Post Road Magazine #22


Stacy Carlson

When you open this volume, Calvino harnesses you to a cobweb filament and casts you into the ether. He utilizes the pull of the moon, the energy of subatomic particles, the speed of Mercury's winged sandals,

Leonardo da Vinci's eloquent doodles, and the works of writers from Ovid to Georges Perec to steer you across the terrain of his mind. His thematic map? Those qualities of literature, thought, and life that he deemed most useful for the next millennium: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. And now that we are firmly here, his memos have taken on an added dimension: they are eerily prescient and hugely comforting.

Calvino wrote the memos in 1985 as lectures to be given at Harvard, but he died before he could present them to the world. According to an introductory note written by his widow, originally there were to be eight memos. Calvino would have called the sixth one "Consistency." The seventh remains a mystery, but he'd given the eighth the title "Sul cominciare e sul finire" (On the beginning and ending [of novels]). Many times, as I've struggled with either the excruciating lightness of the blank page or the crushing weight of a manuscript that needs an ending, I've wondered what Calvino would have conjured on the subject of these two confounding novelistic aspects. I usually come up with some bit of insight myself, some idea guided by Calvino's shimmering lucidity and fractal-like logic, that helps me along, so I have benefited even from the potentiality of that absent memo.

In the foreword, Calvino poses the question that has become so familiar to our post-millennial ears: what will become of books in the "socalled post-industrial era of technology"? Like many others, I have devoured blog posts and (mostly online) news columns trying to find an answer to this question. I cling to my love of physical books even as I become a technovore. But at the end of the day, I return to the page in Six Memos where Calvino writes simply, "My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it." And in the memos that follow, he hands us an intricate, brilliant, loving compendium of those characteristics and peculiarities of literature that he most values, and he convinces us they are here to stay because they are also essential human qualities.

In the first memo, Calvino describes his quality of lightness as the lightness of thoughtfulness, not frivolity. It is a lightness that contains the dark chaos of the world (think of Perseus riding the winds to conquer

Medusa the petrifier). He quotes Paul Valéry: "One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather." As a novelist, this quality has become a beloved reference point, not only as a guiding principle, but as a comfort when the undertaking becomes heavy. Later Calvino alights on an unexpected point in his constellation of lightness: computer science. "The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with 'bits' in the flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits." If, as Calvino suggested at the beginning, the digitization of literature does not equal its demise, and the lightness of all those zeros and ones is something valuable, even beautiful, could I embrace electronic books over traditional paper ones? The jury's still out on that one, but Calvino opens the door, and I'm not shutting my eyes against what I see on the other side.

In each of his memos, Calvino takes us on a wild ride to the edge of the universe where a meteor shower of ideas dazzles our minds. Before we are completely overwhelmed, he escorts us swiftly back to a crystalline point. Quickness: the treatment of time in narrative, including the repetitions of folktale. Economy of expression, as well as its opposite as told by Scheherazade. The value of short literary forms (but don't forget the value of digression!). Exactitude: literature as the antidote to the plague of vague and clumsy language currently rampant in the world. Visibility: Dante's visions, the visual imagination and its importance to literature, and the sources of Calvino's own wellspring of images. Multiplicity: the encyclopedic novels of the twentieth century (Proust, Flaubert, Perec) as complete systems of knowledge and the inevitable pointer toward our new age, in which "we can no longer think in terms of totality that is not potential, conjectural, and manifold."

In this slender volume, Calvino achieves an immense range of things. It is a book on craft, a framework for gracefully meeting the challenges of a heavy world, and a tremendous open love letter to literature and writers that culminates in a final challenge: "Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function."

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