Italo Calvino: Under the Jaguar Sun – Review

Another work of genius from Calvino. I can’t help but love virtually everything this man writes. The only reason for the 4 star rating is I feel I need to re-read this collection before I can judge it as being as brilliant as some of his other works. Of the three, the first two stories in particular are as beautifully written as they are inventive and imaginative. I would have loved to read the 5 completed stories in full context of the ‘frame’ that Calvino had imagined them fitting into. I’m sure, had he lived, this could have reached the lofty heights of his best works. An impressive, sensuous literary achievement.
Advertisements

Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar – Review

Still undecided as whether to rate this 4 or 5. Brilliant little book. To try and assimilate a great book into a few words: it’s a series of literary meditations on the everyday world around us. Can be dense at times but I’m certain that giving this book series attention will give you serious rewards. Calvino’s style, from playful wit to head scratching philosophical observation, comes through beautifully as always. I’m also convinced Mr. Palomar is just a pseudonym for Calvino himself, and I’m sure Mr. Calvino had been reading some Deleuze when writing this book… Too many descriptive similarities to Deleuzian concepts to be a coincidence, especially at the time it was written. Again undecided whether to write a full length piece on Calvino and Deleuze or just review this book on it’s own but I will give it a go at some point soon. The quote at the beginning of the final chapter really sums up what the book is about:

After a series of intellectual misadventures not worth recalling, Mr. Palomar has decided that his chief activity will be looking at things from the outside. A bit nearsighted, absent-minded, introverted, he does not seem to belong temperamentally to that human type generally called an observer. And yet it has always happened that certain things (a stone wall, a seashell, a leaf, a teapot) present themselves to him as if asking him for minute and prolonged attention: he starts observing them almost unawares, and his gaze begins to run over all the details and is then unable to detach itself…

I have a bunch of quotes saved on my kindle form this book and this probably the least beautiful or insightful of them all but it gives a great depiction of what the book is about. I will get back to it soon. Up there with my favourite Calvinos.

EDIT:

I thought while I’m at it I may as well quote my favourite passage from the book. This is when Mr. Palomar decides to take a telescope and look at Saturn…

If the ancients had been able to see it as I see it now, Mr. Palomar thinks, they would have thought they had projected their gaze into the heaven of Plato’s ideas, or in the immaterial space of the postulates of Euclid; but instead, thanks to some misdirection or other, this sight has been granted to me, who fear it is too beautiful to be true, too gratifying to my imaginary universe to belong to the real world. But perhaps it is this same distrust of our senses that prevents us from feeling comfortable in the universe. Perhaps the first rule I must impose on myself is this: stick to what I see.

Echoes of the fascination with astronomy that Italo shows in Cosmicomics. It was awe inspiring to read this on my roof looking up at the stars. I think I’ll stick with 5/5.

Italo Calvino: Marcovaldo – Review

Only Italo Calvino could write about the topics in this book with such a light and whimsical air. Marcovaldo is essentially a collection of modern folktales that embody the spirit of city living in mid 20th Century Italy; economic fragility and the shift from rural to urban life are the threads that tie each story together. The writing style draws similarities to some of his earlier (and best) Cosmicomics at points, yet the world Marcovaldo inhabits is nothing extraordinary. In fact the real virtue of this book is its ability to take a series of seemingly mundane situations and put a fantastical spin on them. Calvino tells each of these very short tales with a wink and a grin; he is always poking fun at the mundanity of modern city living, and it’s this aspect that makes it a lot of fun to read.

Kafka once wrote that:

we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

But I think one of the best aspects of Calvino’s writing, even in a book like this which is definitely not one of his best, is that he doesn’t feel the need to stab us with his words. At times he’ll throw some cheeky lines at you which are impossible not to chuckle over, and at times he’ll playfully nudge you with his delightful prose until you realise he’s actually making a profound point. In this book Calvino’s writing isn’t the axe that cuts through the frozen sea within us, it’s the warm water that melts through the ice.

I feel like giving Marcovaldo 3.5* is probably a fair assessment based on the fact that it was so short and so lighthearted, but that doesn’t mean to say I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. Some of the passages were just beautiful to read, and the sense of scene and setting that Calvino creates through each of the seasons makes me certain I’ll pick up this book again at some point in the future. In fact I’ll probably end up rating it higher once I’ve read some of the stories for themselves rather than reading them in order as part of this collection. The thought of reading The City Lost in Snow in the middle of winter, or Mushrooms in the City in the spring is definitely something I’m looking forward to.

I’ll leave you with probably my favourite passage from the book. Only Mr. Calvino could make an industrial city at night come alive so brilliantly:

The darkness that now reigned at roof-level made a kind of obscure barrier that shut out the world below, where yellow and green and red hieroglyphics continued to whirl, and the winking eyes of traffic-lights, and the luminous navigation of empty trams, and the invisible cars that cast in front of them the bright cone of their headlights. From this world only a diffuse phosphorescence rose up this high, vague as smoke. And raising your eyes, no longer blinded, you saw the perspective of space unfold, the constellations of expanded in depth, the firmament turning in every direction, a sphere that contains everything and is contained by no boundary, and only a thinning of its weft, like a breach opened towards Venus, to make it stand out alone over the frame of the earth, with its steady slash of light exploded and concentrated at one point.

Italo Calvino: t zero – Review

To me, there’s virtually no doubt that Italo Calvino is a literary genius. Each one of his works create either a beautiful compendium of light and airy magical fables or tricky Borgesian fictional puzzles. I read the first collection of Cosmicomics earlier in the year and was blown away; the lucidity of his prose and the wit of his storytelling are something that very few writers can match. Signore Calvino’s follow up Cosmicomics collection, t zero (or Time and the Hunter), is characteristically imaginative.

The book is broken up into three parts. The first carries on where the previous collection left off, following the celestial being Qfwfq’s adventures throughout space and time. The lighthearted and witty prose of the first four stories are a perfect addition to the previous Cosmicomics. In particular I loved the story The Origin of Birds in which Qfwfq describes his encounter with the first ever feathered creatures (a sort of avian love story) through a prose representation of a comic strip:

Now these stories can be told better with strip drawings than with a story composed of sentences one after the other… To begin with, you can read a lot of exclamation marks and question marks spurting from our heads, and these mean we were looking at the bird full of amazement – festive amazement, with the desire on our part also to sing, to imitate that first warbling, and to jump, to see the bird rise in flight…

Here we can see the exercises in style that Calvino will become renowned for in his later works Invisible Cities and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. The utilisation of the comic strip form reminds me of Alan Moore’s famously long winded comic book scripts in which he outlines, down to the last detail, every aspect of the page that the illustrator will have to draw. There was definitely no coincidence that these stories were entitled Cosmi-comics. Both in the humourous sense and in Calvino’s admiration for the comic book format.

The second section I didn’t enjoy quite as much. It describes Qfwfq’s love of a being named Priscilla through a rather dense storied explanation of a singled celled organism’s journey through Mitosis, Meiosis, and Death. Although this part is still extremely clever, especially the beginning descriptions of a being with no knowledge of the concept of ‘Other’ suddenly urging to become two beings, I feel it lacked some of the magic that Calvino showed in the earlier tales.

The final section abandons Qfwfq as a narrator and takes us through a journey of extremely Borgesian stories that focus on the infinite divisibility of space and time. I took these stories to be a modern fictional rendition of Zeno’s paradoxes. In particular t zero representing Zeno’s ‘Arrow’, and The Chase representing ‘Achilles and the Tortoise’. However, the more dense academic style of some of these stories have caused other commentators such as literary critic, and huge Calvino fan, Gore Vidal, to mention that this closing section focuses too much on it’s ‘literariness’ over the magical elements that made the first collection so brilliant:

In Cosmicomics Calvino makes it possible for the reader to inhabit a meson, a mollusk, a dinosaur; makes him for the first time see light ending a dark universe. Since this is a unique gift, I find all the more alarming the “literariness” of Time and the Hunter. I was particularly put off by the central story “t zero,” which could have been written (and rather better) by Borges.

And to me some of the stories seemed to read more like an analytic philosophy paper than a work fiction (a criticism that is common of Borges as well – a;though I personally don’t see it). Take this line from the first paragraph of t zero for example:

… the arrow A suspended in midair at about a third of its trajectory, and, a bit further on, also suspended in midair, and also at about a third of his trajectory, the lion L in the act of leaping upon me, jaws agape and claws extended. In a second I’ll know if the arrow’s trajectory and the lion’s will or will not coincide at a point X crossed both by L and by A at the same second tx

However, in The Night Driver Calvino is back to his best, and with an air of melancholy that is unusual to find in such a fun and lighthearted collection. It describes the never ending chase of a broken hearted man trying to find his estranged lover but, in an almost Kierkegaardian sense, being infinitely resigned to the idea of never reaching her due to the infinite divisibility of the space he will have to cross from point A to point B to do so.

In conclusion, I will always be mesmerised by Calvino, and I still thoroughly enjoyed Time and the Hunter although it became a little bit more of a slog for me that the first collection had been. Calvino, much like his predecessor Jorge Luis Borges, has the ability to play with logic and fiction in a way that most storytellers can only dream of. I’ll give the last word to Gore Vidal who thought of Calvino as a perhaps the most inventive and brilliant writer of the 20th century, describing him as ‘the only great writer of my time’, and if it were not for my admiration for Borges who came before him, I may have to agree.

During the last quarter century Italo Calvino has advanced far beyond his American and English contemporaries. As they continue to look for the place where the spiders make their nests, Calvino has not only found that special place but learned how himself to make fantastic webs of prose to which all things adhere. In fact, reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.

Borges and Calvino: Invisible Cities and Dreams

 

…Marco’s answers and objections took their place in a discourse already proceeding on its own, in the Great Khan’s head. That is to say, between the two of them it did not matter whether questions and solutions were uttered aloud or whether each of the two went on pondering in silence. In fact, they were silent, their eyes half-closed, reclining on cushions, swaying in hammocks, smoking long amber pipes.

Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there…

Borges and Calvino. Two of the most fascinating, intelligent and unique authors of the 20th century.Throughout various forums across the internet Calvino is one of the only authors whose name is often referred to in the same light as Jorge Luis Borges, so I’ve finally got around to reading some of his work. I spent the last week reading Invisible Cities and there is no doubt that this book echoes a variety of Borgesian tropes.

The book is essentially a fantastic re-imagining of Marco Polo’s conversations with the great Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. It describes a collection of weird and wonderful imaginary cities visited by Marco Polo on his travels, descriptions which are broken up by a string of airy, meditative conversations between the Venetian merchant and the emperor.

What Calvino does brilliantly in Invisible Cities is to blend the boundaries of fiction and reality; he conjures up the image of a world where life and death meld together, dreams and waking life overlap, and future, past, and present intermingle seamlessly. Each city is like a meditation on some aspect of reality, yet, in a truly Borgesian fashion, almost none of the descriptions go over the length of a page or two. Indeed Calvino himself is the first to recognise the importance of Borges in his writing:

…critics of Borges feel bound to observe that each of his texts doubles or multiplies its own space through the medium of other books belonging to a real or imaginary library, whether they be classical, erudite, or merely invented.
What I particularly wish to stress is how Borges achieves his approaches to the infinite without the least congestion, in the most crystalline, sober, and airy style.

And here what is true for Borges is also true for Calvino. Borges creates an infinite, imaginary, invisible library, a library that is all libraries. Calvino creates an infinite, imaginary, invisible city, a city that is all cities:

I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others … It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists.

In his 1951 essay ‘Coleridge’s Dream’ Borges describes that Kublai Khan built a palace according to a plan that he had seen in a dream and retained in his memory: ‘A Mongolian emperor, in the thirteenth century, dreams a palace and builds it according to his vision’. So seeing the inspiration Calvino takes from his Argentinian predecessor perhaps it’s not surprising that Invisible Cities reads like a Borges story extended to the length of a small novel. Perhaps he came across the dreams of Kublai Khan through Borges, or perhaps Calvino never read Borges’ essay and the book of cities just appeared to him in a dream:

The story of two dreams is a coincidence, a line drawn by chance, like the shapes of lions or horses that are sometimes formed by clouds.

Either way I loved Invisible Cities, I loved it’s magical imagery, and I loved the way Calvino plays games with time and space. It’s one of the few books that I’ve read and immediately been excited to read it again. Maybe I’ll pick it up when I’m lost in unfamiliar quarters of a distant city, and through reading it I will begin to understand the other cities I crossed to arrive there…

Originally posted here.

Calvino and the Codex Seraphinianus: A Psychedelic Mystery

On a cloudy Friday afternoon, sometime at the end of March, we were sat huddled on the floor of a friend’s bedroom, our heads craning over a hefty tome. We stared down, boggle eyed, flicking through the pages, marveling at the bizarre illustrations and the seemingly indecipherable text contained within, our unassuming eyes captivated for what seemed like hours. Finally we came somewhere towards the end of the book and noticed a series of baffling, Dali-like animals, and Escher-esque, towns, cities, and urban landscapes…

‘This looks like something straight out of Calvino’ someone remarked, recalling the fantastic descriptions of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a book all of us had read within the last few months. We all agreed. What we were marveling over was the insanity of the surreal architecture contained in the Codex Seriphinianus, the mysterious book created by Italian artist, designer and architect Luigi Serafini.

‘You know what? Serafini and Calvino… I bet those two knew each other’, after all they were both Italian, both alive during the same period, and both made books about surreal and fantastic imaginary worlds – surely this wasn’t just a normal Italian pastime in the 70s and 80s! Perhaps they that sat together in coffee shops in Rome sipping on espresso and debating on the nuances of how to produce the most brilliant imaginary world possible.

A while later we went downstairs and parcel popped through the door, ‘ah my book!’ my friend exclaimed, ‘good timing indeed’. We opened it, and to our surprise it happened to be Calvino’s Cosmicomics. How weird, we thought, 2 minutes ago we had been pondering about the connection between Calvino and the Codex and now one of his books pops through the front door! But that wasn’t all, another strange coincidence came when we returned upstairs. (My friend, who owned the Codex, had managed to buy a bargain copy off of ebay a couple of years ago now, so he had become quite well acquainted with the book, but what happened next came as a bit of a surprise, even to him.)

…Now is probably a good time to mention that a few hours prior to this we had, in the vein of Aldous Huxley, ingested around 500mg of 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine, otherwise known as Mescaline, which was now starting to surge through our systems, thoroughly taking hold of our perceptions…

We started pouring over the Codex again, roaring with laughter, trying to make some sense of the images which were now seemingly more and more hilarious and absurd. We came past it’s flora, it’s fuana, it’s architecture and it’s cosmology, until once again we reached the end and flipped the book closed. What we noticed was a large label on the back cover written in some foreign language. ‘Is that… part of the book?’ somebody contemplated.

Due to our impaired perceptions we initially debated whether it was part of the Codex’s imaginary text but then noticed two words that stood out – Italo Calvino! The label was obviously written in Italian and, bizarrely enough, here it was, the connection that we had all wondered about just an hour before, sitting right under our noses. Calvino clearly had some sort of connection to the Codex, but what could it be? I noted that over the next few days I would try to investigate. (You know, after breaking down the doors of perception and all that…)

Throughout history there have been a variety of mysterious texts. Some have been deciphered, others are mysteries to this day. The only real precursor to Serafini’s Codex is The Voynich Manuscript—which you can find out more about on this very blog—but in fiction it’s difficult to believe that the Codex was not substantially influenced by Borges’ story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. The narrator in the story describes how he comes across a book entitled A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, an exhaustive documentation of an apparently imaginary world, created by the supposedly imaginary people of Uqbar:

‘Now I held in my hands a vast methodical fragment of an unknown planet’s entire history, with its architecture and its playing cards, with the dread of its mythologies and the murmur of its languages, with its emperors and its seas, with its minerals and its birds and its fish, with its algebra and its fire, with its theological and metaphysical controversy.’ – Borges, Labyrinths, p.31

What we have here, in the book of Tlön, is a pretty spot on summary of the Codex Seraphinianus. As a massive fan of Borges I’d always been interested in this connection between Borges and the Codex, and between Borges and Calvino (as I wrote about in an earlier article) so whilst scouring the internet in my post-mescal-haze I came across an article describing a man who had seemingly embarked on a similar journey, albeit 10 years earlier (before there was a significant amount of information on Serafini on the internet.) He describes how, during his search for meaning in the Codex, he comes across Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. Manguel was a close friend and student of Borges in his younger days and was also the foreign language editor at Franco Maria Ricci in Milan, where the Codex was first published. Manguel describes his own story of how he discovered the Codex:

One summer afternoon in 1978, a voluminous parcel arrived in the offices of the publisher Franco Maria Ricci in Milan, where I was working as foreign-language editor. When we opened it we saw that it contained, instead of a manuscript, a large collection of illustrated pages depicting a number of strange objects and detailed but bizarre operations, each captioned in a script none of the editors recognized. The accompanying letter explained that the author, Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Serafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations’ intricacies. Ricci, to his credit, published the work in two luxurious volumes with a delighted introduction by Italo Calvino; they are one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know.

An introduction by Calvino! So that must have been what the label on the back was referring to. Now the dots started to join together. But as far my friends and I could work out, the introduction to the Codex, titled ‘Orbis Pictus’ (another glaring link back to Borges’ Tlön) was written in Italian, and seemed to be difficult to find in the full English translation. Perhaps the conclusion of story would come to an end due to our naive anglophilia.

However Justin Taylor, the author of the above article, persisted, and years later he managed to find a copy of Calvino’s original Italian text which had been subsequently translated into French. He quotes that he kindly asked S. E. Grant, a friend of his, to translate what she could from French into English, and since she was also fascinated with the project she gladly agreed.

It’s still nigh on impossible to find a full English translation of Calvino’s introduction online (without maybe trying to contact Taylor directly – as he notes in a separate article: ‘Six years later I still get occasional letters about it: from Codex-philes, from people hoping I can hook them up with the full text of the Calvino introduction or a copy of the book itself (respectively: maybe, no)’), so it’s difficult to say whether the text itself can, after a double translation, still be attributed to beautiful prose of the Invisible Cities author. However Taylor does manage publish a small quote from the beginning of ‘Orbis Pictus’, which he describes as ‘the most elucidative piece of Codex-related writing I have ever come across’. I hope he won’t mind me sharing with you:

In the beginning, there was language. In the universe Luigi Serafini inhabits and depicts, I believe that written language preceded the images: beneath the form of a meticulous, agile, and limpid cursive (and strength lies in admitting it is limpid), that we always feel on the point of deciphering them just when each word and each letter escapes us. If the Other Universe communicates anguish to us, it’s less because it differs from ours than because it resembles it: the writing, in the same way, could have developed very similarly to ours in a linguistic forum that is unknown to us, without being altogether unknowable.… Serafini’s language does not distinguish itself only by its alphabet, but also by its syntax: the objects of this universe evoke the language of the artist, such as we see them illustrated in the pages of his encyclopedia, and are almost always identifiable, but their mutual relations appear psychologically disturbed to us by their unexpected relationships and connections.… Here is the conclusive point: endowed with the power to evoke a world in which the syntax of things is subverted, the Serafinian writing must hide, beneath the mystery of its indecipherable surface, a more profound mystery touching on the internal logic of language and thought. The lines that connect the images of this world tangle and cross; the confusion of the visual attributes gives birth to monsters, Serafini’s teratological universe. But the teratology itself implicates a logic which appears to us to, turn by turn, flower and disappear, at the same time giving us the sense that the words are carefully traced back to the point of the quill. Like Ovid, and his Metamorphoses, Serafini believes in the contiguity and permeability of all the domains of being.

So our psychedelic induced idea that Italo Calvino and Luigi Serafini knew each other is, to some extent, a true one. However the idea that they sat together in coffee shops in Italy sipping on espresso and debating on the nuances of how to produce the most brilliant imaginary worlds possible is seeming ever more unlikely. In fact, Calvino was not even first choice to write the prologue to the Codex, Roland Barthes had already gladly accepted the invitation, but after his sudden death in 1980 the choice fell to Calvino.

Yet, Calvino’s introduction/interpretation, from the parts I have read, is one of the most lucid and remarkable insights into Codex that I have seen since I first discovered it years ago. But what is important about this connection is that these Italian masterminds have managed to ignite the flames of mystery and imagination in so many people seemingly autonomously. Both Invisible Cities and the Codex manage to create worlds that are so similar to our own, yet truly possess something surreal and wonderful. To conclude I’ll leave you with one of the final parts of Calvino’s interpretation, and I hope anyone who reads this gets as much enjoyment out of it as I have:

…At the end of the tally the destiny of all writing is to decay into dust; only the skeleton of the hand that writes survives. Lines and words detach from the page, breaking away, and here the tiny motes of dust spew forth the colored corpuscles from the rainbow, which then begin to frolic. For the vital principle of all the metamorphoses and all of the alphabets, a new cycle begins.

Thanks to Justin Taylor for all the hard work that went in to deciphering this mystery 10 years ago!

An illustration of one of Calvino’s Invisible Cities
‘Castle of the Pyrenees’ the artwork used for the first edition of Invisible Cities