As I’ve rambled on before on this blog, Italo Calvino has long been one of my favourite authors – since my discovery of his work in 1982 in fact – so I was delighted to find that a new English translation of a book of his essays would be available this year (along with a collection of his letters, which I’ve yet to get my hands on!) “Collection of Sand” was published during Calvino’s lifetime, so approved by him, but has only just been made available in English, translated by current Calvino supremo Martin McLaughlin.
Calvino was a remarkably versatile writer, probably best know for his fictions, but he was also an essayist and lecturer. “Collection of Sand” brings together a number of short works in different sections. The first, entitled “Exhibitions-Explorations” consists of pieces he wrote for the newspaper la Repubblica while living in Paris, and they are stimulated in the main by cultural events and exhibitions in that city. The second, “The Eye’s Ray” contains further pieces written for the newspaper, a little wider in inspiration and themed around the visual. Thirdly, we are treated to a series of meditations entitled “Accounts of the Fantastic” which is just that. The last section “The Shape of Time” deals with travelogues, jottings and thoughts from Calvino’s journeys.
“In the Library of the Superfluous, which I would like all our bookshelves to find a space for, it seems to me that a Dictionary of Imaginary Places would be an indispensable reference work.”
And he’s a writer whose work always changes your worldview – after reading him, I always end up looking at things in a different way. Many of these essays articulate feelings I have myself as a reader; for example, on the subject of maps (which have always fascinated me), he says:
“… it is precisely these deserted, uninhabited maps that arouse in our imagination the desire to live inside them, to grow small enough to find one’s way amid the dense signs, to run through these maps, to lose oneself in them.”
As so often with a Calvino book, I end up with a sheaf of pieces of paper sticking out of the pages, marking quotes I like – far too many to reproduce here!
“Over and over the stars continue to burn their fuel through century after century. The firmament is made of braziers that light up and go out, incandescent supernovae, red giants that slowly die out, burnt-out relics of white dwarves. The earth too is a ball of fire that is expanding the crust of the continents and the ocean sea-beds. What will happen when all the sandal-wood of atoms has disappeared in the stars’ crucibles?”
Much of this work is the fruit of his travels, and a life spent living in different cities. He moved from Italy to Paris and back to Italy again, and also visited countries as diverse as Japan, Mexico, America, the USA and the country of his birth, Cuba – where he met Che Guevara. His view is always European and much of the delight of this book is seeing things through his eyes.
“Travelling does not help us much in understanding (I’ve known this for a while; I did not need to come to the Far East to convince myself that this was true) but it does serve to reactivate for a second the use of our eyes, the visual reading of the world.”
“Seeing” is the operative work here, in a book which *is* quintessential Calvino. Whichever method of travel he’s using – whether literally, to Japan, Mexico or Iran; or metaphorically, via books, art and exhibitions – he is always considering the process of looking at things. What we see and the way we perceive life and existence is a constant theme in his work and it is distilled in these essays, beautiful little ruminations on maps, cities, stamps, obsessive collectors and much more – and underneath it all, humans and their relationship to the world.
“The human is the trace that man leaves in things, it is the work, whether it is a famous masterpiece or the anonymous product of one particular epoch. It is the continuous dissemination of works and objects and signs that makes a civilization the habitat of our species, its second nature. If we deny this sphere of signs that surrounds us with its thick dust-cloud, man cannot survive. And again: every man is man-plus-things, he is a man inasmuch as he recognises himself in a number of things, he recognises the human that has been in things, the self that has taken shape in things.”
Calvino is an impeccable guide to the world of signs, a writer who always stimulates the mind and sets the eye looking at things differently. I really can’t wait to read his letters!