are pictures of life; they have histories and complications and multiple uses. When you say tower you might mean a card in the tarot pack, or Paris, or Blackpool, or London; just as the card may mean Elsinore or Dunsinane or the castle Lear has lost. Words are cards; you can play them in functional sentences; you can tell fortunes in them and tell stories; you can read stories in them, above all, in this context, the stories that hide in or accompany the stories ostensibly being told. “In writing, what speaks is what is repressed.” We don’t have to hold Calvino to this remark as to declaration of faith. But “writing” here might be taken as a metaphor borrowed from Derrida. Writing, whether materially set down, or spoken aloud, or mentally pursued, is looking at words to see the pictures in them, to glimpse the other, possible stories they offer, as well as the stories they have been conscripted to tell.

The question of language reminds us of the irony which is lurking everywhere in The Castle of Crossed Destinies: we are not reading the stories in the tarot cards, we are not even in the room with the narrator who is reading them. The narrator has translated the mute speech of the cards into Italian, and Calvino has reported his activities in print—and we have read the whole thing in English. The silence of the cards is repeated in the silence of the page, and (perhaps) in the silence of the room in which we read. But the pictorial ambiguities of the cards, their worlds of possibility, have been turned into consecutive, grammatical language. The celebration of emblems must leave the realm of emblems behind, cannot do without the supplementary clues and markings of language in its most familiar sense. There is a dialogue, let’s say, between the riches of imagery and the directedness of speech or writing, and it is the dialogue that matters rather than the riches or the directedness on their own. Or we need images as a reminder of everything language simplifies or misses, and we may believe that a language which remembered this would be different and renewed.


The central character of Calvino’s Mr. Palomar would like to learn a modest lesson or two from the unexplained world. But of course, as we have seen, the simplest things and creatures shimmer with complication when we look at them closely. What was richness and restoration of the world for Marco Polo will seem like invasive human history, or depredation by self-consciousness, if we are trying to get back to nature. This is how we meet Mr. Palomar, on the first page of the book:

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 . . . Finally it is not “the waves” that he means to look at, but just one individual wave. . . . (3)

Mr. Palomar “vacillates at length,” Calvino says, and indeed the character’s life on the page consists of lengthy, strenuous vacillation. But then Calvino’s patience with Mr. Palomar’s amiable pedantry—or rather Calvino’s ironic invention of Palomar and pedantry and the precise and relaxed prose which pursues them—produces wonderful effects. The individual wave is lost, but an indirect, unexpectedly beautiful description of the sea takes its place:

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, with them, against the shore. (6)

Mr. Palomar has a swim, thinks about naked bosoms on beaches—is it a sign of prejudice to avert your eyes? He listens to a pair of blackbirds and wonders whether their signals are very different from those he exchanges with his wife. “The equal whistle of man and blackbird now seems to him a bridge thrown over the abyss . . .” (24). An albino gorilla, lost in his biological loneliness, hugs a rubber tire as if he knew what a symbol was. This, Mr. Palomar thinks, is how we seek to escape from “the dismay of living: investing oneself in things, recognizing oneself in signs” (74).

The albino gorilla is a type nature has produced but not preferred, “sole exemplar in the world of a form not chosen, not loved” (73); even his mate and his offspring are black like other gorillas. “Mr. Palomar feels he understands the gorilla perfectly” (74), Calvino tells us, inviting us to smile at his hero’s presumption; but it is likely that Mr. Palomar does understand, if not the gorilla, then something of the gorilla’s condition as extravagant remnant of a road not taken: a possibility actualized once and only once. It is this strange dialogue with possibility which draws Mr. Palomar to the reptile house in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The iguana, for instance, looks like “a sample-case of forms available in the animal kingdom and perhaps also in other kingdoms: too much stuff for one animal to bear” (76-77). If the gorilla is (almost) no one, the iguana is everyone. The whole reptile house suggests to Mr. Palomar “a squandering of forms without style and without plan, where all is possible” (77). But then only certain forms—“perhaps actually the most incredible” (77)—become finally fixed and identifiable in natural history, classifiable in the cases of a zoo. They are that history, “the order of the world,” and it may be that what Mr. Palomar likes is the thought of “the world as it was before man, or after”; the chance, as he thinks, to be someone “who peers out beyond the human” (78). But of course every sample in the zoo is torn from whatever life it lived in nature, and preserved in an artificial climate. Far from being the order of the world before or after man, this is the very order of the human, the place where the world is our representation and our hypothesis. It’s at this point that the smell of the reptile house becomes unbearable to Mr. Palomar, and he gives up wondering about the appeal of the iguanas. They are replaced (in his immediate experience, the bestiary of his mind) by a group of brilliantly described, inscrutable crocodiles.

Is theirs a boundless patience, or a desperation without end? What are they waiting for, or what have they given up waiting for? In what time are they immersed? In that of the species, removed from the course of the hours that race from the birth to the death of the individual? Or in the time of geological eras that shifts continents and solidifies the crust of emerged lands? Or in the slow cooling of the rays of the sun? The thought of a time outside our experience is intolerable. Mr. Palomar hurries to leave the snake house. . . . (79)

Mr. Palomar takes himself to the edge of the human, finds there more humanity than he wants, and then encounters a darker, more frightening sense of the world without us. The human is in one sense inescapable, in another it is what we cannot bear the thought of escaping from: the first because of the second, perhaps. Knowledge for Calvino means seeing what we have done to the world, how littered it is with our decisions and interpretations; but it also means giving up our grasp of the world, fostering a loyalty to everything which persists beyond or beneath or apart from our interpretations. This intractable stuff wouldn’t necessarily be blank or uninterpreted, purely natural—it’s actually quite hard to see what the notion would mean, since the concept of nature is itself the product of ancient and proliferating interpretations. But it would elude our interpretations; there are whole universes, large and small, to remind us of the fullness rather than the emptiness of silence.

Perhaps the deepest and funniest moment in Mr. Palomar occurs in the account of our hero’s visit to a prehispanic ruin at Tula, in Mexico. His Mexican friend is “an impassioned and eloquent expert” (86), full of stories about Quetzalcoatl, the god-king who takes the form of a plumed serpent, and about extravagant coyotes and jaguars. “Mr. Palomar’s friend pauses at each stone, transforms it into a cosmic tale, an allegory, a moral reflection” (87). At the same time a group of schoolboys is being taken round the ruins. At each stone, or pyramid, or statue, their teacher provides copious factual details—date, civilization, building material—and adds each time, “We don’t know what it means.” Mr. Palomar “is fascinated by his friend’s wealth of mythological references: the play of interpretation, allegorical readings, have always seemed to him a supreme exercise of the mind” (87). But there is a humility of the mind, too, and Mr. Palomar is also drawn to what he takes to be the teacher’s position, a “refusal to comprehend more than what the stones show us,” which is “perhaps the only way to evince respect for their secret” (88).

The teacher leads the boys to the beautiful Wall of the Serpents. “This is the wall of the serpents. Each serpent has a skull in its mouth. We don’t know what they mean.” Mr. Palomar’s friend can stand it no longer, and cries, “Yes, we do! It’s the continuity of life and death; the serpents are life, the skulls are death. Life is life because it bears death with it, and death is death because there is no life without death. . . .” The boys listen, astonished. Mr. Palomar thinks his friend’s interpretation is still in need of an interpretation (“What did death, life, continuity, passage mean for the ancient Toltecs?”), but knows that “not to interpret is impossible, as refraining from thinking is impossible.”) Impossible for us, that is. Once the school group is round the corner, the teacher says, “No es verdad, it is not true, what the señor said. We don’t know what they mean” (88-89).

We don’t know; we do know; we can’t bear not to know; all knowledge is frayed with ignorance, tilted over absences or further questions. “I am accustomed to consider literature a search for knowledge (Six Memos 26), Calvino says in one of his lectures, and among many other pleasures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium offers a beautifully paced account of Calvino’s reading, a record of cherished books and images, which amounts to a discreet fragment of autobiography. Leopardi is a major presence, appears again and again; so does Lucretius. Paul Valéry is Calvino’s modern master, creator of Monsieur Teste, a “great intellectual personage of this century” (65). Borges is said to have achieved Valéry’s aesthetic ideal, while his Ficciones contains “the last great invention of a new literary genre in our time” (50). The “last real ‘event’ in the history of the novel so far,” though, is Perec’s Life a User’s Manual (121). Calvino also speaks warmly of Balzac, Flaubert, de Quincey, James, Proust, Kafka, Musil, Gadda, the comics he devoured before he was even able to read, the famous paintings he chooses to interpret as frozen stories, the cinema, another fund of images which “became an absolute obsession” (93).

What’s striking here is the extravagant appropriateness of this reading and viewing for a writer like Calvino. If Borges had invented Calvino, he would also have invented this intellectual genealogy. This is not to say Calvino is himself predictable or the victim of a modern fashion. It is to say that he has put his reading and looking to serious effect. The genealogy becomes less than a canon and more than a private journey. It is a recognizable track through modernity, a picture of some of the century’s significant ghosts, the ones that haunt contemporary writing; and it allows us to wonder what writing will be like, what it will miss, when it tries to avoid or ignore a sizable proportion of the names I have just mentioned, or forgets the comics and the paintings and the movies.


Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. El Hacedor. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1967.

Calvino, Italo. The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt, 1979.

—. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Trans. William Weaver. London: Picador, 1982.

—. Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt, 1978.

—. The Literature Machine. Trans. Patrick Creagh. London: Secker and Warburg, 1987.

—. Mr. Palomar. Trans. William Weaver. London: Secker and Warburg, 1985.

—. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1988.

Stevens, Wallace. “Notes towards a Supreme Fiction.” The Palm at the End of the Mind. New York: Vintage, 1990. 230.

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