Italo Calvino, one of the world's best storytellers, died on the
eve of his departure for Harvard, where he was to deliver the
Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1985-86. Reticent by nature, he
was always reluctant to talk about himself, but he welcomed the
opportunity to talk about the making of literature. In the process
of devising his lectures--his wife recalls that they were an
"obsession" for the last year of his life--he could not avoid
mention of his own work, his methods, intentions, and hopes. This
book, then, is Calvino's legacy to us: those universal values he
pinpoints for future generations to cherish become the watchword
for our appreciation of Calvino himself.
What about writing should be cherished? Calvino, in a
wonderfully simple scheme, devotes one lecture (a memo for his
reader) to each of five indispensable literary values. First there
is "lightness" (leggerezza), and Calvino cites Lucretius, Ovid,
Boccaccio, Cavalcanti, Leopardi, and Kundera--among others, as
always--to show what he means: the gravity of existence has to be
borne lightly if it is to be borne at all. There must be
"quickness," a deftness in combining action (Mercury) with
contemplation (Saturn). Next is "exactitude," precision and clarity
of language. The fourth lecture is on "visibility," the visual
imagination as an instrument for knowing the world and oneself.
Then there is a "tour de force" on "multiplicity," where Calvino
brilliantly describes the eccentrics of literature (Elaubert,
Gadda, Musil, Perec, himself) and their attempt to convey the
painful but exhilarating infinitude of possibilities open to
The sixth and final lecture - worked out but unwritten - was to
be called "Consistency." Perhaps surprised at first, we are left to
ponder how Calvino would have made that statement, and, as always
with him, the pondering leads to more. With this book Calvino gives
us the most eloquent, least defensive "defense of literature"
scripted in our century - a fitting gift for the next
Esther Calvino has supervised the preparation of this book. She
is Italo Calvino's Argentinian-born wife and a translator for
several international organizations. Among Calvino's best-known
works of fiction are "Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, The Baron in
the Trees, if on a winter's night a traveler, and Mr. Palomar."
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