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Book Reviews Italo Calvino. L a M a c h in e l it t é r a t u r e . Trans. Michel Orcel and François Wahl. Paris: Seuil, 1984. Pp. 251. Italo Calvino’s talent as a writer of fiction is beyond dispute; La Machine littérature, a collection of 28 essays written between 1966 and 1982, demonstrates that he was also a very fine critic. Several of these pieces were collected in Una pietra sopra (Turin: Einaudi, 1980), but the rest were never published in volume form in Italy. La Machine littérature thus stands as the most ample collection of Calvino’s essays available. The portrait of the artist offered by this anthology complements that which one might infer from his fiction: here, Calvino takes pains to present himself as a reader, arguing the priority of that activity over writing, as did Borges before him. This, I believe, is no mere posture on Calvino’s part. He worked for over 30 years, after all, as a senior editor for the Einaudi publishing house, where he was instrumental in launching the careers of young Italian writers and in making the work of foreign writers available to the Italian public: “ Travaillant dans une maison d’édition, j ’ai consacré plus de temps aux livres des autres qu’aux miens. Je ne le regrette pas: tout ce qui sert à l’ensemble d’une communauté civile est de l’énergie bien dépensée” (250). But his professional interest was subtended and sustained, clearly, by a high personal delight in engaging the literary text. As the essays touching on Homer, Ovid, Ariosto, Voltaire, Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Montale, Queneau, Blanchot, and Klossowski show, Calvino was an omnilector. If his intellectual curiosity is centered upon belles-lettres in this collection, he nonetheless ventures willingly into contiguous fields such as philosophy, arguing (surprisingly enough) that the literature-philosophy schism is in fact salubrious to both and should be preserved. On the other hand, he devotes an essay to the mutual com­ plementarity of film and the novel, and still another in praise of Saul Steinberg, that most writerly of artists. There are three pieces on the utopian politics of Fourier, and Calvino discusses his own political itinerary in an essay entitled “ Des bons et des mauvais usages politiques de la littérature,” originally written in English and delivered as a lecture at Amherst College in 1976. Calvino was also deeply interested in contemporary literary theory. In “ Entretien sur science et littérature,” dating from 1968, he expresses his admiration for the protoscientific systematics of structuralists and literary experimentalists, saying that he himself oscillates between the two poles defined, respectively, by Barthes-Tel Quel and QueneauOuvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Calvino, while continuing to admire Barthes, would become a member of the Oulipo in 1973). His own work progressively testifies to a will toward systematization. In the lead essay of this collection, written in 1967, he defines literature succinctly as “ la permutation d ’un ensemble fini d’éléments et de fonctions” (21-22), as a combinatory process. The totalizing figure he proposes is that of the machine; this model, like that of the structuralists, is grounded in language: “ L’homme est en train de commencer à comprendre comment se VOL. XXVI, NO. 4 99 B ook R ev iew s démonte et se remonte la plus complexe de ses machines: le langage” (16). Speculating on the possibilities which cybernetics might offer to literature, he elaborates a curious theory of influence: “ La vraie machine littéraire sera celle qui sentira elle-même le besoin de pro­ duire du désordre, mais comme réaction à une précédente production d’ordre; celle qui pro­ duira de l’avant-garde pour débloquer ses propres circuits, engorgés par une trop longue production de classicisme” (18). Finally, though, the machine serves as a figure of the literary text itself, a combinatory and (significantly) interactive ludic system. Calvino’s theoretical remarks in the present anthology are entirely consonant with his own novelistic praxis: “ . . .si nous connaissons désormais les règles du jeu ‘romanesque,’ nous pourrons construire des romans ‘artificiels’ nés en laboratoire, nous...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 99-100
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-05
Open Access
No
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