Cover of SF Chronicle Boos Review

A friend and I were talking.

One of my favorites is Italo Calvino, she said.
Oh, yes!… I used to review some of his books for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Which ones?
My favorite was Six Memos for the New Millennium.
I love that one! Can you send it to me?… The review, I mean.
Maybe? That must have been around thirty years ago. But I think I do still have some old reviews in a box. I’ll see if I can dig it out for you.

And I did. And here it is.


Writing as a Perfect Crystal

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1985–1986
By Italo Calvino; translated by Patrick Creagh
Harvard University Press; 136 pages; $12.95

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino, master of startling literary transformations in such works as Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, shares his personal alchemical formula for literary Gold.

These lectures, intended for presentation at Harvard University in 1985, are precisely worded, carefully crafted, beautifully illustrated examples of the literary essay and inspiring demonstrations of Calvino’s argument that writing should have the definition, luminescence, and perfection of structure of a crystal. (The book is marred only by the failure of Harvard University Press to credit Patrick Creagh’s excellent translation.)

Calvino’s formula is idiomatic and personal. It will be difficult for literary critics to apply it as a test of value or for aspiring writers to use it as a recipe for their own magical creations. But it provides a brilliant, original approach to literature, a key to Calvino’s own work, and a thoroughly delightful and illuminating commentary on some of the world’s greatest writing.

The quirky quality of Calvino’s essays is unintentionally signaled by the omission of the sixth essay promised by the title, on “Consistency.” It remained unwritten at the time of the author’s death in Siena shortly before his 62nd birthday in 1985. The five essays that are included are “Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility,” and “Multiplicity.”

Light, quick, exact, visible, multiple — how well Calvino knew himself. These five words effectively summarize his own literary style. But for Calvino these qualities have very particular significance, which he explores and defines through discussion of a great number of literary works.

Italo CalvinoBy “lightness,” for example, Calvino intends something akin to liveliness or brightness, to be achieved only through “precision and determination.” There is a force of gravity, he maintains, that tends to weigh on a writer’s words and render them slow, heavy, dull, dreary. Therefore, he observes, “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight.” To illustrate his effort to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud,” Calvino leads us on an enchanting tour through works of Ovid, Lucretius, Cavalcanti, Boccaccio, Dante, Shakespeare, Cyrano, Swift, Leopardi, Montale, Valery, and Kundera (among others), concluding with a story about Kafka about a man who goes out to get coal, only to have his bucket rise up and carry him away over the Ice Mountains.

It would be as hard to retrace Calvino’s path as to explain Kafka’s story. In both cases, the journey is its own reward. “Astride our bucket,” Calvino drolly concludes, “we shall face the new millennium, without hoping to find anything more in it than what we ourselves are able to bring to it.”

Each essay surpasses the previous one. In “Quickness,” Calvino champions a concise manner of narration in which everything functions, nothing impedes or distracts. It is another approach to the same goal of overcoming the dull and weighty that we have seen in his first argument. In his essay “Exactitude,” Calvino distinguishes between two approaches to literature, symbolized by the crystal and the flame. The flame represents turbulence and force — it is vaporous and shifting, ill-defined. Though Calvino does not use the example, D. H. Lawrence might be one writer who embodies this quality, in which a lack of precision is overcome by force of energy.

But by nature Calvino is a partisan of “the party of the crystal”; “The crystal, with its precise faceting and its ability to refract light, is the model of perfection that I have always cherished as an emblem.”

The quality of “visibility” is perfectly demonstrated in Calvino’s own Cosmicomics, in which he gives visible form to abstract physical and astronomic theories. In this essay Calvino approaches something that might in another time have been called “imagism.” He believes the writer must create an illusion of visible form through language.

His own method, he reveals, is to begin with an image. As his writing progresses he turns his attention more and more from the image to the language used to convey it. In this he continues, in a sense, an activity he began as a child, when he would invent words and stories for the incomprehensible American comic strips he would pore over for hours, often going back and creating multiple or alternate versions of the stories suggested by the drawings.

Finally, by “multiplicity,” Calvino proposes a literature that is full of references within itself and to the literature and the world beyond itself — “the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world.”

Calvino’s qualities are fascinating in themselves, but in the end it is his learned and witty commentary as he surveys an astonishing range of authors and texts in illustrating his arguments that makes Six Memos for the Next Millennium such engaging, suggestive, illuminating reading.

One example, from among many, illustrates the quality of “quickness.” “Among [Taoist philosopher] Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.”


San Francisco Chronicle Review, May 1, 1988