Martin Johnston on Calvino and Duras, 1986

“this suggests nothing so much as Octave Mirbeau’s turn-of-the-century snuff novel The Garden of Tortures. Cochin-chinoiserie, as it were.”

From Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose (Ed. John Tranter), UQP, 1993.

Martin Johnston reviews
MR PALOMAR by Italo Calvino (Seeker & Warburg)
THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras (William Collins)

These are both slim books; one, I think, slim through magisterial economy of means, the other through exhaustion of material and of imagination.

James Thurber recounts how, as an undergraduate, he had to look through a microscope at cells, and sketch what he saw. After countless failures, one day he peered through the instrument and was suddenly rewarded with a configuration of the utmost complexity and elegance. Proudly he carried the resultant drawings to his instructor, who shrieked: “You’ve drawn your own eye!”

Mr Palomar is like that, though its tutelary instrument is, as the title suggests, a telescope instead — that and the naked, myopic but penetrating eye.

Calvino died, aged sixty-two, last year, and apart from what may be made of pieces still uncollected this is his last book. Its not a novel, not a collection of stories; rather a sequence of twenty-seven arduous, trenchant, funny and frustrating acts — or enactments — of seeing on the part of its eponymous hero.

Mr Palomar, popping up in Japan or Mexico, endlessly looking and analysing, is certainly a version of Calvino himself, but also has affinities with Paul Valery’s monster of intellect, Monsieur Teste (“stupidity is not my strong point”), as well as with the self-deprecatory humour of Thurber’s own personae, and even the Old Men of Edward Lear.

Gore Vidal noted in 1974 that “there is an odd intensity in the way Calvino sees things”; and here Mr Palomar turns a piercing yet finally self-reflexive gaze upon stars and starlings, sunbeams and slippers, geckoes, gorillas and galantines: “Perhaps, for all the sincerity of his love of galantines, galantines do not love him. They sense that his gaze transforms every food into a document of the history of civilisation, a museum exhibit.”

Much of the book’s charm derives from Palomar’s habit of asking the infuriating questions common to small children and pre-Socratic philosophers: “Is the world one thing or many things?” “Why does that sunbeam seem to follow me?” “What might birds think?” He is especially interested in vacancies and interstices, in what silence says, what the pattern of waves is, what goes on between world and word, the intellectual plotting of the interstellar abysses that terrified Pascal — and Calvino; but he can joke about it, too.

Always Mr Palomar ends up wryly, hopelessly analysing his analysis of things perceived: paralysed by the social mathematics of the number of possible ways of walking politely past a topless bather, carried away by a taxonomy and syntax of cheeses to the point where inevitably he buys the most banal cheese in the shop, Parmenides trapped in a Monty Python skit.

Appropriately, Mr Palomar is in many ways a distillation of Calvino’s work. Palomar himself, in his wide-eyed observations of an extraordinary universe, resembles Qfwfq, the protean hero of Cosmicomics and t zero. But, although there’s a semi-facetious schematic index, the book has divested itself of plot (let alone the dozen loose-ended plots of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller), of the structural rigidities that nearly ruined The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and of historical trappings. What’s left, in these miraculously sharp vignettes of the Galilean satellites, the chac-mool Statues of the Toltecs, the mating of tortoises, is Essence of Calvino: transparent, potent, mysterious stuff. And the translation (by William Weaver, as usual) reads beautifully.

So, for what it’s worth, does Barbara Bray’s translation of The Lover, which won the 1984 Prix Goncourt, a fact which reinforces a profound cynicism about literary prizes.

It’s true that the Anglo-Saxon reader tends to approach serious modern French fiction with a certain dour, even glum respect, as if entering a church of a particularly austere and indecipherable architectural style which has, however, been praised in the more recondite guidebooks.

But Duras really isn’t like that at all. This slender tale (quasi-autobiographical I perhaps impertinently assume) of a fifteen-year-old French girl’s affair with a young Chinese in Saigon in the 1930s (not the 1940s as the blurb states) only confirms Martin Seymour-Smith’s harsh description of Duras as a purveyor of superior romantic magazine fiction.

We find, as usual with Duras, some not-too-demanding experimentation with time; some nice descriptive passages; a lot of coy parataxis; and quite a few appalling cliches.

And there’s a disagreeable whiff of intellectualised sadomasochistic soft porn that links the novel with a long French tradition (Apollinaire, Bataille, de Mandiargues, Reage) and, more generally, with a tradition of overripe Western erotica set in the East.

She says: “I’d rather you didn’t love me. But if you do, I’d like you to do as you usually do with women…”: this suggests nothing so much as Octave Mirbeau’s turn-of-the-century snuff novel The Garden of Tortures. Cochin-chinoiserie, as it were.

Sydney Morning Herald, 8 February 1986

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