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Authors: Italo Calvino

Why Read the Classics?

Why Read The Classics?

Italo Calvino’s works include
Numbers in the Dark, The Road to San Giovanni, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, The Baron in the Trees, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Invisible Cities, Marcovaldo
, and
Mr. Palomar
. Calvino died in 1985.

Also by

The Baron in the Trees
The Castle of Crossed Destinies
Difficult Loves
Fantastic Tales
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
Invisible Cities
Italian Folktales
Mr. Palomar
The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount
Numbers in the Dark
The Road to San Giovanni
Six Memos for the Next Millennium
t zero
Under the Jaguar Sun
The Uses of Literature
The Watcher and Other Stories


Translator’s Introduction


Why Read the Classics?

The Odysseys Within
The Odyssey


Ovid and Universal Contiguity

The Sky, Man, the Elephant

Nezami’s Seven Princesses

Tirant lo Blanc

The Structure of the
Orlando Furioso

Brief Anthology of Octaves from Ariosto

Gerolamo Cardano

The Book of Nature in Galileo

Cyrano on the Moon

Robinson Crusoe
, Journal of Mercantile Virtues

, or Concerning Narrative Rapidity

Diderot, Jacques le Fataliste

Giammaria Ortes

Knowledge as Dust-cloud in Stendhal

Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s

The City as Novel in Balzac

Charles Dickens,
Our Mutual Friend

Gustave Flaubert,
Trois Contes

Leo Tolstoy,
Two Hussars

Mark Twain,
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg

Henry James,
Daisy Miller

Robert Louis Stevenson,
The Pavilion on the Links

Conrad’s Captains

Pasternak and the Revolution

The World is an Artichoke

Carlo Emilio Gadda, the

Eugenio Montale, ‘Forse un mattino andando’

Montale’s Cliff

Hemingway and Ourselves

Francis Ponge

Jorge Luis Borges

The Philosophy of Raymond Queneau

Pavese and Human Sacrifice

Publisher’s Note

Translator’s Introduction

Eleven of the thirty-six essays in this book have appeared in English before.
The justification for retranslating those eleven pieces stems from the desire to provide an integral English version that corresponds exactly to the important posthumous anthology
Perché leggere i classici
(Milan: Mondadori, 1991). That volume represents a personal collection of essays on Calvino’s classics, selected in consultation with the author’s widow, and based on material that the author had set aside for some such future publication. Calvino’s English readers now not only have access to a substantial and coherent sample of his literary criticism but can also gain an insight into what amounts to his personal canon of great classics. Some of the essays appearing here for the first time in English translation will be of particular interest to Calvino’s readers in the Anglo-American world: no fewer than seven of them deal with major authors of texts in English (Defoe, Dickens, Conrad, Stevenson, Twain, James, Hemingway), while others contain substantial references to writers such as Sterne (Diderot), Shakespeare (Ortes), Dickens (Balzac) and Kipling (Hemingway).

One of several other insights that this collection offers is the omnivorous nature of Calvino’s tastes in reading. Apart from the seven essays on texts in English, Italian literature naturally enjoys pride of place with ten essays, but there are no fewer than nine devoted to French works, four to classical authors from the ancient world, and two each to Russian and Hispanic writers.

The volume also provides an idea of how one of the twentieth century’s greatest fiction writers developed as a literary critic, starting with early essays from his militant Communist period in the 1950s (on Conrad,
Hemingway, Defoe, Pasternak), covering his prolific and varied literary interests in the 1970s (English, Russian, French and Greco-Roman writers), right down to some of his final and finest essays written in the 1980s. The essays chart the development of an increasingly sophisticated literary critic, who was anything but provincial in his literary tastes: on the evidence of these essays, even if he had not become an internationally renowned fiction writer, Calvino would have been one of the most interesting essayists and critics of the twentieth century.

Why Read the Classics?
also mirrors the fiction writer’s own creative evolution, from neorealist to postmodernist, from Conrad and Hemingway to Queneau and Borges. Right from the outset he was particularly interested in literature in English: Stevenson and Kipling had been favourite authors in his childhood, and his university thesis on Conrad (completed while he was writing his first novel, in 1946-47) was a precocious study of the ideas, characters and style of the author
of Lord Jim
. As a writer of neorealist fiction, he was naturally deeply indebted to Hemingway, so it is no surprise to find that these two authors are the subjects of the earliest essays in this collection. During the 1950s, as his own fiction shifts from neorealism towards fantasy, Calvino moves away from twentieth-century authors: the essay on
Robinson Crusoe
is almost exactly contemporary with his longest, and most ‘Robinsonian’ novel,
The Baron in the Trees
(1957), and many of the episodes highlighted in Calvino’s essay on Defoe resurface intertextually in his novel.

The 1963 essay on Gadda was written just at the time when a new literary avant-garde emerged in Italy which also had a profound effect on Calvino. Gadda’s sense of the complexity of the world suited perfectly the mood of the author, who at that stage was turning his back on traditional realist fiction and embarking on the cosmicomical tales that were to confirm his international reputation as a major fantasist. These cosmic interests are reflected in the essays on Cyrano and Galileo: the latter, Calvino claimed in a famous polemic in the 1960s, was one of the most important Italian prosewriters ever.

Many of the 1970s essays in this collection are introductions to novellas or long short stories by authors such as James, Twain, Tolstoy, Stevenson and Balzac. This was part of an attractive initiative undertaken by Calvino in those years, the series he launched with Einaudi entitled ‘Centopagine’ He always held a high aesthetic regard for brief texts (of no more than one hundred pages) which avoided the complexity and length of the novel. His
often declared admiration for eighteenth-century Enlightenment values is reflected in the essays on Diderot, Voltaire and Ortes, while his enthusiasm for classic nineteenth-century fiction is evident in the substantial contributions on Stendhal and Flaubert, and in the detailed analysis of
Our Mutual Friend
, which displays particular sensitivity to Dickens’ style and to the comparative efficacy of rival Italian translations of the novel.

One final trend also evident here is worth noting: in the 1970s and 1980s not only does Calvino turn back to Italian classics such as Ariosto, but he also rereads a number of ancient texts, such as Homer, Xenophon, Ovid and Pliny. His creative writing in this period is also informed by this new aspiration towards classical qualities: in the central section of
Invisible Cities
, for instance, the city of Baucis explicitly recalls the myth in the central book of Ovid’s
, discussed at length in the essay in this volume. Similarly the central definition of Pliny in the 1982 essay (‘the measured movement of [Pliny’s] prose … is enlivened by his admiration for everything that exists and his respect for the infinite diversity of all phenomena’) throws interesting light on the creative work Calvino was composing at this same time: in one sense
Mr Palomar
(1983) is a modern, or post-modern, Pliny, its smooth prose encompassing his interest in all flora and fauna. Calvino’s appetite for French literature also embraces contemporary writers such as Ponge and Queneau, the essay on the latter reflecting the Italian author’s interest in that innovative blend of literature and mathematics that was characteristic of the French author and his friends in the OULIPO (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle); while Ponge’s defamiliarisation of quotidian objects echoes Mr Palomar’s attempt to see the universe with fresh eyes, whether it be waves on a beach, the sky at night, or the blades of grass in a lawn. The collection as a whole thus offers a kind of rear view into the everyday workshop of a great creative writer: what Calvino read was often metamorphosed creatively, intertextually, into what Calvino wrote.

Despite the variety of texts discussed here, and their suggestion of the author’s evolution, there are important constants. There is an extraordinary consistency in his appreciation of those works that celebrate the practicality and nobility of human labour, a line that Calvino traces from Xenophon to Defoe and Voltaire before reaching Conrad and Hemingway. On the stylistic side, these essays demonstrate how Calvino consistently appreciated the five literary qualities that he regarded as essential for the next millennium: lightness (Cyrano, Diderot, Borges), rapidity (Ovid, Voltaire),
precision (Pliny, Ariosto, Galileo, Cardano, Ortes, Montale), visibility (Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert), multiplicity or potential literature (Borges, Queneau). Perhaps, then, a further definition of what a classic is could be added to the fourteen definitions put forward in the elegant title essay, ‘Why Read the Classics?’: ‘A classic is a work which (like each of Calvino’s texts) retains a consciousness of its own modernity without ceasing to be aware of other classic works of the past.’

Any quotations from non-English original texts about which Calvino is writing are my own translations, either based on the original ‘classic’ text or on the translation used by Calvino. Given the wide-ranging nature of these essays I have of course been helped by a number of experts to whom I here express my deep gratitude: Catriona Kelly, Howard Miles, Jonny Patrick, Christopher Robinson, Nicoletta Simborowski, Ron Truman.

Christ Church, Oxford                                     Martin McLaughlin


They appeared in Italo Calvino,
The Literature Machine. Essays
, translated by Patrick Creagh (London: Seeker and Warburg, 1987), with the following tides: ‘Why Read the Classics?’; ‘The Odysseys Within
The Odyssey’;
‘Ovid and Universal Contiguity’; ‘Man, the Sky, and the Elephant’; ‘The Structure of
Orlando Furioso’;
‘Cyrano on the Moon’; ‘
an Essay on Velocity’; ‘The City as Protagonist in Balzac’; ‘Stendhal’s Knowledge of the “Milky Way”’; ‘Guide to
The Charterhouse of Parma
for the Use of New Readers’; ‘Montale’s Rock’.


In a letter dated 27 September 1961 Italo Calvino wrote to Niccolò Gallo: ‘As for collecting essays as occasional and disparate as my own, one should really wait until the author is either dead or at least in advanced old age.’

Despite this, Calvino did begin to collect his non-fiction in 1980, with the volume
Una pietra sopra (Closing the Door)
, followed in 1984 by
Collezione di sabbia (Collection of Sand)
. Subsequently he authorised for his overseas readership a selection which was the English, American and French equivalent of
Una pietra sopra
, but which was not identical to the Italian original: it included the essays on Homer, Pliny, Ariosto, Balzac, Stendhal and Montale, as well as the title essay of the present volume. Later still he modified some of the tides of these essays — and in one case, the article on Ovid, he added another page which he left in manuscript form — with a view to publishing them in a subsequent Italian collection.

In this volume the reader will find most of the essays and articles by Calvino on ‘his’ classics: the writers, poets and scientific authors who had meant most to him, at different stages of his life. In the case of twentieth-century authors, priority has been given to the essays on those writers and poets whom Calvino held in particular esteem.

Esther Calvino

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