ITallo Calvino, novelist, essayist, critic, editor, publisher, lived a life that seemed made of words. Like the Baron in the Trees, the legendary aristocrat who escaped in childhood into the upper canopy of the woods, he often seemed reluctant to fall on solid ground, much preferring flights of imagination.
In the title essay here, the piece that gives this group its guiding philosophy, he explains something of this habit of mind. It is suggested that in his youth he believed that imaginary worlds could illuminate the real world and vice versa. And as he got older, he became swallowed up by the feeling that “within books, experience is always possible… its reach never goes beyond the empty margin of the page.” Meanwhile, the outside world remained for him an implacable and unpredictable mystery, a world that never ceased to “surprise me, frighten me, confuse me.” Calvino argues that this predicament was particularly harsh for the Italian. It was a country that in its politics rejected beginnings, middles, and endings, a place where “many obscure things happen, daily widely discussed and commented upon but never resolved; where every event conceals a secret plot.”
Throughout his writing career, Calvino has found wonderful, funny, and wistful ways to dramatize this turmoil. In his 1972 novel invisible cities, had Marco Polo give the great khan a plan of several possible cities, each one in Venice and not Venice. in if it is on winter night Traveling (1979), he created the definitive Shaggy Dog story about the experience of reading shaggy dog stories. and in his alter ego sketches Mr. Palomar (1983), describing the ways in which the five senses inform us about the world and keep us locked inside our heads: When contemplating the stars, facing the infinity of creation, Mr. Palomar worries mostly about the question of whether he should. He puts on or takes off his glasses when using the telescope.
These essays, which consider Calvino’s thoughts on sitting and procrastination, as well as some of his more common preoccupations with folk tales and the limits of science, are not only the backstory to his imaginative method, but often another expression of it. Many come in response to newspaper inquiries. Calvino’s final response to A Release Special in “Why do you write?” It becomes a meditation not only on his own unquenchable doubts (“I am writing because I am dissatisfied with what I have already written and would like some way to correct and complete it, offering an alternative”) but also a kind of deconstruction of the subconscious strategies of the creative process: “I have an idea: Ah! How I would like to I write like X! Too bad it’s totally beyond my means! Then I try to imagine this impossible task, I think of the book that I will never write but would like to read, and put it next to other beloved books on a perfect shelf. Suddenly some words and sentences pop into my mind.. .”
Calvino had always valued lightness, a kind of writing and reading that was the opposite of hard. In the reviews collected here, readers are often invited to skip certain passages or chapters in the books at hand. In his electrical article on Freeman Dyson disturb the universeFor example, he advises readers who are short of time to start with Chapter 3 and then make sure to move on to Chapter 16 and so on. Few writers and readers have been more aware of the battle between comprehension and distraction when faced with words on the page.
There is some kind of comedy in this, but also a statement of intent. Some of the articles here deal with the critical theory of the French post-structuralists, the neo-Romanian language Alain Robb-Grillet. In some ways Calvino was a fellow traveler in that project to reformulate the novel, to find revolutionary ways to distance the author from the practice of writing and reading. But he was also aware of the fact that there was an inherent arrogance in technical data. His own practice was akin to Beckett’s: Try Again, Fail Better.
Inevitably in a collection like this there are pieces that look a little dated or obscure. But there are enough gems to make the trips worthwhile. The time-strapped reader is advised to make sure he stops by the vignette beginning on page 264, which is an account of a board game between Montezuma and Cortés in which the stakes are enormous – “For the Mexicans the end of the world… for the Spaniards the beginning of a new era”. What follows is a short history of imperialism and subjugation, and an inspiring and terrifying examination of competing human perspectives. It’s also a wonderful little world made of language, one that Calvino delights in, so we can too.