Manic, zany, Cosmicomics: Italo Calvino revisited

As with many English majors, my intellectual life was blighted early by a crude little theory, out-of-date even when I first encountered it, that children’s intellects fall naturally into two sorts: the math/science kid and the art/literature kid. The worst result of this doctrine is to turn a kid’s first, unavoidable difficulties with math into insurmountable obstacles, the roots of which sit inoperably deep in the brain. But it also makes a mess out of literary history. Discoveries in the hard sciences both result from and shape the intellectual and spiritual currents that writers respond to. James Clerk Maxwell showed us that invisible fields, as much as visible bodies, could wield force, at around the time that Henry James invented an entire literary language for the description of unplaceable, intangible influences. It was also a good period for ghost stories. These things aren’t just coincidence.

In the second half of the 20th century, as people realized that they were living in Kurt Godel’s world – the world where no system can be both complete and consistent – experimental writers abandoned the old dream of James Joyce and Ezra Pound, of writing the book that would “complete” literature. Some of these writers began to speak, in crabby tones, of literature’s “exhaustion” rather than its end, but the writers who made up the OULIPO group had a brighter idea: let’s acknowledge that literature is not one system, they argued, but a potential infinity of systems with arbitrary starting points. So they wrote novels in which the letter e never appears, or in which it is the only vowel. They made stories based on math problems. Give me new starting points, they seemed to say, and I’ll give you a new literature.

Italo Calvino (1923-85) didn’t formally join OULIPO until 1968, but he was a spiritual fellow traveller from early on. His books typically begin by committing to an insane, fable-like premise (a viscount is wounded in battle and becomes two warring people; a child discovers that he prefers life up a tree), then work out the implications of that premise with rigour and fidelity. The series of stories collectively known as Cosmicomics works, at first, in a similar way. The early stories begin with a brief summary of 20th century scientific discovery, and then a primordial being named Qfwfq – sometimes a fish, sometimes a dinosaur, sometimes hardly a determinable thing at all – takes up the narration, describing what it was like before the moon first separated from the earth (“Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese”), or when the nebula nearest our sun began to condense into separate planets (“‘I’m playing.’ ‘Playing? With what?’ ‘With a thing.’ You understand? It was the first time”). Imagine a universe so new that no human could live there, then anthropomorphize it till it’s almost cuddly: that’s Calvino’s method. The miracle of the Cosmicomics is that his manic, richly visual descriptions turn out to be adequate to the impossible scenarios that that method creates. So, for example, we have no trouble following him into that second-most-unimaginable of conditions, the pre-Big Bang universe, when everything coinhered at one infinitesimal point:

“Just with the people I’ve already named we would have been overcrowded; but you have to add all the stuff we had to keep piled up in there: all the material that was to serve afterwards to form the universe, now dismantled and concentrated in such a way that you weren’t able to tell what was later to become part of astronomy . . . from what was assigned to geography. . . . And on top of that, we were always bumping against the Z’zu family’s household goods: camp beds, mattresses, baskets. . . . ”

These Z’zus, he somehow manages to convince us, were “immigrants,” even though the word had no meaning: “This was mere unfounded prejudice – that seems obvious to me – because neither before nor after existed, nor any place to immigrate from, but there were those who insisted that the concept of ‘immigrant’ could be understood in the abstract, outside of space and time.” There are indeed; just listen to America’s white invaders on Fox News, scoffing at its brown invaders (whose invasion began before ours did). Calvino’s knack for tiny, right observations never forfeits him, even in pre-spacetime.

The Cosmicomics sequence has ever but slenderly been available in North America up to now, scattered across various collections. Several never appeared in English translation here. A new volume, The Complete Cosmicomics, gathers the entire series, and if you like experimental literature, or science, or for that matter humour or intelligence or zaniness in any form, you’ll want this book. Some readers hold the later Cosmicomics in disdain, perhaps because the first 23 stories had the good luck to be translated by the brilliant William Weaver. Anyway, I don’t detect any real falling-off, though Calvino grows less punctilious in his devotion to the method and constraints of the early stories, and Qfwfq gradually disappears. One of the cleverest and loveliest, “The Other Eurydice,” comes late in the sequence. In any case, though, Complete Cosmicomics is not a book to bolt through, story by story; it’s to be read around in and savoured without system, whether you’re a math person, a science person or just a person.

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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