Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

26 JUNE, 2013

Italo Calvino’s Poetic Résumé

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“Prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old.”

Our cultural cult of the diaries, personal correspondence, and daily routines of famous authors, despite the practical insights on the craft of writing often found in those, seems to be largely an exercise in unabashed creative voyeurism. But might there be more to it, some kernel of magic that reveals itself to those willing to look?

From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved author’s timeless wisdom on writing and his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life — comes a timeless reflection on our fascination with famous authors’ lives, wrapped in a poetic meta-manifestation:

In a 1967 letter to a class of schoolchildren who had been assigned to study one of Calvino’s anthologies, Calvino corrects a biographical inaccuracy about his place of birth and offers a broader reflection on the “facts” of an author’s life:

In a writer’s life it is only important to know facts that are relevant to the writer’s works, in other words what is usually called his “creative world.”

[…]

As for the anthology that says I was born in Santiago in Chile, that is clearly a mistake. The authors of that anthology will have read somewhere that I was born in “Santiago” and will have immediately thought of the Chilean capital rather than of an unknown village on the island of Cuba like Santiago de las Vegas. So that is how this mystery is explained. This helps to show one thing: what is written in books can be true up to a point and mistaken up to a point. One must never trust books totally, instead one must check what is right and wrong in them, as you have rightly done. I congratulate you and your teacher on this and send my warmest greetings and best wishes.

And yet, this being Calvino, two years later he revisits the subject of what is essential to know about a writer’s life. In a letter from the fall of 1969, he sends Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci his wonderfully poetic “CV”:

HERE IS MY CV.

I was born in 1923 under a sky in which the radiant Sun and melancholy Saturn were housed in harmonious Libra. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in what was in those days a still verdant San Remo, which contained cosmopolitan eccentrics amidst the surly isolation of its rural, practical folk; I was marked for life by both these aspects of the place. Then I moved to industrious and rational Turin, where the risk of going mad is no less than elsewhere (as Nietzsche found out). I arrived at a time when the streets opened out deserted and endless, so few were the cars; to shorten my journeys on foot I would cross the rectilinear streets on long obliques from one angle to the other—a procedure that today is not just impossible but unthinkable—and in this way I would advance marking out invisible hypotenuses between grey right-angled sides. I got to know only barely other famous metropolises, on the Atlantic and Pacific, falling in love with all of them at first sight: I deluded myself into believing that I had understood and possessed some of them, while others remained forever ungraspable and foreign to me. For many years I suffered from a geographical neurosis: I was unable to stay three consecutive days in one city or place. In the end I chose definitive wife and dwelling in Paris, a city which is surrounded by forests and hornbeams and birches, where I walk with my daughter Abigail, and which in turn surrounds the Bibliothèque Nationale, where I go to consult rare books, using my Reader’s Ticket no. 2516. In this way, prepared for the Worst, and becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Best, I am already anticipating the incomparable joys of growing old. That’s all.

Four years later, Ricci would go on to publish Calvino’s novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

It is impossible to overstate just how sublime and richly insightful Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is in its entirety.

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21 JUNE, 2013

Turning Abruptly from Friendship to Love: Sartre’s Love Letter to Simone de Beauvoir

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“I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself.”

As a lover of spectacular love letters, especially ones between history’s creative and intellectual power couples — like those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles and Ray Eames, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin — I was delighted to come upon a gem from legendary French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre (June 21, 1905–April 15, 1980) to celebrated French writer, intellectual, and feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir (January 9, 1908–April 14, 1986).

In this beautiful missive from the spring of 1929, found in the altogether wonderful collection Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir, 1926-1939 (public library), 24-year-old Jean-Paul writes to 21-year-old Simone de Beauvoir — herself the eventual masterful writer of breakup letters — at the dawn of their romance, shortly before he proposed marriage, which Simone turned down; instead, the two embarked on their famous lifelong open relationship.

My dear little girl

For a long time I’ve been wanting to write to you in the evening after one of those outings with friends that I will soon be describing in “A Defeat,” the kind when the world is ours. I wanted to bring you my conqueror’s joy and lay it at your feet, as they did in the Age of the Sun King. And then, tired out by all the shouting, I always simply went to bed. Today I’m doing it to feel the pleasure you don’t yet know, of turning abruptly from friendship to love, from strength to tenderness. Tonight I love you in a way that you have not known in me: I am neither worn down by travels nor wrapped up in the desire for your presence. I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself. This happens much more often than I admit to you, but seldom when I’m writing to you. Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things. At Toulouse I simply loved you. Tonight I love you on a spring evening. I love you with the window open. You are mine, and things are mine, and my love alters the things around me and the things around me alter my love.

My dear little girl, as I’ve told you, what you’re lacking is friendship. But now is the time for more practical advice. Couldn’t you find a woman friend? How can Toulouse fail to contain one intelligent young woman worthy of you*? But you wouldn’t have to love her. Alas, you’re always ready to give your love, it’s the easiest thing to get from you. I’m not talking about your love for me, which is well beyond that, but you are lavish with little secondary loves, like that night in Thiviers when you loved that peasant walking downhill in the dark, whistling away, who turned out to be me. Get to know the feeling, free of tenderness, that comes from being two. It’s hard, because all friendship, even between two red-blooded men, has its moments of love. I have only to console my grieving friend to love him; it’s a feeling easily weakened and distorted. But you’re capable of it, and you must experience it. And so, despite your fleeting misanthropy, have you imagined what a lovely adventure it would be to search Toulouse for a woman who would be worthy of you and whom you wouldn’t be in love with? Don’t bother with the physical side or the social situation. And search honestly. And if you find nothing, turn Henri Pons, whom you scarcely love anymore, into a friend.

[…]

I love you with all my heart and soul.

* Beauvoir would come to have a number of young female lovers, whom she’d usually introduce to Sartre over the course of their relationship.

Complement with Sartre on why “being-in-the-world-ness” is the key to the imagination and Beauvoir on ambiguity, vitality, and freedom.

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17 JUNE, 2013

How Charles Eames Proposed to Ray Eames: His Disarming 1941 Handwritten Love Letter

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A modernist fairy tale of true partnership.

Charles Eames (June 17, 1907 — August 21, 1978) — pioneer of the modernist aesthetic, endlessly quotable sage of design, rare interviewee, legendary visualizer of the scale of the universe — was also one half of one of the most celebrated couples in creative history, the architect/painter powerhouse he formed together with his wife, the painter and reconstructionist Ray Eames. And while extraordinary love letters generally have an ineffable and enduring appeal, there’s something particularly mesmerizing about epistles exchanged by two people who are partners in every possible sense of the word and whose romantic relationship is also a creative collaboration.

Joining these ranks of love letters, like those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, and Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, are the Eameses, who fell in love at the legendary Cranbrook Academy and remained together until Charles’s death nearly four decades later.

In this disarming love letter — a true testament to the modernist ethos of piercing honesty, exquisite simplicity, and elegant imperfection — Charles proposes to Ray:

Letter from Charles to Ray Eames, 1941 (Library of Congress)

Dear Miss Kaiser,

I am 34 (almost) years old, singel (again) and broke. I love you very much and would like to marry you very very soon.* I cannot promise to support us very well. — but if given the chance I will shure in hell try –

*soon means very soon.

What is the size of this finger??

as soon as I get to that hospital I will write “reams” well little ones.

love xxxxxxxxxx

Charlie

Ray, of course, said “yes.” Fourteen years into their marriage, the romantic spark was still very much ablaze as Ray sent Charles this charming collage of a love letter:

Letter from Ray to Charles Eames, 1955 (Library of Congress)

Complement with the fantastic exhibition-in-a-book Eames: Beautiful Details (public library), inspired by Charles’s signature immersive slideshows.

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