Another Look book club goes out of this world with Calvino’s Cosmicomics

“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.” So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985,) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that’s part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular “Another Look” book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show “Entitled Opinions” and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of “Another Look,” founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.


Love, loss, and the first signs in space: Robert Harrison on Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Robert Pogue Harrison will moderate the October 27 “Another Look” discussion on Cosmicomics, a collection of science-inspired fantasies by one of the greatest European writers of the last century, Italo Calvino. Harrison is the author of several acclaimed books – the newest, Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age will be published later this year. Stanford’s Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature also hosts the popular and cerebral radio talk show, Entitled Opinions, available on iTunes. He contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recently named chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the highest cultural honors France offers.

Another Look”’s Cynthia Haven spoke with him in preparation for the upcoming event.

Haven: Calvino once wrote, “I like telling things in cartoon form,” and even suggested that readers try to visualize his Cosmicomic stories as comic strips. Is this a hint about why he is calling this first 1965 collection of the tales Cosmicomics?

Harrison: Well, there’s a connection with the comic strips, as you mentioned. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the Italian literary tradition is so rich in comic genres, broadly understood. Just think of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he called the Commedia. It’s a cosmic comedy that takes Dante through the other world – hell, purgatory, and finally the heavens.

One aspect of Calvino’s title has to do with this literary predecessor, Dante. Another has to do with the role that comedy has played in so much of the history of “serious” Italian literature – Dante, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Goldoni, Pirandello, and many others.

Haven: So why are you drawn to these stories, and why did you pick them for “Another Look”?

Harrison: I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.

In addition, Calvino’s book deals directly with the whole phenomenon of evolution, which is the huge scientific obsession of our own time. I’m not referring to the debates about evolution versus creation. It’s more that in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.

Haven: Let’s see. Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb outside Havana in 1923, to Italian parents who were both botanists. That’s why Calvino’s friend Gore Vidal wrote that “he instinctively looks to the natural world for illumination of his own interior” – rather as you do in your own book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition. But science, as well as nature, was clearly a powerful legacy from his parents.

Harrison: That’s right. Calvino makes it clear in several of his interviews that he’s been interested in science all along. For him, science and fantasy are not two separate things. There’s nothing more fantastical, in essence, than science. So he’s taking these scientific theses, which he prints at the beginning of each story, and then gives them each a story.

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Translator William Weaver: “Calvino was not a writer of hits; he was a writer of classics.”

I first met ltalo Calvino in Rome, sometime in the early 1960s. Our meeting was unplanned; but, appropriately, it took place in a bookshop, the high-ceilinged yet somehow intimate Libreria Einaudi (now gone), which then stood at the curve in the Via Veneto where the cafes of Dolce Vita memory give way to more sober government buildings and undistinguished middle-range hotels. I was browsing happily when my friend Gian Carlo Roscioni, then an editor for Einaudi, the publishing house, came over to me and said: “Calvino is here and would like to meet you.”

I recognized the tall, enviably thin and handsome Calvino from his photographs. Actually, I think I had even seen him once or maybe twice, at some large Roman literary bashes, which he attended infrequently, partly because he was never a bash sort of person and, more to the point, because he had never been a Rome resident for any length of time.

But now he was living in the capital, associated in some way with the Rome office of Einaudi, who had just recently brought out his latest book Le cosmicomiche. A few minutes after our introduction, Calvino asked me if I would be willing to translate this new book; and—though I hadn’t read it (a fact about which I remained cautiously silent)—I immediately said yes.

This was the simple beginning of a complex relationship and of my long journey through the world of Calvino, which was to last until his death. Only this beginning was simple; after that, things quickly became complicated. The American publisher who had accepted the book and then commissioned the translation committed suicide; his successor rejected the book; and Cosmicomics, as it was now called, was sent to an embarrassingly large number of New York houses before Helen Wolff, at Harcourt Brace, read it and enthusiastically offered to bring it out. Another beginning, another long and exciting association.

After Cosmicomics Calvino produced a kind of sequel in the same vein: Ti con zero, which I also translated. As I worked on these books, I met Calvino now and then, to discuss this or that little problem of translation. Though we were almost exactly coeval (both born in 1923, that year that also produced Maria Callas), we were in many respects quite different. The son of scientists, Calvino had a scientific and technical vocabulary that I lacked almost completely; in my family, of writers and lawyers, the emphasis was solely humanistic: even the task of replacing a blown fuse would require the assistance of an outside technician (fortunately both of my older sisters married engineers).

But Calvino and I shared a consuming passion for words and for using them, deploying them, stretching and tightening them. And our conversations were always a pleasure for me, though Calvino was anything but a conversationalist. In literary circles, hostesses exchanged horrified stories of his agonizing silences, which could freeze an entire dinner table. Calvino—it seemed to me—did not enjoy talking with me about his writing except at the basic, dictionary level of our working encounters. During one of these, a meeting at his house in Square du Chatillon in Paris, I unwittingly overstepped the bounds; I casually asked him if he was working on something new. Calvino froze, cleared his throat nervously, hemmed, hawed, then finally muttered, almost growling: “I’m thinking about some cities.” I quickly redirected the talk to the problems at hand.

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Calvino’s letter on Cosmicomics: “I manage to let them think themselves…”

To writer Gian Carlo Ferretti in Milan from I.C. in Turin, Feb. 15, 1966. (Ferretti had written to Calvino, conveying his impressions of Cosmicomics, on December 29, 1965.)

Dear Ferretti,

I have been meaning for some time now to reply to your letter. It gave me enormous pleasure for the very intelligent things you say about my book and it also requires a certain commitment from me in replying because of the questions you ask. Yes, in the kind of stories one finds in Cosmicomics, I would like to succeed in distilling the results of my ideal form of research, and of my comments on reality; but I would like to do so not solely using symbolic or rather allegorical words with a range of meanings. I would like to be able to express everything by thinking in images, or in word-images, but word-images which have the rigor almost of abstraction which in the Cosmicomic stories happens only in “A Sign in Space” and “The Spiral” (and perhaps also in “The Light Years”), and from there to succeed in articulating a discourse that is my discourse, without it having other layers of meanings. For the time being, at the point where I at just now, I manage to let the stories organize themselves, on the basis of their own material, to let them think themselves, become a discourse of which I take note. However, this business of the objectivity of the story which takes shape by itself is for me only a partial, provisional hypothesis. I am well aware that even this question of proposing signs and following them through their potential organization is a way of thinking, and so the point of arrival must be the abolition of this opposition between the organization of signs and the organizations of meanings.

Naturally the emphasis on the abstract component in Cosmicomics must be accompanied by the constant presence of representation, through linguistic and figurative materials which provide the texture of real life. That is what defines the Cosmicomics for me.

As you can see, I am still too much taken up with characterizing this work, the Cosmicomics, from its inside to try to define it in the context of the rest of my work. The things you say on this topic, looking to parallels with The Watcher, are highly suggestive (and I hope you have the chance to develop this argument) and it seems to me that Ferrata [who had written a review for Rinascita the month before] too has gone down the same road, also with a certain finesse. But for each book I would like to create first of all a void around it, see it how it is on its own, and then put it in context.

I am very grateful for your reading of the book and for the stimulus for discussion and clarification that you have given me.

Best wishes.


Italo Calvino

An Academy-nominated film with a Calvino inspiration

The 2011 film La Luna was created, written, and directed by Enrico Casarosa; it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film. The Genovese film artist said he had a number of inspirations for the film, including the bickering between his father and grandfather as he was growing up by the sea. However, he said, “The last … inspiration is Italo Calvino. He’s an Italian writer that we read growing up. It’s very surreal work and he had one story with a ladder to the moon, and in that story, specifically, they were, I think, getting milk from the moon. It got me thinking, wouldn’t it be fun to kinda come up with my own strange child-like myth of what someone could be?”

His story deviates a great deal from the opening story in Calvino’s “The Distance of the Moon,” but we hope it will put you in the right frame of mind – at least a bit – for Calvino’s classic.

Stanford’s “Another Look” spotlights Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Stanford’s book club honors the famous French writer’s centenary with a May 12 discussion of The Lover, her autobiographical tale of her scandalous teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire, set in her native Saigon.

By Cynthia Haven

Long before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.

The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies.

Now, in Marguerite Duras’s centenary year, the “Another Look” book club is celebrating the author and her book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall. The panel will be moderated by Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, with her colleague Paula Moya, professor of English, and Stephen Seligman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public.

Vermeule had read the short novel as a high school student, but on rereading it, “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s one of these masterpieces that gets rediscovered again and again. It’s a very intense book, so powerful it had slipped my mind what a truly great and subtle work of art it is.” With the centenary, she thought it was an excellent moment to revisit the book the New York Times Book Review had called “powerful, authentic, completely successful … perfect.”

Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”

“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”

The Mekong River ferry where the lovers met.

Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.

In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.

“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.

“This book is so very psychoanalytic. She’s clearly under that spell. Look at the nonlinearity of the story. As narrrator, she is almost dissociated from herself, moving from first to third person and back.”

Duras quarreled with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book, and retaliated with 1991′s The North China Lover, as a way of reclaiming her story. But no version before or since had the luster of The Lover. According to Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom writing in How the French Invented Love, “She could transform a somewhat sordid affair into a mutually passionate romance and project into posterity her vision of love as an irresistable force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color.”

That vision continues to transfix readers, and The Lover continues to draw fans, decades after its first publication. In The Independent, South African playright and novelist Deborah Levy wrote in 2011, “The Lover does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.”

“Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but ‘puny’ female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.”


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.


But did it really happen?


The young Marguerite Duras

“I swear it. I swear all of it. I have never lied in a book. Or even in my life. Except to men. Never.”

 With these words, Marguerite Duras penned a categorical denial of any fanciful invention in her many autobiographical novels and films. One ponders the odd qualification: admitting she “only” lied to men implies she was willing to deceive half the human race.

The denial invites the question: Did she ever tell the truth? She says she was ostracized for her reckless teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire – yet one classmate remembers Marguerite as secretive and well-behaved, though she boasted mysteriously of leading a double life. The former student clearly recalls Duras appearing at school, flaunting a diamond ring, saying she knew a rich man. This incident represents one contact point between her fiction and the truth. Yet another lycée classmate said, “I just don’t understand this story about a Chinese lover. It wasn’t like today. There were no lovers, especially not Chinese lovers.”

The “real” lover?

One boarder at the Duras domicile described Duras’s mother as a strict teacher able to keep order among her unruly charges; she took him to mass every Sunday. A school counselor described her mother as a great teacher:

“They worship her in Indochina because she’s so dedicated to her profession. She has educated thousands of children … They say she has never given up on a child, not until he could read and write. She would hold classes late into the evening for children she knew would someday be workers … when students lived too far away to go home in the evening, she had them sleep at her house on mats in the living room, or in the school’s playroom…” 

The mad queen of desperate poverty? Not quite. And yet the counselor’s account comes from Duras herself, documented in a later memoir. Duras herself is telling the other side of the story, the side that undermines and argues with her own earlier versions.

The house with blue tiles … now a tourist attraction

She didn’t always reverse herself. Duras portrays her mother as crazy and desperate, frozen in time and literature as the tenacious colonial mother struggling to save a disastrous investment in 1950′s The Sea Wall, or the seriously depressed and abusive mother in 1984′s The Lover. But the mother wasn’t only a naïve victim of the French bureaucrats in the Land Registry of Cambodia. Far from languishing in her misfortune, she had become a wealthy woman by the time she returned to France in 1950, sending lots of money to her children. She had launched an upper-crust Saigon boarding school and purchased five houses which had proven to be a lucrative investment. She also trafficked in the Indochina piastres that all whites in the colony went in for, according to Duras’s biographer Laure Adler. She was a resilient self-made woman, more than able to get on her feet again after an economic disaster.

Did the Chinese lover exist? It appears so, but the story changed greatly over the years. In The Sea Wall, Duras told the story of the teenage Suzanne courted by “Monsieur Jo,” the unattractive, depraved son of a wealthy planter. In this version he is white, not Chinese, and courts his prey in a seedy nightclub. By 1984, he would morph into the more alluring, nameless Chinese millionaire in The Lover.

The lover has been identified as Huynh Thuy Le. The mansion with the blue tiles exists: his family home, 140 kilometers southwest of Saigon in Sadec, is now a tourist attraction and welcomes 1,000 visitors a month. The photo shows the gentle, wispy man she describes in the lover, a little wan and eager to please. By the time of her next book on the subject in 1991, The North China Lover, the hero has changed again, and Duras insists that this version is the once-and-for-all “truth”:

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Lycée to the teenage Duras: “Don’t take anyone’s advice.”

The 6-year-old Duras, her mother, and brothers.

From Marguerite Duras’s 1991 memoir, The North China Lover:

The lycée – the halls are full of students. The child is waiting against a column in the hall. She is isolated, facing outward.

The assistant principal passes by, touches her shoulder. He says:

“I’d like a word with you.”

She follows the assistant principal into his office.

“All right … Of course the students’ mothers have forbidden their daughters to have anything to do with you. You know that …”

The child smiles. She knows it.

“But it’s worse than that. The students’ mothers have informed the head of Lyautey that you aren’t sleeping regularly at the boarding school.” A slight irritation on the assitant principal’s part. “How they found out, I don’t know. You’ve been caught” – he smiles – in the dragnet of the mothers of the students of Saigon. They want their daughters to keep to their own kind. They say” – listen to this – “‘Why does she need a baccalaureate, that little tart? Middle school is enough for people like her …’”

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