The Centrality of Authorship

Why write all these books in which the author is the only character? It is commonly said that every author writes the same book over and over again. This could certainly apply to Calvino, as he uses the same devices in nearly every one of his works. His goal is simple. It is the act of writing that truly interests, perhaps even obsesses, Calvino, and everything he writes is in some way an exploration of this profound and mystical process.

Or rather, Calvino would disagree that the process is at all mystical. He rejects the traditional idea of inspiration—the belief that the author somehow channels a source of material that is somehow outside himself, that writing is “matter of inspiration descending from I know not what lofty place, or welling up from I knot what great depths, or else pure intuition, or an otherwise unidentified moment in the life of the spirit, or the Voice of the Times…”[2]

In fact, Calvino disagrees with the idea that the author is extraordinary at all. He is not a chosen one, but has rather achieved mastery of a skill: combining different literary elements into a larger narrative. In Calvino’s mind, all authors resemble his fictional Alexandre Dumas:

His work proceeds in this fashion: two assistants develop one by one the various alternatives that depart from each single point, and they furnish Dumas with the outline of all the possible variants of an enormous supernovel; Dumas selects, rejects, cuts, pastes, interposes.[4]

Calvino’s point in laying out the underlying structures of his novels is to show how easy it is to write, how writing is not a process of mystery and gift, but fundamentally computational. He would like to achieve complete transparency in the process of writing—to in some way take the author down from his pedestal. As he would like it, “the author vanishes—that spoiled child of ignorance—to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who knows that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.”[2]

Ultimately, Calvino’s virtuosity outdoes his theory. He is simply too good at elegant description and creative storytelling. For all his theory, the reader is never moved to think how easy it would be to create a work like Invisible Cities or If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Quite on the contrary, one is moved to appreciate the uniqueness and flair Calvino uses to fill in his blanks and create his frames. As Barth puts it, “The saving difference between Calvino and the other wizards of OULIPO was that (bless his Italian heart and excuse the stereotyping) he knew when to stop formalizing and start singing--or better, how to make the formal rigors themselves sing.”[3] This ability to sing is Calvino’s greatest asset, and no matter how many structures he locks his gift into, or how many patterns he makes it jump through, he comes no closer to locating its origin. His voice is unique to the point that reading Calvino puts one in a permanent state of amazement at his skills, and astonishment at his creativity.

img: Jackson Pollock painting