The anti-Fascist Resistance was the impetus for Italo Calvino’s first novel, as it was for a generation of Italian neorealists, who believed that literature should be dedicated, as Calvino asserted in the 1950’s, to “political engagement,” to “social battle.” In a slightly different way, the Resistance shaped the later Calvino. As the postwar period brought on disillusionment with power politics, Resistance writers had to find new directions. “What I did not want to renounce,” wrote Calvino in 1960, “was [the] epic adventurous grasp, the combination of physical and moral strength” of the literature that the Resistance inspired. Daily life having failed to provide such “images full ofenergy,” Calvino turned to nonrealistic literary forms such as the fairy tale, the fable, and the philosophical romance (in the trilogy Our Ancestors); to science fiction and cartoons (in Cosmicomics); to myth and tarot cards (in The Castle of Crossed Destinies); and, in general, toward metafiction, or fiction about fiction itself.
Calvino’s direction was not, in his view, a retreat from his earlier committed stance; it was, rather, an engagement with the cultural life that inspired the Resistance. In turning to popular sources such as the cartoon or the fairy tale, he intended to evoke the classless culture he found with the partisans in the Resistance, for whom storytelling was recreation and camaraderie. Calvino’s art thus carries over from the author’s early experience an oral quality, regardless of the subject matter.
If Calvino had a single model, it was Ariosto, as Calvino himself acknowledged in an article written in 1960 for Italian Quarterly, “Main Currents in Italian Fiction Today.” In Calvino’s view, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) teaches an epistemology, an “up-to-date lesson” in “how the mind lives by fantasy, irony, and formal accuracy.” In an age of “electronic brains and space flights,” of relativism increasing with change, such an understanding of how one perceives and creates reality is necessary to one’s evaluation of it in order to make ethical decisions. Calvino’s shift from epic to meta-epic and literature as game—in Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies—makes sense in terms of his emphasis throughout on “energy turned toward the future.” The emphasis also helps to explain his mixture of fantasy and realism, one that leads the reader to imagine what might be in a world where transformation is the rule.
Typically, Calvino’s tales begin with a fantastic premise, often a bizarre image, from which—as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)—conclusions follow logically and matter-of-factly. Calvino’s imaginary gardens have Marianne Moore’s real toads in them. Because he takes these images from popular associations of ideas or words, they invariably seem apt; they are figures of speech literalized, clichés revitalized in strange new forms of life. The ghost in armor becomes the nonexistent knight, a fully armed identity, without substance, who manages to become a fully realized character. A young idealist elects to live in the trees, where he shapes his destiny between earth and sky. In Cosmicomics, the moon is composed of a lactic substance comparable in texture to ricotta cheese. In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the novelist’s convention of characterizing the “dear Reader” is extended as theprotagonist becomes “you, the Reader.”
As Teresa de Lauretis has pointed out, Calvino’s themes are elementary: desire, rivalry, guilt, the need for communication, self-assertion and belonging, the necessity to choose. He combines and varies these elements with a virtuosity that stands for his larger theme—the inexhaustible potential of language and life.
The Path to the Nest of Spiders
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to the Nest of Spiders reflects the neorealistic trend in Italian film and literature fostered by the Italian Resistance and its aftermath. Neither propaganda nor a servile fidelity to fact, neorealism was a spontaneous expression of the times, as Calvino often remarked. The Resistance fostered realism primarily by opening up “new Italies” through the peripheral voices of authors from regions previously unrepresented in literature. Calvino’s Italy was the northern Ligurian coast, with its landscape of contrasts and its balance of natural and human elements. Written in 1946, shortly after the events of the Ligurian Resistance that it depicts, The Path to the Nest of Spiders shows a strong regional interest: in its documentation of random details of daily life and local countryside, in its rendition of speech patterns and dialects, and in its primitive subject matter, which is treated in a deliberately rough, antiliterary style. The mood of oral narration carries the book, yet the war itself is vaguely overheard in the distance. Calvino is interested in the repercussions of such events within the contexts in which they take place. It is from this perspective that commitment to social and political struggle shaped the later Calvino’s characteristic texture: an intense, almost nearsighted concreteness of surface.
The hero is the orphan Pin, who pimps for his sister and is known by local tavern society for singing bawdy songs and baiting all—Nazis, Fascists, and Communists, men, women, and children—with scurrilous remarks. His bravado masks his loneliness in a disrupted environment, for he scorns and is scorned by adults and children (mostly backstreet urchins) alike. After various altercations that bring him into the middle of the Resistance, he finds a sense of community with a partisan band and finds a comrade in Cousin, who shares his distrust of people, especially women—who, in his view, are all prostitutes and traitors (like his wife).
The treatment of Cousin is typical of Calvino’s realism in its total lack of sentimentality about the character and motives of the partisans and an avoidance of the conventional rhetoric of Communism, despite Calvino’s committed stance. As the intellectual Kim, a thinly veiled Calvino, points out, the partisans are colorfully, if notably, ignorant of the reasons behind their behavior—and thus every bit as immature, in a sense, as Pin. For the most part from the fringes of society, physically defective and emotionally unbalanced, they hate and kill the Fascists but do not know why or even what they are fighting. When Mancino, the cook, offers a knowledgeable Marxist interpretation, he is jeered and hooted: His arguments “seem useless, as he talks about enemies they know nothing about, such as capitalists and financiers. It’s rather like Mussolini expecting the Italians to hate the British and the Abyssinians, whom none of them had ever seen.” As for the causes of the war, Cousin’s rationale is typically monomaniacal—the women started it. As Kim suggests, the cause is really the existential “mess,” the ignorance and squalor and resentment that have been the lives of partisans and Fascists alike.
The sense of confusion, purposelessness, and impotence reflected in the characters’ dialogue is borne out in their actions. Dritto, the commander of the vagabond band, shuns responsibilities, accidentally sets fire to their hideout while seducing the cook’s wife, and is executed by the party commissars. Pin’s sister is a prostitute who betrays some partisans to the SS, and the book ends as Cousin shoots her with a pistol Pin has stolen.
Aside from its antiliterary qualities, which are meant to convey the color, randomness, crudity, and mixed character of life, The Path to the Nest of Spiders is consciously derived from literary sources. One is American naturalism, from which Italian neorealism took a great deal. In an article titled “Hemingway e noi,” which appeared in Il contemporaneo in 1954, Calvino acknowledged that author’s strong formative influence on his contemporaries, including Vittorini and himself. The obvious parallels coincide with Calvino’s antiliterary stance: the documentary texture, the staccato style, the terse dialogue, and a pervasive, understated, somewhat grim irony, through which Pin’s innocence, like that of Hemingway’s Nick Adams, flickers. The best example is perhaps the last, in which Calvino imitates Hemingway’s ambiguous or offhand treatment of dramatic irony. Like Nick, Pin is already alienated; his mixture of world-weariness and naïveté shows through in some odd remarks about fireflies that follow Cousin’s offstage shooting of Pin’s sister, which is reported indirectly. Thus ends the book: “Filthy creatures, women, Cousin . . .” says Pin. “All of them . . .” agrees Cousin. “But they weren’t always; now my mother . . .” “Can you remember your mother, then?” asks Pin. . . . “Yes,” says Cousin, “she was nice.” “Mine was nice too,” says Pin. “What a lot of fireflies,” says Cousin. “If you look at them really closely, the fireflies,” says Pin, “They’re filthy creatures too, reddish.” “Yes,” says Cousin, “I’ve never seen them looking so beautiful.”
This flat dialogue might have come out of Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or “The Killers”; it also reveals Calvino’s fascination with the private languages created among comrades.
Calvino’s other major literary source here is quite different from Hemingway: the adventure tales of Robert Louis Stevenson—Treasure Island (1883), for example—in which the inexperience of the youthful narrator and his transition from childish make-believe to adult reality shape the unfolding of the action. The title thus refers to the symbol of Pin’s inner life: The spider’s nest is the sanctum of his childhood in an adult world without friends or games. The plot turns on the pistol that Pin steals from a German soldier and hides in the spider’s nest, where it becomes a rather Freudian symbol of his unawakened manhood and where he flourishes it, now transformed into a “strange enchanted toy,” as part of an elaborate drama: “One who had a real pistol could play marvelous gamesthat no child had ever played.”
Regardless of documentary surface, the book is really about Pin’s initiation into adulthood through his search for a “real friend” with whom he can share his private world. As for Calvino’s later heroes, the real life of the community is only partly satisfactory. His solace is unspoiled nature, which exists to free his imagination, revealing, in contrast to “the squalid ambiguous world of human beings,” “all kinds of colored things; yellow and brown mushrooms growing damp in the earth, red spiders on huge invisible nets, hares all legs and ears which appear suddenly on the path then leap zigzagging out of sight.”
Pin’s commitment to the Resistance movement, like that of most of the other characters, hardly goes beyond a kind of camaraderie, a sharing of fantasies through a common language. An examination of the neorealism of his “Resistance novel” also shows how Calvino imposes on his scrupulously documented materials a literary and intellectual construct—in this case, the boy’s adventure tale, with a psychology of the human need for fantasy. Pin’s case, representing the mind’s “natural” distortion of reality into fiction, becomes Calvino’s specific concern in later works. It is really the semantics of commitment that interests him as he rummages through literature and ideas for a medium of engagement with the world outside the self.
After The Path to the Nest of Spiders, and with the exception of The Watcher, and Other Stories and Marcovaldo, Calvino’s method becomes increasingly parabolic. The best and best known of his realistic short stories, “The Argentine Ant” and “Smog,” in The Watcher, and Other Stories—however immersed in the contemporary urban context—have fablelike qualities. The ants and smog in question have the same function as the rats in Camus’s La Peste (1947; The Plague, 1948), the trials in Kafka’s works, or the monsters that are found in Japanese horror films; they become larger-than-life, inexorable forces of doom that are brought on by humankind’s disruption of the environment.
The trilogy Our Ancestors is therefore not the radical departure from realism that many critics have made it seem. It does mark Calvino’s growing interest in the potential of the fairy tale and the folktale to reflect popular culture and convey universal truths. In these three intellectual fantasies, or fabulations, Calvino backs up absurd premises with almost documentary verisimilitude and narrates with the wide-eyed matter-of-factness of a child. Our Ancestors is pseudohistorical; Calvino uses the legendary past as a distancing device, a means of commenting indirectly on the present and the timeless. Notably, all three fantasies are set against a background of war, and two of them, The Cloven Viscount and The Non-existent Knight, are ridden with a hard, glittering violence more like that of children’s cartoons than anything else. It is not irrelevant that Red Wolf, the legendary Resistance fighter of The Path to the Nest of Spiders, “belongs to the generation brought up on strip cartoons” and takes them quite seriously. So does Calvino, who often defends his departures into fantasy on the basis of fantasy’s popular appeal and immediacy of communication.
The Cloven Viscount begins the trilogy in a blackly humorous vein. In this game of “just suppose,” Medardo of Terralba, a seventeenth century nobleman, is split from head to crotch by a cannonball in a war against the Turks. He becomes a cartoonlike illustration of the split, or alienated, personality; there are allusions as well to Judeo-Christian dualism. One-half of the Viscount appears to have been lost or destroyed; the doctors on the battlefield save his other half, sending it, the evil or “Bad’un,” as it comes to be called, home. Bad Medardo wreaks havoc on the countryside and its inhabitants, even burning down part of his own castle while attempting to dispose of his old nurse, Sebastiana. His terrorism, however, is for the most part more specialized. Driven by an obsession with his own halfness and wishing to imprint his image on a world that has split him, he bifurcates every living thing in his path. “’If only I could halve every whole thing like this,’” he says to his nephew while “stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, ’so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness.’” Halfness brings consciousness of one’s alienation from the world and the self.
Eventually the Viscount’s better half shows up. He is predictably and unbearably good and profoundly boring, although equally obsessed with halfness: “One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness.” When whole, he “did not understand” the tragedy of the human condition, which he attempts to mitigate. The story has a fairy-tale ending through which, after a duel between the two halves over Pamela, a wench beloved of both, the brilliant Doctor Trelawney puts them back together. The narrator marvels in detail at the skill involved in the operation: the doctor’s “great care to get all guts and arteries of both parts to correspond, and then a mile of bandages had tied them together.” Once again a whole man, Medardo marries Pamela, and they live wisely, “having had the experience of both halves each on its own.” He has a “happy life, many children and a just rule. Our life too change[s] for the better.”
The allusion to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) is relevant, for this worthy squire, in living “wholly” ever after, lives above all “dully.” The story is over. If the real life signified by wholeness is not “marvelous happiness,” as the young narrator remarks, it is partly because of his state of mind. The narrator is the Viscount’s nephew, on “the threshold of adolescence” by the end of the tale, whereupon he grows discontented “amid all this fervor of wholenessgrowing sadder and more lacking.”
In the introduction to the trilogy, Calvino provides a moral for the story: The Viscount’s bifurcation is parabolic of modern alienation and mutilation. Certainly another is the brutality of war, conveyed in a starkly surreal landscape (however misperceived by the as-yet uncloven Medardo): plains of “horses’ carcasses, some supine with hooves to the sky, others prone with muzzles dug into the earth,” and “a few limbs, fingers in particular, scattered over the stubble.” (Says Medardo, “Every now and again I see a finger pointing our way.What does that mean?”) Yet another interpretation has been suggested by Gore Vidal: The Cloven Viscount is a “sendup of Plato and the idea of the whole.” Calvino’s main point in providing a moral is probably to stress what his tale does mean, but as allegory it spins off in many directions. The narrator’s mood suggests that it is finally about the human and modern need for fictions that, like Calvino’s disembodied fingers on a battleground, enigmatically point the way. As the tale ends, the narrator is conscious of loss and thus of his own incompleteness, and so remains “deep in the woods telling [himself] stories.”
The Baron in the Trees
The intellectual’s or artist’s alienation is more explicitly the issue of The Baron in the Trees, the second novel in the trilogy. The protagonist is the eighteenth century Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rindó, who, at the age of twelve, on June 15, in the midst of a family quarrel at dinner, defies all present by climbing into the trees, vowing never to come down.
The fantastic premise of the novel only thinly disguises its autobiographical nature; it is a fairy-tale version of Calvino’s Resistance experience and bears comparison to The Path to the Nest of Spiders. Like Pin and his comrade, Cosimo finds that a certain imaginative aloofness from the world—in this case, the “natural” environment of the trees of Ombrosa, which, although rooted in earth, seem to touch the sky—paradoxically makes an effective commitment to the world possible. As Cosimo’s brother, meeting Voltaire in Paris, explains, “Anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it.” Voltaire’s reply may well be Calvino’s philosophy of life: “Once it was only Nature which produced living phenomena.Now ’tis Reason.”
In the revolt from his family, Cosimo rejects a lifestyle of aristocratic decadence. He must transcend both the grasping ambition of his father, who lives to regain the lapsed title of duke of Ombrosa and thinks only of “genealogies and successions and family rivalries and alliances”—and the sanctified alienation of his sister Battista, “a kind of stay-at-home nun” confined to the pleasure of dismaying her brothers with sadistic cookery—snails’ heads artfully arranged in wire mesh, grasshopper claw tarts, rat-liver pâté. The trees are less an escape from this microcosm of monomaniacs than they are avenues to the world—or, rather, to a newly opened world. For the first time, Cosimo can mix freely with people of all classes, from charcoal burners to robber barons to the noble family next door, with whom he can talk rather than feud, as before. Roving bands of waiflike fruit thieves accept him as a fellow outsider and then as a leader.
Cosimo’s distanced perspective allows him to perceive and solve engineering problems and to organize a voluntary fire brigade. Saving Ombrosa from incendiary destruction, he discovers joy in fighting for a common goal and simultaneously teaches the people to unite in moments of danger. He repels an invasion of wolves from the Alps, fights off Turkish pirates, and reforms the vicious brigand, Gian dei Brughi, by supplying him with novels. As his brother, the narrator, explains, “The more determined [Cosimo] was to hide away in his den of branches, the more he felt the need to create new links with the human race.” He therefore founds or joins such “associations and confraternities of trades and professions” as the Conscientious Capmakers, the Enlightened Skin Tanners, and the Masons. Indeed, he becomes quite reconciled with his family, who are better for dealing with his rebellion, and he frequently watches over them from a mulberry branch with a view through his mother’s window.
In the trees, Cosimo has more time to read and think than his earthbound fellows and begins a Rousseauistic “Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees.” For his various accomplishments, he is acknowledged by author Denis Diderot and paid homage by Emperor Napoleon I. The utopian scheme, however, remains incomplete. Beginning it as “a treatise on laws and governments,” he loses his point as his storytelling impulse takes over and out pours “a rough sketch of adventures, duels, and erotic tales, the latter inserted in a chapter on matrimonial rights.” It is the texture of Cosimo’s life, or his story in its eccentric variety of adventures, enterprises, and love affairs, that counts.
The same childlike ingenuousness that made the first two novels engaging and believable, down to the last detail, informs most of The Baron in the Trees. Sustained at greater length is the Hemingwayesque fidelity to empirical detail. Cosimo might be Nick Adams preparing to fish—such is the intentness and precision with which Calvino compels the reader to concentrate on the matter at hand, whether it be the fabrication of a suspended sleeping bag or the construction of an irrigation system. Thus, the message of commitment, however obvious, is never obtrusive. What one remembers is the clarity and naturalness of arboreal life and the symbiosis of individual, society, and nature that seems illusory only at the end of the book.
In the last paragraph, the narrator, now perhaps Calvino, succumbs to a radical failure of belief. Looking at a sky left empty by the dying Cosimo and the changing times, he asks himself if Ombrosa ever really existed, if that mesh of leaves and twigs of fork and froth, minute and endless, with the sky glimpsed only in sudden specks and splinterswas embroidered on nothing, like this thread of ink which I have let run on for page after pageuntil it splutters and bursts into a last senseless cluster of words, ideas, dreams, and so ends.
In an introduction to the 1965 scholastic edition of the book, Calvino asserted that Cosimo is an allegorical figure for the poet. The trees are therefore his medium, providing a language for social and political engagement.
The Baron in the Trees is more than a portrait of the artist, but it is Calvino’s first fiction to examine the semantic possibilities of his subject of engagement, to focus directly on the relations between literature and empirical reality, as Joann Cannon has pointed out. The long Gian dei Brughi episode, a benign parody of eighteenth century critical theory concerning the moral influence of literature, is a case in point. Cosimo lends Alain-René Lesage’s Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-1735; The History of Gil Blas of Santillane, 1716, 1735; better known as Gil Blas, 1749, 1962) to the chief of brigands, who becomes hooked on novels and is especially taken with Richardson’s Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748), which brings out “a disposition long latent in him; a yearning for the cozy habits of family life, for relations, for sentimentsa sense of virtue” and vice. Unfortunately, the result of his conversion is that he is caught and sentenced; yet, poised to hang, he wishes only to know the ending of Henry Fielding’s The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743, 1754), which Cosimo sorrowfully tells him. “Thank you. Like me! Goodby!” replies de Brughi as he himself kicks away his support and is strangled. Calvino’s charming mixture of irony with good humor both supports and qualifies the eighteenth century dictum: Literature delights and thus instructs, but the real-life result may be imperfect (even if somewhat poetic) justice.
In the more minor key that ends the book are other hints that Calvino questions its premise. In contrast to Pin and the Viscount’s nephew, who get no further than puberty by the ends of their stories, Cosimo’s brother grows old and dull and, as narrator, begins to question this very role and its sources. As the story progresses and as Cosimo becomes more renowned in rumor and legend, the narrator feels more distant from valid representations. In a French almanac, in a chapter on monsters and between the Hermaphrodite and the Siren, he discovers a figure of his brother “all covered in leaves, with a long beard andtail, eating a locust.” Cosimo himself is partly responsible for such distortions, his brother observes: “So many and so incredible were the tales Cosimo told about his activities in the woods during the war” that no one version can be accepted outright. Cosimo at times becomes imbecile with erotic passion, is disturbed by the French Revolution and its aftermath, and grows disconsolate with age. Even his imagination fails to keep pace with events.
This theme of the failure of imagination to correspond with external reality has its other side: the view of literature as true empirically in the experience of the people who, in part, create it, as a collective and infinitely variable fantasy—a view that Calvino takes up with gusto in his later works. In the two years between The Cloven Viscount and The Baron in the Trees, Calvino compiled and edited Italian Folktales, a project that deepened his critical interest in the ways tales are generated orally. The Baron in the Trees reflects this interest in the way the truth of Cosimo’s life is seen to depend on context, on the community in which it flourished; thus, Cosimo and his dream exist only so long and so far as Ombrosa does. The bizarre legends that dismay his brother can thus be seen to affirm the effectiveness of Cosimo’s arboreal commitment. This is the case even to the end, when some English aeronauts passing by on an experimental balloon flight are made partly responsible for Cosimo’s rather spectacular comic apotheosis. However inadvertently, through some fumbling with and dropping of an anchor, they take the dying idealist with them into the sky. The primitive “poem” on the family tombstone hits the note typical of Calvino at his best on this theme: “Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò—Lived in Trees—Always loved earth—Went into sky.”
The Non-existent Knight
The Non-existent Knight takes up where The Baron in the Trees ends—with a study of being, nothingness, and semantics. The trees of Ombrosa finally seem no more substantial than words “embroidered on a void”; Agilulf, the nonexistent knight, personifies the metaphysics implied in that imaginary landscape. His complete title, “Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern and of the Others of Corbentraz and Sura, Knight of Selimpia Citeriore and Fez,” suggests his need for substantiation, for he is a void, an empty suit of white armor from which echoes a metallic voice standing for essence or identity. He is a sort of walking embodiment of René Descartes’s famous dictum, Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Agilulf’s nonexistence calls to mind just about everything from Platonic forms to Cartesian rationalism, from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) to T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” (1925) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness, 1956). Calvino’s touch is light and witty, however, as usual. His tales are novels of ideas in the briefest of senses; for the most part, he drops philosophical connections as he takes them up, generating sparks, flashes, and kaleidoscopically transformed patterns rather than deepening levels of meaning.
In devoted service to Charlemagne, who takes his holy wars far less seriously than does Agilulf, the nonexistent knight is dismayingly perfect. He is thus detested by the other knights—except for Raimbaut, a novice who takes him for a role model. His unpopularity is increased by his absurd attempts to share in the community life. He does not eat, of course, but insists on observing all forms with rigor, sitting interminably at table and slicing his meat into tiny, uniform pieces. Agilulf’s passion for perfection makes him obnoxiously unconquerable in war—and love. He is, strangely enough, the perfect ladies’ man. Although he cannot love, he more than satisfies the noble widow Priscilla, entering her bed “fully armed from head to foot and stretched out taut as if on a tomb.” “Don’t you even loosen the sword from its scabbard?” asks Priscilla. “Amorous passion knows no half measures,” answers Agilulf. Priscilla shuts her eyes “in ecstasy.”
To solve two problems at once, Charlemagne assigns Agilulf a squire named Gurduloo—or Omoboo, or Martinzoo, or “Cheese,” depending upon who is addressing him. If Agilulf is pure identity, form, or idea, his Sancho Panza is elemental protean substance or pure existence in a state of continuous transformation. He confuses himself with whatever he touches. When he drinks soup, he becomes soup and is to be drunk in turn, “the world being nothing but a vast shapeless mass of soup in which all things [are] dissolved.” Together, the characters Agilulf and Gurduloo bring up a theme that Calvino will pursue later: the confusion of subject and object and the arbitrary nature of names and categories. The vaguely ancient, mythical quality of Charlemagne’s era becomes Calvino’s excuse to evoke a major dilemma of twentieth century epistemology. In the era when this story took place, writes the narrator, it was common “to find names and thoughts and forms and institutions that corresponded to nothing in existence,” yet the world at the same time was “polluted with objects and capacities and persons who lacked any name or distinguishing mark.”
Much of the book is a lusty parody of the stuff of Ariosto, whose mode becomes a vehicle for charming takeoffs on ideologies fundamental to Western culture: Judeo-Christian dualism, the cult of virginity and purity in general, the notion of progress, the idealization of war—“the passing of more and more dented objects from hand to hand.” A complicated plot replete with fancifully misplaced identities, and through which Agilulf finally ceases to “nonexist,” is also reminiscent of Ariosto. Awarded knighthood for having saved the virgin Sophronia from bandits, Agilulf’s precarious being depends on the lady in question’s immaculate virtue. Torrismond, a competing knight, swears at the crucial time that Sophronia is his mother and, therefore, no virgin. As it turns out several subplots later, Sophronia is really Torrismond’s half sister and a virgin after all—until he deflowers her under the impression that she is a nun recently forced into a sultan’s harem. The good news comes too late for Agilulf, however, who, thinking that his identity is inauthentic—a long title embroidered on a void—loses the will to exist and vanishes.
This resolution collapses the primary triangle of the plot. The young Raimbaut falls in love with a knight who turns out to be Bradamante, a young woman, who in turn falls in love with the nonexistent knight—until the latter bequeaths his armor to the younger, more authentic man, and Bradamante is thus free to find her true love embodied in it. The most surprising turn of plot, however, occurs in the subtext, which emerges in the fourth chapter and gradually frames the story proper.
The Non-existent Knight is narrated by an ingenue different from Calvino’s previous ones: Sister Theodora, who had been assigned to tell this story as a penance. Some very funny false notes are sounded when she protests her inadequacy for lack of contact with soldiers. Apart from “religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we [nuns] have had no experience.” Her comments have to do, predictably enough, with the gap between her words and the external world. Ironically, her “assiduous penance” of “seeking words andmeditating on ultimate truths” works like Agilulf’s strenuous willing of himself into significant being: It ends in self-consciousness and a consequent failure of will and imagination. Sister Theodora experiences writer’s block with symptoms anticipating what John Barth has called a postmodernist “literature of exhaustion”: “The pen merely grates in dusty ink, and not a drop of life flows, and life is all outside, outside the window, outside oneself.”
Fortunately, Sister Theodora is unlike the nonexistent knight in that she has substantial resources on which to draw, an existence apart from words and significations. Pushing the tale precipitously to its conclusion, she confesses that she is really the Amazon Bradamante, yet a Bradamante changed radically by her discipline as convent scribe. She joined the convent out of “desperate love” for the ideal Agilulf but now burns for “the young and passionate Raimbaut”—in all his imperfect but vital reality—and rushes from the convent walls to meet him. Her new aesthetic, which corresponds with her new love (Raimbaut in Agilulf’s armor), insists on the interdependence of art and life, if not exactly littérature engagée: “A page is good only when we turn it and find life urging along, confusing every page in the book. The pen rushes on, urged by the same joy that makes me course the open road.” If—or because—words fail to make present an external reality (and a desperate Sister Theodora resorts at one point to drawing word pictures), they must create exits to new worlds. Lest the conclusion seem a contradiction of The Baron in the Trees, Calvino has Theodora/Bradamante admit that “after affrays and affairs and blighted hopes,” she will “always return to this cloister” of art, which, after all, was responsible for changing her mind. He thus posits a symbiosis of essence and substance, words and things, self and world.
A combination of fabulation and metafiction, The Non-existent Knight sets the stage for Calvino’s later works in at least three ways. One is deliberate anachronism—the allusion to the legendary past in a story with a transparently contemporary outlook—to achieve a timelessness of reference and appeal. A related strategy is the playful and multileveled parody, which extends to the acts of writing and reading, turning literature, whatever the genre, into an epistemological and semantic game. Finally, there is the mixture of literary and popular sources to confuse the borders of high and low culture. In general, the deliberate confusion of times, genres, and cultures expresses Calvino’s mature view of the world. However reminiscent of Gurduloo’s “vast shapeless mass of soup” in which things continuously dissolve and begin again, The Non-existent Knight is up-to-date, as Calvino stresses. It is meant to address the future.
Cosmicomics and t zero
Similar concerns inform Cosmicomics and its sequel, t zero. Neither short-story collections nor novels (although perhaps a cross between them)—nor even fictions in the sense of representations of the empirical world—these books combine contemporary science and fantasy in a completely new way, to imagine what could not have been and never will be (unlike science fiction, which imagines what might be). At the same time, they domesticate scientific theories that are quoted or summarized before each narrative, much as the earlier Calvino “realized” fairy-tale premises. “All at One Point” explains the big bang theory in terms of Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0’s spontaneous desire to make noodles for everyone. This desire, verbalized at a certain moment (“Oh, if I only had some room, how I’d like to make some noodles for you boys!”), causes everyone to think space and time into existence, “the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough,” the space for the flour for the dough, the fields for the wheat for the flour, until a “true outburst of general love” has initiated the concept of space, “space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitating universe.” In so humanizing science, Calvino makes strange new worlds comfortable and inhabitable—in contrast to much science fiction, which often exploits its capacity to estrange and dislocate.
Also in contrast to most science fiction is the treatment of time. Cosmicomics and t zero trace the creation of the universe rather than transporting readers into the future. The stories correlate the billions of years covered with natural stages in a human life span, conveying vividly, for example, the sense that Qfwfq, the narrator, was “just a child” in the dark before the sun’s condensation. He is quite adolescent as a mollusk in love for the first time. A number of “families” run through the equivalent of several generations.
In another sense, these stories do not trace anything, however, for they are randomly arranged. The randomness exists in part to avoid the teleological perspective of most evolutionary theory. In this universe, there are really no endings or final causes, only present moments erupting into new beginnings. The protean hero Qfwfq exists only to be transformed in an unending process, and the random arrangement of his various formations makes the reader adapt to dislocation with him. Qfwfq’s nonchalance makes such jolts quite easy. As he so simply puts it, “I went on my way.”
Qfwfq’s radical openness to experience marks him as another of Calvino’s “children,” wide-eyed and matter-of-fact at the same time. He and his family of protean beings are childlike in another way: They are cartoon characters in words, as Calvino implies in the title of Cosmicomics and as he shows by “drawing” the story “The Origin of the Birds” in t zero. The author compared Qfwfq to Popeye, the partly domesticated sailor, and certainly Qfwfq is just as “real,” experiencing narcissism, desire, and love in “The Spiral,” making his mark on the world in “A Sign in Space,” confronting competitors in sign making, and betting on future events. Throughout his bewildering transformations, and much like a cartoon character, Qfwfq remains unruffled. As Calvino seems to say, all that is life. His cartoons show what it is like to embody a meson, a dinosaur, a mollusk, a racing car. They educate the imagination by strengthening its capacity and so provide a kind of insurance against future shock.
Throughout Cosmicomics and increasingly in t zero, Calvino delights in drawing out abstract concepts in semiotics, reflecting the theories of Roland Barthes and the fictional methods of Jorge Luis Borges. In “A Sign in Space,” Qfwfq makes the first sign in the universe. A rival, Kgwgk, erases the sign and replaces it with his own, so that Qfwfq must make a new, competitive sign, and so on, so that language, style, and art are born. Eventually (and reflecting the media blitz), the universe is covered with a meaningless scrawl, obscuring space and making distinctions between sign and sign, and between sign and space, nonexistent.
In three novels written in the 1970’s, Calvino continued to explore the relationship between signs and the reality they are supposed to represent. Invisible Cities, the first of these three metafictions, declares its concern with semiology at the outset, erecting a frame tale that stands for Barthes’s concept of the world as text. The teller of the body of the narrative is revealed to be Marco Polo, who re-creates or imagines his journeys to countless fabulous cities. The listener is Kublai Khan, now old and confined to his fabled court, who cannot travel to the vast kingdom he possesses except through Marco Polo’s tales. As suggested in the title, the outside world cannot live except through the dialogue that composes the book itself. Calvino provides no other characters, no plot, and no adventures other than the brief accounts of the cities themselves to detract from this metafictional perspective.
Kublai Khan’s (and the reader’s) part in this dialogue is to search for a pattern in Marco Polo’s fifty-five cities, varied according to categories such as “cities and memory,” “cities and desire,” “thin cities,” “cities and eyes,” “cities and names,” and “continuous cities.” Listening or reading is made into a game or puzzle that stands for the human need to seek out order and meaning in an otherwise random world. As in Cosmicomics and t zero, the possibility of moves, the “catalogue of forms,” is “endless: until every shape has found its cities, new cities will continually begin.” In Invisible Cities, Calvino applies to narrative alternatives his view of life as infinitely transformable. He also attempts to rejuvenate the written medium by portraying the situation and capturing the mood of oral narrative—consciously repeating, establishing rhythm, to the Khan’s delight, in tapestries of words and patterns for their own sake.
As Marco Polo and Kublai Khan converse, the Venetian learns the Khan’s language. In the beginning, Marco Polo can recount his journeys only in pantomime—with gestures, cries, and objects he has collected along the way. Although the Khan finds “the connection between them and the places visiteduncertain,” and must to a great extent create his own story, Marco Polo’s mute representations have “the power of emblems.” After he learns to speak in the local idiom, communication is more precise but strangely “less happy than in the past.” Emblems, however primitive, are more eloquent than conventional language.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies
The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino’s next metafiction, employs tarot cards as an emblematic language more evocative than words. In the frame story, several pilgrims come together at a castle and, trying to tell one another their tales, find that they have been struck dumb. One pilgrim hits on an idea that had come to obsess Calvino: He uses tarot cards, with the aid of grimaces and gestures, to represent himself and his adventures. With the tarot’s four suits (coins, cups, clubs, and swords) and the arcana, twenty-one picture cards capable of suggesting multiple interpretations, Calvino again tells a story about telling stories—about the inexhaustible resources of narrative. Two decks are used in two sections: in “Castle,” the richly beautiful deck painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the dukes of Milan in the fifteenth century, and in “Tavern,” the popular ancien tarot de Marseille from the eighteenth century. The cards are reproduced in the margins of the book. To stress his use of pictorial, popular, and communal art forms, Calvino had hoped to create a third section, called “Motel,” to be narrated through fragments of comic strips.
As it is, he almost succeeds in his plan to use every card in the pack—in a sort of pictorial crossword puzzle through which each story is a reading of a vertical or horizontal card sequence, with the card stories interlocking and permutating ad infinitum.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies comes close to being Calvino’s monomyth, his answer to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), cross-referencing tales of Faust, Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Oedipus, Helen of Troy, the Marquis de Sade, and Ariosto’s Roland in a world animated by the elements of war, love, and magic. In spite of the obvious temptation toward the esoteric and alinear, Calvino carries through with much of his usual simplicity and literalness. Still, these tales lack the concreteness of his previous invisible cities, as Calvino virtually admits in an afterword: He had seen in the cards a perfect “machine for constructing stories” and, after exhausting them and himself in the process, published the book “to be free of” an obsession not far from the nonexistent knight’s intricate, empty rituals, the “diabolical idea” of “conjuring up all the stories that could be contained in a tarot deck.”
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
After six years of silence, Calvino emerged from this diabolic/penitential formalism in the mood of Sister Theodora’s abrupt revelation: He rushed out, like Bradamante, burning for young and passionate life. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is on one level another tour de force; it is composed entirely of beginnings, with one set inside and precipitating another, as in The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (fifteenth century). It is also about fiction as a transaction with the reader, and in that sense it is engaged with the world beyond the page. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler dramatizes, literalizes, and so becomes a kind of love affair with (and among) readers.
It is an active human element, in part—the felt presence of living characters—that Calvino’s earlier metafictions fail to communicate. In Invisible Cities and The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Calvino breaks with his premises, however theoretically perfect their representation—most notably in the use of ancient emblems to create an equivalence between card reading and tale telling, between art and life. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler has rough edges, partly because it is told almost completely in the present tense, like his first book, and in the second person. From the first word, “you,” the Reader, are the hero of “Italo Calvino’s new novel,” which “you” are beginning to read. “You” are therefore the most living, breathing character ever invented, literalized into your own story—as opposed to the mechanical plots of the mass media: “Tell the others right away, ’No, I don’t want to watch TV!’”
Such a premise is so blatant as to seem downright silly, which is what Calvino intends. His usual naïve narrator is now a transparent parody of himself, a myopically concerned but quite real “Calvino” peering out of the page. Certainly, in a sense, this book is his most bookish. The premise is based, after all, on a mere extension of structuralism and semiotics (responsible for the premises of his previous metafictions) toward the reader-response emphasis of poststructuralism. It again presumes Barthes’s world as text: Ten novels from countries around the world are telescoped into one. The difference is in the way it directs characterized—and real—readers toward the unwritten world, through an unfolding series of beginnings into realms “somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing” toward a voice “from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say.”
In fact, the dramatic tension of the book comes from its conflict between Calvino’s self-confessed obsession with print and his desire to reach whatever lies beyond it. The plot is an editor’s nightmare of “pages, lines, words, whirling in a dust storm”; it is engaged with the politics of print—with terrorist organizations, conspiracies, censors, and the like, all militating against the writer. The plot is generated by a scheme by the character Ermes Marana, the brilliant translator and founder of OEPHLW (Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works), to “flood the world” with a “literature of apocrypha, of false attributions, of imitations and counterfeits and pastiches.” Marana, representing the mass media, has paralyzed the world’s best-selling author, Silas Flannery, upon whose creativity much of the world’s economy, and thus world peace, depends. The fate of civilization hangs on the word, on Flannery’s ability (as a fan of Snoopy) to get beyond “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” Calvino has therefore returned to the battleground of his first novels—transformed, however, into the media blitz of the 1980’s. This is the world war as he sees it for the late twentieth century. If the medium is the message, the “fascist machine” is whoever made this chaos in the first place. This is not Marana but Calvino, or his persona’s diabolic mania for mechanically contrived order, leading to the cosmic scrawl or entropy of “A Sign in Space.”
What redeems the real Calvino is not his contemporary self-awareness, which is the root of the problem, but his ability to lose himself, as in his first fantasies, in the game with the reader taken as far as it can go. Behind his main gimmick is, as usual, a theoretical source, Barthes’s Le Plaisir du texte (1973; The Pleasure of the Text, 1975), which correlates reading with lovemaking. In a search through ten fragmentary novels for the true text of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Marana’s machinations having jumbled and displaced the lot of them, the Reader discovers the Other Reader, Ludmilla, who is searching for the same book—or thing. A love story develops that extends Calvino’s romance with the reader into one between readers. The diametrical opposite of her sister Lotaria, whose computer-assisted thesis catalogs Flannery’s words as he writes them, Ludmilla is the “common,” or naïve, reader, for whom reading is a creation and a search. The “circuits of her mind” transform the “current” of reading into “what in her is most personal and incommunicable.” In present-tense moments between the pseudonovels, “you,” as Reader, are allowed by your (however passive) rival “Calvino” to “read” the furniture of her apartment, her kitchen utensils, her body, until she “skims” your “index,” and so on. Hence, the real reader is to learn how common, how true to life, and how vital reading is.
According to the narrator, the crucial resemblance between reading and lovemaking is that “within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.” It is in these open passages, Calvino shows, that transactions between solitary readers take place. He extends a concept of reading as an act of becoming by showing how the shared activity of reading brings individuals together. As early as the thirty-second page, reading has become a dialogue. Hoping that the book has become “an instrument, a channel of communication, a rendezvous,” “Calvino” asks, “What is more natural than [that] a solidarity, a complicity, a bond should be established between Reader and Reader, thanks to the book?” The book ends in “your” (plural) marriage, a commitment to the common activity and cause of reading. In the final chapter, a “great double bed” receives “your parallel readings.”
The marriage stands for the existence of a larger context, a community of individual, parallel readers “out there” or underground, resisting, in their passive, private way, formulation and system—the tyranny of plots, codes, propaganda, Marana’s literature of “bad faith.” Calvino is thus back where he started in The Path to the Nest of Spiders, with a unique form of littérature engagée: The partisans’ movement has become a “reading resistance.” Even the government censor goes home every night, as he says, “to abandon myself to reading, like that distant unknown woman,” Ludmilla, the common reader, and Marana himself has to admit that when he is reading, “something happens over which I have no power.” This happening, as the censor explains, “is the limit that even the most omnipotent police force cannot broach.”
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler admirably sums up Calvino’s career: His was a search for a “true text,” a medium of engagement, and he seems to have found it. Throughout his various transformations, he made the reader’s experience his primary concern, his secondary one being language’s power to change the mind—by charming imagination into a life of its own.