Italo Calvino is known to English-speaking readers for the engaging science fantasies of Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) and such disarmingly if eruditely playful metafictions as Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981). Calvino is essentially a storyteller or fabulist. Whether classified as novels or short stories, his works almost always take the form of interconnected tales: in Cosmicomics, as episodes in the evolution of the universe and from the perspective of Qfwfq, a sort of protean cosmic consciousness, or in La città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974), Il castello dei destini incrociati (1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977), and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, as tales generated from a frame story and standing for the narrative impulse itself. Difficult Loves, a collection of stories from Calvino’s early career, from the mid-1940’s and the 1950’s, is a delightful “portable Calvino” and a portrait of the artist as several younger men. It offers interwoven variations, at once delicate and dazzling, on themes of desire and fulfillment, alienation and language.
The collection has four categories: “Riviera Stories,” “Wartime Stories,” “Postwar Stories,” and “Stories of Love and Loneliness.” The first three sections introduce a Calvino familiar to Italian readers since the mid-1940’s, the politically engaged neorealist. Like many artists of his generation, Calvino joined the Communist Resistance and subsequently became disillusioned with power politics. Difficult Loves is in part a record of his shift from littérature engagé to conceptual concerns. As a retrospective arrangement of his early work, it is also about his development as an artist, and the young writer projects images of his later artistic self with uncanny accuracy.
“Riviera Stories,” which re-create settings from Calvino’s childhood, have a sunlit clarity that has since become his trademark. The simplicity is not completely without affectation—for example, the more than occasional hint of a conscious enchantment which threatens to shatter into realism or intensify into fairy tale. The eight sketches feature children or peasants in seaside or garden settings. These enchanted gardens, like the fictions of Gabriel García Márquez’s “magic realism,” have very real toads in them. In “Adam, One Afternoon,” a garden boy, Libereso, presents an obviously if innocently phallic toad to a kitchen girl, Maria-nunziata. “D’you want to see something nice?” he asks. “Mammamia!” she exclaims. Wooing the reluctant Maria with a snail, a pair of copulating frogs, a snake, and a mass of ants, Libereso finally leaves on her kitchen table a whole menagerie. The story ends with a big toad resting between her feet and, foreshadowing her future, five little toads hopping “toward her across the black-and-white-tiled floor.”
The charms of these Edens, as the reader is increasingly reminded, are temporary or illusory; they are comforting shadows cast by garden walls. Calvino’s innocents are on the brink of loss, of realization of their human separation from the rest of creation. His walled gardens come eventually to suggest the recalcitrance of all loves or, more generally, as Calvino’s recent work so often remarks, a deep if somewhat cheerfully expressed skepticism about language’s ability to communicate. In “The Enchanted Garden,” as in the first story, class distinctions provide some of the barriers. Giovannino and Serenella, out hunting for crabs, follow railroad tracks to a sunlit villa where a garden of earthly delights awaits them. Nevertheless, everything—the swimming pool, the tea, the cake—is “impossible to enjoy properly,” without that anxiety or sense that a spell hangs “over all these lovely, comfortable things, the residue of some injustice committed long ago.” “A Goatherd at Luncheon” tells the same story from the perspective of a poor little rich boy “too well aware of the difficulties of communication between human beings,” of “gulfs that separate the classes.” The narrator of the suddenly sinister “The House of the Beehives” is a recluse who at first appears to have become part of an ideal symbiosis of plants, animals, and insects: “Living on this bank of broom with goats and bees I don’t give anything and I don’t owe anything.” An honest alienation is preferable to the affected “intimacy” of domesticated animals: “We must devour one another” in this world. “In contact between human beings there can only, I know, be mutual terror and shame,” he moralizes. Then, he confesses to the “difficult love” of his life, now a buried crime: “That’s what I wanted, to see the terror and shame in her eyes; that’s the only reason I did it to her, believe me.”
Following this story is “Big Fish, Little Fish,” in which a withdrawn, passively weeping signorina, “unlucky in love,” is astonished into life when presented with an octopus, an image of fecund voraciousness. “A Ship Loaded with Crabs” makes a similar point from a different perspective. Gangs of children, playing war, discover “thousands of crabs of every shape which scuttled on their curved, spoked legs, and opened their claws, and thrust forward their sightless eyes. The entire hold of the ship was full of groping crabs, and one day the ship would move on the crabs’ legs and walk through the sea.” In each story, nature’s plenitude is deceptive, disguising a stifled human terror, or revealing a groping discontent, a gnawing anxiety.
The “Wartime Stories” which follow often seem to refer uncannily back to the glints of violence that flash through the dense green of these Edens. Their overt concern is with political as opposed to metaphysical alienation. Calvino’s neorealism...
(The entire section is 2446 words.)