The Adventure of a Reader
by Italo Calvino
The coast road ran high above the cape; the sea was below, a sheer drop, and on all sides, as far as the hazy mountainous horizon. The sun was on all sides, too, as if the sky and the sea were two glasses magnifying it. Down below, against the jagged, irregular rocks of the cape, the calm water slapped without making foam. Amedeo Oliva climbed down a steep flight of steps, shouldering his bicycle, which he then left in a shady place, after closing the padlock. He continued down the steps amid spills of dry yellow earth and agaves jutting into the void, and he was already looking around for the most comfortable stretch of rock to lie down. Under his arm he had a rolled-up towel and, inside the towel, his bathing trunks and a book.
The cape was a solitary place : only a few groups of bathers dived into the water or took the sun, hidden from one another by the irregular conformation of the place. Between two boulders that shielded him from view, Amedeo undressed, put on his trunks, and began jumping from the top of one rock to the next. Leaping in this way on his skinny legs, he crossed half the rocky shore, sometimes almost grazing the faces of half-hidden pairs of bathers stretched out on beach towels. Having gone past an outcrop of sandy rock, its surface porous and irregular, he came upon smooth stones, with rounded corners; Amedeo took off his sandals, held them in his hand, and continued running barefoot, with the confidence of someone who can judge distances between rocks and whose soles nothing can hurt. He reached a spot directly above the sea; there was a kind of shelf running around the cliff at the halfway point. There Amedeo stopped. On a flat ledge he arranged his clothes, carefully folded, and set the sandals on them, soles up, so no gust of wind would carry everything off (in reality, only the faintest breath of air was stirring, from the sea; but this precaution was obviously a habit with him). A little bag he was carrying turned into a rubber cushion; he blew into it until it had filled out, then set it down; and below it, at a point slightly sloping from that rocky ledge, he spread out his towel. He flung himself on it supine, and already his hands were opening his book at the marked page. So he lay stretched out on the ledge, in that sun glaring on all sides, his skin dry (his tan was opaque, irregular, as of one who takes the sun without any method but doesn’t burn); on the rubber cushion he set his head sheathed in a white canvas cap, moistened (yes, he had also climbed down to a low rock, to dip his cap in the water), immobile except for his eyes (invisible behind his dark glasses), which followed along the black and white lines the horse of Fabrizio del Dongo. Below him opened a little cove of greenish-blue water, transparent almost to the bottom. The rocks, according to their exposure, were bleached white or covered with algae. A little pebble beach was at their foot. Every now and then Amedeo raised his eyes to that broad view, lingered on a glinting of the surface, on the oblique dash of a crab; then he went back, gripped, to the page where Raskolnikov counted the steps that separated him from the old woman’s door, or where Lucien de Rubempre, before sticking his head into the noose, gazed at the towers and roofs of the Conciergerie.
For some time Amedeo had tended to reduce his participation in active life to the minimum. Not that he didn’t like action: on the contrary, love of action nourished his whole character, all his tastes; and yet, from one year to the next, the yearning to be someone who did things declined, declined, until he wondered if he had ever really harbored that yearning. His interest in action survived, however, in his pleasure in reading; his passion was always the narration of events, the stories, the tangle of human situations — nineteenth-century novels especially, but also memoirs and biographies, and so on down to thrillers and science fiction, which he didn’t disdain but which gave him less satisfaction because they were short. Amedeo loved thick tomes, and in tackling them he felt the physical pleasure of undertaking a great task. Weighing them in his hand, thick, closely printed, squat, he would consider with some apprehension the number of pages, the length of the chapters, then venture into them, a bit reluctant at the beginning, without any desire to perform the initial chore of remembering the names, catching the drift of the story; then he would entrust himself to it, running along the lines, crossing the grid of the uniform page, and beyond the leaden print the flame and fire of battle appeared, the cannonball that, whistling through the sky, fell at the feet of Prince Andrei, and the shop filled with engravings and statues where Frederic Moreau, his heart in his mouth, was to meet the Arnoux family. Beyond the surface of the page you entered a world where life was more alive than here on this side: like the surface of the water that separates us from that blue-and-green world, rifts as far as the eye can see, expanses of fine, ribbed sand, creatures half animal and half vegetable.
The sun beat down hard, the rock was burning, and after a while Amedeo felt he was one with the rock. He reached the end of the chapter, closed the book, inserted an advertising coupon to mark his place, took off his canvas cap and his glasses, stood up half dazed, and with broad leaps went down to the far end of the rock, where a group of kids were constantly, at all hours, diving in and climbing out. Amedeo stood erect on a shelf over the sea, not too high, a couple of yards above the water; his eyes, still dazzled, contemplated the luminous transparence below him, and all of a sudden he plunged. His dive was always the same: headlong, fairly correct, but with a certain stiffness. The passage from the sunny air to the tepid water would have been almost unnoticeable if it hadn’t been abrupt. He didn’t surface immediately: he liked to swim underwater, down, down, his belly almost scraping bottom, as long as his breath held out. He very much enjoyed physical effort, setting himself difficult assignments (for this he came to read his book at the cape, making the climb on his bicycle, pedaling up furiously under the noonday sun). Every time, swimming underwater, he tried to reach a wall of rocks that rose at a certain point from the sandy bed and was covered by a thick patch of sea grasses. He surfaced among those rocks and swam around a bit; he began to do “the Australian crawl” methodically, but expending more energy than necessary; soon, tired of swimming with his face in the water, as if blind, he took to a freer side stroke; sight gave him more satisfaction than movement, and in a little while he gave up the side stroke to drift on his back, moving less and less regularly and steadily, until he stopped altogether, in a dead-man’s-float. And so he turned and twisted in that sea as in a bed without sides; he would set himself the goal of a sandbar to be reached, or limit the number of strokes, and he couldn’t rest until he had carried out that task. For a while he would dawdle lazily, then he would head out to sea, taken by the desire to have nothing around him but sky and water; for a while he would move close to the rocks scattered along the cape, not to overlook any of the possible itineraries of that little archipelago. But as he swam, he realized that the curiosity occupying more and more of his mind was to know the outcome — for example — of the story of Albertine. Would Marcel find her again, or not? He swam furiously or floated idly, but his heart was between the pages of the book left behind on shore. And so, with rapid strokes, he would regain his rock, seek the place for climbing up, and, almost without realizing it, he would be up there again, rubbing the Turkish towel on his back. Sticking the canvas cap on his head once more, he would lie in the sun again, to begin the next chapter.
He was not, however, a hasty, voracious reader. He had reached the age when rereading a book — for the second, third, or fourth time — affords more pleasure than a first reading. And yet he still had many continents to discover. Every summer, the most laborious packing before his departure for the sea involved the heavy suitcase to be filled with books. Following the whims and dictates of the months of city life, each year Amedeo would choose certain famous books to reread and certain authors to essay for the first time. And there, on the rock, he went through them, lingering over sentences, often raising his eyes from the page to ponder, to collect his thoughts.
At a certain point, raising his eyes in this way, he saw that on the little pebble beach below, in the cove, a woman had appeared and was lying there.
She was deeply tanned, thin, not very young or particularly beautiful, but nakedness became her (she wore a very tiny “two-piece,” rolled up at the edges to get as much sun as she could), and Amedeo’s eye was drawn to her. He realized that as he read he was raising his eyes more and more often from the book to gaze into the air; and this air was the air that lay between that woman and himself. Her face (she was stretched out on the sloping shore, on a rubber mattress, and at every flicker of his pupils Amedeo saw her legs, not shapely but harmonious, the excellently smooth belly, the bosom slim in a perhaps not unpleasant way but probably sagging a bit, the shoulders a bit too bony, and then the neck and the arms, and the face masked by the sunglasses and by the brim of the straw hat) was slightly lined, lively, aware, and ironic. Amedeo classified the type: the independent woman, on holiday by herself, who dislikes crowded beaches and prefers the more deserted rocks, and likes to lie there and become black as coal; he evaluated the amount of lazy sensuality and of chronic frustration there was in her; he thought fleetingly of the likelihood of a rapidly consummated fling, measured it against the prospect of a trite conversation, a program for the evening, probable logistic difficulties, the effort of concentration always required to become acquainted, even superficially, with a person; and he went on reading, convinced that this woman couldn’t interest him at all.
But he had been lying on that stretch of rock for too long, or else those fleeting thoughts had left a wake of restlessness in him; anyway, he felt an ache, the harshness of the rock under the towel that was his only pallet began to chafe him. He got up to look for another spot where he could stretch out. For a moment, he hesitated between two places that seemed equally comfortable to him: one more distant from the little beach where the tanned lady was lying (actually behind an outcrop of rock that blocked the sight of her), the other closer. The thought of approaching, and of then perhaps being led by some unforeseeable circumstance to start a conversation, and thus perforce to interrupt his reading, made him immediately prefer the farther spot; but when he thought it over, it really would look as if, the moment that lady had arrived, he wanted to run off, and this might seem a bit rude; so he picked the closer spot, since his reading absorbed him so much anyway that the view of the lady — not specially beautiful, for that matter — could hardly distract him. He lay on one side, holding the book so that it blocked the sight of her, but it was awkward to keep his arm at that height, and in the end he lowered it. Now, every time he had to start a new line, the same gaze that ran along the lines encountered, just beyond the edge of the page, the legs of the solitary vacationer. She, too, had shifted slightly, looking for a more comfortable position, and the fact that she had raised her knees and crossed her legs precisely in Amedeo’s direction allowed him to observe better her proportions, not at all unattractive. In short, Amedeo (though a shaft of rock was sawing at his hip) couldn’t have found a finer position: the pleasure he could derive from the sight of the tanned lady — a marginal pleasure, something extra, but not for that reason to be discarded, since it could be enjoyed with no effort — did not mar the pleasure of reading, but was inserted into its normal process, so that now he was sure he could go on reading without being tempted to look away.
Everything was calm; only the course of his reading flowed on, with the motionless landscape serving as frame; the tanned lady had become a necessary part of this landscape. Amedeo was naturally relying on his own ability to remain absolutely still for a long time, but he hadn’t taken into account the woman’s restlessness: now she rose, was standing, making her way among the stones toward the water. She had moved — Amedeo understood immediately — to get a closer look at a great medusa that a group of boys were bringing ashore, poking at it with lengths of reed. The tanned lady bent toward the overturned body of the medusa and was questioning the boys; her legs rose from wooden clogs with very high heels, unsuited to those rocks; her body, seen from behind as Amedeo now saw it, was that of a more attractive younger woman than she had first seemed to him. He thought that, for a man seeking a romance, that dialogue between her and the fisher-boys would have been a “classic” opening: approach, also remark on the capture of the medusa, and in that way engage her in conversation. The very thing he wouldn’t have done for all the gold in the world! he added to himself, plunging again into his reading.
To be sure, this rule of conduct of his also prevented him from satisfying a natural curiosity concerning the medusa, which seemed, as he saw it there, of unusual dimensions, and also of a strange hue between pink and violet. This curiosity about marine animals was in no way a sidetrack, either; it was coherent with the nature of his passion for reading. At that moment, in any case, his concentration on the page he was reading — a long descriptive passage — had been relaxing; in short, it was absurd that to protect himself against the danger of starting a conversation with that woman he should also deny himself spontaneous and quite legitimate impulses such as that of amusing himself for a few minutes by taking a close look at a medusa. He shut his book at the marked page and stood up. His decision couldn’t have been more timely: at that same moment the lady moved away from the little group of boys, preparing to return to her mattress. Amedeo realized this as he was approaching and felt the need of immediately saying something in a loud voice. He shouted to the kids, “Watch out! It could be dangerous!”
The boys, crouched around the animal, didn’t even look up: they continued, with the lengths of reed they held in their hands, to try to raise it and turn it over; but the lady turned abruptly and went back to the shore, with a half-questioning, half-fearful air. “Oh, how frightening! Does it bite?”
“If you touch it, it stings,” he explained and realized he was heading not toward the medusa but toward the lady, who, for some reason, covered her bosom with her arms in a useless shudder and cast almost furtive glances, first at the supine animal, then at Amedeo. He reassured her, and so, predictably, they started conversing; but it didn’t matter, because Amedeo would soon be going back to the book awaiting him: he only wanted to take a glance at the medusa. He led the tanned lady over, to lean into the center of the circle of boys. The lady was now observing with revulsion, her knuckles against her teeth, and at a certain point, as she and he were side by side, their arms came into contact and they delayed a moment before separating them. Amedeo then started talking about medusas. His direct experience wasn’t great, but he had read some books by famous fishermen and underwater explorers, so — skipping the smaller fauna — he began promptly talking about the famous manta-. The lady listened to him, displaying great interest and interjecting something from time to time, always irrelevantly, the way women will. “You see this red spot on my arm? That wasn’t a medusa, was it?” Amedeo touched the spot, just above the elbow, and said no. It was a bit red because she had been leaning on it while lying down.
With that, it was all over. They said good-bye; she went back to her place, and he to his, where he resumed reading. It had been an interval lasting the right amount of time, neither more nor less, a human encounter, not unpleasant (the lady was polite, discreet, unassuming) precisely because it was barely adumbrated. In the book he now found a far fuller and more concrete attachment to reality, where everything had a meaning, an importance, a rhythm. Amedeo felt himself in a perfect situation: the printed page opened true life to him, profound and exciting, and, raising his eyes, he found a pleasant but casual juxtaposition of colors and sensations, an accessory and decorative world that couldn’t commit him to anything. The tanned lady, from her mattress, gave him a smile and a wave; he replied also with a smile and a vague gesture, and immediately lowered his eyes. But the lady had said something.
“You’re reading. Do you read all the time?”
He mustn’t raise his eyes again. At least not until the end of the chapter. He read it in a flash. The lady now had a cigarette in her mouth and motioned to him, as she pointed to it. Amedeo had the impression that for some
time she had been trying to attract his attention. “I beg your pardon?”
“… match. Forgive me. …”
“Oh, I’m very sorry. 1 don’t smoke. …”
The chapter was finished. Amedeo rapidly read the first lines of the next one, which he found surprisingly attractive, but to begin the next chapter without anxiety he had to resolve as quickly as possible the matter of the match. “Wait!” He stood up, began leaping among the rocks, half dazed by the sun, until he found a little group of people smoking. He borrowed a box of matches, ran to the lady, lighted her cigarette, ran back to return the matches; and they said to him, “Keep them, you can keep them.” He ran again to the lady to leave the matches with her, and she thanked him; he waited a moment before leaving her, but realized that after this delay he had to say something, and so he said, “You aren’t swimming?
“In a little while,” the lady said. “What about you?”
“I’ve already had my swim.”
“And you’re not going to take another dip?”
“Yes, I’ll read one more chapter, then have a swim again.”
“Me, too, when I finish my cigarette, I’ll dive in.”
“See you later then.”
This kind of appointment restored to Amedeo a calm such as he — now he realized — had not known since the moment he became aware of the solitary lady: now his conscience was no longer oppressed by the thought of having to have any sort of relationship with that lady; everything was postponed to the moment of their swim — a swim he would have taken anyway, even if the lady hadn’t been there — and for now he could abandon himself without remorse to the pleasure of reading. So thoroughly that he didn’t notice when, at a certain point — before he had reached the end of the chapter — the lady finished her cigarette, stood up, and approached him to invite him to go swimming. He saw the clogs and the straight legs just beyond the book; his eyes moved up; he lowered them again to the page — the sun was dazzling — and read a few lines in haste, looked up again, and heard her say, “Isn’t your head about to explode? I’m going to have a dip!” It was nice to stay there, to go on reading and look up every now and then. But since he could no longer put it off, Amedeo did something he never did : he skipped almost half a page, to the conclusion of the chapter, which he read, on the other hand, with great attention, and then he stood up. “Let’s go. Shall we dive from the point there?”
After all the talk of diving, the lady cautiously slipped into the water from a ledge on a level with it. Amedeo plunged headlong from a higher rock than usual. It was the hour of the still slow inclining of the sun. The sea was golden. They swam in that gold, somewhat separated: Amedeo at times sank for a few strokes underwater and amused himself by frightening the lady, swimming beneath her. Amused himself, after a fashion: it was kid stuff, of course, but for that matter, what else was there to do, anyway? Swimming with another person was slightly more tiresome than swimming alone, but the difference was minimal. Beyond the gold glints, the water’s blue deepened, as if from down below rose an inky darkness. It was useless: nothing equaled the savor of life found in books. Skimming over some bearded rocks in mid-water and leading her, frightened (to help her onto a sandbar, he also clasped her hips and bosom, but his hands, from the immersion, had become almost insensitive, with white, wrinkled pads), Amedeo turned his gaze more and more often toward land, where the colored jacket of his book stood out. There was no other story, no other possible expectation beyond what he had left suspended, between the pages where his bookmark was; all the rest was an empty interval.
However, returning to shore, giving her a hand, drying himself, then each rubbing the other’s back, finally created a kind of intimacy, so that Amedeo felt it would have been impolite to go off on his own once more. “Well,” he said, “I’ll stretch out and read here; I’ll go get my book and pillow.” And read: he had taken care to warn her. She said, “Yes, fine. I’ll smoke a cigarette and read Annabella a bit myself.” She had one of those women’s magazines with her, and so both of them could lie and read, each on his own. Her voice struck him like a drop of cold water on the nape of the neck, but she was only saying, “Why do you want to lie there on that hard rock? Come onto the mattress: I’ll make room for you.” The invitation was polite, the mattress was comfortable, and Amedeo gladly accepted. They lay there, he facing in one direction and she in the other. She didn’t say another word, she leafed through those illustrated pages, and Amedeo managed to sink completely into his reading. It was a lingering sunset, when the heat and light hardly decline but remain only barely, sweetly attenuated. The novel Amedeo was reading had reached the point where the darkest secrets of characters and plot are revealed, and you move in a familiar world, and you achieve a kind of parity, an ease between author and reader: you proceed together, and you would like to go on forever.
On the rubber mattress it was possible to make those slight movements necessary to keep the limbs from going to sleep, and one of his legs, in one direction, came to graze a leg of hers, in the other. He didn’t mind this, and kept his leg there; and obviously she didn’t mind, either, because she also refrained from moving. The sweetness of the contact mingled with the reading and, as far as Amedeo was concerned, made it the more complete; but for the lady it must have been different, because she rose, sat up, and said, “Really …”
Amedeo was forced to raise his head from the book. The woman was looking at him, and her eyes were bitter.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“Don’t you ever get tired of reading?” she asked. “You could hardly be called good company! Don’t you know that, with women, you’re supposed to make conversation?” she added; her half smile was perhaps meant only to be ironic, though to Amedeo, who at that moment would have paid anything rather than give up his novel, it seemed downright threatening. What have I got myself into, moving down here? he thought. Now it was clear that with this woman beside him he wouldn’t read a line.
I must make her realize she’s made a mistake, he thought, that I’m not at all the type for a beach courtship, that I’m the sort it’s best not to pay too much attention to. “Conversation,” he said, aloud, “what kind of conversation?” and he extended his hand toward her. There, now: if I lay a hand on her, she will surely be insulted by such an unsuitable action, maybe she’ll give me a slap and go away. But whether it was his own natural reserve, or there was a different, sweeter yearning that in reality he was pursuing, the caress, instead of being brutal and provocatory, was shy, melancholy, almost entreating: he grazed her throat with his fingers, lifted a little necklace she was wearing, and let it fall. The woman’s reply consisted of a movement, first slow, as if resigned and a bit ironic — she lowered her chin to one side, to trap his hand — then rapid, as if in a calculated, aggressive spring: she bit the back of his hand. “Ow!” Amedeo cried. They moved apart.
Is this how you make conversation?” the lady said.
There, Amedeo quickly reasoned, my way of making conversation doesn’t suit her, so there won’t be any conversing, and now I can read; he had already started a new paragraph. But he was trying to deceive himself: he understood clearly that by now they had gone too far, that between him and the tanned lady a tension had been created that could no longer be interrupted; he also understood that he was the first to wish not to interrupt it, since in any case he wouldn’t be able to return to the single tension of his reading, all intimate and interior. He could, on the contrary, try to make this exterior tension follow, so to speak, a course parallel to the other, so that he would not be obliged to renounce either the lady or the book.
Since she had sat up, with her back propped against a rock, he sat beside her, put his arm around her shoulders, keeping his book on his knees. He turned toward her and kissed her. They moved apart, then kissed again. Then he lowered his head toward the book and resumed reading.
As long as he could, he wanted to continue reading. His fear was that he wouldn’t be able to finish the novel: the beginning of a summer affair could be considered the end of his calm hours of solitude, for a completely different rhythm would dominate his days of vacation; and obviously, when
you are completely lost in reading a book, if you have to interrupt it, then pick it up again some time later, most of the pleasure is lost: you forget so many details, you never manage to become immersed in it as before.
The sun was gradually setting behind the next promontory, and then the next, and the one after that, leaving remnants of color against the light. From the little coves of the cape, all the bathers had gone. Now the two of them were alone. Amedeo had his arm around the woman’s shoulders, he was reading, he gave her kisses on the neck and on the ears — which it seemed to him she liked — and every now and then, when she turned, on the mouth; then he resumed reading. Perhaps this time he had found the ideal equilibrium : he could go on like this for a hundred pages or so. But once again it was she who wanted to change the situation. She began to stiffen, almost to reject him, and then said, “It’s late. Let’s go. I’m going to dress.”
This abrupt decision opened up quite different prospects. Amedeo was a bit disoriented, but he didn’t stop to weigh the pros and cons. He had reached a climax in the book, and her dimly heard words, “I’m going to dress,” had, in his mind, immediately been translated into these others: While she dresses, I’ll have time to read a few pages without being disturbed.
But she said, “Hold up the towel, please,” addressing him as tu for perhaps the first time. “I don’t want anyone to see me.” The precaution was useless because the shore by now was deserted, but Amedeo consented amiably, since he could hold up the towel while remaining seated and so continue to read the book on his knees.
On the other side of the towel, the lady had undone her halter, paying no attention to whether he was looking at her or not. Amedeo didn’t know whether to look at her, pretending to read, or to read, pretending to look at her. He was interested in the one thing and the other, but looking at her seemed too indiscreet, while going on reading seemed too indifferent. The lady did not follow the usual method used by bathers who dress outdoors, first putting on clothes and then removing the bathing suit underneath them. No: now that her bosom was bared, she also took off the bottom of her suit. This was when, for the first time, she turned her face toward him; and it was a sad face, with a bitter curl to the mouth, and she shook her head, shook her head and looked at him.
Since it has to happen, it might as well happen immediately, Amedeo thought, diving forward, book in hand, one finger between the pages; but what he read in that gaze — reproach, commiseration, dejection, as if to say: Stupid, all right, we’ll do it if it has to be done like this, but you don’t understand a thing, any more than the others — or, rather, what he did not read, since he didn’t know how to read gazes, but only vaguely sensed, roused in him a moment of such transport toward the woman that, embracing her and falling onto the mattress with her, he only slightly turned his head toward the book to make sure it didn’t fall into the sea.
It had fallen, instead, right beside the mattress, open, but a few pages had flipped over; and Amedeo, even in the ecstasy of his embraces, tried to free one hand to put the bookmark at the right page. Nothing is more irritating when you’re eager to resume reading than to have to search through the book, unable to find your place.
Their lovemaking was a perfect match. It could perhaps have been extended a bit longer: but, then, hadn’t everything been lightning-fast in their encounter?
Dusk was falling. Below, the rocks opened out, sloping, into a little harbor. Now she had gone down there and was halfway into the water. “Come down; we’ll have a last swim. …” Amedeo, biting his lip, was counting how many pages were left till the end.