Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
Exciting news comes my way today -- I had heard that a new edition of Cosmicomics was being published; today at The Quarterly Conversation, Scott Esposito has more information: the book will include Cosmicomics stories Calvino published throughout his career, more than half of which are not in the previous English edition of Cosmicomics, and 7 of which are appearing for the first time in English. (One of these was published in February at The New Yorker; and two more are in the current Harper's, only accessible to subscribers.) It has been many years since I read these stories, I'm really looking forward to rereading and to the new ones.
The moon is old, Qfwfq agreed, pitted with holes, worn out. Rolling naked through the skies, it erodes and loses its flesh like a bone that's been gnawed. This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. I remember moons that were even older and more battered than this one; I've seen loads of these moons, seen them being born and running across the sky and dying out, one punctured by hail from shooting stars, another exploding from all its craters, and yet another oozing drops of topaz-colored sweat that evaporated immediately, then being covered by greenish clouds and reduced to a dried-up, spongy shell.
Saturday, October first, 2011
Some names from WB Yeats' memory:
Came Blanaid, Mac Nessa, tall Fergus who feastward of old time slunk, Discussing "The Wanderings of Oisin," Judith Weissman calls "this list of unforgettable and irreplaceable names... the poem's most powerful passage; the names themselves call Oisin back to what he remembers..." This statement stuck in my head last night while I was reading Cosmicomics and I was struck by the incantatory nature of the names of Qfwfq's family members...
Cook Barach, the traitor; and warward, the spittle on his beard never dry,
Dark Balor, as old as a forest, his mighty head sunk
Helpless, men lifting the lids of his weary and death-making eye.
My introduction to Calvino was 14 or so years ago, on a weekend trip -- Ellen's writing group was staying for the weekend at Joyce and Jim's place in New Paltz (or, well, possibly this was when they were living in Coxsackie -- there were a number of such weekend retreats); I found a copy of Cosmicomics in the guest bedroom and spent much of the weekend holed up in there reading. It is a difficult book to put down. I started reading it again last night and am finding the stories just delightful, all over again.
I had forgotten from my previous read of Cosmicomics, what a sweet, lovable character the narrator Qfwfq is -- my memory of him was as a pretty abstract, cold presence. I take from this that my reading a decade and a half ago was less concerned with characters, with identification, and more principally so with the language and logic games that I remember well from the previous read.
That day I was running through a kind of amphitheatre of porous, spongy rocks, all pierced with arches beyond which other arches opened; a very uneven terrain where the absence of colour was streaked by distinguishable concave shadows. And among the pillars of these colourless arches I saw a kind of colourless flash running swiftly, disappearing, then reappearing further on: two flattened glows that appeared and disappeared abruptly; I still hadn't realized what they were, but I was already in love and running, in pursuit of the eyes of Ayl.
From a presentation
at Teatro Bergidum, León
(A note on rereading Calvino -- it is a pleasure to find that in his note "Why Read the Classics?", Calvino says that "classics are the books of which we usually hear people say, “I am rereading…” and never “I am reading…”")
Monday, October third, 2011
"The Spiral" is the twelfth and last story in the original Cosmicomics collection, the book Calvino published in 1965. Qfwfq has fallen in love again; this time his avatar is a proto-gastropod somewhere in the Cambrian period, with radial symmetry but with no eyes to observe his own form or that of his beloved. "Form? I didn't have any; that is, I didn't know I had one, or rather, I didn't know you could have one." But one thing leads to another as he imagines, in his eternal darkness, the millions of other suitors who must be vying for her hand, and to distinguish himself begins to secrete a shell...
But my error lay in thinking that sight would also come to us, that is to me and to her. ...I'm talking about sight, the eyes; only I had failed to foresee one thing: that the eyes that finally opened to see us didn't belong to us but to others.
Qfwfq's predicament here is cute, and funny; but what really interests me about this story is the short meditative interlude in between his decision to grow a shell and his realization that it will do him no æsthetic good -- Calvino pulls the camera way back and still speaking in Qfwfq's voice, walks through long lists of the ways that beauty manifests in our world, a Dutch girl lying on the beach, a swarm of bees following its queen, coal smoke puffing from a locomotive, histories of Herodotus and tracts of Spinoza... and states clearly that all this beauty is foretold in the first mollusc's shell. When I summarize it this way I'm not entirely sure I buy it -- but in the story it rings crystal clear.
Tuesday, October 4th, 2011
The mood of the four Qfwfq stories in Calvino's second Cosmicomics collection, Time and the Hunter (1968) is quite different -- more frantic, more insistent. There is a strong, extremely dark environmentalist element to these stories. In three of the four, Qfwfq manifests as a modern-day human -- in the previous volume, there were passing, humorous references to modernity but most of the action was focused in the geological (or astronomical) past.
Anyways: it was fun to be reading "Crystals" this morning as I rode NJTransit in to Manhattan and come across Qfwfq's description of taking
the train each morning (I live in New Jersey) to slip into the cluster of prisms I see emerging beyond the Hudson, with its sharp cusps; I spend my days there, going up and down the horizontal and vertical axes that criss-cross that compact solid, or along the obligatory routes that graze its sides and its edges.
Thursday, October 6th, 2011
Cluster of prisms seen from Hoboken
This trilogy of stories makes up the middle section of Time and the Hunter -- exploring Qfwfq's relationship with his beloved Priscilla through the eyes of the trillions of cells which make up their multicellular beings. I am finding these stories pretty difficult to process -- there is a hint of beauty and insight lurking in the text but the shrill verbosity of it is keeping me from finding any clarity. Some exceptional passages to be sure. Take for instance Qfwfq's deterministic understanding of his passions and desires as serving the needs of his cells --
This is how we live, not free, surrounded by freedom, driven, acted on by this constant wave which is the combination of the possible cases and which passes through those points of space and time in which the range of pasts is joined to the range of futures.... The ancient tide rises at intervals in me and in Priscilla following the course of the moon...
And the scene at the end of "Meiosis," the two of them as camels, is utterly fantastic.
Friday, October 7th, 2011
Cluster of prisms, rising into the sunset
The last section of Time and the Hunter, "t zero" is a great relief after the frenzied anxiety of "More of Qfwfq" and the dizzying (for me insuperable) complexity of "Priscilla." The calm voice of the narrator from the first volume is back. He wants to talk about duration here -- how events follow one another in their stream, what a slice of that stream might look like if it could be frozen in place. Less attention is paid here to character and plot -- indeed the stories in this section read more like essays than like works of fiction.
Saturday, October 8th, 2011
I'd like to quote at length a paragraph from "t zero," below the fold -- so we can observe and appreciate and meditate upon the crystalline beauty of the writing and of the ideas, you and I, and so that I can briefly mount one of my favorite hobby horses.
So now that I have decided to inhabit forever this second t0 -- and if I hadn't decided to it would be the same thing because as Q0 I can inhabit no other -- I have ample leisure to look around and to contemplate my second to its full extent. It encompasses on my right a river blackish with hippopotamuses, on my left the savannah blackish-white with zebras, and scattered at various points along the horizon some baobab trees blackish-yellow with toucans, each of these elements marked by the positions occupied respectively by the hippopotamuses H(a)0, H(b)0, H(c)0 et cetera, by the zebras Z(a)0, Z(b)0, Z(c)0 et cetera, the toucans T(a)0, T(b)0, T(c)0 et cetera. It further embraces hut villages and warehouses of importers and exporters, plantations that conceal underground thousands of seeds at different moments of the process of germination, endless deserts with the position of each grain of sand G(a)0 G(b)0... G(nn)0 transported by the wind, cities at night with lighted windows and dark windows, cities during the day with red and yellow and green traffic lights, production graphs, price indices, stock market figures, epidemics of contagious diseases with the position of each virus, local wars with volleys of bullets B(a)0 B(b)0... B(z)0 B(zz)0 B(zzz)0... suspended in their trajectory, bullets which may strike the enemies E(a)0 E(b)0 E(c)0 hidden among the leaves, airplanes with clusters of just-released bombs suspended beneath them, airplanes with clusters of bombs waiting to be released, total war implicit in the international situation (IS)0 which at some unknown moment (IS)X will become explicit total war, explosions of supernovæ which might change radically the configuration of our galaxy...
I'm interested in what it means to take an instantaneous slice of reality this way. As Calvino/Qfwfq noted in the first volume of Cosmicomics
, in the story "The Light-Years," every object is, to observers, a sphere expanding at the speed of light -- the observer perceives the object at the instant when the skin of that sphere crosses his/her location. The instant t0
has to be identified with Q0
's location in space, and the subscript zero as applied to zebras, hippopotamuses, bullets, international situations, if it is to mean the same thing as the subscript zero applied to Qfwfq and his instant, has to refer to the surfaces of their spheres, all intersecting at locus Q
. But at the moment when this happens (again, as pointed out in "The Light-Years"), that zebra over there is no longer Z(n)0
, it has gone on to become some Z(n)a
which will at some later tx
become visible to Qx
Sunday, October 9th, 2011
One of the big attractions for me about reading this edition of Cosmicomics was its completeness -- all the Cosmicomics stories Calvino ever published, including seven that have never previously been translated. The collector in me loves getting the opportunity to read and reread them all at once...
And what about it? I'm nearly at the end of the book now, is it a good thing to have the stories all bundled up like this for reading together? I think it is. My memory of first reading Cosmicomics (just the first 12 stories) is of being excited and stimulated and pulled through the book -- that is very similar to what's happening this time with the 34 stories. While the first volume felt complete on its own, the subsequent additions certainly hold their own and complement it.
The newly translated stories (translated by Martin McLaughlin, who also wrote the introduction to this collection) are seven stories from the 1968 collection World Memory and other Cosmicomics Stories. They are not all in the vein of the earlier stories -- some certainly are similar, such as "The Meteorites", and some are distinctly different, such as the exquisite "Solar Storm." The title story, "World Memory" (the only one that was already translated, by Tim Parks) is a... well a sui generis story, but sort of a murder mystery. They reinforce the themes and ideas of the earlier stories, and they branch out and diverge into their own stylistic innovations and subtleties.
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