Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Calvino's death

By now I've made a habit out of picking up and putting down Harry Mathews's The Case of the Persevering Maltese: Collected Essays. I'm drawn to the guy's obvious intelligence and elan, but I have a limited appetite for Oulipian shenanigans. Still, the other day I read "La Camera Ardente," about Italo Calvino, and found it tremendously touching. A camera ardente is a large room at the hospital in which the deceased is laid out for public viewing. Here is Mathews:
The hall--the sala d'infermeria or pellegrinaio, covered with lofty frescoes by Domenico di Bartolo depicting scenes full of elegantly striped and stockinged personages--occupied so vast a cubic space that it made little difference whether one was alone in it or among fifty fellow mourners. Calvino had been laid out near its windows in an asymmetically hexagonal coffin, under a pleated white satin coverlet that made him look child-size. Emerging from the coverlet, his head showed the effects of his operation: the right side shaven, a ridge running front to back over the cranium where the bone had been cut; such details only underlined the inevitably appalling disparity between a face known alive and the same face dead. Many men and women stepped up to the coffin, afterwards departing or joining those of us sitting or standing along the sides of the hall. A group of eleven-year-old boys was ushered in by a schoolteacher. I thought, why expose them to such a sight? But many, as they left, were weeping tears of unmistakable grief, and I was told that these were readers of Marcovaldo: they were mourning the creator of a book that they loved.
The precision of this passage--its cool notation of the room, the coffin, the coverlet, and the "appalling disparity" between life and death--is surely something Calvino himself would have appreciated. I was also struck by the sobbing children. I don't want to idealize the literary culture of Italy, where most people on the train seem to be reading fumetti or translations of The Da Vinci Code. Yet I can't imagine any American writer inspiring such a display of grief among the preteen demographic.

Good to see HOM back from vacation. It must have taken that month in the Hamptons we hear so much about in the provinces.
That's true, the "Codice da Vinci" has been n. 1 in the book charts here but I wonder whether we (Italians) differ significantly from other nationalities as regards our reading habits.

Fumetti were much more popular some decades ago. I don't see any around these days (when were you traveling in Italy?). They have been replaced by cell phones.
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