Monday, June 16, 2008

USED BOOKS: Sartre, Italo Calvino Tim O'Brien

-Jean Paul Sartre
Invisible Cities
-Italo Calvino
Tom Cat in Love
-Tim O'Brien

Sartre's Nausea is a gripping, twitchy little novella confirming the ways one person of unpleasant station can make them self sick , nervous, an odious presence by lingering long on the ambivalent shrug .No one else could write a better tale of an intensely self-aware intellectual whose physical discomforts translate into a changed worldview. Not a lot of laughs, but Sartre does insert his descriptions of bad faith of an intellect aware of his stagnation but whose dread saps strength, and will from him, makes him powerless to do even the simplest exchange. There is, of course, transcendence of a sort, but none are comfortable with its results. The peculiar interest here is the lingering on the problem and an inspection of the illness that infects the spirit as a cumulative consequence of an individual denying their potential and getting by with a bare minimum of engagement. Sartre’s fiction and his plays are for those who have an avid interest in those who live in just one room of the many in life’s vast mansion.

Still, we mut assume that some of us like to get out of the house, let alone leave our room, and enjoy a book reflecting a similar attitude. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino appeals to Universal wanderlust, the tourist who wants to transcend the visitor status and gathers an intriguing set of tales. Marco Polo telling tales of his travels to fantastic cities to Kublai Kahn, who is stupefied and enthralled, until he queries Polo of the veracity the tales, and the veracity of language, becoming, finally, a dialogue between not which representation is real, but which one is more useful in a scheme of things that presents itself only a line at time, charts on an unfolding map.

Spinning tales of where one has been and what one did while they were there is an fine , delicately balanced craft where the plausible context and the impossible coincidence must balance each other in that strange space of gravity that keeps the reader in suspense, wondering what is real and what is of made up of whole cloth. Tom Cat In Love Tim O'Brien ‘s novel of a very smart guy who’s incapable of telling the truth the first time he tells an anecdote, is a superb comedy of manners. A college novel, a grandiloquent professor of linguistics puffs up his chest as he brags of his genius and his conquests of the ladies, until he is exposed, over time, as a liar who has comic complications that might rival Harry Crews worst southern dysfunctionals. Funny, bitter. There is not, though, a sympathetic personality in the lot. O'Brien, however, writes a very fine, faux- Nabokov prose of self-puffery.


  1. I enjoyed a lot of Calvino's short fiction, and I've been looking for the excuse to read one of his novels (like, you know, coming across one used) for a while now. By your description, Invisible Cities covers a lot of the same ground that Umberto Eco's Baudolino does, with a much better chance of me actually liking it. (I mean, if your point is that a good story tops history, rule one would be to tell a good story.)

    May check out the O'Brien one too.

  2. I respect Eco's intellect,but I've found the fiction I've read by him--The Name of the Rose, Baudolino--to read like mere cleverness dressed up in systematic rhetoric that simply crused a good plot idea. I think you'll enjoy Calvino, since he has a light touch and never forgot to entertain while to enlighten. The O'Brien is very funny, especially for a male who was and retains something of the cocky , resume padding braggart of youth who gets caught telling a lie. Half the fun of Tom is how the main character back tracks after every revelation, continuing to put his misfortune as the result of the bad deeds of others.

  3. hello again

    Can't say I enjoyed Invisible Cities. To me, the book reads as a progression of nightmares, without much recourse to an illumined insight or overall redemption for the traveler. Calvino in general makes for an effective puppet for leftists who want to hold someone up as an example of an "acceptable" marxist, since he doesn't have much to say in theory and preferred to harmlessly fictionalize.

  4. Hi DJB, good to see you.

    What's potent in IC is that it doesn't offer an "illumined insight" or that it dallies in the problematic qualities of what constitutes "redemption", but that it reveals that the traveller's goal was to merely gather experience with which to merely construct more fanciful language. As the emporer questions the traveller's narrative premises, we have a situation where fiction, parable and the like are in stale mate with interpretation, theory, criticism. It's a handy tale,in itself, about what happened with disbelief is no longer suspended and underlines, I believe, internal tensions as a population that desparately wants to believe in things magical and yet cannot quite swallow advancing doses of baloney and bullshit. The talker gets talked into the corner, an irony, and that I think is anything but harmless. It's the equivlent of someone getting shot with their own gun.

  5. Mr. Burke,

    I hadn't looked at it that way before. But I'm not sure I understand what you mean. Do you mean that the traveller means to parry the emperor's attempts to classify his journey? I can see a value in it then. At first I was impressed by Calvino's imagination in the description of the cities, but as they become increasingly irrational I started to wonder what Calvino was attempting to give me with the traveller..maybe a challenge to think less non-linear, so perhaps my own superego/emperor stepped in.

    maybe i'll give it another try, because I do enjoy Calvino's writing in general

    Also might add I like your views on AHWOSG and Baudrillard


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