Study Guide

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino Essay - Calvino, Italo (Vol. 5)

Calvino, Italo (Vol. 5)

Calvino, Italo 1923–

A member of the left-wing intelligensia in Italy, Calvino writes novels and short stories, blending reality and fantasy with philosophical and moral undertones.

[Calvino's] first significant work of fiction Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1957) revealed that Calvino was capable of more than just the documentary realism and the ideologically inspired adventure narrative of other Resistance fiction, full of blood, violence, and cruelty. Calvino demonstrated his artistic ingenuity by choosing to depict the civil war in Northern Italy from the viewpoint of an adolescent boy, Pin, who is caught up in the Partisan warfare which sweeps over his village and the surrounding mountains. The essential form of the narrative is in the subtle tension between the grave reality of historical events and a courageous boy's insistence on preserving the poetry, if not the innocence of childhood. Calvino has described the book "as a combination of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Robert Louis Stevenson." The fable quality of narrative atmosphere maintained by Calvino in this novella is his distinguishing characteristic as a story-teller and has been continued and developed in his short stories, I Racconti (1959) and especially in a trilogy of novels; Il visconte dimezzato (1952; The Cloven Viscount, 1962), Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees, 1959), and Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; The Non-existent Knight, 1962).

A strong flavor of chivalric epic characterizes all three works of the trilogy which has been republished in one volume under the general title of I nostri antenati (1960) and it is hardly surprising to learn that Calvino has an intense admiration for the Ferrarese Renaissance poet-narrator Ludovico Ariosto, author of the Orlando furioso. Like his master of the sixteenth century Calvino has sought to utilize a dominant spirit of adventurous fancy to vivify a narrative with a profound moral meaning. Like Ariosto, Calvino does not explicitly insist that his narrative be read within a strict ideological or moral frame of reference; he is content to permit the reader to make whatever interpretation he wishes; and it is indeed possible to read the trilogy without concerning oneself with its philosophical or moral intent. (pp. 161-62)

Calvino has avowed a preference for telling stories about characters who set difficult goals for themselves in life and then work courageously and indefatigably to reach them as part of a search for integrity and wholeness of personality. (pp. 163-64)

The three novels of I nostri antenati represent for Calvino three types of experience in self-realization, in the attainment of true spiritual liberty. The moral significance he has skillfully and delicately built into these tales blending fantasy and objective reality is hardly insistent and they offer simple narrative values with a direct, unintellectual fascination, and appeal. Calvino is an unsophisticated, unpretentious stylist with a gift of simplicity stemming from his deep interest in Italian fable literature. I nostri antenati, by successfully fusing lyric, epic, and comic elements with a discreet moral view of contemporary man, has provided a fresh viewpoint and technique to recent Italian fiction. (pp. 164-65)

Louis Tenenbaum, in Contemporary European Novelists, edited by Siegfried Mandel (copyright © 1968, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of the author), Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Calvino is a distinguished Italian novelist, but he is not at his best in these three stories [The Watchers and Other Stories]. The first was written nearly twenty years ago and the latest in 1963. Two out of the three have nothing in common except that they have been boiled to savorless pulp over a low flame of symbolism, like overcooked vegetables.

[In the] earliest and shortest story, "The Argentine Ant,"… the symbolism is extruded from a grim series of events. A young couple with a baby set up house in a village by the sea, only to find that the whole neighborhood is at the mercy of swarms of ants. Nothing helps. One neighbor invents a complicated mechanism for trapping the ants into suicide. Another is obsessed by heading the ants into one labyrinth after another by putting down this poison and that.

The story reaches no climax. In Calvino's world ants are everywhere. Likewise dirt. The hero of the next story, "Smog," is forever washing his hands, since, for him, ants are replaced by dust. And in the third and longest, which gives the volume its name, a left-wing poll watcher is sent into a section of the city run by the Church in aid of cripples and idiots in order to see that their votes are not misused during an election. The ants here become nun-sized and semi-benevolent. Somebody, after all has to look after the rejects of society, and Calvino, if a man of the Left, is a balanced observer, however pessimistic.

He makes things hard for his readers, however, by a portentous manner expressed in cumbrous paragraphs. In less than two pages there are nine bracketed phrases to muffle attention. And at no point in any of these tales do the characters hold any interest in themselves, except as puppets at the mercy of a thesis. Kafka and glue, in fact.

Alan Pryce-Jones, "Kafka and Glue," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 25, 1971, p. 12.

Calvino's first novel [The Path to the Nest of Spiders] is a plainly told, exuberant sort of book. Although the writing is conventional, there is an odd intensity in the way Calvino sees things, a closeness of scrutiny much like that of William Golding. Like Golding he knows how and when to inhabit entirely, with all senses functioning, landscape, state of mind, act. In The Spire Golding makes the flawed church so real that one smells the mortar, sees the motes of dust, fears for the ill-placed stones. Calvino does the same in his story of Pin….

"Pin is a boy who does not know how to play games, and cannot take part in the games either of children or grownups." Pin dreams, however, of "a friend, a real friend who understands him and whom he can understand, and then to him, and only to him, will he show the place where the spiders have their lairs."… [A] sort of precise, quasi-scientific observation keeps Calvino from the sort of sentimentality that was prevalent in the Forties, when wise children learned compassion from a black mammy as she deep-fried chitlins and Jesus in equal parts south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Pin joins the partisans in the hills above the Ligurian coast. I have a suspicion that Calvino is dreaming all this for he writes like a bookish, nearsighted man who has mislaid his glasses: objects held close … are vividly described but the middle and far distances of landscape and war tend to blur. It makes no difference, however, for the dreams of a near-sighted young man at the beginning of a literary career can be more real to the reader than the busy reportage of those journalist-novelists who were there and, seeing it all, saw nothing.

Although Calvino manages to inhabit the skin of the outraged and outrageous child, his men and women are almost always shadowy. Later in his career, Calvino will eliminate men and women altogether as he re-creates the cosmos. Meanwhile, as a beginner, he is a vivid, if occasionally clumsy, writer…. Calvino's last paragraphs are almost always jubilant—the sort of cheerful codas that only a deep pessimist about human matters could write. (p. 13)

In 1952 Calvino published The Cloven Viscount, one of the three short novels he has since collected under the title Our Ancestors. They are engaging works, written in a style somewhat like that of T. H. White's Arthurian novels. The narrator of The Cloven Viscount is, again, an orphan boy. During a war between Austria and Turkey (1716) the boy's uncle Viscount Medardo was cloven from top to crotch by a cannon ball. Saved by doctors on the battlefield, the half Viscount was sent home with one leg, one arm, one eye, half a nose, mouth, etc….

The story is cheerfully, briskly told. The Half Viscount is a perfect bastard and takes pleasure in murder, fire, torture….

I note that the publisher's blurb would have us believe that this is "an allegory of modern man—alienated and mutilated—this novel has profound overtones. As a parody of the Christian parables of good and evil, it is both witty and refreshing." Well, at least the book is witty and refreshing. Actually the story is less Christian than a send-up of Plato and his idea of the whole.

In due course the other half of the Viscount hits town; this half is unbearably good and deeply boring…. When the two halves are finally united, the resulting whole Viscount is the usual not very interesting human mixture. In a happy ending, he marries Pamela. But the boy narrator is not content. "Amid all this fervor of wholeness, [I] felt myself growing sadder and more lacking. Sometimes one who thinks himself incomplete is merely young."

The Cloven Viscount is filed with many closely observed natural images like "The subsoil was so full of ants that a hand put down anywhere came up all black and swarming with them." I don't know which was written first, The Cloven Viscount (1952) or "The Argentine Ant," published in Botteghe Oscure (1952), but Calvino's nightmare of an ant-infested world touched on in the novel becomes the subject of "The Argentine Ant" and I fear that I must now trot out that so often misused word "masterpiece." Or, put another way, if "The Argentine Ant" is not a masterpiece of twentieth-century prose writing, I cannot think of anything better. Certainly it is as minatory and strange as anything by Kafka. It is also hideously funny. In some forty pages Calvino gives us "the human condition," as the blurb writers would say, in spades. That is, the human condition today. Or the dilemma of modern man. Or the disrupted environment. Or nature's revenge. Or an allegory of grace. Whatever…. But a story is, finally, what it tells and no more. (p. 14)

Calvino has now developed two ways of writing. One is literally fabulous. The other makes use of a dry rather didactic style in which the detail is as precisely observed as if the author were writing a manual for the construction of a solar heating unit. Yet the premises of the "dry" stories are often quite as fantastic as those of the fairy tales. (p. 15)

Most realistic and specific of Calvino's works, "The Watcher" has proved (to date) to be the last of the "dry" narratives. In 1965 Calvino published Cosmicomics: twelve brief stories dealing in a fantastic way with the creation of the universe, man, society…. Calvino has deployed his complex prose in order to compose in words a super strip cartoon narrated by Qfwfq whose progress from life inside the first atom to mollusk on the earth's sea floor to social-climbing amphibian to dinosaur to moon-farmer is told in a dozen episodes that are entirely unlike anything that anyone else has written since, perhaps, Lucian. (p. 17)

In 1967, Calvino published more of Qfwfq's adventures in Time and the Hunter [published in America as t zero]. For the most part they are engaging cartoons, but one is disconcerted to encounter altogether too many bits of Sarraute, of Robbe-Grillet, of Borges (far too much of Borges) incorporated in the prose of what I have come to regard as a true modern master…. On page 6 occurs "viscous"; on page 11 "acid mucus." I started to feel queasy: these are Sarraute words. I decided that their use was simply a matter of coincidence. But when, on page 29, I saw the dread word "magma" I knew that Calvino has been too long in Paris, for only Sarrautistes use "magma," a word the great theoretician of the old New Novel so arbitrarily and uniquely appropriated from the discipline of science. Elsewhere in the stories, Robbe-Grillet's technique of recording the minutiae of a banal situation stops cold some of Calvino's best effects.

"The Chase," in fact, could have been written by Robbe-Grillet. This is not a compliment….

On his own and at his best, Calvino does what very few writers can do: he describes imaginary worlds with the most extraordinary precision and beauty (a word he has single-handedly removed from that sphere of suspicion which the old New Novelists used to maintain surrounds all words and any narrative). (p. 19)

In Cosmicomics Calvino makes it possible for the reader to inhabit a meson, a mollusk, a dinosaur—makes him see for the first time light as it ends the dark universe. Since this is a unique gift, I find all the more alarming the "literariness" of Time and the Hunter. I was particularly put off by the central story "t zero," which could have been written (and rather better) by Borges….

Calvino ends these tales with his own "The Count of Monte Cristo." The problem he sets himself is how to get out of Château d'If. Faria keeps making plans and tunneling his way through an endless, exitless fortress. Dantès, on the other hand, broods on the nature of the fortress as well as on the various drafts of the novel that Dumas is writing. In some drafts, Dantès will escape and find a treasure and get revenge on his enemies. In other drafts, he suffers a different fate. The narrator contemplates the possibilities of escape by considering the way a fortress (or a work of art) is made. "To plan a book—or an escape—the first thing to know is what to exclude." This particular story is Borges at his very best and, taking into account the essential unity of the multiplicity of all things, one cannot rule out that Calvino's version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is indeed the finest achievement of Jorge Luis Borges imagined by Italo Calvino.

Calvino's seventh and latest novel (or work or meditation or poem) Invisible Cities is perhaps his most beautiful work. In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo—Tartar emperor and Venetian traveler. The mood is sunset. Prospero is holding up for the last time his magic wand: Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire, of his cities, of himself.

Marco Polo, however, diverts the emperor with tales of cities that he has seen within the empire and Kublai Khan listens, searches for a pattern in Marco Polo's Cities and memory, Cities and desire, Cities and signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and eyes, Cities and names, Cities and the dead, Cities and the sky, Continuous Cities, Hidden Cities. The emperor soon determines that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

Marco Polo agrees: "'Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,' Polo said." (So does Borges, repeatedly!) "'Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.'" Again the theme of multiplicity and wholeness, "when every city," as Calvino wrote at the end of "The Watcher," "is the City."

Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant. I shall spare myself the labor; noting, however, that something wise has begun to enter the Calvino canon. The artist seems to have made a peace with the tension between man's idea of the many and of the one. He could now, if he wanted, stop.

Yet Calvino is obliged to go on writing just as his Marco Polo goes on traveling. (p. 20)

During the last quarter century Italo Calvino has advanced far beyond his American and English contemporaries. As they continue to look for the place where the spiders make their nests, Calvino has not only found that special place but learned how himself to make fantastic webs of prose to which all things adhere. In fact, reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One. (p. 21)

Gore Vidal, "Fabulous Calvino," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 NYREV, Inc.), May 30, 1974, pp. 13-21.

"Invisible Cities" is a … book by Italy's most original storyteller, Italo Calvino. But this time not a book of stories. Something more.

In "Cosmicomics" Calvino found a way to make fables out of evolution. The fables emerged like elemental anecdotes from opening hypotheses, and the biology, the physics, the astronomy, were much more knowledgeable than Calvino the entertainer let them seem. But in "t zero" (which in my opinion was one of the most important works of fiction published during the sixties), Calvino accepted his scientific subject matter less whimsically. He deepened and complicated his vision and voices. He moved into mathematics. He imagined what it might feel like when a one-celled self divides.

In his earlier historical romances that theme of growth had been seen through a kind of uncertain satirical fancy. A young baron takes to the trees in protest against society, and stays there to become an arboreal amphibian, a rebel mutant. A young viscount goes away to war only to be blown apart; his nasty half returns home like some subversion of himself but at long last is rejoined to his long lost good half.

Recently, in "Smog" and in two of the "t zero" stories, Calvino has turned the precise play of his mind upon separations and isolations in urban life. And now, in "Invisible Cities," he has transmuted his themes into something new.

The wonderful phenomena of "Invisible Cities" are seen as through some unfolding nuclear kaleidoscope. Past and future possibility grow out of the prison of an "unlivable present, where all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume."

These words … are spoken by an imaginary Kublai Khan, old and pessimistic, for one of the book's two interleaved narratives is his curious, elegiac conversation with his employe, the Venetian traveler Marco Polo. The second narrative—which fills the book's main spaces and makes it not so much a parody of the 13th-century "Travels" as an alternative meditation—is what Marco brings the Khan: an account of fifty-odd cities Marco has visited….

Calvino's twin narratives lean toward and away from each other. The cities, for all their distilled form, represent Mass. The intermittent conversation between the Khan and Marco Polo is Form; it is the will to simplify; it is also a dialogue between the imperial will to impose and possess and the power to rest in the contemplation of multiplicity. (p. 35)

[Though] each city has its special quality, Calvino's gazetteer is elusive, for it embraces perverse paradoxes and sequences within sequences. We are warned not to confuse cities with the words used to describe them; yet we are told that falsehood is not in words but in things. Cities of Signs touch Cities of Memory. The voluptuous Trading City Chloe, where strangers (like figures out of Robbe-Grillet's "La Maison des Rendezvous") consummate strange intimacies in silence, may remind us of that Hidden City of sadness, Raissa, "where runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another … unravels … draws new patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence."

Calvino's elusiveness comes also from the honesty with which he develops his series. "Invisible Cities" is an elegy, autumnal and melancholy. Cities do move more and more toward failure…. But the reader finds something more interesting here than decline and fall. Even the cities that exhibit delusion and degeneration remain the possibilities from which, as Marco tells the Khan, any crystal-perfect community whose molecular form the Khan dreams of must in part be calculated. (pp. 35-6)

I remember those closing stories of "t zero" in which the mind makes new space within patterns of imprisonment, and does so in speculations that accept analysis and technology not simply as the enemy but as models and targets of intense and vital attention. For I believe it is some such space that Calvino has created for his archetypal communities.

If they are forms, they are also like signals condensing in themselves power that awaits its translation into form. And Calvino's book is like no other I know. (p. 36)

Joseph McElroy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 17, 1974.

When we dream of a house, we are dreaming about ourselves. And perhaps, when we dream of cities, it is always Venice we see: magical, unbelievable, its invisible foundations buried in the water, and the painted skies inside the buildings more real than the sky over the lagoon. As with a dream, the fragments are huddled and disconnected, and there is no sense of time or space between them, although at the end of the day, feet are exhausted and eyes are sore. The different components cannot be described in detail. The whole is a great deal more than the sum of the parts….

Invisible Cities is an extraordinary collection, a Baedeker of the imagination. The cities correspond to psychological states and historical states, possibilities and transformations, like the million interchanges in the brain in response to the message from the eye. (p. 253)

Emma Tennant, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Emma Tennant), February 20, 1975.

Invisible Cities is the poetical notebook of Marco Polo. You might think that there was nothing left to say about Marco Polo, and you would be right. There is a hole right through the middle of this novel, and it lies within the narrator himself who has his circumference everywhere and his centre nowhere. Polo is describing the cities of his travels to the great Khan, and his narrative is arranged as a series of short episodes, with titles like 'Cities and Memory' or 'Cities and Desire' which might mean everything or nothing. They mean nothing. Sr Calvino can employ his conceits as prettily as Borges, to whom he has more than a passing resemblance, but his narrative is written in a relentlessly present tense, with that singleness of mood and emphasis which is the sure sign of an over-developed and under-equipped imagination. There are also some odd anachronisms as "aluminum" (this is known as American sic), "radar" and "overpass" clatter through the narrative. But it is no doubt meant to be timeless.

The city of Zaira, for example, consists solely of "relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past"; you will recognise here a trace of a 'sixties cult which was known, if I remember rightly, as 'semiology', and Invisible Cities is concerned with the signs and the systems of signs which make up what sociologists call the 'modern city'. But academic generalities always have a gaggle of simple and boring moral judgements behind them, and this book is no exception: Sr Calvino tells us, for example, that we can only understand the past by travelling ever onward, that existence "in all of its moments is all of itself", and that you must give form to your desires in order to master them—a somewhat shaky ground on which to build his particular Tower of Babel. But Invisible Cities is not completely spurious. Sr Calvino has an unconventional imagination which concentrates upon clusters of objects, upon what is small, hard and visible, and in this way he can substantiate some of the more weightless hopes and anxieties which rarely find a local habitation, let alone a name. His imagination only becomes flaccid when it loses specificity, and retreats into sentimental surrealism. (pp. 214-15)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 22, 1975.

Like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, Italo Calvino dreams perfect dreams for us; the fantasy of these three Latins ranges beyond the egoism that truncates and anguishingly turns inward the fables of Kafka and that limits the kaleidoscopic visions of Nabokov. Of the three, Calvino is the sunniest, the most variously and benignly curious about the human truth as it comes embedded in its animal, vegetable, historical, and cosmic contexts; all his investigations spiral in upon the central question of How shall we live? In "Invisible Cities" …, he has produced a consummate book, both crystalline and limpid, adamant and airy, intricate and ingenuous, playful yet "worked" with a monkish care upon materials of great imaginative density and resonance. The book, a sheaf of imaginary cities, combines the slightly brittle and programmatic science fiction of "Cosmicomics" and "t zero" with affectionate mood and elegiac landscapes of his earlier, more naturalistic stories. (p. 137)

Beneath Calvino's tireless shimmer of fancy, his concern over how men live together has carried into our minds…. Led to read on by the fascination of the details and the grave beauty of the prose, we find the civic ideal unfolding within us—the same ideal that underlay Calvino's most autobiographical short story, "The Watcher" (1963)….

The indirectional, transactional method of "Invisible Cities" is the opposite of that of "Cosmicomics," which announces its idea at the outset—suppose human personalities to be present amid the geological and galactic events modern science describes—and then, more or less amusingly, but a trifle mechanically, executes it. The idea of "Invisible Cities" is not announced; it gradually dawns. (p. 138)

John Updike, "Metropolises of the Mind," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 24, 1975, pp. 137-40.