Old favourites: Hermit in Paris by Italo Calvino
A year of Lucy Sweeney Byrne’s favourite books
Italo Calvino: Hermit in Paris is still relevant today
Paris is the same as anywhere else, if lived in long enough. A place that becomes “made up of the hundreds of small practical problems of family life”.
It is, then, according to Calvino, the pre-existing conceptions we bring to cities like Paris, or New York, or even Dublin, that make a romance of them. We’ve read them all before, and have already decided what we’re going to find when we reach them.
This is one of the thrusts of Italo Calvino’s title essay in Hermit in Paris, and it is a refreshing essay to return to, in this era of minibreaks and long-haul self-discovery. He acknowledges the overlap with Invisible Cities, but there is something in the conversational tone of Hermit in Paris, the image of Calvino disappearing down into the Métro to collect his Sunday paper, that proves oddly mesmeric.
The entire collection, a posthumous publication of autobiographical scraps, put together by Calvino’s late wife, feels, in spite of being so distinctly of its time (often concerned with issues such as Communism, postmodernism or Mussolini’s Italy), relevant to today.
There is a prescience, what sometimes reads like a direct transcription of contemporary concerns. “And China?” Calvino asks at one point, fretting about the future of our world. We wonder why nobody warned us of the way things were going; then we re-read Hermit in Paris, and wonder why we didn’t listen.
But there is no didacticism here, no judgement (thank Christ). The collection is personal. It’s at times poignant, wry, reflective. Take Political Autobiography of a Young Man, in which Calvino writes the discomfiting sentence: “The summer in which I began to enjoy my youth, society, girls, books, was 1938: it ended with Chamberlain and Hitler and Mussolini in Munich.”
American Diary, in contrast, written as letters to friends and associates back home, is striking in its immediacy; “Everyone’s conversation these days is about American corruption, the corruption and greed for money in the institutions of power, the newspapers, etc, which they say has never been so rife”.