Saturday, April 17, 2021

Italo Calvino / Inessential Melancholies

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino

Inessential Melancholies
Tony McKibbin
29 October 2011

In the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, ‘Lightness’, Italo Calvino says, “from what I have said so far I think the concept of lightness is beginning to take shape. Above all I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact, thoughtful lightness, can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.” Calvino wrote this in the mid-eighties; Difficult Loves contains stories published between 1949 and 1958, yet as much as any work by the writer, best known probably for Invisible Cities and If on A Winter’s Night a Traveller, it searches out this lightness of thoughtfulness as it shares with work by Kafka and Robert Walser a triviality so reckless that sometimes we may wonder what exactly the story has been predicated upon. In ‘The Adventure of a Reader’, the story concerns someone trying to read his book whilst attending to the modest charms of a young woman by the sea. ‘The Adventure of a Soldier’ shows a young private making tentative advances towards a bourgeois woman from the provinces, and Calvino reveals far more about the soldier’s own thoughts than creating narrative incident. Equally, in ‘The Adventure of a Traveler’, Federico V. journeys from a northern Italian city to Rome to meet the woman with whom he is in love, but the story concludes at the end of his journey, before he meets the woman he is going to visit.

In an essay on Borges published in Why Read the Classics?, Calvino says what he so admires in the Argentine writer is his “economy of expression: Borges is a master of concision. He manages to condense into his texts which are always just a few pages long an extraordinary richness of ideas and poetic attraction.” Does Calvino offer the opposite in these stories from Difficult Loves? Are they not examples of expansion, taking a story that could be told in a page or two and allowing it up to ten or more? Yet elsewhere, in some of the stories in Numbers in the Dark, Calvino offers a brevity even Borges would admire. ‘Conscience’ runs to two pages and masterfully details a man’s desire to fight in the army so that he can kill a person who has wronged him. Instead the army insists he can’t choose who to kill – his purpose is to murder random strangers. By the end of the war he has killed numerous people but not the man whom he hates. By the end of the story he does find the man and kills him but by then the war has long since been over. “That was when they arrested him, tried him for murder and hanged him. At the trial he said over and over that he had done it to settle his conscience, but nobody listened to him.” ‘ The Black Sheep’ is similarly concise: in a country where everyone was a thief, a man came who was honest, and who found himself penniless after being robbed because he didn’t do what everybody else was doing. When the thieves tell him he needs to allow them to steal from him by vacating his house, he doesn’t then go and steal from someone else, but instead walks around all night returning to his empty house the next morning. “But this was hardly a problem, since it was his own fault; no the problem was that his behaviour upset everything else. Because he let the others steal everything he had without stealing anything from anybody; so there was always someone who got home at dawn to find their house untouched: the house he should have robbed.” Absurd critiques on war and capitalism, this is fiction as pithy conceit: the stories are recklessly brief in caring not at all for character or for situation because the purpose is to make us think about the subjects not concern ourselves with the characters. In ‘Conscience’ we do not know where the countries are, just as we do not know why Luigi especially wants to kill Alberto, saying no more than that “he betrayed me, for next to nothing he made me make a fool of myself with a woman. It’s an old story.” That is all we are offered. In ‘The Black Sheep’, not only is the country not named, but neither are any of the characters. We don’t know anything of the honest man’s life, and nor do we need to do so: such is the nature of the story’s deliberately elliptical containment..

Yet we have also noted many of Calvino’s stories move in the other direction, and share similarities with Kafka and Walser who are, like, Calvino, sometimes referred to as writers of fables. Yet one of the main differences between the pithy conceit and the recklessly trivial resides in the perceptual astuteness demanded and taken by Walser and Kafka, and that Calvino often also seizes upon in ‘Difficult Loves’. Brilliant though both ‘Conscience’ and ‘The Black Sheep’ are, they remain external works, giving us no sense of the characters’ internal reality in relation to their outer worlds, just as they provide no socio-political details to locate us in a specific context. Walser and Kafka also deny the socio-political, but emphasise greatly the internal dynamics of character. Part of the originality of Kafka’s work of course rests in the lengths to which he would go to create this empathic relationship between a character and their inner world, even giving it to a giant mole in ‘The Village Schoolmaster’ and a canine in ‘Investigations of a Dog’. In the short story ‘Food’, from Masquerade and other Stories, Walser also has some of this empathic fascination with animals: the narrator watches how a cat laps up milk, and comments on horses in relation to humans’ eating habits. In each instance Kafka and Walser seem to want to re-sensitise the world through sensual observation: through trying to understand subtlety of feeling. This is not the purpose of the pithy conceit, which wants to achieve not perceptual refinement, but a narrative bluntness.

Yet many of the stories in Difficult Loves search out the perceptually refined as they look to offer subtlety of personal feeling over narrative speed. In another article in Six Memos for the Millennium, Calvino offers an essay called ‘Quickness’, and says at one point, “everything mentioned has a necessary function in the plot. The very characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression.” But what are the characteristics of a personal tale and not a folk one? Here are several, and all practised by Calvino in the stories in Difficult Loves: Extension of expression, ambiguity of feeling, incidental or hypothetical detail, apparent arbitrariness of event. Where a fable offers mechanistic inevitability; the personal tale looks towards existential possibility. They echo a Jean-Paul Sartre comment: that man “must begin from the subjective”. Though all but one of the stories are in the third person (‘Smog’ is in the first), the perceptions are nevertheless subjective, reflecting emotional and psychological states more than eventful realities. Take for example a passage from ‘The Adventure of a Poet’. “He, distrustful (by nature and through his literary education) of emotions and words already the property of others, accustomed more to discovering hidden and spurious beauties than those that were evident and indisputable, was still nervous and tense.” Or, from ‘The Adventure of a Reader’: “Amadeo classified the type: the independent woman, on holiday by herself, who dislikes crowded beaches and prefers the more deserted rocks, and likes to lie there and become black as coal; he evaluated the amount of lazy sensuality and of chronic frustration there was in her; he thought fleetingly of the likelihood of a rapidly consummated fling…”  In the former instance we have extension of expression. He was still nervous and tense is the meat of the statement, but Calvino contains it within an exploration of sensibility. In ‘The Adventure of a Reader’, he offers ambiguity of feeling as Amadeo toys with the idea of a fling: Amadeo allows his mind to drift off onto all the possible problems such a fling might create. He measured the pleasures of the fling against “the prospect of a trite conversation, a program for the evening, probable logistic difficulties, the effort of concentration always required to become acquainted…” as Amadeo also drifts off into the hypothetical detail.

The arbitrariness of event is often present in these stories: there is a sense that what happens could just as readily not have happened. Where in a fable chance takes on the weight of fate, in Calvino’s stories here the contingent usually retains its arbitrariness. In ‘The Adventure of a Soldier’ nothing actual comes out of the encounter with the woman on the train. In ‘The Adventure of a Traveler’, Calvino chooses not to concentrate on the wonderful time Federico V. will have with the woman he is going to see in Rome, but on the train journey, where nothing that happens will externally impact on his life, where who knows what might come out of his love affair with Cinzia U. The story ends where another might almost begin. As Federico phones Cinzia after he gets off the train, “still suffused with sleep and soft warmth…he was already in the tension of their days together, in the desperate battle against the hours; and he realized he would never manage to tell her anything of the significance of that night [on the train] which he now sensed was fading.” It was a significance that he wouldn’t be able to explain because there was nothing at all ‘eventful’ about the evening. It was ‘thoughtful’ rather than eventful, so what would there be to tell?

Yet is it not the ‘thoughtful’ over the eventful that we are invoking when we talk of Calvino, here, and that we see also in Kafka and Walser? Now of course one of the criticisms levelled at thoughtfulness is that it is self-absorbed, but earlier we talked of Kafka and Walser being great writers of empathic feeling, capable of getting out of their own minds and into the states even of animals, and there is a passage from Kafka’s ‘Preparations for a Wedding’ that reflects this problematic quite well. Talking of the difference between ‘one and ‘I’, the narrator says “so long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I’, there’s nothing in it and you can easily tell the story, but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are  horrified.” If the character in ‘Adventures of a Traveler’ knows he cannot tell Cinzia about his night; is it not a little like the narrator in Kafka’s story being unable to tell a woman about the nature of his tiredness because of the difference between the I and the one? The one can externalise character in an event, but the I demands the singularity of the thoughtful within the event; to the point that the event needn’t be much of an event at all. One reason why ‘Conscience’ and ‘The Black Sheep’ are so brief, is because they allow for the one over the I: they are eventful more than thoughtful.

Thus there is a certain irony that all the stories in the collection going under the heading Difficult Loves are in titular terms a series of adventures, though in actual terms are closer to meditations. The first eleven stories are ‘Adventures of a Photographer’, Traveller, Wife, Poet and so on. But these are hardly the adventures of Marco Polo evident in Invisible Cities, where the traveller ventures to various places and reports back to Kublai Khan; in Difficult Loves the external events are manifested by a high degree of interiority, of what we could call  ‘reflective perspective’. Indeed, ‘The Adventure of a Near-Sighted man’ is predicated on the singular perspective of the central character, who views the world differently on the basis of whether or not he is wearing the glasses he starts to wear after the oculist prescribes them for him. Amilcare notices that “just slipping on the glasses was, every time, a thrill for him. He might be, for instance, at a tram stop, and he would be overcome by sadness because everything, people and objects around him, was so vague, banal, worn from being as it was; and him there, groping in the midst of a flabby world of nearly decayed forms and colors.” Yet when he put on the glasses the world would change: “…ordinary things, even a lamppost, were etched with countless tiny details.” In a story more concerned with the fable and the external, Amilcare would be an everyman, someone who would with emotional anonymity carry the story as it plays on the conceit of a man whose eyesight become vastly superior, rather as one finds in all those tales about people with x-ray vision. Instead Calvino uses it as the opportunity for an existential crisis of the ‘one’ and the ‘I’, for the emotionally present to become clear as he gets caught in a horribly minor paradox: Amilcare becomes aware that nobody recognizes him. “The eyeglasses that made the rest of the world visible to him, those eyeglasses in their enormous black frames, made him invisible.” What the glasses give him is a brief phenomenological frisson, but the glasses finally seem to make him even more aware than at the beginning that his life was basically finished. If at the beginning of the story Amilcare was ‘bored’; by the conclusion “Amilcare Carruga realized that perhaps the thrill of his new glasses had been the last of his life, and now it was over.”

But whatever anonymity he possesses wearing the glasses; Calvino gives him the subjective deliberation of ongoing interior thought, the ‘I’ over the one, the solitary versus the herd. In a passage on solitude Nietzsche says, “one receives as a reward for much ennui, despondency, boredom…those quarter hours of profoundest contemplation within oneself and nature.” Amilcare might end the story having moved from the state of being bored to the despairing realization that his life is over, but Calvino takes the opportunity to isolate the character so that he can possess the sort of thoughts that lead to inner revelation. This revelatory reflection also happens to be present in a number of the other stories. “For some time Amedeo had tended to reduce his participation in active life to the minimum,” the narrator says in ‘The Adventure of a Reader’. “Not that he didn’t like action; on the contrary, love of action nourished his whole character, all his tastes; and yet, from one year to the next, the yearning to be someone who did things declined, declined until he wondered if he had ever really harboured the yearning.”  In ‘The Adventure of a Married Couple’, the characters are the opposite of people who want to be alone. Arturo and his wife Elide work different shifts, and so they barely get the chance to see each other. Near the end of the story there is the word yearning again, “when the table was set, when everything that had been prepared was placed within reach so they wouldn’t have to get up afterwards, then came the moment of yearning that overwhelmed them both, the thought they had so little time to be together…”Aloneness is again present but this time involuntarily.  It is as though the ‘I’ of each character is all the more recognized in the other’s general absence. The realization is one of intense feeling. How to harbour one’s aloneness, without getting lost in reflection; how to feel yearning without having the object of our desire forcibly absent? These are the sort of thoughts Calvino creates space for in Difficult Loves.

There is a lovely phrase from Invisible Cities: “inessential melancholies”, and it is a beautiful way to sum up the simultaneous triviality and yet purposefulness that runs throughout many of the stories in the collection. There is in Calvino’s work here a yearning for something more or something else, an often quite private sense of longing that cannot readily be associated with general drives and ambitions. Many of the stories could equally be exemplified by a passage from ‘The Adventure of a Traveler’: “As sometimes happens with men whose life is most conditioned by others…Federico tended constantly to defend his own condition of inner concentration, and actually it took very little, a hotel room, a train compartment all to himself, and he could adjust the world in harmony with his life…” Perhaps fiction is ontologically an art form more given to the inner life than any other: does it not usually require the condition of solitude much more than cinema, music and theatre? A book is generally read alone, but much fiction has not acknowledged this relationship of one mind to another and instead emphasizes the escapist element that throws the isolated reader into an active and exciting narrative. What much twentieth century fiction has done is acknowledge the introspective nature of the reader without necessarily creating a metafictional conceit around the work. Certainly Calvino is a writer famous for this metafictional dimension – exemplified by the 1979 novel ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, a book that opens with “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.” However the stories in Difficult Loves do not possess that self-reflexivity, just as Walser and Kafka’s work eschew it also. The relationship is implicit rather than explicit, the introversion a given of the form rather than a questioning of it. It is this aspect that makes the stories  of especial interest. As opposed to many of Calvino’s other books that are clearly the work of metafictional explicitness; isn’t there equally a tradition of metafictional implicitness; one that doesn’t only include Kafka and Walser, but also on occasion Dostoyevsky,  Hamsun, Hesse, Bernhardt and numerous others?

It is a fictional form that creates the space for introversion, not the social spaces evident in extraversion as couched by Jung when he once said “the extravert, for instance, will choose the majority view”. They will choose the one over the I, we might say. Calvino’s short stories here refuse the assumptions of the one and give space to the possibilities of the I that Kafka so astutely observed and no writer more completely and brilliantly fussed over. Calvino may be famous for other concerns, but it is as if the stories here show from whence many of the later ones came.

Tony Mackibbin

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