An annotation on Italo Calvino, a nifty Italian writer, and how he made me think about why I write:
One small scene in all its glory
Italo Calvino’s story, “The Call of the Water,” stretches a single moment out into the extremes of its possibilities. A basic written description of one moment would contain only the actions of its characters. A fuller description would add some scenery, adjectives applied to the surroundings or to the characters, perhaps a bit about the characters’ feelings. To extend this, next would come some history and/or the thoughts and memories of each character. These are the things that Italo Calvino includes in his story, to the extreme, and this is how Calvino creates the amazing richness of “The Call of the Water.” The only action in this story is the character standing in the shower and turning on the water. We don’t see him waking up and walking to the bathroom. We don’t see him washing his hair and body, rinsing himself, turning off the water, wrapping up in a towel, etc. But his thoughts are enough, and Calvino explores them in so much detail that more action is totally unnecessary. The moment of turning on the water becomes a meditation on everything that makes that moment possible—the pipes and plumbing, the source of the water, water itself. Calvino doesn’t rush the thoughts of his character, but instead slows them down so that the reader can explore and appreciate a thought process that, in real life, would flash through a person’s mind in a second and then be gone.
This piece was especially interesting to me because I’ve written a lot of poetry lately that focuses on small things, a moment or an object. Or maybe not “lately.” Maybe I’ve always done that, and I’m only thinking about it more lately. Anyway, I find it very interesting to hold a moment, an image, or an item in my mind and contemplate its deeper meaning. Every moment has causes and effects, every object has a history, every image has the potential to bring forth emotion. But I find it really difficult to do what Italo Calvino has done with this story about water. The temptation to over-describe is very strong, as is the desire to abbreviate. Because the human mind jumps from thought to thought so quickly, I imagine that it took Calvino a lot of attention, not to mention creative skill, to organize this thought process into words and elegantly-constructed sentences.
At the beginning of the story, Calvino’s character says, in reference to the act of turning on the shower, “I am perfectly aware that this gesture I’m performing to start my day is a decisive and solemn act, one that puts me in touch with both culture and nature together, with thousands of years of human civilization, and with the birth pains of those geological eras that gave our planet its shape.” What I find amazing about this sentence is the way it could be applied to any gesture, really. It is up to the writer to discover and describe how and why an action connects to culture, nature, and civilization, but the possibilities are there, always. It was Calvino’s awareness of this truth that allowed him to write this story. The act of writing itself is surely a “decisive and solemn act, one that puts [Calvino] in touch with both culture and nature together,” etc. And Calvino’s use of the word “solemn” in this sentence, at the beginning of the story, indicates that this piece of writing takes itself seriously, and will not shy from any effort needed to fulfill its potential.
One aspect of this piece of writing that adds a lot to its success is the way that Calvino creates tension, even though there is so little action. This is why I am inclined to call the piece a story, and not just an essay or a meditation. The tension comes from the fact that the speaker in the story turns on the tap in the first sentence, but it isn’t until the last paragraph, a few pages later, that water comes flowing out of the shower head. The title “the Call of the Water” supports this tension. Reaching out and turning the knob to the left, as the story’s character does in the first sentence, is a way of calling for water, calling to the water and asking it to come through the pipe. The story then consists of the moment of waiting for that call to be answered. Any kind of waiting inherently contains tension, and Calvino takes advantage of this fact and magnifies it by slowing down time and focusing the narrator’s attention obsessively on that water he’s waiting for: “But before a drop appears at each hole in the shower head to lengthen in a still uncertain dribble then suddenly swell all together in concentric circles of vibrant jets, I have to wait a whole second, a second of uncertainty during which there’s no way of knowing whether the world still contains any water…”
There’s so much detail in the world—every scrap of color, light, shadow, pattern, and texture creating the richness of this room I’m sitting in, each object with its own story of how it got to look and feel the way it does, and how it got to be sitting exactly where it’s sitting, not to mention the living things in the room—black cat sleeping on a pillow next to me, black dog barking at some noise outside and eyeing me at the same time because she knows she’s not supposed to be barking, and what is it out there that she’s barking at? And my own thoughts constantly racing and jumbling through my mind, and how my toes feel a little cold, and the music that I’m listening to, the woman singing it, her voice, the lyrics that I can’t quite understand because she has an Irish accent, the history of Celtic music, or the history of folk music, plus the clicking sound of my fingers on the keyboard, and the manufacture of this computer, the people who designed it and the sources of all its many small parts, and the people who assembled it, the electricity that’s flowing into it right now through wires in the wall that connect to wires strung from the house to a poll outside and more wires waving in the wind all down the street. The electricity is very similar to the water in Italo Calvino’s story. I could go on and on about coal and nuclear power plants and about how the weather man predicted high winds that might knock tree branches onto the power lines and how that would plunge my house into darkness because it’s winter now and it gets dark very early. But I won’t go on and on forever, because there’s no way to record every single tiny detail about the world, or even about this one room. And yet, if us writer’s don’t at least attempt to record it all, who will? There are important things in those small details. Italo Calvino has shown that to be true in “The Call of the Water.” And so I go on writing, because there are always more little moments that deserve to be remembered.