Why Read the Classics?

I am reading two essays at the moment: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, and Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino!

The first appears in the book of the same name, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin in 1999. The second, I stumbled upon at The New York Review of Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and dated 1986.

I was struck by a difference in each version of a sentence in Calvino’s ninth definition of a Classic (the essay ventures fourteen interrelated definitions of what constitutes a Classic Book). In it, he is talking about the personal relationship or rapport that ideally occurs when a classic text ‘works’ upon the reader as a classic:

“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” (McLaughin)

“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” (Creagh)

Lord, if someone had shown me McLaughin’s version when I was an impatient, distracted, undergraduate struggling to get it on with Joyce and Chaucer, I may never have completed my degree; I would have been out of that bedroom so fast!

Of course I see where he is coming from in both of these translations: ‘duty’ and ‘should’ are not desirable entry points into a book. And respect is won, rather than assumed and given blindly. But there is a difference in meaning and implication in each of them that I think is interesting.

This is pointless! and It’s no use! strike me as the perfect ‘out’ a sophomoric reader is just waiting to pounce upon. The decisiveness of the words If there is no spark seem like the conclusions of someone expecting instant and unequivocal passion. Not necessarily young, but dare I say immature? Whereas, If the spark doesn’t come seems less impulsive, more considered. It implies an attempt over time. I tried. I worked at it. But it did not come. It’s a pity.

I see both translations, both types of reader, in myself. But I hope I am more the second type these days. How long does one try at something that just isn’t working is a valid question. Yet so often we give up too easily, especially when it’s something that we truly want, and what we truly want is often complex and perplexing and work. Love is work. Sometimes.

And if the spark doesn’t come, the exercise isn’t pointless; all it is is a pity. And there are plenty more classics in the sea.


6 thoughts on “Why Read the Classics?

  1. I’ve just finished, The Age of Innocence. Definitely a spark there. I remember struggling with them when I was younger, and then finally enjoying D H Lawrence (Sons and Lovers) and realising that they were just like other books: some we like, some we don’t (and that doesn’t make us bad people).
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Well, if naughty old Lawrence can’t ignite a spark then there’s definitely something wrong!

      ‘The Plumed Serpent’ was on a long-ago reading list in college and I abhorred it! Beyond hatred! And, today, at this very moment, I can hardly recall a thing about it, only my grumpy face.

      Calvino accounts for this too. His 10th and 11th definitions refer to those books “to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even opposition to it….”

      “All of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts and actions are dear to me, but they all arouse in me an irrepressible urge to contradict, criticise and argue with him. Of course this is connected with the fact that I find his personality so uncongenial to my temperament, but if that were all, I would simply avoid reading him; whereas in fact I cannot help regarding him as one of my authors…”

      Thanks for dropping by Gabriel!

  2. You’ve definitely got a follower of Calvino here: though I haven’t had time to read everything he’s written, I’ve read several of his books and loved them, including “Invisible Cities,” “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller,” and “The Castle of Crossed Destinies.” And I’m delighted to discover this new book of essays by him. I take your point about the essays’ difference, but I’m not sure whether the difference occurs because Calvino has in the time available revised his essay, or whether it’s simply a difference in English translation. Translation is an art in itself, I know, and the translation of any given work may become famous or notorious for various qualities of the sort you point out. Do you happen to have any background info on the essays? This essay comes at a pertinent time for me as well, because I’m trying to read Kafka’s “The Castle” (I’ve got almost 1/2 way through it) and I’m hating it.

    • I think it’s almost certainly a difference in translation, and not the author’s revision. The essay was first published in the 80s, and in the 1999 Translator’s Introduction by McLaughlin, he says:

      “Eleven of the thirty-six essays in this book have appeared in English before. The justification for retranslating those eleven pieces stems from the desire to provide an integral English version that corresponds exactly to the important posthumous anthology ‘Perché Leggere I Classici’. That volume represents a personal collection of essays on Calvino’s classics, selected in consultation with the author’s widow, and based on material that the author had set aside for some such future publication.”

      Calvino, would not have seen the ultimate translation of the essay. I guess the retranslations came from a desire to have a unified and coherent voice to all of the essays in the collection. I don’t think one translation is necessarily wrong or inferior. Translation is a tricky art, as you say.

      I have never read The Castle. I am a mercurial wench, because this morning I want to say “oh, if you hate it, just move on and leave it alone…” Hate is quite a strong word. Different, I think, than “I’m not feeling a spark…”

      What t’ do, what t’ do?

      • What I can tell you about Kafka’s “The Castle” so far is that it’s sort of a one-trick pony: once you get the point about bureaucracy being absurdist, it’s the same joke over and over again, with infinite variations. I guess it had to be done once for the literary point to be made, but I can’t say that I’ll rush to read anything else anybody tells me is “Kafkaesque.” I did like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” but then it was a great deal shorter. “The Trial” is supposed to be a companion-piece to “The Castle,” and I’m trying to get up the courage to give it a miss (I’m a cowardy custard when it comes to skipping “must-reads.” I need more mercurial wench in my make-up, somehow!).

  3. We may not find a spark at one stage in life, but we may in another. I’ve noticed that as I’ve returned to books as I’ve gotten older. Some just went right over my head when I was younger, others I couldn’t relate to until I’d had that experience or something similar, myself.

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