The Art of Quickness: Italo Calvino on Digression as a Hedge Against Death and the Key to Great Writing
“Success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search… for the sentence in which every word is unalterable.”
By Maria Popova
When Italo Calvino was offered the 1985–1986 term of the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry — Harvard’s annual lectureship held by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Aaron Copland, E.E. Cummings, Jorge Luis Borges, Leonard Bernstein, and John Cage — he hurried to commit to paper the six lectures he would deliver over the course of the term, exploring “the millennium of the book” that was about to end and peering forward into what the future might hold for “the expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities” of writing. But as he contemplated this grand cultural precipice, he himself ran out of time.
Calvino — a sage of writing and a man of enduring insight into such subtleties of existence as distraction and procrastination, the art of asserting oneself with grace, and the meaning of life — died shortly before he was scheduled to depart for Harvard to deliver the lectures. He had spent his final months laboring over them but had completed only five of the six, eventually published as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (public library | IndieBound).
Perhaps the most poignant of his lectures, both in the context of Calvino’s own fate in the hands of time’s merciless gallop and in his prescience about today’s age of compulsive speediness that he never lived to see, is the second one, titled “Quickness.”
Calvino begins by considering objects and the storytelling mesmerism that they hold, as in real life, in fiction:
The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.
He then turns to the particular magic of quickness, but not before an essential caveat:
I do not wish to say that quickness is a value in itself. Narrative time can also be delaying, cyclic, or motionless. In any case, a story is an operation carried out on the length of time involved, an enchantment that acts on the passing of time, either contracting or dilating it.
One mode of contracting time, which Calvino points out is particularly common in the folklore traditions of oral storytelling, is repetition — the same strategy that so enchants the brain in music. He writes:
Sicilian storytellers use the formula “lu cuntu nun metti tempu” (time takes no time in a story)… It leaves out unnecessary details but stresses repetition: for example, when the tale consists of a series of the same obstacles to be overcome by different people. A child’s pleasure in listening to stories lies partly in waiting for things he expects to be repeated: situations, phrases, formulas. Just as in poems and songs the rhymes help to create the rhythm, so in prose narrative there are events that rhyme.
Calvino points to folktales and fairy tales as an especially enduring example of masterful quickness, for “the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.” He extols their genius of playing with the elasticity of time and making its relativity their material:
Everything mentioned has a necessary function in the plot. The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression. The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials. There is always a battle against time, against the obstacles that prevent or delay the fulfillment of a desire or the repossession of something cherished but lost. Or time can stop altogether, as in the castle of Sleeping Beauty.
Quickness also matters, Calvino argues, because of “the relationship between physical speed and speed of mind” — something captured in the oft-used metaphor of the horse as a symbol of speed, and of speed of thought, pioneered by Galileo (who, as we know, practically invented modern timekeeping and sparked the tyranny of the clock). Calvino quotes Galileo himself:
If discoursing on a difficult problem were like carrying weights, when many horses can carry more sacks of grain than a single horse, I would agree that many discourses would do more than a single one; but discoursing is like coursing, not like carrying, and one Barbary courser can go faster than a hundred Frieslands.
Noting that for Galileo “good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples,” Calvino — in a remark wonderfully prescient a quarter century later — considers how this question of quickness illuminates the role of literature in a modern world obsessed with speed in all of its permutations:
In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.
The motor age has forced speed on us as a measurable quantity, the records of which are milestones in the history of the progress of both men and machines. But mental speed cannot be measured and does not allow comparisons or competitions; nor can it display its results in a historical perspective. Mental speed is valuable for its own sake, for the pleasure it gives to anyone who is sensitive to such a thing, and not for the practical use that can be made of it. A swift piece of reasoning is not necessarily better than a long-pondered one. Far from it. But it communicates something special that is derived simply from its very swiftness.
And yet, just as embedded in his tribute to lightness in the first lecture was a deep respect for weight, Calvino is careful to point out that his “apologia for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering.” (Milton Glaser captured this beautifully in asserting that “everything exists at once with its opposite.”) Among literature’s most rewarding techniques for slowing down the course of time and inviting lingering, Calvino argues, is the art of digression. He extols its singular joys:
In practical life, time is a form of wealth with which we are stingy. In literature, time is a form of wealth to be spent at leisure and with detachment. We do not have to be first past a predetermined finish line. On the contrary, saving time is a good thing because the more time we save, the more we can afford to lose. Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.
Citing Tristram Shandy as the ultimate example of a novel “completely composed of digressions” — curiously, without mentioning that Laurence Sterne himself memorably called digression “the sunshine of narrative” in a meta-remark inside that very novel — Calvino writes:
The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion or flight. Flight from what? From death, of course.
He quotes a passage by Italian writer Carlo Levi from the introduction to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy:
Death is hidden in clocks… Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows — perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.
With a sentiment invariably bittersweet in the context of Calvino’s own death a few weeks later, he echoes Alan Watts on hurrying and delaying as he simultaneously celebrates Levi’s perspective and counters it:
Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.
From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly.
Calvino ends with what is effectively the last direct reflection on his own work he ever wrote, folded into which is a broader meditation on the secret of great writing:
My work as a writer has from the beginning aimed at tracing the lightning flashes of the mental circuits that capture and link points distant from each other in space and time. In my love of adventure stories and fairytales, I have always searched for the equivalent of some inner energy, some motion of the mind. I have always aimed at the image and the motion that arises naturally from the image, while still being aware that one cannot speak of a literary result until this stream of imagination has been turned into words. Just as for the poet writing verse, so it is for the prose writer: success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry. In both cases it is a question of looking for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.
He takes one last sidewise look at quickness and its necessary counterpoint, one last prophetic glance into the future, as he salutes the power of introverts and the art of stillness as the driving force behind great art:
In the even more congested times that await us, literature must aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and of thought.
Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words. Certainly my own character corresponds to the traditional features of the guild to which I belong. I too have always been saturnine, whatever other masks I have attempted to wear. My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium is a revelatory read in its entirety, a worthy last legacy of one of modern history’s most magnificent minds. Sample it further with the first lecture, exploring the unbearable lightness of language, literature, and life, then complement it with Calvino on how to lower your “worryability”, the two psychological types of writers, and the paradox of America.
Published December 4, 2014