Calvinoism

Jonathan Coe

  • Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino, translated by Patrick Creagh
    Cape, 124 pp, £5.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 224 03311 5
  • Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver
    Cape, 86 pp, £10.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 224 03310 7
  • The Fountains of Neptune by Rikki Ducornet
    Dalkey Archive, 220 pp, $19.95, February 1992, ISBN 0 916583 96 1
  • Small Times by Russell Celyn Jones
    Viking, 212 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 670 84307 5

‘What tends to emerge from the great novels of the 20th century is the idea of an open encyclopedia,’ wrote Calvino in 1985, the year of his death. Tracing the lineage of the encyclopedic novel through Perec, Mann, Proust and Flaubert, he homes in on the figures of Carlo Emilio Gadda and Robert Musil, two ‘engineer-writers’ who have one quality in common: ‘their inability to find an ending’. Despite his own love of arcana and encyclopedic forms, Calvino’s relationship to this tradition was always tangential, for the simple reason that, in his own words, ‘my temperament prompts me to “keep it short” ’: but now we have two volumes which, because unfinished, are more defiantly, maddeningly ‘open’ than anything else in his canon, and which can therefore scarcely avoid taking on something of the glamour which in Gadda’s novels was an intrinsic quality – their sense of being ‘left as fragments, like the ruins of ambitious projects that nevertheless retain traces of the splendour and meticulous care with which they were conceived’.

All the same, we shouldn’t get too excited: we’re not, sadly, dealing with newly discovered masterpieces. Six Memos for the Next Millennium, much the more substantial of the books, contains the text of five out of the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures which Calvino was to have delivered at Harvard. It was published in Italy in 1988, but for some reason the translation has taken a while to reach us. Calvino’s headings are ‘Lightness’, ‘Quickness’, ‘Exactitude’, ‘Visibility’ and ‘Multiplicity’ – elements closely enough associated with his own work for a degree of subjectivity to be unavoidable, even if it does co-exist uneasily with the note of didacticism imposed by the lecture format. However hard he tries to duck out of it (stating his intention to ‘uphold the values of lightness’, for instance, but insisting ‘this does not mean that I consider the virtues of weight any less compelling’), there’s no escaping the occasional sense that values, or combinations of values, which are peculiar to his own writing are here being held up as rules of thumb for other writers to follow.

Perhaps, though, this is really a testament to the quiet authority of Calvino’s manner, the fruit of his lifelong endeavour ‘to remove weight ... from language’ which makes his prose so unassuming and at the same time so persuasive. The literary-philosophical context in which these lectures are situated, even though it seems to assemble itself with plausible logic under Calvino’s measured hand, is in fact a very eccentric one: the wide but random nature of his reading means that discussion of Dante’s visualisation of Classical and Biblical punishments, or Lucretius on the infinite, unpredictable deviations of the atom, is liable to give way to a lengthy digression on the significance of dolphins, crabs and butterflies when used as graphic trademarks by a Venetian Humanist publisher. On one level, this haphazardness imparts a welcome sense of pluralism to a frame of reference which might otherwise seem to be ideologically weighted (Calvino is resolutely Eurocentric, and cites no female authors at all): on another, it merely serves to reduce each lecture to a rehearsal of his own – admittedly fascinating – personal obsessions. In this way, the scope of the work is simultaneously broadened and narrowed.

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