Bring on a new month and a new Obsession! We will be retiring Sarah’s month of looking at Daniel Abraham, and starting a new month of reading along with Italo Calvino!
I hope you enjoyed September’s foray into postmodern writer Donald Barthelme, because Calvino is another icon of postmodern literature (though a bit more well-known). He will be a fantastic example of postmodernism’s penchant for genre-mixing and meta-fiction. Which are fancy ways of saying he has fun playing around with our expectations in literature. Whether he’s tricking you into thinking you’re reading an entirely different story from the one you’re reading, or mixing comic books and pulp into literary fiction, Calvino keeps you on your toes.
Though he claims to have rebelled against his parents’ science-minded ways, it is easy to see their influence on his writing. Calvino’s writing is that of a taxonomist, and one imagines him sitting to write with detailed outlines with ordered rules.
This attitude comes across in his interviews and non-fiction writing. In an interview for Paris Review, when asked about the physical act of writing, he breaks into a long and prepared discussion of exactly how he goes about writing. He outlines for the interviewer his schedule, what kind of room he likes to write in, what type of handwriting he uses for specific attitudes. He systematically explains that when he is confident and sure of what he writes, his handwriting ends up being quite large, with Os and As having large holes in the center, but when he is less confident, it becomes quite small, with Os like dots on the page. This is someone who does a lot of self-reflection.
He was a particular person. His translator, William Weaver, writes that as an explanation for the dismissal of a previous translator “Calvino showed me their correspondence. One of the stories in the volume was called “Without Colors.” In an excess of misguided originality, the translator had entitled the piece “In Black and White.” Calvino’s letter of dismissal pointed out that black and white are colors. I signed on.”
When asked what role chance has in his writing process, he said “I don’t believe chance can play a role in my literature.”
I would have thought that such a rigorously logical, systematic, and particular person would be less inclined towards or able at writing fiction. Instead, Calvino found a way to turn his methods into beautiful and playful stories.
In the Cosmicomics, a collection of science-inspired myths and tales, we will find stories twitter pated with new scientific revelations that snagged Calvino’s imagination. In "The Distance of the Moon," we will see what it was like to be part of a love triangle on an earth that passed within feet of the moon’s orbit. In "Without Colors," the narrator will tell us what it was like to live at the birth of an atmosphere, bringing color into a once-gray world. In "The Aquatic Uncle," we will share the narrator’s shame over his relative, who refuses to evolve from a sea creature to a land creature like any civilized person would do.
These are not the types of stories we would typically associate with such a logical mind, and Calvino seems to come alongside Lewis in this marriage of logic and whimsy. We’ll see when reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler that a highly-structured organizational scheme, when done well, enlivens the whole experience of the novel (if it can be called that) rather than deadens it.
A longer look at Calvino’s life and writing gives me the sense that this logic/whimsy paradox is actually an important element of Calvino’s character and personality. Along with all that rigor and self-knowledge was the relatable temptation to procrastinate (“in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning.”) and a poetic obsession with the sounds and rhythms of words.
Calvino’s entire body of work reflects the architect/poet tension that seems to characterize his personality. He will mix genres, defy expectations, make jokes, and play tricks on his readers (listen to Liev Schreiber below working his way through unpronounceable names like Qfwfq and Vhd Vhd).
Enjoy Calvino’s playfulness while you read him this month. It’s one of my favorite things about writers from the postmodern period: they are less stuck-up than previous writers and current critics, and they’re much more interested in having fun with their writing, while still addressing serious problems. Calvino’s works have the feeling of a writer who knows his audience and has no pretensions about being more knowledgeable or understanding than his readers.
The Lodestone Blog will spend the next few weeks investigating some of the works of Italo Calvino, paying special attention to how he structures his stories with intention and how he plays with genre conventions to create one-of-a-kind works. Hopefully, we will be able to work through a few writing exercises that can help you imitate and then spring out from Calvino’s finely-wrought examples.
Our first substantive look at Calvino will address his short story The Distance of the Moon, which you can read here. Whether or not you want to follow along, I highly recommend listening to Liev Schreiber’s audio-recording of this story on Radiolab, below:
If you’d like to read ahead, you should find a copy of the complete Cosmicomics and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (click on the links below to find these on Amazon). Depending on our schedule, we may add one more novel to the mix, but most likely we will focus on these.