A Bridge Flung Over the Abyss: On the Work of Italo Calvino
Martha Cooley | May/Summer 2008
In an essay on the poetry of Anthony Hecht, A. Alvarez said he admired Hecht's poems for their subtlety of pitch as well as their "sidelong and beautifully reticent" quality. Italo Calvino has that same capacity for the sidelong-not that I am trying to shoehorn him and Hecht into the same literary space. Their work couldn't be more dissimilar: while Hecht's is frequently grim, Calvino's is rarely so. Yet each author specializes in both reticence and responsiveness, in particular to the natural world and to history.
World War II affected each of these writers deeply. Hecht was present at the liberation of the Flossenburg concentration camp, and what he witnessed there prompted a good deal of his poetry afterward, not so much thematically as at the level of what I'd call moral attunement. Calvino didn't see what Hecht saw, but he saw plenty, and he, too, was unfailingly attuned. None of what went down in the middle of the 20th century escaped his notice. "To live in peace and freedom," he once stated, "is a frail kind of good fortune."
Why is it, though, that one senses Calvino chuckling softly all the time, rather than railing or weeping at the world's outrages? The magic of his work is sourced in this swerve toward amusement. He operated from the premise that the best way to manage sorrow, pain, and loss is to whimsy them somehow, to countervail gravity with lightness. In doing so, Calvino managed to master (as though it were the easiest thing in the world) a prose style that is equal parts lapidary and larky, always intelligent, and an abiding pleasure to read and re-read.
William Weaver, Calvino's faithful and talented translator, reports that the author was by no stretch a conversationalist. Calvino's wife once told Weaver that her husband had no close friends and lived entirely inside his own mind. Various Italian hostesses recounted stories of the writer's notorious silences, which could "freeze an entire dinner table," according to Weaver.
Yet to me (and I know I'm not alone in this), Calvino is one of those rare writers who consistently gives off the aura of a kid at play. Fear? Undoubtedly he knew it; especially fear of endings, and of death. Much of his fiction is preoccupied with the ways in which nature and storytellers alike conspire to keep things running, to not let the tale draw to a close. Nonetheless, I suspect Calvino would have subscribed to Samuel Beckett's formulation: "The prospect of death is always revivifying." Seldom has a writer been so vitalized (not in some high-drama sense) by the necessary impermanence of all things. Italo Calvino spent a lifetime expressing, as he once said of his colleague Primo Levi, "a layman's amazement before the order of creation."
Born in Cuba in 1923, Calvino was the son of botanist parents who took him back to their native land when he was a young boy. He was raised on the Italian Riviera near San Remo, a beautiful peninsular locale that became a touchstone of memory and identity for Calvino. His father curated the botanical gardens there. "Huddled in its microclimate," he wrote, "I was separated from Italy by a narrow strip of coast road, and from the world by a nearby frontier."
The natural world, which his parents described to him in considerable scientific detail, taught Calvino precision in observation and description, the virtues of ongoing trial and error, and a profound appreciation for the mongrel nature of reality-its essential and elusive mixed-ness. He was evicted from his local paradise when World War II broke out. Entering adolescence restively under Mussolini's dictatorship, Calvino went into hiding in 1943 with a group of fellow Partisans in the forest-men with whom, while awaiting attack, he swapped folk-tales. This was his first real exposure to the pleasures of storymaking, and it took place literally under fire.
He became a communist after the war, but broke off from the Party after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, realizing he could no longer stomach the deceptions and violence perpetrated by the communists in Russia and at home. For a time he lived in Turin (Primo Levi's hometown) and worked in publishing. Then he moved to Paris, to Rome, and-with his Argentine wife and their daughter-finally to Tuscany, at Pineta di Roccamare near Siena, where he died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1985, at the age of sixty-one.
The president of the republic came to his deathbed to bid him farewell, and hundreds of mourners showed up at the small cemetery where he was interred-including dozens of schoolchildren, many locals, and such literary luminaries as Natalia Ginzburg, Umberto Eco, and Gore Vidal. (The latter wrote a predictably arch article about the funeral itself, but did his readers the service of quoting, from Calvino's last book, Mr. Palomar, a passage that might well summarize the author's approach to his own passing-premature and imprevisto though it was: "He (Palomar) decides that he will set himself to describing every instant of his life, and until he has described them all he will no longer think of being dead. At that moment he dies.")
Calvino's literary output ranged widely from essays to stories and novels, and-on the fiction side of the ledger-from social realism to fantasy and to metafictional and formal experiments, culminating in quietly provocative meditations. John Barth has called the latter "laconic short takes" marked by a "formal sportiveness." They recall Borges but generate their own kick, linguistically and intellectually.
Of Borges, Calvino once wrote that his style is "crystalline, sober, and airy...without the least congestion"-and much the same might be said of Calvino's prose, but without the sobriety. As Barth has noted, throughout their careers both authors enjoyed elevating (in an ironic and amused manner) popular narrative genres such as the detective story, the folk-tale, the comic-strip, and the supernatural tale-genres that appeal to grown-up kids, in other words.
For me, Calvino is more loyal to childhood's amplitude of experience, more ready to linger in its domains of daydreaminess, than Borges is. Perhaps this is because Calvino observed his own daughter's re-creation and re-inhabiting of those precincts of the imagination which children naturally populate and enlarge; or perhaps it is because (unlike Borges) he hopped so often from place to place. "Hence the geographical instability that makes me forever long for somewhere else," said Calvino in a short essay called "By Way of an Autobiography." "The ideal place for me," he added, "is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner... Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one's mother's womb."
Calvino did all of us a huge favor when he decided to surrender to two of his major literary obsessions-folk tales and tales of the fantastic-and to create essential taxonomies of these genres. In the mid-1950s, he researched and published a wonderful tome, Italian Folk Tales, for which he wrote an introduction elucidating the sources and features of European folk and fairy tales dating from the Middle Ages to the late 19th century. In the early 1980s, Calvino compiled and introduced Fantastic Tales, a grand collection of macabre, grotesque, weird, and fantastic stories by European and American authors (mostly nineteenth century). All the stories in this volume make for excellent late-night reading, particularly when the weather is uncertain and the lights flickering.
Calvino's taxonomic effort-his fanatical dedication to unearthing and broadcasting stories in forms that many contemporary writers dismiss as "children's literature" or idle escapism-constitutes a major contribution to the republic of letters. He had the imagination and intelligence to perceive that such tales offer their readers vital ways of integrating and navigating highly fraught, complicated human experiences. Here I'm not talking about how best to slay monsters but about how writers and readers alike might remain keyed, emotionally and morally, to a world whose future is as uncertain as it was during the Middle Ages, and arguably far scarier.
Folktales or fairytales, Calvino writes, are "a catalogue of the potential destinies of men and women." Working variations on familiar themes, folktales boast a grace, wit, and unity of design that ought to be the envy of storymakers from high and popular traditions alike.
In Italian folktales, the storyteller is at the center of the narrative. He or she offers the audience a particular style and tone-a "voice," one might say, although I'd avoid that baggy term and think rather in terms of linguistic and tonal traits that are distinctive yet also designed to be played with by other storytellers-much as the members of a jazz ensemble pass around a musical theme for each instrument to vary. A folktale (like a jazz standard) is a tune that gets recomposed each time it's played. It's not fixed but highly elastic and labile.
Folktales, says Calvino, derive a good part of their energy from the historical and geographic settings in which they're told. Yet wherever they originate, all such tales are, in his words, "mysterious stories of transformation, with...precise rhythms and a joyous logic." Creating and recreating a good folktale, Calvino reminds us, requires the ability to attend carefully to narrative conventions while at the same time deploying a free inventiveness.
Folktales also perform a moral function. The mere act of telling and listening to them, claims Calvino, is an inducement to the contemplation of ethical opportunities and options, temptations and transgressions, goods and ills. And Calvino observes that with the protracted or seemingly endless tale-such as "A Thousand and One Nights," in which an audience listens to a narrative that apparently cannot be concluded-the story's implicit purpose is to keep its listener sufficiently fascinated that he or she won't go off and do bad-guy things someplace else.
Under the rubric of fantastic tales, Calvino includes ghost stories, grotesque and macabre tales, and night or dream tales. This is the genre, he says, that tells us the most about collectively held symbols-those of myth, which aren't always readily accessible to the conscious mind. They're saturated in primal apprehensions of danger and darkness, magic and mystery.
"Myth," Calvino writes, "is the hidden part" of every story. "Literature follows paths that flank and cross the barriers of prohibition, that lead to saying what could not be said"-or to saying what can be said only in the disorienting manner of the bedtime nocturnes that children relish. In such tales, ordinary experience grows suddenly spooky or bewitching-or (best of all) both.
Although varieties of the fantastic were in existence in European and American literature well before the 19th century, German romanticism spawned Europe's most impressive fantastic stories. In America, Washington Irving first broke new ground, followed by Poe and Hawthorne. Most 19th-century tales of the fantastic, regardless of their provenance, share one feature: even remarkable events typically do not completely obviate the possibility of some sort of rational explanation for the peculiarities of action and objects they describe. Thus, these tales put the reader in a place of tension, where the desire to find a "reason" for strange events vies with the desire to submit to a belief in supernatural and uncanny causes.
Some fantastic stories traffic in what Calvino (borrowing from Tzvetan Todorov) identifies as the marvelous, which is marked by happenings that are utterly implausible or inexplicable. With such stories, no belief is asked for or obtained from the reader. Fables are a good example of the marvelous: in them, animals have a kind of agency they never have in real life.
All fantastic tales are powerfully visual and theatrical. That's why it's been easy to turn them into films and stage dramas, such as "Frankenstein" or "The Nutcracker Suite." Twentieth-century tales of the fantastic tend to be intellectually self-conscious as well, inflected as they often are by Freud and Jung (not to mention literary theory, the influence of which threatens to turn some such tales into rather dry exercises).
Calvino observes that modern examples of fantastic tales typically involve "play, irony, the winking eye, and also a meditation on... hidden desires and nightmares." When contemporary fabulist tales work well (as does, say, Angela Carter's haunting story "Reflections"), they succeed in large part because they manifest an irony-laden awareness of their 19th-century antecedents. For those earlier tales thrust subjectivity under its own microscope in a deliciously perverse hall-of-mirrors game that continues unabated.
Not surprisingly, Calvino was a major fan of ETA Hoffmann, the 19th-century German writer who posed philosophical questions while penning his playfully weird, unnerving fiction. Hoffmann, investigating subjectivity with intense thoroughness, enacted in his tales the workings of the mind's interior, a place of shadows and whispers and things that go bump in the night. What do we really see when we see something? This, according to Calvino, is the question that enlivens Hoffmann's work.
Through the rich writings of this master of the macabre (writings that Calvino calls "lighthearted acts of revenge against philosophy"), we're able to glimpse "another world, enchanted or infernal, behind everyday appearances." Reading Hoffmann, we recognize that our vision is always doubled, so to speak. Fantastic stories such as Hoffmann's help us forge a new relationship between "the phantom lightness of ideas and the heavy weight of the world," as Calvino puts it. Their best effects are a function of what he calls oscillations between irreconcilable levels of reality.
I'll return to the opposition of lightness and heaviness shortly, as it crops up in Calvino's essays on the qualities of good fiction. First, though, it bears noting that Calvino devised categories (in a loose, playful way-he wasn't a man who liked labels, being in this regard a true Chekhovian) for two basic sorts of fantastic tales. First are so-called visionary tales, in which visual suggestions and mood-inducing settings dominate the narrative. And then there are "everyday" fantastic tales, which are introspective and psychological in their impulses-such as the ghost stories written by Henry James, which are characterized by what Calvino calls "the incorporeal and ungraspable," or "the gradual interiorization of the supernatural."
The visionary fantastic is marked by strong sensory clues (think Edgar Allan Poe, with that telltale heart thumping under the floorboards...). "The more enlightened our houses are," Calvino claims, "the more their walls ooze ghosts." Introspective fantastic tales, in contrast, are more reliant on philosophical or psychological underpinnings. In addition to Henry James, Calvino cites Hawthorne's stories "Egotism" and "My Kinsman Major Molineux" as examples of the everyday fantastic. (Calvino praises Hawthorne's brilliance in weaving what he calls a thwarted religiosity into stories that offer highly interiorized dramas of the spirit.)
For authors seeking to write under some wing of the House of the Fantastic, Calvino urges an anchoring of fantastical elements in something recognizable as ordinary life. This is important, he says, so that fiction exploiting the shadowy underside of consciousness can actually move the reader, not simply give her or him a momentary frisson. "Fantasy is like jam," he commented during a television interview. "You have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing... out of which you can't make anything."
Shapeless, shaped, shaping: these are notions of vital importance to Calvino. What matters isn't, as he once put it, "the explanation of an extraordinary event, but the order of things that this extraordinary event produces... the pattern, the symmetry, the network of images deposited around it, as in the formation of a crystal."
Note the metaphor here, drawn from science. Calvino respected scientific data of all kinds. William Weaver has said that Calvino kept lists, which he called "scalette" or little ladders, and lots of outlines as well. He liked zoos and aquariums, botanical gardens and planetariums, museums of natural history-all the various repositories of scientific information and understanding. He was always very interested in the relations, actual and possible, between literature and science, and he believed that each served as a healthy corrective to the other.
Literature may not offer readers the equivalent of a good lab, but Calvino claims that it can "work indirectly as a spring to propel the scientist along, providing an example of imaginative courage in taking a hypothesis to its ultimate consequences." In contrast, logic's formal language can help the prose writer avoid what Calvino calls the "disrepair that words and images have fallen into as a result of their misuse." Much depends on the writer's willingness to adopt the scientist's friendly attitude toward trial and error, for in this activity comes an appreciation for shaping, for forms of all kinds, and for precision.
Another vital factor is what Calvino refers to as the spirit in which a person reads. It's that spirit, not the proclamations of critics or popularizers, which alone can ensure literature's longevity and force in the world. Readers and writers alike must maintain a certain glee in the face of imaginative and linguistic possibilities.
As a writer, Calvino relished not knowing where he was heading; he simply started fooling around, and watched what happened thereafter. "It is the childish pleasure of the combinatorial game," he said at one point, "that leads the painter to try out arrangements...(and) the poet to experiment with juxtapositions of words."
Of course one doesn't arrive at a prose style as elegant and accessible as Calvino's without having a draconian instinct for when to pull the plug on something that doesn't work. Not to mention a huge talent for shaping what does work-for crystallizing it, to reinvoke his own metaphor. Calvino had this talent in spades.
For a time, Calvino was drawn to pure formalism. He admired in particular the group of French writers who founded OULIPO, the Workshop of Potential Literature. Their focus was on a very mechanical determinism-on storymaking machines, if you will. These writers set themselves formal linguistic and syntactical challenges, much as mathematicians might create numerical puzzles for one another to solve. When choice is constrained, the OULIPO writers claimed, real originality can result. The controls imposed on the making of narrative become analogous to those imposed by society on itself-and submitting to and mimicking those controls can lead to social portraitures that rival (or so OULIPO's proponents claimed) anything the so-called social realists can come up with. (One well-known example of an OULIPO project is Georges Perec's novel A Void, which lacked the letter "e" throughout.)
Calvino, however, was no mentally over-stimulated formalist. While he always took a kid's pleasure in whatever he was playing with, his prose delights the reader with its elan and elegance. It is rarely self-conscious or mannered in either conception or execution.
Let me give one example of his playfulness, as well as the obsessiveness (which he confessed) that often underlay it. In The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino takes a standard fairy-tale theme-that of travelers confronting unexpected adventures-and does quite a twist on it. In this novel, a bunch of hapless travelers, stopping off at a castle in the middle of a forest, find they've lost the ability to speak. Determined to get around this problem, they grab a deck of Tarot cards, sit at a big table, and narrate their adventures by arranging the cards in specific patterns that communicate basic elements of their stories.
Trying this himself, Calvino soon found that within the arrangements made by the cards were all the lineaments of familiar, recognizable literary characters: Hamlet, Faust, Parsifal, and so on. The Tarot deck, he concluded, was a machine for constructing stories; its images provided plots and characters galore, as well as themes and their development. Calvino went nuts over this discovery, messing around for years with Tarot cards, maniacally trying to wring from the deck every possible story-combination available, and matching card setups with myths and fairytales. Finally he finished his novel and then, at the end, issued this challenge to the reader:
I thought of repeating an analogous operation with modern visual material. But what is the Tarots' contemporary equivalent...? I thought of comic strips, of the most dramatic, adventurous, frightening ones: gangsters, terrified women, spacecraft... I thought of...a similar frame: The Motel of Crossed Destinies. Some people who have survived a mysterious catastrophe find refuge in a half-destroyed motel, where only a scorched newspaper page is left, the comics page. The survivors, who have become dumb in their fright, tell their stories by pointing to the drawings, but without following the order of each strip, moving from one strip to another in vertical or diagonal rows. I went no further than the formulation of the idea as I have just described it...
An enticing challenge, isn't it?
Some readers (myself among them) have found The Castle of Crossed Destinies fun but not a game to play repeatedly. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, however, is a book that repays all its re-readings. Here Calvino manages to create a breathtaking narrative structure-novels within novels within novels, ten of them altogether!-and then turn it into a kind of warped whodunit. Into this romp he splices a funny, touching story of a love affair in which the act of reading itself becomes gloriously conflated with other, more salacious acts. If you want to read a book that proliferates stories as quickly as the sorcerer's apprentice does buckets of water, you can't turn to a better read than this novel.
It opens with a series of instructions to the reader on the physical act of reading: "Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought... Tell the others right away: "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice-they won't hear you otherwise-"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!"
The reader is next advised on various reading positions-"Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach... In the hammock, if you have a hammock... Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse's mane, or maybe tied to the horse's ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading."
Calvino also addresses readerly skepticism toward new books: "It's not that you expect anything in particular from this book. You're the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything." And he digresses hilariously into the imagined purchase, by the reader, of this novel of his. To buy it, the reader undoubtedly had to first pass by what he calls "a thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from tables and shelves, trying to cow you." Among these are:
Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered
Books You Want to Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case
Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer
Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified-and so on...
As the novel's plethora of stories draw to a linked and delicious close, Calvino reminds us of the final meaning to which, he claims, all stories everywhere refer: "the continuity of life, the inevitability of death." It's a theme from which he seldom strays, though he approaches it freshly in each of his stories.
It shows up powerfully in two sets of fiction that are among Calvino's most-beloved: Cosmicomics and t-zero, which deal with the creation and evolution of the universe. His characters are protean-they're cellular structures, formulas, inhabitants of time past and time future. They're also anthropomorphized, with emotional lives at once humorous and poignant. They fool around in galaxies, use hydrogen atoms as virtual marbles and bocce balls, and conduct love affairs and other relationships, all of which Calvino describes in a prose that's fleet, sparkling, and hugely comical.
Here's a taste of it, narrated by Qfwfq, who is attempting to explain why the moon, once close to Earth, gradually migrated far away, repelled by the tides:
We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full-nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light-it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick in the peak of a promontory and get caught there.... There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a dunking in the sea by a hair's-breadth; well, let's say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.
This, needless to say, proved a bit of a job. But the narrator's cousin, who is deaf, managed it dexterously. His fellow row-boaters would raise a ladder, and he'd time his ascent with complete accuracy.
In reality, from the top of the ladder, standing erect on the last rung, you could just touch the Moon if you held your arms up. We had taken the measurements carefully (we didn't suspect that she was moving away from us); the only thing you had to be very careful about was where you put your hands.... Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other; you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales (of her crust), throwing your feet over your head, until your feet were on the Moon's surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.
My two favorite Calvino novels are The Baron in the Trees and Invisible Cities. In their conception, their language, and their sense of exhilaration, these two books are unbeatable.
Set in the 18th century, The Baron in the Trees is the story of Cosimo, the heir of a down-at-the-heels baron, who as a teenager decides he's had it with both family and society, and would prefer to live in the trees. Up in the trees, from which Cosimo never descends, he learns how to procure and ingest food and drink, to urinate and defecate, and to travel-that is, to scamper, troll, and wander-among and across countless arboreal acres in his part of the world, which isn't far from the Ligurian coastal section of Italy where Calvino grew up.
Cosimo also conducts a love life, reads and discourses, solves engineering and horticultural problems, settles local disputes, and ultimately grows old in his treetop home. His story is told by his land-anchored brother, who loves Cosimo but observes his odd existence and adventures with a bemused smile. This brother offers, along the way, wonderfully rueful insights into questions of loyalty, individual courage and freedom, and the ever-confounding nature of love.
Calvino manages to weave quite a bit of social and cultural history into this novel, too. For instance, Cosimo procures-through some ground-based travelers he befriends-the latest philosophical texts printed in London, and he holds forth perspicaciously on them as well as on major political events of the day.
While The Baron in the Trees is a fantasy dressed up in the clothing of a straightforward realistic novel, Invisible Cities is a series of beautiful short meditations on the nature of cities. "Arias" is the term Calvino devised for the book's brief, gleaming entries, which for me have always been wonderfully wrought prose-poems.
The frame of the novel is a set of reports carried by the explorer Marco Polo to the emperor Kublai Khan, who sends the intrepid Venetian to the far reaches of his empire in order to gain information on his holdings and stave off existential ennui at the same time. Marco Polo returns from each of his travels with a description of a different city, each of which is given such exotic names as Despina, Valdrada, Trude, Leonia, and Zora.
Like the emperor himself, the reader gradually realizes that none of these cities exist save in the rapporteur's imagination-and all of them are, in some sense, recreations of Marco Polo's beloved Venice. William Weaver has rightly described this book as pure music. Yet it retails an incredible array of moods, philosophical outlooks, social mores, and puzzles of logic and language-and it features one of the more quietly comic battles of wills (between the emperor and his explorer) ever depicted in a novel.
Here's a sample of its delicate, beautifully observed prose, under the heading "Cities and Memory":
Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this, and who think they were happy, that time.
Just before his death, Calvino prepared a set of lectures for the Charles Eliot Norton series at Harvard. He'd originally intended six essays-hence the title of the collection, published posthumously as Six Memos for the Millenium-but he was able to finish only five. In them, Calvino addresses a quintet of necessary qualities in fiction: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity.
About lightness, he says that he sought it in his own writing because he was growing increasingly aware of "the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world"-and he did not want to be burdened by these during the act of writing itself. Literature, he says, is "the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living."
Looking to the myth of Perseus, slayer of Medusa, he finds a figure whose strength lay "in a refusal to look directly, but not a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live." This, of course, returns us to that capacity for the sidelong which I noted at the start. It's a hallmark of Calvino's process as well as of his prose.
Significantly, lightness does not equal lightheartedness or frivolity. It is not an excuse to avoid the serious, but rather a strategy for approaching it. Lightness "goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard."
Calvino identifies three varieties of lightness. There is that of language itself, "a verbal texture that seems weightless" (and here he cites the poems of Emily Dickenson, among other examples). There's lightness as the narrating of trains of thought, in which "subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction." Calvino offers Henry James as an exemplar of this sort of lightness-which is nicely counterintuitive for those of us who find James sometimes heavy going. And finally, there's lightness as a set of visual images that take on an emblematic value in the works in which they appear and reappear-such as the windmill in Don Quixote.
Certain sights, says Calvino, seem almost universally guaranteed to conjure lightness. He recalls how the image of the moon evokes sensations of suspension, calm, and a light sort of magic in its viewers. Flying figures, he reminds us, abound in folktales. Melancholy and humor, too, can impart or affirm lightness. "As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness," Calvino writes, "so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight."
Ovid's Metamorphoses is one of the crucial "light" texts. For Ovid, as Calvino smartly observes, "everything can be transformed into something else, and knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world"-making it lighter, in short.
Stories, says Calvino, are "enchantments that act on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it." And so we come to quickness, another of his sine qua non qualities. Calvino greatly admires velocity in storytelling. Speed and concision, he asserts, are pleasing attributes of style; they offer us the pleasures of simultaneity, of multiple things happening at once.
Take Voltaire's Candide, for example. As Calvino puts it, Voltaire was one of the earliest writers to discover what good comic films now routinely demonstrate: "the high-speed accumulation of disasters" is very funny indeed.
What Calvino calls the excitement of simultaneous ideas can happen in different ways: through specific turns of phrase, through isolated words or their particular arrangements, or through the suppression of other possible words or phrases. Calvino extols short fictional forms of all kinds, citing Borges and his colleague Adolfo Bioy Casares, William Carlos Williams, and others who write either quite short stories or pieces that straddle the genres of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Invoking Mercury, the god of speed, as a kind of patron for writers to keep in mind as they contemplate quickness, Calvino reminds us that this god with his winged feet is always "light and airborne, astute, agile, adaptable, free and easy."
Exactitude comes next-by which Calvino intends a fight with what he calls generic, anonymous, and abstract linguistic formulas that dilute meaning. His strategy in developing this argument is typically sly and amusing. Initially seizing on the idea of precision, he ends up wandering into a discussion of the imprecise, the indefinite-of infinity, in short. Here, I'll quote at greater length from a passage in which he shares his frustration at what's happened to his lecture:
This talk is refusing to be led in the direction I set myself. I began by speaking of exactitude... I wanted to tell you of my fondness for geometrical forms, for symmetries, for numerical series, for all that is combinatory... But perhaps it is precisely this idea of forms that evokes the idea of the endless.... Sometimes I try to concentrate on the story I would like to write, and I realize that what interests me is something else entirely or, rather, not anything precise but everything that does not fit in with what I ought to write.... This is a devouring and destructive obsession, which is enough to render writing impossible. In order to combat it, I try to limit the field of what I have to say, divide it into still more limited fields, then subdivide these again, and so on an on. Then another kind of vertigo seizes me, that of the detail of the detail of the detail, and I am drawn into the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, just as I was previously lost in the infinitely vast.
His own writing, he concludes, obeys two opposing, tension-producing impulses that correspond to two kinds of knowing. One of these ventures into the space of what he calls bodiless rationality, where all is abstract and ethereal; the other goes into the space of objects-the things of the real world-and attempts to find words that match with those objects. Toggling between these two ways of proceeding is, he says, a lifelong undertaking, and there's really no end in sight.
(A word about words. As I've already mentioned, Calvino is very distressed by sloppy, imprecise, or-worse yet-ideologically motivated uses of language. In this he reminds me a good deal of his Eastern European peers, who knew firsthand the disastrous consequences of the misuse or abuse of words. Words, he reminds us, connect "the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over the abyss. For this reason, the proper use of language...is one that enables us to approach things...with discretion, attention, and caution"-and with respect, he adds, for what they communicate wordlessly.)
Next comes visibility-and that it would be one of the desired qualities of good literature should come as no surprise to any reader of Calvino. The visual has primacy in all he does.
His procedure as a fiction-maker, he explains, "aims at uniting the spontaneous generation of images and the intentionality of discursive thought." This procedure is anything but rational, though; it works mysteriously, which is how he likes it. He's concerned about the fact that in our culture, we're bombarded by visual imagery. We stand in danger, Calvino warns, of losing the power to bring visions to mind with our eyes shut.
"I have in mind," he writes, "some possible pedagogy of the imagination that would accustom us to control our own inner vision without suffocating it or letting it fall... into confused, ephemeral daydreams, but would enable the images to crystallize into a well-defined, memorable, and self-sufficient form."
Two paths lie ahead of us, he concludes. One is the recyling of used images (and, by extension, ideas). The other, a la Beckett, is to wipe the slate clean and reduce both our linguistic and our visual images to a minimum. Either path leads to forkings, possibilities-and so we arrive at multiplicity, the topic of Calvino's last lecture.
What do certain modern novels do, he asks? Well, they pretend to be encyclopedias. Or they try to represent networks and connections among all manner of people, ideas, and things. They are, in short, enactments of multiplicity itself. (Think of Mann's Magic Mountain, or Joyce's Ulysses.)
The problem, of course, is finding the right sort of ending for works that probe the endlessness and mutability of things. This is why someone like Robert Musil couldn't finish his grand sprawl of a novel, The Man Without Qualities, and also (as Calvino trenchantly observes) why Musil couldn't figure out how to corral his unruly material in the first place and give it some sort of frame.
Calvino comes up with the metaphor of the novel as a net, trawling reality for its finds, expected and unexpected. "Some might object that the more the work tends toward the multiplication of possibilities," he concludes, "the further it departs from...the self of the writer, his inner sincerity and the discovery of his own truth. But I would answer: Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?"
A work conceived from outside the self, he adds, "would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego, not only to enter into selves like our own but to give speech to that which has no language... Was this not perhaps what Ovid was aiming at when he wrote about the continuity of forms? And what Lucretius was aiming at when he identified himself with that nature common to each and every thing?"
I like to imagine what the sixth planned lecture in Calvino's series, on consistency, would've been like, had he lived to write it. Taking up what I fantasize to be a challenge he'd have endorsed, I enjoy imagining a lecture on some other indispensable quality of good literature. What additional quality might Calvino have chosen to talk about at Harvard?
My own candidate is liquidity: as in water, or money. Expansion, contraction, flow, transparency. Half-full and half-empty. Unstable. Incalculable. Refreshing.
All of Calvino's gamboling in the playgrounds of the imagination had to end, alas. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, said his famous predecessor, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura. Calvino, too, found himself in a dark wood, though it wasn't quite like Dante's. After collapsing in his Tuscan garden in the summer of 1985, he awoke to an odd limbo, in a hospital room, having undergone emergency brain surgery. He was confused, mistaking a nurse for a policeman and thinking he'd had an operation on his heart. He lingered for two more weeks-agonizing ones for his family-during which he was intermittently conscious. His surgeon told the press he'd never come across a brain structure so delicate and complex as Calvino's-a peculiarly clinical comment for a doctor to make under such circumstances, but one that would probably have amused Calvino.
Umberto Eco later said that Calvino's near-final words were allegedly "i paralleli! i paralleli!"-"the parallels, the parallels!" This story is one I believe, apocryphal though it may be. A mind and heart that could combine, with such brio, as many incongruities as Italo Calvino managed to do in a lifetime of storymaking must indeed have been a mind and heart capable of intuiting, as the end approached, all the infinite, unverifiable, yet unquestionable parallels in our universe, outer and inner-"our true element, which extends without shores, without boundaries."
Martha Cooley is the author of two novels: The Archivist and Thirty-Three Swoons. An Assistant Professor of English at Adelphi University, she also teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars.