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"Shakespeare's Memory" is a lot more moving when you take it as being about Borges. That is, that he still had at 80 the memories of whoever it was that could write like he did c. 40, but was not that writer.

I don't mean to sell the story short. Borges at 80 is an excellent writer. But at 40! His self-deprecation about this period in interviews is fascinating - a few confusing stories derived fom Kafka - as is how easily it's flipped once an incredulous interlocutor says but what about this, what of that. Then he says yeah, that was pretty good, wasn't it? Not quite the tone of Faulkner looking back on As I Lay Dying, but not quite not.

"The Congress" affects me for similar reasons - he'd clearly worked out much of what was essential to the story back when he was amazing. But wrote it so long after, an attempted comeback after all those knife fighter tales. And it is one in its fashion. Helped, if anything, by how the disconnect between subject matter and handling reflects that subject matter, which is about the partial giving up of a dream, or rather the desperate need to retain it in a world that had moved on from believing in such things. How the belief makes it true - not because belief can do that to just anything, but because some parts of the truth require being somehow already believed in to become true (e.g. democracy, we're all sure finding out). One last Garden era story, but only if you let it be, need it to be. He did.

And one he probably couldn't have written at 40. His style was too cruel, paradoxically. It wrung out the human, hence was perfect only for the story of humanity's having been wrung out. For "The Garden of Forking Paths," where he doesn't even let us know that Stephen Albert is Goethe, and Goethe, to him, the anti-Nazi. The one believer in people for what they are in themselves. In "Congress" we're allowed to know such things.

Not that he's wrong about the Kafka part. "The Gospel of Mark" is his "Penal Colony," "Funes" his "Hunger Artist" or "Hunter Gracchus," the minotaur piece surely self-consciously his "Burrow." The desecration of the temple becoming part of the ceremony is pretty much his "Lottery," no?

Calvino and Borges got some kind of special pass for continuing Kafka. Maybe Abe did too. His premises, anyway - Beckett and others took over his essence, his white noise self. I kind of prefer the premises. Funny how his ideas can persist in both. I guess because Kafka read his own stories: read too many Kafka stories and you become Beckett. It's like the Italian and Argentine had heard and repeated without listening. Or perhaps it's merely their firm secularity? Maybe Kafka himself couldn't listen to what he was saying for being too close to the roar of religion.

I also think, and say this as a true lover of Kafka, that Borges and Calvino manage to keep Kafka's stories from spilling in a way Kafka almost never could. In very different ways - Borges by turning them into batteries, energies conserved through infinite repetitions. Because they describe endlessly repeated mistakes, sure, but that's like solar power for a narrative. Calvino comes more out of late Kafka, and stops the loss of energy the way late Kafka did, by making the channels of uncertainty out which it ebbs part of the story. Rephrasing uncertainties as possibilities, variations. Repurposing fragments as flowcharts.

I do love Borges best of all, of these. Calvino's perfections are his Baron's, mostly - he is perfectly amazing at finding ways to go on when who could? in that line. Which is heartening, and sustains many a Borgesian whorl in its everlasting unspooling. All love and honor to Calvino, really, really. But Borges, peak Borges! Those dozen-ish stories, maybe eighty pages tops. Not at all heartless when understood, and never unsympathizing - just seeming so because of what's being analyzed, and how broadly: those ten to twelve ways we can't take it, since who could? but thus ruin what could have been. Which "could've" never quite gets described until The Congress. No, it is in "Garden." I feel about "Garden" how I feel about Shelley, I think. And little else - the astronomer's dying gestures, Turgenev's letter to Tolstoy, Crane's ball of gold. Maybe something in Chekhov, some essence instead of event.

I miss reading in the craziest way. Like all the vitamin deficiencies at once.
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Forgot one:

71. Into the War

Interesting but minor Calvino, three autobiographical stories. Only book I finished in the last eight weeks, as they've been hectic.
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44. The Name of the World
45. Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Someone I otherwise don't respect gave me the good advice to spend some time writing about everything I read, given my intended profession. I've tried to practice that this last year or so, but it's gotten rusty along with the reading lately. Six Memos is five lectures Calvino was about to go give at Harvard when he died, each about a value he wanted future writers to keep alive in their work: quickness, multiplicity, lightness, exactitude, some other one. Consistency didn't even get written - insert joke about death here. The book is largely a stitch job from literary essays found in English in the overlapping collections The Uses of Literature and Why Read the Classics, which makes it a good sampler of Calvino-as-critic. It's probably a wonderful book about literature, but Calvino's narrative voice has analysis blended into it so perfectly in his stories and memoirs that you miss that fullness here, where the artist knob's turned down and the critic one up. He can talk about anything inside stories and you love it, but talking about stories from without diminishes him to a curious degree. I wonder what it is that Borges has on him, here - self-dramatization as a critic? Whatever it is it's thoroughgoing, presumably innate. From day one Borges had the just right tone, while Calvino can be perfectly reasonable, original, exact and right on matters of great importance and still not excite as much as some snobbish, zany, misguided attack on fin du siecle suburban Buenos Aires bordello music Borges dashed off at age 25 for some drunk friend's ten-copy journal. You see the difference in the few pages of personal reminiscence Calvino allows in, on how American cartoons were republished in Italy without word balloons during his early childhood, forcing him to imagine the connections, encouraging him to inhabit them, mix them up with one another, think in and between images. You have to hear him tell it.

I'm overcritical but always in a good cause: something better is near and we must run to it at once. In this case, the other Calvino.
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32. If on a winter's night a traveler

Read this last year to teach it, then reread the ten first chapters (not first ten chapters) to grade the students' assignments. So this time I just read the other parts, the main narrative - whether that's the bones or flesh of the book I can't say.

Calvino as much as admits in it that the book's the product of writer's block, probably of the close analysis of that block while suffering from it. It's one of the world's most wonderful books, though still only takes second or third place among his. As he also states in the book, Calvino made a career out of radical departures from himself, and this is one of them, but aspects of the framing narrative are anticipated in his early story "Adventure of a Reader," the Theodora parts of The Nonexistent Knight, and the end of Baron in the Trees. The aborted novels themselves sometimes have a faint whiff of the cosmicomical, but they're essentially a whole new genre of writing - despite being to various extents recognizably parodic of certain authors or novel types, and despite their debt to the outlines of Quain.

The book comes across as less crazy without the nov'lets, though it's still pretty insane. The main narrative has plenty of its own distractive attractions - which here are new, not quite finished explanations of what our vulnerability to distracting attractions means. Reading is both gnosis and deliberate ignorance: we strip ourselves down to our simplest to best take on everything. What we know is that by some provided means, perhaps this book of this author, everything's out there to be taken on. He stops on something of a shark analogy - we keep moving or we die, we don't ever both stop and live - but I wonder if he believed it. At the very least what you find on your travels (in this case another reader) helps you travel better, makes where you are a good place to keep returning to.

Hence the what do you call it, recursion, of the original hardback cover and hinted at in the Silas Flannery chapter, where the Snoopy-tormented novelist proposes to write the very book you're reading (which of course is largely about your inability to read it).

If we knew what we were doing we'd be done.

When I was a kid my father had this routine, vaguely along the lines of the 'remind me of a babe' one from The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer that they recycled in Labyrinth - and apparently a lot of other fathers have a similar one:

(http://recycledknowledge.blogspot.com/2006/05/zanzibar.html)

But I don't know anything about its origin. He'd say something like,

It was a dark and stormy night outside the gates of Paris.
I met a man [I'm missing something here].
I killed a man, said I.
What was his name, said he.
Zanzibar, said I.
Zanzibar, said he, He was my brother. We must fight this out!

I think there was something violent after that - what sounds closest among those other versions is 'A shot rang out' but I don't think that was quite it. And then it loops. Good way to put a kid to sleep.
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In Kafka you fail because of some awryness of your substance.

In Borges because your need to be God leads you to ignore the facts.

In Calvino because the world is remarkably complicated.

In Calvino you would succeed if the world were different. Lament.

In Borges if you tried to be a smaller god. Moderate.

In Kafka if you were different. Change.

Borges is an optimist in that we can easily attain a smaller paradise.

Calvino in that we are not to blame.

Kafka in that we're already in the paradise, true paradise, of someone else.
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Continuous Cities 4 ["Cecilia"], Calvino

You reproach me because each of my stories takes you right into the heart of a city without telling you of the space that stretches between one city and the other, whether it is covered by seas, or fields of rye, larch forest, swamps. I will answer you with a story.

In the streets of Cecilia, an illustrious city, I met once a goatherd, driving a tinkling flock along the walls.

'Man blessed by heaven,' he asked me, stopping, 'can you tell me the name of the city in which we are?'

'May the gods accompany you!' I cried. 'How can you fail to recognize the illustrious city of Cecilia?'

'Bear with me,' that man answered. 'I am a wandering herdsman. Sometimes my goats and I have to pass through cities; but we are unable to distinguish them. Ask me the names of the grazing lands: I know them all, the Meadow between the Cliffs, the Green Slope, the Shadowed Grass. Cities have no name for me: they are places without leaves, separating one pasture from another, and where the goats are frightened at street corners and scatter. The dog and I run to keep the flock together.'

'I am the opposite of you,' I said. 'I recognize only cities and cannot distinguish what is outside them. In uninhabited places each stone and each clump of grass mingles, in my eyes, with every other stone and clump.'

Many years have gone by since then; I have known many more cities and I have crossed continents. One day I was walking among rows of identical houses; I was lost. I asked a passerby: 'May the immortals protect you, can you tell me where we are?'

'In Cecilia, worse luck!' he answered. 'We have been wandering through its streets, my goats and I, for an age, and we cannot find our way out....'

I recognized him, despite his long white beard; it was the same herdsman of long before. He was followed by a few, mangy goats, which did not even stink, they were so reduced to skin-and-bones. They cropped wastepaper in the rubbish bins.

'That cannot be!' I shouted. 'I, too, entered a city, I cannot remember when, and since then I have gone on, deeper and deeper into its streets. But how have I managed to arrive where you say, when I was in another city, far far away from Cecilia, and I have not yet left it?'

'The places have mingled,' the goatherd said. 'Cecilia is everywhere. Here, once upon a time, there must have been the Meadow of the Low Sage. My goats recognize the grass on the traffic island.'
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School over = I actually read things. Still can't get over that paradox.

Read Keats' Odes and Eve of St. Agnes and some other poems, then Clare, then Calvino's Origin of the Birds, which is becoming my favorite story. Calvino wins against both, at least for me and today. I would not have expected that. He also wins with both--he's set down in my books as Romantic. (I'd also neglected Dry River, in Numbers in the Dark, when I made that list a while back--that's a subtle but great nature-gnostic story.)

But wow, Clare and the latter half of Eve of St Agnes... I had an annoying evangelical (from Bob Jones!) instructor when I was finishing my Bachelor's here who taught the poem for the sole purpose of arguing that Keats condoned date rape. Maybe he was annoyed at Keats' palpable disgust with vulgar superstition, his argument via the Beadman and Angela that the Christian consolation's for the old. For the young there's happy art, hot love, fresh fruit, escape. Or could or should be. Quite a poem. How many times have I read it, read the Odes? I like that I forget enough each time.

I liked the music being like a God in pain.
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My list of visible tags:

* bergman - 4 uses
* bishop - 1 use
* bloom - 7 uses
* borges - 34 uses
* calvino - 22 uses
* carson - 5 uses
* crowley - 20 uses
* frost - 1 use
* hazlitt - 3 uses
* life - 0 uses
* lost - 22 uses
* mccarthy - 20 uses
* melville - 3 uses
* movies - 21 uses
* personal - 1 use
* poem - 34 uses
* politics - 2 uses
* pynchon - 1 use
* quest - 13 uses
* rereading - 5 uses
* shakespeare - 1 use
* shelley - 34 uses
* south carolina - 2 uses
* spenser - 3 uses
* stevens - 5 uses
* tolstoy - 1 use
* wilbur - 1 use

Sorry to learn that about life.

Shelley, Borges and Poem are my people.

I'm tagging this Calvino so he beats Lost. Lost is someone else's people.
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Italo Calvino never wrote a bad book. Yet an author of such diffusion, without a single, encompassing magnum opus to embrace (some readers will argue for "Invisible Cities," but that ineffably lovely book shows too narrow a range of Calvino's effects, too little of his omnivorous exuberance) needs a beginner's entry point, as well, perhaps, as a compendium to point toward posterity. Does it seem sacrilegious to propose a fat volume called "The Best of Calvino"? Call it "Tales," then, or "Sixty Stories." Does it seem to do violence to choose from linked pieces, or from books long since enshrined in reader's hearts in their present, inviolate state? It isn't as though the individual volumes need to go out of print to make room for the career-spanning omnibus I have in mind. Perhaps you consider it impossible to choose from within a structure as organically perfect as "Invisible Cities"? Fine, then include the entirety of that short book, just as "The Thurber Carnival" found space for the whole of "My Life and Hard Times."

Lethem a few years ago on the need for a Calvino selection.

I agree with his suggestion--Cities is as indispensable to Calvino as My Life is to Thurber. I can think of a lot of definite inclusions right away:

(Difficult Loves)
The Argentine Ant
Adam, One Afternoon
The Enchanted Garden
Theft in a Pastry Shop
Lazy Sons
Big Fish, Little Fish
One of the Three Is Still Alive

Adventure of a Traveler
Adventure of a Bather
Adventure of the Married Couple (UK edition only)
Adventure of a Near-Sighted Man
Adventure of a Reader

(Complete Cosmicomics)
The Distance of the Moon
The Dinosaurs

The Origin of the Birds
Priscilla
The Night Driver
The Count of Monte Cristo

Nothing and Not Much (also in Numbers in the Dark)

(Marcovaldo)
Park-Bench Vacation
The Wrong Stop

(Mr. Palomar)
Reading a Wave

(Numbers in the Dark)
Good for Nothing
Love Far from Home
Before You Say "Hello"

(If on a winter's night a traveler)
If on a winter's night a traveler
In a network of lines that interlace
Around a shallow grave

(Road to San Giovanni)
La Poubelle Agreee

Invisible Cities


And maybe the rest of If on a winter's night a traveler? Pretty much everything in it is top-tier.

And maybe Smog, The Nonexistent Knight and bits of Baron in the Trees.
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Not quite done! A couple stray Calvino stories were translated in recent years in magazines, one called "An Old Sheep" available on one of the university databases, another called "Waiting for Death in a Hotel" in the June 12 2006 New Yorker I'll have to hunt down somehow. It was translated by McLaughlin--perhaps another book's in the offing? Sure would be nice if someone would translate Entrance into the War, "The Adventure of a Skier" and the other stories that fell through the cracks. A Selected Letters volume is advertised on amazon.co.uk, to be released in September, but that's from Princeton Press so its release date is a goalpost on casters. I don't think I've ever made it through a Selected Letters, but maybe you aren't supposed to.

[Edit: Turns out An Old Sheep is by Felix Calvino]
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The Cloven Viscount I didn't really like in 2005 and still don't really like. Perhaps for him it was a breakthrough (though wasn't the perfect Argentine Ant written first?), but it often seems over-schematized, clipped and unpleasant. Maybe a new translation would help--Colquhoun's strike me as inconsistent (Our Ancestors, some of Adam One Afternoon/Difficult Loves).
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If on a winter's night a traveler I read in '98 also, in May or June, at the start of a novel-reading kick it probably had a lot to do with--you can't not love novels after reading it. I'd been into poetry almost exclusively for the previous year: discovering the Romantics, the Victorians, the Renaissance poets, tearing through Shakespeare. That was probably my best reading year, but the novel-heavy next two years were nearly as good (and nearly as full of poem reading, of course).

And yet as of a month ago I remembered absolutely nothing about the book that switched my gears, other than that it stars a reader who keeps losing books after reading one chapter, that at one point someone is waiting at a station making phone calls, that at another some Japanese people contemplate falling leaves on a walk, that "pubes" is used as a singular, and that a female reader becomes the main character briefly. I'm not sure how I'm going to teach this book--the plot is delightfully insane, but I suspect to my students it will be completely opaque. I remember trying to teach The Crying of Lot 49 a couple years ago; those were not happy faces. Actually, they simply didn't finish that one, except a diligent student from a Christian school. Surely this is a more benign kind of fun? I can't imagine how anyone can not like it, but I vividly imagine that they won't. I need to second guess my own likely disillusionments down here because they're so bitter in the event.

But they have to love it. If he hadn't been married and physically declining, pages 141-145 alone should have gotten him more laid than any author in history. Jonathan Franzen would weep if he read them, they're his holy grail. The unfinished stories are magnificent--the telephone one, the Boom pastiche, all...
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"You see...War...For years now I've been dealing as best I can with a thing that in itself is appalling; war...and all this for ideals which I shall never, perhaps, be able to explain fully to myself..."

"I too," replied Cosimo, "have lived many years for ideals which I would never be able to explain to myself; but I do something entirely good; I live on trees."


I read Baron in the Trees and Absalom, Absalom! to my parents while we were waiting for a kidney for my father, back in the Fall of '97 or '98, one of them. Or maybe I read Baron during his recovery. I remember the page came near the end of Absalom, granting him a dozen more years with us. I've read few books aloud, maybe only Paradise Lost at that length. My father said of Baron that the amazing thing was how far Calvino was able to go with it. It's an act of sustained acrobatics of about the same sort as Cosimo's--and probably Calvino knew that, given how he dovetails trees and writing at the end, finally giving the allegory away.

I wonder if that's part of the (occasional, comfortable) tedium of the book, that the allegory is pitched at so low a key. It's pretty great though, and the message is totally consonant with Calvino's later thoughts on literature, something like: I don't know why this is so great, why it allows me to go everywhere, see more and better, care more, live more, but it does. I do something entirely good; I write books.

But keeping the living on trees = writing/imagining/freely thinking equation (including how there is a mysterious access to Nature through writing, one of Calvino's most touching insistences) in the background is probably a good idea because the notion of living in trees is just absolutely, flooringly cool. The book's sustained on whatever love you can muster for that, despite the greatness of the last chapters. I can muster a lot--also for Frost's "Into My Own" and "Stopping by Woods" for a similar reason. Just flat out disappearing into the trees, whether on paths or in branches, is a notion, an image of escape that has my heart.

But I love the allegory too, and the connection with atheism (well, Deism here). The parallels with Explosion in a Cathedral are fascinating also. That's probably a better book, finally--it is a great, great book--and certainly sustains interest more consistently, but Baron has the better, simpler core, the perfect conceit, even if only the first and last few sections really live up to it.

My father also loved the dog Ottimo Massimo, especially its name. He and my mother met because their families lived next door, and one of their mothers got the other into dachshunds. We inherited the last one and replaced it with others: Max, Maxine, Emily.
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Road to San Giovanni is also wonderful, especially "A Cinema-Goer's Autobiography" which is by far the most interesting thing I've ever read about movies (both what they are and what they've been to people) as well as a poignant, inevitably Cinema Paradiso-esque memoir. It's about golden age Hollywood at first, as trickled through to the Italian Riviera under Fascism, but then veers into discussing comic strips and Fellini. Apropos the latter, and modern (c. '70s) cinema in general, as distinct from the unique idealizings and escape offered by '30s films:

The cinema of distance which nourished our youth is turned forever on its head in the cinema of absolute proximity. For the brief span of our lifetimes, everything remains there on the screen, distressingly present; first images of eros and premonitions of death catch up with us in every dream; the end of the world began with us and shows no signs of ending; the film we thought we were merely watching is the story of our lives.

What I like best about that, apart from "the end of the world began with us and shows no signs of ending", is how well it describes the introduction from Fanny and Alexander ("Not for Pleasure Only"), usually the winner among the three movies I tend to think of as best (or anyway my favorite), and definitely the winner right now since we just rewatched the long version. Young Alexander goes into a sort of boredom delirium while safe and alone at home, hallucinates gentle movements in the statue of a naked woman, then glimpses a hooded Death down the hall walking steadily toward him. Works for Fellini too, sure--we saw La dolce vita this week, since Julie wanted to understand Nine a bit better, and the salvageable moments were just like that. La dolce vita was nowhere near as good as I'd remembered, though. It was one of the movies that awed me on Bravo back when I was a teenager and Bravo was Bravo.

The Death was handled perfectly, though it was a real cheese risk: we see him in close up, because he draws Alexander's attention, but also because it doesn't localize him. He's not there but coming there. The head bobs up and down. Taking his time but coming, darkness behind him, a beam at one point as though he's stepping from the nothing parts of a building into the something. Just a couple seconds we see him, Alexander watching in a wary trance. It's a Seventh Seal cameo, basically, but handled differently enough to be undistracting, like with the other allusions to previous films Bergman fills the movie with, to let you know he's putting it all together, that this is the one. Bergman never does too little or too much, though perfection is only the 19th best thing about Bergman.

I think Fellini did something similar in 8 1/2, echoing earlier films into it, but can't remember how well--we're waiting for the Blu Ray to be netflickable in a few weeks. I've never found Fellini to be up there with Kurosawa and Bergman, even in his memorable flashes, or even with Truffaut or Lynch, but after looking at him through Calvino's eyes (not always uncritical) I'll give him time to remake his case.

Nine was just okay, its high points being a performance by the actress from that terrible Edith Piaf movie that is outstandingly moving (therefore wasted, in this company) and a scene stolen by THE BEST EXTRA EVER.
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The Numbers in the Dark story is "World Memory"--title story of the third Italian volume of Cosmicomics, most of the contents of which haven't made it here yet; you can get them in The Complete Cosmicomics from amazon.co.uk if you have thirty-five spare dollars or so. Paperback will surely be out in a few months.

Reading Road to San Giovanni and Hermit in Paris right now, the latter of which is pretty damn fascinating. It consists mostly of various articles he wrote surveying his early life and especially his implication into and extrication from out of Marxism, transformations he then brooded over for decades.

Best might be the 100 page travel journal he wrote during his first trip to America ('59-'60), after leaving the Party but not communism. He grumbles Marxianly at America and its cities, while simultaneously falling in love with them--you see how Invisible Cities is born as much out of the experiences he's describing as it is from San Remo, Turin, Rome, and Venice. Seriously, the names of particular Cities pop into your head when you read some of these entries.

Most jaw-dropping, charming, troubling are his straightforward descriptions of things too famous or obvious for an American to really notice head on. He spends a number of pages in Ohio (Cleveland, but close enough) pretty much explaining my home and childhood to me--he makes some mistakes, or anyway eyebrow-raising judgments, too, but those are almost as fun. It's not even a work geared toward publication, exactly, which may add to its charm--it's a series of semi-public letters sent back to his coworkers at Einaudi in Turin, but which he clearly intended to use as a basis for a book on America.

He wrote that book but changed his mind and destroyed it before it could be printed, probably because America had unsettled his ideas. Not that he converted to Capitalism or anything, but I think this was around the time his sense of what an individual might accomplish through partisan activity started to take that final hit, the real hit that unravels any Marxism in the end: this all may happen, but essentially it happens without me, or, to the extent I'm even involved, on top of me. The lack of a true understanding of what's happening and how to change it are necessarily identical--i.e. if you're so smart why ain't everybody rich? The more you see it not happening, as you age, or the more you travel where something different, stranger than what was prophesied is going on, as Calvino did...the faith in process weakens, but much more acutely the absolute inability to match one's own step with the great march rumored to be somewhere in the mist becomes glaring. The small and large become irreconcilable, or at least the relations between them require the constant attention, hesitant revision and layered hypothesizing that especially characterize his later work. Maybe America's size, or the size of the snake uncoiling from its nest here, was what finally broke the floor for him.
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Highly spoliative thoughts on The Invention of Morel:

1. It's interesting when authors of this kind of book leave things in that are not explained (i.e. figured out by the main character): when the narrator first sees Morel, his beard looks false. If it is, it implies he's already dying from having used his invention on himself earlier. This partly explains what he does, since he's dying himself--and, of course, makes him even more the narrator's double.

2. Some of the editorial comments, and various stray sentences through out, sound just like Borges.

3. This plot is basically repeated (coincidentally or unconsciously) in one of Calvino's later Cosmicomics stories, I think found in Numbers in the Dark. I'll find the name.

4. What's the deal with the footnote saying a passage that was supposed to start the manuscript in fact doesn't? Just foreshadows that his mind is going?

5. The influence on Lost is consistent but scattered--little bits here and there all through the five seasons. The secret room with machinery, the endlessly repeated messages etc. In Lost the past is invulnerable a bit more flexibly, though--and in some cases alterable.

6. Reads astonishingly like a (very sad) parable of the anxiety of influence, does it not? And art in general, in Morel's case: the madness of immortality at second hand--the totemic magic of assuming that if your mind is still perceived it still exists; in the narrator's case the double madness of accepting that and clumsily rewriting the earlier vision as starring yourself, while being wholly contained in it. Bloom must have been fascinated.

7. What on earth are the echo chambers beneath the museum? Was that ever explained? Between this and 4 (and 2!) it makes me wonder if this story's following, which was it, Quain's ideal of a book with a secret second plot. (He's an earlier copy of Morel with planted memories! Or he's Charlie! Or by copying the copy he'll cause the copy to die and only his own copy will be left playing its ridiculous part on an empty island for eternity! I don't know! Something!)
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Put off Castle of Crossed Destinies till last because it seemed tedious and unpleasant. It is, too, to the extent these traits are possible in Calvinoland--the self-imposed obstacles hem him in rather than channeling his energies unto new force, fresh vistas. Bad Oulipo voodoo.

There's strong touches in the second part, Tavern of Crossed Destinies, when he lets himself ignore his own rules, but by that time you're bored with the project, forcing yourself through in irritation, and wouldn't recognize purest plainest genius. I'd say start with part 2 if you ever choose to read this. You'll pick up the rules as you go.

Before that I read Plunge into Real Estate in the [60.] Difficult Loves UK volume, which I'd put off because it's about real estate. Good, probably not great. If [61.] Castle's Calvino's only third-rate book, this may be his only second. Quite possibly I've just reached burnout, finally, or have gotten too tired and distracted; it does make postwar Italian Riviera construction deals a lot more interesting than you'd imagine.

Previous to that was [59.] Numbers in the Dark which is phenomenal, especially for being an uncollected stories volume. I expected the late stuff to be great, though not as great as I found it, but most of the early stories will also stay with me forever. He was already there as a teenage fable-writer (or however one should describe what he does)--his plunge into communist social realism was probably that, a fall, though this slumming brought us some great communist social realism if we're up for that, and some fascinating hybrid stories like Smog. Rather than list favorites I recommend just buying it and discovering your own. As a book it's scarcely weaker than Complete Cosmicomics, with many stories up there with Invisible Cities itself. There's a fun late story, "The Burning of the Abominable House," that feels like a deliberate parody of his '70s tarot project.

I'm not done with Calvino. I've been chipping away at a few of his non-fiction books and there's some fiction ones I haven't read in years: the three novels in the Our Ancestors volume, including The Nonexistent Knight, one of his several peaks; Under a Jaguar Sun which I remember enjoying; and of course If on a winter's night a traveler which I've locked myself into teaching. I'll love it again. Surely some of them will too.
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Castle of Crossed Destinies, p. 13:

He comes to his senses, opens his eyes, and what does he see? (This was the narrator's miming--a bit over-done to tell the truth--inviting us to wait for the next card as if for a revelation.) The Popess, mysterious, nun-like crowned figure. Had he been given succor by a female monarch? His eyes, staring at the card, were full of horror. A witch? He raised his imploring hands in a gesture of devout terror. The High Priestess of a secret and sanguinary cult?

p. 46:

The innkeeper-lord, our host, is not long in telling his tale. We can assume that he is the Page of Cups and that an unusual guest (
The Devil) has turned up at his inn-castle. With certain customers it is a good practice never to offer free drink, but when he was to pay, the guest said: "Host, in your tavern, everything is contaminated, wines and destinies."

"Your Honor is not content with my wine?"

"Quite content! The only one who can appreciate all that is mingled, two-faced, is myself. So I wish to give you much more than
Two Coins!"

Yes, I could be going mad. But these could also have been sources. We call only one person your honor in America. And there is no picture of the devil in the deck Calvino draws on. He leaves it blank.
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My wife was genuinely, beamingly happy when she woke up, and for the first time in I can't remember how long, and my response to this was to fall asleep for three hours, many knots having undone themselves. When I woke up she promptly fell asleep for probably similar reasons. So I read more Calvino.

I've been reading Calvino almost exclusively and have nearly run out of him, at least fiction-wise, though detouring briefly back into Borges last week:

52. The Humbling
53. The Path to the Spiders' Nests

Good, not great novel. Very first-novel. Earns your affection though.

54. Marcovaldo

Wonderful book; Calvino thought of it as for kids.

55. Borges' Selected Poems (1923-1967)
56. 24 Conversations with Borges
57. Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges

The latter, with Richard Burgin, I'd read before, but now realize Bloom got his "living labyrinth" phrase from there (first conversation). Though of course Borges may have also used it elsewhere that I also forgot about.

58. Difficult Loves (US)

Probably mentioned earlier that there's some publishing insanity going on with Calvino's stories of the '40s and '50s--the British editions have several the American ones don't and vice versa, and they're all hashed up among several volumes with content order only vaguely alluding to those of the original Italian ones. There's also about ten stories that were simply never translated--maybe Calvino's whim? but none of this looks very planned. Two of the volumes share the same title, too: Difficult Loves (UK) has only a little bit of content overlap with DL (US), while including a few stories it lacks, like the great "Adventures of the Married Couple" which I love, and the novella A Plunge into Real Estate which I'll get to shortly.

These stories are great, and a lot of them you need to read. The '40s ones are sometimes so good as much from the exciting period they're dealing with as what their young author does with them, but by the '50s Calvino is already firmly world class. Particularly amazing are the "Adventures of..." series of stories, which are tied together by method to some extent, but disparate subject matter of which may have prevented their getting the attention they deserve.

I loved most of all the Adventures of a Traveler, of a Reader, of a Near-Sighted Man. Bather I've long admired, and Clerk is wonderful too (as is its variant Wife in the UK volume). Photographer I'll have to reread, and Soldier since I was falling asleep at the time. Poet was just okay, but I may have been missing something there too. The UK volume retitles Transit Bed from the US one as Adventure of a Crook, despite it not really fitting the pattern. That story is amusing but little more.

Of the '40s stories Julie loved best Theft in a Pastry Shop, Big Fish Little Fish and Lazy Sons, and I agree, especially about the latter. I'd add Adam One Afternoon and the Enchanted Garden, lovely communist fables prefiguring Argentine Ant to some degree. One of the Three is Still Alive is the best of his war stories, worthy of Tolstoy but deeply Calvinian.

As for the others, Animal Woods, The Crow Comes Last, Dollars & the Demimondaine and Desire in November are all very fun. Crow in particular has some pretty amazing narrative momentum. Sleeping Like Dogs is another great insomnia story.

Fear on the Footpath, Hunger at Bevera, & Going to Headquarters are all good and exciting partisan stories, up with the better moments of Path to the Nest of Spiders. Mine Field is good too. A Goatherd at Luncheon was after some political subtlety that eluded me (self-castigation? Leaving Again Shortly, in one of the equivalent UK volumes, seems to be that, to which Lazy Sons is a sublime self-defensive rejoinder). A Ship Loaded with Crabs seemed to be just out for pointless fun. The House of the Beehives I didn't get either, but it was interesting and anticipated one of his late-phase narrative modes.
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Actually all of Calvino is great. I'm liking his early, communist phase quite a bit; his fabulist strain already existed then, but it was in Hawthorne's mode up until he read Borges in the mid-'50s. In Hawthorne you spend some effort convincing yourself a particular story's ethical slant can be compatible with your own views--I'm convinced all artists are leftists to the extent they're artists--and it's refreshing to get some of his sort of vision on cheaper terms. It's my kind of communism: Calvino dodged the poisonous, prophetic aspect of Marxism mostly by associating it with nature (and, not unrelatedly, staying pretty vague about it). Doesn't usually amount in the stories to much more than: our music will reclaim its harmony...someday...I hope...and small reclaimings may merge into larger. Took him a while to squarely recognize the rather different flowchart many of his associates were working from.

I wonder if that had something to do with the Borges? Borges was fascinated, among other things, with how people disagree. Calvino claimed he dodged psychology, but you could say he was attempting a separate atomism of it. For Borges, we choose our principles based on simple needs, and when the intellect doesn't overrule them (out of our need or mental weakness) they can lead us far and angrily away from one another. Our arguments become our psychology, and this is why all his criminals seem completely rational. Not great as abnormal psych, but works fine for the widely-errant normal, including the political. Borges loved the beauty of the disagreement itself, which Calvino came to love even more: not the conflict, but the departures at the root that make later conflict inevitable. Not that he didn't have his own opinions, and note them and have them carry the day, but he makes the attempt to understand the other point of view as a direction he too could have gone, to admire its specific logical emanation from foundational illogic. A kind of vacation, a re-seeing of the whole world after paying a token fee of fundamental inaccuracy.

Late Calvino is obsessed with how, in dealing with what we can't know (rather than should know better about), we're full of incipient gestures like those of Borges' heresiarchs from reality. Not that that means there's no moral concern: he's about showing the self-correction involved in how we take changes in our world. The ethical angle tends to be what one of his characters is working through at the story's present time--or, closer to late Kafka, how a character corrects her own explanation to someone else of what she's been through. Decision-making as digression, as (usually) benign self-disagreement, arguments among newborn interpretations. Calvino, too, has his ideas about the world: the 'truth' of one his stories establishes itself, and that's part of the point. He was never interested in tractionless interpretation; the only reason to get how we get the world right is to get the world right. Well, that and the joy of recognizing how we work, that generalized human narcissism.

And a touch of that vacation of fantasy. Amazing how few fantasists are purists about that, though--I guess writers have to become moralists, psychologists, political analysts in the long run, however reluctantly, because human decision-making is the only subject matter that doesn't run out. And many do seem reluctant. Deferral of opinion is an interesting phenomenon in literature.

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