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.
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 Books, Etudes, 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.
“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.
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…
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!”.
“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!)
Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The barons at his court were extremely worried when they saw that the sovereign, wholly taken up with his amorous passion and unmindful of his regal dignity, was neglecting the affairs of state. When the girl suddenly died, the courtiers were greatly relieved—but not for long, because Charlemagne’s love did not die with her. The emperor had the embalmed body carried to his bedchamber, where he refused to be parted from it. The Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this macabre passion, suspected an enchantment and insisted on examining the corpse. Hidden under the girl’s dead tongue he found a ring with a precious stone set in it. As soon as the ring was in Turpin’s hands, Charlemagne fell passionately in love with the archbishop and hurriedly had the girl buried. In order to escape the embarrassing situation, Turpin flung the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne thereupon fell in love with the lake and would not leave its shores.
From Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
It happened one day, at a crossroads, in the middle of a crowd, people coming and going.
I stopped, blinked: suddently I understood nothing. Nothing, nothing about anything: I did not understand the reasons for things or for people, it was all senseless, absurd. I laughed.
What I found strange at the time was that I had never realized before; that up until then I had accepted everything: traffic lights, cars, posters, uniforms, monuments, things completely detached from any sense of the world, accepted them as if there were some necessity, some chain of cause and effect that bound them together.
Then my laugh died. I blushed, ashamed. I waved to get people’s attention. “Stop a moment!” I shouted, “there is something wrong! Everything is wrong! We are doing the absurdest things. This cannot be the right way. Where can it end?”
People stopped around me, sized me up, curious. I stood there in the middle of them, waving my arms, desparate to explain myself, to have them share the flash of insight that had suddenly enlightened me: and I said nothing. I said nothing because the moment I had raised my arms and opened my mouth, my great revelation had been as it were swallowed up again and the words had come out any old how, on impulse.
“So?” people asked, “what do you mean? Everything is in its place. All is as it should be. Everything is a result of something else. Everything fits in with everything else. We cannot see anything wrong or absurd.”
I stood there, lost, because as I saw it now everything had fallen into place again and everything seemed normal, traffic lights, monuments, uniforms, towerblocks, tramlines, begggards, processions; yet this did not calm me, it tormented me.
“I am sorry,” I said. “Perhaps it was I who was wrong. It seemd that way then. But everything is fine now. I am sorry.” And I made off amid their angry glares.
Yet, even now, every time (and it is often) that I find I do not understand something, then, instincitively, I am filled with the hope that perhaps this will be my moment again, perhaps once again I shall understand nothing, I shall grasp the other knowledge, found and lost in an instant.
“The Flash,” by Italo Calvino. Collected in Numbers in the Dark.
From Italo Calvino’s The Uses of Literature—
- The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, “I am rereading . . . ” and never “I am reading . . . “
- We use the words “classics” for books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them; but they are treasured no less by those who have the luck to read them for the first time in the best conditions to enjoy them
- The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.
- Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.
- Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.
- A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
- The classics are the books that come down to us bearing the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through (or, more simply, on language and customs).
- A classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a classic we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives much pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.
- The classics are books which, upon reading, we find even fresher, more unexpected, and more marvelous than we had thought from hearing about them.
- We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the “total book,” as Mallarmé conceived of it.
- Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.
- A classic is a book that comes before other classics; but anyone who has read the others first, and then reads this one, instantly recognizes its place in the family tree.
- A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.
- A classic is something that persists as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.
Italo Calvino on one of my favorite books, Voltaire’s Candide (these are the first few paragraphs of the essay “Candide, or Concerning Narrative Rapidity,” from Calvino’s indispensable collection Why Read the Classics?):
Geometric characters, animated by a flickering mobility, stretch and twist in a saraband of precision and lightness: that was how Paul Klee illustrated Voltaire’s Candide in 1911, giving visual – and almost musical – form to the energetic brio which this book continues to communicate to today’s readers, above and beyond its thick network of references to its own epoch and culture.
What most delights us today in Candide is not the ‘conte philosophique’, nor its satire, nor the gradual emergence of a morality and vision of the world: instead it is its rhythm. With rapidity and lightness, a succession of mishaps, punishments and massacres races over the page, leaps from chapter to chapter, and ramifies and multiplies without evoking in the reader’s emotions anything other than a feeling of an exhilarating and primitive vitality. In the bare three pages of Chapter 8 Cunégonde recounts how having had her father, mother and brother hacked to pieces by invaders, she is then raped and disembowelled, then cured and reduced to living as a washerwoman, bartered and sold in Holland and Portugal, torn between two different protectors of different faiths on alternate days, and in this condition happens to witness the auto da fé whose victims are Pangloss and Candide himself whom she then rejoins. Even less than two pages of Chapter 9 are enough for Candide to find himself with two corpses at his feet and for Cunégonde to be able to exclaim: ‘How did you who were born so mild ever manage to kill in the space of two minutes a Jew and a prelate?’ And when the old woman has to explain why she has only one buttock, she starts by telling the story of her life from the moment when as the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Pope, she had experienced in the space of three months poverty, enslavement, and almost daily rape, before having to endure famine and war and nearly dying of the plague in Algiers: and all this before she can get to her tale of the siege of Azov and of the unusual nutrition that the starving Janissaries discover in female buttocks . . . well, here things are rather more leisurely, two whole chapters are required, something like six and a half pages.
The great discovery of Voltaire the humorist is a technique that will become one of the most reliable gags in comic films: the piling up of disaster on disaster at relentless speed. There are also the sudden increases in rhythm which carry the sense of the absurd almost to the point of paroxysm: as when the series of misfortunes already swiftly narrated in the detailed account is then repeated in a breakneck-speed summary. What Voltaire projects in his lightning-speed photograms is really a worldwide cinema, a kind of ‘around the world in eighty pages’, which takes Candide from his native Westphalia to Holland, Portugal, South America, France, England, Venice and Turkey, and this tour then splits in turn into supplementary whirlwind world tours by fellow protagonists, male and especially female, who are easy prey for pirates and slavers operating between Gibraltar and the Bosphorus. A huge cinema of contemporary world events most of all: villages wiped out in the Seven Years’ War between the Prussians and the French (the ‘Bulgars’ and the ‘Abars’), the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the auto da fés organised by the Inquisition, the Jesuits of Paraguay who reject Spanish and Portuguese rule, the legendary gold of the Incas, and the odd snapshot of Protestantism in Holland, of the spread of syphilis, Mediterranean and Adantic piracy, internecine wars in Morocco, the exploitation of black slaves in Guyana, but always leaving a certain space for literary news, allusions to Parisian high life, interviews with the many dethroned kings of the time, who all gather at the Venice carnival.
Who are some living novelists you respect?
Well, the question leaves out so many dead ones who are more alive. I think Barth is one of the great writers. I have admired his work since I first encountered it. I think he is incredible. Several of his books, in particular The Sot-Weed Factor, are the works which stand to my generation as Ulysses did to its. His habits of work are wholly unlike mine, and the kind of thing which engages him is quite different too. He is a great narrator, one of the best who ever plied the pen, as they used to say. He has been accused of being cold, purely mental, but I find him full of passion and excitement. And what I like about his work in great part is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and energy and total control. I really admire a master. He’s one.
A lot of the work of Hawkes is extraordinary, breathtaking. Everybody likes Beckett. Now. It’s silly to mention Bellow, Borges, Nabokov—so obvious. And of course Stanley Elkin’s work I like enormously. Some of Coover’s, too, I find extraordinarily interesting. Control again. Gaddis. Control. Also Barthelme—a poet. A great many South American writers write rings around us. Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers is a great book. I taught Hopscotch once. I’ll never get over it. Márquez, Fuentes, Lima, Llosa . . . it is always an exciting time to be a reader. Lots of European writers are overblown, especially some of the French experimentalists, but Italo Calvino is wonderful. Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works is impressive. In general, I would think that at present prose writers are much in advance of the poets. In the old days, I read more poetry than prose, but now it is in prose where you find things being put together well, where there is great ambition, and equal talent. Poets have gotten so careless, it is a disgrace. You can’t pick up a page. All the words slide off.