My own experience of lightness in the book comes from reading about Clay and Neel’s experience reading The Dragon Song Chronicles in sixth grade. When Clay first arrives at the bookstore, he explains his love of books to Penumbra:
” ‘Tell me,’ Penumbra said, ‘about a book you love.’ I knew my answer immediately. No competition. I told him, ‘Mr. Penumbra, it’s not one book, but a series. It’s not the best writing and it’s probably too long and the ending is terrible, but I’ve read it three times, and I met my best friend because we were both obsessed with it back in sixth grade.’ I took a breath. ‘I love The Dragon Song Chronicles.'”
This scene captures the essence of Calvino’s lightness. Furthermore, Clay’s knowledge of The Dragon Song Chronicles allows him to approach problem-solving in a creative way by imagining problems as scenarios from the book.
When I started thinking about lightness, the image of ice immediately came to mind. Because of the hydrogen bonds in water molecules, solid water (ice) is actually less dense than liquid water, thus enabling ice to float. This seems counterintuitive, but water is an exceptional molecule. When water freezes, the molecules create a crystal lattice structure which is about 9% less dense than liquid water.
This accords with Calvino’s definition of lightness. The apparently massive ice rises to the top of the liquid water because of chemical interactions at the atomic level. This is similar to how good literature rises above the heaviness of living because of the interaction between language and the human imagination. Good literature seems to defy the laws of this world while at the same time firmly anchoring us in the world through its ability to relate universal human experiences.
“The form of an object is not more important than the form of the space surrounding it. All all things exist in interaction with other things.” –Malcom Grear
As I have said before, lightness is not a mode of escape, but a way of looking at the world. I related this to the concept of figure and ground in graphic design. What you “see” is often a question of perspective: in the photograph, the sky, which we would normally think of as a background to the buildings, actually forms letters when we look more closely. This connects to the two, ultimately converging perspectives in Flight Paths: in the fourth episode, we’re not sure at first whether Yacub is flying or falling to his death. It is only after he gets up off the car that our mental perspective “adjusts” to the fact that he is not dead after all.
Our eyes do a similar thing when we look at these letters; this lightness in design challenges us to reframe our way of seeing the world. It also encourages us to be on the lookout for new perspectives, in art and in life, which both surprise us and make the work more interesting and engaging.
For my E-Lit example, I chose Flight Paths by Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph. As in the Kafka story Calvino mentions, Yacub’s privation leads to a flight to another world. In this case, it is a literal flight: Yacub stows away onto a cargo plane to escape his miserable life in Dubai. By contrast, Harriet’s life seems mundane: we first meet her as she’s driving to the grocery store to shop for her family. The lightness comes in when the two characters’ storylines converge.
Calvino says that lightness is a way of looking at the world, and the parallel perspectives in the fourth episode of the story illustrate two completely different viewpoints. Yacub, falling from the sky, feels light and free. Rather that be alarmed, he reflects rather poetically, “I am flying.” Harriet, however, sees that Yacub is clearly falling to his death. Nothing could be more fatal than smashing into a car roof after falling from a plane, yet surprisingly, Yacub does not die. Through the power of the story, Yacub is able to transcend mortality and survive the fall. Even more amazingly, he and Harriet bypass all language barriers and can communicate perfectly in English. She is surprised by this, but Yacub immediately announces he is hungry, and the two go off in search of food. leaving little time for us readers to be incredulous.
The lightness of the story allows Yacub to overcome the laws of physics. It also allows us, like Harriet, to suspend our disbelief and accept Yacub’s survival. Since this is a work of literature, we can read his flight and escape from poverty as a metaphor rather than an actual event. In any case, the lightness in Flight Paths surprises us because it interrupts our normal patterns of thinking and allows us to exercise our imaginations.
In his memo on visibility, Calvino explains that there are two types of imaginative processes: one which begins with the word and ends with a visual image, and one which begins with the image and ends with the word. Calvino says that the imagination which begins with the image is the one which achieves “knowledge of the most profound meaning.” For Calvino, the image takes priority over the word because the image gives birth to literature in the imagination. Thus, visualization, imagination, and thinking in terms of images are essential to creating good literature.
Of all Calvino’s qualities, visibility is the one which resonates most with me. Maybe it’s because I remember a moment similar to the one he describes in his memo when he would make up stories for the characters in his comic books before he could read the captions beneath the pictures. For me, this book was St. George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Hyman won a Caldecott Medal for her illustrations, which captivated me as a child. I would pore over the book for hours, lost in a world of my own fantasy where I could imagine my own adventures beside Una and the Red Cross Knight.
I remember telling my mom years later that I was actually disappointed when I learned to read the text of the book because it collapsed my multitude of adventures into a single, fixed narrative. The pictures in that book were a formative part of my education–they taught me that my imagination has no limits, and I have only to keep my eyes open and be attentive to detail in order to notice the beauty all around me.
The three components of Calvino’s exactitude are:
- A well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question
- An evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images
- A language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination
He believes that literature is the fulfillment of language and defines good literature as “straining toward exactitude.” Literature is meant to create order out of a chaotic universe, as is science, Calvino says. Both are methods of knowledge that attempt to organize the world and define it in precise, constant terms. In science and in literature, we must be able to derive universal, infinite laws from particular, finite instances of those laws.
Exactitude reminds me of a sonnet, a poem which follows strict rules concerning meter and rhyme. There are two types of sonnets, Italian and Shakespearean, each with different rhyme schemes, but both are fourteen lines long and written in iambic pentameter. Sonnets are challenging to write because the poet must work within these constraints, but they are nevertheless rewarding. It takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and skill–what Calvino would call exactitude–to write a good sonnet. I chose one of my favorites, Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116,” as my example. As you read it, think about how the sonnet implements the three elements of exactitude listed above.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Quickness refers to the style and structure of a story. Literature with this quality follows a logical narrative pattern. Calvino says the events “rhyme,” meaning they parallel each other to create a cohesive story, thereby making the narrative more effective. It is the rhythm of narrative time, above all, which determines the quality of the storytelling. Calvino believes that folktales exemplify quickness.
“The very first characteristic of a folktale is economy of expression.The most outlandish adventures are recounted with an eye fixed on the bare essentials.”
Further, quickness is a mode of thought, “a question of quick adjustment, of agility of both thought and expression.” Calvino quotes from the scientist Gallileo, who said, “Good thinking means quickness, agility in reasoning, economy in argument, but also the use of imaginative examples.”
Calvino compares quickness to the Roman god Mercury, who, as messenger of the gods, moves quickly and with alacrity. Literature must do the same; it must “aim at the maximum concentration of poetry and thought.” Calvino’s own personal motto and emblem are taken from the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. Festina Lente, or “hurry slowly,” is Calvino’s touchstone for all his literary works. It is symbolized by the dolphin twined around an anchor.
My example of quickness is the short animated film Paperman. The story moves with alacrity from one scene to the next, all without words, yet none of the meaning is lost. The images speak for themselves and make the narrative smooth and streamlined. Click on the link below to watch.