The Book of the Ridiculously Sublime
October 15, 2011 § 2 Comments
Gandhi never won the Nobel Peace Prize. Paul Erdos and Andrew Wiles never won the Fields Medal. Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar – and Italo Calvino ranks pretty high on my list of noteworthy writers never to have got the Nobel Lit nod. My first reaction to Calvino – not just the first time I read a book of his (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, in November 1998) but every time I begin one of his books – is one of sudden delight. After the first time, I have always had high expectations from his books, and not once have they failed to exceed them. This is because Calvino is possibly the best teller of stories there has ever been, with the possible exception of the anonymous authors of A Thousand and One Nights and of the Mahabharata.
If you think that was a tad hyperbolic, well, it probably was (I have been assured by reliable sources that excess necessarily succeeds) but consider the book under review. It is as if someone threw down a challenge that it would be impossible to write a collection of stories of literary merit, each of which starts with a bizarre prefacing paragraph like:
The planets of the solar system, G. P. Kuiper explains, began to solidify in the darkness, through the condensation of a fluid, shapeless nebula. All was cold and dark. Later the Sun began to become more concentrated until it was reduced almost to its present dimensions, and in this process the temperature rose and rose, to thousands of degrees and the Sun started emitting radiations in space.
The first vertebrates who, in the Carboniferous period, abandoned aquatic life for terrestrial, descended from the osseous, pulmonate fish whose fins were capable of rotation beneath their bodies and thus could be used as paws on the Earth.
When the galaxies become more remote, the rarefaction of the universe is compensated for by the formation of further galaxies composed of newly created matter. To maintain a stable median density of the universe it is sufficient to create a hydrogen atom every 250 million years for 40 cubic centimeters of expanding space.
Or that someone challenged Calvino to write about characters with names like Qfwfq, (k)yK and G’d(w)n, who lived at the time of the Big Bang (and so were all squashed into a single point) or when the stars were moving away from each other, or when the planets were forming – clearly unimaginable characters existing in impossible circumstances, for most of the story-writing world, but not for Calvino.
Calvino uses all of infinite Time and Space as backdrops for his tales, and shapes characters out of wisps of ethereal, eternal material; but then he gives them thoughts and emotions along with claws and tails. Several of them have not yet evolved eyes, but they feel jealousy, insecurity and shame, they love and fear, and some of them have a powerful sense of beauty and identity. Incredibly, he makes them credible. However incongruous the situation and whatever weird species the characters belong to, Calvino can grab your attention and your empathy, and hold them for as long as he likes, and he always – always – has something interesting to say about the human condition.
Calvino’s overarching theme (I think) is that of a growing sense of loneliness and alienation in a rapidly expanding world, of faint and futile hope of finding a kindred soul among billions of strangers, of the sensation of being torn apart from everyone else by violent forces. In other words, Calvino uses modern science to weave fables relevant to modern life.
Amalgamating astronomy and philosophy, fusing farce with fantasy and physics with psychology, Calvino’s collection is a glorious confusion of categories. Is it science? Is it fiction? Is it science fiction? Is it absurd? Is it profound? All I can confirm is that it is aptly titled: it mixes the cosmically sublime with the comically ridiculous. It is pure Calvino, like every one of his books – of which I understand there are only 17. I despair of the day in the not too distant future that I will run out of Calvinos to read. How I wish he’d continued to live and write beyond the age of 62. And maybe then – who knows? He may even have won that Nobel Prize.