Collection Of Sand, by Italo Calvino
This is an odd collection, but it is by no means a bad collection. Calvino faces the sort of problem that humanity in general has to deal with, and that is the desire to be remembered and to leave something lasting. Had Calvino been a person of faith who believed in some sort of eternal judgment, it might have been possible for him to place his deeds in the hands of a merciful God and ask for forgiveness for his various follies (including his politics), but alas, he was a secularist of a particularly leftist cause, and one whose writings were enjoyed and appreciated by a particular set of people but by no means the sort of writings that had obvious popularity that would last forever. And the author, as he neared the end of his life, seemed to reflect over and over again on the ravages of time on historical memory, and on the way that people sought to ensure that their deeds would be remembered. This poignant theme is not dealt with in a heavy-handed way, but it is repeated often enough to make it a very thoughtful set of material. If you appreciate the writings of Calvino in general, this is certainly something I recommend.
This book is about 200 pages long but it is filled with dozens of essays divided into four parts and a complex set of contents. The book begins with the translator’s introduction, the author’s presentation of the volume, and a note on the text. After that comes a look at exhibitions and explorations, as the author looks at the titular collection of sand, a look at the wax monsters, the way the New World was viewed by Europe, and the wonders of the popular press (I). After this comes a look at the eye’s ray and things like pigs and archaeologists, the narrative of Trajan’s column, the measure of spaces in the city, and the meaning and struggle of graffiti (II). The third part of the book is the shortest of the set and it looks at various accounts of the fantastic, including the adventures of automata, fairy geography, the archipelago of imaginary places, and an encyclopedia of a visionary (III). The fourth and final part of the book looks at various places through travel essays that discuss matters of history, culture, and contemporary thinking and behavior in Japan, Mexico, and Iran. Here the author looks at everything from a massive tree in Mexico to more reflections on sand and the struggle for permanence.
One of the most notable aspects of this book is the way that the author explores the results of his travels, and proves to be an observant tourist, whether that tourism involved the speculative worlds of other writers, other fields besides his own literature which he deals with humbly in order to avoid triggering the anger of gatekeepers, and also as a tourist of literal foreign places that the author finds to be deeply worthy of thinking and reflection. The result is that the author finds himself dealing with the imagination and the fantastic but also with the way that people deal with the ravages of time and with the terrain of life and the imagination. The content of this book is a bit scattered, but there is also the unity of the book’s themes and of the author’s own perspective and approach that make this a coherent work even though it is a collection of essays that would likely be unfamiliar to most American readers. I happen to be a big fan of essayism as an essay writer, but it is a genre that not everyone is into. Again, though, if you like essays and the author’s thinking is appealing, this is an easy work to appreciate.