In his memo on multiplicity, Calvino conceives of the contemporary novel as “an encyclopedia, a method of knowledge, a network of connections between the events, people and things of the world.” Recognizing the impossibility of completing such an exhaustive, all-encompassing work in the span of a single lifetime, Calvino acknowledges that these types of novels are unable to find an ending. Additionally, these works give rise to a multitude of different interpretations, which may all be valid. However, Calvino asserts that the future of literature lies in these overambitious projects, which attempt to “weave together” all the different forms of knowledge into one vision of the world.
While this type of literature is incomplete by definition, it is also constantly evolving: as we learn more about the world, so we must attempt to assimilate this information into our unified vision of the world. By reading (or writing) the encyclopedic novel, we ourselves become part of the encyclopedia which is the universe.
When I think of Calvino’s description of the encyclopedic novel, the first thing that comes to mind is The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. The narrator, who both is and isn’t Sebald, goes on an extended walking trip through East Anglia. As he journeys through the landscape, he shares his musings on the various country houses and failing seaside towns he passes through. He draws analogies from sources as diverse as Chinese history, the biology of silkworms, Renaissance medicine, and the writings of Joseph Conrad. All these disparate topics cohere into a mosaic of Sebald’s own melancholy; each example ultimately relates back to his preoccupation with death.
This picture is of the skull of Thomas Brown, a 17th century English doctor whose remains are kept in the museum of a hospital Sebald visits at the beginning of the book. The photographs are all Sebald’s; they serve as touchstones for his multifaceted writing. To me, it symbolizes the multiplicity of Sebald’s novel: he starts with something as simple as a skull, and from there, he encompasses all the tragedy of the human experience.