Advertisement

A Text Adrift

Kunsthistorisches Museum/Wikimedia Commons

A page from the diary of Albrecht Dürer in which he describes his nightmare of a deluge: “I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven,” June, 1525

Does an author’s work change when he dies? On May 6, 2021, I sent Roberto Calasso my translation of his unusually slim book, La tavoletta dei destini. He was to check through it before I sent it to the publisher. This was the arrangement with all the translations I had done of his work: he liked to stay in control and I liked the reassurance that he would pick up misunderstandings and missed nuances. “You have changed Sindbad to Sinbad,” he immediately objected. I told him this was the name that English and American readers were familiar with. “It has to stay Sindbad,” he said.

On the first of July, I wrote reminding him that my delivery deadline was just a week away. He was being slow even by his standards. “I trust you,” he replied. “Just send it as it is. I’m writing other things.” It was then I guessed that something was up. On July 28 he died. And in November I received the copy edit from the publisher for my comments.

Immediately I sensed I was in new territory. The copy editor knew Italian and had checked my work against the original. There were suggestions, occasionally objections. In the past, since Calasso had excellent English, I could appeal to him to support this or that stylistic choice, if it seemed important. Now this authority was gone. The text was what it was, independent of its author, at the mercy of its readers. A ship had slipped its anchor and was adrift on the high seas, unmanned. Anyone could board it.

La tavoletta dei destini opens with a shipwreck. “This storm was like no other he had known.… Not only had he lost his course, the compass points themselves had disappeared. That was his last exact observation.” Sinbad—or, with respect, Sindbad—wakes up in a tent beside another man. “This is the home of Utnapishtim,” he is told, “in Dilmun.” Utnapishtim, it turns out, is Mesopotamian mytho­logy’s version of Noah. After building an ark and surviving the Flood with his freight of men and ani­mals, Utnapishtim had been granted immortality, but only if he went to live in remote, uninhabited Dilmun, a place Sindbad “never came across on any nautical chart.” Here, after several thousand years, he is the only repository of his culture’s ancient stories. Even the gods have disappeared. On the very rare occasions that he receives a guest—Gilgamesh, Sindbad—this lonely man begins, compulsively, to tell those stories, one after another, all interconnected, outside time.

Only after Calasso died did I realize that La tavoletta dei destini had a powerful autobiographical element. I had sensed, but vaguely, that it was more personal, wry, and melancholy than the other nine installments of the grand mythological cycle he had been writing since the early 1980s.  “I’m telling these stories of the Anunnaki [Sumerian deities],” confesses Utnapishtim, “as if Ea [god of knowledge] had instructed me: ‘You will live and tell our stories.’” Reviewing the copy edit, it was suddenly obvious that Utnapishtim was a kind of alter ego. At the moment of bowing out—apparently he had been ill for some time—Calasso was using this figure, as Shakespeare used Prospero, to suggest his position in relation to his material and his readers. “Here is a question I have never really fathomed,” muses Utnapishtim: “whether the Anunnaki forgot about me, here in Dilmun, sometime before being forgotten themselves; or whether they left me here with a precise role in mind, the role I have in relation to you and will very likely never have again: as one who passes on their stories.”

In the past, translating The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, or Ka, or The Book of All Books, I had occasionally pressed Calasso, who reveled in reticence, on the meaning of this or that aspect of his work. Now I couldn’t even savor his resistance to my curiosity. “In the end, they’re just stories,” observes Utnapishtim. “And you don’t ask a story to show its papers.”

More serious than issues of style, the copy edit eventually turned up one tiny instance of what looked like a mistake in Calasso’s original. Calasso was a publisher as well as a writer, head of the prestigious Italian house Adelphi Edizioni. He prided himself on his meticulous editing, most of all when editing his own books. Having translated almost two thousand pages of his writing over the years, I had come across only a handful of small mistakes. When I would write to let him know of one, he didn’t reply, as if the very idea of a mistake were unthinkable, a bad smell in polite company, or a hairline crack that might bring down an entire edifice; but I always noticed that the correction would be made in the next edition. Fortunately, in this case, the problem was no more than a minor anomaly in the book’s analytical index, something the copy editor and I sorted out in a rapid exchange of e-mails, taking easy possession of the dead man’s text. Still, I missed the special intimacy of Calasso’s not replying. A couple of times when I’d thought there was a mistake and there wasn’t, he would respond at once, peremptorily, letting me know how wrong I was.

Advertisement

But why does Utnapishtim, who is immortal, think that he will never again tell the stories that were entrusted to him? Only two people ever visit him in Dilmun. The hero Gilgamesh had one ambition, “to defeat death.” He arrives “punting [a] boat with a long pole…over the waters of the dead,” for Dilmun is a place “far removed from all other life.” When Sindbad eventually leaves Utnapishtim’s tent and sets out to explore, he finds that “in every direction, lay an expanse packed with hundreds of cone-shaped mounds, of sand and earth, all the same size and the same color, all the same distance, one from the next.”

Graves? I ran a quick search of my translation and found a description I had forgotten: “The island is rough and flat, with occasional dunes. Which look like burial mounds, tombs, of whom I couldn’t say.” So, I wondered, signing off on the edit: did Calasso, writing La tavoletta, think of himself as already, as it were, on the other shore? His alter ego a kind of ghost, addressing us from a vast cemetery? Now that its author was dead, the book seemed alive with new urgency. “There were hundreds—thousands rather,” says Sindbad of these mounds, “because it seemed they stretched off beyond the horizon.… At first, I felt terror, then a light, crazy euphoria. Then again terror.”

Alongside Utnapishtim’s compulsion to tell the ancient stories, he has a duty to inform his rare visitors that there is no escape from death: “Man is as fleeting as the dragonfly that flits for a day over the waters of the Euphrates and is gone.” “I did what I had to,” he says of his conversation with Gilgamesh. “Afterward I was pierced by the sharpest of pains.” To Sindbad, returning from the mounds, he says, “Now you know what Dilmun is.” The visitors are few, perhaps, because no one wants to hear Utnapishtim’s bad news.

But if man dies, says Utnapishtim, the stories, or at least the stories of the world before the Flood, “like me…have escaped death.” The ark did not save just humans and animals, but the myths too. Utnapishtim, it occurs to me, is Calasso the work, the mythological compendium that will go on telling and retelling itself for centuries; Gilgamesh and Sindbad are Calasso the man, in whom the stories live on, for a while. La tavoletta dei destini announces the separation of work and man. A kind of tombstone. After the Flood, says Utnapishtim, “the only stories are stories of shipwrecks.”

On December 2 I received another e-mail from the publisher about the book’s English title. Originally I had translated it as “The Tablet of Destinies,” but in an early exchange Calasso had changed this to “The Tablet of the Destinies,” a word-for-word rendering of the Italian. This sounded clunky to me, but I respected his desire to give “destinies” the definite article, as if to say, those destinies that we know of and have talked about. The author’s, for example. In a passage toward the end of the book we hear that the Anunnaki, the deities, preferred to believe that every creature and every thing has a preordained destiny, already written down on tablets of stone, rather than accept that life is subject to the merest chance, an idea they abhorred and feared in the same way, perhaps, as Calasso feared and abhorred mistakes in his books. Now the publishers told me that, after conferring with Adelphi, they had changed the title back to “The Tablet of Destinies.” I agreed without demur, convinced this was the more alluring title, and wondered whether Calasso would turn under his burial mound.

Which is another fascinating story. One of the wry curiosities of Utnapishtim’s tale is that when he is granted immortality and sent off to Dilmun, his wife gets the same treatment: “Utnapishtim,” says the god Enlil, “until today you have been a man, from now on you and your wife will be like gods. And you will dwell at the confluence of the rivers.” Yet the wife is never again mentioned and Utnapishtim speaks of Dilmun as “a place that I alone inhabit,” where there is “no one to talk to.” What is going on? In real life Calasso lived in Milan with his wife of many years, but openly had a family with a younger woman, who also lived in Milan. The one person that lonely Utnapishtim does occasionally get to see on the borders of Dilmun is Siduri, “the alewife”: “We lived on opposite banks of the waters of death…I sat at the bar of her tavern, like any ordinary customer.”

Advertisement

It is the norm in Italy to be buried in one’s hometown, or town of origin, very often in a shared tomb or grave; one’s body is thus claimed by family and community. In “Two Double Beds” Luigi Pirandello tells a funny story of how tricky this practice can be for people with unconventional private lives. Calasso chose to be buried not in Florence, his place of birth, or Milan, where he had long become an institution, but on the island cemetery of San Michele, between Venice and Murano, beside his friend Joseph Brodsky. He thus positioned himself outside his families and communities, in a remote place, at the confluence of many waters, and in a pantheon that includes Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghilev, Ezra Pound.

So the writer’s death not only casts his work adrift from any authorial control, but allows for musings and interpretations that would have been impossible while he was alive. I imagine Roberto out there on his island for centuries to come, waiting for the occasional shipwrecked Sinbad to whom he might whisper his stories. Or Sindbad. His position in relation to me is also clearer: I would prefer my ashes to be dispersed on whatever chance wind is passing.


The Tablet of Destinies, by Roberto Calasso, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 26.

NYR-TPR covers

Save $50 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review AND The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in