Calvino’s reputation as a master storyteller and innovative writer rests primarily on his success in fusing the traditional and original, the magical and mundane, the grotesque and ineffable—elements that are disparate, even contradictory. Generally, this literary alchemy is seen in two basic ways: If the story relates something real, Calvino will introduce magical or fantastic elements; if it describes the incredible or imaginary, he will present it in a nonchalantly realistic manner.
Because of the intricate interrelationship of the actual and the imaginary in his work, Calvino is considered both a realist and a fantasist. His brand of realism, however, is best described as neorealistic. Like realism and naturalism, neorealism depicts the world in an unidealized, concrete manner. Unlike these other literary genres, neorealism does not do so in order to present an impartial picture of reality; rather, it seeks to communicate a particular experience of that reality. Neorealism achieves this effect by revealing the elusive, intangible aspects of experience—the psychological, symbolic, or metaphysical dimensions, for example—residing within the physical and actual.
Calvino’s imaginative perception of the real world is complemented by his rational interpretation of the fantastic. As he observes in an essay from Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societa (1980; The Uses of Literature, 1986):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.
Calvino refers frequently to the crystal to describe his own way of thinking and writing. In Sulla fiaba (1988; Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988), a collection of lectures that he was preparing at the time of his death, he remarks that the precision and geometric faceting of the crystal, and its ability to refract light, are what make it, for him, a model of perfection and an emblem of his work. In his writing, Calvino mimics the crystal’s rationality, symmetry, and ability to combine endlessly in order to explore all the possible variations and alternatives of a given idea or argument. For him, the possible is as important as the real.
The “crystalline” features of Calvino’s fiction are especially pronounced in works from his Parisian years. The complex permutations in t zero, the multiplicity of phenomena and interpretation in Invisible Cities, and the intricately woven interrelationships of characters, events, images, and ideas in The Castle of Crossed Destinies are clearly analogous to the faceted structure and systematic self-organization of crystals. Simultaneously rational and organic, this system offers Calvino a satisfying intellectual and artistic means of expressing and illuminating the entanglements of human life within an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.
The crystal’s almost magical relationship with light is another significant quality. Applied to Calvino’s fiction, lightness—one of the literary values he admired and discusses in Six Memos for the Next Millennium—suggests luminosity, elucidation, and weightlessness. Luminosity refers to visibility, or the exactness of Calvino’s images. After observing that his stories generally grow out of an image or visualized concept, Calvino affirms that the visual image is “a way of attaining knowledge of the most profound meaning.” In order to arrive at that meaning, he uses a procedure that strives to unite spontaneously generated images with the sequential logic of discursive thought. That is, in order to interpret images into words and then mold them into a narrative, he synthesizes intuition and reason, spontaneity and calculation, fantasy and fact.
Calvino’s talent for elucidating contemporary reality often finds paradoxical expression in his historical novels. He sometimes takes a remarkable event as his departure point, such as Italian merchant Marco Polo’s thirteenth century visit to Mongol emperor Kublai Khan’s court in Invisible Cities, and interprets it in an original manner, which sheds light on contemporary issues. He also uses the literature of the past, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) and Miguel de Cervantes’s satiric novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620), for example, to inspire and form his modern visions.
Calvino’s respect for the past and for literary tradition rarely translates into mere imitation. In Cosmicomics and t zero, for example, he reverses the usual premise of the historical novel: Instead of using the past as a means for understanding the present, and instead of evoking a real, specific time and place from history, he employs modern scientific theories to fashion a fantastic, impossible past. This reconstruction achieves its unity through its first-person narrator, Qfwfq, an ageless, protean being who describes the formation of the cosmos, the evolution of life, and the perplexities of consciousness. With Qfwfq, Calvino not only gives abstract ideas, such as time and space, a narrative form, but, more importantly, elucidates important questions about the character of existence and the essence of being human.
It is this last question that raises the idea of light as weightlessness; while the tone of his work is accurately described as “light,” it can hardly be called frivolous. This quality he prefers to characterize as a buoyant thoughtfulness adopted to ease thedesperate and all-pervading oppression . . . in a human condition common to us all. . . . Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness . . . I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. . . . I look to ~~[literature and] science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears.
Literature for Calvino is thus not a body of traditions or a special, artistic way of using words; it is rather “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.” This search not only expresses humankind’s existential needs but also affirms people’s distinctly human values.
The Cloven Viscount
First published: Il visconte dimezzato, 1952 (English translation, 1962)
Type of work: Novella
Split lengthwise by a cannonball, Medardo’s good and evil halves generate various kinds of conflict, try to destroy each other, and are finally reunited.
The Cloven Viscount was rereleased in 1960 as part of the trilogy I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors, 1980). Although the three novellas have no specifics in common, they are nonetheless connected by their similar exploration of concepts illuminating contemporary...
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