One look at the cover of Flannery O’Connor’s debut novel makes clear what is central to the story. The red heart, wrapped in barbed wire, conjures the image of the sacred heart of Jesus, but I doubt most Catholic readers will be able to persevere through this heady and often gruesome novel–but they certainly should!
If you have known me for more than a minute, you’ll know two things about me: I am a writer (of mysteries mainly) and I am a Catholic. When I was first considering converting, a poet friend of mine gave me a book of letters between Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, two southern writers whose friendship waxed and waned over the decades. At one point, Foote expresses his trepidation over Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, believing that religious orthodoxy would restrict his freedom of expression and thus hinder his writing.
Anyone who fears the limiting effects religion will have on their fiction should immediately read Wise Blood and have their fears dispelled. While the novel overflows with Christian symbolism–the tree (the cross) that Sabbath dances in while Haze Motes wrestles with the theological underpinnings of his new “Church Without Christ,” the illuminated cloud that seems to wear a curling white beard (the father) and then transforms into a bird (the holy spirit) before moving away from Haze, the swine that populate the narrarive in various carnations–the story itself is neither sentimental nor heavy handed. In the true high-modern fashion, these symbols are used holistically, as a braided thread that ties the narrative together, and while religious and quasi religious figures run rampant–in the guise of preachers and prophets and messiahs–none of them are admirable or worth emulating.
When orthodoxy does arise in the novel, it is shrouded in mystery, the unseen and the unspoken, a thing that can be contemplated but not known; and though the protagonist is “a Christian malgré lui” (in spite of himself) as O’Connor states in her author’s note, he is neither stereotypical nor laudable. After we discover that Haze Motes has turned to acts of mortification, placing rocks and broken glass in his shoes, barbed wire around his chest, it becomes clear that he does not understand what he is doing or why. In fact, his very name suggests that his vision of the world is hazy as though he has the proverbial mote in his eyes.
While a foundational reading of the Gospels and Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy will add depth to the understanding of this sledgehammer of a book, Wise Blood stands on its own thanks to the tension, which is as taut as a worship singer’s guitar strings, and the characters, who are both incredibly unlikable and incredibly compelling. Though our sympathy is not engaged, we are–until the very last image and beyond.
For this first essay, Calvino draws inspiration from the story of Perseus and Medusa and the play of heaviness and lightness the story contains. The sight of Medusa induces petrifaction, yet the droplets of blood the drip from her severed head produce the Pegasus, an ultimate symbol of lightness. He then juxtaposes two Roman writers, Lucretius and Ovid, the prior of whom explores the atomic nature of reality, the seemingly solid world “composed of unalterable atoms” (11) while the latter concerns himself with external forms that change at a whim—from woman to lotus tree, from Arachne to spider—because of the mythological common substance inside all things. One author finds lightness through scientific inquiry, the other through the fables of myth. He also juxtaposes two Italian poets, Guido Cavalcanti whose vagueness he prefers over Dante Alighieri’s concreteness, comparing a phrase written by Cavalcanti and then altered by Dante: “e bianca neve scender senza venti” (and white snow falling on a windless day) which becomes in Dante’s Inferno “come di neve in alpe sanza vento” (like snow on mountains on a windless day) (17). The distinction of mountain versus air is minute but important to Calvino. The final image, one Shakespeare returns to again and again, is the moon, that object of light that is ever changing and conceals as much as it reveals. Calvino believes literature shouldn’t accurately represent the weight of the world but should instead serve as a magic carpet, as Kafka’s flying bucket or, to return to the original image, as the Pegasus, taking us up and away into the realm of the imagination.
This essay begins with a discussion of an old French legend: Charlemagne falling in love with a German girl and becoming heartbroken after her death. Calvino discusses several versions, but concludes that the most straightforward is the best. It takes us from A to B in the most interesting way, implying what is uninteresting and implying through juxtaposition of scenes additional causation and meaning. This is not to say all writers should just skip to the end. “The story is a horse,” he writes, “a means of transport, with a particular gait—trot or gallop—depending on the route to be traveled” (47). He concludes this talk with another story, this time of Chinese origin. In it, a gifted artist, Zhuang Zhou, is asked by the king to draw a crab. He requests five years for the task, then another five years. He requires space and servants. The king obliges and obliges. At the end of the tenth year, “Zhuang Zhou took his brush and in an instant, with a single flourish, drew a crab, the most perfect crab anyone had ever seen” (65). I sometimes become a slave to the act of writing, to producing pages, when I should be conceptualizing what exactly it should look like.
“Literature—by which I mean literature that responds to these demands—is the Promised Land in which language becomes what it truly ought to be.” (68)
More than any of the others, this talk deals with the nature of artistic inspiration, the realm of both the muses and the Holy Spirit, of psychology and ideology, of Apollo and Dionysus. In the way Calvino covers both Christianity and Greek Mythology, Dante and Felix the Cat, in “Visibility” does he most remind me of Nietzsche. This discussion could very easily be read as a response or addendum to The Birth of Tragedy, which juxtaposes two varieties of artistic inspiration—Apollo’s orderly rationality and Dionysus’ passionate irrationality. In the end, he finds both impulses in Honore de Balzac, who mid-career “rejects the literature of the fantastic, which for him has meant art as mystical knowledge of everything, and he undertakes the minute description of the world as it is, still convinced he is expressing the secret of life” (119). The degree to which a novelist leans toward Giordano Bruno’s spiritus phantsticus (fantastic spirit), with its infinite well of imagination, or Balzac’s Comedie humaine (human comedy), with its near infinite reality of details, determines how they will attempt to capture the universe: through possibility or through probability. Either way, the individual author is creating a new novel and offering it to the body of literature, bridging “exteriority and interiority, world and self, experience and imagination.” Calvino finds his ultimate truth not in the novel as isolated construction but The Novel as shared idea, a universal body of novels. “These pages of signs,” he concludes, “as dense as grains of sand, represent the variegated spectacle of the world upon a surface that is always the same and always different, like dunes driven by the desert wind” (121).
Drawing from two engineers-turned-writers, Carlo Emilio Gadda (Italian) and Robert Musil (German), Calvino demonstrates how two writers with similar backgrounds can develop opposing philosophies and approaches to the novel. Gadda represents a “tension between rational exactitude and frenetic deformation” while Musil’s writing is “fluid, ironic, controlled” (133). Both inhabit the same space, where mathematical rationality meets the roughness of human affairs, but in completely different ways. Here we find perhaps the most literary references to contemporary and near-contemporary authors, from Flaubert and Proust to Borges and Georges Perec. In the tight constraints of Oulipo Calvino finds his answer to the future of literature, quoting Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau, “Le classique qui ecrit sa tragedie en observant un certain nombre de regles qu’il connait est plus libre que le poete qui ecrit ce qui lui passe par la tete et qui est l’esclave d’autres regles qu’il ignore.” (The classical author who is writing his tragedy follows a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and who is a slave to other rules of which he is unaware.) (150-51). Or as Frost put it, “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” While there is certainly freedom in exploration and experimentation with forms, abandonment of all constraints is itself a kind of imprisonment.
Above the door in my classroom hangs a sign, one foot by three feet, which says simply “Consistency.” I put it there my second year and have been striving toward that ideal ever since. Ironically, the closer I get to it the more I am repelled from it. Every class, every student, every day poses a different set of variables. If I were truly consistent, I would no doubt miss countless opportunities. So it also seems fitting that instead of ending with the last of the six essays, Calvino leaves that talk unwritten. In a sense, consistency as an ideal would contradict all that he laid out before it. If the novels of Balzac from Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) to his Comedie Humaine teach us anything it is that an author is not a monolith and shouldn’t strive to be one. Perhaps Calvino left off the final topic because he knew that the natural variety within each of us is far greater than any consistency imposed from without. Or he just forgot.
When Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò is forced to eat snail soup by his eccentric sister, he retreats to the trees around their estate. Rather than return home and face punishment, Cosimo decides to remain in the trees. He travels from limb to limb around the village, eventually meeting the beautiful Viola d’Ondariva as she swings from a branch. Cosimo explains to Viola the rules of his new game—to never touch the ground. From that point forward, he never does.
Italo Calvino takes the imaginary village of Ombrosa, Italy, for this mock conte philosophique. Through the course of the novel, Cosimo witnesses the real historical events of the Expulsion of Jesuits from Spain, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars. He also interacts with famous figures, including Voltaire, Diderot, and Napoleon himself. From the trees, Cosimo has a number of adventures, takes lovers, and reads and writes philosophy—including a utopian treatise for how to govern a society of men, women, and animals living in the trees.
While the novel imitates and mocks numerous genres, it ends with a love story that is only half-parody. When an adult Viola d’Ondariva returns to Ombrosa, Cosimo realizes that all this time he has been living in the trees for her alone. Their love is pseudo-modern, Romantic, Petrarchan, and above all painful.
“Why do you make me suffer?”
“Because I love you.”
Now it was he who got angry. “No, you don’t love me! One who loves wants happiness, not suffering.”
“One who loves wants only love, even at the cost of suffering.”
“So you make me suffer on purpose.”
“Yes, to see if you love me.”
In the end, The Baron in the Trees is a coming-of-age tale, in which a young man resists his father’s influence and the ills of his society, not by adopting the latest counter cultural philosophy (for instance, Romanticism in a time of Enlightenment) but by literally rejecting the earth itself and taking to the trees.
This is a must-read for fans of Italo Calvino, but it should appeal to anyone interested in the Age of the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, European history, the philosophical novel, or literary satire. For me, the novel started slowly. As Calvino is writing a “high concept” story, he takes some pains establishing his world and explaining the logical ramifications of a young man living in the trees. For example, how did Cosimo eat, go to the bathroom, wash his clothing? After these entailments are lengthily resolved, Cosimo is able to get to the business of spying on his fellow villagers, having adventures, and falling in love. Here the story finally gets off the ground.
Kundera’s most well-read novel recounts the lives of four interconnected lovers—Tomáš, Tereza, Sabina, and Franz—and a dog named Karenin.
Tomáš can’t commit to a life of monogamy, even though he desperately loves his wife, Tereza.
Tereza, though she loathes her mother and the Soviet occupation of Prague, finds she can’t remain in democratic Zurich and must return to both out of incomprehensible love and loyalty.
Sabina, Tomáš’ closet friend and mistress, struggles to create art that is not politicized just because she is a Czech dissident.
Franz, a Geneva professor, loves Sabina but can’t love her authentically or fully, pigeon-holing her as a romantic figure—just as the rest of her audience.
Karenin is a dog.
In this modern classic, Kundera reflects on what it means to be Czech in a Europe torn apart by fascism and communism, pulled toward the moderates of ideal conservatism, represented by well-meaning Americans, and ideal liberalism, represented by European socialists.
He also reflects on concepts of censorship, kitsch, responsibility and, of course, the “unbearable lightness of being,” the idea that whatever happens only once, such as human existence as we know it, ought not happen at all.
Tomáš’ answer to this unbearable lightness is a German phrase he attributes to Beethoven: “Es muss sein,” which translates as “It must be.” If there’s no way to improve upon our mistakes in this life, then Tomáš concludes we must rely on fate. Our actions are our actions because they must be. Therefore, he abandons safety in Zurich and follows Tereza back across the iron curtain to Prague.
The rest you will have to read for yourself.
This is a fantastic novel for anyone interested in Eastern European history, Western philosophy, or the art of the novel. Throughout, Kundera deconstructs his narrative as he tells it, drawing attention to the artificiality of the form and offering insights into the craft of fiction. Despite these post-modern digressions, the narrative remains compelling and infinitely readable.
As I finish up what is hopefully my last round of edits, I find myself thinking more and more about my next project, a sequel to my current novel. Sequels can be tricky, and they often pale in comparison to the original, so I thought I would look at a novel that is so exemplary that many don’t even realize it’s a sequel: The Silence of the Lambs.
I can’t recall when I first met Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter, but I do know it was the movie rather than the book and I was likely too young.
I recall better my first time reading one of Thomas Harris’ novels, Red Dragon. The first book in the series, it begins shortly after Hannibal’s initial capture. An FBI agent, Will Graham, must consult with the doctor to solve a murder. Unlike the protagonist of Lambs, Clarice Starling, Graham has a long history with Lecter. They worked together profiling killers before Lecter’s incarceration. In fact, Graham is the reason Lecter is behind bars.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, I devoured this book (pun intended), but didn’t pick up Silence of the Lambs until just this year. Now, having read all three of the original series (there’s also a prequel, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet), I can confidently say Lambs is the strongest. Let’s look at why.
Rather than follow up with disfigured Will Graham in the sequel, Harris retires Graham and introduces Clarice Starling, an up-and-coming trainee. He does keep Graham’s mentor Jack Crawford, though. Plucking Starling from Quantico, Crawford sends the trainee to interview Lecter and glean what she can about a recent killer they’re calling Buffalo Bill. While Dragon feels like an in medias res opening, Lambs has the aura of new beginnings. Starling’s relationship with Lecter is also more dynamic than Graham’s. Rather than wanting her dead and plotting toward that end, Lecter falls in love with her—while also kind of wanting to kill and eat her.
While the original Lecter book followed detective Will Graham and killer Francis Dolarhyde, Lambs gives us Lecter’s perspective as well. In a real sense, this POV overshadows the other plot lines. The technical climax of the novel comes as Starling tracks down Buffalo Bill in his home (the night vision goggle scene). But Lecter’s climax is perhaps more memorable: he must escape from Memphis authorities while handcuffed in a roofless cell in an ornate hall on the fifth floor of a building with only one, heavily guarded exit. I won’t spoil it if haven’t read Lambs, but it is a masterful scene—albeit a bit gory.
The best sequels build on what works from the original. They go deeper into the world the author created while also giving readers something unexpected. Silence of the Lambs does this and more.
As I begin to brainstorm and outline for my sequel, I’m on the lookout for sequels that outdo the original. If you have some favorites, drop their titles in the comment section below. Who knows? I just might review some of them here on my blog!