- Reviewed by
As the only collection of Calvino's essays in English translation, The Uses of Literature is long overdue. These essays testify to the wide range of Calvino's interests—from philosophy of science to the classics, cybernetics to eroticism, Fourier to Roland Barthes, Northrop Frye to Stendhal.
As we might expect, many of the essays shed light on a particular work by Calvino. "Cybernetics and Ghosts," a fascinating essay on the combinatory aspect of narrative, tells us a great deal about the rationale behind Calvino's literary experiment with tarot cards, The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Departing from the formalist analysis of narrative as a combination of a limited number of functions, the author speculates on the possibility that the writer might be replaced by a computer. Convinced that writers are already "writing machines," that it is the writing process itself and not the personality of the author that generates fiction, Calvino nonetheless argues for the "human" quality of fiction. "Once we have dismantled and reassembled the process of literary composition, the decisive moment of literary life will be that of reading. The work will continue to be born, to be judged, to be destroyed or constantly renewed on contact with the eye of the reader." The importance of the reader's role in fiction is dramatized not only in Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies but also in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of these essays is Calvino's insistence that writing be "driven on by a thirst for knowledge," that literature be placed in the ranks of other cognitive activities. In "Philosophy and Literature" Calvino describes the ideal relation between literature, philosophy, and science: "We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question." In "Two Interviews on Science and Literature" the author maintains that Italian literature, from Dante to Galileo to Leopardi, has always had a vocation as "a map of the world and of the knowable." It is clear that Calvino, too, aspires to create a fiction that serves as a "map of the world." Cosmicomics and T zero, Calvino's fantastic science fictions, The Invisible Cities and Mr. Palomar, are all driven by the same "vocation" described by the author in these essays.
The book is a translation of about one half of the essays collected in 1980 under the title Una pietra sopra. (In addition there are several articles that originally appeared in Italian newspapers and a number of Calvino's prefaces to works published by Einaudi.) The dust jacket tells us that Calvino himself made the selection of essays to be included in the volume. Missing are unfortunately some [End Page 747] of Calvino's most important essays, including "The Marrow of the Lion" (1955), "The Sea of Objectivity" (1959), and "The Challenge to the Labyrinth" (1962). These essays testify to the author's early conviction that, although literature cannot prescribe political agendas, it can embody the will to change. The absence of these essays gives us an image of a somewhat less "committed" writer than that which emerges from a reading of Calvino's 1980 collection of essays, appropriately subtitled Discorsi di letteratura e società ("Discussions of literature and society"). Nonetheless The Uses of Literature is an invaluable point of departure for the reader familiar only with Calvino's fiction. The title of the volume is particularly felicitous: although his perception of literature's uses certainly changed throughout his career, Calvino was a writer who seems never to have relinquished the idea of the "usefulness" of literature.
Beautiful Fables is a valuable study of some of the most important texts to emerge in Italy in the last two centuries. In the introduction Lucente takes issue with studies of self-consciousness by Dallenbach, Alter, Kawin, and others...