you must remember this ...

A few weeks ago I joined the Ashfield Library. It is another surprisingly good suburban library, as good, in its way, as the Umina Library I used on the Central Coast. At Ashfield there are no poetry books apart from a few anthologies and no section devoted to literatures not written in English, as there are at Umina; but these lacks or omissions are more than compensated for by excellent selections of fiction and biography. Last week I read Saramago's 'All the Names'; this week Ismail Kadare's 'The Palace of Dreams' is on my bedside table. And, in the biographies, I found a collection of autobiographical writings by Italo Calvino, which is fascinating. I haven't read a lot of Calvino's fiction, though 'Invisible Cities' remains for me one of the great books of the later 20th century, an inspired re-telling of Marco Polo's adventures on the premise that in some sense that epochal journey took place entirely within the city of Venice; and I knew nothing about his life. I did not know he fought in the Resistance, nor that he spent five years after the War in daily contact with his mentor and friend, Cesare Pavese, nor that his engagement in practical politics and in publishing was life-long. He can seem, in his fiction, the most impersonal of writers; but this volume reveals an engaging, intelligent, amusing, above all civilized man of the world. Most compelling for me so far is the 'American Diary, 1959-60'. Calvino went to the States on a grant from the Ford Foundation. His account is not really diary, rather it is excerpts from letters he wrote back to his colleagues at the Turin publishing house, Einaudi, where he worked. These excerpts were going to be published as a book called 'An Optimist in America' but at the last moment Calvino decided not to go ahead with it because he felt 'it was too slight as a work of literature and not original enough as a work of journalistic reportage.' Well, that may be so; but as autobiography it is wonderful. The writings perhaps have a particular force for me because they recalled in detail my own experiences of travelling to the States in the late 1970s, the first time I went overseas. Calvino went to many of the same cities I visited: New York, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, New Orleans, Montgomery ... and spent time, as I did, in Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Although twenty years separated our visits, and he was primarily involved with literary publishing and politics on his trip, while I was travelling with a fairly eclectic, almost totally obscure band of actors and musicians, some of his observations are uncannily reminiscent of things I remember noticing at the time. I don't mean to put myself in the same company as him; it is just that his extremely astute insights into a timeless, not a contemporary, America, did remind me of the place I saw with innocent eyes in my mid-twenties. I guess I mean to say they took me back in a way encapsulated in what Calvino writes in another part of the book: 'One sees one's past more and more clearly as time goes by.' I have a scrapbook of my travels in 1978-80 but not much else; Calvino's Diary made me long to recover the almost mythological flavour of those times in the San Francisco of the assassinated Harvey Milk and George Mosconi, of the Jonestown Suicides; of New York in the shadow of the meltdown at Three Mile Island; of the high mesa beyond Taos where the young Rio Grande flowed and where you could see the lights of Los Alamos reflected in the night sky; most of all, perhaps, of the extraordinary community of fellow performers met in the small bars and theatres where we blithely played in a world that seemed utterly removed from the perturbations of a doomed geopolitic.

1 comment:

Martin Turner said...

Hi again Martin,

Not sure if these comments are readable by all viewers or just yourself. Looks like theyre not on public display so heres my email address for further contact:


Cheers Martin