At only 124 pages Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium isn’t exactly a big book. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in thought provoking ideas. The six memos are lectures that were written for the 1985-86 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. Calvino died before he could deliver the lectures and before he wrote the final sixth one. Therefore even though the book is called Six Memos it is really only five. Each lecture examines a quality of literature that Calvino thought important and worthy of developing and carrying into the 21st century. The five lectures in the book are: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity. The sixth one was to be called Consistency.

Lightness. Calvino writes:

Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one [an image in Boccaccio of Cavalcanti leaping]: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times–noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring–belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.

Calvino goes on to clarify by using more images from literature. What he means by lightness is multi-faceted. He wants a lightening of language “whereby meaning is conveyed through verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarefied consistency.” He means light like a bird, not like a feather. He wants precision and determination. He suggests we can find plenty of what he means in Emily Dickinson.

Lightness also means a certain “narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work.” This could also be a highly abstract description. Calvino suggests that Henry James has elements that illustrate this idea.

And finally, lightness is reflected in visual images that acquire “emblematic value.” Here it is the image that impresses rather than the words. for example, Don Quixote driving his lance through the sail of the windmill.

Quickness. This is about time and playing with time. The narrative time of the story cannot be measured against real time. Time in a story can be drawn out and ever expanding or contracted. It is about manipulating the continuity and discontinuity of time in a Scheherazade fashion. Quickness is also about style and thought, 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.” It feels to me to be rather cinematic in the way where scenes tend to be short and change quickly. There doesn’t seem to be one long continuity: this happened then this happened then this. It seems to be jumpy for lack of better descriptor.

Calvino thinks “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.” With the speed of the world these days I amm reluctant to embrace this idea. When I sit down to read I want to escape speed, I want to slow down. But maybe I am getting the experience of reading confused with the actual quality Calvino is talking about.

I will leave you to ponder these two qualities for a while. I will return tomorrow with another one or two.

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