Friday, August 01, 2008

NL: Cosmicomics

NL logoThis time we read Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver (who deserves his own praise).

Michael Chabon, in his collection of essays Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands, put Italo Calvino into the company of "writers, such as J. G. Ballard, J. L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma, and yet who worked, at least sometimes, in the terms and tropes of genre fiction."

I'm not entirely sure that I agree. Oh, not about the great writing - about the genre fiction. Ostensibly this is science fiction, but it would be hard to pigeon-hole it the way Chabon defines sf... Calvino has done something rich and strange and wonderful with these short stories, and I have another of his books on order (just one, just in case this isn't typical. Of him, I should add, because it's most definitely not typical.).

My only peeve first: the names. Qfwfq. How the hell is that pronounced? I hate writers who just sprinkle a random (or even not random) collection of consonants (Lll, H'x, Pfwfp, Rwzfs, Mrs. Vhd Vhd, Ph(i)Nk0) around to show "oooo, it's an alien name!" Especially when others aren't - like Lieutenant Fenimore, Ayl, Ursula, and even N'ba N'ga. There. That's the negative.

The positive? Each story is an intriguing look into a science "fact" (note that some of these facts are outdated knowledge; the book is 43 years old) wrapped in a "fiction" that springboards from the fact into an exploration of ... what, exactly, is hard to say. The human mind, perhaps, though none of the characters are human. Qfwfq, who narrates each story, is (despite having a grandmother, parents, siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins) eternal. He was there at the beginning of the universe (literally: he narrates the Big Bang for us in one story), and continues to exist down to the present and far into the future. One story casually starts with an incredible statement taken as the background of the tale:
One night I was, as usual, observing the sky with my telescope. I noticed that a sign was hanging from a galaxy [oh, signs hanging from galaxies are the least of it! - ridger] a hundred million light-years away. On it was written: I SAW YOU. I made a quick calculation: the galaxy's light had taken a hundred million years to reach me, and since they saw up there was was taking place here a hundred million years later, the moment when they had seen me must date back two hundred million years.
Of course, he wants to answer but
I would have to wait long enough for them to be able to see my sign, and then an equally long period until I could see their answer and attend to the necessary rectifications. All this would take another two hundred million years, or rather a few million years more, because while the images were coming and going with the speed of light, the galaxies continued to move apart...
The immensity of time and space is the backdrop for the story of Qfwfq's obsession with his image in the eyes of his so-distant beholders. Back and forth go the signs, and the misunderstandings, and the galaxies grow further apart:
Meanwhile, the galaxies for whom I was most compromised were already revolving around the threshold of the billions of light-years at such speeds that, to reach them, my messages would have to struggle across space, clinging to their accelerating light; then, one by one, they would disappear from the last ten-billion-light-year horizon beyond which no visible object can be seen, and they would bear with them a judgment by then irrevocable.
But Qfwfq's reaction to this is unexpected:
... thinking of this judgment I would no longer be able to change, I suddenly felt a kind of relief, as if peace could come to me only after the moment when there would be nothing to add and nothing to remove in that arbitrary ledger of misunderstandings, and the galaxies which were gradually reduced to the last tail of the last luminous ray, winding from the sphere of darkness, seemed to bring with them the only possible truth about myself, and I couldn't wait until all of them, one after the other, had followed this path.
The aforementioned Big Bang story begins:
Naturally, we were all there,—old Qfwfq said,—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?

I say "packed like sardines," using a literary image: in reality there wasn't even space to pack us into. Every point of each of us coincided with every point of each of the others in a single point, which was where we all were...
And the extraordinary page-long sentence that catches the moment and the cause and the result of the Big Bang itself - that, you really have to read for yourself in its proper context.

But here's a taste of Calvino's style for you, from a different story: the Earth has just begun congealing into its solid form, and Qfwfq's little sister who was "a shy girl and she loved the dark" is trapped inside:
And in the midst of this kind of transparent bubble we saw a shadow moving, as if swimming and flying. And our mother said: "Daughter!"

We all recognized G'd(w)n: frightened perhaps by the Sun's catching fire, following a reaction of her shy spirit, she had sunk into the condensing matter of the Earth, and now she was trying to clear a path for herself in the depths of the planet, and she looked like a gold and silver butterfly as she passed into a zone that was still illuminated and diaphanous or vanished into the sphere of shadow that was growing wider and wider ... Then she was seen no more...

We got up. Mr. Hnw and Granny were in front of us, crying, surrounded by pale blue-and-gold flames.

"Rwzfs! Why have you set fire to Granny?"Father began to scold, but, turning toward my brother, he saw that Rwzfs was also enveloped in flames. And so was my father, and my mother, too, and I—we were all burning in the fire. Or rather: we weren't burning, we were immersed in it as in a dazzling forest; the flames shot high over the whole surface of the planet, a fiery air in which we could run and float and fly, and we were gripped by a new kind of joy.

The Sun's radiations were burning the envelopes of the planets, made of helium and hydrogen: in the sky, where my uncles and aunt were, fiery globes spun, dragging after them long beards of gold and turquoise, as a comet drags its tail.

The darkness came back. By now we were sure that everything that could possibly happen had happened, and "yes, this is the end," Grandmother said, "mind what us old folks say..." Instead, the Earth had merely made on of its turns. It was night. Everything was just beginning.
And as a sign to you of Calvino's matter-of-fact turns into the abruptly and absurdly prosaic, here's what comes after that "then she was seen no more":
the solid zone now occupied the whole central part of the planet. My sister remained in there, and I never found out whether she had stayed buried in those depths or whether she had reached safety on the other side until I met her, much later, at Canberra in 1912, married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railroad man, so changed I hardly recognized her.
"Much later," Qfwfq says; he had last seen her when the planet formed. And the detail: a retired railroad man named Sullivan, Canberra ... That touch of verisimilitude in the midst of incredibility.

These stories are bizarre and ordinary and absolutely unlike anything I have read before. The writing is beautiful even when the story is not so great - and the collection is a bit uneven. For my taste the first is the weakest, but of the dozen, nine are absolutely (I keep using that word) astonishingly wonderful.

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At 12:30 AM, August 02, 2008 Blogger The Exterminator had this to say...

Nice post, and I'm really delighted that you liked the book; it's one of my favorites.

I hope the other Calvino book you ordered was If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Not that his others (at least the ones I've read) aren't all wonderful in their own way, but that's probably my very favorite.

One word on the name Qfwfq: Clearly, you're not supposed to be able to pronounce it, just as you can't really picture him. He's a fully developed character, and yet -- what is he? Obviously he's different from story to story. Or maybe not.

In fact, that's one of the games Calvino plays with you, the reader. You can't really conjure up dependable mental images. Despite many paragraphs of poetically vivid description, what is it you're seeing? Is there anything there to see at all? And does Qfwfq actually exist?

At 8:41 AM, August 02, 2008 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

It is. I had previously heard of that book, but only as one of an extremely tiny number of books which have titles that are not full constituent phrases (others include Dancer from the Dance, A Scanner Darkly, And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees, and Property Of - see here for full list). I'm really looking forward to reading it.

And of course you're right - we don't have much idea what anyone looks like, even though Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0 (can't do a [sub] in the comment, alas) has arms, a bosom, thighs, and even an orange dressing gown ... and some of the time Qfwfq is passing as dinosaur or amphibian or shell-less mollusc ... That was the only thing I had to complain about, and it's hardly a major quibble, let alone problem!

Thanks so much for selecting this one!

At 8:14 PM, August 04, 2008 Blogger Spanish Inquisitor had this to say...

Nice. You reacted to in it much the same way I did, yet you analyzed it far more eloquently.

Let us know when you read the other one, I'd love to hear your reaction. I wouldn't mind reading another of his.

At 2:08 PM, August 14, 2008 Blogger John Evo had this to say...

Nice essay, Ridger. You brought me right back to some of the parts I like the best.

I think the chapter on the galactic signs may indeed have had the greatest impact on me. You really feel the silliness of our obsession over small failures, in the fact of an enormous, eternal universe.

At 12:11 AM, September 04, 2008 Blogger spwoso had this to say...

Thanks for sharing your discovery and thoughts with us.

I'd like to second Exterminator's recommendation of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, especially if you're only going to read one more. The Path to the Nest of Spiders was my first Calvino book (I picked it up because John Barth referenced it in an essay), and his style had not yet matured to the brilliance of his later books. I'm very glad I read my second Calvino book.

I feel you might also enjoy the physicist Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, which I strongly suspect was inspired by Calvino (specifically: Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities). Of course, Lightman can't wring magic from the everyday while making the magical appear familiar like Calvino, but then - nobody can!


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