Quickness

From the chapter “Quickness”, in Italo Calvino’s excellent Six Memos For the Next Millenium.

The novella is a horse, a means of transport with its own pace, a trot or a gallop according to the distance and the ground it has to travel over; but the speed Boccaccio is talking about is a mental speed. The listed defects of the clumsy storyteller are above all offenses against rhythm, as well as being defects of style, because he does not use the expressions appropriate either to the characters or to the events. In other words, even correctness of style is a question of quick adjustment, of agility of both thought and expression.

The horse as an emblem of speed, even speed of the mind, runs through the whole history of literature, heralding the entire problematics of our own technological viewpoint. The age of speed, in transport as in information, opens with one of the finest essays in English literature, Thomas De Quincey’s “The English Mail-Coach.” In 1849 he already understood everything we now know about the motorized highway world, including death-dealing high-speed crashes.

In the section called “The Vision of Sudden Death,” De Quincey describes a night journey on the box of an express mail coach with a gigantic coachman who is fast asleep. The technical perfection of the vehicle, and the transformation of the driver into a blind inanimate object, puts the traveler at the mercy of the mechanical inexorability of a machine. In the clarity of perception brought on by a dose of laudanum, De Quincey becomes aware that the horses are running uncontrollably at thirteen miles an hour on the wrong side of the road. This means certain disaster, not for the swift, sturdy mail coach but for the first unfortunate carriage to come along that road in the opposite direction. In fact, at the end of the straight, tree-lined avenue, which looks like a “Gothic aisle,” he sees a “frail reedy gig” in which a young couple are approaching at one mile an hour. “Between them and eternity, to all human calculation, there is but a minute and a-half.” De Quincey gives a shout: “Mine had been the first step; the second was for the young man; the third was for God.” The account of these few seconds has not been bettered even in an age in which the experience of high speeds has become a basic fact of life.

De Quincey succeeds in conveying a sense of an extremely short period of time that nonetheless contains both the calculation of the technical inevitability of the crash and the imponderable— God’s part in the matter—in virtue of which the two vehicles do not collide.

An excerpt from “Pacific Distances”, in Joan Didion’s excellent After Henry.

A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease. There is about hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness. Conventional information is missing. Context clues are missing.

Such tranced hours are, for many people who live in Los Angeles, the dead center of being there, but there is nothing in them to encourage the normal impulse toward “recognition”, or narrative connection.

There are, in the pages of the Los Angeles newspapers, no Crack Queens, no Coma Moms or Terror Tots. Events may be lurid, but are rarely personalized.

A Redondo Beach woman apologized to her 7-year-old daughter, then apparently tried to take both their lives by driving over a cliff in the Malibu area Tuesday morning, authourities said. The mother, identified by the county coroner’s office as Susan Sinclaie, 29, was killed, but the child survived without serious injury. “I’m sorry I have to do this,” the woman is quoted as telling the child just before she suddenly swerved off Malibu Canyon Road, about 2 1/2 miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.

When I first moved to Los Angeles from New York, in 1964, I found the absence of narrative a deprivation. At the end of ten years I realized (quite suddenly alone one morning in a car) that I had come to find narrative sentimental.

Again, Calvino:

If during a certain period of my career as a writer I was attracted by folktales and fairytales, this was not the result of loyalty to an ethnic tradition (seeing that my roots are planted in an entirely modern and cosmopolitan Italy), nor the result of nostalgia for things I read as a child (in my family, a child could read only educational books, particularly those with some scientific basis). It was rather because of my interest in style and structure, in the economy, rhythm, and hard logic with which they are told.

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