Richard's Reviews > Six Memos For The Next Millennium

Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino
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's review
Jul 11, 2008

really liked it
Read in September, 2007

This book is a collection of talks on writing Calvino was preparing as a series of documents specifying some important keys of literature that he felt needed to be recorded as crucial elements of literary tradition. Indeed, in his essay "Visibility," Calvino brings up his concern for the future of imagination and literature in a world so full of prefabricated imagery, where images are provided rather than solicited. While his initial impulse was to write six lectures, he evidently reported at one point of his process that he had ideas for eight, but in the end he only completed five. In her introduction, Esther Calvino clarifies that she decided to keep the title true to Italo's original intention and publish the series under the original title, despite the missing sixth.

In the lectures themselves, Calvino provides the kind of insight and fascination with the making of literature that fuels so many of his best books. Rather than come across as a manifesto of his own brilliance, as the premise may sound, Calvino spends a lot of time in admiration of the work of other writers, from classics like Ovid and Dante to colleagues and contemporaries, like Francis Perec and Douglas R. Hofstadter. The lectures are of course sometimes punctuated with personal details about his own writing processes, but I found them very inviting and revealing about the ideas he was trying to point out.

Each lecture dedicates itself to an aspect of literature that Calvino finds crucial: "Lightness," or the aspect of language that speaks directly to a reader and is not always weighed down with intellectual metaphor but with direct communication; "Quickness," or the immediacy of literature - the way it cuts through random detail to get to the necessary; "Exactitude," or the precision of language (and when it needs imprecision); "Visibility," or the power of imagery to convey ideas; and "Multiplicity," or the complexity of content.

Calvino is a writer who has always presented a kind of fascinating enigma. His works is spectacularly visual, and while crucially uncategorizable in its sense of being not easy to nail down in the area of metaphor or theme (something that Calvino no doubt worked quite strenuously at, clear when he talks about a poem's meaning in "Exactitude" as being "not fixed, not definitive, not hardened into mineral immobility, but alive as an organism"), it is also quite accessible and always an enjoyable read. Calvino mastered the art of experimentalism that did not read as though one needed to be schooled in the traditions of literature to understand his intents. Though Calvino clearly wants to offer his lectures as guides for the necessities of literature for posterity, it is also a manifesto on the man's own aesthetic, though it is not a manifesto that demands the agreement of others, or the demand that others follow in his footsteps. Though Calvino does have moments of criticism, as when he accuses schools of dispensing "the culture of the mediocre," which I take to mean the conveying of literature as something with set meaning that we must all learn and emulate (or at least parrot back), and also directs a barb or two at the publishing industry when he supports experimentalism with the following caveat: "The demands of the publishing business are a fetish that must not be allowed to keep us from trying out new forms." In this lecture series, Calvino presents himself quite wise and worldly, but also quite direct and earnest. A reading of this work at the start of any literature course on almost any level of schooling might provide a stiff reminder that literature is a work of passion, not just analysis, and it also works in the realm of paradox, as Calvino himself presents--that it is structure in literature that is needed to make it transcend structure, that one needs to be as aware of the lack of success in literature as much as success to see the stuff of great literature.

Calvino's last `memo,' "Consistency," was never written, but I could only imagine where he would have gone with it, which was always a strength of Calvino's work. The last lecture seems to bring to a full circle many of things he brings up through the series, but Calvino's work always found a way to extend beyond the full circle. Perhaps, in the end, the consistency needs to be ours, to make sure that this wisdom does not go to waste.
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