Italo Calvino, one of the world's best storytellers, died on the eve of his departure for Harvard, where he was to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1985-86. Reticent by nature, he was always reluctant to talk about himself, but he welcomed the opportunity to talk about the making of literature. In the process of devising his lectures--his wife recalls that they were an "obsession" for the last year of his life--he could not avoid mention of his own work, his methods, intentions, and hopes. This book, then, is Calvino's legacy to us: those universal values he pinpoints for future generations to cherish become the watchword for our appreciation of Calvino himself.
What about writing should be cherished? Calvino, in a wonderfully simple scheme, devotes one lecture (a memo for his reader) to each of five indispensable literary values. First there is "lightness" (leggerezza), and Calvino cites Lucretius, Ovid, Boccaccio, Cavalcanti, Leopardi, and Kundera--among others, as always--to show what he means: the gravity of existence has to be borne lightly if it is to be borne at all. There must be "quickness," a deftness in combining action (Mercury) with contemplation (Saturn). Next is "exactitude," precision and clarity of language. The fourth lecture is on "visibility," the visual imagination as an instrument for knowing the world and oneself. Then there is a tour de force on "multiplicity," where Calvino brilliantly describes the eccentrics of literature (Elaubert, Gadda, Musil, Perec, himself) and their attempt to convey the painful but exhilarating infinitude of possibilities open to humankind.
The sixth and final lecture - worked out but unwritten - was to be called "Consistency." Perhaps surprised at first, we are left to ponder how Calvino would have made that statement, and, as always with him, the pondering leads to more. With this book Calvino gives us the most eloquent, least defensive "defense of literature" scripted in our century - a fitting gift for the next millennium.
Esther Calvino has supervised the preparation of this book. She is Italo Calvino's Argentinian-born wife and a translator for several international organizations. Among Calvino's best-known works of fiction are Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, The Baron in the Trees, if on a winter's night a traveler, and Mr. Palomar.