By Giovanna Pasquariello
Palomar is a novel by the Italian author Italo Calvino. It is not the best novel I have read, nor the one with the most intriguing plot or a dynamic and well-rounded protagonist. To be honest, I have even found it a heavy reading from time to time – in spite of the slimness of its hundred pages. Nevertheless, it is brilliant – the most brilliant concept I have found in a novel so far, I dare say. Why it can be inspirational to me and – I believe – the reader of Pubs & Publications, I will explain later.
Palomar is the protagonist, a man deeply immersed in his own thoughts. Little you may know of his life from the pages of this book, neither of his temper and how he interacts with people. In Calvino’s third person narration, each chapter is a piece of the protagonist’s soliloquy. In each chapter, Palomar observes an object, or a scene, and describes it to himself – precisely, in detail, almost obsessively. Starting from this raw material observation, he then moves to contemplation – which hence brings him to examine more general questions, until he reaches a sort of existentialist perspective on the object observed.
Palomar takes his own name from Mount Palomar, a mountain ridge in California, famous as the location of the Palomar Observatory and the Hale Telescope. Like this powerful telescope, the novel’s protagonist looks at things under a magnifying glass. Nevertheless his gaze does not reach the infinite spaces of the universe, but he focuses on the small objects and sights of everyday life instead – a wave, the silhouette of a crescent moon in the afternoon, a naked breast, a jar of goose fat.
Palomar is brilliant, incredibly precise in its own structure and chapter organisation. The novel is divided in three thematic sections, each of them has three subsections, and each subsection is composed of three chapters. These form a triad, in which the protagonist’s soliloquy gets increasingly complex from a material, descriptive perspective to a philosophical, existentialist discourse in the last chapter of the group. And this cycle is repeated to the end. With a concept and structure like these, a reader should feel energized, satisfied or, at least, drawn to contemplation by the conclusion. On the contrary, one feels drained – and Calvino was aware of this, as he said: «While reading everything again, I realise that Palomar’s story can be synthesized in two sentences: “A man hits the road to reach, step by step, wisdom. He has not arrived yet”».
So how may this book be significant to me and you, doctoral students, or anyone else drawn to research? In the way that I feel like our journey is very similar to that of Palomar. We have a little, tiny topic for examination, to which we devote all our intellectual efforts; we describe it, we dissect it, we cut it in pieces – until almost everything can be said about it. Then we are asked to draw wider conclusions out of it, to give it its own place in a broader context, to make it relevant for a more general discourse; but this rightful need of “universality” sometimes brings us to lucubration. And we spend months, years doing this whirling dance made of details and big pictures, immersed in deep research and longing for conclusions that may be of interest for the public. At the end we find ourselves drained, like the reader of Palomar – and far than close to true knowledge.
Am I just being pessimistic about our work and the whole process of research? Not at all. I believe that what each of us do is like a tiny drop of water in the ocean, which may seem irrelevant to one other drop miles away but still contributes – in its own smallness – to the whole to which it belongs. Palomar may be far from reaching wisdom, like us all – but what is wisdom, what is knowledge if not something so abstract and broad to be uncatchable, almost dizzying? Palomar is just like one of us, a mind on the trail of its own thoughts, a soul looking for meaning or something to anchor him to this world. And I find this fragility, this impalpability, incredibly beautiful.
Giovanna Pasquariello is Chair of “Pubs and Publications: the PhD experience”. She’s a second year at the University of Edinburgh, studying something old, very old: the vocabulary of Greek inscriptions on the Celts. Apart from this, she swears she is a fun person.