Italo Calvino

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Italo Calvino Short Fiction Analysis

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Although he maintained close attention to concrete, realistic detail—both physical and psychological—throughout his career, Italo Calvino, like his fellow neorealists, was quick to point out that his realism was actually quite different from naturalism. Not content simply to describe the visible and tangible, Calvino always sought to arrive at the intangible reality—symbolic, psychological, historical, social, mythic—that concrete phenomena both reveal and conceal.

“Adam, One Afternoon”

“Un pomeriggio, Adamo” (“Adam, One Afternoon”), one of his most discussed early stories, admirably demonstrates his understated skill in this complex endeavor. Maria-nunziata, a young kitchen maid, spies the exotic new gardener’s boy from her window. Her jovial, childlike curiosity is aroused by the odd young man, who wears the short pants of a little boy and the long, tied-back hair of a girl. Liberoso (“Liberty” in Esperanto) beckons and asks if she wants to see—and receive—something nice. Unsure but intrigued, she cautiously follows Liberoso into the garden, even though he refuses to answer her insistent questions. Leading her deeper into shadows, he finds the spot that he had already carefully chosen. Pushing aside some foliage, the half-naked youth reveals to Maria—a toad. Revolted and superstitiously afraid, Maria refuses his unusual gift. However, remaining enticed by Liberoso (who is as desirable and incomprehensible as he finds her), she continues to accompany him through the Edenic garden. Their curious quest is apparently never fulfilled, though, for the discoveries that they make provoke wonder and delight in Liberoso but disgust or dread in Maria. Through the process, however, Maria—increasingly trusting yet continually mystified—experiences some of the heady, perilous freedom that Liberoso embodies.

With little in the way of plot, action, or character development—a common characteristic in Calvino—“Adam, One Afternoon” is memorable for its magical atmosphere. Full of tension and ambiguity, innocence and sensuality, the story organically portrays both the light sweetness of the idyll and the weighty symbolism of myth. The abrupt, cryptic ending, with its riotous invasion of Maria’s world by Liberoso, encourages a variety of interpretations.

“The Crow Comes Last”

“Ultimo viene il corvo” (“The Crow Comes Last”) is perhaps Calvino’s most famous early story. Containing the same curious mixture of innocence, magic, and danger as “Adam, One Afternoon,” it is set in wartime. It begins with a nameless, “apple-faced” boy fearlessly appropriating a partisan’s gun to shoot at targets—trout, birds, rabbits—in an expert display of marksmanship. Perceiving the usefulness of the boy’s gift, the commander entices him to join up with them. This the boy does without hesitation, for he is eager to see new things, “all at those false distances, the distances that could be filled by a shot swallowing the air in between.”

Because he is ignorant of the natural laws of cause and effect, uncaring if his target is inanimate or animate, the boy’s ritualized play, without thought or effort, soon progresses to firing at increasingly significant targets. Like an amoral god or natural force, the boy is oblivious to the consequences of his actions; he does not understand that death follows his magical filling of space between gun barrel and living being. Thus, when he spies a new challenge on the road below—the indistinct insignia on the uniforms of German soldiers—he fires. His shots rouse the sleeping partisans, who ironically interpret his attack on the enemy as heroic; interpretation, the gap between being and seeming, is a favorite device (and theme) of Calvino.

By recording meticulously a final, fatal game of cat and mouse, the concluding pages intensify the detached dreaminess and moral ambiguity of the story. Jumping abruptly into the mind of the German soldier about to die, the...

(This entire section contains 1780 words.)

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narrative exposes the psychological toll of fear and hope: Lucid reason imperceptibly becomes hallucination—or revelation. It is for the reader to decide.

“The Adventure of a Bather”

Calvino’s narratives—whether humorous, like Marcovaldo: Or, The Seasons in the City, or gently melancholic, like “Sleeping Like Dogs,” or profoundly disturbing, like “The House of the Beehives”—all have as their focus the complex relationship between the inner and outer realms of human experience. A painfully poignant group, “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” uses the anguished context not of war but of daily life to probe delicately connections between the real and the imagined, the actual and the potential.

“L’avventura di una bagnante” (“The Adventure of a Bather”) is a typical example of this kind of story. In it, a middle-class matron loses the bottom half of her suit while swimming alone on vacation. At first calm, she grows increasingly desperate; her distressing nakedness produces not only physical contortions but also intellectual and emotional gyrations. Magnifying and symbolically interpreting even the smallest incident (like his preoccupation with “signs,” this is a favorite thematic strategy of Calvino’s), the signora’s agony translates not into logical action but rather into the logic of association: Instead of calling for help, she muses about the complexities of body image, the threatening sexual undercurrent of interpersonal relations, and the internalization of religious dogma such as original sin. These are clearly not mere flights of fancy, for all significantly illuminate her experience of her situation. Feeling “cast out by the whole world,” with she alone “chosen to pay for all,” the bather, now a sacrificial lamb, prepares to meet death in the chill, darkening waters. A young fisherman, who has discovered her plight with his underwater mask, however, suddenly deflects both tragedy and comedy by becoming the agent of her salvation—and of her unexpected encounter with grace. Provided with clothes and a ride back to shore, the lady suddenly, perhaps miraculously, no longer feels ill at ease with the physical reality of her own being.

The provocative multiplicity of the physical phenomena that she observes on the return to shore is explored—this time on a truly cosmic scale—by Calvino in the quirky tales gathered in Cosmicomics. Through the narrative of Qfwfq, who is an ageless, protean being, a breathtaking cosmos of matter, experience, thought, and feeling is spread before the reader. Hard science, fantasy, myth, human psychology, and virtuous literary exercises mutually illuminate one another, blending and leading the reader through possible and impossible realms.

“Games Without End”

Like all these narratives, “Giochi senza fine” (“Games Without End”) begins with a dry, scientific headnote: “When the galaxies become more remote, the rarefaction of the universe is compensated for by the formation of further galaxies composed of newly created matter.” This note provides the basis of the story, for this freshly created matter is imaginatively interpreted as shiny, new, atom-marbles, with which youthful Qfwfq and Pfwfp play and over which they fight. The mighty laws of physics introducing the story soon affect both game and players as well, for the curves of space offer Qfwfq unfair advantage. Fleeing a Pfwfp “green with rage,” Qfwfq declares ruefully: “So there I was, with nothingness in front of me, and that nasty-faced Pfwfp after me: an unpleasant sight either way.” Caught in an endless hall of mirrors—“after every Qfwfq there was a Pfwfp, and after every Pfwfp a Qfwfq, and every Pfwfp was chasing a Qfwfq, who was pursuing him and vice versa”—Qfwfq ends his narrative with the cynical yet wistful observation: “We had lost all pleasure in this game of chase, and we weren’t children any more for that matter, but now there was nothing else we could do.”

Impossibly, wonderfully alive, Qfwfq synthesizes the rational and irrational, the human and nonhuman; his is perhaps Calvino’s most masterful creation. The scientific apparatus through which he and his worlds are presented neither diminishes nor contains his quintessentially humanistic perspective; rather, the collision of ancient and modern, alien and familiar, intimate and distant, provides the framework for sensitive and provocative exploration of human realities. In fact, Qfwfq’s last lines in “Lo zio acquatico” (“The Aquatic Uncle”), a merry tale of devolution, are unexpectedly imbued with the same grave beauty informing Italian Renaissance humanism: “They all had something, I know, that made them somehow superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre. And yet I wouldn’t have traded places with any of them.”

“Under the Jaguar Sun”

While certain stories, such as “Ti con zero” (“t zero”) and “Il guidatore notturno” (“The Night Driver”), both from T Zero, Cosmicomics’ companion collection, are abstract intellectual conundrums similar to those wrought by Jorge Luis Borges, Calvino’s unflagging interest in “the multiplicity of possible things” most typically arises out of their human significance and value. One of his last stories, “Under the Jaguar Sun,” exemplifies many of the literary values—“Lightness,” “Quickness,” “Exactitude,” “Visibility,” and “Multiplicity”—that Calvino had singled out for his 1985 Harvard lectures. With admirable economy and his trademark curious perspective, Calvino uses the most universal of experiences—eating—as entry into a multifaceted world, simultaneously idiosyncratic and personal, archetypal and universal.

While vacationing in Mexico, the unidentified narrator and his wife divide their time between visiting historical sites and eating. The complexities of native cuisine provoke impassioned discussion along the way, its diverse ingredients, modes of preparation, and flavors becoming interwoven—in ways romantic, ineffable, and grotesque—with the dramas of history, religion, and private life. Besides providing the story with its subject, plot, and dialogue, food performs other vital functions: It defines personality (the narrator describes his “insipidness” as a “flavor more discreet and restrained than that of red peppers”), it promotes intimate communication (“the pleasures of existence could be appreciated only if we shared them”), it excites or displaces sexual desire, and, most important, it vivifies and makes love concrete, both sacred and profane.

Calvino uses transcendent love—tinged with “horror, sacredness, and mystery”—as the frame (a favorite narrative and structural device) of the story. He also employs associated motifs—self-renunciation, convoluted logic, voluptuousness, the “flavor” and meaning of the sacred—to integrate masterfully his multiple tangible and intangible realities. The ultimate result of his orchestrations is unveiled with a fascinated revulsion at the story’s close: “Our eyes stared into each other’s with the intensity of serpents’—serpents concentrated in the ecstasy of swallowing each other in turn in the universal cannibalism that leaves its imprint on every amorous relationship and erases the lines between our bodies.” This erasing of boundaries, of paradoxically dissolving yet finding the self in the other, is clearly related to the goal that most of Calvino’s fictions share: to transform the mundane into the magical, the familiar into the alien, and so to open the reader to the infinite potential and multiformity of being.


Italo Calvino Long Fiction Analysis