Hermit In Paris: Autobiographical Writings, by Italo Calvino
There is a moment in this book where the author fails to realize what an ominous sign a mishandled rhetorical question is. The essay in question is “Was I A Stalinist Too?” And the short answer is yes. The way the essay mishandles the question is profound. On the one hand, the author shows a dim awareness that to be a Stalinist is a bad thing, but the author does not seem to understand that it is at least equally a bad thing as being a Nazi, and certainly far worse than being a fascist, if one means Mussolini or Franco by it, and even more if one means anything vaguely right of centerish as the term is used nowadays. The author’s unawareness that politics exists outside of the left makes much of this book a fascinating read into someone who takes their leftist commitment for granted and does not realize that it is a bad thing in itself to be a leftist, and that if one even has to think about answering a question about whether they are socialist or communist, much less Stalinist, with an affirmative answer, that they have no credibility in speaking about anything political. And as might be imagined, this book talks a lot about politics and most of it is total nonsense and rubbish.
This book is about 250 pages long and it consists of autobiographical writing that the author never got the chance to publish before in English. The author begins with a couple of short essays as well as a questionnaire which somewhat repeat themselves and which show the author as an adopted resident of Turin who was strongly influenced by the writing culture of the socialist opposition to Mussolini. After that a substantial portion of the book consists of the author’s American Diary from 1959-1960 which shows him coping with life in America in less than an ideal fashion, and in running into the same group of people over and over again. After this comes a variety of essays that are less enjoyable because the author asks questions and deals with matters that are only important for European leftists, such as where someone was on April 25th 1945 when the Social Republic was overthrown, how one can be a cloven Communist and consider that something worth admitting, looking at whether one is a Stalnist and why one should never allow oneself to be in that position, and the like. Besides these terrible reflections there are some thoughtful discussions on matters of dialect, the portraits of the Il Duce, including his harrowing end, that the author thinks about, and some material from interviews.
Given my low regard for the political worldview of the author, is there anything worth reading in this book? And my answer to that is a warm “it depends.” If reading delusional writing by leftists who think their political worldview is remotely sound or worth accepting is something that you are unwilling to do, then this book is not for you. Yet if you are willing to charitably overlook the author’s defective worldview and politics, there are at least some genuine moments of comedy here, especially in the opening long essay about the author’s trip to the United States. If you are familiar with what leftist Europeans think about the United States, the complaining and carping might be a bit of a surprise, but reading the author complain about the difficulties of seeing wonders and thinking that the natural wonders of the United States are frustrating because one cannot see them without a car, and then hearing him complain about the architecture and culture of a nation which is far better than he can fathom is quite a striking picture. If this book is worth reading, it is to help better understand the demented and misguided leftists among us who hold to the same views and have the same blind spots as the author does. Sometimes it is worthwhile to know where someone is coming from even when they are off-base–especially when they are off-base.