Mr. Palomar, by Italo Calvino
Make no mistakes, this is an odd book. Yet it is an odd book that is very formally structured, and that feels like a connected series of short stories written by someone who particularly enjoyed Nathanish characters. The titular Mr. Palomar is someone who is conscientious but struggles to communicate his thinking–and his ruminating is at a pretty high level–to other people. While the book itself ends somewhat abruptly, there is a definite structure to the book that the author formally comments upon at the end of the book (more on that anon) that makes it clear that this was not merely a slapdash series of stories together sharing a main character but that there was a definite aim and purpose to it. In the various chapters that make up the story the reader is treated to discussions of prudery, the sex life of tortoises, the frustrations of keeping a proper lawn, humorous explorations in amateur astronomy, and the thoughts that fill a man who is buying the groceries in Paris, France. Whether or not someone is looking for these things, this book certainly provides them in ways that most people would not expect and that at least some people will enjoy.
I have commented briefly about the structure of this short novel of barely over 100 pages, but it is worth talking about in more detail because a great deal of the connectedness of this book comes about because of that structure. The book’s structure consists of a series of triads. At the top level there are three larger parts to this book: Mr. Palomar’s Vacation (I), Mr. Palomar In The City (II), and Mr. Palomar’s Silences (III). Within each of these three parts there are three smaller sub-parts, so for example in the first part we get Mr. Palomar on the beach (i), in the garden (ii), and looking up at the sky (iii), in the second part we get Mr. Palomar on the terrace (i), doing the shopping (ii), and at the zoo (iii), and in the third part we get Mr. Palomar’s journeys (i), his struggles in society (ii), and his meditations (iii). And each of these sections has individual short chapters where the first of them have a visual form, the second of them is some kind of cultural or anthropological experience that has a narrative form, and the third is reflective, ending in the author’s death.
By and large, Mr. Palomar strikes this reader as a somewhat sympathetic figure. Perhaps he thinks too much, he certainly is a bit neurotic, but generally in a less offensive way than a Woody Allen neurotic though of the same general genre. Mr. Palomar has a certain openness to him and a certain recognition of the difficulties of communicating between generations that gives him a greater degree of insight than most people have, but for all of his insight into matters, he struggles with communication with others. And this is not hard to understand either, since Mr. Palomar is a complex and reflective person with a deep interior universe that is hard to interface with the outside universe and the other people within it. Yet Mr. Palomar has not done badly for himself. If we do not know his career, he has a fair amount of money, enough to be able to invest in his own property and telescopes and to travel to the beach or zoo when he wishes, even if he has to deal with the anxiety of driving around in traffic, and he has married, even if we do not see much of Mrs. Palomar or understand his relationship with her. So while Mr. Palomar is designed as a figure of pity, he is certainly doing better off than some of us.