I interviewed him about Calvino and Cosmicomics for the upcoming event. I hope it will tempt you to join us. Here goes:

Haven: Calvino once wrote, “I like telling things in cartoon form,” and even suggested that readers try to visualize his Cosmicomic stories as comic strips. Is this a hint about why he is calling this first 1965 collection of the tales Cosmicomics?

Harrison: Well, there’s a connection with the comic strips, as you mentioned. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Italian literary tradition is so rich in comic genres, broadly understood. Just think of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he called the Commedia. It’s a cosmic comedy that takes Dante through the other world – hell, purgatory, and finally the heavens.

Mystery man.

The heart of a scientist.

One aspect of Calvino’s title has to do with this literary predecessor, Dante. Another has to do with the role that comedy has played in so much of the history of “serious” Italian literature – Dante, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Goldoni, Pirandello, and many others.

Haven: So why are you drawn to these stories, and why did you pick them for “Another Look”?

Harrison: I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.

In addition, Calvino’s book deals directly with the whole phenomenon of evolution, which is the huge scientific obsession of our own time. I’m not referring to the debates about evolution versus creation. It’s more that in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.

Haven: Let’s see. Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb outside Havana in 1923, to Italian parents who were both botanists. That’s why Calvino’s friend Gore Vidal wrote that “he instinctively looks to the natural world for illumination of his own interior” – rather as you do in your own book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. But science, as well as nature, was clearly a powerful legacy from his parents.

Harrison: That’s right. Calvino makes it clear in several of his interviews that he’s been interested in science all along. For him, science and fantasy are not two separate things. There’s nothing more fantastical, in essence, than science. So he’s taking these scientific theses, which he prints at the beginning of each story, and then gives them each a story.

Careful.

It all began here.

Haven: In the years since Cosmicomics, we’ve seen an increasing interest in bringing modern science in to the arts. Technology is changing the world, and one could argue that a “realism” that does not change with it is not “realistic.” But I wondered sometimes if Calvino is slyly mocking our attempts. Some of the “scientific” passages he cites at the beginning of each story are outdated science or junk science or even made-up science.

Harrison: But I don’t think the success of Cosmicomics relies on the science being valid. The junk science parts are just as effective as the parts that still have scientific persuasion. The achievement of Cosmicomics lies in the ways it gives anthropomorphic form to otherwise abstract phenomena that one has a hard time even imagining, just conceptually, let alone in anthropomorphic terms.

Haven: You mentioned earlier that Calvino scrambles our expectations. Certainly one way he does this is by abandoning the usual lines of character development. Moreover, most of the names are unpronounceable and we don’t even know what the protagonist Qfwfq actually is. Is he an atom, a dinosaur, a mollusc, that term beloved to science fiction fans, “an entity”?

Harrison: Well, yes, he can be all these things, but he is first and foremost an eyewitness, as it were. He gives us a first-person account of a host of events in the history of the universe – events that, according to the scientific account of them, are inconceivable to us. The birth of color. The initial congealment of matter. The first signs in space.

cosmicomicsHaven: Calvino wrote in a letter, “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself,” which is what he’s attempting in Cosmicomics. The author is the witness behind the witness in all these stories – a witness for matter itself. Can you tell us a little about us a little about how he came to take on this singular role?

Harrison: Calvino became a writer right after the Second World War. He had participated in it as a partisan on the side of the Resistance. At the end of the war, he wrote his first book, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. He tried to conform to the expectations of the political left in Italy, which expected of writers a certain kind of realism. He wanted to write in a mode that would bring alive the experience of the war and take a side, with good guys against the bad guys, and to have it be politically relevant. Already, at that early point in his career, he was having trouble with the demands of traditional realism, not to mention socialist realism, which was a different thing altogether.

It took him a while, but he finally found a way to bring that book to fruition by making its protagonist a young boy, Pin, a 12-year-old who gets caught up in the partisan warfare and really doesn’t comprehend everything that’s going on. For Pin, what’s happening becomes like some kind of a forest tale full of magic, full of characters that seem to come out of folklore more than reality.

So it’s not an orthodox realist novel, although it did have to do directly with the war and it did take a side, the side of the partisans. But it already had this sort of fantastical quality by virtue of the fact that it was narrated through the perspective of the eyes of this boy, who experiences events really more like magic than history. Subsequently, Calvino found it more and more difficult to conform to the expectations of realism.

Cosmicomics represents a real liberation from any need to ground his narratives in verisimilitude and reality. It becomes imaginative, fantastical. It enables him to bring science into the realm of the imagination and to write a series of vignettes that are fables, or perhaps allegories. His narrative becomes a sort of fairy tale.

At the same time, as Calvino insisted at the end of his life, in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he never once lost sight of the historical reality of the time in which the writer was writing.

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