A certain monotony characterises saints' lives, at least when viewed from the outside, and the same goes for writers. The chosen career flattens out the visible differences. If it wasn't for the lion who traditionally accompanies St Jerome, Italo Calvino suggests in The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1973), you could hardly tell him from St Augustine. Both saints are often pictured as writers, and 'a man at a desk resembles every other man at a desk.' By the same token, all writers resemble themselves even when they change desks, and even at quite different stages of their career. 'I can write really well in hotel rooms,' Calvino says in the title-piece of this volume,
in that kind of abstract, anonymous space which hotel rooms are, where I find myself facing the blank page, with no alternative, no escape. Or perhaps this is an idealised condition which worked most of all when I was younger, and the world was there just outside the door, packed with signs . . . Now something must have changed, I write well only in a space which is mine, with books to hand, as though I always needed to consult something or other. Maybe it is not so much for the books themselves, but for a kind of interior space they form, as though I identified myself with my ideal library.
LRB 17 April 2003 | PDF Download