Italo Calvino: Six Memos for the Next Millennium

From what I have said so far, I think the concept of lightness is begininng to take shape. Above all I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy.
I could not illustrate this notion better than by using a story from the Decameron […]


What it’s about

In the months before his death in 1985, Italo Calvino became obsessed with preparing a series of six ‘memos’ on literature to be delivered as that year’s Charles Eliot Norton lecture series at Harvard. He died before delivering them (and before completing the sixth), but the first five were discovered in his notes and make up this book.

Each of the lectures deals with a different literary value Calvino believes future generations should cherish. They are: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity.

Why I read it

I’m guessing the reason I originally bought it – ages ago – was because I love Calvino, and because I probably thought this book would be like where a brilliant magician who’s held you in thrall for years sits down with you off-stage and finally reveals to you his secrets, and gives you the exhilarating gift of showing how you too can harness all these powers and make wonderful things.

Unfortunately I’ve tried to read it a few times since then and haven’t ever made it past chapter one. Why? I couldn’t remember. So, having found it on my shelf during the #GreatBookCullOf2018, and having to decide its fate once and for all, it was time to tackle it again – and give it one. last. chance.

What others say about it

‘Delightfully stimulating’ – Anthony Curtis, Financial Times

‘As commentary on fiction’s strategies and possibilities, the book is alive with stimulating suggestivity…exhilarating and poignant’ – Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

What I say about it

‘For a guy who’s literally giving a lecture on exactitude, he’s bloody bad at defining anything he’s talking about.’ – Tania

The bits that drove me nuts

The whole first lecture on ‘lightness’ – and most of the other lectures too.

Instead of ‘exactitude’, Calvino’s really going for ‘the vibe of the thing’. The problem with the vibe of a thing is that unless you already get it (like this reviewer seems to – his review is well-written and worth a read) listening to someone go on about how it feels isn’t going to help you understand anything.

Case in point: as I read through Calvino’s lecture on why lightness in literature is a virtue, I became more confused as to exactly what he meant by lightness – so I started making notes in the margins every time he appeared to define it, which was usually by allegory or a sideways allusion. I got the following list:

Lightness as adventurousness / spiritedness?
Heaviness as ‘weight, inertia, opacity of the world’
Lightness as literal: clouds vs stone?
Lightness as courtesy / gentleness?
Heaviness as desperation / opression?
Lightness as liveliness and mobility?
Lightness as immateriality?
Why is science (which is unchallengable – more so than politics) ‘light’, while politics is ‘heavy’?
Computers are ‘heavy’ but software (‘bits’) are ‘light’ – but programming is just as rules- and logic-based as mech. eng.
‘Knowledge of the world means dissolving the solidity of the world’ – ?
Lightness as philosophy and science?
Lightness as style?
‘Lightness as thoughtfulness’ is superior to ‘lightness of frivolity’
–Is Calvino mistaking a kind of personal synaesthesia for a coherent definition?–
‘I think the concept of lightness is beginning to take shape’ – NOPE
Lightness as literal opposition of gravity
Lightness as holism?
**Cavalcanti’s line “white snow falling without wind” is light, but Dante’s line “as snow falls in the mountains without wind” is heavy. ???
Lightness = ‘precision and determination, not vagueness and the haphazard’
Lightness = ‘a high degree of abstraction’
Lightness = ‘visual image of lightness that acquires emblematic value’
‘Melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness’
Lightness is literal floating/jumping (Swift, de Bergerac, Münchhausen)
Lightness is imagined escape from prison of reality


Mr Aguirre, whose review I mentioned earlier, takes positive things from this lecture because

this is something I can sink my writerly teeth into. I can apply this principle of lightness, not because Calvino has given me specific instructions on how to do it, but because he has opened a window for me to stick my head out, look around, take stock of the landscape, and enjoy it. He’s put me in the headspace I need to be in to integrate this principle of lightness into my writing.

Unfortunately this doesn’t work for me. Maybe I’m too scientific and not poetic enough, but I’m just not getting this ‘vibe of the thing’. This lack of connection with what Calvino has written frustrates the hell out of me because I love him so much and I so want to understand.

The bits I liked

In later lectures things get a bit more relatable. In particular I love his bits about ‘exactitude’ and the trap/temptations of being drawn into either the infinitely detailed or the infinitely vast – the constant, exhausting tensions I feel every time I try to write in my journal.

In particular, through the last three lectures Calvino refers to principles that have guided his major works (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Mr Palomar, Invisible Cities etc) and this is the payoff – the author’s statements on his procedures and aims regarding some of my favourite books in the world.

Suggestions to self for future reading

Skip the first bloody lecture.

This book was mostly read at home, in frustration.


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