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Eyes Wide Open

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.1 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 is to seek a past which is also a future. “Memory truly counts,” Calvino writes, “only if it holds together the imprint of the past and the plan for the future, if it allows one to do things without forgetting what one wanted to do….” This form of memory works, I take it, both when what one does is the same as what one wanted to do and when it is different—although there is far more need for it in the second case.

The title of Six Memos for the Next Millennium remembers Calvino’s wishes, the text remembers his death. The six topics for his lectures were lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. The literary essays gathered in Why Read the Classics? readily confirm the importance of these topics. Calvino writes of Stendhal’s “lightness” and, strikingly, of the “violence and lightness” of a character in Tolstoy’s Two Hussars. He writes of Montale’s “exactness,” of Ariosto’s “precision.” Voltaire’s Candide is characterized above all by its speed, velocità, here translated as “narrative rapidity.”

The great discovery of Voltaire the humorist is a technique that will become one of the most reliable gags in comic films: the piling up of disaster on disaster at relentless speed…. What Voltaire projects in his lightning-speed photograms is really a worldwide cinema, a kind of “around the world in eighty pages.”

There is a history of visibility in the novel,” Calvino writes, thinking of Flaubert as the culmination of a tradition that begins with Stendhal and Balzac. Not the familiar notion of nineteenth-century realism, we note, but a view of “the novel as the art of making persons and things visible,” Calvino’s italics—what he actually writes, in an Italian echo of Conrad, is far vedere, to make us see, or to make seen.

Multiplicity is everywhere in these essays, in the variety of Calvino’s interests, but also, more specifically, in his taste for slightly maniacal classifiers and counters, like the Venetian priest Giammaria Ortes (“Once upon a time,” Calvino writes of this per-son, “there was a man who wanted to calculate everything”), or early scientists like Galileo and Gerolamo Cardano, or capacious historians like Pliny (who was not uncritical, Calvino says, just “extremely inconsistent and unpredictable”).

Calvino says that his memory of reading Xenophon in school conjures up a “great boredom,” but then adds, “I was wrong.” Wrong to have been bored, he means, but perhaps also, more stealthily, wrong to imagine he was bored. “The secret in reading The Anabasis is not to skip anything, to follow everything point by point.” It’s not that Calvino is against skipping, which he wholeheartedly recommends elsewhere. And consistency? Well, that’s the missing lecture, and perhaps in any case is to be found only as a counterpoint to all the rest, as a loyalty to a particular set of differences.

There is a surface consistency to Why Read the Classics?, because apart from the title essay, all the pieces treat individual authors or works—almost always works. These are “‘his’ classics,” Esther Calvino says of her selection from her husband’s writing, “the writers, poets and scientific authors who had meant most to him, at different stages of his life.” Eleven of these thirty-six essays have appeared in English before, in The Uses of Literature (1986; called The Literature Machine in the UK), along with a range of more speculative articles, interviews, and lectures, with titles like “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” “Philosophy and Literature,” and “Whom Do We Write For?” The Uses of Literature, translated by Patrick Creagh, who also translated Six Memos, visibly suggests a rather different Calvino, not less literary but more interested in thinking about literature, or what he calls, in an essay on Borges, “the very idea of literature.”

But of course this second Calvino is also to be found in Why Read the Classics?—how could he not be? Calvino was a restless and inventive writer, but restlessness and invention have their consistencies too. In what is perhaps the most brilliant essay in Why Read the Classics?(and one that has not appeared in English before), Calvino starts with a close reading of a poem by Montale, finally focusing on the poem’s preoccupation with the space behind us as we walk, the space we can’t see because we haven’t got eyes in the back of our head (and which we can’t see even by turning around, because then it just changes its location). Behind us, Montale suggests, is the void; in front of us is the world we think we know. Calvino then evokes in comparison an imaginary animal catalogued by Borges, the “hide-behind,” which is always behind you when you go into the forest, but which you can never see: “You turn around, but however quick you are the hide-behind is quicker still and has moved behind you already; you will never find out what it looks like but it is always there.” “We could say,” Calvino continues, “that Montale’s man is one who has managed to turn round and see what the hide-behind looks like: and it is more frightening than any other animal, it is the void.”

From here Calvino shifts to a dazzling discussion of the rear-view mirror for cars (“the great discovery of this century is the daily use of a mirror positioned in such a way as to exclude the self from vision”), which might (but doesn’t) make the void go away. His next move is to talk about the movie screen and its relation to our fields of vision, but you have to read the whole essay to get a sense of the speed and wit of the thing. The point, though, is that however fast the essay goes and however surprising its moves are, these features are themselves aspects of Calvino’s consistency, bear the signature of his mind.

We can go further, but first we shall need to look beyond easy or ready-made notions of the classic, and certainly beyond Pantheon’s blurb for the book, which presents Calvino as a spokesman for those who are convinced of “the enduring importance to our lives of crucial writers of the Western canon,” and wish to resist “the vanguard of so-called multiculturalism.” Calvino’s Western canon, even on this partial sampling, includes a medieval Persian text and at least one work—Gerolamo Cardano’s autobiography—which Calvino says not only is not a classic, but couldn’t have been.

It is possible that some of the restlessness of Cardano the man comes across in the English translation of his rather awkward Latin. In that case it is highly significant that if it is Cardano’s European reputation—Cardano was famous as a medical man, but his works embrace all branches of knowledge and enjoyed considerable posthumous popularity—which authorises the link between him and Shakespeare, it does so actually on the periphery of his scientific interests, in that vague territory which will be later thoroughly traversed by the pioneering experts in psychology, introspection and existential anguish.

If Cardano (1501-1576) had written in Italian rather than Latin, Calvino says, “sixteenth-century Italian literature would have had not another classic writer, but another weird one.” This is a compliment, not entirely backhanded, since Calvino also regards Cardano’s eccentricity as “representative of his age,” and calls him a precursor of Proust. Calvino no sooner distinguishes between the “powers of seduction” of a book and “its absolute worth”—the powers of seduction “are composed of so many imponderable elements”—than he catches himself up. Absolute worth, “presuming that that phrase means anything at all,” is also composed of so many imponderable elements.

Calvino’s own definitions of the classic hover between casual acceptance of uncontroversial but not very interesting formulations (“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading,” “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say”) and subtle attempts to say something more elusive, at once very personal and possibly true for others. “A classic,” Calvino also suggests, “is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum”—this is safe enough, and seems to support Carla Benedetti’s case. But Calvino adds, “which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.” No classics without unclassical noise—another way of saying, as Calvino does a moment earlier, that classics are always read “from” somewhere, and that this “from” needs to be clearly established, “otherwise both the reader and the text tend to drift in a timeless haze.” This is one clue among many that Calvino is more interested in history than he sometimes seems to be, and he proceeds, mischievously, to invert his own proposition: “A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.” This is a definition, through metaphor, of a rather intimate but I think generalizable claim about the classics.

The same could be said of a couple of Calvino’s other definitions, although the dialogue here is less with a noisy history than with one’s own superstitions or mythologies: “A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans”; “‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.” This is rather similar to Proust’s saying that the only first editions he cares about are the editions in which he first read a book. A classic in one of Calvino’s senses wouldn’t have to be a classic at all in other senses, and the book that represents the whole universe sounds imaginary anyway, the sort of text you might turn up in a basement in a story by Borges. It’s worth remembering that T.S. Eliot, offering his austere and imperial definition of a classic—Virgil is a classic, there are no English classics—said that he couldn’t promise not to continue to use the word in some of its other, looser meanings, and reminded his readers of “a very interesting book called A Guide to the Classics, which tells you how to pick the Derby winner.”

In this multiple, floating context, even Calvino’s remark about reading the classics being better than not reading them takes on a slightly different color. What kind of a reader would you have to be to possess no talismans, to be capable of indifference to all books, and to have no background noise in your life, or only background noise? No reader at all is the obvious answer, although one or two characters in Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a book full of images of reading but also of readers’ nightmares, come close to this negative perfection.

Seeking consistencies in Calvino’s style and preoccupations, I found myself following his example and jot-ting down single-word summaries, like work, irony, history, silence, or invisibility. The list could go on, and would have to go on if we were trying to do justice to the full range of concerns in Calvino’s nonfictional prose. In the two fat volumes of essays published by Mondadori in 1995, the titles range from “Groucho’s Cigar” to “Am I a Stalinist Too?” and from “The Sea of Objectivity” to “Last Letter to Pier Paolo Pasolini.” But the features I have listed will get us started, and they intersect or overlap interestingly with Calvino’s own six lecture topics.

Work, for instance, appears to be a subset of exactitude. It is a matter of “doing something,” and Calvino construes Voltaire’s famous maxim about cultivating one’s garden not as an invitation to leisurely self-preference but as “the first enunciation of work as the substance of all worth.” Voltaire, Calvino says, is simply being “anti-metaphysical: you should not give yourself problems other than those that you can resolve with your own direct practical application.” Calvino doesn’t think this is the end of the story about the self or about metaphysics, but he thinks practical work is important. He keeps Conrad “close to hand,” he says, alongside Stendhal. “For the fact is that though I never believed in a lot of what he wrote, I have always believed that he was a good captain.” I don’t know how true this was of Conrad, but Calvino’s belief says a lot about Calvino.

Irony doesn’t have to be light and quick, but in Calvino it always is. Roland Barthes said of him, in a television interview,2 that his irony never wounded and was never aggressive: “It is a distance, a smile, a sympathy.” This tone is apparent in a list of likes (there were no dislikes) Calvino gave to an interviewer in 1980. He spoke about Stendhal, Pushkin, Hemingway, Stevenson, Chekhov, Conrad, Tolstoy, adding a phrase to explain each preference. Then he said, “I like Manzoni because until recently I hated him. I like Chesterton because he wanted to be the Catholic Voltaire, and I wanted to be the Communist Chesterton.” Conrad, Calvino says, didn’t know any anarchists, “not even by sight,” a beautiful, unnecessary touch. But the irony is everywhere. When asked by The New York Times in 1984 which literary character he would like to be, Calvino said Mercutio, from Romeo and Juliet. “He stays with the old code of chivalry at the price of his life perhaps only for reasons of style, and yet he is a modern, skeptical ironic man: a Don Quixote who knows very well what dreams are and what reality is, and lives between them with his eyes open.” Mercutio also appears in Six Memos as a model for lightness in the midst of violence.

History, however, offers multiplicity without consistency; it is the inescapable arena where values are sometimes found but more often lost. In a 1958 essay Calvino expresses his admiration for Dr. Zhivago, along with his dissent from Pasternak’s attempt to see history as “transcending humanity.” “He is not interested in psychology, character, situations, but in something more general and direct: life,” (Calvino’s italics) whereas Calvino says he himself has “always sought the exact opposite in literature and in thought: an active involvement of man with history.” It is important then that Calvino should in a later essay, apparently with entire approval, quote Raymond Queneau’s statement that “history is the science of man’s unhappiness.” If true, this wouldn’t make us less involved with history, but it would mark the temper of our involvement.

Silence for Calvino is not merely the unspoken, it is what might have been spoken but wasn’t, or it is what lurks beneath speech and gives it its secret, driven meaning. Similarly, the invisible is not merely the reverse of the visible, it is what haunts the visible like a threat, like an endless reminder of its limitations. Predictably enough, Calvino finds this structure of hints and elisions in Stendhal and Henry James; but he also finds it in Hemingway (“on one side…the formal execution of the task, and on the other something unknown, nothingness”) and Pavese (“Each one of Pavese’s novels revolves around a hidden theme, something unsaid which is the real thing he wants to say”) and even Tolstoy: “What counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.”

With this phrase we are close to Calvino’s idea of memory as the link between what we do and what we wanted to do. But Calvino’s deepest dedication, I think, is to an intricate respect both for what happened and for what might have happened, whether we wanted it to or not, and whether we caused it or not. This is what the openness of Mercutio’s eyes means. Calvino also quotes a sentence from Sten-dhal which expresses this respect per-fectly, and it is a sign of the delicacy of the idea that neither of Calvino’s translators gets it quite right.3

Stendhal, Calvino says, “is so refractory to anguish” that even desperate conditions don’t produce despair in him or in his characters. Fabrizio del Dongo, in The Charterhouse of Parma, has feared prison for most of his young life, and now finds himself locked up inside a tower, and yet isn’t sad. Well, not just that: he doesn’t remember to be sad. He says to himself, “Je ne me souviens pas d’être triste.” McLaughlin renders this as “I have forgotten that I should be sad,” and Creagh gives it as “I don’t remember being sad.” But there is no obligation to be sad here, and no question of remembering past occasions. Fabrice simply recognizes that the objective and subjective conditions for sadness exist, but he is too busy being happy to pay attention to them. Or rather, he pays attention to them now, but only obliquely. He remembers he’s not remembering them. Will he continue to remember them, and become sad? Most people would, including, probably, Calvino. But Fabrice won’t. He is Mercutio’s twin, the one who knows how to close his eyes—until the next time he fails to remember.

  1. 1

    Pasolini contra Calvino (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1998).

  2. 2

    Quoted in Album Calvino, edited by Luca Baranelli and Ernesto Ferrero (Milan: Mondadori, 1995), p. 200.

  3. 3

    On a Stendhalian note, there is a small factual error in Martin McLaughlin’s translation. The version generally is sturdy and reliable, although a little impatient with nuance. Is “avenging an injustice” (McLaughlin) exactly the same as “vindicating justice” (Creagh)? Is “deconstruction” really the closest we can get to dissolution (dissoluzione) or dismantling (smontare)? There are many instances of such slight slither. The error arises from a rearrangement of Calvino’s grammar. Calvino says “it could almost be said” that Stendhal’s whole typology of the passions revolves around male impotence and that it’s as if he wrote De l’amour solely in order to arrive at his famous chapter on fiascos, which he then did not dare to publish. McLaughlin writes, “as if…this famous chapter was the sole reason for writing the book which the author subsequently did not dare publish.” But it is the chapter he didn’t publish, and not the book. The chapter is what might have happened, or happened only later.

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