Lightness in darkness: Italo Calvino on the eve of war

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My introduction to Italo Calvino occurred some years ago via the poet Kay Ryan, who recommended Six Memos for the Next Millenium, which she seemed to view as a personal enchiridion.  The essays were written in 1985, the year Calvino died.

Here’s one passage I marked with pencil from the essay called “Lightness,” as he recalled his beginnings as a writer:

“Maybe was I only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world – qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

“At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone: a slow petrification, more or less advanced depending on people and places but one that spared no aspect of life. It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies on winged sandals…”

Joseph Luzzi calls the Italian author a “self-styled moralist” in a recent Times Literary Supplement article here – how does that lightness weigh against fascist Italy, then? Calvino’s newly translated Into the War, a trilogy of autobiographical works, takes a very heavy subject – war – and views it through the ambiguous and non-commital gaze of an adolescent, watching from the sidelines.

The beginning of the first story, “Into the War”, evokes Clausewitz’s famous depiction of the “fog of war”, a realm permeated by uncertainty and requiring – yet rarely finding – unusual powers of discernment: “The 10th June 1940 was a cloudy day. It was a time in our lives when we weren’t interested in anything . … We knew that Mussolini was to speak in the afternoon, but it was not clear whether we would be going to war or not”. … Mussolini makes only a brief cameo in “Into the War”, when he speeds past the narrator in an open-top car, on his way to inspect the troops. The only person who seems to be enjoying himself, Mussolini appears as a child playing a very dangerous game; less sanguine, the distracted Calvino can only comment, “the car was going fast; [Mussolini] had disappeared. I had barely seen him”.

Calvino described lyrical autobiography as enemy terrain.  He had reservations about memoir and autobiography, once confessing to a reviewer, “Once you start on the road to autobiography, where do you stop?”


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2 Responses to “Lightness in darkness: Italo Calvino on the eve of war”

  1. Shelley Says:

    I learned a new word in your first sentence.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Glad to double as a dictionary sometimes!

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