Book 1.3 If on a winter’s night a traveler

Italo Calvino’s writing gets me thinking about the importance of words, how they can, when treated conscientiously, carry great weight both on their own and in the company of their neighbors. Calvino’s writing is bright and he avoids a lot of highfalutin Latinates. Perhaps this is thanks to William Weaver’s translation, perhaps because Italian has a fifth the number of words that English does, most likely because – unlike your blogger – Calvino knows when less is more. He is able to use concrete and spare language and still paint surreal images. In setting the scene:

The city outside has no name yet, and we don’t know if it will remain outside the novel or whether the whole story will be contained within its inky blackness.

Another example from a few pages later, talking about settings in general:

All places communicate instantly with other places, a sense of isolation is felt only during the trip between one place and the other, that is, when you are in no place.

It would be a big gamble for a contemporary American author to write with such romanticism. He or she would be either jeered as mawkish or misunderstood as ironic. Maybe it is because he is from Italy and not America that Calvino is unafraid to use simple words to build complicated ideas. (If this book were a building, it might look like this.)

Compare this to what is in fashion now. Read that first paragraph from Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Wow. Personally, I think it is an absolutely awful first paragraph, exacerbated by the style of writing it perpetuates. Jargon literature. Brief diatribe: What we are seeing in contemporary American fiction is a fixation on pointless detail, unnecessarily complicated sentences, and dense language about subjects that are, to be frank, a bit boring. A bit bourgeois. This distinction is best spelled out in a 2006 article by Elif Batuman (kudos for pointing me to it, Prospero). Batuman argues that American writing is missing the forest for the trees. In her nightmare vision, English teachers across America are leaning over the shoulders of young writers and saying, “Okay, he’s wearing a suit. What kind of suit? Is it a Tom Ford with tonal pinstripes or a bespoke three-piece commissioned on Savile Row?”

A little of this is certainly important, but when there are only specifics and no generalities, we get into the Delillo/Chabon/Foster Wallace school where more is more. The grandfathers of this style of writing are the new journalists Gay Talese and, especially, Tom Wolfe (both of whom, it should be noted, are big on suits). Think about that first paragraph of the new Franzen book. Hyperspecificity in oodles.

Now, I am not against this kind of writing outright. Franzen and Chabon in small doses are among the best writers today. But after only twenty pages of Calvino, I feel refreshed. I am reminded that writing can be challenging and not have to read like an unappetizing and lengthy list of ingredients.

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