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Powells.com
Saturday, January 31st, 2004


 

The Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings

by Italo Calvino

A review by Ann Ellenbecker

Hermit in Paris takes the reader on a journey through the life of a fascinating author. For fans of Italo Calvino, this collection of twelve essays will reacquaint readers with the ideas and thoughts of the man behind the writing. Yet, the vast scope of topics will entertain those new to his world, as well.

The bulk of the book consists of the previously unreleased "American Diary," an essay rich in historical and cultural observations about the United States in 1959. Traveling from New York through the Midwest to the West Coast and back east through the South, Calvino saw as much of the country as he could during his tour. He experienced the gamut of suburban life, urban architecture, small-town taverns, the Pacific coastline, and everything in between. All are portrayed with the wit, charm, and understatement for which Calvino is famous.

The collection is rounded off with eleven other essays (previously published in Italian). Note, however, that the word "essay" should be taken rather loosely, as some are transcribed conversations. Others are letters and anecdotes of travels and writing. Whatever the form, each of the pieces covers an amazing amount of territory: Calvino's been a member of the Communist party and fought with the partisans in WWII during the German occupation of Italy. He met with Martin Luther King, Jr. while visiting Montgomery, Alabama during the race riots. And, he's been wined, dined, and shunned by the social elite. In the eponymous essay — a real treat — the author tackles fundamental questions of being and isolation. Feeling as much a tourist in Paris as he is in his own thoughts, he toys with the desire to be invisible yet immersed.

In these essays, as in his other writing, Calvino's observations go beyond the surface and delve deep into the human experience. He can see in the dark. Astute, political, and urbane, Calvino is much more than a novelist; he's a philosopher of modern-day questions. Hermit in Paris proves an essential addition to any Calvino library.


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