Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Calvino, Tolstoy, and Moliére



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Hello everyone. I hope you are all healthy and safe. I have reviewed three more books. Hopefully they’ll be helpful:


Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino


“Dawn had broken when he said: ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.’ ‘There is still one of which you never speak.’ Marco Polo bowed his head. ‘Venice,’ the Khan said. Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’ The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’ And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’ ‘When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.’ ‘To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.’ ‘You should then begin each tale of your travels from the departure, describing Venice as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.’”

In this book, the explorer Marco Polo talks with Kublai Khan about the nature of reality. Polo also describes all of the cities he has traveled to within the Khan’s domain. The catch: none of the cities actually exist. However, Polo reasons that by describing all of the cities that don’t exist, he can give the Khan insight into the cities that do exist. His reasoning is borne out throughout the rest of the book.

There is a lot of description of different made-up cities, which is interesting to read. What makes the book satisfying is the way Calvino is able to draw conceptual connections between the frame dialogues and the descriptions of the cities. In the end, this gives humanity and meaning to what would otherwise have just been a series of pretty descriptions.

Another interesting part of the book is that Calvino writes about different cities under different headings, and scatters these headings throughout the book. For instance, he would describe one city under “Trading Cities 1”, then go on to describe another city under “Thin Cities 3”, another under “Cities & The Dead 5”, and then another under “Trading Cities 2.” I’m not sure why he does this, but it gives the book a sense of complexity that calls for multiple readings. Is there a reason behind this complexity, or did he just put them in to confuse readers?

Read it and find out.


Childhood, Leo Tolstoy


“Every now and then [the greyhound] Gizana kept stopping, pricking up his ears, and listening to the hallooing of the beaters. Whenever he did this I was not strong enough to move him, and could do no more than shout, ‘Come on, come on!’ Presently he set off so fast that I could not restrain him, and I encountered more than one fall before we reached our destination. Selecting there a level, shady spot near the roots of a great oak-tree, I lay down on the turf, made Gizana crouch beside me, and waited. As usual, my imagination far outstripped reality. I fancied that I was pursuing at least my third hare when, as a matter of fact, the first hound was only just giving tongue.”

This was the first book Tolstoy ever published. It’s about the childhood of a Russian boy named Nicholas, and is heavily autobiographical.

Sometimes it was boring, other times it was entertaining, other times it was funny, and other times it was sad. However, from this book alone, you would not immediately be convinced that Tolstoy would have become a great writer. For the most part, the chapters don’t really relate to each other. It seems like you could take some of them out without losing much of the overall story.

Also, ¾ of the book is overrun with melodramatic sentimentality (“My lips parted themselves as though smiling, the perspiration poured from me in streams”). However, there are flashes of sincerity throughout which comprise the other 1/4 (“In early days it never occurred to me to think what a rare and wonderful being this old domestic was. Not only did she never talk, but she seemed never even to think, of herself”). These bits of sincerity are what save the book from being boring, and they are the first hints of Tolstoy’s genius.

Everybody starts somewhere, but not everybody arrives. In his future work, Tolstoy could have easily ditched sincerity in favor of melodrama. In that case, he likely wouldn’t have arrived at his position as a great writer.

Fortunately for us, he chose sincerity instead.


“Don Juan”, Moliére


“DON JUAN (about to strike PIERROT) What did you say?
PIERROT (moves behind CHARLOTTE) Lord, I’m afraid of no one.
DON JUAN (goes after PIERROT) Just wait a minute.
PIERROT (moves to other side) I’m afraid of nothin’.
DON JUAN (runs after him) We’ll see.
PIERROT (again goes behind CHARLOTTE) I’ve seen better ones than him.

In this hilarious play, Don Juan’s womanizing ways lead to his downfall. That’s not the best part of the play, though. The best part is the comedy. It’s like a form of psychological slapstick—there is physicality in the humor (like in the excerpt above), but there’s also a psychological element that makes the physicality even funnier (Pierrot pretending not to be afraid). This humor makes the play a joy to read.

The story itself is somewhat contrived: Don Juan is repeatedly told that he will suffer because of his womanizing, Don Juan repeatedly ignores these warnings, then he suffers due to heavenly intervention. Thankfully, the humor is there to keep the play fresh.


I hope you have enjoyed these reviews. I will not be able to post next week because I will be studying for finals, but check back afterwards for more lit in the time of Coronavirus. In the meantime, I wish you all the best.

By Invitation Only' - September 2014 | Beautiful gif, Animated ...


2 thoughts on “Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Calvino, Tolstoy, and Moliére

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