Monday, May 5, 2008

Six Memos

Despite a weekend full of almost non-stop errands, I managed to stay up late and find some quiet time to finish reading Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium. These five “memos” –Calvino never got to the sixth, which was to be called “Consistency”—were written to be delivered as the 1985-86 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University, but Calvino had a sudden stroke and died just before he was to deliver them. Like much of Calvino’s fiction, they are a marvel of words that capture in their style the very essence of the five characteristics of writing that Calvino is celebrating—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity—qualities that give us “the Promised Land in which language becomes what it really ought to be.”

Calvino not only gives us autobiographical glimpses into his life and what he sees as the meaning of his various works, but he also illustrates his literary principles he’d like to carried throughout the 21st century with such diverse sources as Borges, Bruno, Dante, Dickinson, Felix the Cat, Ovid, the Cabala, fairy tales, and Galileo. The reader gets a sense of which books and authors mean the most to him as well as the beautiful images in each work that Calvino cherishes and why he does so. When discussing lightness, for example, his beautifully constructed yet playful analysis of both Dante and Ovid made me want to rush out and reread both authors’ works.

Beyond what he’s trying to tell us about literature, Calvino’s writing appeals to me for its reverent approach to nature, an approach that I suspect comes from having two botanists as parents. While Calvino is in very many ways a postmodern writer who writes imaginary, in some cases futuristic, stories, his description of the world around him so often captures the passion of a man who has spent much time contemplating and loving the natural world in all its particularities.

And then there is Calvino’s quirky but encyclopedic breadth of reading and knowledge. His interest in tarot cards and the way they reflect both the Cabala and archetypal ideas which he says he's built into The Castle of Crossed Destinies (which seems to overlap nicely with what I'm finding as I read Charles' Williams' The Greater Trumps) makes me excited about reading it next.

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