A collection of five lectures Italo Calvino was preparing to deliver at the time of his death, setting forth the qualities in writing he most valued, and which he believed would define literature in the century to come. Together, these "memos" form a stirring defense of literature and an indispensable guide to Calvino's own work.
“One of the most rigorously presented and beautifully illustrated critical testaments in all of literature.”—Boston Globe
“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.”—San Francisco Chronicle
At the time of his death, Italo Calvino was at work on six lectures setting forth the qualities in writing he most valued, and which he believed would define literature in the century to come. Here, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, are the five lectures he completed, forming not only a stirring defense of literature, but also an indispensable guide to the writings of Calvino himself. He devotes one “memo” each to the concepts of lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity, drawing examples from his vast knowledge of myth, folklore, and works both ancient and modern. Readers will be astonished by the prescience of these lectures, which have only gained in relevance as Calvino’s “next millennium” has dawned.
It’s 1985: just fifteen years separate us from the beginning of a new millennium. For now the approach of this date does not stir in me any particular emotion. In any case I am here to speak not of futurology but of literature. The millennium that is winding down has seen the birth and spread of the modern languages of the West and the literatures that have explored the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities of these languages. It was also the millennium of the book, in that it saw the book-object take the form we know it by today. Perhaps one sign that the millennium is winding down is the frequency with which the fate of literature and the book in the so-called postindustrial age is being questioned. I’m not inclined to weigh in on such matters. My faith in the future of literature rests on the knowledge that there are things that only literature, with its particular capacities, can give us. I would like then to devote these talks of mine to certain values or qualities or peculiarities of literature that are especially close to my heart, in an effort to situate them with a view to the new millennium.
I will devote my first talk to the opposition between lightness and weight, and I will make the case for lightness. This is not to say that I regard the case for weight as weaker, only that I think I have more to say about lightness.
After four decades of writing fiction, after exploring many avenues and undertaking various experiments, the time has come for me to seek a general definition of my work. I propose this one: my method has entailed, more often than not, the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight from human figures, from celestial bodies, from cities. Above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of the story and from language.
In this talk I will try to explain ?— ?to myself as well as to you ?— ?why I have come to regard lightness as a virtue rather than a fault, where among the works of the past I find examples of my ideal of lightness, and how I locate this quality in the present and project it into the future.
I’ll start with the last point. When I began my career, the duty of every young writer, the categorical imperative, was to represent our times. Full of good intentions, I tried to become one with the ruthless energy that, collectively and individually, was driving the events of our century. I tried to find some harmony between the bustling spectacle of the world, by turns dramatic and grotesque, and the picaresque, adventurous inner rhythm that spurred me to write. I soon realized that the gap between the realities of life that were supposed to be my raw materials and the sharp, darting nimbleness that I wanted to animate my writing was becoming harder and harder for me to bridge. Perhaps I was only then becoming aware of the heaviness, the inertia, the opacity of the world ?— ?qualities that quickly adhere to writing if one doesn’t find a way to give them the slip.
I sometimes felt that the whole world was turning to stone: a slow petrifaction, more advanced in some people and places than in others, but from which no aspect of life was spared. It was as if no one could escape Medusa’s inexorable gaze.
The only hero capable of cutting off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies on winged sandals, Perseus, who looks not upon the Gorgon’s face but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield. And so it is that Perseus comes to my aid even now, as I begin to feel caught in a grip of stone, as happens whenever I try to mix the historical and the autobiographical. Better to make my argument using images from mythology. In order to cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the lightest of stuff ?— ?wind and clouds ?— ?and turns his gaze toward that which can be revealed to him only indirectly, by an image caught in a mirror. I am immediately tempted to find in this myth an allegory of the relationship between the poet and the world, a lesson about how to write. But I know that every interpretation of a myth impoverishes and suffocates it; with myths, it’s better not to rush things, better to let them settle in memory, pausing to consider their details, to ponder them without moving beyond the language of their images. The lesson we can draw from a myth lies within the literality of its story, not in what we add to it from without.
The relationship between Perseus and the Gorgon is complex, and it doesn’t end with the beheading of the monster. From Medusa’s blood a winged horse, Pegasus, is born; the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite, and with the stamp of a single hoof on Mount Helicon, a fountain springs forth from which the Muses drink. In some versions of the myth, it is Perseus who rides this marvelous horse, so dear to the Muses, born from the cursed blood of Medusa. (The winged sandals, by the way, also come from the world of monsters: Perseus got them from Medusa’s sisters, the Graeae, who shared a single eye.) As for the severed head, rather than abandoning it, Perseus takes it with him, hidden in a sack. When in danger of defeat, he has only to show it to his enemies, lifting it by its mane of snakes, and in the hero’s hand the bloody prize becomes an invincible weapon ?— ?a weapon he uses only in dire need and only against those who deserve the punishment of being turned into statues of themselves. Here, certainly, the myth is telling me something, something that is implicit in its images and can’t be explained by other means. Perseus masters that terrible face by keeping it hidden, just as he had earlier defeated it by looking at its reflection. In each case his power derives from refusing to look directly while not denying the reality of the world of monsters in which he must live, a reality he carries with him and bears as his personal burden.
We can learn more about the relationship between Perseus and Medusa by reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Perseus has won another battle, has hacked a sea monster to death with his sword, freeing Andromeda. And now he wants to do what any of us would do after such a nasty job: he wants to wash his hands. At such times he must decide what to do with Medusa’s head. And here I find Ovid’s verses (IV, 740–752) extraordinary for the way they show how much delicacy of spirit is required to be a Perseus, a slayer of monsters: “That the rough sand not harm the snake-haired head [anguiferumque caput dura ne laedat harena], he makes the ground soft with a bed of leaves, and over that spreads sprigs that grew in water, and there he sets Medusa’s head, face-down.” I can think of no better way to represent the lightness of which Perseus is the hero than with his refreshingly tender gesture toward that being who, though monstrous and terrifying, is also somehow perishable, fragile. But the most surprising part is the miracle that follows: when the marine plants come into contact with Medusa, they are transformed into coral, and the nymphs, wanting to adorn themselves with coral, rush to bring more sprigs and seaweed to the terrible head.
"Enchanting... Calvino woos you... If you take the time to absorb this book, you will never read or write the same way again... he will provide you with a rich new way of looking and thinking." —PASTE MAGAZINE