WHY READ THE CLASSICS?

By Italo Calvino

Translated from the Italian

By Martin McLaughlin

Pantheon. 278 pp. $26

Old fans of Italo Calvino, generally regarded as the greatest Italian writer of the past 30 years, should know right off that roughly a third of the essays in this new collection appeared in the 1986 volume The Uses of Literature. For the most part, the 11 reprints freshly translated here are the somewhat more general and theoretical pieces, including "Why Read the Classics?" and reflections on The Odyssey, Ovid, Stendhal and Voltaire's Candide. The remaining 25 essays tend to be brief but shrewd introductions to Italian versions of well-known masterpieces such as Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, Flaubert's Trois Contes, and Henry James's Daisy Miller. Calvino's insights into his compeers, Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Queneau, round out this engaging book.

Near the beginning of his dizzying, utterly captivating fiction about the nature of reading, If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino observes that he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as himself. In the course of a career cut short by a 1985 cerebral hemorrhage that killed him in his mid-fifties, the versatile author produced fairly realistic novels (The Path to the Nest of the Spiders), playful science fiction (Cosmicomics), haunting prose poems (Invisible Cities), the highly structured tour de force The Castle of Crossed Destinies (based on Tarot playing cards) and dozens of short stories, many of them more or less fantastic. In perhaps the best introduction to his sensibility, the (undelivered) lectures titled Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino listed the traits he most valued as a writer of prose: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity. Many of the admired classics in this new collection represent one or more of these qualities.

For example, in "Candide, or Concerning Narrative Rapidity," Calvino observes that what most delights us today in Candide is not the conte philosophique, nor its satire, nor the gradual emergence of a morality and vision of the world: Instead it is its rhythm. With rapidity and lightness, a succession of mishaps, punishments and massacres races over the page, leaps from chapter to chapter, and ramifies and multiplies without evoking in the reader's emotions anything other than a feeling of an exhilarating and primitive vitality. Similarly, Ovid's Metamorphoses, he asserts, is above all the poem of rapidity. In the discussion of Flaubert, he starts by reminding us that there is a history of visibility in the novel as the art of making persons and things visible. Such visibility, he adds, begins with Stendhal and Balzac, and reaches in Flaubert the ideal rapport between word and image (supreme economy with maximum effect). This amiable modernist finds a comparably brilliant prose in, of all people, Galileo, pointing to his precision of language, his scientific-poetic imagination, his posing of conjectures. And in Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso, Calvino particularly admires the amalgam of telling detail and exuberant nonchalance. All these judgments are, of course, supported by example and the personal experience of a deeply sensitive and original reader.

The vaguest of the qualities valued by Calvino is multiplicity, which he links to such writers as Queneau, Georges Perec and other members of the French OuLiPo, the circle of novelists and mathematicians devoted to innovative methods of composition. The Castle of Crossed Destinies, built around the images from two traditional Tarot decks, is perhaps Calvino's most elaborately Oulipian work. As he says in the essay on Queneau, every example of a text constructed according to precise rules opens up the potential multiplicity of all the texts that can be virtually written according to these rules, and of all the virtual readings of such texts. Indeed, though Calvino loved the natural world (his late book Mr. Palomar is a series of exercises in description, today a very neglected art), in his fiction he showed an inspired fondness for geometrical forms, for symmetries, for numerical series, for all that is combinatory, for numerical proportions. Conciseness, intricate interlace, limits, narrative algorithms -- these too are especially Calvino-esque.

Though some of the essays in Why Read the Classics? can be a little daunting -- they range from an appreciation of the Renaissance polymath Girolamo Cardano (author of a wonderfully cranky autobiography) to analyses of the prose poems of Francis Ponge, the gritty novels of Carlo Emilio Gadda, and the medieval Catalan epic Tirant lo Blanc -- any page may provide a sudden insight into the machinery of art, or inspire one to try a new author or return afresh to an old one. For instance, speaking of Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma (recently retranslated for the Modern Library by Richard Howard), Calvino proclaims: "How many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognizing it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life." Before disclosing the careful design of Tolstoy's Two Hussars, he notes that "what other fiction writers make explicit -- symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences -- all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean nonexistent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring life just as it is on to the page . . . is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others." And in a darkly atmospheric introduction to Our Mutual Friend, Calvino concludes that "in this wasteland milieu, inhabited by clown-like and ghostly characters, Dickens's world becomes before our eyes the world of Samuel Beckett. . . ."

But why, finally, should we read the classics? Because, as Calvino shows us again and again, they are hardly the archaic, dull and etiolated works many think them to be. Is there a more imaginatively daring and avant-garde fiction than Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist? Nezami's Seven Princesses, we soon realize, offers a set of folktales as sexy as anything by Angela Carter. In Xenophon's Anabasis (the logbook of how a band of ancient Greek mercenaries, abandoned in Asia Minor, struggles to get home), we discern the exactness and dryness usually associated with Hemingway or T.E. Lawrence and that Calvino sees as representative of a post-World War II sensibility: The Greek army, creeping through the mountain heights and fjords amid constant ambushes and attacks, no longer able to distinguish just to what extent it is a victim or an oppressor, and surrounded even in the most chilling massacres of its men by the supreme hostility of indifference or fortune, inspires in the reader an almost symbolic anguish that perhaps only we today can understand. As an aside in his 1978 essay "Pasternak and the Revolution," this genial Italian man of letters -- and a communist in his youth -- notes that the barbarism inherent in today's world is the great theme of contemporary literature.

It is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, stresses Calvino in his title essay; we should read them only for love. In a half-dozen pages he there proffers some 14 numbered remarks about the world's great novels and poems; this is No. 9: "Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected and innovative we find them when we actually read them." Certainly, Italo Calvino's essays on his own favorite writers and books make clear how exhilarating the classics can be.

As they, in fact, have always been and are.

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.illustration by paine proffitt

Extract

Calvino on Hemingway

There was a time when for me -- and for many others, those who are more or less my contemporaries -- Hemingway was a god. And they were good times, which I am happy to remember, without even a hint of that ironic indulgence with which we look back on youthful fashions and obsessions. They were serious times and we lived through them seriously and boldly and with purity of heart, and in Hemingway we could also have found pessimism, an individualistic detachment, a superficial involvement with extremely violent experiences: that was all there too in Hemingway, but either we could not see it in him or we had other things in our head, but the fact remains that the lesson we learnt from him was one of a capacity for openness and generosity, a practical commitment -- as well as a technical and moral one -- to the things that had to be done, a straightforward look, a rejection of self-contemplation or self-pity, a readiness to snatch a lesson for life, the worth of a person summed up in a brusque exchange, or a gesture. But soon we began to see his limitations, his flaws: his poetics, his style, to which I had been largely indebted in my first literary works, came to be seen as narrow, too prone to descending into mannerism. That life of his -- and philosophy of life -- of violent tourism began to fill me with distrust and even aversion and disgust. Today, however . . . assessing the balance of my apprenticeship with Hemingway, I can close the account in the black. "You didn't put one over on me, old man," I can say to him, indulging for the last time in his own style, "you did not make it, you never became a mauvais maitre."

-- from "Hemingway and Ourselves," in Italo Calvino's "Why Read the Classics?"