Why Read the Classics?
by Italo Calvino, Translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin
Pantheon, 278 pp., $26.00
Italo Calvino has become such a canonical writer in Italy that he can be attacked as a mere classic—or at least the view of literature he represents can be attacked as a dead or empty classicism, out of touch with the sprawling and provocative impurities of life. This is the drift of a recent book by Carla Benedetti. Why Read the Classics?, a collection of Calvino’s essays which appeared in Italian in 1991, seems, at first sight, to confirm the diagnosis. Why should we read the classics? “The only reason that can be adduced in their favour,” Calvino mildly says, “is that reading the classics is better than not reading them.” It doesn’t seem much of an answer, more like the wave of a toy pistol in the already fading culture wars. But there is a good deal more to Calvino than this—more even to that easy-seeming sentence—as indeed there was more to the culture wars than the opposition between old dead writers (magnificent or oppressive) and new or neglected ones (liberating or meretricious).
In 1985, the last year of his life, Italo Calvino jotted down six topics for a series of lectures he was to give at Harvard. The topics represented, he said, “certain values, qualities, or peculiarities of literature that are very close to my heart.” The book that emerged was called Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). One attraction of the title was what his widow, Esther Calvino, called her husband’s delight in having come up with the word “memo.” It sounds efficient but in this context it also mocks efficiency, and what better way could there be to enter a new millennium than with an underplayed joke? What better way for Calvino, that is.
Another attraction of the title is its discreet and deliberate mistake. There were in the end only five lectures, because Calvino died before he wrote the sixth, or was able to deliver any of them, but Esther Calvino said she “felt it necessary” to keep Calvino’s title. Was this an exercise in denial, a small, textual victory of what was planned over what actually happened? Or a valedictory recall of the all too frequent slippage between human scheme and historical event? Either way it is a mark of fidelity to Calvino’s sense of the world, which is beautifully and intricately expressed in a 1983 essay reprinted in Why Read the Classics? Calvino here is discussing the Odyssey, or more precisely “The Odysseys Within The Odyssey,” all the different journeys and tales of journeys which make up the poem. He talks about the “risk of forgetfulness” to which Odysseus is constantly exposed. The lotus-eaters, Circe, the sirens: so many invitations to forget. “Forget what?” Calvino asks. “The Trojan War? The siege? The Trojan horse? No: his home, his return voyage, the whole point of his journey. The expression used by Homer on these occasions is ‘to forget the return.”’ To remember the return …