Italo Calvino

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Italo Calvino World Literature Analysis

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Calvino’s reputation as a master storyteller and innovative writer rests primarily on his success in fusing the traditional and original, the magical and mundane, the grotesque and ineffable—elements that are disparate, even contradictory. Generally, this literary alchemy is seen in two basic ways: If the story relates something real, Calvino will introduce magical or fantastic elements; if it describes the incredible or imaginary, he will present it in a nonchalantly realistic manner.

Because of the intricate interrelationship of the actual and the imaginary in his work, Calvino is considered both a realist and a fantasist. His brand of realism, however, is best described as neorealistic. Like realism and naturalism, neorealism depicts the world in an unidealized, concrete manner. Unlike these other literary genres, neorealism does not do so in order to present an impartial picture of reality; rather, it seeks to communicate a particular experience of that reality. Neorealism achieves this effect by revealing the elusive, intangible aspects of experience—the psychological, symbolic, or metaphysical dimensions, for example—residing within the physical and actual.

Calvino’s imaginative perception of the real world is complemented by his rational interpretation of the fantastic. As he observes in an essay from Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societa (1980; The Uses of Literature, 1986):For me the main thing in a narrative is not the explanation of an extraordinary event, but the order of things that this extraordinary event produces in itself and around it; the pattern, the symmetry, the network of images deposited around it, as in the formation of a crystal.

Calvino refers frequently to the crystal to describe his own way of thinking and writing. In Sulla fiaba (1988; Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988), a collection of lectures that he was preparing at the time of his death, he remarks that the precision and geometric faceting of the crystal, and its ability to refract light, are what make it, for him, a model of perfection and an emblem of his work. In his writing, Calvino mimics the crystal’s rationality, symmetry, and ability to combine endlessly in order to explore all the possible variations and alternatives of a given idea or argument. For him, the possible is as important as the real.

The “crystalline” features of Calvino’s fiction are especially pronounced in works from his Parisian years. The complex permutations in t zero, the multiplicity of phenomena and interpretation in Invisible Cities, and the intricately woven interrelationships of characters, events, images, and ideas in The Castle of Crossed Destinies are clearly analogous to the faceted structure and systematic self-organization of crystals. Simultaneously rational and organic, this system offers Calvino a satisfying intellectual and artistic means of expressing and illuminating the entanglements of human life within an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

The crystal’s almost magical relationship with light is another significant quality. Applied to Calvino’s fiction, lightness—one of the literary values he admired and discusses in Six Memos for the Next Millennium—suggests luminosity, elucidation, and weightlessness. Luminosity refers to visibility, or the exactness of Calvino’s images. After observing that his stories generally grow out of an image or visualized concept, Calvino affirms that the visual image is “a way of attaining knowledge of the most profound meaning.” In order to arrive at that meaning, he uses a procedure that strives to unite spontaneously generated images with the sequential logic of discursive thought. That is, in order to interpret images into words and then mold them into a narrative, he synthesizes intuition and reason, spontaneity and calculation, fantasy and fact.

Calvino’s talent for elucidating contemporary reality often finds...

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paradoxical expression in his historical novels. He sometimes takes a remarkable event as his departure point, such as Italian merchant Marco Polo’s thirteenth century visit to Mongol emperor Kublai Khan’s court inInvisible Cities, and interprets it in an original manner, which sheds light on contemporary issues. He also uses the literature of the past, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) and Miguel de Cervantes’s satiric novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620), for example, to inspire and form his modern visions.

Calvino’s respect for the past and for literary tradition rarely translates into mere imitation. In Cosmicomics and t zero, for example, he reverses the usual premise of the historical novel: Instead of using the past as a means for understanding the present, and instead of evoking a real, specific time and place from history, he employs modern scientific theories to fashion a fantastic, impossible past. This reconstruction achieves its unity through its first-person narrator, Qfwfq, an ageless, protean being who describes the formation of the cosmos, the evolution of life, and the perplexities of consciousness. With Qfwfq, Calvino not only gives abstract ideas, such as time and space, a narrative form, but, more importantly, elucidates important questions about the character of existence and the essence of being human.

It is this last question that raises the idea of light as weightlessness; while the tone of his work is accurately described as “light,” it can hardly be called frivolous. This quality he prefers to characterize as a buoyant thoughtfulness adopted to ease thedesperate and all-pervading oppression . . . in a human condition common to us all. . . . Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness . . . I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. . . . I look to ~~[literature and] science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears.

Literature for Calvino is thus not a body of traditions or a special, artistic way of using words; it is rather “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.” This search not only expresses humankind’s existential needs but also affirms people’s distinctly human values.

The Cloven Viscount

First published: Il visconte dimezzato, 1952 (English translation, 1962)

Type of work: Novella

Split lengthwise by a cannonball, Medardo’s good and evil halves generate various kinds of conflict, try to destroy each other, and are finally reunited.

The Cloven Viscount was rereleased in 1960 as part of the trilogy I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors, 1980). Although the three novellas have no specifics in common, they are nonetheless connected by their similar exploration of concepts illuminating contemporary cultural crises. The Cloven Viscount probes ethics by interpreting literally the division of human good and evil; The Baron in the Trees explores the isolation and egocentricity of individuals; and The Non-Existent Knight examines the clash between the ideal and the real, between image and actuality.

The Cloven Viscount is deceptively simple. Participating in his first battle, Medardo is cloven in two by a cannonball. Patched by doctors, the recovered half returns to Terralba, immediately causes his father’s death, and terrorizes the countryside; it is Medardo’s evil self. Soon his good side returns. Inevitably, the two sides meet, duel, and, because of their wounds, are finally fused into “a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness.”

Clearly a parable on human nature, Medardo’s division alludes to the archetypal struggle between good and evil. Yet Calvino offers alternate interpretations of this central dichotomy. In this story and its seventeenth century setting, Medardo’s division refers to philosophical dualism—the human being perceived as mind and body, subject and object—a view formulated around 1640 by French philosopher René Descartes. Moreover, with the motifs of science and technology, Calvino further alludes to a twentieth century variation: human being and machine. Technology, like its creator, is both gift and curse; like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it possesses a formidable, ambiguous power.

To explore divisiveness and the ambiguities of duality, many other characters also contain contradictions: Pamela is chaste but earthy; Pietrochiodo is a destructive creator; Medardo’s nephew, the narrator, is a high-born bastard. These variations and juxtapositions direct attention to what dualism, by nature, disregards—the inevitable “shades of gray.” Such permutations also serve to effect a reversal in the sense of the terms of the dichotomy, as when the good Medardo is considered a worse evil than his counterpart. By exposing the complexity behind the supposed simplicity, Calvino emphasizes the integral unity of dichotomies: “Thus the days went by at Terralba, and our sensibilities became numbed, since we felt ourselves lost between an evil and a virtue equally inhuman.” The paradoxical relationship of the two Medardos to Terralba’s unusual members, especially the dour Huguenots and hedonistic lepers, provides a good example of the intersection of theme, structure, and technique in Calvino’s work.

Unfortunately, “a whole Viscount is not enough to make all the world whole.” Novels, like the situations they depict and the life they emulate, are, at least for Calvino, complex things incapable of giving easy answers. As the narrator melancholically reflects at the end: “I, though, amid all this fervor of wholeness, felt myself growing sadder and more lacking. Sometimes one who thinks himself incomplete is merely young.”

The Baron in the Trees

First published: Il barone rampante, 1957 (English translation, 1959)

Type of work: Novella

A young baron, rebelling against the restraints of family and society, climbs into the treetops to live freely, vowing never to descend.

Calvino appropriately sets The Baron in the Trees, his tale of the rebellious and eccentric Baron Cosimo Rondo, in the late eighteenth century—the uneasy transitional period from Enlightenment to Romanticism. The elegance, inventiveness, and practicality with which Cosimo (only twelve when he climbs into the trees) adapts to and improves upon his condition illustrate the Enlightenment’s faith in reason, progress, and perfectibility. Cosimo’s self-indulgence, “superhuman tenacity,” and feral lifestyle, on the other hand, suggest the egotism, extravagance, and primitivism of Romantic sensibility.

Elevated above the world, Cosimo enters a familiar reality made strange, in which “branches spread out like the tentacles of extraordinary animals, and the plants on the ground opened up stars of fretted leaves like the green skins of reptiles.” Stranger yet are the people he encounters: ragamuffin fruit thieves, murderous Moors, plotting Jesuits, literate brigands, exiled Spaniards, and even the great Napoleon I himself. Each seems more curious than the other.

It is Cosimo who is the most unusual of the lot. As Biagio, the narrator and Cosimo’s brother, remarks, the locals consider him mad: “I am not talking only of his determination to live up there, but of the various oddities of his character; and no one considered him other than an original.” Original in his persistent aloofness and nonconformity, Cosimo is also unique for the many guises he assumes. Sometimes, for example, he portrays a savior, as when he extinguishes fires and assists peasants. Other times he is a destroyer, as when he causes his uncle’s decapitation, his bandit friend’s hanging, and his aged tutor’s lifelong imprisonment. Most usually, however, he is a subversive: insurrection, a “Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees,” and freemasonry all play parts in his revolt against human organization.

Cosimo’s eccentric individualism arouses both admiration and contempt, sympathy and incomprehension—an ambivalence particularly pronounced in his love affairs. His most complicated affair is with the perverse and haughty aristocrat Violante (Viola). Throughout the book, these two collide, mingle, and separate like a pair of natural, primeval forces. Cosimo’s obstinate pride and ignorance of human feeling finally, irrevocably, clash with Viola’s insatiable emotional appetite. As fiercely independent as Cosimo, Viola’s individuality becomes too much for the customarily distant Cosimo; the inability to communicate and to accept another’s individuality ultimately destroys their union.

Alone as never before, Cosimo vacillates between utterly wild, animalistic behavior and elaborately rational plans “for installing a world republic of men—equal, free, and just.” Well past the age of sixty, he finally encounters a death that is as curious as his life and maintains his childhood vow. Although touchingly lyrical, his memorial, “Lived in trees—Always loved earth—Went into sky,” only emphasizes his essential detachment from human life.

Paradoxically, however, Cosimo contributes his own special legacy to humanity. Restless spirit and witness to a great age, the “patriot on the treetops” achieves mythic stature. As his brother/biographer comments:[Cosimo] understood something else, something that was all-embracing, and he could not say it in words but only by living as he did. Only by being so frankly himself as he was till his death could he give something to all men.

Invisible Cities

First published: Le città invisibili, 1972 (English translation, 1974)

Type of work: Novel

A young Marco Polo distracts the aging Kublai Khan with wild tales of cities he has seen in his travels—or are they reworked versions of the same city?

Despite being called a novel, Invisible Cities is not truly a novel. There is no plot or character development. Instead, it is a collection of about fifty-five short, highly impressionistic pastiches of arbitrarily named fantastic cities (such as Adelma, Berenice, Chloe, Diomira, Irene, Penthesilea, Phyllis, Raissa, Valdrada, Zirma, and Zobeide, to name a few), placed in a structure that is quite meticulous, yet rambling, that nearly mimics the structure of a full commercial novel.

The stories are set within the framework of a very loose dialogue wherein the famous Venetian explorer Marco Polo comes to the court of the legendary emperor Kublai Khan. While there, Polo is instructed to travel the empire and gather not gold or treasure but stories with which to regale the aging, and frequently impatient, conqueror with descriptions of every city he has visited on his long peregrinations through the Mongolian realm, as Khan is bored with his own messengers’ stories. Throughout the dialogue—and a true dialogue it is, as Khan and Polo are the only two characters in the work (although a case could be made that each city is also its own character)—the emperor expresses his belief that Polo is merely describing his home city of Venice in different and fanciful ways, ways that Polo could not use with honesty or impunity in his own land. Khan also occasionally believes that the cities Polo is describing do not exist at all, except in the Venetian explorer’s imagination.

Upon a summary first reading, Invisible Cities could be considered a nice collection of prose works on imaginary cities. Indeed, during the interplay between the two characters it is difficult to tell whether the things Polo is describing represent differing aspects of a single city or different cities with the same aspect in each of them. However, it quickly becomes clear that while some passages are horribly contrived, the novel is larger in scope than mere descriptions of cities. It is a work that muses upon the concept of living in a city, the concept of home, and perhaps even the concept of belonging somewhere. Calvino’s book is also a surreal and postmodern journey through the language of the imagination, a delicious mélange of psychological states, physical states, sensory states, transcendence, and more.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

First published: Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore, 1979 (English translation, 1981)

Type of work: Novel

The Reader and the Other Reader attempt to read ten different books in ten different genres in libraries, bookstores, and government archives around the world. They also fall in love with each other and uncover an insidious plot by Apocryphers to replace real books with fake books.

This novel, which is definitely not a quick read, is considered an Oulipian work. Oulipo, the acronomym for Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), was founded on November 24, 1960, in France as a subcommittee of the Collège de Pataphysique by Raymond Queneau and François le Lionnais. This group of writers and mathematicians sought to create works using constrained techniques, such as repetition, switching every noun in a story with another noun, and writing without using a specific letter of the alphabet.

In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Calvino uses the constraint of repetitive experiences slightly differently. All the odd-numbered chapters are told in the second person and tell the reader what is happening in preparation for the next chapter. All the even-numbered chapters are chapters of the books that the protagonist is trying to read.

Near the end of the novel, the character Silas Flannery perhaps states what Calvino himself thought when writing this work: “I have had the idea of writing a novel composed only of beginnings of novels. The protagonist could be a Reader who is continually interrupted. The Reader buys the new novel A by the author Z. But it is a defective copy, he cannot go beyond the beginning. . . . He returns to the bookstore to have the volume exchanged . . . ”

As the Reader continually tries to obtain a correct copy of the book that he wants to read, each time he encounters a problem: The chapters are all the same in one book, and the “replacement” is a totally different book altogether, although the pages after a certain point are all blank.

Calvino’s skill is evident in this work, as each of the “novels” within the novel is written as though by a different author, with differing styles, tone, and prose. It is almost as though the author is daring readers to continue reading despite the abrupt endings, U-turns, and divergences. Despite the shuffling and shifting of stories, the end of the book ties up all the loose ends.

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