Calvino crystallizes the literary virtues

Six Memos for the Next Millennium, by Italo Calvino. Translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 124 pp. $12.95. Shortly before his death, Italy's illustrious storyteller Italo Calvino had completed five of six ``memos,'' as he styled them, which he was planning to deliver as the 1985-86 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The sixth he had intended to write in Cambridge. These memos, his wife says, had become something of an obsession: Beginning in January 1985, he worked on them tirelessly. They have the delicacy, strength, agility, and lucidity that come from intense, inspired mental labor.

Each lecture, or memo, is devoted to a quality Calvino values in literature. Although the sixth, ``Consistency,'' was not written, it would doubtless have been the perfectly poised final star in the dazzling constellation of ``Lightness,'' ``Quickness,'' ``Exactitude,'' ``Visibility,'' and ``Multiplicity.'' In his quest for ``Consistency,'' we can be sure Calvino would never have sought uniformity or conformity: As each of the previous memos demonstrates, what he values in literature is its protean ability to anticipate and encompass variation.

Indeed, he repeatedly stresses that in choosing these six virtues, he does not mean to denigrate their opposites: ``Implicit in my tribute to lightness was my respect for weight.'' Nor does his praise for ``quickness ... deny the pleasures of lingering.'' He even locates his own aspirations in a play of opposites: ``I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.''

In the first memo, ``Lightness,'' Calvino posits Guido Cavalcanti and Dante Alighieri as the respective champions of ``lightness'' and ``weight.'' The assumption underlying this pairing is that the goals of literature are twofold: to render the oppressive heaviness of the world light, bearable, penetrable to intelligence, permeable to desire; and to transform the mind's weightless thoughts and imaginings into something as ``heavy,'' as ``concrete,'' or - in another of Calvino's terms - ``visible'' as reality.

The ``Quickness'' Calvino admires is mental speed, in contrast to the ``homogenizing'' physical speed of mass communications. His attraction to fairy tales and folk tales, he explains, reflects his interest in their structural economy and rhythm: ``Just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.''

The virtue of ``Exactitude'' branches out in two directions: toward theory and the abstract patterns underlying things, on the one hand, and toward the presentation of minute, tangible specifics, on the other. Exactitude not only favors precision, but also enables the exact expression of its opposite: vagueness!

Calvino urges ``Visibility'' - the imagination's power to evoke ``images that are not there'' - as a value to cherish in a world where we are ``increasingly inundated by a flood of prefabricated images'' from television and other sources. He expresses an almost mystical belief in the sacredness of those images that arise in the mind, seemingly out of nowhere, which Dante believed ``rained down'' into fantasy from the heavens.

The fifth memo, ``Multiplicity,'' closes with an image of the literary work as a net, branching out in all directions to articulate the complexity, differences, and interrelatedness of the entire world. ``Overambitious projects,'' he writes, ``may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.''

Calvino ranges nimbly across the centuries, culling examples that illustrate his conceptions: Lucretius, Ovid, Leonardo, Galileo, Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, Swift, Sterne, Leopardi, De Quincey, Poe, Val'ery, Kafka, Musil, Borges, Perec, Kundera, and Calvino's own fiction are mined for rich material. Each memo is as intricate and intriguing as a maze, yet as clear and bright as crystal.

Thoughts of the next millennium did not shake Calvino's faith in the future of literature, for he shared with nearly every great defender of literature since the Renaissance (if not the last millennium!) the belief that ``there are things that only literature can give us.'' The literariness of these essays, the qualities that make them, in the honorific sense, ``literature,'' are not only the grace of Calvino's style and the imaginative vitality of the content, but also his stance, disdaining polemicism and academic obfuscation, embracing polarities and genuine complexities.

Calvino's concept of lightness uses the Ovidian myth of Perseus and Medusa as a model for the artist's relationship to reality. Its density and weight give reality, like Medusa's head, the power to turn all who look on it to stone. To avoid that fate, Perseus ``supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror.''

Perseus carries the severed head in a bag, revealing it only ``against those who deserve the punishment of being turned to statues.... His strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.'' But it is the surprising delicacy the hero displays when setting down Medusa's head that most impresses Calvino: He makes a bed of leaves and water plants to cushion it from the rough ground: ``The lightness, of which Perseus is the hero, could not be better represented than by this gesture of refreshing courtesy toward a being so monstrous and terrifying yet at the same time so fragile and perishable.''

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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