italo calvino | if on a winter’s night a traveler

30 08 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 197 | August 30, 2009


“Myth is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there. Myth is nourished by silence as well as by words.” –Italo Calvino

He belongs, like Borges and a handful of others, to that sacred sect of storytellers (one part sorcerer, one part shaman, one part shape-shifter, one part fabulist) that seem to write in the invisible ink of dream.

There’s nothing more important about his life than his work. There’s nothing I can tell that comes even close to reading what he has to tell in his own way.

There are writers who write in English or French or German or Russian or Spanish…and there are writers like Kafka, Borges…and Calvino, who create their own language.

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Chapter 1 (below) of Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER is as good a place to begin as I can imagine. (I stress ‘imagine.’) It’s one of my favorite beginnings in all of literature. —Norbert Blei


You are about to ‘begin reading Italo Calvlno’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—”I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch your legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.

Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best.

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs. What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.

So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winters night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn’t published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight Into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).

All this simply means that, having rapidly glanced over the titles of the volumes displayed in the bookshop, you have turned toward a stack of If on a winter’s night a traveler fresh off the press, you have grasped a copy, and you have carried it to the cashier so that your right to own it can be established.

You cast another bewildered look at the books around you (or, rather: it was the books that looked at you, with the bewildered gaze of dogs who, from their cages in the city pound, see a former companion go off on the leash of his master, come to rescue him), and out you went.

You derive a special pleasure from a just-published book, and it isn’t only a book you are taking with you but its novelty as well, which could also be merely that of an object fresh from the factory, the youthful bloom of new books, which lasts until the dust jacket begins to yellow, until a veil of smog settles on the top edge, until the binding becomes dog-eared, in the rapid autumn of libraries. No, you hope always to encounter true newness, which, having been new once, will continue to be so. Having read the freshly published book, you will take possession of this newness at the first moment, without having to pursue it, to chase it. Will it happen this time? You never can tell. Let’s see how it begins.

Perhaps you started leafing through the book already in the shop. Or were you unable to, because it was wrapped in its cocoon of cellophane? Now you are on the bus, standing in the crowd, hanging from a strap by your arm, and you begin undoing the package with your free hand, making movements something like a monkey, a monkey who wants to peel a banana and at the same time cling to the bough. Watch out, you’re elbowing your neighbors; apologize, at least.

Or perhaps the bookseller didn’t wrap the volume; he gave it to you in a bag. This simplifies matters. You are at the wheel of your car, waiting at a traffic light, you take the book out of the bag, rip off the transparent wrapping, start reading the first lines. A storm of honking breaks over you; the light is green, you’re blocking traffic.

You are at your desk, you have set the book among your business papers as if by chance; at a certain moment you shift a file and you find the book before your eyes, you open it absently, you rest your elbows on the desk, you rest your temples against your hands, curled into fists, you seem to be concentrating on an examination of the papers and instead you are exploring the first pages of the novel. Gradually you settle back in the chair, you raise the book to the level of your nose, you tilt the chair, poised on its rear legs, you pull out a side drawer of the desk to prop your feet on it; the position of the feet during reading is of maximum importance, you stretch your legs out on the top of the desk, on the files to be expedited.

But doesn’t this seem to show a lack of respect? Of respect, that is, not for your job (nobody claims to pass judgment on your professional capacities: we assume that your duties are a normal element in the system of unproductive activities that occupies such a large part of the national and international economy), but for the book. Worse still if you belong—willingly or unwillingly—to the number of those for whom working means really working, performing, whether deliberately or without premeditation, something necessary or at least not useless for others as well as for oneself; then the book you have brought with you to your place of employment like a kind of amulet or talisman exposes you to intermittent temptations, a few seconds at a time subtracted from the principal object of your attention, whether it is the perforations of electronic cards, the burners of a kitchen stove, the controls of a bulldozer, a patient stretched out on the operating table with his guts exposed.

In other words, it’s better for you to restrain your impatience and wait to open the book at home. Now. Yes, you are in your room, calm; you open the book to page one, no, to the last page, first you want to see how long it is. It’s not too long, fortunately. Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.

You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t say a great deal. So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be. Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.

So here you are now, ready to attack the first lines of the first page. You prepare to recognize the unmistakable tone of the author. No. You don’t recognize it at all. But now that you think about it, who ever said this author had an unmistakable tone? On the contrary, he is known as an author who changes greatly from one book to the next. And in these very changes you recognize him as himself. Here, however, he seems to have absolutely no connection with all the rest he has written, at least as far as you can recall. Are you disappointed? Let’s see. Perhaps at first you feel a bit lost, as when a person appears who, from the name, you identified with a certain face, and you try to make the features you are seeing tally with those you had in mind, and it won’t work. But then you go on and you realize that the book is readable nevertheless, independently of what you expected of the author, it’s the book in itself that arouses your curiosity; in fact, on sober reflection, you prefer it this way, confronting something and not quite knowing yet what it is.

{from IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER. A Harvest Book, Harcourt,Brace & Co., 1981

Italo Calvino (15 October 1923 – 19 September 1985)  was an Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. His best known works include the Our Ancestors trilogy (1952-1959), the Cosmicomics collection of short stories (1965), and the novels Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979).

Lionised in Britain and America, he was the most-translated contemporary Italian writer at the time of his death, and a noted contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Italo Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, a suburb of Havana, Cuba in 1923. His father, Mario, was a tropical agronomist and botanist who also taught agriculture and floriculture. Born 47 years earlier in San Remo, Italy, Mario Calvino had emigrated to Mexico in 1909 where he took up an important position with the Ministry of Agriculture. In an autobiographical essay, Italo Calvino explained that his father “had been in his youth an anarchist, a follower of Kropotkin and then a Socialist Reformist”. In 1917, Mario left for Cuba to conduct scientific experiments, after living through the Mexican Revolution.

Calvino’s mother, Eva Mameli, was a botanist and university professor. A native of Sassari in Sardinia and 11 years younger than her husband, she married while she was still a junior lecturer at Pavia University. Born into a secular family, Eva was a pacifist educated in the “religion of civic duty and science”. Calvino described his parents as being “very different in personality from one another”, suggesting perhaps deeper tensions behind a comfortable, albeit strict, middle-class upbringing devoid of conflict. As an adolescent, he found it hard relating to poverty and the working-class, and was “ill at ease” with his parents’ openness to the laborers who filed into his father’s study on Saturdays to receive their weekly paycheck.

In 1925, less than two years after Calvino’s birth, the family returned to Italy and settled definitively in San Remo on the Ligurian coast. Floriano, Calvino’s brother who became a distinguished geologist, was born in 1927.

The family divided their time between the Villa Meridiana, an experimental floriculture station which also served as their home, and Mario’s ancestral land at San Giovanni Battista. On this small working farm set in the hills behind San Remo, Mario pioneered in the cultivation of then exotic fruits such as avocado and grapefruit, eventually obtaining an entry in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani for his achievements. The vast forests and luxuriant fauna omnipresent in Calvino’s early fiction such as The Baron in the Trees derives from this “legacy”. In an interview, Calvino stated that “San Remo continues to pop out in my books, in the most diverse pieces of writing.” He and Floriano would climb the tree-rich estate and perch for hours on the branches reading their favorite adventure stories. Less salubrious aspects of this “paternal legacy” are described in The Road to San Giovanni, Calvino’s memoir of his father in which he exposes their inability to communicate: “Talking to each other was difficult. Both verbose by nature, possessed of an ocean of words, in each other’s presence we became mute, would walk in silence side by side along the road to San Giovanni.” Due to his early interest in stories, having devoured Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as a child, Calvino felt he was the “black sheep” of a family that held literature in less esteem than the sciences. Fascinated by American movies and cartoons, he was equally attracted to drawing, poetry, and theatre. On a darker note, Calvino recalled that his earliest memory was of a socialist professor brutalized by Fascist lynch-squads. “I remember clearly that we were at dinner when the old professor came in with his face beaten up and bleeding, his bowtie all torn, asking for help.”

Other legacies include the parents’ masonic republicanism which occasionally developed into anarchic socialism. Austere, anti-Fascist freethinkers, Eva and Mario refused giving their sons any religious education. Italo attended the English nursery school, St George’s College, followed by a Protestant elementary private school run by Waldensians. His secondary schooling was completed at the state-run Liceo Gian Domenico Cassini where, at his parents’ request, he was exempted from religious instruction but forced to justify his anticonformist stance. In his mature years, Calvino described the experience as a salutary one as it made him “tolerant of others’ opinions, particularly in the field of religion, remembering how irksome it was to hear myself mocked because I did not follow the majority’s beliefs”. During this time, he met a brilliant student from Rome, Eugenio Scalfari, who went on to found the weekly magazine L’Espresso and La Repubblica, Italy’s major newspaper. The two teenagers formed a lasting friendship, Calvino attributing his political awakening to their university discussions. Seated together “on a huge flat stone in the middle of a stream near our land”, he and Scalfari founded the MUL (University Liberal Movement).

Eva managed to delay her son’s enrolment in the Fascist armed scouts, the Balilla Moschettieri, and then arranged that he be excused, as a non-Catholic, from performing devotional acts in church. But later on, as a compulsory member, he could not avoid the assemblies and parades of the Avanguardisti, and was forced to participate in the Italian occupation of the French Riviera in June 1940.

In 1941, Calvino dutifully enrolled at the University of Turin, choosing the Agriculture Faculty where his father had previously taught courses in agronomy. Concealing his literary ambitions to please his family, he passed four exams in his first year while reading anti-Fascist works by Elio Vittorini, Eugenio Montale, Cesare Pavese, Huizinga, and Pisacane, and works by Max Planck, Heisenberg, and Einstein on physics. Disdainful of Turin students, Calvino saw himself as enclosed in a “provincial shell” that offered the illusion of immunity from the Fascist nightmare: “We were ‘hard guys’ from the provinces, hunters, snooker-players, show-offs, proud of our lack of intellectual sophistication, contemptuous of any patriotic or military rhetoric, coarse in our speech, regulars in the brothels, dismissive of any romantic sentiment and desperately devoid of women.”

Calvino transferred to the University of Florence in 1943 and reluctantly passed three more exams in agriculture. By the end of the year, the Germans had succeeded in occupying Liguria and setting up Benito Mussolini’s puppet Republic of Salò in northern Italy. Now twenty years old, Calvino refused military service and went into hiding. Reading intensely in a wide array of subjects, he also reasoned politically that, of all the partisan groupings, the communists were the best organized with “the most convincing political line”.

In spring 1944, Eva encouraged her sons to enter the Italian Resistance in the name of “natural justice and family virtues”. Using the battlename of “Santiago”, Calvino joined the Garibaldi Brigades, a clandestine Communist group and, for twenty months, endured the fighting in the Maritime Alps until 1945 and the Liberation. As a result of his refusal to be a conscript, his parents were held hostage by the Nazis for an extended period at the Villa Meridiana. Calvino wrote of his mother’s ordeal that “she was an example of tenacity and courage… behaving with dignity and firmness before the SS and the Fascist militia, and in her long detention as a hostage, not least when the blackshirts three times pretended to shoot my father in front of her eyes. The historical events which mothers take part in acquire the greatness and invincibility of natural phenomena.”

Calvino settled in Turin in 1945, after a long hesitation over living there or in Milan. He often humorously belittled this choice, describing Turin as a “city that is serious but sad”. Returning to university, he abandoned Agriculture for the Arts Faculty. A year later, he was initiated into the literary world by Elio Vittorini who published his short story Andato al commando (1945; Gone to Headquarters) in Il Politecnico, a Turin-based weekly magazine associated with the university. The horror of the war had not only provided the raw material for his literary ambitions but deepened his commitment to the Communist cause. Viewing civilian life as a continuation of the partisan struggle, he confirmed his membership of the Italian Communist Party. On reading Lenin’s State and Revolution, he plunged into post-war political life, associating himself chiefly with the worker’s movement in Turin.

In 1947, he graduated with a Master’s thesis on Joseph Conrad, wrote short stories in his spare time, and landed a job in the publicity department at the Einaudi publishing house run by Giulio Einaudi. Although brief, his stint put him in regular contact with Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzburg, Norberto Bobbio, and many other left-wing intellectuals and writers. He then left Einaudi to work as a journalist for the official Communist daily, L’Unità, and the newborn Communist political magazine, Rinascita. During this period, Pavese and poet Alfonso Gatto were Calvino’s closest friends and mentors.

His first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders) written with valuable editorial advice from Pavese, won the Premio Riccione on publication in 1947. With sales topping 5000 copies, a surprise success in postwar Italy, the novel inaugurated Calvino’s neorealist period. In a clairvoyant essay, Pavese praised the young writer as a “squirrel of the pen” who “climbed into the trees, more for fun than fear, to observe partisan life as a fable of the forest”. In 1948, he interviewed one of his literary idols, Ernest Hemingway, traveling with Natalia Ginzberg to his home in Stresa.

Ultimo viene il corvo (The Crow Comes Last), a collection of stories based on his wartime experiences, was published to acclaim in 1949. Despite the triumph, Calvino grew increasingly worried by his inability to compose a worthy second novel. He returned to Einaudi in 1950, responsible this time for the literary volumes. He eventually became a consulting editor, a position that allowed him to hone his writing talent, discover new writers, and develop into “a reader of texts”. In late 1951, presumably to advance in the Communist party, he spent two months in the Soviet Union as correspondent for l’Unità. While in Moscow, he learned of his father’s death on 25 October. The articles and correspondence he produced from this visit were published in 1952, winning the Saint-Vincent Prize for journalism.

Over a seven-year period, Calvino wrote three realist novels, The White Schooner (1947-49), Youth in Turin (1950-51), and The Queen’s Necklace (1952-54), but all were deemed defective. During the eighteen months it took to complete I giovanni del Po (Youth in Turin), he made an important self-discovery: “I began doing what came most naturally to me – that is, following the memory of the things I had loved best since boyhood. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.” The result was Il visconte dimezzato (1952; The Cloven Viscount) composed in 30 days between July and September 1951. The protagonist, a seventeenth century viscount sundered in two by a cannonball, incarnated Calvino’s growing political doubts and the divisive turbulence of the Cold War. Skillfully interweaving elements of the fable and the fantasy genres, the allegorical novel launched him as a modern “fabulist”. In 1954, Giulio Einaudi commissioned his Fiabe Italiane (1956; Italian Folktales) on the basis of the question, “Is there an Italian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm?” For two years, Calvino collated tales found in 19th century collections across Italy then translated 200 of the finest from various dialects into Italian. Key works he read at this time were Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale and Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales, stimulating his own ideas on the origin, shape and function of the story.

In 1952 Calvino wrote with Giorgio Bassani for Botteghe Oscure, a magazine named after the popular name of the party’s head-offices. He also worked for Il Contemporaneo, a Marxist weekly. From 1955 to 1958 Calvino had an affair with the actress Elsa de’ Giorgi, an older and married woman. Calvino wrote hundreds of love letters to her. Excerpts were published by Corriere della Sera in 2004, causing some controversy.

In 1957, disillusioned by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Calvino left the Italian Communist party. His letter of resignation was published in L’Unità and soon became famous. He found new outlets for his periodic writings in the magazines Passato e Presente and Italia Domani. Together with Vittorini he became a co-editor of Il Menabò di letteratura, a position which Calvino held for many years.

Despite severe restrictions in the US against foreigners holding communist views, Calvino was allowed to visit the United States, where he stayed six months from 1959 to 1960 (four of which he spent in New York), after an invitation by the Ford Foundation. Calvino was particularly impressed by the “New World”: “Naturally I visited the South and also California, but I always felt a New Yorker. My city is New York.” The letters he wrote to Einaudi describing this visit to the United States were first published as “American Diary 1959-1960” in the book Hermit in Paris in 2003.

In 1962 Calvino met the Argentinian translator Esther Judith Singer (Chichita) and married her in 1964 in Havana, during a trip in which he visited his birthplace and met Ernesto Che Guevara. This encounter later led him to contribute an article on 15 October 1967, a few days after the death of Guevara, describing the lasting impression Guevara made on him. Back in Italy, and once again working for Einaudi, Calvino started publishing some of his cosmicomics in Il Caffè, a literary magazine.

Vittorini’s death in 1966 influenced Calvino greatly. He went through what he called an “intellectual depression”, which the writer himself described as an important passage in his life: “…I ceased to be young. Perhaps it’s a metabolic process, something that comes with age, I’d been young for a long time, perhaps too long, suddenly I felt that I had to begin my old age, yes, old age, perhaps with the hope of prolonging it by beginning it early.” In the fermenting atmosphere that evolved into 1968’s cultural revolution (the French May), he moved with his family to Paris in 1967 where he was nicknamed L’ironique amusé. Invited by Raymond Queneau to join the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) group of experimental writers, he met Roland Barthes, Georges Perec, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, all of whom influenced his later production.

Calvino had more intense contacts with the academic world, with notable experiences at the Sorbonne (with Barthes) and at Urbino’s university. His interests included classical studies: Honoré de Balzac, Ludovico Ariosto, Dante, Ignacio de Loyola, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Giacomo Leopardi. At the same time, not without surprising Italian intellectual circles, Calvino wrote novels for Playboy’s Italian edition (1973). He became a regular contributor to the important Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. In 1975 Calvino was made Honorary Member of the American Academy, and the following year he was awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He visited Japan and Mexico and gave lectures in several American towns. In 1981 he was awarded the French Légion d’honneur. During the summer of 1985, Calvino prepared some notes for a series of lectures to be delivered at Harvard University in the fall. However, on 6 September, he was admitted to the ancient hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, where he died during the night between the 18 and 19 September of a cerebral hemorrhage. His lecture notes were published posthumously in Italian in 1988 and in English as Six Memos for the Next Millennium in 1993.

His style is not easily classified; much of his writing has an air of the fantastic reminiscent of fairy tales (Our Ancestors, Cosmicomics), although sometimes his writing is more “realistic” and in the scenic mode of observation (Difficult Loves, for example). Some of his writing has been called postmodern, reflecting on literature and the act of reading, while some has been labeled magical realist, others fables, others simply “modern”. He wrote: “My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

Authors he helped publish

  • * Mario Rigoni Stern
  • * Gianni Celati
  • * Andrea De Carlo
  • * Daniele Del Giudice
  • * Leonardo Sciascia

Selected bibliography


  • * Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, 1947 / The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1957
  • * Ultimo viene il corvo / The Crow Comes Last, 1949
  • * Il visconte dimezzato, 1952 / The Cloven Viscount, 1962
  • * La formica argentina, 1952
  • * Fiabe Italiane, 1956 / Italian Folktales, 1961, 1975, 1980
  • * Il barone rampante, 1957 / The Baron in the Trees, 1959
  • * La speculazione edilizia, 1957 / A Plunge into Real Estate, 1984 (in Difficult Loves)
  • * I racconti, 1958
  • * Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959 / The Nonexistent Knight, 1962
  • * I nostri antenati, 1960 / Our Ancestors, 1962
  • * La giornata d’uno scrutatore, 1963 / The Watcher and Other Stories, 1971
  • * Marcovaldo ovvero le stagioni in città, 1963 / Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City, 1983
  • * La nuvola di smog e La formica argentina, 1965 / Smog and The Argentine Ant, 1971 (in the Watcher and Other Stories)
  • * Cosmicomiche, 1965 / Cosmicomics, 1968
  • * Ti con zero, 1967 / t zero, 1969 (also published as Time and the Hunter, 1970)
  • * Il castello dei destini incrociati, 1969 / The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1979
  • * Gli amori difficili, 1970 / Difficult Loves, 1984
  • * Le città invisibili, 1972 / Invisible Cities, 1974
  • * Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, 1979 / If on a winter’s night a traveler, 1981
  • * Palomar, 1983 / Mr. Palomar, 1985
  • * Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove, 1984
  • * Sotto il sole giaguaro, 1986 / Under the Jaguar Sun, 1988
  • * Prima che tu dica ‘Pronto’, 1993 / Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories, 1996

Essays and other writings

  • * Orlando furioso di Ludovico Ariosto, 1970 (interpretation of the epic poem and selections)
  • * Autobiografia di uno spettatore / Autobiography of a Spectator, 1974 (preface to Fellini’s Quattro film)
  • * Introduction to Faits divers de la terre et du ciel by Silvina Ocampo (preface by Jorge Luis Borges), Gallimard, 1974
  • * Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e società, 1980 / The Uses of Literature, 1986 (published in Britain as The Literature Machine, 1987)
  • * Racconti fantastici dell’ottocento, 1983 / Fantastic Tales, 1997 (anthology of classic supernatural stories)
  • * Science et métaphore chez Galilée / (Science and Metaphor in Galileo Galilei), 1983 (lectures given at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes de la Sorbonne in Paris)
  • * The Written and the Unwritten Word, 1983 (first published in the New York Review of Books)
  • * Collezione di sabbia / Collection of Sand, 1984 (journalistic essays from 1974-84)
  • * Lezioni americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio, 1988 / Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1993
  • * Sulla fiaba, 1988
  • * I libri degli altri. Lettere 1947-1981, 1991 (letters to writers)
  • * Perché leggere i classici, 1991 / Why Read the Classics?, 1993

Autobiographical works

  • * L’entrata in guerra, 1954
  • * La strada di San Giovanni, 1990 / The Road to San Giovanni, 1993
  • * Ermita a Parigi. Pagine autobiografiche, 1994 / Hermit in Paris, 2003
  • * Album Calvino, 1995


  • * La panchina. Opera in un atto (The Bench: One-Act Opera), 1956 (libretto for the opera by Sergio Liberovici)
  • * La vera storia, 1982 (libretto for the opera by Luciano Berio)
  • * Un re in ascolto (A King Listens), 1984 (libretto for the opera by Luciano Berio)


  • * I fiori blu, 1967 (The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau)
  • * La canzone del polistirene, 1985 (Styrène’s Song by Raymond Queneau)

Selected filmography

  • * Boccaccio ’70, 1962 (co-wrote screenplay of Renzo e Luciano segment directed by Mario Monicelli)
  • * L’Amore difficile, 1963 (wrote L’avventura di un soldato segment directed by Nino Manfredi)
  • * Tiko and the Shark, 1964 (co-wrote screenplay directed by Folco Quilici)

Film and television adaptations

  • * The Nonexistent Knight by Pino Zac, 1969 (Italian animated film based on the novel)
  • * Amores dificiles by Ana Luisa Ligouri, 1983 (13′ Mexican short)
  • * L’Aventure d’une baigneuse by Philippe Donzelot, 1991 (14′ French short based on The Adventure of a Bather in Difficult Loves )
  • * Fantaghirò by Lamberto Bava, 1991 (TV adaptation based on Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful in Italian Folktales)
  • * Solidarity by Nancy Kiang, 2006 (10′ American short)


  • * 1946 – L’Unità Prize (shared with Marcello Venturi) for the short story, Minefield (Campo di mine)
  • * 1947 – Riccione Prize for The Path to the Nest of Spiders
  • * 1952 – Saint-Vincent Prize
  • * 1959 – Bagutta Prize
  • * 1960 – Salento Prize for Our Ancestors
  • * 1963 – Veillon Prize
  • * 1973 – Feltrinelli Prize for Invisible Cities
  • * 1976 – Austrian State Prize for European Literature
  • * 1981 – Legion of Honour
  • * 1982 – Nice Festival Prize

Films on Calvino

  • * Damian Pettigrew, Calvino Cosmorama (ARTE France, National Film Board of Canada, 2009). At his home in Piazza Campo Marzio (Rome) in 1983, Calvino granted a series of filmed interviews on his work to Canadian director Damian Pettigrew. The transcripts were published in The Paris Review in 1992, in La Repubblica in 1995, and in book form in Italy under the title, Uno scrittore pomeridiano in 2003. The videos now serve as the basis of a major documentary which features rare archival footage, unpublished documents and photographs, and a unique recording of Calvino reading from his last novel, Mr. Palomar.


francine witte | next thing she knew | my husband’s mistress | suddenly | the romance of sadness | death primer

17 08 2009

Poetry Dispatch No. 291 | August 17, 2009


This is one of those small press books, probably desktop-published, with two staples holding about 47 pages together, cover/cover art incredibly simple yet effective, the pages sticking out, poorly cut…something you might pass up in a bookstore where a handful of copies were probably left by the author on consignment.

If you look inside, you’ll find an impressive list of acknowledgements in literary journals and online publications. Always a good sign: serious writer-at-work here. Especially the asterisk noting: “nominated for a Pushcart Prize.” (I’m still old-fashioned enough in the literary game to know that this stuff matters—or should, in a day, a time of ‘anybodycanwriteanythingandpublish it (print-by-demand) andbeawriter. Maybe.

I don’t think so. But, I’m a minority of one.

The table of contents is long (many of the pieces short) and the stories are printed (very readable) on a yellowish parchment-kind of paper. There’s nothing subtle going on here. We’re talking rock-bottom basic small press publishing. The kind many of us grew up on. And still practice.

(I happen to love this kind of stuff—when there’s a real, practicing writer to be found on the pages.)

Though this column/blog/essay/online missive of mine is called POETRY DISPATCH, occasionally I take exception to the exclusiveness, especially in regard to short stories like these by Francine Witte—who knows very well that a good story is poetry.

When I’m reading a book I might write about (be it a book of poems, stories, essays…chapters of a novel…) I usually mark/make note of as many as six or more pieces that I particularly like…that I feel capture the essence of the book I wish to share with readers.

When I finished reading Francine’s book, I was surprised to discover that I had marked all thirty-eight stories in her collection.

I don’t know this woman. But I delight in her talent. She makes me laugh, she makes me think and feel what she knows to be important in life.

Her short bio at the end of the books states that she writes poetry, fiction, and plays and has previously published a chapbook of poems: “The Magic in the Streets.” She lives in New York, teaches high school English, and you can find her at her website:

Final note: this book is only $5. I’d buy $25 worth of Francine Witte’s stories at least–to give as gifts, pass on to friends, hold on to for safe-keeping. What better investment in a writer, a small press?

You never now when you need stories like these. —Norbert Blei


Next Thing She Knew

it was spring. Still no sign of David. David of the stay right there. David of the nothing’s wrong. David of the I need time to wander. And so he wandered. Stories about him came back to her over casual chats. Know-it-all said / told you so. Gossipy said I saw him with Christine. Spiteful simply smiled, good.

Spring kept hanging around with its leafy, canopy thing. Flowers and buds and such. She felt she ought to look. All this rebirth screaming please have hope. Then she’d go home to see if the phone had moved. If a call from David had somehow grown into her answering machine.

Next thing she knew, it was summer. Frosty lemonade. Air conditioner hum. Christine agrees to meet her for drinks. Comes in smiling. “Well, hello, Marie. Longtime.” Kiss, kiss. Christine tries to tuck in the cloud of David Loves Me, but it just keeps popping up out of the menu.

“Christine” she finally says. “You realize that instead of sitting here, we could be at the beach. If you would just let go, if you would just give me back my life, we could sit and hear the ocean’s roar.”

Christine nods and says, “yes, we could.” She nods again. “We could, but we’re not going to.”

Next thing she knew, it was fall. Crackle and pumpkins and crunch. Thoughts of a new and better life poked her awake each morning. She started to think possible, possible. She learned again to match her shoes.

Of course, that’s when David came back. Mumbled something about this and that. She only half-listened. Christine was just—and you’re the only—. David hung around and fed her sweet, juicy apples. Soon she heard everything.

Next, of course, winter. She began to hear nothing. Not the snow heaving the roof, not her friends tip-toeing out other life. One night, she thought she heard David whisper Christine in his sleep. She started to listen. Then she stopped.

Next thing she knew, it was spring.

My Husband’s Mistress

Once a month, we meet for lunch. She orders watercress and Melba toast. She must stay small and sexual. Me, I order fat, drippy burgers and lusty chocolate pie. I order so many plates, I have to arrange them on the table like numbers on a clock.

“Your husband calls me every night,” she says, her ribs poking through her dress.

I take a long, savoring bite from my 3 o’clock plate, a deep doughy biscuit, silky with butter. “I know,” I tell her, “if you’d go away, maybe he’d make love to me.”

She swishes a lemon wedge around in her skinny water glass and tells me about the sex they have, how he swirls his tongue into every place he can taste her. That’s when it’s gone too far, and I aim my 5 o’clock pot roast at her and she flinches like I pointed a gun.

Which I only did that first time I found her number in my husband’s guilty cell phone. I called her and said I was the power company, and we had to come over to check her line. When I got to her floozy apartment, she was sitting at her vanity, perfume bottles and cold cream jars. Didn’t even scream when she saw my gun, just asked if she could fix her face, so she’d look decent for the cops. I thought of her lying there, glamour dead, and that’s when I asked her to lunch.

Thought it would be much more fun, the two of us, meeting like this once a month, the both of us bringing our hunger.


Your apartment goes dark. No explanation. You think about candles and fuses and phones. You call to your husband, your goldfish, the neighbor upstairs.

This is an ink dark, the kind that sandwiches the universe. You begin to hunt. Your hand lands on a transistor radio. Static and low battery when you turn it on. You should know better. This isn’t your first time stranded in the dark.

Where is your husband anyway? Sitting on the sofa last time you looked. But that was either just now or last November.

As you move through the dark, your thigh bangs the sofa. A bruise that will bloom in two days, and you won’t know what happened. You continue to move. You knock over the table. Glass crash as the goldfish bowl explodes on the floor. You bend over to hear the tiny goldfish ‘scream.

The neighbor upstairs has gone silent. No footsteps creaking the wood. No television hum. You think of your own dead appliances. Your frozen food softening, your microwave, unhurried, at last.

Five minutes in the dark. You realize all that you’ve lost.

Suddenly, the lights come on again.

The Romance Of Sadness

One day, she fell in love with the sadness. Unlike the man who had given it to her, the sadness would stay with her long into the night and never leave. If the sadness did leave, there would be more sadness. And that was good.

Soon, she found herself unwilling to leave the house without it. Wait, she would say to her friends, I need extra time to put on my sadness. At restaurants, she would give the sadness its own chair.

It all worked out quite well. The sadness dulled her eyes and matted her hair. It took up so much of her time that she forgot to pay her bills and soon, her phone was shut off. At the office, she became impossible to watch.

After a while, she started to type at home for strangers. A neighbor hired her for a long, weepy novel and offered to pay her quite well. She refused to accept anything above the cost of her meager needs fearing that abundance might bring her happiness. And, anyway, by now, she had learned to do with so much less.

One day, the woman went to the mailbox, and there was a letter from the man. He wanted to come back to her and un-give the sadness. She looked up and noticed the sun for the first time since the man left. She felt hope begin to fill her with its fat, kicky feet. She was aware of the feet because hope had run from her so many times. She looked again at the sun and tore the letter into bits.

Later that night, in bed, she curled herself into a tight, little comma. She remembered as many things as she needed to until a sweet, salty tear rolled down to her thirsty tongue.

Death Primer

Some of you have asked what it will look like when you are dead. Let me demonstrate by lying down on this cold, slabby marble. Pretend my chest isn’t moving with breath. Pretend my closed eyelids don’t flutter.

You might wonder why I am lying on my back. You might wonder why no one is ever buried on their side, curled up like a fetus. After all, they are just a baby now in the afterlife. As you can see, the symbolism would be too obvious.

Remember, someone will be by to put makeup on you. Rouge your cheeks, slick back your hair. Some of you will actually look better than you do right now.

The good thing about dying is that you won’t have to think anymore. No one will blame you for your bad decisions. No one will ask you where you put the remote.

When news of your death gets outs, someone will shed a tear for you. Someone else will say they saw you last week. Think about the people who will make casseroles for your poor, hungry family. Think of how good you would feel.

Think about everyone you ever knew and what they will be doing when they hear about your accident, overdose, heart attack. They will all have the exact same thought. They will all shake their heads and think they could have been nicer to you. They will probably be right.

from THE WIND TWIRLS EVERYTHING, Stories by Francine Witte, (2007), Bone World Publishing, 3700 County Route 24,Russell, New York 13684,\ $5.

josé saramago | death without interruptions

14 08 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 196 | August 14, 2009


Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.J.S.

Let’s put it this way: There are times you come across a certain writer you want to keep entirely to yourself. He belongs to me. Speaks to me, nobody else. I’ve been keeping Saramago in a dark place on my bookshelves for years now. I’ve thought about presenting his work, discussing it with others, assigning his books in an occasional writing class situation. But never did. I’m certain many others know him. No doubt know his work better than I. But of all the readers and writers in my life, all the conversations and words exchanged through the years (granted I live in a rural outpost, far from hallowed halls of academia, the temple and temperature of New York publishing)—the Portuguese writer, Saramago, has never come up.

I haven’t told anybody else about him because…? Maybe I might dilute the essence of what he means or does for me. Maybe a voice within says: Go find your own Saramago. Which was much the way I felt when I first read Camus, Coetzee, Schulz, Handke, Hrabal… I don’t know whether this makes any sense or not. It’s not jealousy. Nobody else could possibly write like this. And no serious writer should ever want to write like another writer anyway, just learn from them. So that’s not an issue.

I don’t know whether I’m the only one who inhabits this terrain of craziness, possessiveness or not. It’s a mystery to me why I quietly return to the source of certain writers like Saramago…his words, his style, his philosophy, his themes, etc….always looking over my shoulder to be sure no one else is following.

Nor do I understand why suddenly I swing the doors open wide, turn on the lights, invite everyone in to meet my old friend—the one I’ve been hiding in the dark for so long.

Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He is sometimes compared to Kafka, Borges, Camus.

But he’s José Saramago. No one else. Here’s the opening to one of his novels,


THE FOLLOWING DAY, NO ONE DIED. THIS FACT, BEING absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one. Not even from a car accident, so frequent on festive occasions, when blithe irresponsibility and an excess of alcohol jockey for position on the roads to decide who will reach death first. New year’s eve had failed to leave behind it the usual calamitous trail of fatalities, as if old atropos with her great bared teeth had decided to put aside her shears for a day. There was, however, no shortage of blood. Bewildered, confused, distraught, struggling to control their feelings of nausea, the firemen extracted from the mangled remains wretched human bodies that, according to the mathematical logic of the collisions, should have been well and truly dead, but which, despite the seriousness of the injuries and lesions suffered, remained alive and were carried off to hospital, accompanied by the shrill sound of the ambulance sirens. None of these people would die along the way and all would disprove the most pessimistic of medical prognoses, There’s nothing to be done for the poor man, it’s not even worth operating, a complete waste of time, said the surgeon to the nurse as she was adjusting his mask. And the day before, there would probably have been no salvation for this particular patient, but one thing was clear, today, the victim refused to die. And what was happening here was happening throughout the country. Up until the very dot of midnight on the last day of the year there were people who died in full compliance with the rules, both those relating to the nub of the matter, i.e. the termination of life, and those relating to the many ways in which the aforementioned nub, with varying degrees of pomp and solemnity, chooses to mark the fatal moment…

So, there’s a little of the author in his own words– translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Here’s how the publisher describes the book:

ON THE FIRST DAY OF the new year, no one dies. This, of course, causes consternation among politicians, religious leaders, morticians, and doctors. Among the general public, on the other hand, there is celebration—flags are hung out on balconies, people dance in the streets. They have achieved the great goal of humanity: eternal life. Then reality hits home—families are left to care for the permanently dying, life-insurance policies become meaningless, and funeral parlors are reduced to arranging burials for pet dogs, cats, hamsters, and parrots. Death sits in her chilly apartment, where she lives alone with her scythe and filing cabinets, and contemplates her experiment: What if no one ever died again? What if she, death with a small ‘d’, became human and were to fall in love?

Welcome to Saramago. He’s all yours now. What a gift.Norbert Blei

I was born in a family of landless peasants, in Azinhaga, a small village in the province of Ribatejo, on the right bank of the Almonda River, around a hundred kilometres north-east of Lisbon. My parents were José de Sousa and Maria da Piedade. José de Sousa would have been my own name had not the Registrar, on his own inititiave added the nickname by which my father’s family was known in the village: Saramago. I should add that saramago is a wild herbaceous plant, whose leaves in those times served at need as nourishment for the poor. Not until the age of seven, when I had to present an identification document at primary school, was it realised that my full name was José de Sousa Saramago…

This was not, however, the only identity problem to which I was fated at birth. Though I had come into the world on 16 November 1922, my official documents show that I was born two days later, on the 18th. It was thanks to this petty fraud that my family escaped from paying the fine for not having registered my birth at the proper legal time.

Maybe because he had served in World War I, in France as an artillery soldier, and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman, for which job were required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.

A few months after settling in the capital my brother Francisco two years older, died. Though our living conditions had improved a little after moving, we were never going to be well off.

I was already 13 or 14 when we moved, at last, to our own – but very tiny – house: till then we had lived in parts of houses, with other families. During all this time, and until I came of age I spent many, and very often quite long, periods in the village with my mother’s parents Jerónimo Meirinho and Josefa Caixinha.

I was a good pupil at primary school: in the second class I was writing with no spelling mistakes and the third and fourth classes were done in a single year. Then I was moved up to the grammar school where I stayed two years, with excellent marks in the first year, not so good in the second, but was well liked by classmates and teachers, even being elected (I was then 12…) treasurer of the Students’ Union… Meanwhile my parents reached the conclusion that, in the absence of resources, they could not go on keeping me in the grammar school. The only alternative was to go to a technical school. And so it was: for five years I learned to be a mechanic. But surprisingly the syllabus at that time, though obviously technically oriented, included, besides French, a literature subject. As I had no books at home (my own books, bought by myself, however with money borrowed from a friend, I would only have when I was 19) the Portuguese language textbooks, with their “anthological” character, were what opened to me the doors of literary fruition: even today I can recite poetry learnt in that distant era. After finishing the course, I worked for two years as a mechanic at a car repair shop. By that time I had already started to frequent, in its evening opening hours, a public library in Lisbon. And it was there, with no help or guidance except curiosity and the will to learn, that my taste for reading developed and was refined.

When I got married in 1944, I had already changed jobs. I was now working in the Social Welfare Service as an administrative civil servant. My wife, Ilda Reis, then a typist with the Railway Company, was to become, many years later, one of the most important Portuguese engravers. She died in 1998. In 1947, the year of the birth of my only child, Violante, I published my first book, a novel I myself entitled The Widow, but which for editorial reasons appeared as The Land of Sin. I wrote another novel, The Skylight, still unpublished, and started another one, but did not get past the first few pages: its title was to be Honey and Gall, or maybe Louis, son of Tadeus… The matter was settled when I abandoned the project: it was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say. For 19 years, till 1966, when I got to publish Possible Poems, I was absent from the Portuguese literary scene, where few people can have noticed my absence.

For political reasons I became unemployed in 1949, but thanks to the goodwill of a former teacher at the technical school, I managed to find work at the metal company where he was a manager.

At the end of the 1950s I started working at a publishing company, Estúdios Cor, as production manager, so returning, but not as an author, to the world of letters I had left some years before. This new activity allowed me acquaintance and friendship with some of the most important Portuguese writers of the time. In 1955, to improve the family budget, but also because I enjoyed it, I started to spend part of my free time in translation, an activity that would continue till 1981: Colette, Pär Lagerkvist, Jean Cassou, Maupassant, André Bonnard, Tolstoi, Baudelaire, Étienne Balibar, Nikos Poulantzas, Henri Focillon, Jacques Roumain, Hegel, Raymond Bayer were some of the authors I translated. Between May 1967 and November 1968, I had another parallel occupation as a literary critic. Meanwhile, in 1966, I had published Possible Poems, a poetry book that marked my return to literature. After that, in 1970, another book of poems, Probably Joy and shortly after, in 1971 and 1973 respectively, under the titles From this World and the Other and The Traveller’s Baggage, two collections of newspaper articles which the critics consider essential to the full understanding of my later work. After my divorce in 1970, I initiated a relationship, which would last till 1986, with the Portuguese writer Isabel da Nóbrega.

After leaving the publisher at the end of 1971, I worked for the following two years at the evening newspaper Diário de Lisboa, as manager of a cultural supplement and as an editor.

Published in 1974 with the title The Opinions the DL Had, those texts represent a very precise “reading” of the last time of the dictatorship, which was to be toppled that April. In April 1975, I became deputy director of the morning paper Diário de Nóticias, a post I filled till that November and from which I was sacked in the aftermath of the changes provoked by the politico-military coup of the 25th November which blocked the revolutionary process. Two books mark this era: The Year of 1993, a long poem published in 1975, which some critics consider a herald of the works that two years later would start to appear with Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, a novel, and, under the title of Notes, the political articles I had published in the newspaper of which I had been a director.

Unemployed again and bearing in mind the political situation we were undergoing, without the faintest possibility of finding a job, I decided to devote myself to literature: it was about time to find out what I was worth as a writer. At the beginning of 1976, I settled for some weeks in Lavre, a country village in Alentejo Province. It was that period of study, observation and note-taking that led, in 1980, to the novel Risen from the Ground, where the way of narrating which characterises my novels was born. Meanwhile, in 1978 I had published a collection of short stories, Quasi Object; in 1979 the play The Night, and after that, a few months before Risen from the Ground, a new play, What shall I do with this Book? With the exception of another play, entitled The Second Life of Francis of Assisi, published in 1987, the 1980s were entirely dedicated to the Novel: Baltazar and Blimunda, 1982, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1984, The Stone Raft, 1986, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, 1989. In 1986, I met the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río. We got married in 1988.

In consequence of the Portuguese government censorship of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), vetoing its presentation for the European Literary Prize under the pretext that the book was offensive to Catholics, my wife and I transferred our residence to the island of Lanzarote in the Canaries. At the beginning of that year I published the play In Nomine Dei, which had been written in Lisbon, from which the libretto for the opera Divara would be taken, with music by the Italian composer Azio Corghi and staged for the first time in Münster, Germany in 1993. This was not the first cooperation with Corghi: his also is the music to the opera Blimunda, from my novel Baltazar and Blimunda, staged in Milan, Italy in 1990. In 1993, I started writing a diary, Cadernos de Lanzarote (Lanzarote Diaries), with five volumes so far. In 1995, I published the novel Blindness and in 1997 All the Names. In 1995, I was awarded the Camões Prize and in 1998 the Nobel Prize for Literature.

[From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1998, Editor Tore Frängsmyr, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1999. This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above. source]

eric lichtblau | attacks on homeless are rising, many simply motivated by thrill

10 08 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 195 | August 10, 2009


This seems to be an appropriate follow-up to the last posting on this site (scroll down) …part review, part excerpt from a brilliant book, WHAT WE LEAVE BEHIND), that puts us precisely in our place, our predicament, and pushes the wake-up button—NOW!

Though I suspect it’s already too late.

I‘m continually reminded these days that the Maya calendar stops at the year 2012—the end of history.

And after reading the news report below on the state of the homeless in America …after trying to understand, reconcile the many differences in our country: race, health care, corrupt politicians/political parties, privileged classes, corporate domination/corporate welfare, religious intolerance, hate mongers, loss of work/ workers’ representation, the rape of nature, the celebration of violence, the stupidity of celebrity, consumerism run amuck…or hearts of darkness growing darker by the day…(‘they’ now want us to believe it’s un-American to publicly insure the ill in our sick society—despite public schools, public highways, public libraries, public mail delivery, public media, Social Security, Medicare, etc.)…I’d say we’re ready to be erased.

Still three more years away? Hurry sundown.–Norbert Blei


Attacks on Homeless Are Rising,
Many Simply Motivated by Thrill

Eric Lichtblau

WASHINGTON — With economic troubles pushing more people onto the streets in the last few years, law enforcement officials and researchers are seeing a surge in unprovoked attacks against the homeless, and a number of states are considering legislation to treat such assaults as hate crimes.

This October, Maryland’ will become the first state to expand its hate-crime law to add stiffer penalties for attacks on the homeless. The District of Columbia approved a similar measure this week, and another such bill was introduced last week in Congress.

A report due out this weekend from the National Coalition for the Homeless documents a rise in violence over the last decade, with at least 880 unprovoked attacks against the homeless at the hands of nonhomeless people, including 244 fatalities. An advance copy was provided to The New York Times.

Sometimes, researchers say, one homeless person attacks another in turf battles or other disputes. But more often, they say, the assailants are outsiders: men or in most cases teenage boys who punch, kick, shoot or set afire people living on the streets, frequently killing them, simply for the sport of it, their victims all but invisible to society.

…”A lot of people we see are thrill offenders,” said Brian Levin, a criminologist who runs the center for the study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Only Thursday, two homeless men in Hollywood were stabbed to death and a third was wounded in a three-hour spree of separate daylight attacks. The police arrested a 54-year-old local man who they said appeared to have made homeless people his random targets.

Researchers say a combustible mix of factors has added fuel to the problem. Rising unemployment and foreclosures continue to push people into the streets, with some estimates now putting the nationwide number of homeless above one million.

And in cities like Las Vegas, public crackdowns on encampments for the homeless and cutbacks in social services have frequently made street people more visible as targets for would-be assailants.

Further, in the last several years the Internet has seen a proliferation of “bum fight” videos, shot by young men and boys who are seen beating the homeless or who pay transients a few dollars to fight each other.

Indeed, the National Coalition for the Homeless, which works to change government policies and bring people off the streets, says in its new report that 58 percent of assailants implicated in attacks against the homeless in the last 10 years were teenagers.

Michael Stoops, the group’s executive director, said social prejudices were “dehumanizing” the homeless and condoning hostile treatment. He pointed to a blurb titled “Hunt the Homeless” in the current issue of Maxim, a popular men’s magazine. It spotlights a coming “hobo convention” in Iowa and says: “Kill one for fun. We’re 87 percent sure it’s Legal.”

With victims wary of going to the police, statistics on the attacks are often incomplete. But surveys show much higher rates of assault, rape and other crimes of violence against the homeless than almost any other group, said Professor Levin, of California State, who worked on the report.

Recognition of the problem is spurring legislative action.

“More and more, we’re hearing about homeless people being attacked for no other reason than that they’re homeless, and we’ve got to do something about it,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas, said in an interview.

Ms. Johnson introduced a measure in the House last week to make attacks on the homeless a federal hate crime and require the F.B.I. to collect data on it. (The Senate voted last month to expand federal hate crimes to include attacks on gay and trans-gender victims, another frequent target.)

And in addition to the measures already approved in Maryland and the District of Columbia, proposals to add penalties for attacks on the homeless are under consideration in California, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas.

The push has lacked any organized support by major civil rights groups. In Florida, which leads the country in assaults on homeless people, groups like the Anti-Defamation League have opposed recognizing those attacks as a hate crime. Opponents argue that homelessness, unlike race or ethnicity, is not a permanent condition and that broadening hate crimes to include it would dilute the law.

“I hear the same rhetoric all the time,” Ms. Johnson said. “They ask, “Why is their life more important than anyone else’s?”

The coalition’s study, which relied on police and news reports but excluded crimes driven by robbery, found 106 documented attacks against the homeless last year.

That was a doubling of levels seen six or seven years ago but a sharp drop from 2007, an apparent improvement that researchers are still trying to explain. The study found 27 fatalities last year, flat relative to the year before. Eight others were shot, nine raped and fifty-four beaten.

In Portland, Oregon, two brothers were charged with five unprovoked attacks against homeless people in a park. One of the victims was a man beaten with his own bike, another a woman pushed down a steep staircase.

In Cleveland, a man leaving a homeless shelter to visit his mother was “savagely beaten by a group of thugs,” the police said. In Los Angeles, a homeless man who was a neighborhood fixture was doused in gasoline and set on fire. In Boston, a homeless Army veteran was beaten to death as witnesses near Faneuil Hall reportedly looked on. And in Jacksonville, N.C., a group of young men fatally stabbed a homeless man behind a shopping strip, cutting open his abdomen with a beer bottle.

In Las Vegas, home to a large population of the homeless, there were no reported killings of any of them last year, but many say hostilities have risen as the city moves to get them out of the parks and off the streets.

Some of the Las Vegas homeless resort to living in a maze of underground flood channels beneath the Strip. There they face flash floods, disease, black widows and dank, pitch-dark conditions, but some tunnel dwellers say life there is better than being harassed and threatened by assailants and the police.

“Out there, anything goes,” said Manny Lang, who has lived in the tunnel for months, recalling the stones and profanities with which a group of teenagers pelted him last winter when he slept above ground. “But in here, nothing’s going to happen to us.”

Their plight is a revealing commentary on the violence facing the homeless, said Matt O’Brien, a Las Vegas writer who runs an outreach group for the homeless.

“It’s hard to believe that tunnels that can fill a foot per minute with floodwater could be safer than aboveground Vegas,” Mr. O’Brien said, “but many homeless people think they are. No outsider is going to attack you down there in the dark.”

[From THE NEW YORK TIMES, August 8, 2009]


Eric Lichtblau is an American journalist and Washington bureau reporter for The New York Times. Lichtblau joined The Times in September 2002 as a correspondent covering the Justice Department. Previously, Lichtblau worked at the Los Angeles Times for 15 years, where he also covered the Justice Department in their Washington bureau from 1999 to 2002. Prior to that, Lichtblau did stints on the L.A. Times investigative team in Los Angeles and covered various law enforcement beats. Lichtblau was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1987. With fellow New York Times reporter James Risen, Lichtblau was awarded a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He is the author of Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice.

derrick jensen & aric mcbay | what we leave behind

8 08 2009

Madame de Pompadour –au reste, après nous, le Déluge (“After us, the Deluge”)

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND # 194 | August 7, 2009


by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay
Seven Story Press, 2009

This book is full of shit.

So am I, so are you, so is the culture, the world, the planet. We’re all in it up to here.

It’s garbage.

It’s all waste.

This book is over 400 pages long, costs $25, and worth every penny—if you really give a shit about how you live and what you leave behind.

Buy a copy for yourself, your children, your grandchildren. If you can’t afford it (the price of a large pizza and a small beer), make sure your public library orders it.. No library in the country should be without a copy.

This is not your usual well written, interesting, informative, occasionally beautifully illustrated book about the environment causing you to hum along, yawn, sip your bottled water, nod gently to yourself in agreement: Yes, the world is sure going to hell… something should be done about it…but I need to buy more plastic shit for the house, more hair-spray, more sports shit, more toy shit, more technical shit, more chemical shit to keep the lawn green…more and more, shit….)

There’s a lot of good shit in this book.

This book is divided into three parts, covering such topics as Decay, Waste, Garbage, Sustainability, Plastic, Medicine, Toxic Gifts, Bodies, Morality, Legacy, The Real World, Despair, Growing Up, Technotopia, Fighting Back, The Living…

There are plenty of engaging quotations scattered throughout, usually introducing each new topic. Try some of these on for size:

“I have always looked upon decay as being just as wonderful and rich an expression of life as growth.”Henry Miller

“To desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake.” Schopenauer (Preceding an essay on “PLASTIC”)

“Some of us have become used to thinking that woman is the nigger of the world, that a person of color is the nigger of the world, that a poor person is the nigger of the world…But, in truth, Earth itself has become the nigger of the world.”Alice Walker

“At this moment in history, we are all caught in the hell of passivity.”R.D.Lang

“EMBALM, v.i. To cheat vegetation by locking up the gases upon which it feeds By embalming their dead and thereby deranging the natural balance between animal and vegetable life, the Egyptians made their once fertile and populous country barren and incapable of supporting more than a meagre crew. The modern metallic burial casket is a step in the same direction, and many a dead man who ought now to be ornamenting his neighbors lawn as a tree, or enriching his table as a bunch of radishes, is doomed to a long inutility. We shall get him after a while if we are spared, but in the meantime the violet and rose are languishing for a nibble at his glutoeus maximus.”.Ambrose Bierce

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”Jean-Paul Sartre

I neglected to mention that this is a beautifully written book. The prose sweeps you up. There are pages and pages that read like poetry. You can open the book anywhere and be instantly, totally captivated by the ideas, the sound of words– part street talk, science, philosophy, literature, down-home real.

It’s extraordinary. It borders on biblical.

I don’t know where to begin, there’s so much to show and tell about.

So how about this excerpt? Then go get your own copy. –Norbert Blei


wwlb-medl–from The Preface:

Industrial civilization is incompatible with life. It is systematically destroying life on this planet, undercutting its very basis. This culture is, to put it bluntly, murdering the earth. Unless it’s stopped—whether we intentionally stop it or the natural world does, through ecological collapse or other means—it will kill every living being. We need to stop it.


The MOST INTIMATE, FUNDAMENTAL GIFT we can and must and do give each other is our bodies. Our bodies are the most ancient, most vital of all gifts.

This gift is far older than language, far older and deeper than words. It is as old as life itself, if not older. It is older than birth, perhaps older than death, as old as metaphor, possibly even as old as dreams.

This giving, and taking, of bodies, of flesh on flesh, flesh on stone, stone on root, root in stone, stomach on stone, skin, soil, is within and before all life, if there is a before all life. It is older than sex, older than that joining and unjoining then joining to become a third: different, new. It is older than this creativity. It is older than the bee, the pollen, the nectar, the pistil. It is older in this way than the wind. It is older than trees, older than ferns, older than algae. It is older than animals, older than mushrooms, older even than mycelia.

This gift is old. Old, like waves falling onto rocks, and rocks falling into waves. It is as old as mud, old as clouds, or even older. It is old, like water, like air, like everything.

Bodies shared, through sex, through touching, through breathing, through absorbing, eating, being eaten, becoming one or becoming another: all this is the gift of life, in all physical truth.

Bodies sustain us. They are us. They support us. We consume them. They become us, are us, as we become them, now, and later.
This gift, this support, this becoming, is where we come from, and where, whether we wish or not, we go.


There is no waste in nature. One person’s shit is another person’s food, And one person’s body is another person’s food. We give, and we take, and we give. This is how life has always been. This is life.


Reciprocity is the key to survival. Reciprocity is the essence of life. It is life, It is what we do. It is what we all do.

We are told, more or less incessantly, that survival is based on being the meanest, strongest, most selfish, best able to exploit.

But those who say that are wrong. They have forgotten—or do not care to remember—that nature loves a community. This is true on every scale, from the largest to the most personal. It’s simply true that nature loves a community more than nature loves you or me. Nature loves a community more than nature loves a community-destroying culture. Nature loves a community more than nature loves industrial civilization.

I’m sorry to report that it is not true that all of evolution has taken place to bring you or me into being. It is not true that all of evolution has taken place so that humans will exist. It is not true that all of evolution has taken place so that for a short time a relatively few (fiscally) rich humans can look at computers, watch televisions, and buy (and throw away) cell phones. It is not true that all of evolution has taken place so that humans can create industrial civilization. It is not true that all of evolution has taken place so that industrial civilization can deform humans to fit the needs of industrial civilization. It is not true that all of evolution has taken place so that humans can destroy life on this planet in the service of industrial civilization.

I’m sorry to have to be the one to deliver that news.

This culture is extraordinary, but not so much for the reasons so many people like to pretend: its high technology; its gadgets; its relentless expansion; its vast military capabilities; its art, literature, music, science, philosophy (such as it is). Instead, it is extraordinary in that it does not give back to the land, the water, the air, the nonhumans, the vast majority of humans.

This culture is even more extraordinary in that many of its members seem to think they can continue to not give back, and survive.

Or maybe they can survive, all the while keeping their jetskis and RVs, their gold and brass rings, their interstate highways and disposable diapers, their aircraft carriers and superdomes. They can keep this culture until they die.


Only if they are already very old.

The planet is collapsing. Now. This culture is causing this collapse.
I’ll say it again, since not enough people seem to be listening: this culture is killing the planet.

This culture is killing the planet.

Don’t listen to me. Listen to the planet.

But a refusal to listen is part of the problem. We’re taught (some explicitly, all implicitly) to become masterful at refusing to listen, and then to become just as masterful at refusing to acknowledge—to others, but most especially to ourselves—that not only are we not listening but that there is even anything to hear in the first place.

Many members of this culture—evidently an overwhelming majority, given the relatively small number of people actually doing anything to stop the destruction—simply don’t care. Many of them were taught (once again, some explicitly, all implicitly) that if they ignore (in fact, foreclose) all possibility of relationship, and if they don’t mind harming those around them (in fact making life impossible for many of those around them, and if they don’t mind pretending not to notice the harm they cause and then pretending they’re not pretending not to notice, and then pretending they’re not pretending they’re not pretending not to notice, and so on ad omnicdium), and if it doesn’t bother them that they’re destroying the land and air and water that those who come after them will need to survive, then they can take advantage of the short-term competitive advantage that not giving back gives them, and thus they can more effectively dominate, enslave, exploit, or simply kill all those who do give back (and who therefore must be inferior), and who have the misfortune to come into contact with them. Then when they reach to every part of the earth—meaning that more or less everyone has the misfortune of coming into contact with them—as this narcissistic nonreciprocal culture now does, they will kill the planet that (or rather, who) supports them. But many of these individual narcissists will die before then. And so they can say, and mean, that statement most famously said by King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour: when the king’s ministers complained that her extravagance (and the extraordinarily expensive wars her advice helped cause) was going to lead to their own destruction, she laughed them off with the phrase, “Apres nous le deluge,” literally translated as, “After us, the deluge,” more loosely translated as, “When we are dead the deluge may come for aught I care.”199 And she was right. She died in 1764, some fifteen years before the deluge of the French Revolution and nineteen years before the Reign of Terror, with its deluge of blood—both royal and otherwise—flowing from the guillotine.


Apres nous le deluge.

I guarantee this statement will be far more accurate and deadly for those who say it now than for those who said it before. This time, as the entire world collapses, it is not just the French but everyone who pays. Everyone.

Derrick Jensen