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Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985
Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985

I know Michael Wood as the author of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge and Yeats and Violence, both works of literary criticism that I liked very much. Wood both selected the letters in this edition and writes the introduction, saying that the letters reveal not Calvino’s “real self” but his “plain self”: “We eavesdrop not on his secrets but on his devotion to clarity.” (Jonathan Galassi recently reviewed this book for NYRB).

Along with the second volume of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography, this collection of Calvino’s letters is one of my two most eagerly anticipated books of 2013. Leafing through the index I can see fairly extensive referencing of Barthes, Borges, Kafka, Primo Levi, and Elsa Morante, but also that pretty much every writer I have time for gets at least one mention.

Pursuing a reference to Dante, I came across a lengthy letter addressed to literary critic Mario Motta. I quote a tantalising section below which precedes comments about Kafka, Dante, Conrad, Chekhov and Hemingway

[..] I notice that I’ve started classifying historical figures, writers, cultural movements into “paradisiacal” or not, As happens with these juxtapositions invented on the spot (which also have their own auxiliary usefulness, as long as one doesn’t dwell too long on them), the system always works out: the “paradisiacal” ones are all those I systematically distrust, the “non-paradisiacal” are those from whom I believe I’ve gathered some concrete teaching.

How many paradises there are, for instance, in recent literature! What can be more “paradisiacal” than Surrealism? And psychoanalysis? And Gidean irresponsibility? But even more significant, it seems to me, is the fact that the most coveted myth in modern literature is a regressive paradise: memory. And what can one say about the gelid paradise of the Hermeticists: absence?

Of course, the letters have disarmed me and demand my immediate attention.

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

Tolstoy liked Chekhov on first meeting, saying, “He is full of talent and undoubtedly has a very good heart.” That the sentiment applies equally to Elif Batuman is the concluding impression on finishing The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Describing the book as a “volume of memoiristic literary-critical essays about the experiences of a graduate student of Russian literature” Batuman has explained, “The Possessed is not the book I meant to write – it’s not how I meant to write it.” The statement would apply to most of Geoff Dyer’s books, a writer with much in common with Elif Batuman. Though these essays are purportedly about the major Russian writers, in practise these are a framework for her to digress enthusiastically about multifarious subjects including theory, the difficulties of translation and watermelon selection.

Though the quality is uneven, all seven essays display Batuman’s wit and erudition, and I could happily have read another seven. My favourite is the three-part Summer in Samarkand, a beautifully evocative piece of writing, revealing of both place and the characters Batuman met. Her carefully selected words to describe a language teacher: “Muzaffar, a philosophy graduate student, had pale skin, pale almond eyes, high cheekbones, and a floppy, sad, puppetlike comportment”, contrasts with the more rococo portrayal of the Vice-Rector Safarov, “a personage whose refrigerator-like build, rubbery face, and heavy eyelids brought to mind some anthropomorphic piece of furniture in a Disney movie.”

Batuman’s The Possessed sits at ease beside the essays of Geoff Dyer or Dubravka Ugrešić and I await with interest whatever she writes next.

Rewriting a Reader’s Mind

Here’s a book I’d buy and probably not read: Keith Oatley’s Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oatley studies what goes on in our brains when we read (or write) literature. It sounds fascinating, so if you do read it please post extensively of the experience. I came across it in an essay by Nicholas Carr in Stop What You’re Doing And Read This!, which I bought to read  Zadie Smith’s and Jeanette Winterson’s essays. Carr reports on one study that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative’, and relates the following experiment.

A recent experiment conducted by Oatley and three colleagues suggests that the emotions stirred by literature can even alter, in subtle  but real ways, people’s personalities. The researchers recruited 166 university students and gave then a standard personality test that measures traits as extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. One group of participants read the Chekhov short story ‘The Lady with the Toy Dog,’ while a control group read a synopsis of the story’s events, stripped of its literary qualities. Both groups then took the personality test again. The results revealed that the people ‘who read the short story experienced significantly greater change in personality than the control group’. and the effect appeared to be tied to the strong emotional response that the story provoked. What was particularly interesting, Oatley says, is that the readers ‘all changed in somewhat different ways. A book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites each reader’s mind in a uniques way, too.

Nicholas Carr – The Dreams of Readers

Invoking the Sanity Clause

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

The first film that the Marx Brothers made for MGM, A Night at the Opera is on my list of top-5 films. The scene above never fails to brighten my mood.

I am invoking the Sanity Clause on my participation in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. Thirteen books down, I am beyond Passionate. With the last novella, I reached my delight ceiling and this challenge began to feel less like fun and more like hard slog. For the rest of the month I’ll be cheerleading Frances in her continued attempt to read all 42 novellas in the series.

The thirteen books I read for the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge were:

  1. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
  2. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  3. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  4. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. My Life by Chekhov
  7. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
  8. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
  9. The Devil by Tolstoy
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy
  12. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo
  13. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Two of the thirteen I disliked, and two I thought first-rate. The others brought pleasure. There are some brilliant stories in the remaining twenty-nine novellas, which I look forward to reading at a more leisurely pace. For now, having digested thirteen new stories and many more memorable characters, I have binged on fiction. It is time for a little poetry, some diaries perhaps and non-fiction.

Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson fascinates me. A writer that single-handedly, over nine years, writes a dictionary is worthy of reverence. (I covet a first-edition of Johnson’s Dictionary). The dictionary contained 42,000 words, rich with literary quotations, and, unusually for a lexicographer, filled with opinionated humour. The best known of Johnson’s witty definitions is probably:

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.

First edition of Johnson’s Dictionary in contemporary calf: a beautiful copy ($29,500)

In Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson poses the same question as Chekhov in My Life, the Aristotelian ‘How to live?’ but  Rasselas is an undiluted philosophical allegory. Though presented as fiction it reads as Johnson’s personal discourse on the impossibility of finding earthly happiness, similar in purpose, but not message, to Voltaire’s Candide.

A bored prince and his sister escape the claustrophobic confines of Happy Valley because they wish a ‘choice of life’ (the book’s original title). Various sages and pundits offer different critiques on the pursuit of happiness. The fable ends without resolution.

In a different context I would have completed this book, turned back to page one to start again, pen in hand. Once the art of the novella challenge is complete, I will return to read this book more attentively. A single reading is an injustice to the exquisite writing, and to the remarkably modern ideas. It is an extraordinary little book.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

My Life by Chekhov

How to live? Is enlightenment  found in hard labour and austerity, or through acquiring knowledge? What is it to live a meaningful existence? These perpetual concerns are Chekhov’s theme in My Life.

Rejecting a professional career, Misail Poloznev, a young nobleman, turns to a life of manual labour and poverty. Censured by his father and derided by small-minded townsfolk, only ‘plump, fair beauty,’ Masha Dolzhikov encourages Misail’s alternative lifestyle. Masha and Misail fall in love, marry, and move to her family’s derelict country home. Though Misail finds a degree of contentment, Masha grows to despise the unruly peasantry and abandons the life that was for her a temporary adventure. Embittered, Misail remains committed to his austere life as a manual labourer.

Chekhov’s response to the questions that underpin this story seem to be that disillusion is at the end of either path. What matters is the choice. Is it possible that Chekhov had access to Kierkegaard?

One must work for a living in order to live – that’s just the way life is – it’s the shabby side of existence. We sleep seven hours out of twenty-four; its wasted time, but it has to be that way. We work five hours our of the twenty-four; it is wasted time, but it has to be that way. By working five hours, a person has his livelihood, and when he has that he begins to live. Now, a person’s work should preferably be as boring and meaningless as possible, just so he has his livelihood from it.

Longer than many of his stories, in My Life Chekhov also demonstrates his tendency to write strong women characters. Both Masha and Misail’s sister, Kleopatra, are every bit as developed as the main protagonist.

This story was new to me, though I have read very many of Chekhov’s shorter stories, and immediately establishes itself as one of my favourites.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]