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Calvino SIX MEMOS cover image

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.

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A Profound Experience of Art


I’m embarrassed to talk about this, partly because I read Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and he sort of ruined it for me, casting doubt on the idea that anyone can have “a profound experience of art.” But I’m pretty sure I had one. I was at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. On the third floor, in the Chapel room, there is a crude but luminous painting of a stained glass window in Notre-Dame, the Paris cathedral. I saw it and I felt stunned, along the following lines, although of course it happened in a flash, faster than language.

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