P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

Italo Calvino and inevitability in storytelling

Richard Raskin

NB. This article is based on Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium[1]- a series of lectures he was to have given at Harvard University in 1985-1986 but didn't live to deliver. Though he had intended to give six lectures, as indicated in the title of this work, he had written only five of them at the time of his death in 1985. They were entitled: "Lightness," "Quickness," "Exactitude," "Visibility" and "Multiplicity." The sixth was to have been written at a later point in Cambridge, and would have been called "Consistency."

The reader is asked to bear in mind that I am taking considerable liberties in using Calvino's thoughts selectively and for my own purposes, thereby doing what Calvino himself described in another context when he stated: "everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him." [2]

Introductory note
It is sometimes claimed that events in any given story should follow one another in such a way that the trajectory they trace appears to be necessary, so that the listener, reader or viewer is left with a feeling that things had to turn out the way they did, that no other outcome was possible.

This sense of inevitability is pushed to its outer limit in Greek tragedy, in which an error or failing on the part of the central character is generally what sets in motion a chain of causes and effects leading inexorably to his downfall. [3] And any attempt on his or anyone else's part to alter the course of events, only brings the tragic outcome even closer. Thus in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, nothing and no one can prevent Oedipus from fulfilling his fate of slaying his father and marrying his mother.

This sense of inevitability takes an equally radical form in Emile Zola's naturalist or "experimental" novel, based on the view that "the same determinism must govern the stone in the road and the brain of man," [4] and that it is the job of the novelist to show how certain social conditions, in combination with specific hereditary dispositions, lead inexorably to a given outcome (ibid.). For example, in the novel L'Assommoir (1877), Gervaise Macquart inevitably ends up in the most abject and pitiful state at the end of the story, as a result of the harsh conditions of her working-class life and the hereditary burdens with which she, and those whose lives affect hers, were born. [5]

For the purposes of this article, these examples will serve to illustrate what might be called "outcome inevitability."

Calvino's conception of lightness
As already mentioned, the first of the essays in Six Memos is devoted to "lightness," which Calvino sees as an antidote to "the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world" (p. 4). He describes De Rerum Natura as "the first great work of poetry in which knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light and mobile" (p. 8). Calvino finds that "Lucretius' chief concern is to prevent the weight of matter from crushing us" (pp. 8-9) and he continues his praise of the Latin poet in these terms:

Even while laying down the rigorous mechanical laws that determine every event, [Lucretius] feels the need to allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line, thereby ensuring freedom both to atoms and to human beings. The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities - even the poetry of nothingness - issues from a poet who had no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world (p. 9, emphasis added).

Likewise, in Cyrano de Bergerac, Calvino finds another representative of lightness, describing him as "the first poet of atomism in modern literature" (p. 20).

In pages where his irony cannot conceal a genuine cosmic excitement, Cyrano extols the unity of all things, animate or inanimate, the combinatoria of elementary figures that determine the variety of living forms; and above all he conveys his sense of the precariousness of the processes behind them. That is, how nearly man missed being man, and life, life, and the world, the world (p. 20, emphasis added).

On the side of lightness, Calvino places life itself, while heaviness is seen as a negation of life. Having cited Boccaccio's description of Cavalcanti as "freeing himself with a leap," Calvino writes:

>Were I to choose an auspicious image for the new millennium, I would choose that one: the sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times - noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring - belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars (p. 12).

Lightness for Calvino is identified with such properties as mobility, agility of spirit, knowledge of the world, subtlety, multiplicity, the precariousness of things as they are, levitation and freedom. Correspondingly, heaviness is linked to inertia, opacity, petrification, sluggishness, density, solidity and the crushing of life.

Returning now to the issue raised in the introduction - a sense that whatever happens in a story had to turn out that way - and given the logic with which Calvino polarizes properties in his essay on lightness, it is clear that "outcome inevitability" would belong on the side of heaviness, while characters able to shape their own destinies - to rise above the forces weighing them down, to engage in "unpredictable deviations" from the paths laid out for them, and to exploit "infinite unexpected possibilities" - would be situated on the side of lightness.

Calvino on esthetic form
If a sense of necessity with respect to events would seem to be negatively charged within the framework of his thought, Calvino attributes a highly positive value to a sense of necessity concerning another aspect of storytelling: the giving of form. And in his second and third essays in Six Memos, on "Quickness" and "Exactitude" respectively, giving form is a value Calvino both praises and sees as dangerously threatened by current developments.

Concerning the use of language, Calvino values "a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable" (p. 49). By the same token, he deplores the widespread use of language "in a random, approximate and careless manner" and describes as a pestilence the pervasive tendency to blunt the edge of expressiveness and to dilute the meaning of words (p. 56).

Calvino sees an equally distressing loss of form in another context as well:

I would like to add that it is not just language that seems to have been struck by this pestilence. Consider visual images, for example. We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of mirrors. These are images stripped of the inner inevitability that ought to mark every image as form and as meaning, as a claim on the attention and as a source of possible meanings. []

But maybe this lack of substance is not to be found in images or in language alone, but in the world itself. This plague strikes also at the lives of people and at the history of nations. It makes all histories formless, random, confused, with neither beginning nor end. My discomfort arises from the loss of form that I notice in life, which I try to oppose with the only weapon I can think of - an idea of literature (p. 57, emphasis added).

Inevitability in storytelling can be seen in two very different ways.

It is generally understood in relation to outcomes, as a sense that things had to end as they do in any given story. When this applies, as in Greek tragedy or a Zola novel, a character is trapped in interlocking chains of events that cannot be broken and that carry him or her inexorably toward some predetermined fate.

When seen in the light of Calvino's lightness model, inevitability of outcome would belong on the side of heaviness, since it negates the character's ability to defy the gravitational pull of those forces that would weigh him or her down. Though Calvino does not explicitly mention this form of inevitability in Six Memos, his positive references to "unpredictable deviations" and "infinite unexpected possibilities" are reasonable indicators as to where he would stand on that issue. A partisan of lightness would favor the empowerment of characters, able to rise above obstacles and to shape their own lives.

But there is a very different form of inevitability in storytelling to which Calvino does subscribe, as a desperately needed antidote to the widespread impoverishment of language and images: namely inevitability of form. When this is in play, the way in which a story is told is experienced as necessary, and the language and images as endowed with an inner inevitability. In other words, the listener, reader or viewer finds that the story had to be told exactly as it was, and would consider it inconceivable that the story be told in any other manner. A writer striving for this form of inevitability would bring both originality and precision to the storytelling process - not as values in themselves but rather in the service of the story.

The distinction drawn in this article between inevitability of outcome and inevitability of form is not one I have encountered elsewhere, though I may of course be unaware of relevant discussions known to the reader. In any event, I believe that this distinction is well worth considering in relation to Calvino's thought, and that it could be a particularly useful one to anyone engaged in the writing of fiction, including screenwriting.

I sent this article to my colleague Dr. Francesco Caviglia for his comments, and am grateful for his thoughtful remarks, particularly concerning my characterization of Greek tragedy. In adding this postscript with a selection of his observations, I hope to correct an oversimplification in my own discussion and to conclude on a note that re-frames the relationship between inevitability of outcome and inevitability of form in an even more interesting perspective. Dr. Caviglia wrote:

The parallelism between Greek tragedy and Zola's naturalist novel as ruled by inevitability of outcome is quite convincing. At the same time I am not sure I would put Sophocles's tragedy in the field of "heaviness." Inevitability of outcome in Greek tragedy is not a feature of the story; it belongs to the genre, since the stories are (almost always) established beforehand in their most important details []

Maybe inevitability of outcome is not automatically "heavy": maybe a balance of consistency and surprise - as you suggested elsewhere[6] - may go in the direction of lightness even within the most inevitable outcome. I'm thinking for example of Louis Malle's film Lacombe Lucien, whose outcome is inevitably tragic and yet the story is full of surprises.

After reading your article (and your last two books) I would say now that Sophocles and Louis Malle use inevitability of form in order to counteract inevitability of outcome.[7]

to the top of the page

1 London: Vintage, 1996. Translated by Patrick Creagh. I am indebted to Brian Dunnigan at the London Film School for calling this inspiring book to my attention.

2 "Literature as projection of desire" (1969) in Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986; trans. Patrick Creagh), p. 50.

3 Actually Aristotle allowed for probability as well as necessity, writing for example: "The right thing, however, is in the Characters just as in the incidents of the play to endeavour always after the necessary or the probable; so that whenever such-and-such a personage says or does such-and-such a thing, it shall be the probable or necessary outcome of his character; and whenever this incident follows on that, it shall be either the necessary or the probable consequence of it." On the Art of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990; trans. Ingram Bywater), Section 15, pp. 56-57.

4 "Un même déterminisme doit régir la pierre des chemins et le cerveau de l'homme." Le roman experimental (1880) , section II. The entire text of this essay can be found at http://membres.lycos.fr/jccau/ressourc/romnatu/zola/romexper.htm

5 Gervaise Macquart was memorably embodied by Maria Schell in the 1956 film Gervaise, directed by René Clément.

6 The Art of the Short Fiction Film: A Study of Nine Modern Classics (Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland, 2002) and Kortfilmen som fortælling (Aarhus: Systime, 2001).

7 E-mail sent from Genoa, 17 July 2004.

to the top of the page