Another Look book club goes out of this world with Calvino's 'Cosmicomics'

Italo Calvino is considered one of the top writers of the last century. Stanford's book club will discuss one of his whimsical masterpieces, "Cosmicomics," on Oct. 27, on the eve of the launch of the Stanford Arts Institute's year-long Imagining the Universe program of events.

Italo Calvino

Author Italo Calvino's whimsical view of the universe will be explored Oct. 27 through Stanford's "Another Look" book club.

"Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up." So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that's part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular "Another Look" book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show "Entitled Opinions" and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of "Another Look," founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.

Book cover

"Cosmicomics," published in 1965, is considered by some to be Calvino's finest work.

Cosmicomics will be fêted on the eve of the launch of the Stanford Arts Institute's year-long program of events, "Imagining the Universe."  It's entirely apropos; no author did a better job of imagining the universe than Calvino did. As Calvino wrote in a letter, "Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself" – and he took it upon himself to do so.

Consider dreamy passages such as this one from the same story, "The Distance of the Moon": "When she was full – nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light – it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there."

Each story begins with a passage from the science of the time, and follows with a tale told by a chatty, avuncular fellow named Qfwfq. We hear eyewitness accounts of the big bang, the first radiations of the sun, the advent of color. But we never know exactly what Qfwfq is – sometimes an atom, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes the last dinosaur, sometimes an undefined inhabitant of the nebulae.

 Harrison reminds us that the stories, fantasy notwithstanding, never stray far from the Italy of Calvino's day.  In the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s, Italy's largely agrarian society went through rapid industrialization and dramatic modernization, as people migrated to the swelling cities.  Consequently, the 12 stories are suffused with longing and loss, the pull of the past as well as aspiration for the future.  (A Q&A with Harrison is here.)

Calvino loved the genre he created so much that he went on to create several more volumes of Cosmicomics, which have recently been republished as The Complete Cosmicomics. "Another Look" considers only the original 153-page volume, which some consider Calvino's finest work.

Harrison explained why he picked the stories for the Stanford-based community book club this way: "I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers' expectations."

He added that "in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that's why I chose it."

Wolff agreed. "Cosmicomics – like all of Calvino's work – is brilliant and unconventional, permitting itself an almost reckless freedom of imagination," he said. "It may puzzle some readers, refusing as it does to entice us with recognizable, 'realistic' situations and characters, but I trust that puzzlement will turn to delight as Calvino's wit and sense of intelligent play begin to disarm us. This is a thoroughly original piece of work, and rightly esteemed a classic."

Cosmicomics will be available at the Stanford Bookstore, at Kepler's in Menlo Park and at Bell's Books in Palo Alto.

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The "Another Look" book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers with limited free time. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.

Cynthia Haven: cynthia.haven@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu