Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

Absolute gems from “Mr. Palomar” by Italo Calvino

  • “…because half-respected conventions spread insecurity and incoherence of behavior

    The chapters could be condensed to form an abstract short story.

    rather than freedom and frankness.”

  • “Is what we have in common precisely what is given to each of us as something exclusively his?”
  • “For millions of centuries the sun’s rays rested on the water before there were eyes capable of perceiving them.”
  • “No book can teach what can be learned only in childhood if you lend an alert ear and eye”
  • “Is “the lawn” what we see or do we see one grass plus one grass plus one grass…?”
  • The “universe, collection of celestial bodies, nebulas, fine dust, fields of force, intersections of fields, collections of collections…”
  • “Is this the exact geometry of the sidereal spaces, which Mr Palomar has so often felt the need to turn to, in order to detach himself from the Earth, that place of superfluous complications and confused approximations? When he finds himself really in the presence of the starred sky, everything seems to escape him. Even that aspect to which he thought himself most sensitive, the smallness of our world compared to the vast distances, does not emerge directly. The firmament is something that is up there, you can see that it exists, but from it you can derive no idea of dimensions or distance”
  • “When he finds himself really in the presence of the starred sky, everything seems to escape him. Even that aspect to which he thought himself most sensitive, the smallness of our world compared to the vast distances, does not emerge directly. The firmament is something that is up there, you can see that it exists, but from it you can derive no idea of dimensions or distance.”
  • “He looks around: a few paces from him a little crowd has gathered, observing his movements like the convulsions of a madman.”
  • “This is how birds think, or at least this is how Mr Palomar thinks, imagining himself a bird. “It is only after you have come to know the surface of things,” he concludes, “that you venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface is inexhaustible.”
  • “Nothing like the calligraphic agility of lizards’ tails”
  • “The cheese shop appears to Palomar the way an encyclopedia looks to an autodidact; he could memorize all the names, venture a classification according to the forms – cake of soap, cylinder, dome, ball – according to the consistency – dry, buttery, creamy, veined, firm – according to the alien materials involved in the crust or in the heart – raisins, pepper, walnuts, sesame seeds, herbs, molds – but this would not bring him a step closer to true knowledge, which lies in the experience of the flavors, composed of memory and imagination at once. Only on the basis of that could he establish a scale of preferences and tastes and curiosities and exclusions.”
  • “…which at least in part should be called human-bovine (coinciding in part with the human-ovine and in smaller part with the human-porcine, depending on the alternatives of a complicated geography of religious prohibitions)”
  • “Beyond the glass of every cage there is the world as it was before man, or after, to show that the world of man is not eternal and is not unique.”
  • “The thought of a time outside our experience is intolerable.”
  • “A stone, a figure, a sign, a word that reach us isolated from its context is only that stone, figure, sign or word: we can try to define them, to describe them as they are, and no more than that; whether, beside the face they show us, they also have a hidden face, it is not for us to know. The refusal to comprehend more than what the stones show us is perhaps the only way to evince respect for their secret; trying to guess is a presumption, a betrayal of that true, lost meaning.”
  • “The world is also there, and for the occasion has been split into a looking world and a world looked at.”
  • “A thing is happy to be looked at by other things only when it is convinced that it signifies itself and nothing else, amid things that signify themselves and nothing else.”
  • “Mr Palomar suffers greatly because of his difficulty in establishing relations with his fellow-man. He envies those people who have the gift of always finding the right thing to say, the right greeting for everyone, people who are at ease with anyone they happen to encounter and put others at their ease; who move easily among people and immediately understand when they must defend themselves and keep their distance or when they can win trust and affection; who give their best in their relations with others and make others want to give their best; who know at once how to evaluate a person with regard to themselves and on an absolute scale.”
  • “Then he tries to make his thoughts retain simultaneously the nearest things and the farthest: when he lights his pipe he is intent on the flame of the match that at his next puff should allow itself to be drawn to the bottom of the bowl, initiating the slow transformation of shreds of tobacco into embers; but this attention must not make him forget even for a moment the explosion of a supernova taking place in the great Magellanic Cloud at this same instant, that is to say a few million years ago. The idea that everything in the universe is connected and corresponds never leaves him: a variation in the luminosity in the Nebula of Cancer or the condensation of a globular mass in Andromeda cannot help but have some influence on the functioning of his record-player or on the freshness of the watercress leaves in his bowl of salad.”
  • “This: contemplating the stars he has become accustomed to considering himself an anonymous and incorporeal dot, almost forgetting that he exists; to deal now with human beings he cannot help involving himself, and he no longer knows where his self is to be found.”
  • “But for all this, even before he starts observing the others, one should know well who he is himself. Knowledge of one’s fellow has this special aspect: it passes necessarily through knowledge of oneself”
  • “Palomar, who does not love himself, has always taken care not to encounter himself face to face; this is why he preferred to take refuge among the galaxies; now he understands that he should have begun by finding an inner peace. The universe can perhaps go tranquilly about its business; he surely cannot. The road left open to him is this: he will devote himself from now on to the knowing of himself, he will explore his own inner geography, he will draw the diagram of the moods of his spirit, he will derive from it formulas and theories, he will train his telescope on the orbits traced by the course of his life rather than on those of the constellations. “We can know nothing about what is outside us, if we overlook ourselves,” he thinks now, “the universe is the mirror in which we can contemplate only what we have learned to know in ourselves.”
  • “Before, by “world” he meant the world plus himself; now it is a question of himself plus the world minus him.”
  • “Anyone who has lived in suffering is always made of that suffering; if they try to take it away from him, he is no longer himself.”
  • “These views can be divided into two broad categories: the biological mechanism, which allows leaving descendants that part of the self known as the genetic heritage; and the historical mechanism, which grants a continuance in the memory and language of those who go on living and inherit that portion, large or small, of experience that even the most inept man gathers and stores up”
  • “He decides that he will set himself to describing every instant of his life, and until he has described them all he will no longer think of being dead. At that moment he dies.”