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.

Lightness

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.

Quickness

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.

Exactitude

“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)

Visibility

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).

Multiplicity

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.

Consistency

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.

On Publishing Stories

I received my first print publication of a short story last month—six months after my debut novel came out. Read “The Opening of a New Spy Novel by an Author You Love” online at Calliope on the Web. Fans of post-modernism, especially the work of Italo Calvino, will find much to enjoy.

I was always told to focus on the short form before venturing into writing a novel. However, the short story has frequently eluded me. While novels and feature films feel intuitive, with their large and climactic narrative arcs, their dynamic and wide-open characters, short stories have felt less straight-forward. Where should one start a story? Where should one end it?

I recently read an Oulipo piece, “How to Tell a Story,” by Jacques Bens. In it, a writer character named Matthew fails to teach a class of college students the art of story telling. Afterward, he wanders around Paris contemplating what he should’ve said and as he does so, he concocts an “example” story, featuring a young and beautiful barrel organist. At the end of his wandering, the organist, now flesh and blood, visits him in his office, telling him, the author, that the hero of his story now wants to marry her, which seems a bit fast. Then she adds, “I must be missing an element somewhere.” Matthew responds, “Yes, something is missing, that much is clear. But where? And what?”

I often feel just as Matthew does after finishing writing my own stories, and even more often after reading those of the greats. While some of my favorites wrote primarily short stories—Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme among them—I invariably turn to a guide of some sort, be it critics or the authors themselves. Whereas with novels I almost never do. I read it. I comprehend it. I move on. Even when I do turn to a guide for the purposes of teaching a novel, the guide does not suddenly reveal the meaning I missed. Usually, it merely helps me form the right question or locate the proper page number. What is left out of the story is almost always included in the novel. Why is this? I do not know.

Some things I’ve found helpful over the years are the writing exercises in 3AM Epiphany, George Saunders’ wonderful analysis of Russian stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, and a recent series of instructional videos from Reedsy, entitled “Short Fiction Deep Dive.” I hope these help you in your own journey and that they save you some of the time I spent puzzling and shaking my head.

Saunders Takes on the Russians

American short story master George Saunders takes on four Russian masters, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol in his new book. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is part story collection, part master class, and part meditation on the writing life.

I’ve always struggled with the short story form, which is ironic, at least to me. I’ve read hundreds of novels with relative ease, written several of my own—the most recent one of which is in the process of being published—and I’ve taught a dozen or so to my high school and college students over the last few years. One would think the novel, with its length and grandeur would be less approachable than the humble short story, yet I have found these narratives in miniature nearly incomprehensible at times. The more straight-forward the story, the less I’m able to grasp it.

So, the publication of George Saunders’ new book sent my writer’s antennae straight up. I purchased it immediately and devoured it.

The book tackles four of the greats, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, one story each from Gogol and Turgenev, two from Tolstoy, and three from Chekhov. I think we can see the clear winner in Saunders’ mind. After reading the stories, I’d have to agree. While Gogol appeals to my absurdist bent—Donald Barthelme might be the first short story writer I ever really connected with or understood—and Tolstoy has a command of epic narration, Chekhov writes with a subtle complexity I find most enviable.

Saunders approaches Chekhov first with “In the Cart.” Rather than merely discuss it or present the story and then analyze it, he opts for an imitation of a genuine class. I often stop my students every few paragraphs to check for understanding. Here, Saunders stops every page. We receive a page of Chekhov and then several pages of analysis, breaking down what the master is doing. “In the Cart” is eleven pages long but, with the interruptions, it reaches 46 pages! If your goal is to read these seven stories as quickly as possible, this is not the book for you. If, however, you’ve read Anna Karenina with no problem but stumbled through “Gooseberries,” you must read this book. What the analysis and brief afterthought (three more pages) offers is a key to unlocking Chekhov’s nuance and purpose, which in my mind is well worth the time.

“What makes Saunders such an authority on these texts?” you might ask. While he’s not Russian or a reknown literary scholar, he is a master of the short story form and has been teaching a class on Russian literature in translation for twenty years. Furthermore, he’s consulted numerous Russian scholars and translators over the years. Also, and this is the most important aspect, he genuine gained insight as a writer from these very stories. We have all read literary scholarship about the symbolism of color scheme or bilingual word play or cultural/historical/religious significance in a body of work. These may expand our body of knowledge and ignite interest in other literature or literary scholarship, but I don’t know how helpful they are to the writer in their pursuit of developing the craft. Here Saunders does not break the stories down as Russians or because they’re Russian or the in the context of that culture or language, but merely because they represent a sampling of great stories.

For example, in his thoughts on Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” he mentions the author’s involvement in a Christian-anarchist religious movement and then drops it almost entirely, turning his focus instead to Tolstoy’s use of factual narration, as opposed to authorial opinion, to create an believable reality. He then dissects the plot point by point to explain how the author achieves what he calls “cinematic propulsion.” Reading the story, we are thrust forward, but only afterward through Saunders’ expert analysis do we see how each action and reaction propelled the story to its unforgettable conclusion.

This book, for me, has been a Godsend. Before I was halfway through, I began gathering all my Russian short story collections and searching the local libraries for more. Susan and I took a trip to Kansas City to visit her sister and I made it my mission to find a collection by Gogol, the only author I didn’t own and couldn’t locate (his short stories, that is). I read that almost as rapidly as I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, and thanks to Saunders, I actually understood it.