なぜ古典を読むのか (河出文庫) 文庫 – 2012/4/5
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Don’t miss my point. There are outstanding essays here and I suggest that a reader skip and jump through the essays reading those that are of most interest to them. The essay on Galileo is well explained with a focus on revealing Galileo’s lyrical skills and ability to express with metaphor. The comparison of a language of geometry and the language based on an alphabet is interesting in explaining how Galileo both thought and expressed himself. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is placed in historic context as a work that expresses an increased realization of man’s potential for self determination. Calvino’s short essay on Voltaire’s Candide is exactly correct for the abrupt speed of disasters is a major characteristic of the book and remains a strategy for comic filmmaking in contemporary days. Calvino indicates that the Charterhouse of Parma is possibly the greatest novel and there are two essays that discuss the point. Calvino calls Great Expectations by Dickens a masterpiece and then reviews Our Mutual Friend, a darker work. Calvino has great admiration for Dickens, his characterizations, his ability to have his characters ride wild trajectories of loss and gain, and for ability to capture the speech and world view of the lower classes. Calvino explains why sentimentality was a Victorian cultural influence that sometimes alienates a contemporary reader of Dickens.
Mark Twain’s ability to create an American vernacular is acknowledged as is Jorge Luis Borges’ inventive experimentation with the structure of narration. The opening essay on reading the classics was the most well presented, almost as if it was a college lecture. The chapter on Pasternak had considerable power, possibly because Calvino’s world view is different from Pasternak and yet Calvino fully understands the opposing view and gives it ample exploration. The book could be best described as thoughtful.
But why ‘humbling?’ Because reading it reminds me of how little I really know about classical literature. As well read in the classics as I sometimes like to believe I am (having almost adamantly refused to read anything written after the nineteenth century until I’d finished my formal education at the age of 34), I realize I’m not — that there’s still a tremendous amount in the Western Canon of which I’m profoundly ignorant, except by hearsay or secondary source (to say nothing of my total ignorance of the Eastern Canon—but that’s for another lifetime).
What can I say about this treatise?
I found the following citation from Stendhal’s SOUVENIRS D'ÉGOTISME to be of particular interest given that the reasoning behind it persuaded Stendahl to give his spiritual allegiance to Italy rather than to England: “The exaggerated and oppressive workload of the English labourer is our revenge for Waterloo…. The poor Italian, dressed only in rags, is much closer to happiness. He has time to make love, and for eight to a hundred days per year he gives himself over to a religion which is so much more interesting because it actually makes him a little bit afraid” (p. 129).
Moved as I then was to consult, online, my local library’s supply of books by Stendahl (looking specifically for THE RED AND THE BLACK, a title I already knew, but also for three I hadn’t known and had learned about only through my reading of Calvino’s book---namely, LUCIEN LEUWEN, THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA and ON LOVE — I found that the translations of Stendahl’s works in the Brooklyn Public Library’s borough-wide system (possibly one of the largest in the country, if not in the world) were more prevalent in Russian than in English. While I don’t wish to reach any hasty conclusions about who’s reading the classics these days based on this single query, it doesn’t look good for us natives. Could it be that our own “exaggerated and oppressive workload”—the object of which, I fear, is an equally ‘exaggerated and oppressive’ consumerism that ultimately leaves us spiritually famished—quite simply usurps any time and energy we might otherwise devote to the classics?
But this is mere speculation on my part — and I’m here to review, not to speculate.
Why Read the Classics? is not a difficult read, but it is a dry one. Given that I finished up my academic career long ago, and that scholarly treatises are far less a part of my daily regimen than is fiction, I’m a poor judge. The best I can offer to future publishers is a note on various errata I found.
Apparently, Calvino (or, more likely, his translator, Martin McLaughlin) is not above an occasional Oops! as we see first on pp. 116-17 in Calvino’s essay on Giammaria Ortes: “In the same way an entire typology and categorization of conformisms and rebellions, judged according to their relative levels of sociability or unsociability, could be elaborated from the final sentence of the work where there is a contrast between he (sic!) who is ‘susceptible’ to a greater number of ‘opinions’ and he (sic!) who is ‘susceptible to fewer opinions’: the former becomes ‘more and more reserved, civil and dissimulating’, the latter ‘more sincere, more free and more savage’.”
Then, too, in quoting Cesare Pavese on Balzac, we find what may well be just a typographical error in “…but the hunches and tricks of a presiding magistrate flailing away at the mystery which dammit (sic!) must be cleared up” (p. 143). Damn those printers, anyway!
A mere two pages later, we find Charles Dickens’s OUR MUTUAL FRIEND described as “the second last novel he wrote” — and again on p. 257 when Calvino mentions LES FLEURS BLEUES/THE BLUE FLOWERS as “…the second last novel published by (Raymond) Queneau.” Does that make both books the penultimate novels of the two authors, or is it a second novel that each was writing alongside another last novel? We’ll never know — unless, that is, McLaughlin simply omitted the distinctly unprepossessing “to” between “second” and “last” that we’re now meant to supply. Ditto the omission of an equally unprepossessing “on,” by the way, on p. 263 in “…and it is not worth expending any more words (on).”
And then there’s that personal bugaboo (on p. 211) that seems to be creeping — at least into English — like so much kudzu: “Montale is one of the few poets who knows (sic!) the secret of using rhyme…”. And yet, before we leave the subject of Eugenio Montale, Calvino make a bold declaration on p. 220: “I will come straight to the point. In an age of generic and abstract words, words that are used for everything, words that are used not to think and not to say, a linguistic plague which is spreading from the public sphere to the private, Montale was the poet of exactness…”. Keep in mind that Calvino published this particular essay in 1981—i.e., while the Internet was still in utero, and the WorldWideWeb, just a gleam in its mother’s eye.
What are we to make of “entitled” (rather than “titled,” as it should be) on p. 151 — i.e., right at the start of the chapter discussing Flaubert’s TROIS CONTES? Flaubert would never have made this mistake. I doubt, too, that Calvino would’ve made it. I suspect McLaughlin is once again the perpetrator — just as he’s the repeat offender of the same minor crime on p. 241.
And finally, just what is Calvino/McLaughlin saying in Calvino’s essay on Hemingway with “…and what I continue to find in his not others’ works.” Might that have been “…in his, and not in others’ works?”
Geez, Bowser, throw me a bone, will ya? I’m feeling cantankerous!
A few observations and my highlighting of these minor blemishes notwithstanding, is there anything of real substance I can bring to my review of WHY READ THE CLASSICS? by Italo Calvino? I wish there were, but I’m not really the man for the job — even if I did find the following, which Calvino culled from Raymond Queneau’s twin expository pieces “What is Art?” and “More and Less,” to be of particular relevance in this age when virtually anything consisting of a few unsung words and serendipitous line breaks passes for poetry: “‘Another highly fallacious idea which nevertheless is very popular nowadays is the equivalence that has been established between inspiration, exploration of the subconscious and liberation; between chance, automatic reaction and freedom. Now this inspiration which consists in blindly obeying every single impulse is in reality a form of slavery. The classical writer composing a tragedy by observing a certain number of rules with which he is familiar is freer than the poet who writes down whatever flits through his head and is enslaved to other rules which he is not aware of” (p. 251).
Why, then, the distinctly uncharitable three stars? Because — it seems to me — a work of this kind, if nothing more, should move me to go out and grab the works it analyzes. Other than the works by Stendahl and, quite possibly, the one work by Carlo Emilio Gadda (QUER PASTICCIACCIO BRUTTO DE VIA MERULANA/THAT AWFUL MESS ON VIA MERULANA) and another by Cesare Pavese (LA LUNA E I FALÒ/THE MOON AND THE BONFIRES), it did not. Moreover, I would have to question Calvino’s choices. While every editor’s choice of the “classics” is certainly and rightfully his or her own, this compendium seems just a tad top-heavy with Italians of minor repute outside of Italy.