Posts Tagged ‘Italo Calvino’

Join us Monday night for the “Another Look” book club discussion of Calvino’s Cosmicomics!

Sunday, October 26th, 2014
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19It’s here! On Monday night, October 27, Stanford’s “Another Look” book club will take on Italo Calvino‘s twelve science-inspired fantasies, Cosmicomics, with moderator Robert Pogue Harrison, joined by panelists Tobias Wolff and Humble Moi. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center at 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus.

Award-winning author Tobias Wolff, who founded the group three years ago, said that the book club is Stanford’s “gift to the community.” Hence, the Another Look book club  is open to all members of the public, as well as Stanford’s students, staff, and faculty. Not only can everyone attend, but we positively want you to come to our first event in the third season. The event is free, but come early, because seats are available on a first-come basis.

We’ve written about the Calvino event already here and here and here. There’s even more at the Another Look website here.  The only missing piece right now is you. Join us!

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Calvino on writing impossible books…

Friday, October 3rd, 2014
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From The Guardian (read the whole thing here, and about the October 27 “Another Look” event on Calvino here):

“In a lecture delivered in New York in the spring of 1983, Italo Calvino remarked that ‘most of the books I have written and those I intend to write originate from the thought that it will be impossible for me to write a book of that kind: when I have convinced myself that such a book is completely beyond my capacities of temperament or skill, I sit down and start writing it.'”

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02/01/1981. Italo Calvino, Italian writer.

“Another Look” book club goes out of this world with Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014
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14

Helping matter talk

We’re rolling into fall, which means we’re launching into the third season of Stanford’s “Another Look” book club. No surprise to Book Haven readers that the book is Italo Calvino‘s Cosmicomics – given recent posts about Calvino here and here. My article in Stanford Report today:

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that’s part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular “Another Look” book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show “Entitled Opinions” and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of “Another Look,” founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.

Cosmicomics will be fêted on the eve of the launch of the Stanford Arts Institute’s year-long program of events, “Imagining the Universe.”  It’s entirely apropos; no author did a better job of imagining the universe than Calvino did. As 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” – and he took it upon himself to do so.

Consider dreamy passages such as this one from the same story, “The Distance of the Moon”: “When she was full – nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light – it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there.”

Each story begins with a passage from the science of the time, and follows with a tale told by a chatty, avuncular fellow named Qfwfq. We hear eyewitness accounts of the big bang, the first radiations of the sun, the advent of color. But we never know exactly what Qfwfq is – sometimes an atom, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes the last dinosaur, sometimes an undefined inhabitant of the nebulae.

cosmicomicsHarrison reminds us that the stories, fantasy notwithstanding, never stray far from the Italy of Calvino’s day.  In the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s, Italy’s largely agrarian society went through rapid industrialization and dramatic modernization, as people migrated to the swelling cities.  Consequently, the 12 stories are suffused with longing and loss, the pull of the past as well as aspiration for the future.  (A Q&A with Harrison is here.)

Calvino loved the genre he created so much that he went on to create several more volumes of Cosmicomics, which have recently been republished as The Complete Cosmicomics. “Another Look” considers only the original 153-page volume, which some consider Calvino’s finest work.

Harrison explained why he picked the stories for the Stanford-based community book club this way: “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.”

He added 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.”

Wolff agreed. “Cosmicomics – like all of Calvino’s work – is brilliant and unconventional, permitting itself an almost reckless freedom of imagination,” he said. “It may puzzle some readers, refusing as it does to entice us with recognizable, ‘realistic’ situations and characters, but I trust that puzzlement will turn to delight as Calvino’s wit and sense of intelligent play begin to disarm us. This is a thoroughly original piece of work, and rightly esteemed a classic.”

Cosmicomics will be available at the Stanford Bookstore, at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.

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The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers with limited free time. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

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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.

What is a classic? Italo Calvino gives 14 definitions.

Thursday, September 18th, 2014
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calvino-classics“Calvino was not a writer of hits; he was a writer of classics.” So wrote Italo Calvino‘s translator, William Weaver (we wrote about the humble translator here). But that brings us quickly to the question: What is a classic, anyway? Calvino’s 1991 book Why Read the Classics? was assembled after the author’s 1985 death; the author had intended to compile something of the sort himself, but didn’t live to see the project to fruition. He begins with 14 thoughtful assertions:

1.  The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’

2.  The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

3.  The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

4.  A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

5.  A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

6.  A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

7.  The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

8.  A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.

9.  Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.

10.  A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

11.  ‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

12.  A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

13.  A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.

14.  A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

The New York Review of Books published Calvino’s elaboration of these comments in 1986 – it’s here.

Happy 90th birthday, Italo!

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013
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calvinoThe Italian writer Italo Calvino would have been ninety today.  Happy birthday, wherever you are…

“In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of the written language.”

birthday cake

– Italo Calvino (Oct. 15, 1923–Sept. 19, 1985)

 

 

 

Gore Vidal’s “piety”

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012
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"a one-man great society"

That’s it.  I’m in love with Gore.

No, no, not that Gore.  Gore Vidal. I know, it’s sudden…  I was watching the interview I posted a few days ago.  It uncovered a Vidal I didn’t know existed.  He is moved almost to tears recalling Italo Calvino‘s death.  He, the disdainful mandarin, notorious for his literary fights and insults, humbly drops to one knee before someone he considers his better.  Didn’t know he had it in him:

“I have studied the landscape of literature all my life, and he was the only great writer of my time.”

“Let’s use a word that is often misused – universal.  Where Calvino was, there was literature. Like it or not.”  “He was it. He was the real thing.”

We don’t live in a great time for writers or writing, he said, “but Calvino was a one-man great society.”

“Calvino was there, everyone who knew about him admired him, read him, wrote about him.”

The interviewer, Riz Khan, asks Vidal what passed through his mind at Calvino’s funeral.  The author’s eyes seemed to mist up, as he answered: “When will there be another?  With Italo, I thought literature had died.”

“It was as if a great prince had died. The whole nation went into mourning,” he said in slow, emphatic syllables. “What American or Brit or Frenchman would have that audience in his own country today?”

Vidal was not, apparently, a great fan of the literature of Eastern Europe.  Otherwise, he would have recalled one funeral in 2004 where thousands lined the streets of Kraków.

Czesław Miłosz came to my mind for another reason.  I remembered speaking to the Polish poet about his friend and fellow laureate, Joseph Brodsky, and his description of what Miłosz called the Russian poet’s “piety.”  From my Georgia Review interview a dozen years ago:

There was at a given moment a stable world where we could see, hold on to values that were a reflection of the eternal order of things. Now we are in a flux. This is a very peculiar way of life. … When everything is in flux, revision, it is healthy to have some poets who preserve the feeling of respect.

For me, the value of Brodsky was his sobering effect, and his enormous feeling of hierarchy. He had a great feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.

Brodsky was very sensitive to the sacredness of being. Yes. That’s why I call him pious. I didn’t ask him if he believes in God – you felt in him that openness to the sacred.

“Piety.”  It’s an impressive quality.  And I thought of that as I listened to Vidal speak.  The sense of  “hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature.”

Khan asked Vidal what impressed him most about Calvino’s character.  Vidal, one short year before his demise, gazed straight ahead as if staring down death: “Truth.”

Watch the video for yourself, here.

 

 

Gore Vidal remembering Italo Calvino: “He was the only great writer of my time.”

Saturday, August 11th, 2012
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Gore Vidal's magnificent Mediterranean digs – Calvino was a neighbor.

A few days ago I wrote about Italo Calvino.  I’ve so far neglected the death of Gore Vidal – so many have written so much already I didn’t feel I had anything substantive to add.

Since both writers have been on my mind, it was curious to see their names intertwined in a link (can’t even remember where) that revisited a New York Review of Books article, featuring Vidal’s 1985 recollection of Calvino’s burial in Italy – the two were, in fact, neighbors.

Europe regarded Calvino’s death as a calamity for culture. A literary critic, as opposed to theorist, wrote at length in Le Monde, while in Italy itself, each day for two weeks, bulletins from the hospital at Siena were published, and the whole country was suddenly united in its esteem not only for a great writer but for someone who reached not only primary school children through his collections of folk and fairy tales but, at one time or another, everyone else who reads.

He had first written about Calvino eleven years earlier, in an essay that included the passage: “Reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.” The article caught Calvino’s attention, the two exchanged letters, and finally met.

En route to the burial sans ceremony at Castiglion della Pescáia, Vidal recalled:

As we drove north through the rain, I read Calvino’s last novel, Palomar. He had given it to me on November 28, 1983. I was chilled—and guilty—to read for the first time the inscription: “For Gore, these last meditations about Nature, Italo.” “Last” is a word artists should not easily use. What did this “last” mean? Latest? Or his last attempt to write about the phenomenal world? Or did he know, somehow, that he was in the process of “Learning to be dead,” the title of the book’s last chapter?

What greatness looks like.

What’s surprisingly moving in Vidal’s account is his obvious reverence for the Italian maestro, which assumes the usual form of embroidering a connection to make it more important, more real (“I hold Chichita’s hand a long moment,” he makes sure he tells us as he stands at the graveside with Calvino’s widow).  One would not have expected Vidal to expose himself that way, even inadvertently.  But humility is the sincerest and most difficult form of greatness.

That’s why it’s so dispiriting that Vidal’s fatal flaw persistently surfaces, the one that kept his own work from greatness: Vidal can’t resist the impulse to take an unnecessary and irrelevant swipe at those he holds in contempt, which is almost all of us.  For example, an almost random mention of meeting “the dread physical therapist Ms. Fonda Hayden,” which undermines the piece and should have met a sterner editorial pen.

He also laces his piece with taxonomies of middlebrow, highbrow, lowbrow, along with disdainful (and often unjust) comparisons of, for example, American ways with Continental ways – with the former always risible, provincial, gaffe-prone.  The inclusion of such remarks is predicated on the idea that we give a damn, and gives the impression that we earnestly seek his approval or want to be one of  the toffs.  We don’t. Where was the friend who could have told him these asides immeasurably weaken his writing?   

A more or less random example of passing insult:  “He wants us to see not only what he sees but what we may have missed by not looking with sufficient attention. It is no wonder that Galileo crops up in his writing. The received opinion of mankind over the centuries (which is what middlebrow is all about) was certain that the sun moved around the earth but to a divergent highbrow’s mind, Galileo’s or Calvino’s, it is plainly the other way around. Galileo applied the scientific methods of his day; Calvino used his imagination. Each either got it right; or assembled the data so that others could understand the phenomenon.

But I have seen “highbrows” hold remarkably conventional and conformist views, and I have encountered truly original and iconoclastic lowbrows.  So this isn’t a measure of anything except Vidal’s rather commonplace worship of “science.”

Here’s what Calvino does with related material, in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that preoccupied him in his final months, and eventually became Six Memos for the Next Millenium:

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes,” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

On the video below, Vidal says: “He was the only great writer of my time.”  This is a great video, thoroughly addictive.

Lightness in darkness: Italo Calvino on the eve of war

Sunday, July 29th, 2012
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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?”

Wisława Szymborska: a feather touch that, for all its lightness, lingers

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012
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Wisława Szymborska is dead at 88.  It’s after 1 a.m., but it wouldn’t seem right to let the night pass without a comment.

In 2008, I had tried persistently to meet the reclusive Nobel poet in Kraków – another story, for another time.  During my return for the Year of Czesław Miłosz last spring, my time had run out too quickly, and now apparently hers has also.

But I did see her briefly last spring, at a rare public appearance at St. Catherine’s Church, a reading where she shared the stage with her friend Julia Hartwig, the Chinese poet Bei Dao, and others.  The formidable figure seemed friendly, frail, exuding warmth and authenticity.  Afterward, she was whisked away through the back, like a rare and delicate doll that must be exhibited, but not touched by the fans who had flooded the medieval church.

Somewhere on a thumb drive I have a photo, but I’ll settle today for the more magical one from the Poetry Foundation website.

According to the New York Times obituary:

Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published.

Asked why, she once said: “There is a trash bin in my room. A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.”

When I reviewed her collection Monologue of a Dog for the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005, I wrote this:

Perhaps the reason for the paucity is because it took a long while to edit the “I” out of her poems, which slip in and out of personal identity. The heart-breaking title poem assumes the voice of a dictator’s dog; “Among the Multitudes” considers the wonder of being born human rather than with fins or feathers; another poem ponders her one-sided relationship with plants; “Plato, or Why” asks about the Ideal Being — “Why on earth did it start seeking thrills/ in the bad company of matter? … Wisdom limping/ with a thorn stuck in its heel?”

Or perhaps it’s because, as she has written elsewhere, she has tried to borrow weighty words, and then labored to lighten them. As always with Szymborska, a poet who survived the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Poland, poems of war and dislocation are told with a feather touch that nonetheless, for all its lightness, lingers. “Some People” describes the plight of refugees: “Always another wrong road ahead of them,/ always another wrong bridge/ across an oddly reddish river.”

Szymborska’s lightness is never denial or indifference; it is a subtle means of defiance. Italo Calvino, who praised the literary virtue of leggerezza, which he called the “subtraction of weight,” elaborated: “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. … I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.”

The BBC included this poem, the wisest epitaph:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.