Italo Calvino has been known to English-speaking readers through such cerebral works as Cosmicomics, T Zero, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and Invisible Cities. According to some critics, his art reached its highest achievement with the publication of the volume I nostri antenati (1960), a trilogy consisting of the previously published The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, and the Nonexistent Knight. These long “fables,” written between 1952 and 1959, already testify to Calvino’s satirical wit and inexhaustible creativity as a master storyteller, a fact confirmed by his later production, including his latest narrative work, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler). The trilogy also marks the author’s departure from Neorealism, present in his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, The Path of the Nests of Spiders), to a world of fantasy, a fantasy, however, always steeped in reality.
This dualism in Calvino’s work has made it difficult to categorize him, even though one constant is an obviously important characteristic of his art: a basic optimism which comes to the surface even when he deals with man’s existential quagmire. Elio Vittorini, the author of Conversations in Sicily, was one of the first to point out Calvino’s many-sided interests, whose synthesis “can take form both in a sense of realism imbued with the fable and in a sense of fable imbued with realism.” This observation is still applicable to Calvino’s latest expressions of antinarrative and it is no doubt the reason for which one of the leading Italian publishers, Einaudi, entrusted him with the collecting, translating, and rewriting of Italian folktales into a volume which would accompany the publication of the great books of foreign folktales. The result, after two years’ work, was Fiabe italiane (1956), now skillfully and faithfully translated into English by George Martin as Italian Folktales (1980). It is very likely that, as one reviewer of the book has already remarked, Calvino’s place in literature will be assured by this work.
When Calvino undertook the task of selecting the material, from an unexpectedly high number of sources, and readying it for publication he felt as if he were “. . . plunging into a submarine world without any of the spearguns of the specialists . . . without even that oxygen tank which enthusiasm is.” Once he became involved in the project, however, to his surprise, it became practically a mania for him to get his hands on all possible variants of a tale (he admits that he would have given all of Marcel Proust for a new variant of a particular tale), to catalog them and classify them with the same passion of an entomologist, which he had observed in the scholars of Helsinki’s Folklore Fellows Communications. The “mountains” of tales which he had to consider (an effort which in itself is evidence of his morality and consciousness as a writer) contained items of infinite variety and repetition. It was obvious that the Italian folktales as a whole, because, on one hand, of their richness, diversity, and constant play between the real and the unreal, and, on the other, perhaps even more important, because of their basic grace, stylistic simplicity, and composition, could stand with pride with the more celebrated folktale collections of the German, Nordic, and Slavic countries.
A comparative study has not been done yet to show which of the collections has the greater merit, but now that the Italian folktales have been “retold” by Calvino it would not be too surprising to find that they surpassed all others. An indication of this can be seen in the treatment of “Quack Quack! Stick to My Back!,” taken from Dolfo Zorzut’s collection of tales from the Friuli region. The plot of this tale about a princess who does not laugh is very old and common to all of Europe. It is even contained in a fifteenth century English poem, “The Tale of a Basyn.” Comparing this treatment, however, with the Grimm brothers’ it can be seen readily that the Italian version is much richer and more amusing. The same can be said for “Frankie-Boy’s Trade,” which deals with a young man at first unable to learn a trade and then becoming a crafty thief, a tale whose variants can be found in the Grimm collection and as Afanas’ev’s “The Thief.” On the other hand, it must be recognized, there are some instances where, because of a wish to remain as faithful as possible to the Italian tale he had chosen, Calvino’s version cannot possibly be the equal of his predecessors.
This is the case with “Bella Venezia,” which corresponds to the Grimms’ classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In Calvino’s...