"This talk is refusing to be led in the direction I set myself," Italo Calvino remarks in the third of the six Charles Eliot Norton lectures he was to deliver at Harvard University two years ago.
The refusal was absolute; Calvino died before he could deliver them. But refusals, in any case, were his life in letters. They were near the center of his genius.
So much of what is written has quietly tried to refuse to be written, and yet, even great writers have pretended not to hear. Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" didn't especially want to be written; neither did stretches of "Paradise Regained," nor did Faulkner's "A Fable," nor Hemingway's "Across the River and Into the Trees." When Calvino's words balked, he listened, and he went where they wanted to go:
"Sometimes I try to concentrate on the story I would like to write and I realize that what interests me is something else entirely, or, rather, not anything precise but everything that does not fit in what I ought to write."
It sounds like digression, but it is a little different. When Calvino sets out the qualities he believes literature must carry into the future--each one is the heading of a lecture--they include lightness, quickness, exactitude. None of these suggests digression; that is, an ornamental or exploratory detour contained within a longer, straight-line progression.
Calvino believes in straight lines but not long ones. His are short and fast, and each modifies the direction of its predecessor. Like a mayfly over water, he is a darter across a shimmering and deceptive surface. The modern world is too fragmented and unstable to allow the laying of grand intellectual highways or leisurely speculative detours. It requires darting or, to use Calvino's image, the many, angled and sharp facets of a crystal.
Calvino's lectures, his shining literary testament, crystallize the spirit that has produced his work. Characteristically, it takes a symbol, artfully constructed tale or character, and rotates it prismlike, so that it catches all kinds of new lights.
Calvino is as entrancing a theorist as he is a tale-teller; his lectures contain flights of thought that are dazzling and difficult, but they are short, ending in a quotation or vignette, and then making a fresh start. We are over the difficulty almost before we know it, and ready to change course.
In "Lightness," the first and in some ways the central lecture, Calvino takes on the main question for any writer: how to make art out of a chaotic, menacing and unanchored time? I felt the gulf between "the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world," he recalls, "and the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write."
He will deal with this question in a number of ways, but here he traces his own glancing spirit back through its predecessors. There is Perseus, able to approach the gnarled, petrifying visage of Medusa only by studying her through a mirror, and to subdue it by treading air on winged feet. He cuts her head off and carries it with him.
"Perseus's strength," Calvino writes in a striking image for the artist, "lies in a refusal to look directly but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden."
Lightness through history: Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and the airy atoms of Lucretius. There is "the particular existential inflection that makes it possible for Shakespeare's characters to distance themselves from their own drama, thus dissolving it into melancholy and irony." There is Leopardi's infinitely exact moonlit world, Kafka's grave and curiously buoyant parables; there is Borges and Kundera.
Because, for Calvino, lightness is precisely not the same as the enforced buoyancy of industrial entertainment.
"There is a lightness of thoughtfulness as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity," he writes. In fact, "thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy." "The Tempest," in other words, is infinitely lighter than "The Phantom of the Opera."
In a later lecture--"Exactitude"--Calvino celebrates literature at its best as "the promised land in which language becomes what it really ought to be." Precise, that is, not the "generic, anonymous and abstract" kind that tends "to dilute meanings, to blunt the edge of expressiveness, extinguishing the spark that flashes out from the impact between words and new circumstances."
Our culture, he writes, is bombarded with images; prefabricated and "stripped of the inner inevitability that ought to mark every image as form and as meaning. . . ." What, he asks, will this bombardment do to "the power of evoking images of things that are not there?"