Definitions of Territories: Fantasy

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Definitions of Territories: Fantasy

Le Monde, August 15, 1970; contribution (written in French) to a symposium on the literature of fantasy following the publication of Tzvetan Todorov’s Introduction à la littérature fantastique. The numbered questions related to: (1) the definition of fantasy; (2) the literature of fantasy today; (3) your own work in relation to fantasy; (4) examples of short stories and novels of fantasy.

(1) In contemporary French literary language the term fantastique is used chiefly of horror stories, which involve a somewhat nineteenth-century relationship with the reader. That is, if the reader wishes to take part in the game (at least with some part of himself) he has to believe in what he is reading, and be prepared to be seized by an almost physiological emotion (usually of terror or anguish), and seek an explanation of it as he would in real life. In Italian (as originally in French, I think) the words fantasia and fantastico by no means involve this leap on the part of the reader into the emotional flood of the text. On the contrary, they imply a detachment, a levitation, the acceptance of a different logic based on objects and connections other than those of everyday life or the dominant literary conventions. And the same, I think, is true of the equivalent words in English (though “fantastic” has been severely corrupted). So we may speak of twentieth-century fantasy, or of the fantasy of the Renaissance. Ariosto’s readers were never faced with the problem of believing or explaining. For them—as today for the readers of Gogol’s “The Nose,” of Alice in Wonderland, or of Kafka’s Metamorphoses—the pleasure of fantasy lies in the unraveling of a logic with rules or points of departure or solutions that keep some surprises up their sleeves.

This study by Todorov is very accurate on one meaning of fantasy and full of suggestions with regard to other meanings, aiming at some possible general classification. If we wish to compile an exhaustive atlas of imaginative literature, we will have to start with a grammar of what Todorov calls “wonder” at the level of the earliest combinatorial operations of signs in the primitive myths and fables, and of the symbolic requirements of the unconscious (before any sort of conscious allegory), as indeed at the level of the intellectual games of all times and all cultures.

(2) Nineteenth-century fantasy, a refined product of the Romantic spirit, soon became part of popular literature. (Poe wrote for the newspapers.) During the twentieth century, intellectual (no longer emotional) fantasy has become uppermost: play, irony, the winking eye, and also a meditation on the hidden desires and nightmares of contemporary man.

(3) I leave the critics the task of placing my novels and stories within (or outside) some classification of fantasy. For me the main thing in a narrative is not the explanation of an extraordinary event, but the order of things that this extraordinary event produces in itself and around it; the pattern, the symmetry, the network of images deposited around it, as in the formation of a crystal.

(4) Among the books I have read fairly recently, I will try to find a few little-known names to represent the various literary possibilities of fantasy. First of all, a nineteenth-century novel that might be described as fantageometry: Flatland by the English writer Edwin A. Abbott. At the other extreme is a Polish novel of the period between the wars, written by Bruno Schulz. Starting with family memories, he achieves a visionary transfiguration of well-nigh inexhaustible wealth of imagination. And then there are the stories of Felisberto Hernandez, a Uruguayan writer. In these the narrator, who is usually a pianist, is invited to lonely country houses where wealthy maniacs set up complicated charades in which women and dolls change places. He has a few things in common with Hoffmann, but in fact he is like no one else.