Archive for September 22nd, 2014

Italo Calvino answers the question: “Are novelists liars?”

Monday, September 22nd, 2014
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“a matter of mental mechanisms…”

Someone said the Paris Review interviews are more addictive than crack. I’m not sure I disagree. Here’s a case in point: the eminent journal published a collage of interviews with Italo Calvino posthumously, in 1992. We wrote about Calvino a few days ago here, but I couldn’t resist publishing a few highlights from the Paris Review. (Read the whole thing here.)

One question that always gets asked in the Paris Review concerns the writer’s method of work, in this case, the physical act of writing. I think these responses always appeal to writers, though I always wonder if these queries aren’t a crashing bore to people who are insurance actuaries or window-washers. I don’t suppose they read the Paris Review anyway, but the line of questioning may be a deterrent. Well, I’m going to chase the actuaries away, too. Here’s how Calvino responded:

“I write by hand, making many, many corrections. I would say I cross out more than I write. I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing. Then I make a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand. There comes a moment when I myself can’t read my handwriting, so I use a magnifying glass to figure out what I’ve written. I have two different handwritings. One is large with fairly big letters—the os and as have a big hole in the center. This is the hand I use when I’m copying or when I’m rather sure of what I’m writing. My other hand corresponds to a less confident mental state and is very small—the os are like dots. This is very hard to decipher, even for me.

“My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand. Often the page becomes so unreadable that I type it over a second time. I envy those writers who can proceed without correcting.”

calvino-spidersIn the postwar years, Calvino began to work on his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders: “Then I began to write novels. It is a matter of mental mechanisms. If one gets used to translating into a novel one’s experiences, one’s ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression. My way of writing prose is rather closer to the way a poet composes a poem. I am not a novelist who writes long novels. I concentrate an idea or an experience into a short synthetic text that goes side by side with other texts to form a series. I pay particular attention to expressions and words both with regard to their rhythms, their sounds, and the images they evoke.”

Joseph Brodsky once said that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o”. For a long time, Calvino didn’t agree, but he came around in his own time, in his own way: “The idea of putting literature in second place, after politics, is an enormous mistake, because politics almost never achieves its ideals. Literature, on the other hand, in its own field can achieve something and in the very long run can also have some practical effect. By now I have come to believe that important things are achieved only through very slow processes.”

calvino-wintersI was rather charmed by a short transcript included in the collage, Calvino’s “Thoughts Before an Interview” – perhaps because, as a journalist, I’m usually on the other side of the microphone. Calvino again: “this afternoon . . . the interviewers . . . I do not know if I will have the time to prepare. I could try to improvise but I believe an interview needs to be prepared ahead of time to sound spontaneous. Rarely does an interviewer ask questions you did not expect. I have given a lot of interviews and I have concluded that the questions always look alike. I could always give the same answers. But I believe I have to change my answers because with each interview something has changed either inside myself or in the world. An answer that was right the first time may not be right again the second. This could be the basis of a book. I am given a list of questions, always the same; every chapter would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would then become the itinerary, the story that the protagonist lives. Perhaps in this way I could discover some truths about myself.”

And yet… and yet… I can’t believe Calvino was asked this before: “Are novelists liars? And if they are not, what kind of truth do they tell?” Calvino’s answer:

Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.

I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise.