Tuesday, July 13, 2010

what are words worth?

This is about some books I can't find. I think I had them here in Portland and if so, I must have loaned them to someone who forgot to return them or, knowing me, I probably gave them away. Italo Calvino's 'Cosmicomics' and 't-zero' would make perfect gifts for anyone who loves to read. In less than a paragraph, he can convey the vastness of the universe; in less than a chapter, he can describe the beauty of primeval Earth. It's amazing.

While looking for a place to buy the complete collection (both books plus some stories not published before) I found some paintings by Yan Nascimbene who began illustrating Italo Calvino's work a few years ago. They're beautiful paintings and this one certainly hints at Calvino's magic but I rather hope he doesn't attempt to illustrate my two favorites. These tales are best read and internalized in the old fashioned way. Visual media, even paintings by masters, can't compete with nuanced depths of well written prose or poetry.

Qfwfq is the narrator of 'Cosmicomics' and although it's hard to say simply who or what Qfwfq is, the truth is it doesn't matter because even though the stories are surreal they are quite ordinary events - except that they happen in quite un-ordinary contexts. Qfwfq may be understood as a sort of embodiment of life spirit, a being who has existed - along with family and friends - since the dawn of time.

In the beginning, before the Big Bang, all the matter in the universe was concentrated in a single point. Qfwfq can tell you about it: He was there.

"Naturally, we were all there—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time, either: What use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?"

All at One Point, in which people are "packed in like sardines," along with their furniture, their laundry, "all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe." They are stuck there until one of them, Mrs. Ph(i)nk0, exclaims, "Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd like to make some tagliatelle for you boys!" At that moment, Qfwfq and the others begin to picture "the space that her round arms would occupy," the space for the dough, the flour, the wheat for the flour, the sun on the wheat, the galaxy to harbor the sun . .

Calvino succeeds in making the unimaginable accessible to us, so that we can begin, at least mentally, to take leaps that span light-years.

"And at the bottom of each of those eyes I lived, or rather another me lived, one of the images of me, and it encountered the image of her...in that beyond which opens, past the semiliquid sphere of the irises, in the darkness of the pupils, the mirrored hall of the retinas, in our true element which extends without shores, without boundaries."

While looking for excerpts to share I also came across his description of the time when the moon and earth were much, much closer than they are today. It's not a description you'd find in any astronomy text but his version is definitely a lot more fun to read:

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth's waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

How well I know!--old Qfwfq cried--the rest of you can't remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full--nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light--it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon's phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angles of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with the Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair's-breadth; well, let's say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.

In these stories linked together to describe the beginnings of everything and the end of some things human emotion is the one constant. In the Cosmicomics we discover jealousy, irritation, pride, generosity, and love. The most beautiful of all the stories may be that one quoted at the start, "In the act of making pasta, the universe can be imagined." In that moment of generosity, imagination, and love, Calvino says, our world and all of us were born.


  1. Sounds like the kind of book I'd like to read. I am proud that the author is Italian! The connection to the universe is grand in real life, and who is to say it wasn't as described? I mean, maybe god IS the Flying Spaghetti Monster.


  2. It's a lomg tome since I read any Calvino. I must rectify this oversight

  3. Had Calvino recommended to me, but I've never picked up any of his stuff.

  4. spadoman - I was perfectly comfortable spending time in his universe and I'm sure you would be too. Since God is indescribable, why not?

    jams - Glad I reminded you.

    randal - I think you owe it to yourself to read some of his work. Obviously, my favorites were the ones I talked about here but there are many who swear 'Invisible Cities' is one of the best novels ever written. It's a short but densely described chronicle that Marco Polo told to Kublai Khan of the marvelous cities he's visited in the Mongol Empire.

  5. Oh, I like the comparison of making something with love (in your tale it is pasta) to the creation of the universe. Don't you almost feel at certain moments like you grasp it all? I think I would enjoy this.

    See you at the beginning of August!

  6. Sounds like a fascinating book full of wonderful images. I do think we live in the most probable of all possible universes.
    Best wishes

  7. I'm re-reading John Irving and Richard Brautigan right now. Calvino sounds interesting. Off to library.

  8. liberality - Good :-)

    pagan sphinx - In the long run I believe it's exactly that. Funny, how those moments are beyond words, eh? Have a wonderful holiday.

    lindsay - Yes, and this is the best of all possible worlds.

    okjimm - They're both great writers. The one I must re-read soon is Catch 22 - a must every 5 years or so.

  9. I liked "Cosmicomics" a lot when I read it. Loved "if on a winter's night a traveler" as well. Have you read that one? It stands up to multiple readings really well.

  10. ben - I've been remiss with that one so it's on my list now.

  11. Lovely, Susan.
    Have you already been on "The Path to the Spider's Nest"?

  12. sean - Thank you for the reminder about one I've yet to read. Glad you enjoyed the post.