I can’t quite put my finger on why I love Italo Calvino. The first thing I read was Six Memos for the Next Millennium. These are lectures that Calvino wrote in the year before his death in 1985 trying to explain the thinking behind his own writing. He actually only finished five: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Consistency was to be the sixth.
The reason I came to read this ‘wonderful little book’ was that one person whom I respect very much recommended it to me as a way of thinking about principles for policy making in the 21st century. Fine I thought. But then a year later another person who I respect very much made the same recommendation. I bought a copy. I’ve been trying for the last year to translate Calvino for a policy audience. I’ve tried in three or four different contexts, and every time I’ve been unhappy with the results and pulled it from the final report. Neither of the two people who recommended it to me have published anything on Calvino either to my knowledge.
The trouble is that writing specific things in the framework of Calvino is like nailing jelly to the ceiling. While his memos instinctively make sense, perfect sense, as desirable principles for government, in fact for life in the new millennium, as soon as you try to describe what they might mean they seem to evaporate. Like the idea of love, they change as you try to describe them in words. Unless you’re Calvino. When you examine how he describes the memos you realise he hardly does it at all. He describes what he means by describing other things, leaving a gap for you to fill in. It’s a common Calvino technique.
The first of his novels that I picked up was Once Upon a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Mind expanding would be one phrase to describe it. The book opens with a character walking into a bookshop to buy a Calvino novel. The story changes and morphs from there as you go through stages of believing that the book is one of a set of different but related stories that you have been hoodwinked into reading through switched covers or publisher’s errors. For a while you have the disconcerting realisation that Calvino is telling you what you will think, just before you think it. Another dimension is added as you realise there’s another character in the book who is someone else reading the book at the same time as you and you develop a relationship with them. When you put the book down you realise you’ve been sucked into not just another world, but another multidimensional universe.
And then I read Invisible Cities, perhaps Calvino’s most famous book. It’s nothing like any other novel I’ve ever read. It’s made up of tens of short pieces, stories related by Marco Polo to his emperor Kubla Khan. Polo has been commissioned to visit all of the world’s great cities and report back on what it is that makes those cities great. Each story is very light, each on it’s own barely worthy of attention, interesting but insubstantial. But each so light that you sometimes feel as if you’re floating above the cities he describes. Until you realise that every story, every city that Marco Polo describes is one city. It is Venice. Layer upon layer is added to the description of the city until you have such a rich sensory picture of what makes a city great that it is as if you were there. Through his lightness, Calvino draws you in.
With each week I read more Calvino and find myself increasingly drawn in. I love the way he leaves so much for you to complete in your own mind, giving you just enough things to play with to create your own complex picture of what’s going on. I love his way of constantly flitting between being funny and witty and serious and hopeless. At times he even pulls off all these sensations at the same time.
I’ll keep on reading and rereading Calvino for many years to come.