A universal sense of guilt or an attitude of universal accusation (Italo Calvino)

…if it is impossible today for anyone to feel innocent, if in whatever we do or say we can discover a hidden motive – that of a white man,or a male, or the possessor of a certain income, or a member of a given economic system, or a suffer from a certain neurosis – this should not induce in us either a universal sense of guilt or an attitude of universal accusation.

When we become aware of our disease or of our hidden motives, we have already begun to get the better of them. What matters is the way in which we accept our motives and live through the ensuing crisis. This is the only chance we have of becoming different from the way we are – that is, the only way of starting to invent a new way of being.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” The essay was delivered as a lecture–in English–in 1976. (Translation credit for the volume the essay is collected in, The Uses of Literature, goes to Patrick Creagh).

Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics (Italo Calvino)

Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed and individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics. Simply because of the solitary individualism of his work, the writer may happen to explore areas that no one has explored before, within himself or outside, and to make discoveries that sooner or later turn out to be vital areas of collective awareness.

 

This is still a very indirect, deliberate, and fortuitous use for literature. The writer follows his own road, and chance or social and psychological factors lead him to discover something that may become important for political and social action as well. It is the responsibility of the sociopolitical observer not to leave anything to chance, and to apply his own method to the business of literature in such a way as not to allow anything to escape him.

 

But there is also, I think, another sort of influence that literature can exert, perhaps not more direct but certainly more intentional on the part of the writer. This is the ability to impose patterns of language, of vision, imagination, mental effort, of the correlation of facts, and in short the creation (and by creation I mean selection and organization) of a model of values that is at the same time aesthetic and ethical, essential to any plan of action, especially in political life.

 

So it comes about that, having excluded political education from the functions of literature, I find myself stating that I do believe in a type of education by means of literature; a type of education they can yield results only if it is difficult and indirect, if it implies the arduous attainment of literary stringency.

 

Any results attained by literature, as long as it is stringent and rigorous, may be considered firm ground for all practical activities for anyone who aspires to the construction of a mental order solid and complex enough to contain the disorder of the world within itself; for anyone aiming to establish a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

There are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature (Italo Calvino)

In a word, what I think is that there are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature. The first is to claim that literature should voice a truth already possessed by politics; that is, to believe that the sum of political values is the primary thing, to which literature must simply adapt itself. This opinion implies a notion of literature as ornamental and superfluous, but it also implies a notion of politics as fixed and self-confident: an idea that would be catastrophic. I think that such a pedagogical function for politics could only be imagined at the level of bad literature and bad politics.

The other mistaken way is to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments, as the truth of the human language that politics tends to overlook, and that therefore has to be called to mind from time to time. This concept apparently leaves more room for literature, but in practice it assigns it the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naïve and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasures of freshness and spontaneity. Behind this way of thinking is the notion of a set of established values that literature is responsible for preserving, the classical and immobile idea of literature as the depository of a given truth. If it agrees to take on this role, literature confines itself to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression – a function that I believe does more harm than good.

From Italo Calvino’s essay “Right and Wrong Uses of Political Uses of Literature.” Translation by Patrick Creagh. Collected in The Uses of Literature.

Italo Calvino Profiled on the BBC TV Show Book Mark in 1985

“That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day” | Italo Calvino

That morning, the city was celebrating Consumer Thanksgiving Day. This feast came around every year, on a day in November, and had been set up to allow shoppers to display their gratitude toward the god Production, who tirelessly satisfied their every desire. The biggest department store in town organized a parade every year: an enormous balloon in the shape of a garishly colored doll was paraded through the main streets, pulled by ribbons that sequin-clad girls held as they marched behind a musical band. That day, the procession was coming down Fifth Avenue: the majorette twirled her baton in the air, the big drums banged, and the balloon giant, representing the Satisfied Customer, flew among the skyscrapers, obediently advancing on leashes held by girls in kepis, tassels, and fringed epaulets, riding spangly motorcycles.

At the same time, another parade was crossing Manhattan. The flaky, moldy moon was also advancing, sailing between the skyscrapers, pulled by the naked girls, and behind it came a line of beat-up cars and skeletons of trucks, amid a silent crowd that was gradually increasing in size. Thousands of people joined the throng that had been following the moon since the early hours of the morning, people of all colors, whole families with children of every age, especially as the procession filed past the crowded black and Puerto Rican areas of Harlem.

Read the rest of Italo Calvino’s short story “The Daughters of the Moon” — or listen to Robert Coover read and discuss it.

 

Jonathan Littell’s Latest, The Fata Morgana Books (Book Acquired, 10.21.2013)

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The Fata Morgana Books collects four novellas from Jonathan Littell and is forthcoming from Two Line Press, a new indie specializing in publishing English language translations of some of the world’s best literature. Here is their blurb about The Fata Morgana Books, Littell’s follow up to The Kindly Ones:

Ranging from swimming pools to art galleries, from beds to battlefields, and a few mythical places, these novellas are narrated by hermaphrodites, ghosts, wanderers, and wonders. Littell here once again mixes his love of the grotesque with time-twisting narratives and ethereal protagonists. Like an Italo Calvino or a Clarice Lispector, Littell channels the emotions of loss and desire to illuminate the shadowy depths of solitude, reflection, longing, and lust.

With fleet prose and Proustian self-reflection, these stories range from chaotic airlifts to a series of bullfights under the hot sun, fatal negotiations resolved as mathematical equations, and the nine circles of Hell. Commanding and beguiling, The Fata Morgana Books rings with depth and mystery, always pushing through to explore the in-between spaces: between thoughts, between bodies, between hungers and their satisfactions, between eyes and the things they look at.

I was psyched to get a review copy of The Fata Morgana Books; Littell’s previous novel about an SS officer’s depraved undertakings, The Kindly Ones, stuck with me in a weird, gross, foul way. In my review I suggested that it was “a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon.”

I read the first novella in The Fata Morgana BooksEtudes, which is comprised of four stories that read like an overture for what will come. The first piece, “A Summer Sunday,” sets an unnerving and estranging tone, where pleasure seems to mingle with ennui and dread:

That Sunday, then, after the beer near the cemetery, I accompanied B. to meet our friend A. and we went out to lunch at a beautiful, somewhat isolated restaurant with a terrace only half enclosed, which allowed one to stay out in the open air without breaking police regulations too much. We ate slowly, all afternoon, lamb chops with an onion salad, and drank a bottle of red wine. Afterward, B. and I shared a cigar, too dry but a great pleasure nonetheless. Then we bought some cakes and went over for drinks on my balcony, opposite the cemetery, with the two towers at our feet. It wasn’t till the next day, reading the papers, that we realized just how bad the weekend had been. But the summer had been like that for six weeks already, and it seemed likely it would continue that way.

By “The Wait,” the next chapter of Etudes, we’ve descended into Littell’s abject terrain. More to come in a full review.

Read “The House of the Beehives” by Italo Calvino

“The House of the Beehives” by Italo Calvino

It is difficult to see from far away, and even if someone had already been here once he could not remember the way back; there was a path here at one time, but I made brambles grow over it and wiped out every trace. It’s well chosen, this home of mine, lost in this bank of broom, with a single story that can’t be seen from the valley, and covered in a chalky whitewash with windows picked out in red.

There’s some land around I could have worked and haven’t; a patch for vegetables where snails munch the lettuce is enough for me, and a bit of terraced earth to dig up with a pitchfork and grow potatoes, all purple and budding. I only need to work to feed myself, for I’ve got nothing to share with anyone.

And I don’t cut back the brambles, either the ones now clambering over the roof of the house or those already creeping like a slow avalanche over the cultivated ground; I should like them to bury everything, myself included. Lizards have made their nests in the cracks of the walls, ants have scooped out porous cities under the bricks of the floor; I look forward every day to seeing if a new crack has opened, and think of the cities of the human race being smothered and swallowed up by weeds.

Above my home are a few strips of rough meadow where I let my goats roam. At dawn, dogs sometimes pass by, on the scent of hares; I chase them off with stones. I hate dogs, with their servile fidelity to man; I hate all domestic animals, their pretense of having sympathy with human beings just so they can lick the remains off greasy plates. Goats are the only animals I can stand, for they don’t expect intimacy or give any.

I don’t need chained dogs to guard me. Or even hedges or padlocks, those horrible contraptions of humans. My field is studded with beehives, and a flight of bees is like a thorny hedge that only I can cross. At night the bees sleep in the bean husks, but no man ever comes near my house; people are afraid of me and they are right; not because certain tales they tell about me are true—lies, I say, just the sort of thing they would tell—but they are right to be afraid of me, I want them to be.

When I go over the crest in the morning, I can see the valley dropping away beneath and the sea high all around me and the world. And I see the houses of the human race perched on the edge of the sea, shipwrecked in their false neighborliness; I see the tawny, chalky city, the glittering of its windows, and the smoke of its fires. One day brambles and grass will cover its squares, and the sea will come up and mold the ruins into rocks.

Only the bees are with me now; they buzz around my hands without stinging me when I take the honey from the hives, and settle on me like a living beard; friendly bees, ancient race without a history. For years I’ve been living on this bank of broom with goats and bees; once I used to make a mark on the wall at the passing of each year; now the brambles choke everything. Why should I live with men and work for them? I loathe their sweaty hands, their savage rites, their dances and churches, their women’s acid saliva. But those stories aren’t true, believe me; they’ve always told stories about me,; the lying swine.

I don’t give anything and I don’t owe anything; if it rains at night I cook and eat the big snails slithering down the banks in the morning; the earth in the woods is scattered with soft, damp toadstools. The woods give me everything else I need: sticks and pine cones to burn, and chestnuts; and I snare hares and thrushes, too, for don’t think I love wild animals or have an idyllic adoration of nature—one of man’s absurd hypocrisies. I know that in this world we must devour one another and that the survival of the fittest holds; I kill only the animals I want to eat, with traps, not with guns, so as not to need dogs or other men to fetch them.

Sometimes I meet men in the woods, if I’m not warned in time by the dull thuds of their axes cutting down trees one by one. I pretend not to see them. On Sundays the poor come to gather fuel in the woods, which they strip like the speckled heads of aloes; the trunks are hauled away on ropes and form rough tracks, which gather the rain during storms and provoke landfalls. May everything go to similar ruin in the cities of the human race; may I, as I walk along one day, see chimney tops emerging from the earth, meet parts of streets falling off into ravines, and stumble on strips of railroad track in the middle of the forest.

But you must wonder if I don’t ever feel this solitude of mine weighing on me, if some evening, one of those long twilights, I haven’t gone down, without any definite idea in my head, toward the houses of the human race. I did go, one warm twilight, toward those walls surrounding the gardens below, and climbed down over the medlar trees; but when I heard women laughing and a distant child calling, back I came up here. That was the last time; now I’m up here alone. Well, I get frightened of making a mistake every now and again, as you do. And so, like you, I go on as I was before.

You’re afraid of me, of course, and you’re right. Not because of that affair, though. That, whether it ever happened or not, was so many years ago it doesn’t matter now, anyway.

That woman, that dark woman who came up here to scythe —I had only been up here a short time then and was still full of human emotions—well, I saw her working high on the slope and she hailed me and I didn’t reply and passed by. Yes, I was still full of human emotions then, and of an old resentment, too; and because of that old resentment—not against her, I don’t even remember her face—I went up behind her without her hearing me.

Now, the tale as people tell it is obviously false, for it was late and there wasn’t a soul in the valley and when I put my hands around her throat no one heard her. But I would have to tell you my story from the beginning for you to understand.

Ah, well, let’s not mention that evening any more. Here I live, sharing my lettuce with snails that perforate the leaves, and I know all the places where toadstools grow and can tell the good ones from the poisonous; about women and their poisons I don’t think any more. Being chaste is nothing but a habit, after all.

She was the last one, that dark woman with the scythe. The sky was full of clouds, I remember, dark clouds scudding along. It must have been under a hurrying sky like that, on slopes cropped by goats, that the first human marriage took place. In contact between human beings there can only, I know, be mutual terror and shame. That’s what I wanted, to see the terror and shame, just the terror and shame, in her eyes; that’s the only reason I did it to her, believe me.

No one has said a word about it to me, ever; there isn’t a word they can say, since the valley was deserted that evening. But every night, when the hills are lost in the dark and I can’t follow the meaning of an old book by the light of the lantern, and I sense the town with its human beings and its lights and music down below, I feel the voices of you all accusing me.

But there was no one to see me there in the valley; they say those things because the woman never returned home.

And if dogs passing by always stop to sniff at a certain spot, and bay and scratch the ground with their paws, it’s because there’s an old moles’ lair there—I swear it, just an old moles’ lair.

Yellow Zine #3 (Books, Comix, Etc. Acquired 5.13.2013)

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Got a sweet bundle from Roman Muradov a few weeks ago: Yellow Zine #3 plus some other comix, including a take on Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night. Love the Joyce bookmark.

The comix themselves are funny, weird, and strangely heartfelt (why “strangely” — I suppose because there’s this weird cerebral/linguistic bent to them + literary allusion — these aren’t  sad boy emo comics — but emotion and feeling comes through in Roman’s clean, expressive style).

Check out Roman’s site for more. I’m hoping for a graphic novel one day…

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John Barth on Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges

The paralleli of the achievements of Borges and Calvino are mostly obvious, the relevant anti-parallelino doubt likewise. To begin with, both writers, for all their great sophistication of mind, wrote in a clear, straightforward, unmannered, nonbaroque, but rigorously scrupulous style. ”. . . crystalline, sober, and airy . . . without the least congestion” is how Calvino himself describes Borges’s style (in the second of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the Norton lectures that Calvino died before he could deliver), and of course those adjectives describe his own as well, as do the titles of all six of his Norton lectures: “Lightness” (Leggerezza) and deftness of touch; “Quickness” (Rapidita) in the senses both of economy of means and of velocity in narrative profluence; “Exactitude” (Esatezza) both of formal design and of verbal expression; “Visibility” (Visibilita) in the senses both of striking detail and of vivid imagery, even (perhaps especially) in the mode of fantasy; “Multiplicity” (Molteplicita) in the senses both of an ars combinatoria and of addressing the infinite interconnectedness of things, whether in expansive, incompletable works such as Gadda’s Via Merulana and Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities or in vertiginous short stories like Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths”—all cited in Calvino’s lecture on multiplicity; and “Consistency” in the sense that in their style, their formal concerns, and their other preoccupations we readily recognize the Borgesian and the Calvinoesque. So appealing a case does Calvino make for these particular half-dozen literary values, it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only ones; indeed, that their contraries have also something to be said for them. Calvino acknowledges as much in the “Quickness” lecture: ”. . . each value or virtue I chose as the subject for my lectures,” he writes, “does not exclude its opposite. Implicit in my tribute to lightness was my respect for weight, and so this apology for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering,” etc. We literary lingerers—some might say malingerers—breathe a protracted sigh of relief.

Read the rest of John Barth’s essay The Parallels!”.

 

Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges

“Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse” — Italo Calvino

“Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse” by Italo Calvino (Collected in Why Read the Classics?)

How many new readers will be attracted to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by the new film version of the novel, shortly to be broadcast on television? Perhaps very few when compared to the total number of the TV audience, or perhaps very many when compared to the statistics for the number of books Italians read. But no data can ever supply us with the most important figure, and that is how many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognising it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life. (I’m talking particularly about the opening chapters; as you get into it, you will find that it is a different novel, or several novels each different from the other, all of which will require you to modify your involvement in the plot; whatever happens, the brilliance of the opening will continue to influence you.)

This is what happened to me and to so many others in the various generations that have read the work in the last hundred years. (The Charterhouse came out in 1839, but you have to exclude the forty years that it had to wait before Stendhal was understood, a period he himself had foreseen with extraordinary precision; even although of all his works this was the most instantly successful, and could count for its launch on a lengthy and enthusiastic essay by Balzac, a good 72 pages long!) Continue reading ““Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse” — Italo Calvino”