An easy mistake readers and writers make is confounding serious literature with serious subject matter. Death, devastation, relationships torn apart–these are the meat of literature, right? A man overwhelmed by the selection in a cheese shop, or trying to figure out where to look when passing a woman tanning topless? Fluff.
Until, that is, you see how Italo Calvino does it. Mr. Palomar is a series of essays, stories, and meditations featuring the eponymous protagonist, a man with a deep internal life and a certain level of, shall we say, nervous intensity in his day-to-day habits. The book is divided into three sections, progressing from internal meditations to more narrative pieces featuring some interpersonal interaction and ending in a section that considers its subjects on a wider historical/metaphysical/sociological plane.
I thought all of the stories were lovely, although don’t expect even the narrative stories to stray too far from Mr. Palomar’s head. In any particular piece, Mr. Palomar doesn’t do all that much: he takes an evening swim, watches a gecko in his living room, runs an errand to the butcher. The beauty is in the way his interpretation of the grander meaning of an act or place transforms the ordinary, and in Calvino’s lightness.
When I say lightness, I do mean humor, but almost tangentially. The real “lightness” is more that Calvino has a way of saying things that may be profound or perfectly silly without working too hard to define how the reader should take it. It’s a “maybe this is so” approach–you’re not pressured into accepting its gravity, but you also don’t get the impression that nothing matters. Mr. Palomar approaches life with an open mind as far as that goes, ready to appreciate meaning anywhere. When he passes the topless woman over and over again, trying to determine which way is the most polite to look (staring at her may be intrusive, but perhaps not looking is an insult to feminism via a rejection of the worth of female physicality?), it’s hilarious. When he considers the other swimmers in the water, all of them reaching toward the reflection the setting sun casts and seeing it as directed at them alone, it’s more contemplative.
I’d love to try some of the techniques out for myself. My stories are typically dark, even when they’re funny in places, and I love dialogue as a way of moving a story forward. I’m trying to capture more lightness in the story I’m working on now, and to see potential to show beauty or meaning through characters’ thoughts and actions, or even the surrounding environment, rather than concentrating on dialogue.