Italo Calvino Essay - Calvino, Italo (Vol. 11)

Calvino, Italo (Vol. 11)


Calvino, Italo 1923–

Calvino is an Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and editor known for his imaginative blendings of reality and fantasy. His stance is humanistic and his tools are wit, elements of science fiction, and a lyrical tone. His involvement with the Italian resistance movement during World War II is reflected in many of his works. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8.)


Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno … is basically a neo-realistic novel. The work deals specifically with the civil war, yet Calvino did not create it as a piece of polemic literature. He does not appear to glorify the partisan revolt, but simply to present the circumstances of a particular situation. Calvino of Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno is not a resistance writer, but rather a writer of the resistance. He is an author who chose that moment in history as the framework for his narrative. He is a sensitive observer of humanity, whose experience in the partisan movement precipitated specific observations about a period of intense social and political turmoil…. Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno reflects many aspects characteristic of the neo-realistic current, while at the same time revealing a fairytale quality peculiar to the poetics of Calvino. (p. 26)

Calvino brings expression to his material through a language and style which are notably neo-realistic in character. Even a quick reading of the novel will evidence a style characterized by a highly descriptive, colorful language, interspersed with regional expressions and songs, and controlled by the mechanics of simple sentence structure. Although stylized, descriptive passages periodically recur in the work, the narrative as a whole proceeds as a reaction against the bello scrivere. The simple style suggests that Calvino is unhampered by the thought of writing well. Greater emphasis seems to be placed on the narrative than on the style. The situations he is describing are so familiar to him that they appear to flow without the push of a conscious literary effort.

Clipped sentences and phrases tied together by punctuation dominate Calvino's style in this novel. The effect is that produced by the anonymous narrator. Calvino himself affirms in the preface to the third edition of Il Sentiero that the civil war experience had established a directness of communication among men which was extended to the realm of literature. Thus Calvino's fiction in the immediate post-war years often assumed the mood of oral narration. Such a mood finds expression in the rapid flow of sentences in which the syntax is straightforward. (pp. 27-8)

[A clipped, disjointed style such as this] is generally clumsy and anti-literary. But here, as in other instances, Calvino makes such a staccato style serve two purposes. First, the use of short phrases permits him to fuse narrative and psychological reflection in the same paragraph. [For example, the] disjointed statements seem to combine the pattern of Pin's thoughts with the narrative sequence [in the passage describing Pin's reaction to the pistol theft]. The effect is such that Calvino is able to reveal both the action and the young boy's response to the action within the same passage. The reader, finding himself drawn into the mind of the boy, derives a deeper understanding of the sequential nature of his thoughts and sensations. Second, the staccato style serves to create tension within the narrative…. Calvino, under the influence of the neo-realistic current, is apparently more concerned with depicting the reality of a situation and the atmosphere under which it develops than in producing an elegant prose style.

Calvino's language is another element which tends to render the novel a neo-realistic work. The passion of neo-realists to reproduce a particular situation often led to the use of dialect and crude expressions. Such anti-literary language is present in varying degrees within Il Sentiero. (pp. 29-30)

[In] carefully reproducing the reality of a given situation, [the Italian neo-realists] described the unique characteristics of the particular region in Italy where the action was set. (p. 30)

One of the cardinal principles of neo-realistic artists was to draw material directly from life and to reproduce faithfully real situations through traditional methods. (p. 31)

Calvino renders the historical and physical setting of Il Sentiero real by casually presenting incidental data which are highly characteristic of the resistance period in Liguria…. The description of the daily activities of the partisans is … interspersed with references which pinpoint the action to Liguria…. All these references help to define the historical and physical setting of the work, while...

(The entire section is 1812 words.)

John Gatt-Rutter

[Calvino in Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno] creates two noncommunicating levels: the spontaneity of the politically naïve partisans; and the almost cynical calculations of Kim [Calvino's mouthpiece] and of the author himself, who, in their different roles, ordain the ordinary people's destinies for them, impersonating 'History'. The politicized intellectual remains in charge, and the novel remains a picaresque study of 'low life' and adventure seen from above….

Nevertheless, the adventure, the freedom and the comradeship of life in the Resistance stand in qualitative contrast to the constraints of 'normal' social living. This is where play becomes Calvino's most positive, even (unintentionally) revolutionary element. But play appears here as a product of his particular artistic sense, and not of his political consciousness, though Calvino discovers play through life with the Resistance.

This spontaneity in his play is both a strength and a weakness. It accounts for the freshness of Calvino's writing, but also for its failure to develop to its full depth and revolutionary potential. Not the hilarious eruptions and libertarian explosions of Aristophanes and Rabelais, but the more composed and 'hermetic' fantasies of Ariosto and R. L. Stevenson are Calvino's avowed literary nurseries. Calvino admires Lewis Carroll, but has not learnt from the Alice books. The play-element in Calvino is poor in critique, and critique is the dialectical complement to play which is indispensable in a world whose economic, social and political structures are so inimical to the unalienated activity of play. (p. 320)

Naturally, play is bound to be an element in any work of art. Without it the aesthetic sense is inexplicable. But in Calvino it appears not only in a general aesthetic sense, but in specific elements of both content and form. In Il sentiero these elements tend to remain at a more or less trivial level…. But there are hints here and there of greater wealth.

First, Pin's sense of exclusion from the mysterious adult world. This provides at least a germ of critique as a dialectical component in his character. Second, a keen sense of the curiousness of things—mountain and forest landscapes, as well as Pin's spiders and fireflies, the colourful and grotesque variety of human appearance and mannerism…. And third, Calvino's tendency (often remarked upon, not least by himself) to reveal an abstract geometry hidden in relationships of motion…. (pp. 320-21)

The first of these aspects—the mystery of adulthood—has proved an impasse for Calvino, his chief limitation as a writer. The childlike psychology is characteristic of all his narrators or protagonists, whatever their supposed age. This psychology is effective in presenting the incomprehensible world we live in as incomprehensible, and in presenting it both with the crisp and vivid objectivity of an external observer, and with the subjective bewilderment of that same innocent observer. Calvino's 'child' is not, like Alice, a 'wise child' who sees through and corrects adult folly, hypocrisy or bullying. The child's eye in Calvino's stories does not easily detect the all too comprehensible structures that underly the incomprehensible chaos of phenomenal reality, the world of appearances. The omnipotence of money, the property system, the family and female dependence, the dead weight of institutions—these are some of those structures, and Calvino is clearly aware of them not only in his theoretical essays but in his narratives themselves. Yet his stories remain strangely inconsequential, almost indifferent. (p. 321)

From such neutral lines of vision, the wealth of realistic detail which Calvino very skillfully weaves into his narratives remains merely a spectacle: at no point is the very real drama developed or internalized, despite some visually powerful scenes….

The limitations of Calvino's 'naturalism' or 'neo-realism' are therefore limitations of manner, not of matter. The drama is there, but Calvino will not enact it. A far more fruitful probe into a tense reality might have resulted had the author introduced other viewpoints…. As it is, Calvino writes sonatas for a solo instrument which is muted throughout. Each novel falls down somewhere between being a half-hearted satire of feckless and irresponsible middle-class intellectuals and a half-hearted inquiry into the apparatus of our dehumanized modern reality. The best that Calvino manages is the sense of something inexorable….

Calvino's narrative viewpoints will always be childlike: not in the manner of Voltaire's Ingénu, but in the negative sense of someone who does not understand. His narrators are Candides who have no Voltaire to make pointed remarks over their heads. This serves to heighten the sense of horror and estrangement …; but it also trivializes the picture: the incoherence of reality is misrepresented, simplified as the surface 'objectivity' of the childlike observer….

The other two elements we have noticed in Il sentiero—Calvino's visual curiosity (what critics have called his voyeurisme) and the abstract geometry he conjures out of this very same amorphous world of appearances—these two elements can be traced without difficulty throughout Calvino's work, in varying forms and combinations…. [As] statements about the world, visual curiosity and abstract geometry continually risk lapsing into the status of well-turned clichés or facile tricks—unless the visual curiosity and abstract geometry are not merely external effects, but instruments to explore an important theme in a way attempted by no other writer before Calvino. The distinction is between play and child's-play; between play as total and free involvement with experience, and play as idle toying with surface appearances. (p. 322)

[Literary] insights and political insights in Calvino are not, in origin, identical (as they are in Brecht), but forcibly juxtaposed. It is only when Calvino succeeds in deploying the deeper significance of his literary play that it reveals its political significance, not by an arbitrary application of political themes or intentions, but by capturing new aspects of reality.

Where this happens, Calvino produces some of the best short and long stories in a literature whose strongest genre is novellistica. Gli amori difficili (mostly written in the fifties and included in the Racconti of 1958, but republished as a separate volume in 1970) are stories about 'lovers' who never meet. The Euclidean possibilities of this—to Calvino—are almost inexhaustible. The descriptive possibilities offered by the love-object (which can be embodied in, or associated with, a harbourful of folk, a photographic studio, a day at the office, a snow-covered ski-run, or a motorway alive with headlights) are likewise inexhaustible. But Calvino uses these formal possibilities to explore a problem that has many dimensions—physical, psychological, literary, social, perhaps metaphysical. The problem is the taboo against reality—the human reality typified as 'eros'. (p. 323)

The taboo against Eros—like all taboos—is ultimately political: an atavistic social prohibition, internalized by each individual as unconscious repressions or conventions, but reinforced by the churches and the police. These stories of Calvino's show 13 different ways in which this repressed Eros seeks fulfilment (a meeting of human beings as persons) but never meets with more than a fraction of success…. These stories—better than perhaps anything else Calvino has written—are rich in signification at all sorts of levels which nearly always perfectly coincide, and equally rich in the corresponding skills of narrative and suspense.

Certainly, Calvino has here perfected an instrument to penetrate the false rationality of the increasingly acute form of alienation characteristic of the latter twentieth century in one of its relatively affluent sectors—the industrial triangle of northern Italy, from Genoa and its Riviera to Turin and Milan. His 'voyeuristic' description here embodies the intensely desired but never truly possessed reality of people and things. His geometry—parallel or divergent lines, circumferences held away from their centres, planes which never quite...

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Italo Calvino, long recognized in Italy as one of its most prominent contemporary writers, has been for the most part neglected in the United States by all but Italianists…. Calvino's works show a marked progression from the neorealist mode of his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, to the fantastic mode of Cosmicomics, t zero, and The Invisible Cities…. For the latecomer to Calvino's works, a reading of the realistic novels serves as a reminder that the fantastic in Calvino is not a form of escapism, but is grounded in a persistent sociopolitical concern.

In the 1950's, Calvino wrote two short novels, Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City and Smog,...

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