Why Read The Classics?, by Italo Calvino
As is often the case with writers, Italo Calvino was both the writer of classic works as well as a reader and a literary critic of them as well. These three roles of reader, writer, and book reviewer, are pretty commonly united within people of an artistic but also critical bent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book seems aimed at an audience that loves not only the writings of Calvino himself, but also the Italian perspective on the classics that this book represents. The author addresses other cultures and the writings of other cultures and shows himself to have been a deeply and widely read person, which makes a great deal of sense. After all, one of the not very often openly admitted reasons that one reads classic literature is so that one may right better, and one of the consequences of reading a lot of classical literature and possessing some degree of literary talent is writing classics for oneself, and one of the results of being a literary person who reads a lot of classic works is the phenomenon of intertextuality, where one’s writings serve as a conversation with previous writings that future authors may take up, a subject of great interest to the author, and to many readers as well.
This book of about 250 pages or so consists of thirty-six essays of literary criticism that Calvino wrote (in Italian, originally) that have been translated for English-language readers. The book as a whole is a meta experience in that the author originally wrote in Italian about books that he had often read in translation (sometimes from English), and the reader of this book is reading about these reflections on books translated back into the English. Some of the books the author talks about are undisputed classics, as when he writes of Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Galileo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Hugo, Stendhal, Hemmingway, and so on. Other works the author deals with are certainly literary fiction but not necessarily classics recognized the whole world over, which includes many of the Italian, and more recent, authors that the writer discusses. The author’s thoughts are generally deeply connected to his own writings, and in talking about how writers play with the reliability of the narration and the structure of their novels and with the importance of relationships and political commitments and morality, the author is revealing more about himself than he often is of the texts he is talking about, because what interests him about the classics are often those areas that he deals with in his own fiction.
This is the way of writers, though. As book reviewers and/or literary critics, what we notice in a book or what we choose to address relates to our own perspectives and our own approach. For example, Calvino’s definition of classics includes poetry and prose and drama, speculative fiction and scientific writing, mostly Western classics but also Persian writings from a polygamous standpoint. There are definitely some weaknesses in the author’s writings, as he shows himself interested in questions of class and politics but without an interest in religion or the morality that comes from revealed texts. For him, his interest in writers who dealt thoughtfully with religion is limited to the cleric as a profession and not to the moral elevation that comes from internalizing standards of moral behavior. Likewise, the author’s interest in science is often connected with an interest in magic and fantasy, and with the search for power and insight through science, rather than having a viewpoint which is rationalistic. Be that as it may, Calvino is an interesting writer even where one disagrees with him or where one’s own interests in the classics somewhat diverge.