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.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium is therefore best read simply as a guide to the books, philosophies and movements which have shaped Calvino’s fiction. Its attempt to ‘situate them within the perspective of the new millennium’ is strangely perfunctory: nods in the direction of computer technology, the decline of literacy and the deadening influence of the mass media do not in themselves make up a historical perspective (although there is one telling bit of social comment when he complains that the main barrier to literary experiment lies effectively in a kind of economic censorship – ‘the demands of the publishing business,’ he maintains, ‘are a fetish that must not be allowed to keep us from trying out new forms’). He sometimes admits that there are limits on the extent to which he is prepared to depart from the strictly personal: he declines to pursue the idea of ‘writing as ... the only reality we can know’ because it would ‘carry me too far from the use of words as I understand it – that is, words as a perpetual pursuit of things, as a perpetual adjustment to their infinite variety’. If he relies too heavily, in this instance, on a binary opposition – ‘words’ on the one hand, ‘things’ on the other – which has been well and truly collapsed by not-so-recent developments in linguistics, this should alert us to the perils of attempting to read these lectures as literary theory. Read the sentence again as a commentary on Mr Palomar (which he had just completed) and it becomes an exact description of the programme behind that noble experiment, in which ‘perpetual pursuit’ and ‘perpetual adjustment’ were indeed the preconditions of Calvino’s stubborn faith in the power of words to render the specificity of the physical world.

The same challenge is addressed, albeit in attenuated form, in Under the Jaguar Sun, a new collection of three stories (only one of which is previously unpublished). The idea, first taken up by Calvino in 1972, was to write stories about each of the five senses, although he only managed to get as far as taste, hearing and smell. In her afterword, his widow suggests that he would not have stopped at these stories but would have gone on to provide ‘a frame, as in If on a winter’s night a traveller, a frame that amounts to another novel, almost a book in itself’. In the absence of this frame, or any clue as to the form it might have taken, she urges us to consider the contents of the book ‘not as something Calvino started and left unfinished but simply as three stories written in different periods of his life’. The second of these stories, ‘A King Listens’, describes a monarch sitting motionless on his throne, tormented by the noises which interrupt the sepulchral silence of his palace. In the third, ‘The Name, the Nose’, the story of a Parisian rake in pursuit of an elusive scent (a vein mined far more rigorously in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume) alternates with a frankly embarrassing stream-of-consciousness monologue about a drugged rock musician living in mid-Seventies London.

Neither of these adds much to Calvino’s glory: especially since, given their simultaneous publication, it’s hard not to measure the success of his fictional practice in Under the Jaguar Sun by the theoretical standards set out in Six Memos. There’s a suggestive phrase in his essay on ‘Visibility’ where he contemplates his own definition of ‘story’ and decides that ‘for me the story is the union of a spontaneous logic of images and a plan carried out on the basis of a rational intention’. Judged by this criterion, only the title story in Under the Jaguar Sun emerges triumphant. A married couple of indeterminate age, their sex life beginning to flag, take a trip to Mexico and rediscover their passion for one another under the titillating influence of both the spicily exotic food and the stories of human sacrifice and cannibalism they hear when visiting the local religious sites. Among the images which crowd together in the ‘spontaneous logic’ of this brief story we find statues, chilis, serpents, nuns, and of course heat (the hotness of the food and the heat of the Jaguar Sun), while the ‘plan’ is to draw the couple closer together, and bring them to an awareness of ‘the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship’. A schematic reduction of the story like this enables us to admire the economy with which Calvino makes every image work towards his chosen end, but what keeps the story exciting is its textural pleasure, its juicy evocation of an entire cuisine in language so visceral that the distinction between food itself and the words used to describe it seems at times to be erased. As the narrator himself notices, while he and his wife are sharing a plate of meatballs, ‘I realised that in a relationship that should have been among three terms – me, meatball, Olivia – a fourth term had intruded, assuming a dominant role: the name of the meatballs. It was the name gorditas pellizcadas con manteca that I was especially savouring and assimilating and possessing.’

For all the pleasures of this story, Under the Jaguar Sun offers only a faint reminder of the voice cruelly silenced back in 1985. But the qualities which we came to expect from it – a severe intelligence, a determination to match vivid physical imagery with a thoroughly analytical context, a narrative ingenuity which reached out beyond realism into the worlds of myth and fable – find a powerful echo in a source which is, to me at least, new and unexpected. The Fountains of Neptune is Rikki Ducornet’s third novel, following upon The Stain and Entering Fire (both published by Chatto in the Eighties) to form part of a ‘tetralogy of elements’: whether this one has found a British publisher or not, I don’t know. It’s an extraordinary book, grounded in a very different aesthetic from Calvino’s – in a belief, as one character puts it, ‘that the self is rooted in nostalgia and reverie, and that they are the fountains of Art’ – but no less brilliant in its ability to draw the reader into peculiarly imagined worlds.

Just as Calvino’s story ‘The Name, the Nose’ exists under the shadow of Süskind’s Perfume, so The Fountains of Neptune will be lucky to escape comparison with Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, which came to Ducornet’s attention shortly after she conceived her novel and with which it shares a central preoccupation. Her narrator, Nicolas (or Nini), has been in a lifelong coma which has caused him to sleep ‘through both World Wars and the tainted calm between’. One evening towards the end of his life he is suddenly awoken by the sight of an unusually large full moon which reminds him of one he had once seen as a child: ‘I acknowledge that this explanation is not rational, but I know in my heart of hearts it was the orange moon burning in the window which, like a kiss in a fairy-tale, aroused me.’ Under the guidance of Doctor Venus Kaisersteige, ‘the world’s only Freudian hydropothist’, who has devoted her life to his case, he begins to piece together his memories and also, with the help of an invented companion, to create an elaborate alternative world called d’Elir (or d’Elirium) in order to replace the one he has lost.

That, at any rate, is the substance of the second and marginally less impressive half of the book. The first half concerns, the traumatic childhood incident which caused Nicolas to fall into his coma: the violent deaths of his mother and father, which he had blocked out of his mind only to be reminded of them by a salacious, alcoholic old yarn-spinner by the name of Toujours-Là. For this purpose we are transported back to a French seaport town just before the outbreak of World War Two: but any readers expecting an exercise in genteel elegy or nostalgia are in for their own rude and glorious awakening. Ducornet has no time for realism, preferring instead an incredibly pungent, heady and violent brew of words, packed with every maritime image imaginable, in which each sensation seems to be multiplied threefold and each character is ten times larger than life. Here, for instance, is Nicolas reminiscing about his home town:

The landscape of my boyhood is haunted by ghosts armed with tridents, decked with cockles, tooting twisted conches. When it rains, as it often does, I can hear dogfish barking in the thunder, and in lightning clearly see the claws of catfish striking at the body of Heaven. Evenings the alleys are surging with pelicans and tiger-faced sharks. There is a great hunk of shadow looming like a finned camel just behind the courthouse, and, in the sewers, good (and evil) whales.

Beneath a ‘sky and sea all smeared together like a jam of oysters, pearl-grey and viscous’, the eight-year-old Nicolas and his stepfather Totor habitually take refuge in a seaman’s pub called the Ghost Port Bar, a ‘smoke-filled, shadow-spooked hole-in-the-wall’ that boasts a pet chimp called Charlie Dee, and where they feast on salt herring, hot potato, rum and the drunken stories of Toujours-Là. These wild, rambling stories tell of grim sea-voyages, encounters with the devil and the savage mutilation of mermaids with such lurid gusto that they make the overall scheme of the novel – the business of Nicolas coming out of his coma – seem rather tame and academic. Even in its later stages, though, The Fountains of Neptune is never less than fascinating. It should be hunted down hungrily.

‘Water, both real and metaphorical, is in evidence everywhere,’ writes Nicolas at one point, and this observation certainly applies to Russell Celyn Jones’s second novel Small Times, much of which takes place alongside London’s canal ways and the banks of the Thames. Turning to this book involves a sudden sea-change, because we are back in the clipped world of British social realism: you miss the lurching flights of imagination at first but there is in a way something refreshing about it, like being offered a cool glass of water after overdosing on Ducornet’s salty rum punch. Besides, Jones is a no less confident writer, and in this essentially old-fashioned morality tale about a London pickpocket who makes the mistake of tangling with the big time he draws a convincing (I can’t say if it’s accurate) portrait of London high and low-life, and sketches in a nimble political parable about ‘the new utilitarian culture’ without resorting to polemic.

Jones’s hero, Harry, starts out working the stores on Oxford Street as part of a team, then decides to go it alone and in the process comes into contact with Gabrielle, a fabulously wealthy, glamorous and selfish actress who is currently playing the wife of a thief on stage and sees the prospect of an affair with Harry as a good research opportunity. We are served up routine analogies between acting and pocket picking (’Even though acting was not a crime, there was something dishonourable about it’), but Jones is at his best when offering detailed descriptions of the thieves’ modus operandi.

His narration and Harry’s behaviour have much in common: they’re both lithe, watchful, alert, economic with gestures and also – if only through ambition – guilty of the occasional faux pas. Water has a symbolic function in this novel which Jones sometimes can’t resist forcing: the climactic scenes of retributive near drowning are fine, but there are awkward moments when characters are required to step forward and make solemn observations like ‘We are all born in water,’ ‘Water is no friend to anyone. It lives alone, it doesn’t care,’ and ‘Water has a memory.’ At times like this the imagery ceases to breathe and starts to feel as though it has been imposed from above by an author-puppeteer. Perhaps Calvino’s observation about the need for a ‘spontaneous logic of images’ should after all be treated, not as a humble statement of personal belief, but as a commandment to be engraved on every writer’s heart.