Review: Six Memos for the Next Millennium

In 1985, Italian novelist Italo Calvino delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University. His topic? The future of the novel. Six Memos for the Next Millennium explores five topics relevant to the novelist of today—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity—and an unwritten discussion on consistency.


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.