Italo Calvino

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Italo Calvino (kahl-VEE-noh), Italian novelist, short-story writer, and critic, has been called one of the world’s best fabulists—for the fables he wrote as well as for those he edited. Calvino was born in Cuba, where his father, Mario Calvino, a botanist, was on an agronomy mission. His mother, Eva Mameli, was also a botanist. Although his parents were not able to interest him in a scientific career, Calvino’s intense feeling for nature and his passion for precise description are undoubtedly as much scientific as poetic; in his later years, he came to view the problems of science, literature, and philosophy as inextricably intertwined.

In 1940, as a compulsory member of the Young Fascists, Calvino took part in the Italian occupation of the French Riviera. Three years later, at the age of nineteen, he joined the Italian Resistance and from 1943 to 1945 fought the Germans in the Ligurian Mountains. At the end of the war, he settled in Turin, becoming a student of literature at the University of Turin. He graduated from the university in 1947, having completed a thesis on Joseph Conrad.

Soon thereafter, Calvino became an editor for the Einaudi publishing company, and he befriended the writers Elio Vittorini and Cesare Pavese. Between 1959 and 1966, Calvino also coedited with Vittorini a journal that elicited debate on the role of the intellectual in modern society. He contributed to other leftist publications as well. Calvino married Chichita Singer, a translator, in 1964; they had one daughter, Giovanna.

The troubled yet intense years of the antifascist movement and the aftermath of World War II were the backdrop to Calvino’s beginnings as a writer. The leading writers of postwar Italy, who had been prevented from writing about the world around them by government censorship, later began to draw upon their oppressive environment for their fiction; together, they formed the neorealist literary movement (which reproduced real situations using traditional methods). Calvino, however, was soon to abandon its tenets and expand the possibilities of his fiction, using the traditional fable form to write nontraditional fiction.

Conceived in the height of neorealism was his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders. This work immediately gained for its author critical praise from, among others, Pavese. Calvino chose to view the Resistance through the eyes of a streetwise boy from the Genoa slums who often uses obscene language. The boy manages to retain his innocence and sense of wonder throughout his adventures with a rough group of partisans. Using the boy as the narrator, Calvino is able to give an accurate and irreverent—yet simultaneously fantastic—portrayal of historical events he had witnessed. The boy is endowed with charm and freshness, qualities that remained characteristic of Calvino’s heroes, especially in his many short stories and novels, despite the serious or tragic subject matter of these works.

Calvino’s penchant for transforming reality into fable is perhaps best expressed in three “fantastic novels” he collected in a trilogy entitled Our Ancestors. The protagonists of these three novels are “our ancestors” because they precede the reader’s time metaphorically and chronologically; they are the fantastic projections of the good and evil halves of every person—the fictional representations of human idiosyncrasies, fears, and alienations. Yet they are also the source of enlightenment and courage. Chivalric epics, philosophical tales, adventure novels, and folktales are freely used by Calvino in these ingenious novels.

Calvino was fascinated with the act of narrating and the nature of writing itself. Cosmicomics and T Zero are short pieces narrated by a “character” called “Qfwfq”; these stories ostensibly treat such scientific topics as the distance of...

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the Moon from Earth, the origin of birds, and the disappearance of the dinosaurs. In fact, however, each piece, though it explores distant times and places, is predominantly the author’s reflection on his written creation, a tale telling itself, a metafiction.

This reflection is continued by Calvino in Invisible Cities and is concluded in the novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, about a reader who can never finish the novels that he has begun reading. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler uses a frame device that includes ten different beginnings of unfinished novels-within-the-novel, each parodying in a different way the writing of a novel and each presenting different problems of contemporary life.

Calvino’s ability to fuse and juxtapose fantasy and reality led critics such as John Updike and John Gardner to laud Calvino and compare him with two other master storytellers noted for using the same technique in their fiction: Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Calvino’s unique contribution as a writer is that he, perhaps better than anyone else of his generation, observed and captured the spirit of the times in which he lived and transformed his philosophical, sociological, and moral observations into unclassifiable but unique literary inventions. His writing exhibits an unshakable faith in the power of reason and fantasy to understand, and therefore to overcome, the caprice of history.


Critical Essays