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I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, ergotise, narcotise, and paralyse, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain, very much as madder mixed with a stag’s food at the Zoo colours the growth of the animal’s antlers. Moreover, in the case of the human animal, that acquired tint, or taint, is transmissible.

from Rudyard Kipling’s Book of Words, in the chapter titled Surgeons and the Soul. I came across a version of the quote in bold above, in a fascinating and insightful documentary about, not writing or literature, but healthy eating and living called Hungry for Change. The quote is used to highlight the power of words in influencing one’s behavior and state of mind.

“What is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there,” he writes. “This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”

The Guardian on Julian Barnes’ new book, Levels of Life. The book, described as ‘part essay, part short story and part memoir’, is dedicated to his wife, Pat Kavanagh, who died in 2008.

Cosmicomics is a collection of 12 fantastical short stories set around the evolution of the universe. Each story begins with a short scientific hypothesis followed by a narrative by the old Qfwfq, who takes on a unique form in each story. In one of the stories, Qfwfq is a dinosaur; in another he (for Qfwfq often takes on the male persona) is packed with others into the singular point where all matter was concentrated before the big bang.

The early universe, where matter is still nebulous, where the orderliness of orbits has yet to be imposed and gravity behaves in strange ways in strange places, is a fantasy world in and of itself. Calvino uses this as the canvas on which he lets the quirky, geeky, and mostly delightful stories of his narrator, Qfwfq, unfold. The story, A Sign in Space, begins with the following scientific hypothesis

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution around the galaxy

Recent measurements peg the number at 226 million years. The Sun and its planets circle around the center of the Milky Way at about 135 miles per second; to put that in perspective, in the few minutes that it takes you to read this post, you would have moved a few thousand miles away from the point in space you occupied when you started reading this, without any conscious movement on your part. In the above story, Qfwfq leaves a sign in space, so that he can see it again after the 200 million odd years that it takes to circle the galaxy. Perhaps Calvino’s italicized nugget of scientific wisdom (as of 1965, when the book was published) at the beginning of every story is meant to help the reader discern the fantastically real from the purely fantastical, in addition to setting the backdrop for his narrative.

In The Form of Space, Qfwfq and two other characters, Ursula H’x and Lieutenant Fenimore are falling in space, ‘indefinitely, for an infinite length of time’. Qfwfq narrates:

I didn’t take my eyes off Ursula H’x: she was very beautiful to see, and in falling she had an easy, relaxed attitude. I hoped I would be able sometimes to catch her eye, but as she fell, Ursula H’x was always intent on filing and polishing her nails or running her comb through her long, smooth hair, and she never glanced toward me. Nor toward Lieutenant Fenimore, I must say, though he did everything he could to attract her attention.

One senses the makings of a love triangle, one that traces out an infinitely long prism through space as it falls. The characters go about their lives, longing, envying, speculating, passing constellations, polishing nails, falling through space along their parallel paths separated from each other. All hope is not lost, though.

Of course, if I chose to be an optimist, there is always the possibility that, if our two parallels continued to infinity, the moment would come when they would touch.

In a review of The Complete Cosmicomics (a book that includes Cosmicomics and three other books by Calvino) in the Guardian, the writer Ursula Le Guin finds fault with Calvino’s character names

If I can’t say or hear “Qfwfq” (kefoofek?), how can I hear the cadence of the sentence it occurs in? Here Calvino’s abstracting bent threatens language itself, reducing it to the literally unspeakable symbology of mathematics. That game gets chancy.

In contrast to the above view, I find Calvino’s palindromic and somewhat mathematical names endearing. For anyone that has done their share of equations, the lack of vowels is rarely the cause of intractability; one learns to call out the individual letters rather than fit an appropriate pronunciation. In the NPR series You Must Read This where writers recommend their favorite books, Salman Rushdie recommends Cosmicomics, calling it “possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve”. Readers of Rushdie’s works, particularly his children’s books Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life, may find parallels with Cosmicomics in the choice of peculiar character names and a world not governed by the rules of reality as we knows it.

Cosmicomics has been translated from the Italian by William Weaver, also the translator for several of Calvino’s books, including Invisible Cities, reviewed earlier. Weaver’s translation of Cosmicomics, his first translation of Calvino, won the National Book Award in 1969. Weaver writes about his association with Calvino in this insightful piece.

In Invisible Cities, the Venetian merchant and traveler Marco Polo narrates to Kublai Khan, emperor of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century, accounts of the cities that he has visited on his travels. The cities that Polo describes are fantastical. There is Octavia, the spider-web city, built over a void between two steep mountains and bound to the two crests with ropes and chains; Baucius, a city built on slender stilts that rise into the clouds; Leonia, a city that refashions itself every day; Zemrude, where the mood of the beholder gives the city its form. The 50 odd cities that Calvino describes are unique in their own way, and yet one finds in them echoes of a modern city or town observed from varying viewpoints. These cities exist on the map of one’s mind, composed of thought and conveyed through Calvino’s poetic and evocative prose.

One of the cities that Polo describes is the city of Valdrada, built on the shores of a lake.

the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat.

In each of their actions, the inhabitants of Valdrada are mindful of how it will appear in the reflected city.

At times the mirror increases a thing’s value, at times denies it. Not everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored

The figurative aspect of Polo’s fantastical cities are hard to miss.

The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them

Kublai Khan, at times, is skeptical of Marco Polo’s accounts, and at other times, adds to them by describing a city that he dreamed of and asks Polo if he had been to such a city. In one of their exchanges, the Khan asks Polo why, of all the cities that Polo has described, he has never described his hometown Venice? To this, Polo responds,”Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice”. He refuses to describe Venice.

“Memory’s descriptions, once they are fixed in words, are erased”, Polo said, “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little”

One distinctive feature of Calvino’s writing style in this book is his frequent use of alliterations – the spurls, the splashes, and the sponges’ suds; gestures, grimaces, glances; inarticulate informer; slender stilts; pistachio nuts and poppy seeds – that give his prose the likeness of poetry. It is easy to forget that this book is a translation by William Weaver from the Italian.

Whether Marco Polo visited China and met with the Kublai Khan is still a matter of debate. Calvino’s book makes no attempt to portray the narrative as a real encounter. There is no storyline in the book. Most of the book is a description of imagined cities, with interludes of conversations between Polo and Khan. Calvino manages to ignore almost all of Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 basics of creative writing and yet delivers a book that is captivating. It stands at the intersection of prose and poetry; Polo’s description of the cities are infused with poetic beauty rendered in beautiful prose. This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the book. Like poetry, Invisible Cities is enjoyed best when read at a leisurely pace.

I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entertaining games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home.

Blaise Pascal’s Pensées (Thoughts) are a collection of notes and jottings that were meant to be groundwork for a book on a defense of Christian religion. “Much of the theological argument implied in these utterances has little appeal to the modern mind”, reads the introductory note, “but the acuteness of the observation of human life, the subtlety of the reasoning, the combination of precision and fervid imagination in the expression, make this a book to which the discerning mind can return again and again for insight and inspiration.”

The passage quoted above is a part of several long and short notes on the topic of diversions. Pascal contends that we engage in activities and amusements as a diversion, for without such diversions, one would be left to contemplate on oneself, and would become weary by painful and disquieting thoughts.

Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.

A recurring example that Pascal uses is that of hunting hare; one is reminded that it was the 17th century in which he lived and wrote. According to him, the chase is what excites and diverts one, rather than the possession of the game.

The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.

Our folly lies in believing that possession of the end will bring us happiness, and not realizing that it is the pursuit that keeps us from being unhappy. The journey is the destination.

Their error does not lie in seeking excitement, if they seek it only as a diversion; the evil is that they seek it as if the possession of the objects of their quest would make them really happy. In this respect it is right to call their quest a vain one.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is perhaps better known for his mathematics than his philosophies, notably his work on probability that includes developing the idea of expected value, a key concept in modern economics and finance, and for inventing the first mechanical calculator at the age of 19. In addition to expository passages such as the one described above, the Pensées are a treasure trove of pithy aphorisms

A mere trifle consoles us, for a mere trifle distresses us.

Rivers are roads which move, and which carry us where we desire to go.

and quotable quotes

The great and the humble have the same misfortunes, the same griefs, the same passions; but one is at the top of the wheel, and the other near the center, and so is less disturbed by the same revolutions.

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