Italo Calvino is no stranger to the American reading public. His fiction has consistently appeared in English over the past three decades, and a collection of his essays, The Uses of Literature, appeared in translation only two years ago. This collection provided the English speaker with an array of essays never before available, which in turn offered the opportunity to witness a progression in Calvino's [End Page 723] intellectual development. A companion piece to The Uses of Literature, Six Memos for the Next Millenium offers the English reader an opportunity to understand more fully the later Calvino.
Six Memos for the Next Millenium is divided into five chapters: "Lightness," "Quickness," "Exactitude," "Visibility," and "Multiplicity" (Calvino had planned to write a sixth, "Consistency," but he died before completing it). At the outset, Calvino wrote that he wanted to "situate [certain literary values] within the perspective of the new millennium." Although this effect is surely the case, Calvino also engages in a type of intellectual autobiography, as he often refers both to his own works and to those of his favorite authors. Thus, we find Cavalcanti, Dante, Ariosto, Leopardi, and Gadda, among the Italians; and Balzac, Flaubert, de Bergerac, Lucretius, Proust, Kafka, and, most importantly, Borges, among others.
In discussing each "value," Calvino also brings into play its opposite. Whereas he extols the value of lightness, he also discusses weightiness. Calvino considers Cavalcanti and Leopardi two true "poet[s] of lightness"; yet he also recognizes that when even "Dante wants to express lightness, . . . no one can do it better than he does." But Dante's "real genius lies in the opposite direction . . . in transmitting the sense that the world is organized into a system, an order, or a hierarchy where everything has its place." Lightness, on the other hand, implies the absence of a hierarchy for Calvino, and he refers to Ovid (the Metamorphoses) as one who saw the "essential parity between everything that exists."
The "weight of matter . . . dissolved" and the "equality of all existing things" are two major characteristics Calvino extols, especially in Cavalcanti. Placing all things on the same level allows for the greater multiplicity of things, "the combinatoria of elementary figures." In addition, lightness and parity constitute literature's underlying raison d'être for Calvino: he sees in literature "an essential function, the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of the world." More precisely, literature constitutes, for Calvino, "a search for knowledge . . . extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology"; it is the notion of knowledge as encyclopedic, "a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world."
Quickness, the second Memo, is not a value in itself for Calvino. Narration "is carried out on the length of time involved, an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it." In fact, after a brief discussion of De Quincy, Leopardi, and Galileo, Calvino tells us that quickness means "above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities . . . where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread . . . and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns." As weight was important to lightness, so too is lingering important to quickness. Repetition and digression are two qualities pertinent to lingering; and Lawrence Sterne's greatest invention, according to Calvino, was the novel "composed of digressions . . . a strategy for putting off the endings."
Indeed, the first two values recall Calvino's own literary production. His notion of combinatoria was never so evident as in the second half of his literary career (from the Cosmicomics to his latest, Under the Jaguar Sun). In his later works—Invisible Cities, If on a Winter's Night, and Mr. Palomar especially—Calvino put off endings as he went in search of "the equivalent of some inner energy, some motion [End Page 724] of the mind."
Quickness as mobility and agility also implies searching for the...