Six Memos for the Next Millennium
Six Memos for the Next Millennium was the last book to be written by Italo Calvino, who in the last decades of his life gained a wide following of readers in the United States and England. Calvino was invited by Harvard University to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in Cambridge during the academic year 1985-1986. Calvino spent most of 1985 preparing the lectures; he wrote five of the planned series of six in Italy and intended to complete the sixth while in the United States. Just before the intended date of his departure for the United States, however, he died. The original title indicating six memos was retained, although the book contains five.
Calvino’s five memos are actually literary ideals or preferences—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. They are qualities that he consistently sought in his own writing and that he recommends to future writers living in the third millennium. Calvino writes only briefly about his own work, and this is a modest book; he finds the qualities he admires in the works of other writers—for example, lightness in Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry. Although the lectures are erudite, covering the literature of many centuries and many countries, they are pervaded by generous warmth and appreciation, and while Calvino’s memos might invite comparison with Milan Kundera’s L’Art du roman (1986; The Art of the Novel, 1988; reviewed in this volume), Calvino’s book is freer and has a broader canvas. The memos are as much about poetry as about prose. They also touch on myth, legend, or philosophy when germane to his theme; for example, some fine pages are devoted to Saint Ignatius of Loyola. There is little censure in the book; Calvino talks about his likes.
Calvino usually avoids being prescriptive. His themes take into account their opposites and manage to surmount or overcome them. When Calvino speaks about lightness, he confesses that “at certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification.” The writers he chooses to represent lightness are Ovid, Cavalcanti, William Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, Giacomo Leopardi, and Eugenio Montale. The chapter on quickness is about rhythm in poetry and above all in narration. Narration has its rhythms, speed, recurrences or repetitions, and economy; Calvino quotes from legends, his own collection of Italian folktales, from the works of Giovanni Boccaccio, Galileo Galilei, Thomas De Quincey, Laurence Sterne, and Jorge Luis Borges. In the chapter on exactitude, Calvino meditates on examples from Leopardi, Robert Musil, Paul Valéry, Leonardo da Vinci, and his own Le cittá invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974). The chapter on visibility is a lucid meditation on the increasing importance of the image in literature as well as in other media. Others have noticed this phenomenon. Calvino’s treatment is brief but highly suggestive, showing that the visual image is subject to a remarkable amount of manipulation and is actually a construct of different elements. His discussion ranges from Dante to Thomas Aquinas, Ignatius of Loyola, Honoré de Balzac, and his own Il castello dei destini incrociati (1969, 1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977). The chapter on multiplicity—one of the finest of Calvino’s memos—focuses on fictional narrative in the work of a number of authors as well as in his own novels.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the chapter on multiplicity is outstanding—the most personal and the last in the book. (The sixth memo was to be on “consistency.”) Despite the breadth of his interests, Calvino was a prose writer and for the most part within the modernist tradition. Multiplicity has been one of the main obsessions of the modernist novel, uniting twentieth century writers such as James Joyce to nineteenth century figures such as Gustave Flaubert and Charles Dickens. The reader of Six Memos for the Millennium will observe that Calvino thought particularly highly of Borges,...
(The entire section is 1,567 words.)