Transparent Structures

Before we investigate why it happens, it is useful to reflect just how unusual the phenomenon of a clear authorial presence is. When reading Moby Dick, surely no one would say that they see Melville at his desk, writing the novel. Any such visualization would be pure speculation, without any basis in the text. Similarly, Dickens always stays behind the scenes in his novels. In general, authors are mysterious figures. Calvino is not.

A primary reason Calvino’s works differ so markedly from other writer’s in this respect is the transparency of their structure. His every work contains a blueprint for its own creation, and thus it is much easier to see Calvino’s writing process.

In Invisible Cities the blueprint is a strict mathematical pattern, placing each city into one of eleven thematic categories, and one of nine chapters. These links tie each entry into a larger and more cohesive framework. Once Calvino has created this frame for himself, his job is simply to fill in the details, writing a page or two for each space in the pattern.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies has a similar geometric organization. In fact, in this book the process of creation is even more explicit, as it is a process that every character in the book attempts at one point or another. All the characters lay out a series of tarot cards, and the other characters try to interpret the cards as a narrative. Calvino, as one of these observers, has again reduced his role to filling in the blanks, fleshing out the relationships and details suggested by the framework of cards.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler initially seems to be a work of a different sort. Surely, the partial novels that make up the majority of the work are all interrupted beginnings, but besides this fact there are few obvious similarities between all the different pieces of this fragmented work. The final chapter reveals this sense of randomness to be an illusion. Here, in one of the most famous paragraphs in all of Calvino’s work, the blueprint is finally revealed, as all the titles of the partial novels fit into a single coherent sentence. Calvino appears again in the mind of the reader, a pair of scissors in his hand, cutting a sentence into pieces, and filling in each phrase with the beginnings of a novel. The structure is now apparent, and Calvino is simply filling in the blanks.

These structures do not simply demonstrate, as Calvino says, a “fondness for geometrical forms, for symmetries, for numerical series, for all that is combinatory, for numerical proportions.”[1] These models comprise the essential form of Calvino’s novels. They are the essence of the books’ conceptions, and comprise the theoretical rough drafts. No other author lays so bare the details of the process of writing, putting so little distance between reading and the pure act of creation.

In all his works Calvino is far from an invisible author. He is not only present, but also producing in full view of the audience: creating a larger structure that contains the outlines of the novel, and then simply fleshing out each separate piece.

img: Proposal for a Bridge at the South Bronx Railroad Yards, Steven Holl, Pamphlet Architecture #1