Tag Archives: novel

Phi Fic #17 “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. –Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a novel about a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino’s fragmentary study of urban images is composed of brief prose poems, structured as the traveler’s report on the emperor’s expanding empire. And even deeper than that, it becomes a question of whether Polo is creating his reports from his imagination or merely describing his native city, Venice. A tapestry of discussion weaves throughout Polo’s poems tying in ruminations on stories, linguistics, and human nature.

…the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping… something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene…. –Invisible Cities

Join us as we discuss this beautiful novel, as Cezary notes of Calvino’s distortions, “that in an exact description there is a destruction of the thing described…[that] in leaving space for the reader to chart out what they’re thinking is [his] goal In a work like this,” and Nathan’s reflection that “there’s a reality here but it’s also something spiritual or emotional… I love this style of writing because of what it makes you feel and understand,” while Mary observes that “in describing the relationship with a city as a love affair, it gives it a sense of urgency and closeness,” and Laura wonders if this novel falls into the postmodern construct of eliminating the artist from the work.

*Note: Mary had to leave early to fight a cold and Daniel was absent this time, reprogramming the internet.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for the music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #13 “The House of the Dead” by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Our reading this month is The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a semi-autobiographical novel about life in a Siberian labor camp. Dostoevsky was sent there after being convicted for his connection with the Petrashevsky Circle, where Western philosophy and literature were discussed, which was deemed subversive by Tsar Nicholas I.

Told through the eyes of Aleksander Petrovich Goryanchikov, convicted of murdering his wife, Dostoevsky paints the world of the camp through the prisoners. He pulls us into the horror the inmates suffer within their souls:

No man lives, or can live, without having some object in view, and without making efforts to attain that object. But when there is no such object and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, the remission of our confinement and hard labor. —The House of the Dead

We discuss this fascinating “early prison literature,” and explore (i.e., veer off into) the role of crime and moral breakdown in society. Mary expresses concern about the loss of hope, and Laura about the inescapable human condition. Daniel admires Dostoevsky’s psychological sense, and Nathan notes that the prisoners are “broken in time by the larger swarm of the State.” And poignantly, Cezary finds Dostoevsky’s words hold hints of Nietzsche, with our laws having buckets of blood behind them.

Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications in which we so delight. Reality tends to infinite subdivision of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. —The House of the Dead

This is one of our earlier discussions, so there are a few sound issues. Many thanks to Tyler Hislop and Laura for their editing magic!

You are welcome to contact us at phificpodcast@gmail.com with any recommendations, thoughts, or what have you. Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

Phi Fic #11 “The Body Artist” by Don DeLillo


Grief. Is it mourning loss or is it mourning change?

Our book this time is The Body Artist by Don Delillo, an absorbing look at Lauren, a performance artist, and her experience of overwhelming loss when her husband commits suicide. We reflect on her travels through the murky struggle, accompanied by a strange young man (“Mr. Tuttle,” whom she names after discovers him hiding in her rental home), which culminate in an elaborate performance piece.

Past, present, and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping. But not if you are him. This is a man who remembers the future. Don’t touch it. I’ll clean it up later. —The Body Artist: A Novel

Join us as Daniel muses about the body and art; what Lauren notices and what she fabricates. Nathan discusses the meta-ghosts in the room that still haunt her, Laura wonders if Mr. Tuttle is a manifestation of grief, and Cezary touches on the idea of significance—a key concept in this book—and how order and duration of the moments are crucial in the book’s opening scene of Lauren and her husband at breakfast, their final moments together. And Mary reminds us, “[in life] we’re all just renters, with pretty damned short leases.”

For further reading: Point Omega, White Noise, and Zero K by Don DeLillo, also, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (a friend to DeLillo).

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

You can see a film adaptation of the novel, The Body Artist…

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… but, you ought to read the book.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #10 “The Fall” by Albert Camus

Camus writes about similarities in Amsterdam and Dante’s “Hell” in The Fall.

We discuss the novel about what you do when you’re “called” and how you live afterward. You can listen along while Cezary, Daniel, Laura, Mary, and Nathan discuss The Fall by Albert Camus, which Sartre claimed was “perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood” of Camus’s books.

We get to know Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a renowned and successful Parisian attorney, as he tells his life story to a stranger in a cafe in Amsterdam. Clamence’s tale reveals the wrenching horror of his “fall” from grace, precipitated by an egregious act of neglect.

Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object.

Camus forces us to consider complex questions about absolution and forgiveness within the existential landscape, which Cezary moans is grueling, while Daniel wonders, if we look in the mirror and confess our own fallibility, does that give us the right to judge others? Laura coyly follows with her sentiment: So, if we say we suck, we can tell others they suck? Mary laments that most people don’t seem to give themselves a break for their own animal natures while Nathan highlights Clamence’s struggle with survivor’s guilt. There is also a stolen masterpiece, existential crises, allusions to Dante’s infernal rings of hell in Amsterdam, an enchanting narration, and a surprise purpose behind Jean-Baptiste’s confession.

I choose the features we have in common, the experiences we have endured together, the failings we share—good form, in other words, the man of the hour as he is rife in me and in others. With all that I construct a portrait which is the image of all and of no one. A mask, in short, rather like those carnival masks which are both lifelike and stylized, so that they make people say: ‘Why, surely I’ve met him!’ When the portrait is finished, as it is this evening I show it with great sorrow: ‘This alas is what I am!’ The prosecutor’s charge is finished. But at the same time the portrait I hold out to my contemporaries becomes a mirror.

Here are a few takeaways: chill out in traffic jams, call your friends more often, and maybe reach out to a sad stranger because you might be able to help. Or, failing all that, head to the bar.

If you have any recommendations for books, comments, or questions, we’d like to hear from you, our email is phificpodcast@gmail.com. We hope you enjoy the talk.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.

Phi Fic #5 “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

So, you think Lolita was Nabokov’s best? We humbly submit a solid contender. Cezary, in his wisdom, suggested the book for this episode: Pale Fire. Structured as a 999-line poem followed by an extensive afterword and index, Pale Fire has been described by the critic Harold Bloom as “the surest demonstration of [Nabokov’s] genius…”

Join us as Cezary kicks it off with an excellent overview, and Nathan connects the mystery of the main character Charles Kinbote with the disorder of Batman’s Joker and how the anarchy of each of them belies their world order. The rest of us—Mary, Daniel and Laura—just sort of “ooh” and “ahh” about the beauty and sheer poetry of what has been called not just one of the top 100 English-language novels of all time but, according to the critic Larry MaCaffery, perhaps the number one.

Buy the book.

Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.