Sometimes we feel such sympathy with certain writers as to believe they are speaking for us, even stealing our thoughts. It is just this sensation that overtook me when I read Italo Calvino’s “In Memory of Roland Barthes” in Collections of Sand and encountered two of the best literary minds conflated into one. One that I recognized as almost mine. (By ‘one,’ I mean both the experiences they recount and the experience of their words.)
Case in point is Calvino’s speculation that Barthes started writing Camera Lucida while reflecting on photographs “of his recently dead mother … in an impossible pursuit of [her] presence.” When looking at (photos of) my own recently deceased mother, I am always stymied by her presence-absence. I try my best to crawl into those pictures to no avail, except for the reassuring confirmation of her having-been.
Keeping company with the likes of Calvino and Barthes fosters delusions (or is it an illusion, in the phenomenological sense?) of another sort: a sense of mutuality. I know full well that, as Philip Lopate reminds us in The Personal Essay, the very purpose of their work is to “elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.” They do. But Calvino and Barthes (and countless others, not to mention Lopate, himself) also compel this reader to write, albeit as a writer working in a microcosm. (Is it possible to be a ‘writer,’ if you don’t associate with writers?) I take comfort in the fact that Andrea Camilleri who died just last month (he of the Commissario Montalbano series and more literary fables) didn’t begin to write prodigiously until he was 67 (though, admittedly, he wasn’t a literary hermit before that). At 69, I’m only two years behind; socially, it’s another matter.