a literary journal of the fictional persuasion


Linda M. Donovan reviews

by Italo Calvino
An anthology, translated and
compiled by Martin McLaughlin
New York: Vintage Books. 2000.

So many books; so little time.

How many times have you heard someone say this? Or even said it with that slightly wry laugh? As with any epigram, there is within its words a great truth. It is impossible to read everything—even being selective, it is still impossible to read all of those works we would like to read. So many books; so little time. As Harold Bloom said, “we eventually will read against the clock,” so the crux of the matter is to choose wisely.

Our parents, then our teachers, start the process, but eventually we develop our own sense of what we wish to read. However, we expand our preferences by asking others: What have you been reading? Who is your favorite author? favorite novel? What one book would you want to have if you were stranded on a deserted island?

In other words, we ask for recommendations from those we respect. And who better to ask than one of the twentieth century’s greatest essayists, literary critics, and novelists: Italo Calvino.

In the Translator's Introduction to this anthology, Martin McLaughlin states that "Calvino's English readers now not only have access to a substantial and coherent sample of his literary criticism but can also gain an insight into what amounts to his personal canon of great classics."

We are given insight into not only what Calvino considered to be great literature—his recommendations, as it were—but also to why he considered each work to be a classic as well as his interpretation of the ideas and intentions of the author.

Now this anthology can be used to study Calvino, to trace his emergence in literary criticism and its intertextuality with his own fictional works, but a broader use for this anthology would be as an excellent—and I choose that word carefully—set of companion essays to a diverse body of literature. Calvino’s confession of “apprenticeship with Hemingway” is startling when coupled with Calvino’s frank hindsight that “[Hemingway’s lifestyle] began to fill me with distrust and even aversion and disgust.” Imagine reading Farewell to Arms, and then reading of Calvino’s apprenticeship? Imagine reading The Odyssey, then reading Calvino’s essay, “The Odysseys Within The Odyssey.” He asks the question, “How many Odysseys does The Odyssey contain?” then proceeds to unveil layers of other odysseys within the odyssey.

Don’t we ask each other, “What did you think of…?” Here is where we can hear what Calvino, a highly educated and literate man, thought of various works of literature.

The thirty-six essays in Why Read The Classics follow Calvino’s progressively more sophisticated career, but they represent work that can hardly be deemed parochial—literature originally written in English (Conrad, Defoe, Dickens, Hemingway), or Italian (Pavese and Montale), French (Flaubert, Stendhal), Russian (Tolstoy), Hispanic (Borges), and ancient Greek (Homer, Ovid, Xenophon). From this diversity it is obvious that Calvino was not a classicist in the traditional manner but read widely over many decades. His development as a critic is also an insight into the politics and history of his time, and the discerning reader can trace his evolution from his fervent Communist period of the 1950s to the literary avant-garde of Italy in the 1960s to his return in the 1980s to Greek classics.

Let’s look briefly at several of his essays. The anthology opens with the title essay, Why Read The Classics? in which Calvino begins by defining a classic, not with a simple dictionary definition but as a series of perspectives. He offers his perspective as a brief statement, and then includes a more in-depth discussion supporting his statement.

For example, here are several of his perspective-definitions:

“…classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’” This applies, in Calvino’s view, to “those people who are generally well read.” He states that it “does not apply to the young, since they are at an age when their contact with the world, and with the classics which are part of that world, is important precisely because it is their first such contact.” As a corollary, Calvino offers the perspective that “classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.”

With these discussions, he defined the value of a classic both in terms of those who are already familiar with the work and of those who are about to encounter it for the first time.

There are fourteen of these perspective-definitions, each one a refinement or expansion of the previous; however, one speaks louder than the rest: “The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture of cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.”

This gives us pause, as we dredge our minds. Consider the effects of Shakespeare on the English language, both in terms of structure and vocabulary. What do you perceive when you hear of a Rabelaisian humor, a Dickensian character, a Hemingway prototype, or an Orwellian dystopia? If you have had the opportunity to read Rabelais, the term ‘Rabelaisian humor’ would immediately carry the sense of earthy and ribald witticisms. These traces of classics pervade our language, our cultures and our customs.

In the essay, Gerolamo Cardano, Calvino initially explores the ties between Shakespeare’s Hamlet—“What is Hamlet reading when he comes on stage in Act 2?” to Cardano’s De Consolatione, which first appeared in English in 1573. However, he quickly turns the essay to explore the persistence of dreams in Cardano’s works, to a life “dominated by premonitions, signs of astrological destiny, magic influences, and diabolical interventions.”

Calvino pursues liaisons in literature with a passion that is met by his ability to express them clearly.

Why Read The Classics? serves not only as a guide to a diverse canon of literature, but also serves to deepen and enrich the experience of the avid reader. It does not matter if you are reading these classics for the first time, or for the tenth time. There is something here for everyone.

©: Linda M. Donovan

Linda M. Donovan, the director of To Write Well, has been teaching writing workshops since 1992. TWW (http://www.towritewell.com) focuses on writing and storytelling skills using lectures, discussions, assignments, peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student interactions. Current offerings include a 10-week online course, Impact of Style, which focuses on language and the richness that emerges as writers select and arrange words for their greatest emotional impact. During this course you will learn to express your ideas more fluently through precise diction, balanced composition, and emphasis as well as through the diverse figures of speech that create the subtle texture known as style. Lectures and supplemental materials are presented in a down-to-earth manner; readings are accompanied by written assignments in which the theory of rhetoric is 'penned' to the page through practical exercises.

For more information, contact Linda at LindaDonovan@impactofstyle.com

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