Re: 20th Century Literature

ACCORDING to his widow, who prepared this volume, Italo Calvino considered many options for the title of this collection before he hit on the word "memos." For an American, the word has unpleasant associations--the torpid prose of bureaucrats and administrators, whose spell-check word processors restrict their vocabularies--but one can see how it would appeal to a European intellectual like Calvino. It has a soothing alliteration, and its etymology--an abbreviation of "memorandum," something "to be remembered"--implies history.

Six Memos for the Next Millenium

By Italo Calvino

Harvard University Press, 124 pages

February, 1988, $12.95

Nonetheless, a memo aspires to usefulness, not nostalgia--witness that the last two syllables of the word have been dropped for the sake of economy and utility. The memo transmits to the future only as much of the past as will serve, and the future will forget the memo as it builds upon it.

Harvard invited Calvino, the author of Cosmicomics, If on a winter's night a traveller, and Invisible Cities, to deliver the Norton lectures for 1985-86. Calvino conceived the lectures as memos, terse essays about aspects of prose style that had marked his own fiction and would be important for the literature of the future. Calvino identified six qualities: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity, and consistency. At his death, on the eve of his departure for America, he had written and completed the first five of these lectures.

Six Memos for the Next Millenium is a slim and dense book. Calvino discusses every form of narrative, from the prose poems of Francis Ponge and the micro-essays of Jorge Luis Borges (quickness) to the encyclopedic and incomplete novels of Robert Musil and Carlo Emilio Gadda (multiplicity). He addresses a variety of literary problems. In his essay on visibility, for example, he contrasts visual and verbal imaginations, examining the prefabricated images of the mass media and their control over how we create pictures from words and words from pictures.

In his essay on exactitude, he arrives at a sensible and workaday solution to Jacques Derrida's worries about language as a representation of absence rather than presence: "the proper use of language... is one that enables us to approach things (present or absent) with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things (present or absent) communicate without words."

His essay on multiplicity meditates on technology and literature, considering several encyclopedic writers (he includes Proust as an early borderline example) who have tried to create a coherent vision of a world in which scientific knowledge is too large for any single human understanding.

CALVINO tackles questions that have puzzled the driest and most difficult literary critics of the century, but he does not share their obsession for inventing or redefining terms. He does not bully the reader with tortuous grammar, or leave gaps and ambiguities in his logic as examples of the defects in language itself; his sentences are clear and simple. "There is a lightening of language," Calvino posits, "whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency."

In his effort to convey complex ideas about literature, Calvino's most effective tools are mythology and visual imagery--what he calls icastic imagery, an archaic word in English, though common in Italian, from the Greek eikastikos, meaning "figurative."

He explains his notion of textual lightness, for example, with the story of how Perseus slew the Medusa. In Calvino's allegory, the Medusa, whose gaze turns men to stone, freezes language with paralyzing weight. Perseus destroys the Medusa with lightness: he flies above her, and he only looks at her indirectly, in the mirror of his shield. Indirection and change are as important to Calvino's lightness as the subtraction of weight.

Icastic imagery can be found in the models of the crystal ("the self-organizing system") and the flame ("order out of noise"), which Calvino steals from a debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky on the philosophy of science. Under the emblem of the crystal, language is a privileged place where a geometric pattern of meaning may grow despite surrounding disorder. Calvino names Wallace Stevens as a poet of the crystal. Under the emblem of the flame, on the other hand, language unifies disorder by consuming it. William S. Burroughs might be a partisan of the flame.

Six Memos will be vital to any student of Calvino because it reveals the careful rationales that motivated his experiments in literature, from the mathematically organized prose-poems of Invisible Cities to the "hypernovel" If on a winter's night a traveller. The connection between Calvino's theory and his own work is also a limitation. As Calvino confesses, his own writing determined his choice of literary qualities for the next millenium.

He admits that his particular predilections do not exclude the values of textual density, of lingering or cycling temporality, of the indefineable, of the play of words that cannot be reconstructed into image, or of an interpretative unity. Calvino suggests, however, that these exceptions surreptitiously conform to the rules they appear to violate: for example, he discovers a "lightness of thoughtfulness" in the abstract descriptive prose of Henry James, despite James' verbal density.

Perhaps these values will be more helpful to an understanding of the literature of the 20th century than to the foundation of a new literature for the 21st. For example, Calvino's comments about the encyclopedic Musil and Gadda, who were both trained as engineers, may shed light on Thomas Pynchon here in America. Also, Calvino has provided a reading list of modern and post-modern European and Latin American writers.

WHEN Calvino chose the title of his essays, he considered but rejected the word "legacy." The word would have been more appropriate to Calvino's maturity and renown, and like the word "memo," it would have directed the essays towards the future. Furthermore, "legacy" would have been an admission that although Calvino's voice is bold and innovative, it is bound to this century; in post-2000 literature Calvino's voice may be influential, but it will not be able to solve problems that it could not foresee.

The problem with the word "legacy," though, is that legacies are not always useful. There may be regrets and emotional baggage, but great-grandfather's stamp collection eventually gets hocked. "Memo" is utilitarian and modest. No one expects a memo to be preserved out of pure sentiment, because a memo only aims to be helpful for what comes next. And his memos--subtle and insightful--will stick around, because they will remind future writers of what he and his contemporaries have discovered about fiction.