“In the old days the really popular writers were totally anonymous,” writes Italo Calvino, “and this gave them an extraordinary mystique.” Fortunately for his admirers, the autobiographical texts collected in Hermit in Paris will do little to dispel Calvino’s mystique, and only slightly more to bring the Italian writer forth from anonymity. The essays, interviews, and questionnaires that Calvino kept in a folder called “Autobiographical Pieces,” discovered by his wife after his death, were mostly written for newspapers; the title essay comes from an interview for Swiss TV. There is a Calvino on view in these pieces, but it is not the intimate Calvino, about whom one learns almost nothing (when he lived in Paris, he took the Metro every morning to buy the Italian newspapers: So he didn’t write in the morning!). Here is a Calvino very much like, well, the narrators of his novels: a semi-detached intellect given to speculation on the nature of cities, places, travel. “International journeys as much as short journeys in the city are no longer an exploration of different places,” he writes apropos of his newspaper-buying expeditions. “They are simply movements from one point to another between which there is an empty interval . . . a parenthesis above the clouds if it is an air trip, and a parenthesis beneath the earth if it is a city journey.”
More interesting are the moments when Calvino makes no pretense of writing about himself. “The Duce’s Portraits” gives an intimate history of the rise of Italian fascism from a schoolboy’s perspective, and the long “American Diary, 1959-1960,” written as a series of letters to an Italian publisher, reminds us that Calvino was not always a hermit. He reports on the inner workings of bookstores and the literary gossip of midcentury Manhattan (Salinger has gone mad and writes only stories for The New Yorker; the beatniks, clean at home, put on dirty clothes when they go out). But Calvino went everywhere—from the IBM factory in Poughkeepsie to the Longshoreman’s Union in San Francisco—and met everyone, from Allen Ginsberg to Martin Luther King Jr. The King meeting is Hermit‘s most surprising episode. Calvino attends a black ministers’ council of war in Montgomery in 1960; at the rally afterward, he is “the sole white among three thousand black students, perhaps the first white to do so in the whole history of the South.” Another Calvino emerges, a keen observer who cares about politics, who is fearless in his search for firsthand knowledge. His engagement with public life is such, finally, that one doesn’t begrudge him a certain reticence about himself.