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Agile Among the Tombs

The Road to San Giovanni

by Italo Calvino, translated by Tim Parks
Pantheon, 150 pp., $19.00

Prima che tu dica ‘Pronto’

by Italo Calvino
Mondadori, 318 pp., L 30,000

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

by Italo Calvino
Vintage, 124 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Literary remains are sad affairs, usually because they are remains: embers, litter, scrapings of already well-scraped barrels. The case of Italo Calvino, who died in September 1985 at the age of sixty-two, is also sad, but for different reasons. The works that have appeared or been collected since his death remind us with a particular intensity of the writer we have lost, and they are more than litter. They also suggest a different, more confessional Calvino, another writer who has scarcely been born.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium contains five of the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Calvino was to have given at Harvard; the absent lecture/memo literally representing the space of his death, since he died before he was able to complete it or give the lectures. He was “delighted,” his widow says, with the word “memos,” having tried and rejected “Some Literary Values,” “A Choice of Literary Values,” “Six Literary Legacies,” and so on. The memo is a short hop to a long view, and its office-world resonances lightly deride the writer’s millennial ambitions. Memorandum: to be remembered. Calvino is not going to tell us things, only remind us; but even that project seems a little stuffy for a writer of such courtesy, and needs (and gets) a touch of mockery.

The lectures appeared in English in 1988 (and in Italian the same year as Lezioni americane) and now reappear in paperback. Each addresses what is for Calvino a different “virtue” or “quality” or “peculiarity” in literature, and one that he hopes we can hang on to as we cross the threshold into the new century. They are Light-ness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. The sixth was to have been Consistency. Calvino evokes images-Perseus gently laying the severed head of Medusa face down on a bed of plants and leaves, Guido Cavalcanti, in the Decameron, nimbly vaulting over a tomb like the lightest of persons, Felix the Cat “on a road that lost itself in a landscape beneath a full moon in a black sky”-and writers he loves, like Lucretius, Leopardi, Musil, Borges, Ponge (“a peerless master…. I believe that he may be the Lucretius of our time, reconstructing the physical nature of the world by means of the impalpable, powder-fine dust of words”), Georges Perec (whose La vie mode d’emploi, 1978, is in Calvino’s view “the last real ‘event’ in the history of the novel”). He also reflects on his own work (“The book in which I think I managed to say most remains Invisible Cities“), and he is not too worried if his five (or six) categories keep crossing over and mingling. All of his named virtues are important, but lightness dominates. Not the unbearable lightness that haunts the characters of Milan Kundera-this, as Calvino suggests, is a complicated form of heaviness, a quite different sort of virtue. “His novel…is in reality a bitter confirmation of the Ineluctable Weight of Living.” Calvino’s lightness is a grace of the intelligence, a marvelous agility among the tombs. “I hope to have shown,” he says, “that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.”

Calvino’s lightness is clearest when heavy things are in the offing. He doesn’t confirm their weight, as Kundera does, and he doesn’t evade them, like more writers than we care to think of. He doesn’t make them look lighter either. He revolves them in his mind and in his prose, so that we see both what they are and that they are not all there is. “A general explanation of the world and of history,” he grandly says in The Road to San Giovanni, and we are hesitating already. Is this Calvino or Hegel? “A general explanation of the world and of history must first of all take into account the way our house was situated….” It is Calvino after all. We recognize the mild self-mockery and the quiet claim for the specific, the miming and undoing of generality. Calvino likes the word world, mondo, but partly for its affectations. In Prima che tu dica ‘Pronto’ there is a story called “The memory of the world,” in which a sinister organization is registering everything that has been or will be known: tyranny, a way of ruling the whole world, all possible worlds.

The word occurs again and again in The Road to San Giovanni. Calvino writes of the “time when the cinema became the world for me,” that is, when what he saw on the screen “possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence.” He and his father have different worlds: the father’s beginning uphill from the family house in San Remo, taking in forest and country, flowers, game, farms; Calvino’s starting downhill, in the town where the movie houses and the beaches are. “As I saw it, the world, the map of the planet, began on the other side of our house and went downwards….” The last words of the book evoke a conscious self that exists only so that “the world may continually receive news of the existence of the world, a contrivance at the service of the world for knowing if it exists,” per sapere se c’è. My edition says the contrivance serves to let the world know if it exits, which is also a nice idea, but not quite the same thing.

A world: what belongs to us, our habitat, mental or physical; what’s out there, beyond the mind and the self, the profusion of things we haven’t dreamed or invented; other people; an order, a coherence, a realm, or a shape drawn on the face of chaos. It’s also, in Calvino’s usage, the object of a slightly stuffy pretension, what we talk about when we are getting above ourselves. A world: most of us are lucky if we have a street or a block or a patch of garden where we know our way around; if we know where our house is situated.

The Road to San Giovanni brings together five pieces written between 1962 and 1977 and published separately in Italy then. Calvino’s working title for the book these pieces might have made was Passaggi obbligati, necessary or grateful passages, with several meanings of passage in play. Since a number of the projected passages are missing, Esther Calvino wittily says, she felt she couldn’t use this title. Absence oblige. The other engaging and distressing note in her foreword is the echo we hear of Calvino’s cheerful voice. “One day in the spring of 1985, Calvino told me he was going to write twelve more books. ‘What am I saying?’ he added. ‘Maybe fifteen.”’ These works are what Calvino called “memory exercises,” and they are where he begins (but only begins) to find an acute and at times painful confessional note.

The first essay, which is also the title piece, is mainly about Calvino’s father, and his passion for their farm in the hills above the house, the long walk he inflicted on his two sons each day, the ascent to the flourishing property, the return laden with fruit and vegetables, the produce of a world which fed its people. The second piece, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” evokes the passion with which Calvino himself took in the American movies of the 1920s and 1930s. This is an essay, he says, “presenting the cinema as another dimension of the world.” This is chiefly a dimension of distance, from Italy but also perhaps from any knowable historical reality. Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow,Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone were examples of how far you could get from where you were, models of an escape which was not simply an evasion but a measure of what another world might be like. Even hopeless loves have lessons for us, like the feeling the young Calvino harbored for Ginger Rogers, “a love star-crossed from the start, even in my daydreams, since I didn’t know how to dance.” It is characteristic of Calvino that even in his daydreams he would remember what he couldn’t do.

The third piece is a memory of a battle between Fascist and Resistance groups during World War II, and also an essay on memory. Calvino concludes by suggesting that what he imagined at the time is in many ways more real than what he experienced, because he remembers now most vividly what he only imagined then, the dead body of their leader, “this dead man who instead of being the best of theirs had become the best of ours.” “It’s not true that I’ve forgotten everything,” he says. But he has forgotten more than he thinks, and what he remembers is what he saw, and still sees, only in his mind.

The fourth piece is a whimsical essay on taking the garbage out in Paris, a “mythology” in the manner of Roland Barthes. The writing is entirely charming, but has to work a little hard for its large meanings (“Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not yet been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future”). This is the weakest of the five “passages” and it’s worth pausing to ask why. Calvino writes wonderfully about himself as the conscientious, slightly ridiculous fellow sorting out the junk, and he has some nice remarks about comparative refuse collection. They order these things differently in Italy: “It’s as if something basically wrong were revealing itself in our relationship with our rubbish, some profound defect in the Italian mind.” But Calvino is unable to play with philosophy the way Barthes can, can’t indulge it and overturn it and set it up again, and this may be a cultural rather than a personal matter, Italian as against French. Or is it because Calvino is a writer of fiction and Barthes isn’t, except in a rather attenuated sense? Barthes merely glances at the concrete, Calvino has an attentive loyalty to it; it won’t let him go. Barthes’s strength is flight, Calvino’s is lightness over the ground. What Barthes sought, Calvino himself said at the time of Barthes’s death, was an understanding of uniqueness through generalization; his own method, although he doesn’t say this, is more or less the opposite.

We might pursue this comparison further by thinking of Calvino’s lecture “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” included in The Literature Machine, which makes many of the same points as Barthes’s more famous “Death of the Author,” but was written a year earlier (1967), and is deeper and funnier. Here’s how the author dies in Calvino:

The author: that anachronistic personage, the bearer of messages, the director of consciences, the giver of lectures to cultural bodies. The rite we are celebrating at this moment would be absurd if we were unable to give it the sense of a funeral service, seeing the author off to the Nether Regions and celebrating the constant resurrection of the work of literature; if we were unable to introduce into this meeting of ours something of the gaiety of those funeral feasts at which the ancients reestablished their contact with living things.

And so the author vanishes-that spoiled child of ignorance-to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.

Of course, only a very delicate machine will write like this; mere human beings are going to look pretty heavy beside it, like frivolity trying to look light.

The last piece in The Road to San Giovanni is the most ambitious and the most difficult, a meditation on light and shade and the sense of place called “From the Opaque.” It returns, in effect, to the landscape of San Remo, but described almost as an exercise in speculative geometry. “If they had asked me then what shape the world is, I would have said it is a slope, with irregular shifts in height, with protrusions and hollows, so that it’s somehow as if I were always on a balcony, looking out over a balustrade,…” It is a world of light, with shadows behind, unseen. But what if we reverse this thought, as Calvino does by the end of his essay? What if the world of light is the product of our refusal of the shadow? If the shadow is all there really is?

It is pointless trying to remember just where I entered the shadow, I was already there at the beginning, it is pointless searching in the depths of the opaque for an escape from the opaque, I now know that the only world that exists [or exits] is the opaque the sunny being nothing more than its reverse side, the sunny that opaquely struggles to multiply itself while doing nothing more than to multiply the reverse of its own reverse.

The confessions in this volume concern Calvino’s father, or more precisely, an unresolved relation with the world of the father. When Calvino writes of the “morning fury of my childhood, the fury that still persists in these not entirely sincere pages,” he means, I think, that he can’t seriously regret his refusal of his father’s rural world, but that the world haunts him in spite of himself, as Anne Barton showed recently in these pages,* connecting the father’s “wood beyond all woods” with Calvino’s own “arboreal novella The Baron In the Trees.” Calvino also writes that

the remorse I carry around with me since childhood is still that of the landholder’s son who in disobedience to his father’s wishes has left the estate in alien hands, rejecting the luxuriant mythology and severe moral code in which he was educated, the abundance and variety of fruits that only the proprietor-farmer’s assiduous presence in the fields…can wring from the earth.”

But that, also, is perhaps “not entirely sincere,” too carefully poised between sociology and fairy tale. What is actually lurking here is a more complicated sense of loss, and of a failure to love, either the world or the father, and the whole cluster of emotions, with its criss-crossing times and tenses, is brilliantly caught in a passage where Calvino remembers walking for hours behind his father, who names plants as they pass them. “Ypotoglaxia jasminifolia,” the father would say. We’re already laughing (probably) before Calvino tells us he’s inventing the names: “I never learned the real ones.” But then he does it again: “Photophila wolfoides,” and again he tells us he’s inventing. And again: “Crotodendron indica.” And then he comes clean, or nearly:

Of course I could perfectly well have looked up some real names, instead of inventing them, and maybe rediscovered what plants my father had actually been naming for me; but that would have been cheating, refusing to accept the loss that I inflicted on myself, the thousands of losses we inflict on ourselves and for which there is no making amends.

All losses haunt us,” William Empson said in a poem; but that’s not all they do, and Calvino’s thought takes two further twists, one toward reconciliation, and one toward writing, as the site not of memory or reflection but of a continuing present, an unhealed wound. “And yet, and yet,” he says, like Galileo, Eppure, eppure,

If I had written some real names of plants here it would have been a gesture of modesty and devotion on my part, finally resorting to that humble knowledge that my youth rejected in order to try my luck with other cards,…it would have been a way of making peace with my father, a demonstration of maturity, and yet I didn’t do it, I indulged in this joke of invented names, this intended parody, sure sign that I am still resisting, arguing, sure sign that that morning march to San Giovanni is still going on, with its same discord, and that every morning of my life is still the morning when it’s my turn to go with Father to San Giovanni.

The stories collected in Prima che tu dica ‘Pronto’ (“Before you can say hello,” in the sense of answering the telephone), were written and published separately between 1943 and 1958, and between 1968 and 1984. They include fables, interviews with imaginary people, a linguistic game in the manner of Perec and Queneau, and they remind us of Calvino’s politics (he left the Italian Communist Party in 1957). Among the most memorable pieces here are series of little allegories of the Italian political scene and the cold war: they are funny and wise, disillusioned without being depressed or reactionary. In one of them a character who sailed with Francis Drake tells the story of a Great Calm that kept their boat and a Spanish galleon just out of firing range from each other, anxious for the fight which couldn’t take place, which never took place. In another, a Scottish laird awaiting battle reflects that the deep problem in the conflicts of his country is that the participants have refused to consider their wars as wars of religion, “deluding ourselves that this way we might better arrange compromises when appropriate.” But surely these are wars of religion, unlike the long struggles of the Italian political parties, which perhaps, the allegory suggests, need to be understood as wars of religion, perhaps can be understood only that way?

Calvino has a last devastating irony. Our sin, the Scotsman says, is that “among all our presbyterians, episcopalians and methodists there is no one in this part of Scotland who believes in God; no one…who believes in this God whose name is always on our lips.” These are dark and heavy tombs to stand among, and Calvino needs all the lightness he can muster. Miraculously, he doesn’t fail even here. The laird calls for his horse, ready to fight, like anyone else in an adventure story. Drake’s sailor is called Donald, and he is telling his long non-story to his nephews. “Uncle Donald, Uncle Donald,” they keep crying. “Uncle Donald, Uncle Donald, don’t go to sleep again!” They are Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and the buccaneer is Donald Duck. There are sailors and sailors, and behind every grand narrative lurks the chance of a cartoon. That’s why a general explanation of the world and of history would need to start very close to home, taking into account the way our house is situated.

  1. *

    The New York Review, May 26, 1994.

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