- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Italo Calvino on Writing, Reading, Memory, Cities, and More

 

Happy birthday, Italo Calvino! Here are quotes from the writer.

 

“What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.”

 

“Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.”

 

“There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics. I would say that such a library ought to be composed half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count—leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries.”

 

“The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well.”

 

“The only kind of literature that is possible today: a literature that is both critical and creative.”

 

“The public figure of the writer, the writer-character, the personality-cult of the author, are all becoming for me more and more intolerable in others, and consequently in myself. In short, if a critic writes about a problem and makes reference to one (or more) of my works in relation to that problem, this gives me the sense that my work is not pointless. Whereas the prospect of my bust crowned with laurel appearing along with the other busts in the hall of famous writers gives me no joy at all.”

 

“As a young man my aspiration was to become a ‘minor writer.’ (Because it was always those that are called “minor” that I liked most and to whom I felt closest.) But this was already a flawed criterion because it presupposes that ‘major’ writers exist. Basically, I am convinced that not only are there no ‘major’ or ‘minor’ writers, but writers themselves do not exist—or at least they do not count for much. As far as I am concerned, you still try too hard to explain Calvino with Calvino, to chart a history, a continuity in Calvino, and maybe this Calvino does not have any continuity, he dies and is reborn every second. What counts is whether in the work that he is doing at a certain point there is something that can relate to the present or future work done by others, as can happen to anyone who works, just because of the fact that they are creating such possibilities.”

 

“You can imagine how slowly my fictional output has been going this summer, you who know how much labor, dissatisfaction, irritability, uncertainty this work costs … However—and this is the point—it is worth it. Or rather: one does not ask if it’s worth it. We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all. Even if we did not have a single reader any more, we would have to write; and this not because ours can be a solitary job, on the contrary it is a dialog we take part in when we write, a common discourse, but this dialog can still always be supposed to be taking place with authors of the past, with authors we love and whose discourse we are forcing ourselves to develop, or else with those still to come, those we want through our writing to configure in one particular way rather than another. I am exaggerating: heaven help those who write without being read; for that reason there are too many people writing today and one cannot ask for indulgence for someone who has little to say, and one cannot allow trade-union or corporate sympathies.”

 

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

 

“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

 

“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of the written language.”

 

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful to me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”

 

“There is no language without deceit.”

 

“How well I would write if I were not here!”

 

“Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.”

 

“Melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness.”

 

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased.”

 

“It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”

 

“Knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world.”

 

“Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.”

 

“You’ll understand when you’ve forgotten what you understood before.”

 

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

 

“In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision.”

 

“Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.”

 

“The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.”

 

“Reading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be.”

 

“Today each of you is the object of the other’s reading; one reads in the other the unwritten story.”

 

“It is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the unwritten becomes legible.”

 

“Every time I must find something to do that will look like something a little beyond my capabilities.”

 

“The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”

 

“Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined?”

 

“We cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes along its own trajectory and immediately disappears.”

 

“Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

 

“A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.”

 

“If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance.”

 

“The more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there.”

 

“Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

 

“Fantasy is like jam. You have to spread it on a solid piece of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, out of which you can’t make anything..”

 

“Every choice has its obverse, that is to say a renunciation, and so there is no difference between the act of choosing and the act of renouncing.”

 

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

 

“It is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible.”

 

“The novels that attract me most are those that create an illusion of transparency around a knot of human relationships as obscure, cruel and perverse as possible.”

 

“The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.”

 

“I am a prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume.”

 

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins.”

 

“In politics, as in every other sphere of life, there are two important principles for a man of any sense: don’t cherish too many illusions, and never stop believing that every little bit helps.”

 

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

 

“I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

 

“Myth is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there. Myth is nourished by silence as well as by words.”

 

“The things that the novel does not say are necessarily more numerous than those it does say and only a special halo around what is written can give the illusion that you are reading also what is not written.”

 

“Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”

 

“To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being. What matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.”

 

“Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.”

 

“Whether there is such a thing as Reality, of which the various levels are only partial aspects, or whether there are only levels, is something that literature cannot decide. Literature recognizes rather the ‘reality of the levels.'”

 

“The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.”

 

“Memory really matters only if it binds together the imprint of the past and the project of the future, if it enables us to act without forgetting what we wanted to do, to become without ceasing to be, and to be without ceasing to become.”

 

Renouncing things is less difficult than people believe: it’s all a matter of getting started. Once you’ve succeeded in dispensing with something you thought essential, you realize you can also do without something else, then without many other things.”

 

You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask.”

 

“Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia; a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.”

 

“A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.”

 

“There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics. I would say that such a library ought to be composed half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count—leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries.”

 

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts bring with it consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it.”

 

“Perhaps everything lies in knowing what words to speak, what actions to perform, and in what order and rhythm; or else someone’s gaze, answer, gesture is enough; it is enough for someone to do something for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and for his pleasure to become the pleasure of others: at that moment, all spaces change, all heights, distances; the city is transfigured, becomes crystalline, transparent as a dragonfly.”

 

“A writer’s work has to take account of many rhythms: Vulcan’s and Mercury’s, a message of urgency obtained by dint of patient and meticulous adjustments and an intuition so instantaneous that, when formulated, it acquires the finality of something that could never have been otherwise. But it is also the rhythm of time that passes with no other aim than to let feelings and thoughts settle down, mature, and shed all impatience or ephemeral contingency.”

 

“My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language. Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world—qualities that stick to the writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.”

 

“The minute you start saying something, ‘Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!’ you are already close to view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.”

 

“What he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveller’s past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

 

“The close-up has no equivalent in a narrative fashioned of words. Literature is totally lacking in any working method to enable it to isolate a single vastly enlarged detail in which one face comes forward to underline a state of mind or stress the importance of a single detail in comparison with the rest. As a narrative device, the ability to vary the distance between the camera and the object may be a small thing indeed, but it makes for a notable difference between cinema and oral or written narrative, in which the distance between language and image is always the same.”

 

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

Leave a Reply