Gore Vidal remembering Italo Calvino: “He was the only great writer of my time.”

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Gore Vidal's magnificent Mediterranean digs – Calvino was a neighbor.

A few days ago I wrote about Italo Calvino.  I’ve so far neglected the death of Gore Vidal – so many have written so much already I didn’t feel I had anything substantive to add.

Since both writers have been on my mind, it was curious to see their names intertwined in a link (can’t even remember where) that revisited a New York Review of Books article, featuring Vidal’s 1985 recollection of Calvino’s burial in Italy – the two were, in fact, neighbors.

Europe regarded Calvino’s death as a calamity for culture. A literary critic, as opposed to theorist, wrote at length in Le Monde, while in Italy itself, each day for two weeks, bulletins from the hospital at Siena were published, and the whole country was suddenly united in its esteem not only for a great writer but for someone who reached not only primary school children through his collections of folk and fairy tales but, at one time or another, everyone else who reads.

He had first written about Calvino eleven years earlier, in an essay that included the passage: “Reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.” The article caught Calvino’s attention, the two exchanged letters, and finally met.

En route to the burial sans ceremony at Castiglion della Pescáia, Vidal recalled:

As we drove north through the rain, I read Calvino’s last novel, Palomar. He had given it to me on November 28, 1983. I was chilled—and guilty—to read for the first time the inscription: “For Gore, these last meditations about Nature, Italo.” “Last” is a word artists should not easily use. What did this “last” mean? Latest? Or his last attempt to write about the phenomenal world? Or did he know, somehow, that he was in the process of “Learning to be dead,” the title of the book’s last chapter?

What greatness looks like.

What’s surprisingly moving in Vidal’s account is his obvious reverence for the Italian maestro, which assumes the usual form of embroidering a connection to make it more important, more real (“I hold Chichita’s hand a long moment,” he makes sure he tells us as he stands at the graveside with Calvino’s widow).  One would not have expected Vidal to expose himself that way, even inadvertently.  But humility is the sincerest and most difficult form of greatness.

That’s why it’s so dispiriting that Vidal’s fatal flaw persistently surfaces, the one that kept his own work from greatness: Vidal can’t resist the impulse to take an unnecessary and irrelevant swipe at those he holds in contempt, which is almost all of us.  For example, an almost random mention of meeting “the dread physical therapist Ms. Fonda Hayden,” which undermines the piece and should have met a sterner editorial pen.

He also laces his piece with taxonomies of middlebrow, highbrow, lowbrow, along with disdainful (and often unjust) comparisons of, for example, American ways with Continental ways – with the former always risible, provincial, gaffe-prone.  The inclusion of such remarks is predicated on the idea that we give a damn, and gives the impression that we earnestly seek his approval or want to be one of  the toffs.  We don’t. Where was the friend who could have told him these asides immeasurably weaken his writing?   

A more or less random example of passing insult:  “He wants us to see not only what he sees but what we may have missed by not looking with sufficient attention. It is no wonder that Galileo crops up in his writing. The received opinion of mankind over the centuries (which is what middlebrow is all about) was certain that the sun moved around the earth but to a divergent highbrow’s mind, Galileo’s or Calvino’s, it is plainly the other way around. Galileo applied the scientific methods of his day; Calvino used his imagination. Each either got it right; or assembled the data so that others could understand the phenomenon.

But I have seen “highbrows” hold remarkably conventional and conformist views, and I have encountered truly original and iconoclastic lowbrows.  So this isn’t a measure of anything except Vidal’s rather commonplace worship of “science.”

Here’s what Calvino does with related material, in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that preoccupied him in his final months, and eventually became Six Memos for the Next Millenium:

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes,” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

On the video below, Vidal says: “He was the only great writer of my time.”  This is a great video, thoroughly addictive.


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