The Author as Character

These structures place Calvino in his books in a very obvious way. He exists there as plainly as his characters. Indeed, this transparent creation has turned Calvino into a character himself—an individual fictionalized persona.

This, of course, is not accidental. Calvino believes that the first step in writing any type of literature is to create a writing persona—the “first character, who is the author of the work.”[2] This character is necessarily related to the person doing the physical writing, but they need not be identical. In writing any book, a person must decide what perspective to write from, what to stress and what to exclude. The writer puts in pieces of his true self as he deems fit, but this authorial persona is still in some sense a created role.

Yet Calvino is not just a character in his own work. Often he is the only character. Most authors’ primary goal is the creation of believable human figures. Calvino differs, instead concerning himself with passionate descriptions of visual elements, or variations on archetypal models. There are no characters present in his Invisible Cities (except, of course, for Calvino and the reader). The inhabitants are anonymous and perfunctory, functioning more as further architecture of the city than as living beings. Genghis Khan and Marco Polo are similarly inhuman—serving to illustrate opposing philosophies rather than to express their own humanity. Novelist John Barth sums up these creations perfectly: “Calvino's charming Qwfwq and Marco Polo and Marcovaldo and Mr. Palomar are archetypal narrative functionaries, nowise to be compared with the great pungent characters of narrative/dramatic literature.”[3]

In The Castle of Crossed Destinies human beings are of similarly peripheral importance. The main character (a narrator and absolutely nothing more) assumes an authorship that clearly identifies himself with Calvino. It is true that within the individual stories there are characters, but their brief treatment and mythic nature serves to distance them from the reader. Clearly, the act of interpreting the tarot cards—the process of reading the images and writing a story—is central.

Mr. Palomar would seem to not fit into this model. After all, the book consists of nothing but Palomar’s internal musings, so certainly one would think the reader would come away with a good sense of the man’s personality. Actually this is not the case, for Palomar’s musings are not the everyday stuff of human existence. His ideas are logically argued, tightly woven essays. This is a book of ideas, not of thoughts. Palomar philosophizes on abstract notions such as the relations between the observer and the observed, completely omitting any personal details. The point is not that a normal person would not have such thoughts, but rather that these focused passages offer a very abstract and limited view of the man. We do not learn his history, or his hopes, or the color of his wife’s hair, or how he acts in any social situation. An academic essay offers nearly as much insight into its author as this book offers into Palomar. Palomar is simply the originator of these thoughts—the author of these essays. Palomar is Calvino.

This lack of the human element is not a detriment to Calvino’s work. His genius is that of observation and description, and he is able to create vast and elaborate worlds that do not suffer for their lack of a populace. By his own admission, his books are not inspired by some aspect of the human character, but by “a visual image.”[1] This static and inanimate central motif creates a strange lunar landscape within his books, fantastic and wonderful, but in some way barren.

This objectivity and distance is just the atmosphere that Calvino is trying to create. In Six Memos for the Next Millennium he states this goal explicitly:

Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language, to the bird perching on the edge of the gutter, to the tree in spring and the tree in fall, to stone, to cement, to plastic…..[1]

In this goal Calvino is only partially successful. He does manage to remove characters from his novels, and they still manage to work. However, he never manages to remove himself—the meta-character that peeks out from behind every passionate description and obsessive mathematical construction. Calvino’s self is abundantly apparent on every page.

It is interesting to note that If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler does not quite fit into this general model. This book is overflowing with characters, both within the incipit novels, and within the larger framework. The Reader, Ludmilla, Lotaria, Uzzi-Tuzii, Silas Flannery, and Ermes Marana are all surprisingly fleshed out personas, and they interact with each other and the world in a much more traditional way than in much of Calvino’s work. This is not to say that Calvino is not just as present in this work as he is in all his others. In the final chapter he finally reveals himself—the Wizard of Oz daring the reader to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Even in this well populated novel Calvino is central. He is the creator, and he directs the action as he wishes.

img: Self-Portrait, Pablo Picasso, crayon on paper, 1972