At the time of his death, Italo Calvino was at work on six lectures setting forth the qualities in writing he most valued, and which he believed would define literature in the century to come. The following is from his essay on “Quickness.” It is translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock.
I’ll start by telling you an old legend.
Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The court barons were dismayed to see that their sovereign, overcome by ardent desire and forgetful of royal dignity, was neglecting imperial affairs. When the girl suddenly died, the dignitaries sighed with relief — but only briefly, for Charlemagne’s love did not die with the girl. The emperor had the embalmed body brought to his chamber and refused to leave its side. Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this morbid passion and suspecting some enchantment, decided to examine the corpse. Hidden beneath the dead tongue he found a gemstone ring. As soon as he took possession of it, Charlemagne hastened to have the corpse buried and directed his love toward the person of the archbishop. To extricate himself from that awkward situation, Turpin threw the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne fell in love with the lake and refused to leave its shores.
This legend, “taken from a book on magic,” is recounted even more tersely than I have done here in an unpublished notebook by the French Romantic writer Barbey d’Aurevilly. (It can be found in the Pléiade edition of his works: vol. 1, p. 1315.) Ever since I read it, my mind has kept returning to it, as if the ring’s enchantment were still exerting its pull through the story.
Let’s try to figure out why a story like this one fascinates us. We have a series of events, all of them unusual, that form a chain — an old man’s infatuation with a young girl, a necrophiliac obsession, a homosexual attraction — at the end of which everything subsides into melancholy contemplation: the old king gazing raptly at the lake. “Charlemagne, his gaze fixed on his Lake Constance, in love with the hidden abyss” (Charlemagne, la vue attachée sur son lac de Constance, amoureux de l’abîme caché), writes Barbey d’Aurevilly in the passage of the novel (Une vieille maîtresse, p. 221) whose footnote refers us to the legend.
This chain of events is linked by a verbal element, the word love or passion, which establishes a continuity among different kinds of attraction, and by a narrative element, the magic ring, which establishes a logical relation of cause and effect among the various episodes. The rush of desire toward an object that doesn’t exist, an absence, a lack—symbolized by the empty circle of the ring— is created more by the rhythm of the story than by the events narrated. In the same way, the whole story is shot through with a feeling of death, against which Charlemagne desperately struggles, clinging to what links him to life until his desperation subsides in contemplation of the lake.
The story’s true protagonist, however, is the magic ring, for it is the movement of the ring that dictates the movements of the characters and defines the relationships among them. Around the magic object there forms a kind of force field, which is the field of the story. We might say that the magic object is an outward sign that makes visible the links among characters and among events — a narrative function that goes back to Norse sagas and chivalric romances and that continues to surface in Italian Renaissance epics. In Orlando Furioso we witness an endless series of exchanges of swords, shields, helmets, and horses, each endowed with particular properties, such that the plot can be described through changes in the properties of certain objects endowed with certain powers, which define the relations among certain characters.
In realistic fiction, Mambrino’s helmet can become a barber’s basin, but it doesn’t lose importance or meaning. Similarly, every object that Robinson Crusoe salvages from the wrecked ship or fashions with his own hands takes on crucial importance. We might say that as soon as an object appears in a narrative, it becomes charged with special force, becomes like the pole in a magnetic field or a node in an invisible network of relations. The object’s symbolic value can be explicit or not, but it is always present. We might even say that any object in a narrative is a magic object.
But back to the legend of Charlemagne, which in Italian literature has a tradition behind it. In his Lettere familiari (I.4), Petrarch describes how he heard this “pleasing little tale” (fabella non inamena), which he says he didn’t believe, while visiting Charlemagne’s tomb in Aachen. In Petrarch’s Latin, the story is much richer both in sensory detail — the bishop of Cologne, heeding a miraculous divine instruction, sticks a finger beneath the corpse’s cold, stiff tongue (“sub gelida rigentique lingua”) — and in moral commentary. But I find the bare-bones version, in which everything is left to the imagination and the quickness of events creates a sense of inevitability, much more powerful.
Several versions of the legend appear, with greater emphasis on the necrophiliac element, in the flowery Italian of the sixteenth century. Sebastiano Erizzo, a Venetian short story writer, has Charlemagne utter, while in bed with the corpse, a lamentation of several pages. On the other hand, his homosexual passion for the bishop is barely mentioned or even omitted, as in Giuseppe Betussi’s famous sixteenth-century treatise on love, where the story ends with the discovery of the ring. And speaking of the ending: in Petrarch and his Italian followers, Lake Constance doesn’t appear; the action is set entirely in Aachen, since the legend is meant to explain the origins of the palace and temple built there by the emperor. The ring gets tossed into a swamp, and he inhales the muddy stench like a perfume and “delights in taking the waters” (usa le acque con grande voluttà) — details that recall other local legends about the origins of thermal springs and that further emphasize the deathly mood of the whole.
Earlier still were the medieval German traditions studied by Gaston Paris, in which Charlemagne’s love for the dead woman is varied in ways that make it a very different story: sometimes the beloved is the emperor’s lawful wife, who uses the magic ring to ensure his fidelity; sometimes she is a fairy or nymph who dies as soon as the ring is taken from her; sometimes she is a woman who seems alive but is revealed, once the ring is taken, to be a corpse. A Scandinavian saga is the likely source: the Norse king Harald sleeps with his dead wife, who is wrapped in a magic mantle that makes her seem alive. In short, the medieval versions collected by Gaston Paris lack the chainlike succession of events, and the literary versions by Petrarch and the Renaissance writers lack quickness. That’s why I continue to prefer the version reported by Barbey d’Aurevilly, despite its coarse, patchwork quality. Its secret lies in its economy: events, regardless of their duration, become like points connected by straight-line segments in a zigzag fashion that suggests unceasing motion.
Italo Calvino (1923–1985) attained worldwide renown as one of the twentieth century’s greatest storytellers. Born in Cuba, he was raised in San Remo, Italy, and later lived in Turin, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere. Among his many works are Invisible Cities, If on a winter’s night a traveler, The Baron in the Trees, and other novels, as well as numerous collections of fiction, folktales, criticism, and essays. His works have been translated into dozens of languages.
Geoffrey Brock is an award-winning American poet and translator. His first book of poems, Weighing Light, received the New Criterion Poetry Prize in 2005. His awards include a Wallace Stegner fellowship from Stanford University, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Cullman Center fellowship from the New York Public Library. He is also a leading translator of Italian poetry and prose, having brought into English major works by Cesare Pavese, Umberto Eco, Roberto Calasso, and others.
Excerpted from “Quickness” from Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock. English Translation Copyright (c) 2016 by Geoffrey Brock. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.