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Calvino and Hobbyhorses

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge

The Grauniad is listing “1000 novels everyone must read” and lately the sf/f novels on the list have been bouncing around the genresphere. It was almost instantly memed. You were supposed to italicize the ones you’d read, strikethrough the ones that induced an existential crisis, and smear butterscotch pudding on the rest. (Finally, a use for butterscotch pudding!) Or something like that.

Who am I to resist a meme? (You can’t spell “meme” without writing “me” twice. I have no idea what that means, but it must mean something. You can’t spell “something” without spelling, “So, Me-Thing…” I rest my case.) But I had to resist this one because I couldn’t really get behind the list itself. There’s lots of stuff that really belongs there, e.g. Bester’s The Stars My Destination, and some stuff that belongs nowhere, e.g. something by Edward (“It was a dark and stormy night”) Bulwer-Lytton. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is conspicuous by its absence, as is anything by Zelazny or Leiber. Then there’s some stuff that’s just puzzling. I’ve read Matheson’s I Am Legend and I think it’s worth reading. Is it something Everyone Must Read? Eh. If you like modern “fast zombie” movies you should probably read it. Not Everyone does, or should.

The thing that made me finally dismiss the list was, oddly, a book I like very much: Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante). This is a wonderful book. Practically everyone in it is crazy, except the title character, who protests against everything by taking to the trees early in his life and spending the rest of his life there. The hero’s demented and malicious sister Battista is particularly memorable; she keeps cooking meals from disgusting ingredients and making her brothers eat them. When a meal of snails is planned, the brothers rebel. The snails have been left to starve in a barrel, so that their digestive tracts will be purged before they’re cooked. The hero and his brother (the narrator) make a hole in the barrel so the snails can escape. A day and a half or so passes. Late at night, the household is awakened by a gunshot. Battista, who patrols the house at night with a musket, has spotted the fugitive snails and is firing at them like a jailor at fleeing prisoners. “Help They’re all escaping! Help!” Hilarious consequences, i.e. the rest of the novel, ensue. Great stuff.

Here’s the thing, though: this book is not science fiction or fantasy; however improbable, Calvino’s account of his hero’s career is at least possible. And Calvino did write novels, brilliant novels, that unquestionably fall within the genres of fantastic fiction: Invisible Cities (where Marco Polo spins bizarre traveller’s-tales for Kublai Khan), or The Non-Existent Knight, where Charlemagne’s most faithful knight turns out to have a slight handicap, or The Divided Viscount. which is like the episode of Star Trek where Kirk is divided into Good Kirk and Evil Kirk. (That script was written by Richard Matheson, by the way. Everything is connected. Everything. Except what you just thought of.)

Calvino’s greatest achievement in sf/f might be the long series of Cosmicomics published in several volumes. These are little cosmological fantasies, where Calvino speculates on what it would be like to be present in the monobloc before the Big Bang, etc. They are bizarre and wonderful work. Then again, his masterpiece might be his superb collection of Italian folktales. Or The Castle of Crossed Destinies where a Boccaccio-like series of stories is told through the use of Tarot cards. Head-twisting; brilliant; fun. Not on the list.

Also, in true Grauniad tradition, they misspelled Samuel R. Delany’s name.

I guess my point is: This is a flawed list; it is less than wholly perfect. I know; you’re shocked. I, too, needed a moment before I could carry on.

Then I realized I could blog about it, and everything was fine.


  1. Another predictable, and uninformed, Bulwer-Lytton jab.

    Have you ever actually read anything by him?

    Because saying his stuff belongs nowhere just reveals that you don’t know anything about Victorian literature. Not Victorian science fiction–Victorian literature.

    Perhaps in the future you could stick to writing about subjects you actually know something about?

    Comment by jessnevins - January 28, 2009 11:58 am

  2. I think it is dangerous to assume from a single throwaway line that someone as well-read as James hasn’t read this author. If you wish to ask him questions on the topic, or to inform ANY Black Gate visitors about Bulwer-Lytton, the proper way to go about it would be respectfully, with information or excerpts to back up your point.

    All the Black Gate bloggers are volunteers, and contribute lengthy and informative editorials out of love for the subject matter, not for pay. If you wish to disagree with them, fine; if you wish to call them out on something that you perceive they have wrong, fine — but do so politely. Dropping by for a snark just because the internet provides a shield of anonymity behind which you can scramble after throwing your spear is not gentlemanly conduct, and annoys me personally.

    Howard Andrew Jones

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - January 29, 2009 11:16 am

  3. Howard: thanks for the kind words.

    jessnevins: Sorry I’m so long getting back to you; weather conditions knocked out my internet access yesterday.

    Re my ignorance or lack thereof: I’m not a specialist in Victorian literature, but I have read around a lot among the novelists–Trollope and Eliot are my favorites; Thackeray next; Dickens I think is overrated. (Some would consider that a sign of ignorance, but it is probably something worse: my honest opinion of most of the Dickens I’ve read.)

    It can be irritating when someone dismisses offhandedly a work or author one cares about, so I understand your irritation. But my dismissive reaction to the Bulwer-Lytton book being on a list of “must read” novels is not based on mere ignorance, but on two more solid grounds. One, the description on the Guardian site makes the book sound like something I would pay to not read. Two, the stretches of Bulwer-Lytton I have read made me not want to see any more. I once struggled through the first chapter of Paul Clifford because I didn’t understand why “dark and stormy night” was supposed to be so bad. (Some nights are darker than others, and in the absence of electric lighting, a stormy night is likely to be dark indeed.) After reading through Chapter One, I did understand. Also, in the course of my day job I read through The Last Days of Pompeii, which I found very painful as a piece of storytelling and as a piece of English. It’s going to make this long comment even longer, but I’ll paste below a sample of what I’m talking about.

    “Bah, stuff!” said the young woman, settling the folds of her tunic. “Now thou talkest as they say the Nazarenes talked—methinks thou art one of them. Well, I can prate with thee, grey croaker, no more: thou growest worse and worse–Vale! O Hercules, send us a man for the lion—and another for the tiger!”

    Ho, ho! for the merry, merry show,
    With a forest of faces in every row!
    Lo! the swordsmen, bold as the son of Alcmena,
    Sweep, side by side, o’er the hushed arena.
    Talk while you may, you will hold your breath
    When they meet in the grasp of the glowing death!
    Tramp! tramp! how gaily they go!
    Ho! ho! for the merry, merry show!

    Chanting in a silver and clear voice this feminine ditty, and holding up her tunic from the dusty road, the young woman stepped lightly across to the crowded hostelry.

    I’m not saying everyone has to agree with my opinion that this is terribly awkward writing, but that is my opinion, based on experience rather than innocence.

    Comment by James Enge - January 29, 2009 2:42 pm

  4. Awesome! A three-way battle with combatants drawn exclusively from my LiveJournal friends list!

    To arms, men! To arms!

    Comment by Erik Mona - January 31, 2009 4:44 pm

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