Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Real Artifice

Novels are like strangers. We’re a little wary to start with; but are prepared to be polite. A few drinks, a confession or two, we chat for a while, maybe for a whole evening; and we see each other now and then. Sometimes, though, a rather odd one comes along and bang! we’re mates immediately and for life.

Here was a rather ordinary stranger, soon to be forgotten; when…

Fiordaligi, on the contrary, a melancholy youth, every time the GNAC went off, saw the dimly lighted window of a garret appear behind the curl of the G, and beyond the pane the face of a moon-colored girl, neon-coloured, the color of light in the night, a mouth still almost a child’s that, the moment, he smiled at her, parted imperceptibly and seemed almost to open in a smile; then all of a sudden from the darkness that implacable G of GNAC burst out again, and the face lost its outline, was transformed into a weak, pale shadow, and he could no longer tell if the girlish mouth had responded to his smile.
     In the midst of this storm of passions, Marcovaldo was trying to teach his children the positions of the celestial bodies.
    “That’s the Great Bear: one, two, three, four, and there, the tail. And that’s the Little Bear. And the Pole-Star that means North.”
    “What does the one over there mean?”
    “It means C. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the stars. It’s the last letter of the word COGNAC. The stars mark the four cardinal points. North South East West. The moon’s hump is to the west. Hump to the west, waxing moon. Hump to the east, waning moon.”
    “Is cognac waning, Papa? The C’s hump is to the east!”
    “Waxing and waning have nothing to do with that: it’s a sign the Spaak company has up there.”
    "What company put up the moon then?”
     “The moon wasn’t put up by a company. It’s a satellite, and it’s always there.”
     “If it’s always there, why does it keep changing its hump?”
     “It’s the quarters. You only see a part of it.”
     “You only see a part of COGNAC too.”
     “Because the roof of the Pierbernardi building is higher.”
     “Higher than the moon?”
     And so, every time the GNAC came on, Marcovaldo’s stars became mixed up with terrestrial commerce…

Up until this point I found the book uninteresting – a collection of somewhat formulaic stories, about an innocent character, more suited to the countryside than the city, whose odd, mildly surrealistic, behaviour always goes wrong. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a newspaper: a regular series of comic vignettes, using the same character for continuity.

At this point I suddenly woke up! This scene begins to stretch the formula. So much is going on! Such a range of moods, and all from one window. The sad youth waiting for the sign to go off; the father trying to teach the kids; the kids excited and confused by the strangeness of new knowledge, which becomes a little game with reality and ideas – the author’s future trademark.

Later in the story the kids throw stones at the sign and break it. Then another company pays them to continuing throwing stones to rack up the costs to their rivals…. A certain crazy logic, which creates its very own world, but also contains a vivid truth – in this case the production of absurdity out of corporate avarice.  The author’s taken off, of course, high into the summer sky! And we follow him, for we know he’s suddenly found his form; Italo Calvino has acquired his very own voice.

In an author’s note he writes that the first stories were written in the early 1950s and the later ones in the mid-60s, ‘when the illusions of an economic boom flourished.’ Is Moon and Gnac his first Sixties’ story? If so, is it merely coincidence that his talent is associated with economic prosperity; the world of hype and advertising, of signs and labels, of rich promises, and illusory paradises?  A world that follows its own rules, and creates its own reality. An artificial wonderland, which has affected at least two generations of intellectuals, the postmodernists, who have inhabited it as the Scholastics did heaven.

Calvino’s greatness is his ability to portray this world by analogy. In Invisible Cities, his tiny stories, really prose poems, constantly play a game between facts and words, signs and things; to the point were the boundary between them is unclear.

Many intellectuals, infected by the Parisian disease (a particularly virulent strain Jean Braudillard’s, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place?), have come to believe that the media world has replaced the rest of the cosmos to become our reality; that we live within shifting signs and symbols, which cannot be grounded in truth and hard fact. That life is a conveyor belt of advertising slogans, selling a product that doesn’t exist.

Of course, Structuralism and Deconstruction are part of much wider 20th century trends, which place language at the centre of intellectual interest. What is the role of language? How does it distort reality?  Can it create our mental pictures?   Can it, as Wittgenstein believed, trap us, by creating language communities which we find difficult to escape? Like all intellectual breakthroughs the questions these movements raised were more important that their (temporary) solutions.  And by asking them they highlighted a new and perplexing problem: what actually does language do when it describes the phenomenal world; our world of objects and incidents. But like all movements it can become stale and cliché ridden; a little Saussure here, a bit of Lacan there; a hundred thousand papers telling us that language is unreliable or a weapon of the powerful…

Calvino inhabits this intellectual universe, and describes it as another writer would a misty morning by a silent river. He has turned this intellectual discourse in something tactile and tangible; he has made it art.

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that establish the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or grey or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They will rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when travelling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider webs of intricate relationships seeking a form. (Trading Cities 4)

How neatly he captures the strangeness of the city, and our modern lives. A world that has shifted from making things to creating bureaucrats and businessmen; and which relies on networks of relationships. And how fragile they seem, not like the hard reality of producing steel or digging for coal, but how solid this world actually is – those strings (our social networks) really are sturdier than brick walls. And so the City of London has outlasted the mines of South Wales; its flows of money more enduring than seams of coal.

He doesn’t get it right all the time of course; sometimes he tries too hard, and it becomes little more than an empty game…

But at his best Calvino captures this new reality, and its intellectual problems of representation and empirical fact. He does so, however, not by bringing in other people’s ideas and using them as metaphors, or by throwing them into the narrative wholesale, like concrete blocks into a pond. No, he transforms these ideas, he creates them afresh, to give them a texture and a substance (Borges and Ballard also have this gift; a rare talent indeed). Too often authors want to give weight to their work by bringing in ideas, which can then serve has handy symbols. But putting someone else’s thoughts into a novel is just to copy someone else’s work – it has no life in the new context. The original idea was created, and its life comes from that original creation (to read a great thinker is to read the process of their thought). Thus it is much better to read Adam Smith or Charles Darwin than to read them, usually third hand, in some novel.

David Hume, talking about the arts, says that the gift of the poets is their ability to convey the passions; the human sentiments. For the overwhelming majority of great writers this is their supreme achievement. And the ideas they use are absorbed into the texture of their characters and actions – think of Levin in Anna Karenina searching for enlightenment; or Lydgate or Casaubon in Middlemarch, with their different conceptions of knowledge (and research technique) and how this is weaved into the story. For a novelist simply to convey another person’s ideas, without any transformation, is almost pointless: a popular account will have more depth and understanding.

Calvino is able, in Hume’s words, to make a passion of the ideas; so we experience them as objects in their own right.

Take his novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. The book is about reading. In academia the self-reflexive quality of literature has been much discussed, and would no doubt have influenced Calvino. But he makes of it something of his own. The novel is a series of false starts, where the reader begins a book, only to find that through some mistake it stops suddenly; and this happens again and again. Thus the novel becomes a series of beginnings joined by a thin narrative - through chance he meets another reader, who has experienced the same problem (some printing error at the publishers). They become acquainted, and a relationship, of sorts, develops.

The narrative is a kind of detective story, where the search to find the complete book, If on a winter’s night a traveller, is the goal. That is, the purpose of the novel becomes the finding of the novel, we are reading. We are the characters! And the hero and heroine are the readers…

It is a novel made up of many novels, of a book written by one author that contains lots of authors; and includes us in the story.  And this story doesn’t exist independently of the book, which constantly draws our attention to itself, and to the way it is written.  It makes us continually aware that it is a fiction, playing with our expectations and manipulating the forms and conventions of novel writing.  It doesn’t allow us the illusion that it is describing a reality without any mediation (it reminds us that there is a language between us and the events described). Thus the main character, the Reader, tells us, ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel’… which is exactly what we are doing! Of course, we could read this symbolically: it is one large metaphor, of God and his absolute authority, replaced by new pagan world of broken fragments, which we shape and recreate. It also plays with certain French ideas about the death of the author…. However, the best way to read the novel is to look at each truncated section as a real complete book; that is, the novel describes our actual reading experience; putting the book down; picking it up again; reading at different times with different ideas and feelings. It highlights how a book is both separate from and connected to our daily lives, and how this relationship changes the more we read it.

As the work progresses, so the mind of the hero (his name is Reader) seeps into the book. Suddenly a new story represents the view of the Reader’s recent interlocutors: his new friend wants a book full of clarity and clearly outlined events and characters; the next book he reads has exactly this. Her sister reads high social theory into the books – this is what the next story becomes.

And so it goes on…. Authors become translators become fakers (all calling into question the authenticate authorial experience), and suddenly real life is transformed into a novel. Our hero and heroine are acting like characters out of a book! The book has seeped into the real world, and is shaping it…. This is all very clever; but with a subtle truth, about the mysterious effects of our engagement with art and ideas.

Until it ends in a library, and the book and life merge completely, as different people discuss their different interpretations of what books mean. You cannot separate a book from the reader, it appears. But perhaps you can? Our reader marries Ludmila; but only to end up in bed reading If on a winter’s night a traveller. A perfect ending! For throughout its length it doesn’t lose that tension, created by its first sentence, between the self-reflexive quality of knowing this is an artificial construction, and our actual experience of it as something real. A masterpiece…

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