[T]he subject of my lecture… is the contemporary novel as an encyclopedia, as a method of knowledge, and above all as a network of connections between the events, the people, and the things of the world….
Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.
Hello, I am Zin, and I have taken more liberties than usual with the text above! It is taken from the beginning and end of the fifth Memo, the final one we have to study. I wanted to include a third piece, but I did not feel I could get away with it – so I will include it here as it too is an overall statement of purpose for this memo, for all the Memos:
Among the values I would like passed on to the next millennium, there is this above all: a literature that has absorbed the taste for mental orderliness and exactitude, the intelligence of poetry, but at the same time that of science and of philosophy:
Calvino approaches his explanation of literature-as-encyclopedia by means of several different works which all have different characteristics but still fit in this category. First he starts with That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda, an engineer who loved philosophy. He presents the world as a tangled knot to be untied, but this novel, in essence a detective novel, is “left without a solution”! How strange is that! But he loved the unfinished
Then we move to Robert Musil, also an engineer, who played with the tension between the mathematical and precise, and the human and chaotic! I am enjoying all these technical people who write, it is that same thing about exercising opposing muscles maybe. And this he has in common with Gadda: ”their inability to find an ending.”
And of course as soon as you hear the term “encyclopedic novel” you know Proust is around the corner!
Not even Marcel Proust managed to put an end to his encyclopedic novel, though not for lack of design, since the idea for the book came to him all at once, the beginning and end and the general outline. The reason was that the work grew denser and denser from the inside through its own organic vitality. The network that links all things is also Proust’s theme, but in him this net is composed of points in space-time occupied in succession by everyone, which brings about an infinite multiplication of the dimensions of space and time. The world expands until it can no longer be grasped, and knowledge, for Proust, is attained by suffering this intangibility. In this sense a typical experience of knowledge is the jealousy felt by the narrator for Albertine.
How interesting, this suggestion that multiplicity is not easy to wrap up, it keeps going, expanding outward and inward, creating more and more, however the author approaches it! These would never go over well in a world where sitcoms have a half-hour to wrap up all the loose ends and leave everyone happy – but I wonder if someone on the writing staff of The Sopranos read this Memo! And by the way, while pop music lives for the final “money note” jazz often leaves things on 7ths and diminished 9ths and weird chords that hint at more to come! And for that matter atonal music does not have a “home” to end on! Which is probably why most people hate it!
Oh, I must mention the Borges piece, “The Garden of Forking Paths” – “which is presented as a spy story and includes a totally logico-metaphysical story, which in turn contains the description of an endless Chinese novel—and all this concentrated into a dozen pages.” I have not read it – I must! – because Calvino explains this story brings in parallel universes:
the very reason why the protagonist feels authorized to carry out the absurd and abominable crime imposed on him by his spy mission, perfectly sure that this happens only in one of the universes but not in the others; and indeed that, if he commits this crime here and now, in other universes he and his victim will be able to hail each other as friends and brothers.
How wonderful! To think that in some other universe, I am not sitting here wondering where I went wrong!
Calvino goes through many other authors – Flaubert, Valery, with mentions of Joyce and Eliot – but I was taken by a couple of other descriptions of authors completely unfamiliar to me:
There is such a thing as the unified text that is written as the expression of a single voice, but that reveals itself as open to interpretation on several levels. Here the prize for an inventive tour-de-force goes to Alfred Jarry for Uamour absolu (1899), a fifty-page novel that can be read as three completely different stories: (1) the vigil of a condemned man in his cell the night before his execution; (2) the monologue of a man suffering from insomnia, who when half asleep dreams that he has been condemned to death; (3) the story of Christ.
Another multiplicity! This time more vertical than horizontal – the multiplicity is in the possibility of interpretations of a very short novel, what would probably be classified as a novella, rather than an encyclopedic novel!
I was likewise intrigued by his discussion of La vie mode d’emploi (Life, Directions for Use) by Georges Perec. I will not try to copy it here, go read it in the online memo, it is pretty amazing, an apartment building, the kind of careful precision of who is on what floor and what goes on in time, a schedule of themes, and guess what! “This ultra-completed book has an intentional loophole left for incompleteness” – it too is not finished! Because guess what, the universe, life, is not finished! I was pleased to note the mention of Oulipo here: it has been conspicuously absent but this is the place to bring it in!
Oulipo is short for “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” or “workshop of potential literature.” Some day I will do some posts about it maybe, but for right now I will just say it is about finding new structures and using them as creative inspiration – that is right, structure, restrictions, rules, as inspirations! Because it can get very messy if you do not know what you are doing! But here is that pull between two opposites again, restrictions and freedom, and now we are learning that rules and restrictions can be used to create freedom! Sam Cooney conveys this really well in his post about the Memos on The Rumpus:
Multiplicity works through the abiding of rules. Rules give one boundaries to work in, a set space, even if the space is to be thought of as infinite. Sartre said that writing, properly employed, can be a powerful means of liberating the reader from all kinds of alienation, and by this process, the writer also frees their own self and overcomes their own alienation. Like a system of poetry – a system that could be deemed artificial and mechanical – rules can produce inexhaustible freedom and wealth of invention. And like a single deadline can work as the major driving force for a writer, a large array of directives act as stimulation, as ongoing spurs.
And now I go back to “Millennium House” by Richard Osgood, where I began this Study and ended up each Memo. First, the restrictions of Flash are part of the territory, part of what Richard and other flash writers love. Then, the paragraph describing the house brings in a mini-encyclopedia of images and references to times and places and experiences! The juxtaposition of “part fire code and part free will” still gives me goosebumps! Nothing is more regulated and formal than fire code, and nothing symbolizes chaos like free will! The flash is not unfinished by any means, but there is a definite sense of continuation, ending with a leap into the air! And Richard is, no surprise, an architect, that blend of science and art that balances stresses and tolerances with lines and arcs and creates a combination of the practical and the aesthetic! I keep finding architects in my search for art and comments on these Memos! Like with the art above, which was created as part of an architecture course!
I will be reading some Calvino fiction shortly – probably If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, I am too intimidated by Invisible Cities – but I have another project (hello, Jeanne!) scheduled next!
And I will end the Memos study with this:
Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function.