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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.

Brian Dillon’s “I Am Sitting in a Room”

Brian Dillon’s I Am Sitting in a Room is the first in Cabinet’s 24-Hour  Book series.

Dillon’s book explores the scenography and architecture of writing itself. Inspired in part by Georges Perec’s short fragment in Species of Spaces on Antonello da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his study, Dillon’s text is both a personal reflection on the theatrics of the study, the library, and the office, and a historical consideration of such writerly paraphernalia as Proust’s bed, Nabokov’s index cards, and Philip Roth’s moustache.

Cabinet is now my only magazine subscription. Apart from Cabinet my media consumption is entirely online, in one form or another. You never know what you will be reading about when Cabinet shows up. (With a subscription you also get access to the archives.) I’m not on commission here, just pushing you toward the good stuff. I used to have a dozen subscriptions to publications, not only literary journals, but found that they were sitting unread while I caught up with Twitter and my RSS feed. I get more reliable literary criticism from Stephen Mitchelmore, David Winters and Michelle Bailat Jones than I got once from more mainstream publications.

Striking red cover and bold title apart, the production quality of I Am Sitting in a Room is crap. I’m not easy on my books; I scribble on them and bend their spines. In this case, the pages started to fall out before I got ten pages in.

That aside, the book is short, seventy-odd pages, and comprises Brian Dillon, who I’ve intended to read for ages, writing about writer’s routines and the places where writers go to write. Autobiographical in part, also a study of writers including  Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes and Joan Didion, accompanied with photographs of writer’s studies. That’s my summary, though you may prefer Cabinet’s version above.

Dillon’s keeps a blog, mostly used to cross-post pieces that have appeared in other places, and is on Twitter. I also came across this absorbing piece, drawing from Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, that Dillon wrote for Frieze, as much about the state of criticism as about taste. I’m very interested at the moment in Bourdieu for his ideas on taste, the nature of patriarchy and, intrigued by a conversation with Rim, his views on the origin and death and decadence of philosophy. Here’s a taster of Dillon’s article:

Could there be a critical trope less tolerated, now, than the unadorned litany of tastes and distastes? The dumb list smacks too easily of the ins and outs of style-mag trend-scouring, or recalls too readily the fine distinctions conjured by Nancy Mitford’s essay ‘The English Aristocracy’ (1954), with its anatomizing of social discourse into ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. The list may be a reminder of a certain critical responsibility: the duty to judge that I feel I ought to live up to, and can never quite fulfil. But it is at the same time so banal, so unsophisticated a form (an obtuse sort of syntax: one damn thing after another) that I resist it with every sinew of what I suppose I must call, begging the question, my sensibility.

Barthes: Two Sorts of Pleasure

Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values memories,brings to a crisis his relation with language.

The Pleasure of the Text

The Principal Actor is the People

Photography of Jules Michelet by Félix Nadar F...

Photography of Jules Michelet by Félix Nadar Français : Photographie de Jules Michelet par Félix Nadar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another thing which this History will clearly establish and which holds true in every connection, is that the people were usually more important than the leaders. The deeper I have excavated, the more surely I have satisfied myself that the best was underneath, in the obscure depths. And I have realised that it is quite wrong to take these brilliant and powerful talkers, who expressed the thought of the masses, for the sole actors of the drama. They were given the impulse by others much more than they gave it themselves. The principal actor is the people. To find the people again and put it back in its proper role, I have been obliged to reduce to their proportions the ambitious marionettes whose strings it manipulated and in whom hitherto we have looked for and thought to see the secret play of history.

Revered by Barthes, Michelet is subject of the first section of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. Everything I read, including the paragraph above suggests his work is truly exciting.

Barthes on Barthes

You sense in Barthes by Barthes the vertiginous pleasure that Roland Barthes found in reading himself like a text. Composed of fragments that dissect belief and the nature of writing, his illusionary autobiography is joyful [playful], often brilliant. Michael Wood quotes Barthes’ description of himself as ‘un sujet uncertain’. (Richard Howard’s translation, ‘a fellow of doubtful nature, whose every attribute is somehow challenged by its opposite’.) A thinker, a writer before his time, Barthes would have taken naturally to the form of the blog.

From the fragment to the journal

With the alibi of a pulverised discourse, a dissertation destroyed, one arrives at the regular practise of the fragment; then from the fragment one slips to the “journal.” At which point, is not the point of all this to entitle oneself to write a “journal”? Am I not justified in considering everything I have written as a clandestine and stubborn effort to bring light again, someday, quite freely, the theme of the Gidean “journal”? At the terminal horizon, perhaps quite simply the initial text (his very first text was concerned with Gide’s journal).

Leaden Hours

And, especially-because for me it’s the bad time of day, the one I don’t like, when I don’t know what to do with myself, when I feel lazy without feeling relaxed, idle and unsociable; a flat hour {heure plat} (“washed out” {“à plat“}), undynamic: half-past three in the afternoon ( the time of my mother’s death;-as if I’d always known it would happen then-the time of Christ’s death). Michelet (always him): Nuns in the Convent (The Sorceress): “What killed them was not the mortifications they were called upon to endure, so much as sheer ennui and despair. After the first burst of enthusiasm, that dreaded disease of the cloister (describe early as the fifteenth century by Cassien), leaden ennui, the gloomy ennui of afternoons, the tender melancholy ennui which loses itself in vague languors and dreamy reverie, quickly undermined their health.” Michelet knew about a great many things; he knew about things that mattered, he knew that knowing about the leaden hours of the convent matters as much as knowing a out the wool wars of Florence, etc.