GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: ROBERTO CALASSO’S DIAGNOSIS OF CURRENT LITERATURE

Italian writer and editor Roberto Calasso has been recently news in Spain for winning the quite new Premio Formentor de las Letras, also awarded so far to a few Spanish-language writers that he names among his favourite: Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas y Ricardo Piglia (no women…). In at least two interviews, in El País and La Vanguardia, Calasso states that although many good books are published today, few are truly great. He attributes this to a revolution started in the mid 19th century which by expanding the territory of Literature ended up problematizing the very definition of this term. Confusingly, he names, in the Vanguardia interview, Borges as a main contributor to this new trend, which I myself would connect with someone far more popular, like Charles Dickens or Stephen King (a Recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 2003). In this interview, plagued by an amazing series of typos…, Calasso explains that the overambitious aims of writers as different as Musil and Joyce appear to be no longer relevant today.

I haven’t had yet the pleasure of reading Calasso, a gap in my education that I will solve as soon as a I can (it turns out that my local public library is better equipped than my university library when it comes to titles by this Italian author). Calasso has been on my list of books to read since he published in 1990 Las Bodas de Cadmo y Harmonía (Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988) back when I was about to start my doctoral studies… Suddenly, I lost track of the European intellectuals that, according to El País, then a very cultured newspaper, any educated Spanish reader should be interested in. I needed to focus on my thesis and, as we know, the anglophone world is not exactly conversant with the European intellectuality, despite the academic fashions built around Derrida and company. Perhaps I should have read Calasso then, after all, for my dissertation was hell-bent on showing, precisely, that Literature extends beyond high-culture and into the best of so-called popular fiction. This is why I chose a multi-level, cross-cultural subject as my topic: monstrosity.

In preparation for this post I have read “Roberto Calasso, The Art of Fiction No. 217”, a not very exciting interview of 2012 by Lila Azam Zanganeh which you may find in the Paris Review website (https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso). This text begins with the claim that “Roberto Calasso is a literary institution of one”, as editor of Adelphi, “Italy’s most prestigious publishing house, for forty years” and writer of more than a dozen books. Calasso, Zanganeh assures us, “has come to stand for a lost ideal”, which I will label ‘the person of letters’, the sum total of the reader, writer, critic, editor and intellectual. The word ‘erudite’, now so quaint, also comes to mind to define him. He wrote his PhD dissertation on the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne; his supervisor was Mario Praz. He speaks Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, add to this Latin and Greek, learned in school, and Sanskrit which he studied “on my own”.

I fully agree with Calasso’s view that, in our days, many books and writers are good but lacking in ambition to be truly great. I am sure that his impressions are far more accurate than mine, as he is a superlative reader both professionally, as an editor, as personally, as a writer, and in many languages to boot. My subjective, impressionistic, far less erudite opinion, however, is similar and, I would add, applicable to all kinds of fiction I read, in all genres. The number of solid novelists seems to be increasing in all fronts (though this does not mean that the best writers are the most hyped ones), yet I personally feel constantly dissatisfied as a reader. I am not impressed, as I was when I read Thomas Mann as a young girl, or later, to name a living author, when I read Salman Rushdie’s prodigious Midnight Children. I’m not awed by any living author. Yes, of course, I have been expressing here my total devotion to Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks, and now Patrick O’Brian, but this is not the same. Wonderful as they were, they have not changed the face of Literature. They are singular worlds each one of them but not world-changers, which is what I miss.

My friend Laura Gimeno and I had a shortish conversation about Calasso’s opinion (for in our hectic university, there is not even time for one hour spent over coffee). She believes that originality is the problem, for it seems impossible to narrate something new or to innovate narrative technique as thoroughly as, she says, the Modernists did. I am more sceptical about the importance of innovation since taking it too far leads to Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake, and, really, this is a dead end. Also about originality in the choice of subject matter, for although this is not lacking today at all, chancing upon a new tale does not guarantee greatness. Laura argues, very convincingly, that greatness is not compatible with the current shape which literary careers have taken, with a notable first book written away from the limelight and then a series of mediocre works produced under pressure from publishers and critics to consolidate commercial success, even in the case of writers with unwavering literary ambition. No doubt. We, academics, have a similar problem, caused by the pressure to work for the career rather than have the career develop out of work that should be creative but that feels mechanical.

A hurried pace of writing, then, can result in good but not outstanding literary work (unless you are a genius, that is, a concept I will leave aside for the time being). Now let me go back to erudition. And the mid-19th century.

I don’t think you can be truly ambitious as a writer without being an erudite. By erudite I understand here a careful student of the field of Literature, in any of its many sub-genres. One thing is being well-read and another being an erudite, which means that you can command a vast list of resources that will fill your pages with this something else that awes readers. Let me use an image. Suppose that Literature is a mountain and that you, as a writer, want to reach the top, as other writers have done. It makes sense then to study their methods by reading their books and so, once you know all the paths they took, attempt your own. All the way up to the top with ambition and determination. My impression is that today’s writers are in a hurry to reach the top of a lower peak, say Annapurna instead of Everest, and that they’d rather take shortcuts –an award, for instance, of the many given today, from the Nobel to the Nebula (for best SF and fantasy…).

Now, if you are a writer you probably want to strangle me at this point. Here I am complaining that all of you lack ambition and the mettle to reach true greatness. Navigating your way into today’s ferocious literary market is enough to dampen the most ferocious ambition, I am sure about that, yes if you do not raise the bar, who else is going to do it? You must also be thinking that this idiotic idea about erudition can only come from someone who gets a regular monthly salary and who is, basically, paid to read and teach a few hours a week. Fair enough. But, then, what do we make of a Literature in which writers are not erudite? Or less erudite than their prospective audience expects. This is a recurring conversation I am having these days, about many different writers: I find him/her clever but not overwhelmingly intelligent, and when I feel I know more than the writer, I disconnect. Replace intelligent with erudite and here we are.

Having offered the argument that erudition is the source of literary ambition (or should be), I must consider of course whether Calasso’s kind of erudition is still possible today. The answer is no. I think that the only ones defending erudition are the much maligned nerds (‘frikis’ in Spain), for they are the only readers with a passion for increasing their knowledge of the genre they love, both in breadth and depth. In science-fiction, in particular, a double erudition is required: literary (connected with the genre) and scientific (connected with its topic of interest). In contrast, the literary novel (at least the anglophone variety) is being flattened down by writers who mistake detail for depth and by readers who, as a student told my friend Laura, believe that Henry James is a bad writer (too dense). Trapped between writers with little time and interest in being erudite in their own field and by readers for whom a man like Calasso is a strange freak, Literature cannot soar. Perhaps Calasso is being generous by calling ‘good’ what others might call ‘mediocre’.

I am not forgetting the mid-19th century. Erudition is connected with leisure, meaning here time at your disposal for study. When the Industrial Revolution rebuilt our time around the merciless ticking of the clock, it destroyed leisure–that of the aristocracy, of the gentleman but also of the peasant. Leisure was regained little by little by the urban working classes as a new concept: time for fun after work, not for cultivation. Some of us still use leisure for both, fun and cultivation, but in such short stretches that erudition can hardly become an earnest pursuit. The very rich, by the way, have abandoned erudition altogether, consuming their everlasting leisure in fun. A figure like Lord Byron, who had as much capacity for fun as for erudition (and literary ambition) is now unthinkable.

And I’ll stop here, see if I can use the little leisure left in this Sunday afternoon for some reading. To increase my erudition… And hopefully have some fun.

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