Readersforum's Blog

July 29, 2013

How Italo Calvino Arrived at a New Ideal for Fiction


Letters: 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino, selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin

Letters: 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino, selected and with an introduction by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin


Who any longer remembers or broods on Italy in the 1950s and 1960s? It was the era of a severe sadness—whether in the cinema of Rossellini and Antonioni, or the artistic thinking of Alighiero Boetti, or the musical thinking of Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono. There was a total noble clarity to the tone, and the deepest expression of this tone was in literature. For this was the era of Primo Levi’s prose and Pasolini’s novels and essays, as well as Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini’s novels and the novels of their protégés Natalia Ginzburg and Elsa Morante—and, above all, the work of Italo Calvino. In Turin and Milan and Rome, an unusually intricate investigation into what might be taken for reality was underway. This had something to do, no doubt, with the state of postwar destruction. In Paris, the postwar moment was a mute, anguished trauma. In Italy, however, the atmosphere was different. It managed to be simultaneously more utopian and more fragile, and that atmosphere allowed for investigations into reality that would have been savagely political if they hadn’t been at the same time so delicately formal.

There is nothing like it now, not in New York or London or Shanghai, just as there is no writer alive who resembles that era’s greatest writer, Calvino. So the appearance of a selection of Calvino’s letters in English is a moment of happiness. This does not mean, however, that it is a book to be read through on the ultimate sofa or day-bed. These are not self-exposing compositions like the letters of Flaubert or Elizabeth Bishop. The tone, in Martin McLaughlin’s translation, can sometimes feel coldly pedantic or earnestly verbose. The scrupulously literary focus of the selection by Michael Wood gives a strange impression, as if Calvino were unable to talk about anything in private that could not be said in a lecture course or a publishing meeting. So perhaps this isn’t a great book, not entirely.

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March 8, 2012

Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?

By Ruth Franklin

“I have no doubt of seeing the animal today,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote hastily to her husband, William Godwin, on August 30, 1797, as she waited for the midwife who would help her deliver the couple’s first child. The “animal” was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, wife of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, one of the most enduring and influential novels of the nineteenth century. But Wollstonecraft would not live to see her daughter’s fame: She died of an infection days after giving birth.

The last notes that Wollstonecraft wrote to Godwin are included in the exhibition “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” which began last year at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and has now come to the New York Public Library. On display are numerous artifacts both personal and literary from the lives of the Shelleys, including manuscript pages from the notebook in which Mary wrote Frankenstein (with editing in the margins by her husband), which have never before been shown publicly in the United States. But it was Wollstonecraft’s scribbled note, in which she referred to her baby as “the animal”— the same word that the scientist in Frankenstein would use to describe his own notorious creation—that gave me pause. Could the novel—commonly understood as a fable of masculine reproduction, in which a man creates life asexually—also be a story about pregnancy?

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November 8, 2011

Jonathan Lethem Writes a Takedown of The New Yorker Book Critic

Jonathan Lethem

By Willa Paskin

James Wood, currently the book critic of The New Yorker and widely considered to be the most serious literary critic regularly working today, gave Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude a bad review eight years ago, when Wood was still writing for The New Republic.  Today Lethem strikes back in an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books about Wood’s shortcomings that is not quite as knee-jerkingly churlish as its occasion — a writer responding to his bad review — might have you expect. Lethem knows writing a piece like this is pretentious and early on self deprecates, “Why, I hear you moan in your sheets, why in the thick of this Ecstasy Party you’ve thrown for yourself, violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review?” The answer, in short, is that Lethem thinks Wood is a snob.

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September 22, 2011

Is the Internet Turning Books into Perpetual Works-in-Progress?

  By Laura Bennett

Richard North Patterson remembers the moment he learned that Osama bin Laden was dead. He was watching television on a Sunday evening two days before the publication of his latest novel, The Devil’s Light, in which Al Qaeda plans a nuclear attack on America for the decade anniversary of 9/11. Wolf Blitzer, grave-faced, said something about a major national security announcement. And immediately, Patterson knew. “I sat there like a man in a catatonic state,” he recalled. “I could see the train coming toward me, but I couldn’t speak or move.” In The Devil’s Light, bin Laden was very much alive, hatching deadly plots in a cave in western Pakistan. Patterson—author of more than 15 political thrillers, including several best-sellers—realized instantly that his book was in trouble. “I’m the only American who suffered from bin Laden’s death,” he said. “Generally I’d be happy to take one for the team. I just wished they’d kept him in a refrigerator for a month.”

But in the era of e-books, there was an easy fix. Patterson, together with his agent and publisher, decided to take an unprecedented step for a work of fiction: They would release a revised digital edition to align the plot with current events. “Initially, when this kind of thing happens, you are still sort of trapped in an analog world and you say, ‘Oh well, this is bad timing,’ said Susan Moldow, Patterson’s publisher at Scribner. “But then you go—wait a minute…” more

February 8, 2011

A Literary Glass Ceiling?

Why magazines aren’t reviewing more female writers.

Ruth Franklin

The first shots were fired last summer, when Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult called the New York Times Book Review a boys’ club. (I weighed in then, too, calling on the Times to respond to statistics posted by Double X regarding the disparity between books by male authors and female authors reviewed in their pages.) Now, the war is on. A few days ago, VIDA, a women’s literary organization, posted on its website a stark illustration of what appears to be gender bias in the book review sections of magazines and literary journals. In 2010, as VIDA illustrated with pie charts, these publications printed vastly more book reviews by men than by women. They also reviewed more books by male authors.

The numbers are startling.   …read more

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