Spanning some forty years, Italo Calvino’s literary production includes highly diverse novels, adaptations, translations, edited texts, critical essays, newspaper articles, and lectures. Calvino selected some of these latter essays for inclusion in Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societa (1980; The Uses of Literature, 1986). After his death, his wife collected essays that he had been preparing for the 1985-1986 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The five lectures in Sulla fiaba (1988; Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988, the sixth apparently never written) explore the distinctive values that Calvino believed literature alone imparts to humanity as it faces a dubious future. (The sixth lecture, on consistency, was apparently never written.)
An innovative traditionalist, Calvino imaginatively fuses the two major modes of fiction—realism and fantasy—by using both poetic association and scientific reasoning. As he observed in 1970:What is at the heart of narration for me is not the explanation of a strange fact, but the order of things this extraordinary fact or event develops in and around itself , the network of images deposited around it, as in the formation of a crystal.
While best known for this crystalline blend of mundane and magical, of logical and impossible, Calvino is also a critically acclaimed realist and master fabulist. His first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, 1957, 1965; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956), a boy’s wartime experiences narrated in neorealistic manner, won the Premio Riccione, while in 1972, he received the Premio Feltrinelli per la Narrativa—Italy’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize—for the historical fantasy, Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974). I racconti (short stories) won the prestigious Bagutta Prize in 1958.
Italo Calvino (kahl-VEE-noh) was known to the Italian reading public as a novelist, but internationally he was often associated with his tales and stories. In the comprehensive and critically acclaimed Fiabe italiane: Raccolte della tradizione popolare durante gli ultimi cento anni e transcritte in lingua dai vari dialetti (1956; partially translated as Italian Fables, 1959, and completed as Italian Folktales, 1980), he collected and transcribed tales and fables from the various Italian dialects. Influenced by the Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales (1946) and by structuralist theory in general, Calvino made it his scholarly objective to represent every morphological type of Italian folktale as well as every region of the country. His academic study of these stories confirmed in theory what he had already discovered in practice: the power of fantasy to signify, to reflect the real world. The work also influenced his subsequent approach tonarrative through variable combinations of component forms and archetypes.
Calvino’s most widely known short-story collections are the science-fiction fantasies Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) and Ti con zero (1967; t zero, 1969). Unlike most science fiction, which tends to be futuristic or anti-utopian, these stories envision, in intense and sharp detail, the remote past before the universe of...
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If Italo Calvino was often treated as a storyteller or fabulator rather than as a novelist, that reputation is in most respects deserved. Whether classified as novellini (novellas) or racconti (short stories), his works are essentially stories narrated at some length and often interrelated in series: in Cosmicomics and t zero, as episodes or “strips” out of chronological sequence; in The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, and The Non-existent Knight, as parts of the trilogy Our Ancestors; in Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, as tales spun from a frame story, standing for the oldest of narrative impulses. Calvino’s conscious revival and complete mastery of the storyteller’s art deserves special acclaim.
Calvino himself called attention to his alternation of two characteristic modes of writing: one factual and immersed in present time and space; the other, quite “fantastic”—baroque, witty, removed from the realm of the probable. In the first mode, everyday reality is presented with striking immediacy, and the familiar is seen as if for the first time; in the second, the unbelievable is given verisimilitude, is imagined into life, and is realized in such minute detail as to be taken for granted. Critics often distinguish between the neorealistic or “engaged” Calvino and the fabulist or...
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How was Italo Calvino’s early exposure to Italian writers Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese, and Natalia Levi Ginzburg influential in his writing?
Calvino’s work has been compared to that of other writers like William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Barth. Do you agree or disagree and why?
What is Oulipo? How does Calvino fit into the Oulipean movement?
How does Calvino’s work differ from other Oulipean writers, such as Georges Perec or Raymond Queneau?
Does Calvino’s influence show in any of the works of his “students,” or writers whom he has influenced, such as Mario Rigoni Stern, Gianni Celati, or Andrea de Carlo?
Adler, Sara. Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker. Potomac, Md.: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1979. Provides a valuable introduction to the themes, techniques, and images of Calvino’s works. Presents the author as an explorer on fabulous, sometimes horrifying, journeys who provides rich, mythical perspectives on the world.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Italo Calvino. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Collection gathers eight previously published essays about Calvino’s work written by Gore Vidal, Seamus Heaney, and other authors and arranged in chronological sequence. Includes an introduction by Bloom.
Bolongaro, Eugenio. Italo Calvino and the Compass of Literature. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Examines five of Calvino’s early works, written between 1948 and 1963, demonstrating how they meditate on the role of the intellectual and on the ethical and political dimensions of literature.
Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1981. A good introduction, with chapters on Calvino’s longer fiction and a bibliography.
Carter, Albert Howard, III. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. Masterful analysis of Calvino the fantasist explores his contribution to what is possible in literature by analyzing his use of the contrafactual realms of imagination, speculation, and hypothesis. Includes an excellent bibliography.
Fenwick, Julie. “Sex, Language, and Narrative Continuity and Discontinuity in Italo Calvino’s ‘Meiosis.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Spring, 1990): 203-209. Shows how Calvino’s story is post-structuralist in that the essential self disappears before the narrator’s speculations, just as the essential text disappears under poststructuralist criticism. Asserts Calvino’s characters are...
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