The New Yorker: Roberto Calasso’s Encyclopedic Mind at Play
|16/12/2012||Autor theophyle Categorii: Politeia Digest, Ziarul de Duminica|
Recently, I read Roberto Calasso’s “La Folie Baudelaire,” which brought back to mind a half hour that I spent, years ago, wandering with the author through the Milan train station, looking for Mad magazine. After an interview for a New Yorker profile I was writing about him, he’d politely accompanied me to the Turin train and then stayed to share my perambulation from foreign-language newsstand to newsstand in search of the magazine I had promised my daughter. It was a rainy afternoon: we drank coffee at a bleak linoleum bar that no longer exists and then strolled around in the gloomy station with its huge dripping vault and its allegorical statues streaked with pigeon droppings, enjoying the sight of the hurrying crowd and the puffing engines, and swapping sophomoric quips about the deep meaning of “Spy vs. Spy.” I remember being unsurprised that the terrifyingly erudite Calasso, who resembled a slightly glum faun in a trenchcoat and whose hair curled around the edges of his balding head like a permanent wreath of laurels, knew and liked Mad.
I also recall feeling that this dark, meandering quest for something goofy yet possibly profound was an elemental Calasso experience: in every way corresponding to the style in which he lives with an astonishing coherence possible for few literary figures today. As one of the preëminent authors in Italy, he has, in a country that, in spirit, has never ceased to be a collection of small principalities, created his own small but powerful Republic of Letters as head of the legendary Milanese publishing house Adelphi. Here, for over thirty years he has produced a remarkable eclectic line of books, whose elegant black spines and muted colors fill entire walls in the houses of Italians with any claim to high culture. Adelphi authors range from Simenon to Athanasius Kircher to Anna Maria Ortese—a collection almost exclusively shaped by the personal appeal of each to the subtle fancy of Calasso, who lives for books and ideas in a way that goes beyond the hermetic existence of the most unworldly university professor and seems to take him outside of time and space. In conferences, he sometimes describes the tradition of literature as a kind of living creature, a “serpent of books” winding its way through the centuries, that is clearly vivid in his imagination. Some vertebrae of the serpent are composed of Calasso’s own magnum opus, an encyclopedic series of linked volumes that he began with “The Ruin of Kasch,” in 1989, and explore the relation of myth to the birth of modern consciousness.
Calasso has created a much discussed original genre for these books, which are neither fiction or nonfiction but a dense pastiche of myth, biography, criticism, philosophy, history, and minutiae, studded with quotations and woven together by Calasso’s unflagging vision until they take on a kind of organic life of their own. Rather than exploring ideas, his books invoke spirits—of places, cultural periods, personalities. Although they seem to deal with wildly heterogeneous subjects, each book is linked to the others by its ample, universalist style—with a Cecil B. DeMille-size cast of artists, thinkers, hangers-on ,and divinities large and small—and recurrent themes. The assembled volumes form a distinct constellation in Calasso’s interior universe. Read more in The New Torker
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