Calvino, Italo (Vol. 22)
Italo Calvino 1923–
Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.
Calvino's first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, reflects his resistance activities during World War II, but his later work increasingly blends reality and fantasy. His innovative novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, is a series of novel fragments within a frame story. This work and others such as Italian Folktales, Calvino's creative rendering of the folklore of Italy, have led to his reputation as one of Italy's most important and versatile modern authors.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
J. R. Woodhouse
[Calvino's] "message" for mankind seems to be to create a society in which the impediments of convention, taboo, inhibition are removed so that the individual can be a contented member of a society of equally contented, uninhibited individuals. Above all, Calvino seems to emphasise the merits of the wholesome, uninhibited individual. (p. 39)
The individual has to develop his own personality. He has to overcome obstacles, satisfy his curiousity about the unknown, and refuse to accept unquestioningly, either the dogma of religion or politics, or the conditioning of social convention. This is the first, the anarchist's step, in the individual's development. It is interesting to examine Il cavaliere inesistente and Il visconte dimezzato, to see how this notion, so basic to Calvino, comes across. In Il cavaliere inesistente, we have two characters, Rambaldo and Torrismondo, who respectively could well illustrate anarchy and socialism…. [They both] find salvation and happiness when they have run the gamut of experience, curiosity and disillusionment. When the conventional façade is removed, they can get down to the business of living. This is where Calvino is so essentially optimistic. Basically, he believes in the ability of man to win through, despite obstacles. He has a faith in the power of human feeling and emotion to overcome what seems to him to be the clap-trap of ideology, religion and bureaucracy. In Il...
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[Calvino's] literary thumbprint is clearly distinguishable right from the start in his first book, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947), and has remained essentially unchanged since then. Perhaps what strikes us first is the adolescent viewpoint of the narrative. The boy protagonist, Pin, knows everything—that men fornicate and kill—but understands nothing…. All Calvino's protagonists are mystified by the world in which they live. This incomprehension of the world appears so regularly in Calvino's narrative works that it comes over as autobiographical—a baffled rationalism which is Calvino's central limitation. He is non-plussed and therefore non-committal…. (p. 47)
The author's thumbprint in Il sentiero shows other features which will recur throughout his work. Two are complementary: a sensory curiosity and a Euclidean geometry. Calvino's curious pen pokes at the amorphous miscellany of the sensory world, natural, human and man-made, dwelling especially on the stickily tactile and visually grotesque…. In subsequent works, Calvino's descriptive curiosity frequently coagulates in his distinctive long panoramic sentences, which sometimes extend for a page or more, taking in a whole harbourful of folk, or a ski-run, a bustling landscape or the whole universe of signs, a great city full of soap-bubbles or the moon's curd-like coating—every detail noted with elegant precision.
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URSULA K. Le GUIN
One of the innumerable delights of Italian Folktales is its mixture of the deeply familiar with the totally unexpected.
Most of the basic "story-types," of which Calvino says there are about 50 represented here, are more or less familiar to members of the English folk/literary tradition. The themes that recur in all Western folktales run through these; we meet the youngest son of the king, the wicked stepmother, the stupid giant, the helpful animals…. But the recombinations of these themes mostly are not familiar. This is much more than Cinderella served up with salsa di pomodoro. The tales are endlessly surprising. And their mood is quite different from the elegance of the French contes, the iconic spendors of Russian skazki, the forest darknesses of German Märchen. Often they resemble British tales of the Joseph Jacobs collections in their dry and zany humor, but they have more sunlight in them. Some are wonderfully beautiful. (pp. 33-4)
Italo Calvino's part in this book is not that of the eminent author condescending to honor a collection of popular tales with an introduction—anything but. Essentially the book is to Italian literature what the Grimms' collection is to German literature. It is both the first and the standard…. [Calvino] used all his skills to bring together the labors of collectors and scholars from all the regions of Italy, to translate the tales out of...
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[From] a very early stage in his career Calvino seeme to have been daunted by geometric compulsions…. The minute details of his plots, the main events of his stories, the structure of his novels, even the most extravagant flights of his imagination are always arranged in a binary literary order. In the first Goyesque chapter of The Cloven Viscount … the massacre is presented in geometric patterns: here the dead horses, there the dead men. The Viscount is cloven by a cannon ball into two Stevensonian halves: the bad one v the good one. The bad half, among other pleasures, delights in orgies of collective hangings, which however present geometrical patterns: ten cats hanging alternate with two human beings. (p. 61)
The Cloven Viscount is the first instalment of a trilogy called Our Ancestors. The second volume, The Baron in the Trees, also follows a neat division of the world. There is a society of people who live on the ground, and a society of people who live on trees, imagined by the hero, Cosimo…. Cosimo has chosen arboreal life for two reasons. He states the first one clearly when asked about his choice of such an uncomfortable abode: 'From the trees I can piss farther.' As for the second reason, it is the obvious appeal for duplication. The specular reflection of life on earth reproduced higher up, among branches and foliage, turns into reality. Cosimo, like Alice, is stepping through the...
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Stylistically [in "Italian Folktales"] the English is everything we would expect in a good translation of such a master as Calvino: colloquial but never corny, plain-spoken, economical, wry and flexible, and sometimes—like the best authentic folk-speech everywhere—stunningly lyrical, capable of turning (as at the end of the first tale, "Dauntless Little John") unexpectedly somber, moving. Even if this impression of the translation's probable accuracy should prove wrong, the book is, I think, impossible to recommend too highly….
It is in part Calvino's happy combination of talents—master storyteller, experienced editor as well as scholar, critic and sometime university lecturer—that makes "Italian Folktales" the superb book it is; and partly, of course, the praise must go to generations of unlettered old Italian women from every district (the origin of each tale is given), the traditional transmitters and sly revisors of the tales. (p. 1)
[While] much of Europe was turning to the folktale in search of cultural roots, both linguistic and, loosely, magical—sunny Catholic Italy treated her tales as simply tales, changing them, localizing them, combining and recombining them more freely than did cultures more soberly concerned about their heritage. One result is that many of the published tales Calvino had as sources were highly conscious, sometimes silly literary elevations of folk material, while others were...
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Like a play within a play, Calvino's [Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore] is both double and dual. Eleven chapters and ten incipits, the beginnings of as many unrelated, interrupted "novels," form one whole. The frame story is about nothing less than "ce vice impuni, la lecture," the pleasure of vicarious experience or of escape offered by the printed page and the many circumstances that contribute to it or stand in its way. In the early chapters we get an almost complete phenomenology of the book as artifact and text as we follow the Reader—the "tu" familiarly addressed by the author—in his acquisition of the book, his settling down to read it, his search for an undamaged copy to take the place of the one with missing pages that has been sold him: a pursuit which takes him to university library and publishing house and leads to his encounter with other readers, from the voracious, instinctive and uncritical Ludmila to her sister, the programmed reading machine Lotaria.
The frame story loses some of its impetus—that wonderful involvement of all readers conscious of their being readers, so similar to that of the theatre audience that sees itself reflected in the fictional audience onstage—when the writer Silas Flannery appears. He is a plagiarist or counterfeiter, suffering from writer's block and obsessed by the identity of a woman he sees stretched out on a deck chair reading miles away below his Alpine refuge. As...
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I must say now that, on finishing [Italian Folktales] (a genuine labour of love, and also a pointer to Calvino's literary aims, which have more to do with the recovery of the folktale than the innovations for which his novels have been praised), I went straight back to Grimm and read it through. Being occasionally bored by the Italian stories, I wondered if the fault was in myself, but I found I was never bored by the Teutonic tales and must conclude that they are superior.
Certainly there is nothing in Calvino's volume which would inspire a new Disney to the expenditure of great ingenuity and much money. The Italian tales seem to have passed already through the alembic of sophisticated minds; they are literature in a way in which the Grimm tales are not. There is some brutality, but nothing on the scale of the German stories (remember the death of the Queen in the Snow White tale: she is made to wear red-hot shoes of iron and dance till she drops). There is an unfolksy elegance, almost a quality of the troubadours, and the medieval legends of chivalry.
We do not find much of the agricultural myth. It is as though the Greco-Roman tales of Demeter and Persephone have already been discarded as insufficiently sophisticated. There is nothing made out of the agonies of winter and the hope that spring will come. But, on the level of the adventures of youths and maidens, transmutations from human to animal and back...
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[Italo Calvino chooses in "If no a Winter's Night a Traveler"] to play a wonderful game. He will make fun of the novel and novelists, the critics of novels and novelists, and the teachers of novels that have been sanctified by critics. He will nod knowingly at Modernism and its preposterous explicators. He will parody bad Germans, dyspeptic Eastern Europeans, the mad librarians of Latin America and even the Japanese…. He will end up, in spite of himself, writing a love story that, in spite of itself, is as complicated as a jigsaw puzzle of the void.
Reference is made to the void, and vertigo, and nothingness, and the chasm, and the abyss. Reference is also made to the Reader, the Other Reader and the Non-Reader….
[One] chapter yields to the next, as each beginning is aborted, as presentiment quarrels with evasion.
So many stories begin, and none of them ends….
Mr. Calvino, an expert on Modernism, enjoys himself in his disdain of the problematical. Each of his chapters may not advance the novel, but the titles of the "suspended" novels add up to a story as pure as a Japanese poem.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times: 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1981, p. 20.
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"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade." With these words, which open his latest novel, Calvino confronts the relationship of the world of fiction to the world of actuality. The rest of his book shows how the fictive imagination interacts with reality and how each is dependent on the other. Calvino takes Descartes a step further: "The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, 'I read, therefore it writes.'" (p. 34)
[In] his stories and such earlier novels as Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities, he moves back and forth between different levels of reality, mixing legend and anecdote, the distant past and the present. Calvino's surrealism works because he nearly always has one foot planted firmly in the world of ordinary human experience. This is the anchor that makes his imaginary flights not only tolerable but entertaining.
In If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino's anchor is the reader addressed in the first sentence. He has bought the book and settles down to read it…. He discovers that the book he is reading is a spoiled copy. The signatures of another book, a Polish novel, have been bound in together with the pages of the Calvino novel. The following day, the reader returns to the bookstore where he bought it, and...
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J. D. O'Hara
[Things get complicated in If on a winter's night a traveler.] Novels keep beginning; before you have finished this book and turned out the light you'll have read eleven of them. (p. 641)
[The] eleven beginnings are not equal in value, though most of them will cause any professional writer to salivate. Jorge Luis Borges plays fine tricks with logic and philosophy, and he has infected Calvino, who here tries to write about ideas instead of with them. But those sections of the story pass quickly.
Calvino's real subject is fiction. The making of it (we see several writers and we read more than a dozen styles) and the reading of it (here he spreads his wings and flies). He can be comic, and he is, but for the most part he is serious, positive, celebratory. The eight readers in the library at the end say fine things about reading, and the reader of these things is properly appreciative. But also a bit dazzled. So many fine things have been said already. Imagine an hour of fireworks…. (pp. 641-42)
Calvino is an untiringly intelligent writer…. If on a winter's night a traveler is written on the [principle of dehydrated ideas]. The Other Reader says many excellent things about her interest in fiction. One hopes that she will say more, every time. But no, Calvino goes on to other pleasures. He even includes a description of his novel in his novel. One notes it, with amusement....
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If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino's version (and anti-version) of the nouveau roman, fits the conditions for "proper art" proposed by Dedalus/Joyce: "The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing." It is a wonderful piece of work, labyrinthine and convoluted, informed by a deadpan humor and pastiches, imitations, and parodies of an entire battery of modern and postmodern literary techniques.
It begins with an almost conventional storyteller's address to the reader: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax…." We immediately see that "Italo Calvino" is somebody other than the author, and as we read, discover that "you" is not the usual foil, the time-honored figure to whom the narrator tells, in the first- or third-person, his story. "You" is the second-person protagonist of the novel, and he is, above all other things, a Reader. What he does, or wants to do, in chapters that detail his adventures, is read. The chapters dealing with "you" alternate with the chapters that he is reading, but through error, carelessness, chance, design, conspiracy, these chapters (10 of them) are not from the same book; they are the first chapters of 10 different books, and each breaks off at the point of crisis or suspense: they are cliff-hangers.
What is Calvino up to? I think that he is doing what the practitioners of the...
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Does an Italian equivalent of Grimms's Fairy Tales exist? Italo Calvino began his research into Italian folktales with that question in mind. When it became clear that there was no "readable master collection of Italian folktales which would be popular in every sense of the word," Calvino himself assumed the work of assembling one. It was a Herculean undertaking. Calvino collated, categorized, and compared "mountains of narratives." His work had two objectives, he tells us, the presentation of every type of folktale documented in Italian dialects and the representation of all regions of Italy. The "scientific" work, the direct transcription of folktales "from the mouths of the people," had already been done by several nineteenth century Italian folklorists. Calvino made his way through their anthologies, looking for the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts. These texts he then edited, enriched with variants, and translated into standard Italian from the various dialects in which they had been recorded. The end result is a collection of two hundred tales arranged in a geographical sequence. (p. 381)
[Calvino] is particularly struck by the many metamorphoses of woman and fruit and woman and tree in Italian folktales, and he points to the narrative power of the metaphorical link in which the image of the fruit evokes that of the woman. Often, however, it seems that the "precise rhythm" and "joyous logic" which he discerns in...
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Architect of scrupulously imagined, apparently fantastic, insidiously plausible words, [Italo Calvino] occupies a literary space somewhere east of Borges and west of Nabokov. (p. 1)
In "If on a winter's night a traveler," he makes one story after another disappear….
Surprise is part of the pleasure of this book, and I won't tell the story of its several failing and successful quests. Let me just say that Ludmilla and the Reader…. [run across] novels of different origins—Japan, Latin America, Belgium, Ireland and three imaginary countries—and that all of these novels are interrupted for one reason or another: a further error of binding, suicide of the author, theft of the book, a sudden arrest.
Some of these books read like delicate parodies…. Others read like eerily filtered descriptions of acts of reading…. (p. 24)
[The] book is both vividly written … and thoroughly aware of "the immensity of the nonwritten," the world not on the page but beyond it, the world the page must point to if we are to care about it….
Calvino also mounts a running attack on various excesses of academic analysis, the rooting about in novels for codes and patterns and structures and problems. Reading is an endangered pleasure, and Calvino wants to give us the pleasure as well as talk about the danger. And yet two things do need to be said.
This book is a...
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