Of Terrorists, Tourists, and Robert Frost

The Unnamable Present

by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 193 pp., $26.00
Roberto Calasso
Roberto Calasso; drawing by Tullio Pericoli

The title of this slim book, the ninth part of Robert Calasso’s vast, ongoing project, is taken from the first volume of the series, The Ruin of Kasch, published in Italian—as La Rovina di Kasch—in 1983. The relevant passage goes, in part: “For those of us living at this moment, the most exact and most acute sensation is one of not knowing where we are treading from day to day…. We are living in the ‘unnamable present.’” Yet from the perspective of now, as we reel in mounting bewilderment from one jolting instance of political and social bizarrerie to the next, the world as it was in 1983 seems as solid as permafrost. The cold war was heading toward absolute zero, and in most places, including Calasso’s Italy, the old battle lines were as firmly scored as they had ever been, the fault lines as deep. A far cry, it would seem, from where we live today, in “a shattered world,” “even for scientists,” as Calasso writes.

Of course, this myriad-minded savant thinks not in decades but eons, and no doubt in his authorial eye thirty-six years are a barely noticeable blink. It can be assumed, therefore, that he refers back to those words of his published in 1983 not as evidence of his prophetic powers but as an indication of how things change and yet remain the same, sub specie aeternitatis.

Yet Calasso is keenly aware of the all-too-namable ills afflicting the contemporary world. His new book differs markedly from its predecessors not only in its brevity but in the urgency with which it addresses the burning issues—the raging inferno—of our time. Calasso is a scholar but not an academic—he heads the much-respected publishing house Adelphi Edizione in Milan—and as such is free to consider a dizzyingly wide range of topics, each leading on to and as often as not blending into the next. One moment we are among Islamic fundamentalists, the next we are being dazzled by the digital glare of Silicon Valley; here, Robert Frost is writing to Louis Untermeyer about art and revolution, there, Leonard and Virginia Woolf are taking tea in Bloomsbury with a chap from the Foreign Office who frightens them with tales of Hitler; now we are with Curzio Malaparte sheltering from Soviet bombs in Moldavia, then we are being warned by Joseph Goebbels of the pernicious Jewish gift for mimicry. Somehow, amazingly, it all hangs together.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Tourists and Terrorists,” is slightly longer than the second, sinisterly titled “The Vienna Gas Company,” while the third, “Sighting of the Towers,” is hardly more than a page in length—and we shall leave it unconsidered, so that it may detonate by itself for the reader with a most unexpected and astonishing report.

Calasso opens the first…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.