Calvino on Cheese

Mr. Palomar is standing in line in a cheese shop, in Paris. He wants to buy certain goat cheeses that are preserved in oil in little transparent containers and spiced with various herbs and condiments. The line of customers moves along a counter where samples of the most unusual and disparate specialties are displayed. This is a shop whose range seems meant to exemplify every conceivable form of dairy product; the very sign, “Specialites froumageres,” with that rare archaic or vernacular adjective, advises that here is guarded the legacy of a knowledge accumulated by a civilization through all its history and geography.

Three or four girls in pink smocks wait on the customers. The moment one of the girls is free, she deals with the first in line and asks him to express his wishes; the customer names or, more often, points, moving about the shop toward the object of his specific and expert appetites.

At that moment the whole line moves forward one place; and the person who till then had been standing beside the “Bleu d’Auvergne” veined with green now finds himself at the level of the “Brin d’amour,” whose whiteness holds strands of dried straw stuck to it; the customer contemplating a ball wrapped in leaves can now concentrate on a cube dusted with ash. At each move forward, some customers are inspired by new stimuli and new desires: they may change their minds about what they were about to ask for or may add a new item to the list; and there are also those who never allow themselves to be distracted even for a moment from the objective they are pursuing and every different, fortuitous suggestion serves only to limit, through exclusion, the field of what they stubbornly want.

Mr. Palomar’s spirit vacillates between contrasting urges: the one that aims at complete, exhaustive knowledge and could be satisfied only by tasting all the varieties; and the one that tends toward an absolute choice, the identification of the cheese that is his alone, a cheese that certainly exists even if he cannot recognize it (cannot recognize himself in it).

Or else, or else: it is not a matter of choosing the right cheese, but of being chosen. There is a reciprocal relationship between cheese and customer: each cheese awaits its customer, poses so as to attract him, with a firmness or a somewhat haughty graininess, or, on the contrary, by melting in submissive abandon.

There is a hint of complicity hovering in the air: the refinement of the taste buds and especially of the olfactory organs has its moments of weakness, of loss of class, when the cheeses on their platters seem to proffer themselves as if on the divans of a brothel. A perverse grin flickers in the satisfaction of debasing the object of one’s own gluttony with lowering nicknames: crottin, boule de moine, bouton de calotte.

This is not the kind of acquaintance that Mr. Palomar is most inclined to pursue; he would be content to establish the simplicity of a direct physical relationship between man and cheese. But since in place of the cheeses he sees names of cheeses, concepts of cheeses, meanings of cheeses, histories of cheeses, contexts of cheeses, psychologies of cheeses, when he does not so much know as sense that behind each of these cheeses there is all that, then his relationship becomes very complicated.

The cheese shop appears to Mr. Palomar the way an encyclopedia looks to an autodidact: he could memorize all the names, venture a classification according to the form—bar 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 this could he establish a scale of preferences and tastes and curiosities and exclusions.

Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows caked with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening;meadows scented with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; there are different flocks, with their stablings and their transhumances; there are secret processes handed down over the centuries. This shop is a museum: Mr. Palomar, visiting it, feels as he does in the Louvre, behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that has given it form and takes form from it.

This shop is a dictionary; the language is the system of cheeses as a whole: a language whose morphology records declensions and conjugations in countless variants, and whose lexicon presents an inexhaustible richness of synonyms, idiomatic usages, connotations, and nuances of meaning, as in all languages nourished by the contribution of a hundred dialects. It is a language made up of things; its nomenclature is only an external aspect, instrumental; but for Mr. Palomar, learning a bit of nomenclature still remains the first measure to be taken if he wants to stop for a moment the things that are flowing before his eyes.

From his pocket he takes a notebook and a pen, and begins to write down some names, marking beside each name some feature that will enable him to recall the image to his memory; he tries also to make a synthetic sketch of the shape. He writes pave d’Airvault, and notes “green mold,” draws a flat parallelepiped and to one side notes “4 cm. circa”; he writes St-Maure, notes “gray granular cylinder with a little shaft inside,” and draws it, measuring it at a glance as about “20 cm.”; then he writes Chabicholi and draws another little cylinder. “Monsieur! Hoo there! Monsieur!” A young cheese-girl, dressed in pink, is standing in front of him while he is occupied with his notebook. It is his turn, he is next; in the line behind him, everyone is observing his incongruous behavior, heads are being shaken with those half-ironic, half-exasperated looks with which the inhabitants of the big cities consider the ever-increasing number of the mentally retarded wandering about the streets.

The elaborate and greedy order that he intended to make momentarily slips his mind; he stammers; he falls back on the most obvious, the most banal, the most advertised, as if the automatons of mass civilization were waiting only for this moment of uncertainty on his part in order to seize him again and have him at their mercy.

From Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar,

Translated from the Italian by William Weaver