Have to blog early favorites from Calvino’s letters

To fall asleep last night, I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and read some of Italo Calvino’s letters. A massive collection of them is coming to market, and The New Yorker has run five days of excerpts. The connection to sleep? Calvino, to me, is never boring. But his writing relaxes the brain — gently opening the head, tossing out the detritus of the day, massaging the synapses, and, as you put down the book or phone, refastening the lid.

The passages I like the most from the excerpts so far…

Day 1: “And I see art as communication.”

Day 2: “… I could write short stories for the rest of my life. Stories that are nice and spare, that you can finish off as soon as you start them, you write them and read them without drawing breath, rounded and perfect like so many eggs, stories that if you add or remove a single word the whole thing goes to pieces.”

Day 3: “A quarter of America is a dramatic, tense, violent country, exploding with contradictions, full of brutal, physiological vitality, and that is the America that I have really loved and love. But a good half of it is a country of boredom, emptiness, monotony, brainless production, and brainless consumption, and this is the American inferno.”

Day 4: “Basically, I am convinced that not only are there no ‘major’ or ‘minor’ writers, but writers themselves do not exist — or at least they do not count for much. … What counts is whether in the work that he is doing at a certain point there is something that can relate to the present or future work done by others, as can happen to anyone who works, just because of the fact that they are creating such possibilities.”

Day 5: “It is no accident that I’ve gone to live in a big city where I know nobody and no one knows I exist.”

A book everyone in love with storytelling should read

I love everything I’ve read of Italo Calvino’s work. But I continue to arrive at his works slowly. They sit on my coffee table with the unread others, and they wait for the right afternoon, the right weekend, the right trip to lure me into page one and knock me over. It’s like a Slap Bet of genius.

In Invisible Cities, Calvino imagine Marco Polo talking to Kublai Khan: the explorer explaining to the conquerer dozens of the cities he has discovered. Each city has a different mien, a different build, a different lesson to teach.

Every city related speaks to the common natures of great cities — great for either their success or their failure — or the people who inhabit them. We may be visitors or residents of a city, but a relationship of some kind exists. Whether the cities Polo describes are real or not is irrelevant. By hearing of so many, we piece together our diverse connections to the place where we live, dream to be or fear to tread. Our cities are our humanity poured out.

Each chapter (each one city) runs only a couple pages or paragraphs.

After seven days’ march through woodland, the traveler directed toward Baucis cannot see the city and yet he has arrived. The slender stilts that rise from the ground at a great distance from one another and are lost above the clouds support the city. You climb them with ladders. On the ground the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having already everything they need up there, they prefer not to come down. Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo lanes on which it rests and, when the days are sunny, a pierced, angular shadow that falls on the foliage.

There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.

And another:

When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers. If this is not your first journey, you already know that cities like this have an obverse: you have only to walk in a semicircle and you will come into view of Moriana’s hidden face, expanse of rusting sheet metal, sackcloth, planks bristling the spikes, pipes black with soot, piles of tins, blind walls with fading signs, frames of staved-in straw chairs, ropes good only for hanging oneself from a rotten beam.

From one part to the other, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images: but instead it has no thickness, it consists only of the face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other.

If you work in news or any kind of storytelling, Calvino’s book restores your faith in new narrative angles, new types of observation, new interactions with our experience. The book asks you to look anew and anew and anew.

‘From every corner of the sensory kingdom…’

Quick, the paywall guards aren’t watching!

I don’t know why or how, but my favorite story from last week’s New Yorker is available outside the magazine’s paywall right now. Burkhard Bilger’s profile of neuroscientist David Eagleman involves amusement park thrill rides, how drummers experience time differently, Eagleman falling off a roof, and something called the oddball effect. There’s also mention of a Calvino book that remains on my must-read-someday list.

In Eagleman’s essay “Brain Time,” published in the 2009 collection “What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science,” he borrows a conceit from Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” The brain, he writes, is like Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of the thirteenth century. It sits enthroned in its skull, “encased in darkness and silence,” at a lofty remove from brute reality. Messengers stream in from every corner of the sensory kingdom, bringing word of distant sights, sounds, and smells. Their reports arrive at different rates, often long out of date, yet the details are all stitched together into a seamless chronology. The difference is that Kublai Khan was piecing together the past. The brain is describing the present — processing reams of disjointed data on the fly, editing everything down to an instantaneous now. How does it manage it?

The whole story is fascinating. Plus, you learn the ridiculous lengths to which Coldplay apparently goes to sound less studio-ish in concert.

(Unintended bonus: If you want to try processing “reams of disjointed data on the fly,” try reading the mag’s chat with Bilger and Eagleman. Between the lack of design and some odd sequencing issues, you can practically feel your brain churn to stitch together the page’s flow.)

Kay Ryan meets Italo Calvino

Finally sat tonight to read Paris Review‘s Kay Ryan interview, something that turned up this weekend. This interview was the first from the mag I’d read in full. Last fall, there was a cool Atlantic story about how the interviews are done, over a number of sessions and with collaborative, heavy construction. But I still didn’t expect the results to be this good.

Two answers in, Ryan mentions Calvino, who always blows me away, and this quote from his “Lightness” essay, which does so particularly. “Lightness for me goes with precision and determination,” she recites, “a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.” Wonder how this applies to people.

And six answers in…


How did you come up with what you’ve called recombinant rhyme?


When I started writing nobody rhymed—it was in utter disrepute. Yet rhyme was a siren to me. I had this condition of things rhyming in my mind without my permission. Still I couldn’t take end-rhyme seriously, which meant I had to find other ways—I stashed my rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middles—the front of one word would rhyme with the back of another one, or one word might be identical to three words. In “Turtle,” for instance, I rhyme “afford” with “a four-oared,” referring to a four-oared helmet: “Who would be a turtle who could help it? / A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet, / she can ill afford the chances she must take / in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.” The rhymes are just jumping all around in there, holding everything together.

What’s recombinant rhyme? It’s like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.

Tangled but giving the impression

If you remember, a while back I was reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, on lit’s greater choices, and trying to write one post on each essay. I was on track, until the last essay, “Multiplicity.” Had to reread late tonight, with music off and the lights almost out.

The essay, basically, looks at writer versus universe — our narrative humanity, incomplete and mortal, yet still driven to capture the infinite world. Futile? Calvino describes various writers, some obscure, others notable, striving to meet the challenge in different ways. Among them is Carlo Emilio Gadda, struggling “to represent the world as a knot, a tangled skein of yarn; to represent it without in the least diminishing the inextricable complexity or… the simultaneous presence of the most disparate elements that converge to determine every event.” Calvino compares him to Robert Musil, for whom exactitude and soul battled.

If we compare these two engineer-writers, Gadda, for whom understanding meant allowing himself to become tangled in a network of relationships, and Musil, who gives the impression of always understanding everything in the multiplicity of codes and levels of things without ever allowing himself to become involved, we have to record this one fact common to both: their inability to find an ending.

A page later, Calvino cites a passage from Proust. As translated:

And I realised the impossibility which love comes up against. We imagine that it has as its object a being that can be laid down in front of us, enclosed within a body. Alas, it is the extension of that being to all the points in space and time that it has occupied and will occupy. If we do not possess its contact with this or that place, this or that hour, we do not possess that being. But we cannot touch all these points. If only they were indicated to us, we might perhaps contrive to reach out to  them. But we grope for them without finding them. Hence mistrust, jealousy, persecutions. We waste precious time on absurd clues and pass by the truth without suspecting it.

Introducing the excerpt, Calvino informs us: “knowledge, for Proust, is attained by suffering this intangibility.” But all in life isn’t pain. Further examples in the essay examine experiences beyond suffering. Ending, Calvino points to the benefits of reaching inside ourselves, as infinite as the universe. And he wonders if, when we do try to go beyond our lives and abilities, we aren’t trying to give voices to the voiceless, and not just segments of society but emotions, objects, systems, seasons.

When images are everywhere, what happens to imagination?

Previously, at the gas station: “Fantasy is a place where it rains.”

Returning to Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Milennium… We’ve talked about he approaches how lightness, quickness and exactitude meet storytelling. Now it’s time for us to tackle visibility. When Calvino says “visibility,” he means imagination. How do we move past what’s visible? The task is harder than ever. Images fill the world to the brim.

To name essay highlights for me, it’s best to move backward. Calvino, writing in 1985, discusses his concerns for the future near the essay’s end: “We are bombarded today by such a quantity of images that we can no longer distinguish direct experience from what we have seen for a few seconds on television. The memory is littered with bits and pieces of images, like a rubbish dump, and it is more and more unlikely that any one form among so many will succeed in standing out.”

That outlook isn’t too good, right? But Calvino is no pessimist. “I have in some possible pedagogy of the imagination,” he writes in the next paragraph, “that would accustom us to control our own inner vision without suffocating it or letting it fall, on the other hand, into confused, ephemeral daydreams, but would enable the images to crystallize into a well-defined, memorable, and self-sufficient form, the icastic form.”

Continue reading When images are everywhere, what happens to imagination?

When exactitude allows for messy apartments

As you know, Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium has entranced me this year. The first essay was “Lightness,” and Calvino sought balance between capturing difficult reality and his dreamlike aspirations. The next, “Quickness,” explored narrative aerodynamics. Both essays spoke near-directly to my life in the weeks I read them.

In the third essay, “Exactitude,” I didn’t expect to connect as deeply as with the first two. “Exactitude” was such an anal-retentive word, and a glance at my apartment shouted the opposite. This guess was wrong, of course. While I didn’t connect as personally, the depth was there.

Speaking to the topic, Calvino didn’t act as a friend. He was a ride. I imagined the space elevator. He telescoped in and out. Exactitude, to him, was a dichotomy in writing. Did a writer use the primacy of words to find form in the world? Or did a writer use the primacy of the world to inspire words to catch up? For as much as a writer could measure actions to try and capture the infinite, the writer could also describe the seemingly finite to an infinite extent. Zooming out, zooming in.

Exactitude, for Calvino, began with precision but lived on exploration.

He raised a metaphor of a crystal and a flame. A crystal appeared to be a rigidly structured object but was only as such because of its life inside. A flame seemed to be wild and uncontrollable but was only as such because of its steady, mathematical, thermodynamic engine.

Putting aside some beautiful extended quotes Calvino used (among them, a meditation on how we observe indirect sun and moonlight), this was the first of two favorite “Exactitude” passages for me:

The fact is, my writing has always found itself facing two divergent paths that correspond to two different types of knowledge. One path goes into the mental space of bodiless rationality, where one may trace lines that converge, projections, abstract forms, vectors of force. The other path goes through a space crammed with objects and attempts to create a verbal equivalent of that space by filling the page with words, involving a most careful, painstaking effort to adapt what is written to what is not written, to the sum of what is sayable and not sayable. These are two different drives toward exactitude that will never attain complete fulfillment, one because “natural” languages always say something more than formalized languages can — natural languages always involve a certain amount of noise that impinges upon the essentiality of the information — and the other because, in representing the density and continuity of the world around us, language is revealed as defective and fragmentary, always saying something less with respect to the sum of what can be experienced.

Here was the second, again dueling with descriptive dichotomy:

There are those who hold that the word is the way of attaining the substance of the world, the final, unique, and absolute substance. Rather than representing the substance, the word identifies itself with it (so that it is wrong to call the word merely a means to an end): there is the word that knows only itself, and no other knowledge of the world is possible. There are others who regard the use of the word as an unceasing pursuit of things, an approach not to their substance but to their infinite variety, touching on their inexhaustibly multiform surface. As Hoffmannsthal said: “Depth is hidden. Where? On the surface.” And Wittgenstein went even further than this: “For what is hidden … is of no interest to us.”

I would not be so drastic. I think we are always searching for something hidden or merely potential or hypothetical, following its traces whenever they appear on the surface. I think our basic mental processes have come down to us through every period of history, ever since the times of our Paleolithic forefathers, who were hunters and gatherers. The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

A week after reading, I love that image. I sit here at the beach, wondering when to be the crystal and when to be the flame.

Of love and content management

Italo Calvino always fits in moments for me. A shared love of narrative forms and impact likely explains this, but I’m still surprised each time.

Following the lessons last month from “Lightness,” the first of Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, I picked up the book again last night and read his second memo, “Quickness.” It fit the moment perfectly.

Calvino tells an old story of Charlemagne and a magic ring. He notes different methods in which the story moves before focusing on one.

The real protagonist of the story, however, is the magic ring, because it is the movements of the ring that determine those of the characters and because it is the ring that establishes the relationships between them. Around the magic object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself. We might say that the magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events. It has a narrative function, whose history we may trace in the Norse sagas and the chivalric romances — a function that continues to surface in Italian poems of the Renaissance. In Ariosto’s Orlando furioso we find an endless series of exchanges of swords, shields, helmets, and horses, each one endowed with particular qualities. In this way the plot can be described in terms of the changes of ownership of a certain number of objects, each one endowed with special powers that determine the relationships between certain characters.

In realistic narrative, Mambrino’s helmet becomes a barber’s bowl, but it does not lose importance or meaning. In the same way, enormous weight is attached to all the objects that Robinson Crusoe saves from the wrecked ship or makes with his own hands. I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.

Quickness enters this picture for Calvino as the special forces around objects, characters, phrasing, or other narrative tools bring continued meaning with concision. For a story’s moments or a moment’s assets, the speed of their imparting adds to their power, which adds back to speed. Both effects help understanding. It’s narrative aerodynamics.

End-of-day reminder

Fourteen stories up, sitting cross-legged on the neighboring tower’s concrete deck, thin and without chairs but shady, Blackberry nearby but resting, holding Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, spending a needed hour slow-reading the first essay, “Lightness.”

When I began my career, the categorical imperative of every young writer was to represent his own time. Full of good intentions, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual. I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. Soon I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross. Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world”“qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus, who does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield. Thus Perseus comes to my aid even at this moment, just as I too am about to be caught in a vise of stone”“which happens every time I try to speak about my own past. Better to let my talk be composed of images from mythology.

His mother was a more digital kind of fish

Via TMN, a London Times look at how Italo Calvino’s writing flew.

Certainly, Faulkner was working towards simple structural brevity and lightness in his magnificent novel As I Lay Dying (1930) but Calvino’s own inner urgent necessity, away from any weight of narrative, took him farther than Faulkner towards the potential of spinning tiny bytes of text all at once and leaving the reader, not the narrative or the writer, to hold everything together mentally, and in movement. This, he felt, was real realism, because science had knocked out the weighty Newtonian Universe to reveal a world made of nothing at all. The endlessly dividing atom is empty space and points of light. If it all sounds post-modern — that is, relative, fragmentary, shifting — it is, but because Calvino is a great writer it is also satisfying and solid, in the curious way that art allows.