BOOKS: A guide to never-ending artichokes

Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino Cape pounds 16.99 The Story Begins by Amos Oz Chatto pounds 12.99
`The millennium which is about to end has been the millennium of the novel," writes Italo Calvino at the close of his essay on Tirant lo Blanc, the masterpiece of medieval Spanish literature, penned when the millennium was still a toddler. If the maestro of postmodern fiction is right, there could scarcely be a better time to take stock of the treasures that the novel has bequeathed to the fiction of the future. And, as The Story Begins and Why Read the Classics? testify, there could be few writers better equipped for that task than Messrs Oz and Calvino.

For Amos Oz, the secret of the narrator's art lies in the way the hook is baited right at the start to reel the reader in. "Beginning to tell a story," he suggests, "is like making a pass at a total stranger in a restaurant", with all the risks of brusque rebuff such temerity entails. If the seduction of the reader is to succeed, the trap must be sprung in the first few pages, by whatever fair or foul means come to hand. To prove his point, Oz treats us to a master class in commencing, analysing with exquisite precision the ruses to which 10 major writers resort in order to arrest our attention.

All the opening gambits he examines belong to narratives of the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from Gogol's nightmarish "The Nose" to Raymond Carver's vignette "Nobody Said Anything". By tackling novels as diverse as Fontane's Effi Briest and Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, and authors as incongruous as Kafka, Chekhov and Elsa Morante, Oz provides ample evidence to support the caveat with which he concludes: "The game of reading requires you, the reader, to take an active part, to bring to the field your own life experience and your own innocence, as well as caution and cunning."

Apart from a nostalgic glance at the seductive overture of Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma, "the best novel ever written", Calvino betrays no sign of sharing Oz's fascination for the craft of inception. The imagination of Oz is in thrall to an economy of containment: what he admires in the opening paragraph of Effi Briest is the way it encapsulates the tragic mood and trajectory of the entire novel; what delights him about Chekhov's wonderful tale "Rothschild's Fiddle" is the way the final page forces the reader to correct the misconceptions planted in the title, snapping the tale shut like a box. For Calvino, by contrast, as anyone who has read his work might suspect, the hallmark of the greatest literature is its infinite exfoliation of meaning, its refusal to start or stop anywhere.

Calvino's pantheon of classics is admirably idiosyncratic. At its centre stands the illustrious dynasty of novelists from whom he learned his trade: Defoe, Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Twain, James, Stevenson, Conrad and Hemingway. It is rarely their acknowledged masterpieces, however, that attract his homage. The essay on Flaubert sidesteps Madame Bovary to salute Trois Contes, while Tolstoy's tale of "Two Hussars" steals the limelight normally hogged by War and Peace. Special shrines are naturally reserved for the two eccentric fabulists to whom the author of Invisible Cities and Marcovaldo owes a more direct debt: Borges and Queneau. But there are niches enough to accommodate a host of less predictable authors and works as well, including Xenophon's Anabasis, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Diderot's Jacques le Fataliste and the poetry of Francis Ponge.

What Calvino values in the works that constitute his personal canon are the virtues that distinguish his own books and mark them out as modern classics: compression, lightness of touch, rapidity of movement, exact visualisation, and the inexhaustible reserves of implication that allow the work to reinvent itself with every reading. Whether these qualities will turn out to be the features of fiction most prized by writers and readers in the next millennium remains to be seen. If they do, Calvino's demand that literature should resemble nothing so much as his favourite vegetable will strike no one as unreasonable: `What counts for us in a work of literature is the possibility of being able to continue to unpeel it like a never-ending artichoke, discovering more and more new dimensions in reading.'

The sheer love of reading and a loathing of the kind of criticism that kills the love of reading in the cradle are the banners round which both these books rally. Amos Oz describes The Story Begins as "the introduction to a course in slow reading: the pleasures of reading, like other delights, should be consumed in small sips". They should indeed, concurs Calvino, since without the intense concentration that complex fiction demands, it is impossible to savour the details in which alone, he believes, the truth of the work can be found. Without patient rereading how could one learn to discern, for example, the poetry concealed in Crusoe's inventory of his shipmates' remains: "as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows"?

Oz and Calvino rightly lament the fact that close reading has become a dying art in today's classrooms and seminars, where the critic has usurped the author as the principal object of attention. Calvino's expostulation on this pretty pass ought to be read very closely indeed by teachers of literature everywhere: "Schools and universities should hammer home the idea that no book which discusses another book can ever say more than the original book under discussion; yet they actually do everything to make students believe the opposite. There is a reversal of values here which is very widespread, which means that the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used like a smokescreen to conceal what the text has to say and what it can only say if it is left to speak without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text itself."