Italo Calvino

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J. R. Woodhouse (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7152

SOURCE: “Fantasy, Alienation and the Racconti of Italo Calvino,” in Forum of Modern Language Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, October, 1970, pp. 399–412.

[In the following analysis of I racconti, Woodhouse shows how alienation is one of the dominant themes in Calvino's fiction.]

The controversial aura which surrounds almost everything which Italo Calvino has done or written since he was awarded the Premio Riccione in 1947 for Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (Turin, Einaudi, 1947) has continued until the present day. The verdict of 1947 was controversial, and again in 1968, in the competition for the Viareggio prize, the verdict hung upon the vote of one judge. Calvino won, but he refused the prize on the grounds that its acceptance simply helped shore up an outmoded institution, the literary prize!1 In the intervening twenty-one years, Calvino's work has always been greeted with a host of conflicting critical opinions. Perhaps no aspect of his work has met with more controversy than the alliance of his fantastic imagination with his commitment to society, for the emphasis on fantasy has sometimes led critics to believe him frivolous, while his more obviously realistic stories have simply served to underline the apparent conflict. Throughout his literary career, Calvino has always been interested in the problems of alienation. Consistent with his theories he has shown a great preoccupation with the need for the artist and writer to communicate with their fellows without isolating themselves, almost as specialists in their own right. In order to communicate with a wide audience, however, Calvino's work has, by definition, necessarily had to have popular appeal. This attitude again produces a portrait of the intellectual abandoning commitment for popularity, when his aim is precisely that of presenting a committed message in popular terms. My purpose is to show how Calvino's exotic techniques are particularly effective in convincing his reader of the injurious effects of alienation. It should be further explained that the word fantasy has been deliberately chosen for the title of this essay in preference to such terms as surrealism or impressionism. For, though surrealism or impressionism may be used to describe certain aspects of Calvino's output, to employ those terms accurately would be to limit Calvino's imaginative creations to a particular school, while to use them in the sense of fantastic or imaginative would be a failure to define terms only too often found in contemporary critics of Calvino.

Of all the problems which affect modern urban and industrial society, the most serious and all-embracing are those which may be loosely grouped under the head of alienation. Since Rousseau first noted the fragmenting effects of trade, commerce and industry upon man's traditional social units, many subtle variations on his notion of estrangement have evolved. The Falrets made alienation into a medically certifiable disease; Marx added political and sociological overtones which reintroduced Rousseauistic thought in an industrial situation, and Freud's notion of isolation added other psychological meanings to the phenomenon. During the past twenty years, alienation has become increasingly a preoccupation of a host of experts, including sociologists, doctors, welfare workers, and, not unnaturally, writers, and alienation is a problem which is evidently a major preoccupation in Calvino's study of mankind. Indeed, many non-literary essays of his concern the specific type of alienation which affects the worker or the specialist.2 His is a comprehensively modern view of alienation, not restricted to one category by political, medical or psychological definitions, and in his work one is astounded by the remarkable variety of nuances in his treatment of the phenomenon which inspires him. Without necessarily attempting to define a word which is developing new meanings daily, I should like to point to the Rousseauistic scale of personages running through Calvino's work, and ranging from the naive and ingenuous type of personage, who is one with nature, to the depersonalised mind which creates new scientific discoveries, which are inexpressible except in terms of mathematical formulae. Between these two extremes, between Zeffirino, the boy hero of “Pesci grossi, pesci piccoli,”3 and Qfwfq, personified formula of Le cosmicomiche (Turin, Einaudi, 1965) and Ti con zero (Turin, Einaudi, 1967), there emerge a host of characters who provide subtle variations on the theme.

The breakdown in man's relationship with his fellows or his environment is often an inner, psychological event, inexplicable except in the rather intangible terms of the subject's repressed feelings. Often, too, the environment may become so distorted from its former state that the unfortunate individual, not yet conditioned to accept the change, feels ill at ease. In either case the phenomenon of alienation is concerned with distortions of reality brought about either by thought processes or by physical changes in one's environment. The two are often inseparable. What in the twentieth century is explained medically and psychologically was, in the absence of scientific verification, formerly explained mystically or superstitiously. The borderline between the imagination and the condition of alienation may be seen therefore as a very thin one. This essay is an attempt to show how a great writer blends reality and fantasy. For convenience, I have chosen I racconti as my subject, for the collected short stories are a rich and concentrated compendium of thirteen years of writing (1945–1958), but my theme could as easily have been illustrated from any number of Calvino's stories or novels. By juxtaposing fantasy and reality in this way, it will be possible to see how the one aids the other, thus lending weight to a wider thesis that even at his most fantastic, Calvino can be most engagé.

Ernst Fischer in his exciting study, The Necessity of Art (Penguin Books, 1963), faces the traditional marxist dilemma of alienation and society:

In the alienated world in which we live, social reality must be presented in an arresting way, in a new light, through the “alienation” of the subject and the characters.

(p. 10)

It is almost as though Calvino had taken some such advice to heart at the beginning of his literary career, for the social reality which he describes, and particularly the very real problem of alienation, is presented in such an arresting way and such a new light that critics have found it hard to pin a specific label on any part of his output. Vladimír Hořký in a clear and objective account of the Racconti, sums up the traditional difficulties well:

Di fronte ai Racconti di Italo Calvino, uno dei più significativi e originali scrittori contemporanei, la critica letteraria italiana sembra un poco imbarazzata. E' la sua opera realistica, o non è che una evasione nel mondo fantastico e irreale? Questa domanda—quanto ne sappiamo—s'impone frequentemente all'interesse dei critici, i quali danno spesso risposte diverse, se non opposte.4

One answer to the problem is that Calvino's work does vary from reality to fantasy, but that would be a facile answer which does not take into account those novelle which cannot be so readily categorised. Particularly when Calvino is treating of alienation, I believe that his imagery and his language become more and more fantastic until the apparent paradox is reached where the most real and fundamentally human situation is expressed in fantastic, sometimes surrealist, terms. Calvino steers a course between realism and fantasy, and though he may occasionally emphasise reality, as he does in La giornata di uno scrutatore (Turin, Einaudi, 1963), this is rare, and his bubbling humour and scintillating imagination more often predominate. Calvino explores the imaginative possibilities of aspects of modern living. I believe that this exploration has been a constant preoccupation of Calvino's, and that the same attitude which characterises his work in I nostri antenati (Turin, Einaudi, 1960), is also present in Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno and in Ti con zero. In some novels or short stories imagination may play a dominant part, so that reality in Il cavaliere inesistente has to be filtered through a form which approaches allegory, while in “Andato al comando” (I racconti, Turin, Einaudi, 1961, pp. 54–59), reality plays a more important role. But I believe that there is a continuity between the earliest novelle and the latest Ti con zero, a continuity which is not fragmented by so-called differing attitudes in the intervening work of Calvino. Elsewhere I have tried to show that the catalyst in the blending process of reality and fantasy may be found in Calvino's study of the fairy story and of folklore.5 If my appraisal of Calvino‘s work is a true one, then many of the divergent opinions as to Calvino's achievement during his literary career would be reconciled by that explanation. It is a well-known fact that attempts to label his work have used an enormous variety of epithets which include such conflicting terms as realistic and fantastic, neorealist and Rabelaisian, rationalist and magical, Rousseauistic and Ariostesque, as well as fabulous, impressionist and surrealist. Such descriptions might well be applied to individual and isolated stories, but I believe that his very nonconformity has produced a type of writing which rarely bears comparison with that of any other novelist. It is a type which does reflect the interest of an engagé intellectual concerned with expressing social issues in an exciting form, though even in his engagement Calvino presents the critic with difficulties of definition.6 The marxist rejects him as too unorthodox, even uncommitted, while the bourgeois critic sees him as extremely left-wing. Hořký's essay has an obvious ideological bias. He can suggest that for some time after 1956: “… le premesse positive dello sviluppo ulteriore di Calvino erano smorzate da un vacillamento politico” (op. cit. p. 72), yet even Hořký admits that despite Calvino's neglect of wide-ranging, socially important themes in Gli amori difficili, here is a cycle of stories which contain a criticism of bourgeois moral decadence and the exaltation of a more wholesome, working-class family life. Calvino himself has something to say about the tedium of exhortatory literature which has tended to tag along behind practical philosophies.7 His aversion to such propaganda more than explains his own penchant for the exciting and the interesting in literature. Again, R. Barilli, in his perspicacious study of I racconti, declares that Calvino may not be called engagé in a commonly accepted political or social sense because of the Rousseauistic and anarchist ideals expressed in I racconti. He goes on to say:

Appunto perché in possesso di una natura decisamente aliena da ogni struttura ideologica che pretenda aggiungersi all'ilare e curioso gioco dello sguardo, Calvino è stato in grado di entrare tra i primi in rottura col clima fittizio e pesante del nostro neorealismo postbellico.8

Calvino has certainly produced enough essays of a non-literary type to illustrate his own brand of commitment. This is not the place to elaborate on the theme, but it should be made clear that Calvino is concerned with almost every aspect of social life and that his work deliberately expresses important issues in a form accessible and palatable to a vast audience, ranging from the barely literate to the cultivated intellectual. The intellectual content of Le cosmicomiche, for example, ranges from authentic scientific theories on the cooling of the earth's crust to hypotheses on the future of the galaxies; yet all are presented by a character whom everybody can recognise—a know-all, a strip-cartoon personage with infinite possibilities of manipulation by his creator. This attitude is wholly consistent with the sentiments expressed as long ago as 1955 in Calvino's essay “Il midollo del leone” (in Paragone, 66, 1955), in which he deplored the type of writer who failed to have a regard for his reader, strongly declaring his own intention of satisfying the curiosity and needs of his fellows:

E' sempre con curiosità speranza e meraviglia che il giovane, l'operaio, il contadino che ha preso gusto a leggere, aprono un libro nuovo. Sempre cosí vorremmo che venissero aperti anche i nostri.

(“Il midollo del leone”, cit., p. 31)

And the same notion was still strong during his tour of America in 1960, culminating in the statements of “Main Currents in Italian Fiction Today” (Italian Quarterly, 13–14, 1960). During the course of that essay, he emphasised the need which he as a writer felt for energy and for humour in his work, and stated: “Reality as I see it daily no longer gives me images full of that energy which I like to express” (p. 13). Not without reason, Calvino has, from the very beginning of his career, been compared to Ariosto, for both his energy and his humour. It is a comparison which he himself is fond of, and again from the essay in Italian Quarterly, there is a further statement which casts light upon his use of fantasy and reality elsewhere:

He [Ariosto] teaches us how the mind lives by fantasy, irony, and formal accuracy; how none of these qualities is an end in itself but how they can become part of a conception of the world and help us to evaluate human vices and virtues.

(Op. cit., p. 14)

Calvino is aware that he stands alone, outside any particular school of literature,9 and I believe that by concentrating on Calvino as an innovator in the field of novel and short story, many apparently conflicting opinions may be reconciled and paradoxical critical statements may seem more meaningful than they appear on the surface. Not only will this follow, but also the apparent variation in content, form and style, actually in the early short stories will seem more logical. The variation, too, between those stories and the seemingly metaphysical speculations of Ti con zero, a variation which has led to such a host of different interpretations of Calvino as an artist, may be shown to be less illogical. In this way I should hope to resolve the sort of critical judgement which itself seems paradoxical. G. Pescio Bottino, for example, refers puzzlingly to La nuvola di smog with the words: “il surrealismo è più realismo che mai.”10

This, indeed, is one of the obvious and glaring contrasts in critical judgements, the juxtaposition of realism and surrealism. In germ, this judgement also lies at the root of comment upon Calvino's commitment (equated with realism) and frivolity (equated with surrealism) in such a work as the trilogy. I believe that the contrast is often reconcilable by an appeal to Calvino's position as a committed writer, for the fantastic image is often a pointed way of uncovering an anomaly in society. By showing the bizarre or ridiculous aspect of an action or a situation, the committed writer achieves his aim more effectively than he would by open condemnation. Calvino's message in favour of wholesome, uninhibited life has been carried to an enormous audience in a dozen countries, thanks to the trilogy, which is condemned by some as frivolous. On the other hand, how many now read the more “serious”, realistic and outspoken Giornata di uno scrutatore disliked by critics and public alike for its obviously polemical nature and its cerebral qualities, and lacking in all the qualities which made I nostri antenati such a success?

There are many spectacular examples of Calvino, the committed writer, producing an unreal image and situation by looking at a traditionally chivalrous and idealised situation with a realist's eye. A good example is that of the half-armed knights in Il cavaliere inesistente in I nostri antenati (Turin, Einaudi, 1960), just risen from bed:

… pareva che quel cozzar di ferro fosse come un vibrare d'elitre d'insetti, un crepitio d'involucri secchi. Molti dei guerrieri erano chiusi nell'elmo e nella corazza fino alla cintola e sotto i fiancali e il guardareni spuntarono le gambe in brache e calze, perché cosciali e gamberuoli e ginocchiere si aspettava a metterli quando si era in sella. Le gambe, sotto quel torace d'acciaio, parevano piú sottili, come zampe di grillo; e il modo che essi avevano di muovere, parlando, le teste rotonde e senz'occhi, e anche di tener ripiegate le braccia ingombre di cubitiere e paramani era da grillo o da formica.

(p. 18)

The fact that the above piece of fantasy was published and in vogue during the period of office of F. Tambroni, provides Calvino's critics with further support for the theory that this was not committed writing.11 I have elsewhere tried to show why Calvino uses that form and what his serious intentions are. In the passage above, Calvino is lending weight to the notion that armour, uniform, militarism have a dehumanising effect, but the image, too, is important to him. The paradox in the trilogy seems to be between frivolous content and serious intent. Calvino had virtually denied in the preface to I nostri antenati that here was a direct allegory. What is certain, however, is that while there may not be any consistent symbolic intentions on Calvino's part, the characters and situations which he conjures up are open to inevitable symbolic interpretations by his readers, and the bizarre humour and irony he uses put into relief the grimness or fatuousness of life's reality.

When Calvino examines the phenomenon of alienation in the Racconti, his imagery becomes more and more fantastic. The more real the problem of alienation, the more vicious the disregard for human values and social units, the greater the chasm between members of society or between man and his natural environment, then the more unusual his imagery becomes. Alienation is a very present reality, causing at times tangible hardship and violent mistrust among men, and the disruption of nature's harmonious miscellany; and because of the often grim reality which alienation implies, the unreal and fantastic nature of some of Calvino's description may seem paradoxical. The paradox seems to be exaggerated by Calvino's desire to make his stories into real divertissements which serve the double purpose of amusing and educating.

For the sake of concision and convenience, I propose to take up again what was earlier called a Rousseauistic scale of personages. The scale begins with the character so integrated with nature that, like a wild animal, he can hardly tolerate the society of his fellow humans, and ends with the sophisticate who cuts himself off from nature, family and colleagues, intent only on making the most of a financial speculation. Two things should become clear from this examination. The first is that Calvino's fantasy very often becomes more bizarre as alienation becomes more acute; the second, that despite alienating and fantastic elements, the resilience of the human spirit is constantly brought to the fore. Particularly in those circumstances where man cannot choose his environment or his way of life, his natural instincts and enjoyments break through to overcome the conditioning of his artificial surroundings.

At the one extreme of the scale, then, is Zeffirino, the boy portrayed in the first of the Racconti, “Pesci grossi, pesci piccoli”:

Zeffirino finché si trattava di mare e di pesci era il piú in gamba; invece, in presenza di persone, riprendeva quella sua aria a bocca aperta e balbuziente.

(pp. 11–12)

The undersea environment in “Pesci grossi, pesci piccoli” provides the unreal background as the boy's huge cyclopic mask-eye gulps down (ingoiare) shadows and colours. A ballet of minute fish swimming with military precision passes through light and shadow adding point to their fellow swimmer, for when Zeffirino is fully equipped with his underwater fishing gear, ready to plunge into his non-human element, he takes on many of the characteristics of a fish:

Con quel muso di vetro e l'antenna per respirare, le gambe che finivano da pesce, e in mano quell'arnese un po' lancia un po' fucile e un po' forchetta, non somigliava piú a un essere umano.

(p. 10)

Zeffirino's great redeeming feature is the wholehearted enthusiasm with which he pursues his sport, and the uninhibited enjoyment which contrasts so vividly with the melancholic inertia of Miss De Magistris. But Zeffirino is obviously a character with limits, a simple character in every sense of the word. Costanzina in “Uomo nei gerbidi” is a similar type, one with nature, understanding and sympathising with nature's phenomena, harmonising with her surroundings. Asked for news, she ignores for the moment the “real” world (which is torn by World War II) to describe fairy-tale aspects of nature:

Ieri notte ho visto i leprotti lassú saltare sotto la luna. Ghi! Ghi! facevano. Ieri è nato un fungo dietro la rovere. Velenoso, rosso coi punti bianchi. L'ho ucciso con una pietra. Una biscia, grande e gialla, a mezzogiorno è scesa per il sentiero. Abita in quel cespuglio. Non tirarle pietre, è buona.

(p. 236)

But the most startling effect of this natural character is produced when he is brought into contact with society, especially with bourgeois society as in the case of “Pranzo con un pastore.” In this story the realism of the narrative, as the family try to make the goatherd feel at home, is embarrassingly true to life. The bizarre note is struck by the ease which the boy feels in the presence of the family's poor demented daughter. The author comments that the patronising friendliness of his mother and the strange camaraderie of his father had little effect in bridging the gap between the two worlds. Lunacy in fact is a more effective link:

Forse aveva finalmente trovato qualcosa che entrava nei suoi schemi, un punto di contatto tra il nostro ed il suo mondo. Ed io mi ricordai dei dementi che s'incontrano spesso tra i casolari di montagna e passano le ore seduti sulle soglie tra nuvole di mosche e con lamentosi vaneggiamenti rattristano le notti paesane.

(p. 258)

There is much irony, too, in the attitude of the silent brother Marco, who, despite his silence and impoliteness, makes contact with the goatherd. Giovanni here, Zeffirino, Libereso and Costanzina seem to be survivals from a bygone age when country lore and close affinity with nature was the rule rather than the exception. In some earlier age, these characters, one feels, would have been accepted as a natural part of their natural environment, but in the twentieth century, their different attitudes make them seem peculiar to their fellow humans. Not only do they seem peculiar, but the artist Calvino depicts them deliberately as part of the natural background which they love so well. Often, however, the effect of political propaganda on the young channels their natural energies into viciously unnatural activities. In particular Calvino evidently feels that fascist propaganda conditioned the young to cultivate those adolescent illusions which preserve fanatically nationalist tendencies.12 In his trilogy Calvino has helped to destroy the appeal of such illusions, particularly the illusions which surround the glamour of the knights' armour or the modern soldiers' uniform. The uniform crops up in “L'entrata in guerra,” as an alienating force, dividing the young narrator from the poor people who need his assistance. In “Gli avanguardisti a Mentone” the sacking of the abandoned house by the uniformed youth illustrates the effect of the military environment on young people. The boys, with the exception of the narrator, are taken over by animal instincts. Duccio is an energetic thirteen-year-old enthusiastically sacking an old mansion and presenting a weird picture as he crams stolen property into his jacket and sweater:

Pigliava le cose dai cassetti, se non gli servivano le buttava per terra, se sí, le ficcava nella cacciatora: giarrettiere, calzini, cravatte, spazzole, asciugamani, un vasetto di brillantina. A furia di cacciarsi roba nella cacciatora s'era fatto una gobba quasi sferica; e ancora ficcava sciarpe, guanti, bretelle sotto il maglione. Era gonfio e pettoruto come un piccione, e non accennava a smetterla.

(p. 290)

The scavenging qualities of Duccio give him the appearance of the great scavenger of Italy, the pigeon. Another deliberately amusing picture is created in “Le notti dell'UNPA,” when the two boys dress up in gas masks, and are again transformed into non-human forms, ants seen through a microscope:

Cosí, con le teste trasformate in quelle di enormi formiche viste al microscopio, ci esprimevamo in muggiti inarticolati e giravamo semiciechi per gli androni della scuola …

(pp. 305–306)

Once again we are back to the Zeffirino image, but here, during the war, there are sinister undertones to the humour and a criticism of the loutish behaviour which disguise brings, which were never present in the earlier “Pesci grossi, pesci piccoli.” The alienating effect of war and the nightmare situations which war creates are evidently a major preoccupation with Calvino, and in the trilogy that preoccupation reaches a climax. It is interesting to see a blend of idyll and realism, involving one of these naive characters and showing the inanity of war, in the short story “Un bel gioco dura poco.” In that story Giovannino and Serenella, his playmate, are primarily created to put into relief the horror and brutality of war, while in “Il giardino incantato,” they serve to emphasise the boredom of a spoilt rich boy. But Libereso, for example, in “Un pomeriggio Adamo,” is so close to nature that his love of insects fascinates and yet horrifies the serving-girl he is trying to impress. His final surprise “gift” to her is an insect and animal ballet in her kitchen:

Su ogni piatto messo ad asciugare c'era un ranocchio che saltava, una biscia era arrotolata dentro una casseruola, c'era una zuppiera piena di ramarri, e lumache bavose lasciavano scie iridescenti sulla cristalleria. Nel catino pieno d'acqua nuotava il vecchio e solitario pesce rosso.

(p. 27)

Libereso, Giovannino, Zeffirino and the others, it has been noted, harmonise with the background which they love so well. In this extreme form of self-identification with nature one sees an exaggeration of another type of character, the type who has a burning desire to approach nature but who is prevented by circumstances beyond his control from achieving his aim. Often the educated outsider, returning to his former home in the country, feels that there is a barrier between him and nature. Here is alienation in a new and personal sense, not necessarily attributable to any marxist approach, but one which is more bitter or more nostalgic because of its personal character. The true harmony between man and nature is described in the short story “La strada di San Giovanni,”13 where the old ideals are seen as rapidly disappearing, as the father grows older. The father in that story is again at one with nature, controlling his small-holding and directing nature into the channels he desires, but at the same time maintaining the harmonious miscellany of fruits and plants which keeps nature lush and exciting. He does not succumb to the profit motive, in other words to the carnation houses, the acres of glass and concrete which were destined to take over the Ligurian riviera in the post-war years. A regret that such a life is not possible for the young educated son of the proprietor is a recurring theme in the Racconti. In germ one finds it in “L'occhio del padrone,” in which the owner's son, sent to oversee his father's work-people in the fields, feels the immense distance which separates him from the contadini and from the land. He lacks even the brutal, masterful relationship which his father has with his farm and his workers. The dilemma is put into relief by the unreal image of an eye detached from the body:

… il figlio del padrone era fuori di tutto questo, staccato dalle vicende della terra. L'occhio del padrone. Era solo un occhio lui. Ma a che serve un occhio, solo un occhio, staccato da tutto? Non vede nemmeno.

(p. 246)

The son in that story spends months away from the farm in distant cities. His physical return to the land is a psychological return to his childhood memories of the farm, but the conclusion of the story shows him looking at his land …“ e capiva che le sarebbe sempre rimasto disperatamente straniero” (p. 249). The rich man's son is able to return and find his nostalgic illusions shattered, the poor worker, unable to leave his urban environment, ironically, keeps his illusions intact. Marcovaldo in his ability to see and find nature in the barren streets of the great city is the reverse of il figlio del padrone.

Man's life as a city dweller has been radically changed in post-war years even from what it was in the first half of this century. City centres are becoming more and more the location of bureaucratic offices and commercial houses and less and less centres of habitation. The notion of city-dweller once implied in cittadino is more and more giving way to the notion of a bureaucratic unit, impersonal, taxable, rateable and finally expendable. Contadino, on the other hand, still has a warm ring and implies friendliness, human contact and a life more at harmony with nature, though the hardships of the farm labourer's life are constantly being brought before the public gaze. Calvino explains the barrenness and sterility of cement and concrete by making it the backcloth for an industrial worker who has the same delight in nature as the farm labourer, the same awareness of nature's miracles. But the worker has to satisfy his aspirations either by enjoying the few meagre manifestations of nature around him, or by enjoying the self-delusion of artificial substitutes for natural phenomena. For Michelino, Marcovaldo's young son, raised entirely in an urban environment, the sight of a forest was unknown, though the concept had been implanted in him by his reading of fairy stories. Driven by cold to look for wood for the family fire, his brother and he find an urban forest:

Ai lati dell'autostrada, i bambini videro il bosco: una folta vegetazione di strani alberi copriva la vista della pianura. Avevano i tronchi fini fini, diritti o obliqui; e chiome piatte e estese, dalle piú strane forme e dai piú strani colori, quando un'auto passando le illuminava coi fanali. Rami a forma di dentifricio, di faccia, di formaggio, di mano, di rasoio, di bottiglia, di mucca, di pneumatico, costellate da un fogliame di lettere dell'alfabeto.

(p. 168)

Marcovaldo, though he is really unaware of his own stubbornness, tenaciously clings to beliefs and instincts deep in his soul, only lightly covered by the conditioning of industrial and urban society. He hunts, but his prey is a rabbit which has recently escaped from a laboratory, and which is injected full of dangerous bacteria. Marcovaldo longs for a night in the open air in another story, “La panchina,” but after a bizarre night's adventures, he goes wearily to work. The contrast between his aspirations and the daunting artificiality of his environment is well brought out in this last story by the irritating yellow traffic light which almost takes on a fretful human character of its own as it is contrasted with the serenity of the moon:

La luna col suo pallore misterioso, giallo anch'esso, ma in fondo verde e anche azzurro, e il semaforo con quel suo gialletto volgare. E la luna, tutta calma, irradiante la sua luce senza fretta, venata ogni tanto di sottili resti di nubi, che lei con maestà si lasciava cadere alle spalle; e il semaforo intanto sempre lí accendi e spegni, accendi e spegni, affannoso, falsamente vivace, stanco e schiavo.

(pp. 190–191)

The traffic light is irritating and because Marcovaldo is unused to it, it helps to keep him awake. Not so the advertising sign in the short story “Luna e GNAC.” This is surely one of the most brilliant illustrations of how the inhabitants of a poor city quarter are conditioned to accept an incredible modification in their lives as a natural part of everyday (or everynight) life. The very opening of the story is surreal: “La notte durava venti secondi, e venti secondi il GNAC” (p. 197). The GNAC is the final syllable of COGNAC on a neon sign, and as its intermittent flashing causes the poor people to live in a night which lasts for twenty seconds at a time, all six members of Marcovaldo's family are in some way influenced to change the normal pattern of life by the electric phenomenon. Even local cats have their love-life conditioned by the twenty-second intervals. The story is crammed with surprising descriptions, perhaps the most spectacular being Marcovaldo's first awareness of the stupendous change in his environment when the sign is first broken:

… la cappa del cielo s'alzò infinitamente stellata su di loro. Marcovaldo … si sentí come proiettato nello spazio. Il buio che ora regnava all'altezza dei tetti faceva come una barriera oscura che escludeva laggiú il mondo dove continuavano a vorticare geroglifici gialli e verdi e rossi, e ammiccanti occhi di semafori, e il luminoso navigare dei tram vuoti, e le auto invisibili che spingono davanti a sé il cono di luce dei fanali. Da questo mondo non saliva lassú che una diffusa fosforescenza, vaga come un fumo.

(pp. 199–200)

Marcovaldo, like some of Calvino's figli del padrone, recognises in the return of night, the return of something “natural” from bygone days, “provava una nostalgia come di raggiungere una spiaggia rimasta miracolosamente soleggiata nella notte” (p. 200).

The brilliantly witty scenario is woven through with surreal images, emphasising not only the estrangement of man from his natural environment, but also the worker's ironical acceptance of the rival firm's neon sign which replaces the original COGNAC. The mysterious figures (of electricians) seen in silhouette on the roof opposite Marcovaldo's apartment help to emphasise in a manner worthy of Kafka, the brooding anonymity; here, that of the big business interests. The GNAC is part of an impersonal cipher which may be seen as representing the impersonality of commerce.14 The historian who a hundred years hence studies an Italian newapaper of today, will need a glossary of abbreviations to explain the great modern organisations which envelop themselves in anonymity, their names merely ciphers to denote a mysterious power. Significantly, perhaps, Calvino refers to them in the passage quoted above as geroglifici, for they are the new sacred letters of our technological, industrial society. For many people in Britain E.R.N.I.(e) is a new god of plenty, representing the monthly possibility of beatitude. For Whitehall bureaucrats and politicians N.E.D.(dy) and N.I.C.(ky) are the gods invoked to cure economic evils. Ciphers like Gil, U.N.P.A., and the incredible E.P.A.U.C.I., also make frequent appearances on Calvino's pages. Marcovaldo's GNAC is an extension of the impersonal cipher.

It would be tempting to dwell at length upon the Marcovaldo stories, for in them, more obviously than elsewhere, Calvino's attitude to the alienated city-dweller is most clearly and surrealistically illustrated. But it would be unprofitable, for Calvino is at his most fabulous and surrealist and yet so obviously is dealing with the alienated city-dweller or worker that further illustration would be using weighted scales to prove a point. But taking a less obviously bizarre story, “La gallina di reparto,” one can see the inhuman situation of the old turner, Pietro, illustrated in a similarly fantastic way. Pietro represents the Marcovaldo figure at his workplace. He too is aware of the slight manifestation of nature which is allowed into the factory and of the possibilities of enticing Adalberto's hen to lay for him. His imitation of Tommaso, in putting down grain for the hen, calls to mind the countryman in Tommaso, “Non immemore delle sue origini contadine, il collaudatore aveva subito valutato le doti produttive del volatile …” (p. 203). But it is the effect of industrial slavery upon the life of Pietro which is more important to my theme here. Pietro has so many operations to do on his machine that his thoughts on private human affairs are disjointed by the mechanics of his job:

Se a mag … (alza la leva!) … gio mio figlio sposa la figlia di quel barbagianni … (ora accompagna il pezzo sotto il tornio!) sgomberiamo la stanza grande … (e facendo i due passi) … etc.

(p. 206)

Despite the dehumanising effect of his work, Pietro's human ingenuity succeeds nonetheless in keeping his train of thought personal and logical. Crushed by the burden of working four machines at one time, Pietro's mind is still resilient enough to adapt itself to the extraordinary conditions and to have a few split seconds of private thought between working intervals. Pondering on such resilience, the author puts his comments into a comparison which at first glance would seem incongruous:

Cosí il moto delle macchine condizionava e insieme sospingeva il moto dei pensieri. E dentro a quest'armatura meccanica, il pensiero a poco a poco s'adattava agile e soffice come il corpo snello e muscoloso di un giovane cavaliere rinascimentale s'adatta nella sua armatura … cosí si dispiegava e snodava il pensiero di Pietro in quella prigione di tensione nervosa, d'automatismo e di stanchezza.

(p. 206)

The story of “La gallina di reparto” is unreal. A hen, suspected of carrying messages between one worker and another, is killed by the management. The story is one which provokes laughter by its irony. It maintains its audience's interest by the ludicrous logic which leads to the hen's death. The images used to add excitement are often fantastic. And yet this is a story which Hořký includes in the comment:

Calvino si serve di situazioni eccezionali per rendere più chiaro il problema fondamentale, tipico: l'impossibilità di vivere felicemente nella società capitalista.

(Op. cit. p. 71)

That fundamental problem, rendered palatable, readable, interesting in such stories as “La gallina di reparto,” illustrates what Calvino aims at in most of his literary output, to instruct and amuse.

The most outstanding example of an alienated character in the Racconti is Quinto Anfossi in La speculazione edilizia, a story which even Carlo Salinari allows to be committed.15 Here the realism of events is dominant. Humour is reduced to a minimum. Indeed, Calvino may well look upon La speculazione edilizia as failing in his dual aim of exciting and informing. Nevertheless, the old unreal imagery is occasionally present, lending weight to the distance which separates person from person, or person from nature or work. Caisotti, despite his grossness, seems naive and child-like to Quinto on their first meeting, but the qualities which appeal to Quinto are also accompanied by a physical appearance which foreshadows Caisotti's more menacing role:

… da quell'immagine d'un Caisotti bambino di cinque anni restava escluso l'incombere dello squalo, o dell'enorme crostaceo, del granchio, quale egli appariva con le spesse mani abbandonate sui braccioli della poltroncina. Cosí con alterni sentimenti, Quinto procedeva nelle trattative.

(p. 452)

Quinto is still inclined to take a kindly view of Caisotti at a much later stage of the negotiations:

“Pare Daniele nella fossa dei leoni”, ma questo modo di pensarlo nella parte della vittima non gli dava nessun divertimento: aveva bisogno di vederlo come un leone, riottoso e selvatico, e loro tutti una fossa di Danieli intorno a lui, tanti Danieli virtuosi e accaniti come aguzzini, che lo punzecchiavano con forcute clausole contrattuali.

(p. 482)

The animal imagery is effectively developed with the figure of Caisotti, but other people in the story develop animal characteristics. Angerin, for example, is the brutalised workman whom Caisotti has brought in from his own village, and who sleeps on the ground (come una bestia), walks like an ape (con quel passo da orango), and obeys like a trained dog (un cane ammaestrato) (p. 503). But though there may be occasional flashes of the unreal image or hints at a former humour, “La speculazione edilizia” is less fantastic than the other Racconti, and points the way rather to the coldness of La giornata di uno scrutatore than to the incredible adventures of I nostri antenati.

It has been possible to select only a few of the Racconti for illustration here, and from those only a few illustrative passages. But from these I hope it will be possible to see how Calvino's imagination and his engagement are linked inseparably. The purpose of that link has been stated earlier. Let Calvino from his essay in La generazione degli anni difficili (Bari, Laterza, 1962) have the final word, as he describes one of his two great objects in life:

… la passione per una cultura globale, il rifiuto della incomunicabilità specialistica per tener viva un'immagine di cultura come un tutto unitario, di cui fa parte ogni aspetto del conoscere e del fare e in cui i vari discorsi d'ogni specifica ricerca e produzione fanno parte di quel discorso generale che è la storia degli uomini, quale dobbiamo riuscire a padroneggiare e sviluppare in senso finalmente umano. E la letteratura dovrebbe appunto stare in mezzo ai linguaggi diversi e tener viva la comunicazione tra essi.

(p. 86)


  1. For an excellent account of this year's awards at Viareggio as well as a justification for Calvino's action, see Paolo Bugialli's article in Il corriere della sera, July 13th, 1968.

  2. A theme elaborated in my Italo Calvino: a reappraisal and an appreciation of the trilogy, Hull University Publications, 1968.

  3. In I racconti, Turin, Einaudi, 1961, pp. 9–16. (Quotations will henceforth be from this edition.)

  4. Vladimír Hořký, “I Racconti di Italo Calvino”, Acta Universitatis Carolinae, Philologica, No. 2, Prague, 1961, p. 69.

  5. “Italo Calvino and the rediscovery of a genre”, Italian Quarterly, XII-45, University of California, Los Angeles, 1968.

  6. F. Grisi, Incontri in libreria, Milan, Ceschina, 1961, ignores the narrowly political concept of engagement to sum up Calvino's attitude well:

    Nella letteratura contemporanea volta per volta scrittori “impegnati” son stati indicati e riconosciuti in Pavese, Vittorini, Cassola, Pomilio, Rea, Calvino e pochissimi altri, quasi per sottolineare in essi non solo una nuova classe, ma per delineare una partecipazione completa dello scrittore alla civiltà del suo tempo. (p. 81)

    Grisi's review is a good answer to the criticism of R. Barilli (see below).

  7. “Philosophy and Literature”, Times Literary Supplement, September 28th, 1967, p. 871.

  8. R. Barilli, La barriera del naturalismo, Milan, Mursia, 1964, p. 217.

  9. I must add that Calvino should rightly be regarded as participating fully in a multitude of issues and problems, literary and otherwise, which affected post-war Europe. In this sense he does not stand alone. But in the essay in Italian Quarterly he mentions the difficulty of assigning his work to a particular school (op. cit. p. 4).

  10. G. Pescio Bottino, Calvino, Florence, La Nuova Italia, 1967, p. 81.

  11. Carlo Salinari's review of Il cavaliere inesistente in Vie nuove, January 9th, 1960, is a good example of such criticism.

  12. Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, Turin, Einaudi, 1964, is full of hints as to the pernicious nature of fascist propaganda. Even the young individualist Pin is affected by the atmosphere:

    In fondo anche a Pin piacerebbe essere nella brigata nera, girare tutto bardato di teschi e di caricatori da mitra, far paura alla gente e stare in mezzo agli anziani come uno dei loro, legato a loro da quella barriera d'odio che li separa dagli altri uomini.

    There are further allusions at page 132.

  13. In I maestri del racconto italiano, ed. E. Pagliarani and W. Pedullà, Milan, Rizzoli, 1963.

  14. In his introduction to Marcovaldo ovvero Le stagioni in città. Turin, Einaudi, 1968, Calvino remarks upon the impersonality of Marcovaldo's employers:

    Ancora piú indeterminata è la ditta, l'azienda dove Marcovaldo lavora: non riusciamo mai a sapere che cosa si fabbrichi, che cosa si venda, sotto la misteriosa sigla “Sbav,” né cosa contengono le casse che Marcovaldo carica e scarica otto ore al giorno. E' la ditta, l'azienda, simbolo di tutte le ditte, le aziende, le società anonime, le marche di fabbrica che regnano sulle persone e sulle cose del nostro tempo. (p. 7)

  15. Carlo Salinari, loc. cit.


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Italo Calvino 1923–-1985

Cuban-born Italian short story writer, novelist, translator, essayist, and journalist.

For additional information on Calvino's life and works, see SSC, Volume 3.

Considered a preeminent international literary figure of the post-World War II era, Calvino is admired as an inventive storyteller whose entertaining tales are imbued with underlying moral and philosophical significance. Strongly influenced by the playful fantasy and moralistic content of the fable, as well as modern humanistic and ideological concerns, Calvino's work blends such devices as irony, symbolism, satire, and allegory with realistic detail to address such themes as love, alienation, existence, and identity.

Biographical Information

Calvino was born in Cuba, where his Italian parents were working on an agronomy project. Upon returning to Italy, Calvino's father became curator of the botanical gardens in San Remo, a northern port town. Sharing his parents' interest in botany, Calvino studied agronomy and English literature at the University of Turin, where he completed his degree in 1947. These scientific and literary preoccupations inform Calvino's fiction, which repeatedly features poetically evocative and factually precise descriptions of nature. During World War II, Calvino served with Fascist forces, but eventually joined the Italian Resistance. Following the war, Calvino accepted an editorial position with the prestigious Einaudi publishing house in Turin, where he was responsible for introducing many American and European writers to the Italian reading public. As he pursued his own writing career, Calvino remained with Einaudi, which published the majority of his novels and short story collections. In the late 1940s and 1950s Calvino contributed essays to left-wing magazines and journals and lived in Paris for approximately fifteen years. There he became a member of Oulipo, an experimental writing group that included such authors as Raymond Queneau, Roland Barthes, Georges Perec, and Claude Levi-Strauss. Calvino returned to Italy in 1980 and died in 1985.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Calvino's early stories, collected in Ultimo viene il corvo (1949), center on the activities of Italian Resistance members during World War II, as well as the ordinary experiences of people in postwar rural Italy. Reflecting the style of Ernest Hemingway, many of these early stories are written in a plain, straightforward manner. This unadorned style and Calvino's emphasis on social realism led critics to link him with Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini as a member of the Italian Neorealist literary movement. However, unlike most Neorealist works, Calvino's stories often feature such rhetorical elements as elaborate descriptions of nature and animal life, subtle plot twists, and farcical incidents. Several of his stories reflect Calvino's penchant for intensifying the anxieties of his characters through absurdly comical incidents. Others illustrate Calvino's technique of rooting stories in realistic detail while intimating extended allegorical implications. For example, “The Argentine Ant” (in I racconti, 1958) concerns a young couple whose new home is infested with ants. While this story can be appreciated for its social realism, the ant infestation has been interpreted as representing intrusive elements of modern life that rob people of their privacy. During the 1950s Calvino also published a trilogy of novellas collectively known as I nostri antenati (1960; Our Ancestors). Here, he made greater use of fantasy and allegorical elements to create fables that address, as he stated, “the problem of being” and that “define a genealogical tree of contemporary man.” Developing further as a fantasist during the 1960s, Calvino composed two of his most popular works, Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics) and Ti con zero (1967; t zero), in which various forms of life and cosmic matter are given human attributes. In these collections of interrelated “evolutionary tales,” Calvino introduces a character named Qfwfq, who passes through the crucial transitional stages in the development of the universe and life on Earth. “The Aquatic Uncle,” for instance, concerns a relative of Qfwfq who remains in the sea while his extended family evolves into land animals, and “The Spiral” centers on a mollusk gradually transforming its shell into an object of beauty. Calvino draws extensively on concepts in physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy to dramatize the unfolding history of the universe, and he investigates through allegory, symbolism, and extended metaphor such topics as love, death, change, and the interaction of the imagination with the phenomenal world. Calvino further explores narrative possibilities in Il castello dei destini incrociati (1969; The Castle of Crossed Destinies), where a group of characters combine, construct, and relate stories in potentially infinite variations. Published posthumously, Sotto il sole giaguro (1986; Under the Jaguar Sun) consists of three of five anticipated tales focusing on the senses. Taste, sound, and smell are emphasized in the stories Calvino completed before his death.

Critical Reception

Calvino's international popularity and critical reputation is frequently attributed to the virtuosity and larkish style of his works, as well as to his imaginative probing of myriad human concerns. While some critics argue that Calvino's political and social observations lack commitment and conviction and that his interest in exotic scenarios and fabulous creations overshadows his intellectual investigations, most commentators praise his enchanting approach to fundamental intellectual and humanistic concerns. Scholars have discussed the influence of traditional folklore on Calvino's fantastic fiction, as well as the impact of the Italian Neorealistic movement on his work, particularly his early short stories. Much lauded for his stories and novellas that helped expand the possibilities of fiction, Calvino is acknowledged as Italy's chief literary figure in the postwar period.

Sara Maria Adler (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: “A Predilection for Fantasy,” in Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker, Studia Humanitatis, 1979, pp. 21–53.

[In the following essay from her full-length study of Calvino's work, Adler organizes his fantasy stories into classifications, emphasizing the “wide spectrum of fanciful variations of each one of these categories.”]

An analysis of Italo Calvino's works can appropriately begin with a panorama of his versatile imagination. An outline of the subject matter which characterizes the author's inventive spirit has already been given. What is important to examine in this chapter, however, is the wide spectrum of fanciful variations of each one of these categories.


In his early period, Calvino used the theme of man in relation to a war-ravaged society time and again. Yet, as the following examples will show, this theme undergoes a sequence of fanciful transformations.

“Il bosco degli animali,”1 the story of a peasant's desperate attempts to save his cow from a German soldier, reflects, for example, the atmosphere of a humorous folktale. The characters are all caricatures, a pageant of figures who deviate from the normal in that the appearance of each is deformed by one or more comical details. As a result, all the drama is deflated from what might have been portrayed as a suspense filled chase through the forest. The characters, moreover, rather than being heroic or dangerous, are merely bright spots of color darting in and out among the trees.

In “Visti alla mensa,”2 another war story, Calvino's imagination takes on a very different form. For, even though it deforms the usual so as to produce striking caricatures as in “Il bosco,” all the levity is gone and what takes its place is a mood which is both pathetic and grotesque. In the first place, the author, rather than giving rapid, colorful details of a variety of figures, concentrates on deforming only two characters. And he does so to the point where neither one seems quite human. Furthermore, instead of telling the story from an impersonal and external standpoint, Calvino gives the role of narrator to a bystander whose emotional involvement in the scene he is witnessing increases the effect of the grotesque and the pathetic.

“Visti alla mensa” describes the interaction at a public mess between two individuals whose lives have been totally changed by the war: a nobleman, who has lost everything but his title, and a country widow, who, in contrast, has become extremely wealthy. Even at the beginning, the observer is aware that a conflict between the two is inevitable. So sure is he, in fact, that their incompatibility will never be peacefully resolved, that he sees them not as people but as animals who “study and distrust each other” (p. 88).

To begin with, when the nobleman asks the widow if he may share her table, the manner in which she reacts resembles that of a wild and hostile animal. She stares at him while continuing to chew her food and finally consents with a burp that reveals a mouthful of soggy bread.

When the old man seats himself, the two characters assume forms which are even more grotesque. The widow is so ugly and clumsy that she is likened to a crab: she is “wide and short, with large hands resting on the tablecloth like a crab's claws, and with a movement in her throat like the breathing of a crab.” Equally inhuman, moreover, is the simile used to portray the shriveled up appearance of the nobleman. For he sits across the table stiff and gnarled by arthritis, with “little turquoise veins protruding from his face like a stone eaten away by lichens” (p. 89).

The next event the bystander records in this increasingly unpleasant situation occurs when the widow orders some wine, an act which fills the nobleman with humiliation as he cannot afford to order a bottle for himself. As may have been expected, her cruel lack of tact is incarnated in still another deformation. For, as she calls for the wine, the observer notes the clusters of insect-like hairs which are growing at the corners of her mercilessly smiling mouth.

After this incident, the observer begins to fear that the savage battle he had expected is indeed about to take place. Fearfully he notes that both creatures are “monstrous beings … charged, under that lazy appearance of crustaceans, with a reciprocal hate.” He even goes so far as to imagine the fight between them “as the slow dismembering of deep sea monsters” (p. 90).

What really does happen is far less dramatic. The old man, feeling progressively more confined to his side of the table because of the widow's great abundance of food, accidentally pushes a piece of her cheese onto the floor. However, rather than dismembering him, she simply picks up the cheese and tells him not to worry as she has much more of it at her native village, Castel Brandone.

The fact that the peasant woman comes from Castel Brandone makes the irony of their relationship more pathetic than it had seemed before. For it turns out that the nobleman himself spent some of his most beautiful days as a second lieutenant in the same village. Because of this coincidence, moreover, a new mood is added to the story, a mood which appears in the form of the old man's lyrical reverie into the past.

The grotesque deformations Calvino has been creating up to this point do not disappear by any means. Only now they are alternated with a flurry of aesthetic images. For as the widow gobbles up the rest of her meal, the old man embarks on a fanciful description of when the king himself came to Castel Brandone. He recalls how “His Majesty” entered a brilliantly illuminated room full of curtsying ladies and of officers standing at attention. (p. 92).

This poignant contrast is made even more evident in the last paragraph. On the one hand, the widow's indifference to the old gentleman's words is once more captured in a caricatural description of her appearance. For what is depicted by the observer is the “enormous behind of a fat woman” moving away from the table. At the same time, this image is juxtaposed to another sort of deformation, an idealized tableau of the nobleman's past. Looking as if he were under a spell, he goes on to elaborate the details of his glorious evening: “‘The whole room with lit lanterns and wall mirrors … And the king who shook my hand. Good for you, Clermont De Fronges, he said to me … And all the ladies around me in ballroom gowns’” (p. 93).

“Uno dei tre è ancora vivo”3 represents still another form Calvino's war stories take. For here the author's imagination deforms reality so as to create an atmosphere of chilling terror.

The citizens of a certain village have decided that payment must be made for the enemy's destruction of their friends and homes. Consequently, according to the ancient principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, they plan to execute the three war prisoners they have captured. Of central importance to the story is the experience of the one survivor, a character who, after the death of his companions, must struggle for existence amid the hostile townspeople.

Worthy of note at this point, is the fact that a good part of the story is reminiscent of the horrifying and dream-like atmosphere of “Hell” in Dante's Divine Comedy. As a basis for the punishment of the sinners who have been condemned to hell, Dante uses the principle of “contrappasso,” a term which might be best translated as “retaliation.” In other words, the Medieval author portrays the sinners as being punished by physical ordeals which are directly related to their transgressions on earth.4 The characters and landscapes of the “Inferno,” however, are not merely reproductions of earthly forms. Rather, hell in Dante's work represents a violent distortion of life on earth, a terrible nightmare created to warn men against the dangers of sin.

In “Uno dei tre è ancora vivo,” Calvino creates a similar relationship between sin and punishment. Because of the horrible destruction they represent, the prisoners' physical appearance and the suffering they are condemned to are extremely humiliating. “The tall one” is hunched over, trembling with cold and with “an agonizing uncertainty” about his destiny. “The old one” has his face hidden in his hands. Every once in a while, a shiver of fear ripples “along the chain of his vertebrae.” In the meantime, “the fat one” has given way to convulsions and his eyes have become “glass windows streaked with rain” (p. 68).5

The environment and the captors are also terrifying deformations of everyday reality. The story begins with a scene of the prisoners surrounded by the townspeople of the ravaged village. As if judges presiding at a trial, these villagers are boldly represented symbols of vengeance. So powerful is the impression they make, in fact, that they seem to be sculpted out of pieces of stone. This is especially true of their leader a large and imposing figure, who looms over everyone else. Calvino creates this impression by using only a few stark details to portray him, details whose forcefulness is emphasized by the use of repetition. This chief judge is referred to time and again as “the big one with the beard.” Repetition also underscores his menacing anger, a sort of biblical fury, at the destruction wrought by the enemy: “‘… and I saw flames higher than the mountains. … and I said: how can a village burn so high? … And I smelled the odor of the smoke that was impossible to bear, and I said: how can the smoke of our village smell so?’”6

After a brief deliberation, the prisoners are taken to the place of execution, a dark “vertical cavern” which seems to have no bottom. Not only does the description of this setting remind the reader of hell, but also the name Calvino has given to it—“Culdistrega” (“Witch's Rump”).7 Even if all three prisoners are shot and pushed into the Culdistrega, the tall one survives. Rather than being elated or relieved, however, he comes to the desperate conclusion that in his circumstances death would indeed be better than life. The anguish of his situation, moreover, is powerfully rendered by the description of what he sees. Above him, beyond the opening of the cavern, exists a sort of forbidden paradise, a place the damned like himself are not permitted to enter. The opening is “full of light,” so dazzling, in fact, that at first the “yellow flash” hurts his eyes. Slowly, however, he becomes accustomed to this light and begins to perceive “the blue of the sky, very far away from him” (p. 70).

With growing anguish, the survivor realizes that he is doomed to a place which represents the antithesis of the color and light above him. Worse still is the realization that, before dying of starvation, his instinct to live will force him to feed upon the flesh of his companions.8

After groping about for some time, he finds a narrow passage in the cavern wall. Again the description is other-worldly and Calvino makes it so with grotesque details: “It was the path that water dripping down from the Culdistrega had opened under the ground: a very long and narrow cavern, an underground intestine.” This passage moreover, is damp and slippery and the protagonist must drag his belly along it “like a snake” (p. 72).

Even when he comes to the opening of the passage, he finds that he is in a place which is no less dismal than the Culdistrega. Rather than the brilliant color and light that he had perceived from the depths of the cavern, the outside world presents itself to him with another landscape of hell. For what the protagonist sees around him is a bed of “black and white rocks” near a torrent and a forest of dead, gnarled trees (p. 73).

The surviving prisoner is indeed trapped in “savage and deserted regions,” regions which are devoid of human compassion. However, even more terrible is his awareness of the “paradises” which are forbidden to him. As the story ends, the protagonist's view of a rustic cottage leads him to conclude that life is “a hell with rare memories of ancient happy paradises” (p. 73).


The variety of characters and landscapes in the stories discussed so far gives only a glimpse of the versatility of Calvino's imagination during the war years. Such versatility, however, is not surprising, for it must be recognized that during that period the author's imagination was nourished by his own fascinating experiences as a partisan. He himself, moreover, was aware of the impact the war had on his own work. In his introduction to Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, for example, Calvino explains how the partisans of his camp were the basis for the multitude of characters he created.9 Furthermore, in the preface to I nostri antenati, he speaks of all the strange people he came into contact with and of all the incredible stories they had to tell.10

What is surprising, however, is how the author's imagination did not become sterile during the decade following the war, a period when he himself thought that he was losing his creative ability because of a lack of inspiration. These misgivings about his work are made clear in the preface to I nostri antenati, where he describes how, in the fifties, all aspects of society began to follow routinized patterns. He felt, at that time, that suddenly the adventures of the war and the odd personalities who had intrigued him so were gone. What existed in their place was a monotonous social atmosphere of which he and his writing, both, were a part.11

As the following examples will show, Calvino's fears were unfounded. For, while his postwar stories were quite different from what came before, there is no doubt that his imaginative spirit continued to flourish.

In these works of the fifties, rather than portraying the suspense and dangers of the war, Calvino often focuses his attention on the ordinary experiences of everyday life. The characters, in other words, are not subjected to violent adventures but to relatively undramatic interruptions of their daily routines. Yet, on each occasion, the interruption is used by the author as a basis upon which to develop a fanciful departure from the usual.

As already observed, the story La formica argentina12 describes the experience of a family which moves to a new home in the country. Since the man of the family is without a job, he feels that he can solve his problem by moving to a region where the opportunities for farming are abundant. However, when the newcomers arrive, they find a problem which frustrates them almost to the point of insanity: an uncontrollable invasion of tiny ants. As the family becomes progressively more troubled by this unpleasant situation, moreover, the reader himself feels that he is being transported into an eerie and grotesque environment.

The Argentine ants are everywhere in the tiny cottage, all over the furniture and walls, in the baby's ears and in bags of newly bought groceries. Equally distressing is the highly evasive nature of the bugs. Compared to these, the ants the newcomers had previously seen were “reasonable beasts, creatures which one can touch, which move away like cats” or “rabbits.” The Argentine ants, on the other hand, are so small and uncontrollable in their massive attacks that they are “like fog or sand, against which force is useless” (p. 364).

These repugnant characteristics are portrayed through the use of minutely detailed descriptions. As a result, therefore, an ordinary experience is transformed into a “gothic,”13 Bosch-like adventure. For just like the painter, Calvino presents the ants in such a way as to create an impression of the hideous and the grotesque.

Calvino creates a very different sort of atmosphere in “L'avventura di un impiegato.”14 Here the interruption to an ordinary existence is not a frustrating battle with insects, but a one-night love affair. As a result, Enrico Gnei as well as his environment reflect a jubilant mood, so jubilant, in fact, that the morning after the affair the protagonist seems to be the principal performer in a gay light opera.

The morning radiates freshness and color when Gnei leaves his lover's house for work. As he makes his ecstatic departure, moreover, he seems to be dancing: “Leaving her house early, the air and the colors of the spring morning opened themselves up to him, fresh, stimulating and new, and it seemed to him that he was walking to the sound of music” (p. 27). Gnei is, in fact, “walking to the sound of music” as he continues on his way to work. When the bus arrives, he does not simply step on, but, “whistling,” leaps onto it with “the tails of his jacket fluttering” (p. 28).

Indeed the world, usually dull and grey, has been transformed into a colorful theatrical production. The barber's greeting to the protagonist, when he goes there for a shave, has the ring of a “professional falsetto” (p. 29). More important, however, is the way the city itself has been distorted into a dazzling stage set: “The city was animated and resonant, the window panes were streaked with flashes of gold, the water flew above the fountains, the streetcar poles shot off sparks over the wires” (p. 30).

In spite of the fact that “L'avventura di uno sciatore”15 is also a sort of love story, the effect produced by Calvino's visual imagery is quite different from the one created in “L'avventura di un impiegato.” The protagonist, referred to as “the boy with the green glasses” (p. 97), is spending an afternoon at a ski resort. While he is an adolescent who, along with his companions, suffers from the characteristic awkwardness of that age, his adventure consists in becoming infatuated with a character who represents the antithesis of his graceless qualities: a beautiful and agile skier. Although nothing significant happens between the boy and the skier, it is upon this meeting that Calvino works his magic. Using the adolescent as a spellbound observer, the author portrays the girl as a figure too lovely and perfect to be human. At the same time he transforms the landscapes she moves through into an enchanted winter paradise.

Images of the skier's extraordinary grace occur frequently throughout the story. When she skis down the slope, for example, she becomes a bewitching vision. Since it has begun to snow, the sky and the earth weld together into a single “opaque” plane (p. 100). And across the surface of this bizarre landscape, the skier's “sky blue shadow” seems to be flying “from one side to another like on the strings of a violin” (p. 100).

The landscape, which serves as a background for the skier's graceful movement, is part of the magical vision she represents. Wherever she goes, the snowflakes take the form of “delicate and colorless crystals” (p. 100), and the trees are decorated with “embroideries of ice” (p. 98). Furthermore, the skier and this winter background, both part of the same vision, strongly resemble each other. This resemblance is especially noticeable when, at a certain point, Calvino's portrayal of the sun's influence on the atmosphere is correlated with a description of the girl's coloring. First the author explains how, in the “icy and white” air, the glittering sun shows itself like a “precise yellow design.” Then, in the next sentence, he proceeds to bleed some of the sky's ethereal pastel tones into the image of the skier: “in the sky blue windbreaker the blonde girl's face was of a pink which became red on her cheeks, against the white plush of the inside of her hood” (p. 98).


It will be recalled that in the fifties, Calvino's imagination began its journey into a realm of pure fantasy. The volume that attests to this new course is I nostri antenati—a trilogy which contains Il visconte dimezzato, Il barone rampante, and Il cavaliere inesistente.

Il visconte16 gives the impression of being a fairytale for children. Besides the fact that the plot itself is a fabrication of fantasy, the elements which create the atmosphere in which this plot evolves also do much to enhance the fairytale-like nature of the story.

The secondary characters or groups of characters are figures whose personalities offer a variety of different challenges to the two Medardos. There are none, however, who express any drama or emotion, for they are all merely paraded through the story like colorful yet artificial figures of an animated cartoon.

Calvino's transformation of the landscapes into otherworldly forms complements the artificial quality of his characters. These landscapes seem purposely to lack the author's usual attention to naturalistic detail. Instead, what is offered to the reader are almost abstract representations of nature. A scene describing the bad Medardo's destruction of the countryside creates, for example, a curious fragmented and two dimensional effect: “‘Look up there,’ said one of the servants: they saw the pears that hung against the dawning sky and to see them they were seized with fear. Because they were not whole, they were many halves of pears cut lengthwise and each one hung at its own stem: of each pear, however, there was only the right side (or the left according to from where it was being viewed) and the other half had disappeared, been cut or maybe bitten” (p. 124). When the two Medardos unite for a duel, moreover, the setting which functions as a backdrop is as disturbing as it is unnatural. The author's complex of images is expressed, not in an integrated, overall view, but in a disjointed sequence of juxtaposed elements: “The sky vibrated like a taut membrane, the doormice in their holes dug their nails into the earth, the magpies without removing their heads from under their wings pulled a feather from under their arms hurting themselves, and the earthworm's mouth ate its own tail, and the viper bit itself with its teeth, and the wasp broke its stinger on the stone, and everything turned against itself” (pp. 181–82).

It is the two Medardos, however, who most effectively sustain the artificial atmosphere of Il visconte. They seem not human, but toy soldiers animated by intricately constructed internal mechanisms. At the beginning of their duel, they are like mathematically programmed robots: their crutches trace perfect circular designs on the grass and their actions are carefully calculated. At the same time, however, in spite of the efficiency of their offenses, neither at the beginning is able to strike the other. Like toy magnets repelling each other, they cannot touch: “each one seemed to insist in trying to aim at the side where there was nothing, in other words at the side where he himself should have been” (p. 182).

Although both novels are based on an imaginary theme, Il barone rampante17 creates a mood which is quite different from Il visconte. In his preface to I nostri antenati, in fact, Calvino himself notes the contrast between the two works: “Il barone rampante came out very differently from Il visconte dimezzato. Instead of a story beyond, with a background barely drawn in, with thread-like and emblematic characters, with a plot if a children's fairytale, I was continuously attracted … to do an historical ‘pastiche,’ a repertory of eighteenth century images, supported by dates and correlations with famous persons and events” (p. xv).

Indeed, instead of the “thread-like” characters of Il visconte, each figure in Il barone is given a distinct personality. Cosimo the baron is, of course, the most detailed of all, a charcter whose physical and psychological traits are carefully delineated from childhood to old age. Moreover, Calvino delves into every aspect of his complex personality so that the reader gets to know Cosimo the lover, Cosimo the hunter, Cosimo the intellectual. and Cosimo the utopian idealist. At the same time there exists an abundance of secondary characters, each one adding something to the general atmosphere of the novel. Among the many figures surrounding Cosimo, there is Viola, whose loveliness and capricious ways constantly tempt the protagonist to abandon his life in the trees. There is the sad yet comical figure of Cosimo's father, an eighteenth century nobleman who conducts his life as if he were reigning over a medieval feud. This eccentric figure, moreover, is complemented by the equally odd personality of Cosimo's mother, whose miltaristic attitude toward her family alternates with the sweet, helpless concern of a worried parent. Even those minor characters, whose encounters with Cosimo last only a few chapters, add vitality to the novel. Hard to forget, for example, are the young fruit thieves and their delinquent escapades, or the elegant colony of Spanish exiles, or the brigand Gian dei Brughi, whose tough exterior conceals a passion for sentimental novels.

The story's lively pace is also sustained by the “repertory of eighteenth century images” which creates a vivid historical and cultural background. Cosimo's biography, though based on the fanciful premise of his life in the trees, is enriched with a detailed historical account of the years (1767–1820) during which he lives: an era that bears witness to the end of feudalism and to the influence of Napoleon's promises of freedom that follow in its wake.

Even more vividly portrayed is the Englightenment, in which Cosimo participates with great enthusiasm. It may be said, in fact, that the protagonist reflects the very essence of this movement in his general attitude toward the world around him. For his intention is to live in the trees so that he may preserve his own freedom and, at the same time, be free to contribute to the welfare and progress of others. Cosimo's ideals, moreover, are expressed in his activities, activities which also prove that he is a creature of the Englightenment. Essential to this movement is the importance of educating man and, in so doing, of training him to reason to the best of his ability. The protagonist, in keeping with this goal, is an avid reader and collector of books. Not only does he succeed in reading all that is published in his time, but her also becomes an author himself and sends some of his works to Diderot. At the same time, Cosimo is deeply interested in using his knowledge and reason to better the lives of those around him. His desire for the progress of humanity is especially apparent in his attempt to help the farmers of his domain to express their grievances in “complaint notebooks” (p. 380), and in his treatise entitled Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State Founded on the Trees (p. 328).18

“From primitive man who, being one with the universe, could be considered still inexistent because undistinguished from organic material, we have slowly arrived at the artificial man who, being one with products and institutions, is inexistent because … he doesn't have any relationship (struggle and through struggle harmony) with that which (nature and history) is around him, but only abstractly functions.”19

So begins Calvino's description of Il cavaliere inesistente,20 a work which he considers to be more “philosophical” (p. xvi) than the other two works of I nostri antenati. However, although Calvino admits that the theme is more philosophical and abstract that those of either Il visconte or Il barone, he goes on to explain that the novel itself is also more “lyrical” (p. xvi). Indeed, it is surprising that a story about a creature who possesses no body but only a soul has, rather than an abstract, sterile setting, the colorful and romantic background of Charlemagne's campaigns.

The protagonist of Il cavaliere inesistente is the knight Agilulfo, a strange bodyless figure who represents “inexistence fortified by will and conscience” (p. xvii). Admired by some and hated by others, he is quite literally a perfect knight whose powerful will to exist is expressed in doing everything in the most correct manner possible. This will to be by doing, the central theme of the novel, is also reflected in the attitudes of the many characters who surround Agilulfo. For example, there is Rambaldo, the young and naive warrior whose will to exist is tested out on the battlefield as well as with Bradamente, the woman he loves. On the other hand, Bradamente, a headstrong and somewhat disorderly beauty, finds her reason to be in loving Agilulfo. Another important figure, moreover, is Torrismondo, a highly moral knight who seeks the key to his existence in discovering his origins.

These characters add a certain narrative richness to Il cavaliere which is not present in either of the other two novels in the trilogy. In Il visconte, the secondary characters are part of the setting and do not possess much personality at all. In Il barone, moreover, though full of life, the peripheral figures are always portrayed in terms of their relationship with Cosimo. They are, in other words, never completely free of the influence he holds over their lives. The plot structure of Il cavaliere, however, is quite different. For, as Calvino explains in his preface, Agilulfo is too abstract a character upon which to build a story. As a result, continues the author, it is the crowd of characters around him who bring the central theme to life (p. xvii). Each one, moved by the will to search out a reason for existing, develops his or her own relationships and, independently from Agilulfo, is challenged by his or her own adventures.

The fact that Il cavaliere is reminiscent of Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso,21 a chivalric poem also about Charlemagne's warriors, adds still other dimensions to distinguish it from the rest of the trilogy. As in Arioso's work, the complex plot is triggered into action when the principal characters leave the battlefield to go on their own individual quests. These quests, moreover, are complicated by the frequent mistaken identities, enchanted spells, and frustrations of unrequited love which are common in the Orlando furioso.

Most importantly, however, Calvino imitates Ariosto's particular way of observing his characters. Unlike the authors of other chivalric poems, Boiardo and Tasso for example, Ariosto makes a point of portraying his knights without taking their Medieval ideals too seriously. He creates colorful, lively, and often comical situations to amuse his readers, rather than trying to present them with an idealized portrait of the era. At the same time, Ariosto's attitude is benevolent, never cruel. For the Renaissance poet, while making a satire of Medieval customs, at the same time respects the personalities and profoundly human qualities of his characters. This satirical yet benevolent attitude is also the one Calvino assumes in Il cavaliere. For, while he involves his characters in an amusing and intricately tangled web of adventures, he respects the seriousness that moves them to action.

It must be stressed, however, that Calvino is not trying to recreate the work of another author. While Ariosto enriches his fantasy of Medieval times with the culture and education of a Renaissance mind, Calvino's is quite another sort of fantasy. For he is influenced by the cultural atmosphere of the twentieth century, not the sixteenth. Calvino's imagination illuminates the condition of modern man, who must use his will to overcome the threat a technological society poses to his identity.


The sixties bear witness to still another variant of the author's fanciful narrative, for it is in these years that he turns to science for inspiration.22 As Calvino explains in his introduction to La memoria del mondo, stimulated by a deep interest in such fields as cosmology and genetics, he began to read avidly in order to satisfy his curiosity. The result was that the ideas he absorbed sparked images in his mind, images which he developed into stories.23

In the same introduction, the author goes on to assert that, even though these stories are inspired from scientific theory, they ought not be considered science fiction. The first difference is that, while science fiction most often describes the future, his stories deal principally with the remote past. A more important difference, moreover, has to do with the relationship between scientific fact and fantasy. While science fiction strives to make the fantastic easy to imagine and even familiar, Calvino claims that his intention is the opposite. He uses scientific theory as a “propulsive charge” to channel his imagination in new and different directions (pp. 5–6).

The protagonist-narrator of these stories is Qfwfq, a character whose physical form constantly changes. He is “a voice, a point of view, an eye” (p. 7), that roams freely through the universe and across incalculable expanses of time. Whether he is a dinosaur, an individual cell, a life form from some obscure rung of the evolutionary ladder, or just an abstract observer of the happenings of the cosmos, Qfwfq is a masterful storyteller who transforms scientific theory into the myths of the universe.

Just as is the case in the other phases of Calvino's development, here too several criteria for variety exist to make every story a separate and unique creation. First of all, one must take into account the fact that the diversity of the author's readings led to a wide range of subject matter. Consequently, his science stories are based on theories concerning the moon, the stars and the earth, as well as on theories dealing with the process of evolution.

Furthermore, Calvino most often presents particular elements of the cosmos in not one but a variety of ways. Each of his stories dealing with the moon, for example, creates a different impression of its physical nature. “La distanza della luna”24 portrays an era when the satellite, made of a delicious substance much resembling cottage cheese, grows farther and farther away from the earth. In “La molle luna”25 on the other hand, the moon is described as getting closer. This process entails a rapid softening of lunar substance to the point where some of it falls to the earth in viscous fragments which form the continents. Inspired by still another theory in “La luna come un fungo,”26 Calvino imagines not the moon becoming a part of the earth, but the contrary: its rising up out of our planet's ocean and breaking away into an orbit of its own. Finally, “Le figlie della luna,”27 describes the unsuccessful attempt of an industrial society to dispose of the moon by throwing it into a junkyard. The ancient satellite, aided by a group of nymphs all named Diana, takes its revenge by transforming itself into a luxuriantly fertile heavenly body and floating back to its original position in space.

The author's transformation of scientific hypotheses into imaginary cosmic occurrences represents only a part of the richness of these fantasies. Much is also contributed by the unusual creatures who always seem to be present during these occurrences. On the one hand, there is Qfwfq whose good humored and logical explanations of what is going on represent a sort of common denominator linking all of the stories together. The characters he meets during his adventures, however, represent a brilliant, heterogeneous collage of personalities. Calvino's capacity to crowd his pages with eccentric creatures has reached a zenith in these fantasies inspired from science.

Everywhere Qfwfq travels, he comes upon an abundance of relatives or new acquaintances. On the sun, for example, lives his grandfather (“Fino a che dura il sole”).28 Colonel Eggg is an eccentric figure who, because of his wife's constant plans to move to different galaxies, is obsessed with only one desire: to live on the star until it becomes a cold, dead mass of matter. Futhermore, in “La distanza della luna,” the moon is visited by Qfwfq's deaf cousin, whose method of collecting lunar cheese is much admired by the protagonist: he would proceed randomly “to isolated points, moving from one to the other with jumps, as if he wanted to play tricks on the moon, surprises, or even to tickle her. And where he would put his hands, the milk would spurt forth as from the breasts of a goat.”29 Equally humorous is the overbearing manner of Lieutenant Fenimore, whom Qfwfq meets while floating through space (“La forma dello spazio”).30 On earth moreover, Qfwfq finds himself both dangerously trapped in a speeding Volkswagen with the repulsive Dr. Cècere (“Il sangue, il mare”),31 and frustrated by his aquatic uncle's refusal to move onto the land and consequently to another stage of evolution (“Lo zio acquatico”).32

More abundant still are the female characters of Qfwfq's stories, especially those with whom he falls in love. Frequently however, these female characters, rather than representing positive influences in his existence, make his life more difficult. There is Rah, for example, a tremendously powerful sunray-woman, whose unruly nature is a constant source of embarrassment to Qfwfq (“Tempesta solare”).33 Equally incompatible is Xha, a creature so meticulous about keeping meteorites from cluttering up the earth that she nearly drives Qfwfq insane (“I metioriti”).34 Another frustrating experience concerns the somber and introverted Ayl, whom a grief-stricken Qfwfq loses just as the earth is acquiring an atmosphere. Unable to share her lover's enthusiasm for the brilliant colors which result from this change, she eludes him by slipping into the earth's interior (“Senza colori”).35 In “I cristalli,”36 on the other hand, it is Qfwfq who longs for the past in contrast to the frivolous tastes of his friend Vug. While this creature gaily approves of the diversity and imperfections of the changing physical world, the protagonist is nostalgic for the same world when it was in the process of becoming a single, perfect crystal.

Other female characters, however, do have a positive influence on Qfwfq. There is, for example, the voluptuous Zylphia, who helps him to relive his days as an elementary form of life in the warm and comfortable sea.37 Even more of a constructive influence is Qfwfq's lover in “La spirale,”38 since the feelings she inspires stimulate him to express his identity as a shellfish in the form of a spiral-shaped shell. Perhaps most powerful of all, however, is the influence of Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0, whom Qfwfq meets at a time when all of the universe is concentrated into a single point (“Tutto in un punto”). For this creature's generous desire to make her companions spaghetti unleashes the forces of the universe: “she had been capable of a generous impulse, the first ‘Boys, what delicious tagliatelle I'd like you to eat!,’ a real impulse of generous love, initiating in the same moment the concept of space … making possible billions of suns, and of planets, and of wheatfields.”39

The different techniques Calvino utilizes in expressing his images represent still other possibilities for the rich diversity of these fantasies. Already mentioned have been Qfwfq's logical, explanatory descriptions of what he has witnessed, descriptions which are found in almost all of the stories and which seek to make the most alien concepts comprehensible. A careful reading of these descriptions, however, reveals that there is more to them than a simple explanatory style. For Qfwfq's commentaries seem to be infused with a tone of humorous irony. First of all, sometimes the protagonist undertakes his task of reporting with such enthusiasm that he tends to overexplain, riddling his descriptions with repetition and unnecessarily intricate detail. Such is the case, for example, at the beginning of “Il sangue, il mare” where Qfwfq explains how the sea in which he swam as an elementary life form is essentially the same life giving fluid which flows in his human veins: “Actually things haven't changed much: I swim, I continue to swim in the same warm sea … that is to say that the inside didn't change, that which was first the outside in which I used to swim under the sun, and in which I swim, in the dark, even now that it is inside; what did change is the outside, the outside of now that before was the inside of before.”40

Ironically comical is also the way in which Qfwfq's explanations at times tend to minimize the drama of the cosmic happenings he has witnessed. A case in point is to be found in “Giochi senza fine,” where the protagonist describes how as a child he would play with hydrogen atoms, the material essential to the formation of the galaxies: “I was a child and already I had realized it, … I was familiar with the hydrogen atoms one by one, and when a new one would appear I would immediately know it. During my childhood we didn't have anything but hydrogen atoms to play with … and we didn't do anything but play with them.”41

It must be said that even though this logical and spontaneous style is highly amusing in itself, Calvino depends on it in so many of his stories that it tends to become somewhat monotonous. At the same time, however, the monotony is broken when the author enriches his protagonist's explanations with ingenious descriptive techniques.

One such case is to be found in “La forma dello spazio,”42 where Qfwfq describes the complications that arose from being in love with Ursula H'x while both were floating through space. His frustrations, he explains, originated from two sources. On the one hand, his love for Ursula was rivaled by Lieutenant Fenimore's, who was floating through space along with them. On the other hand, moreover, there was the insurmountable fact that, despite the curves and twists that shape the universe, all three were moving downward in parallel lines from which escape was impossible. The tension that was building up during this painful experience was finally broken, continues Qfwfq, when he and his rival became involved in a violent chase. But how could there be a chase, one may well ask, if the protagonist and the lieutenant were each locked in his own parallel line? As always, Qfwfq is prepared to make clear the dynamics of an odd situation and, in this case, he does so by comparing the territory covered during the chase to “lines of handwriting traced onto a white page”: “and so we followed each other, I and Lieutenant Fenimore, hiding behind the buttonholes of the ‘l’s … in order to shoot and to protect ourselves from the bullets.” Qfwfq most definitely had the advantage, for he nears the end of the story by describing how he managed to drag Fenimore by the feet “making him bang his chin against the bottom of the ‘v’s and ‘u’s and ‘m’s and ‘n’s” (pp. 146–47).

Equally ingenious is the technique used in “L'origine degli Uccelli,”43 where Qfwfq emphasizes each important event by describing it as if it were represented in a comic strip. In this story, he recounts his visit to a world inhabited by all the species that could have evolved on earth but never did. It was here, he explains, that he met the beautiful bird-woman Onir-Ornit-Or, the queen of this population of abandoned creatures.

Qfwfq's adventure began when, after having followed a bird a tremendous distance, he came to the end of the world. Before he knew what was happening, moreover, the world of the lost species collided with his own with an impact so forceful that Qfwfq was thrown to the other side. At this point, Qfwfq the narrator interjects: “A ‘bang!’ written in capital letters” (p. 25).

In order to describe the bizarre forms of life he saw on the planet, Qfwfq elaborates with another comic strip image: “this comic strip should be drawn like a negative: with figures in white on black.” Immediately afterwards, he expresses his own apprehensions about the new environment through the same graphic medium: “in the drawing, drops of cold sweat that spurt from my body.”

As the story continues, Qfwfq describes how quite suddenly he was drawn by a flock of birds toward still another surprise, his meeting with Onir-Ornit-Or, whose beauty was so great that words alone do not suffice in describing it: “in the comic one might employ a symbolic representation: a feminine hand, or leg, or breast that appears from beneath a huge cloak of feathers” (p. 27).


The disappearance of Qfwfq in the last few stories of both Ti con zero and La memoria del mondo attests to the fact that “the experience of Le cosmicomiche is over.” What takes its place is another experience, one not based on the events of the cosmos and of evolution but on the dynamics of logic and deductive reasoning.44 The short story “La memoria del mondo,”45 for example, has as protagonist a man whose crimes reveal themselves to be, through a lengthy process of deductive reasoning, completely paradoxical in relation to his profession. In “Ti con zero,”46 moreover, the author portrays a lion hunter as he tries to reason out his chances for survival according to the laws of physics. And “Il guidatore notturno”47 tells of a character who makes intricate geometrical calculations in order to arrive at the best possible relationship he can have with his lover. Thus, no longer inspired by the vastness of the universe, Calvino has shifted his gaze inward to the intricate labyrinths and paradoxes that characterize the human mind.

With the recent publication of Il castello dei destini incrociati, La taverna dei destini incrociati, and Le città invisibili, it may be said that Calvino's imagination, while still inspired by the dynamics of logic, is continuing to move in new directions. Il castello dei destini incrociati first appeared as the text for I Tarocchi (Tarots), a volume of considerable artistic merit containing reproductions of a famous set of cards. To this collection of prints the author has contributed his own commentary in the form of a story about the logic of events. While on each right-hand page there is the color reproduction of an individual card, the page on the left provides the space for both the comments of the art historian, Sergio Samek Ludovici, and for Calvino's text.

The reproductions of this set appear in the exact colors and size of the original deck, which was painted by Bonifacio Bembo in the fifteenth century and owned by the Visconti family of Milan. Each number card of the four suits—sticks, spades, coins, and chalices—is in itself an elaborate piece of work, for its characteristic sign is embellished with colorful designs highly reminiscent of the painting done on ceramics of the same period. Even more beautiful are the kings, queens, knights, and jacks of each suit as well as the symbolic tarot cards.48 These representations of human figures, garbed in magnificent clothing and set against jeweled backgrounds, attest to the intricate and colorful quality of miniature painting in the fifteenth century.

These cards and sets like them, moreover, were valued by the aristocracy of their own times, the only segment of society that could afford them. In the courts of Milan and Ferrara, for example, the noble lords and ladies greatly enjoyed playing with cards that visually illustrated, in a highly stylized way, the splendor and refinement legendary in their own noble lineages.49

Not unexpectedly, the task of writing a story about a deck of cards is very appropriate to Calvino's talent. For these colorful miniatures, infused with ancient symbolism as well as with the meanings given them by their fifteenth century owners, provide yet another stimulus for the author's imagination.

Calvino's story begins as a weary traveler, the narrator, comes upon a tavern filled with a crowd of elegant guests. Attracted to this congenial atmosphere, he enthusiastically finds himself a place at the banquet table. However, it does not take him long to discover that, as festive as the dinner may be, no one is uttering a sound. This bizarre situation continues even after dinner, when the host presents his guests with a deck of cards so that they may communicate to the others the sequence of events that has brought them to the tavern. As the evening progresses, several of the guests, each one bearing an uncanny resemblance to one of the cards, recount their own experiences using the part of the deck that has been allotted to them. One by one, all of the cards are placed on the table either in horizontal or vertical lines. This complex design of destinies, however, is by no means complete once these characters finish telling about their adventures. For, in the stories already recounted, still other characters see new combinations of events and influences which describe their own experiences.

The characters of Il castello are reminiscent in some ways of those in Il cavaliere inesistente, whose desires for love and honor lead each one through a labyrinth of adventures. Here, however, Calvino is not focusing so much on the motivations of his characters as on the colorful and fluid patterns of events which characterize their adventures. Nothing about this story is stable, for the characters are always in a state of flux, moving from one obstacle or reward to another and sometimes even changing into different forms. Similarly, the landscapes they travel through keep appearing out of thin air, only to vanish suddenly like clouds of smoke. Even the cards themselves, which reappear time and again in the destinies of the different characters, constantly shift in meaning according to the circumstances of each player. Thus, with this ephemeral kaleidoscope of imagery, Calvino has added still another sort of fantasy to his repertoire. Inspired by the infinite combinations contained in a set of cards, he has created a game of interrelated destinies.

In contrast to the glittering atmosphere of Il castello, the mood of La taverna dei destini incrociati50 is somber and at times even diabolically macabre. Here too the author writes of interrelated destinies but, no longer a mere game, they are the points of departure for the expression of a host of fears and doubts about the human condition. Calvino's narrative has become clouded with a despairing sort of pessimism, a pessimism so serious in tone that it necessitates a longer and more precise analysis of La taverna later on.51

At the end of I Tarocchi, Calvino gives a brief autobiographical sketch. As may have been expected, he alludes to the signs of the zodiac to describe his past. Interestingly enough, however, he also structures the basic elements of his life around something else: the cities of his past which have influenced his attitudes and life style. There is, for example, Turin, “industrial and national, where the risk of insanity is not less than in other cities” (p. 161), and Paris, where Calvino chose a “wife and permanent domicile,” “a city surrounded by forests” (p. 162). These allusions to the cities that the author has lived in represent more than colorful details in his autobiographical note, for they also hint at the form his imagination will take in Le città invisibili.52

Inspired once more to portray the diversity and at the same time universality of human experience, Calvino has created an imaginary dialogue between the Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. In this dialogue, the emperor is represented as an old man who has lost his capacity to understand humanity and hence to rule his empire. Marco Polo, on the other hand, is his youthful ambassador who attempts to help the Great Khan comprehend the dynamics of existence both through philosophical debates as well as through descriptions of cities he has visited. Calvino has integrated these two different forms of narration by introducing and concluding each of the nine chapters with philosophical debates and by making Marco Polo's descriptive travelogues the central part.

As can be seen in the way the emperor and his ambassador communicate with each other, Calvino is still intrigued as he was in Il castello dei destini incrociati with the infinity of interpretations that is to be found in a game of signs. For Marco Polo does not only use words, but also “gestures,” “leaps,” and “screams of surprise and horror” (p. 29). Moreover, he frequently expresses himself through the objects he has acquired during his travels, mementos which offer a variety of possibilities for interpretation.

The game of signs the Great Khan is playing with his ambassador encourages him to believe that he will understand “the invisible order” (p. 128) that governs human existence, if he compares the variables of this order to his chess pieces and plays a game. So complex are the combinations and relationships that result from each move, however, that he soon gives up all hope of finding a pattern to the human variables that order his empire.

It is at this point that Marco Polo tries to explain to him that a basic design does indeed exist, but that its complexity is far too elusive to be understood through the logic of a game. The order that structures human attributes and relationships, elaborates the ambassador, ought to be compared to the logic that structures dreams: “‘Cities are like dreams: all the imaginable may be dreamed but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that hides a desire, or its opposite, a fear. Cities like dreams are built of desires and fears, even if the thread of their logic is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceiving’” (p. 50).

Marco Polo's assertion that the underlying order of human nature is as precise yet as elusive as the logic of dreams is stressed not only in his debates with the Kublai Khan, but even more so in his descriptions of the cities he has seen. Each one is defined by an exotic name as well as by a complex of surrealistic images. There is Armilla, for example, with its “waterpipes which rise vertically where there ought to be houses … a forest of tubes that end in faucets, showers, siphons” (p. 55), or Moriana, a city of “alabaster” and “coral” (p. 111), or Ottavia, which is suspended in the air between two mountains (p. 81).

These city landscapes, moreover, all reveal in some manner glimpses of the laws that order human experience. Despina, for example, illustrates how man's point of view is determined by what he wants to perceive. Situated on the coast between a sea and a desert, it looks to the camel driver like a ship, thus reminding him of the cool, wet sea. To the sailor, on the other hand, Despina looks like a camel and brings back memories of the comforts of land (pp. 25–26). In Eufemia, moreover, the traveler learns how men exchange their words just like they sell merchandise. For, in the evening, everyone sits around the fire and “at every word one utters—like ‘wolf,’ ‘sister,’ ‘hidden treasure,’ ‘battle,’ ‘scarab,’ ‘lovers’—everyone tells his own stories about wolves, sisters, hidden treasures, scarabs, lovers, battles” (p. 43).

Most importantly, however, Marco Polo's descriptions reveal the paradoxical complexity that characterizes the “invisible order.” Eusapia, for example, is a city where the dead are much more alive than the living (pp. 115–16). In Isidora, a traveler's nostalgic memories cannot be distinguished from his desires (p. 16). When one leaves Tamara, a city made only of symbols, one realizes that its essence is still a secret (pp. 21–22). And in Berenice, one finds that justice and injustice are inextricably intertwined (pp. 166–67).

From these enigmatic travelogues which Marco Polo communicates to the emperor and from the mysterious adventures recounted by the characters of both Il castello and La taverna, it is clear that Calvino's imagination has evolved, in recent years, into forms which are more elusive than ever before. Yet, as unconventional as the course he has chosen may be, he has never lost sight of human values and problems, of the hidden “filigree of a design” upon which human experience is built (p. 14).


  1. I racconti (Turin: Einaudi, 1958), pp. 74–80. “Animal Forest.”

  2. Ultimo viene il corvo (Turin: Einaudi, 1969), pp. 88–93. “Seen at the Mess.”

  3. I racconti, pp. 68–73. “One of the Three Is Still Alive.”

  4. One famous example of “contrappasso” in the “Inferno” is represented by the episode of Paolo and Francesca. For these two, who in earthly life had an adulterous and passionate relationship, are condemned to remain forever united and forever restlessly in flight in the manner of doves. “Inferno” (Canto V, vv. 78–143) in La divina commedia (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1966), pp. 60–67.

  5. This last image, in which Calvino makes an association between wet glass and weeping eyes, is reminiscent of an image appearing in the lowest section of the “Inferno.” In this place, the temperature is extremely cold and the sinners are covered by ice. One of the most terrible aspects of their punishment, moreover, has to do with what happens when they weep. For, as Dante explains, their tears are transformed into painful “crystal” barriers which increase the anguish of their remorse. “Inferno” (Canto xxxiii, vv. 93–108), p. 374.

  6. I racconti p. 68.

  7. In creating this name Calvino follows the example of Dante, for the Medieval author often invents names for characters and settings which connote otherworldly horror. One good example of this technique concerns the eighth circle of the “Inferno,” the circle of the cheaters, which Dante calls “Malebolge” (“Evil Holes”). “Inferno” (Canto xviii, v. 1), p. 204.

  8. This horrible concept demonstrates that Calvino's imagination has once more been inspired by the “Inferno.” For, in the episode which concerns the imprisonment of Ugolino, Dante tells how the famous count was driven, out of hunger, to devour his dead sons and nephews who had been imprisoned with him. “Inferno” (Canto xxxiii, vv. 1–78), pp. 367–72.

  9. Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (Turin: Einaudi, 1964), pp. 14–15.

  10. I nostri antenati (Turin: Einaudi, 1960), p. x.

  11. Ibid.

  12. I racconti, pp. 357–85. The Argentine Ant.

  13. Gli amori difficili (Turin: Einaudi, 1970), p. xi.

  14. Ibid., pp. 27–33. “The Adventure of an Office Clerk.”

  15. Ibid., pp. 97–102. “The Adventure of a Skier.”

  16. I nostri antenati, pp. 109–84. Il visconte dimezzato recounts the story of the Viscount Medardo of Terralba, who returns home from a crusade after having been split in two by a cannon ball. Because of this bizarre accident, the novel is centered around two protagonists: the separate halves of Medardo who have assumed two individual personalities. Moreover, one Medardo possesses the qualities of a “good” personality, while the other is endowed with “evil” character traits.

  17. Ibid., pp. 185–406. On June 15, 1767, Cosimo Piovasco of Rondò (who eventually inherits his father's title of Baron), in an act of rebellion against his sister's cooking, climbs into a tree and decides to spend the rest of his life above the ground. Narrated by his younger brother, the novel follows the baron through youth, maturity, and old age, and describes the challenges and responsibilities which characterize his life in the trees.

  18. Calvino, who has always had a fascination for utopian idealists, has edited a collection of the works of the nineteenth century utopian philosopher Charles Fourrier: Teoria dei quattro movimenti: Il nuovo mondo amoroso (Turin: Einaudi, 1971).

  19. I nostri antenati, p. xvi.

  20. Ibid, pp. 3–108.

  21. 1474–1533.

  22. It will be recalled that the works of this group, all of them in short story form, are contained in three anthologies: Le cosmicomiche, Ti con zero, and La memoria del mondo.

  23. La memoria del mondo (Turin: Einaudi, 1968), pp. 5–7.

  24. Le cosmicomiche (Turin: Einaudi, 1965), pp. 7–24. “Distance to the Moon.”

  25. Ti con zero (Turin: Einaudi, 1967), pp. 7–18. “The Soft Moon.”

  26. La memoria, pp. 33–45. “The Moon like a Mushroom.”

  27. Ibid., pp. 61–78. “The Daughters of the Moon.”

  28. Ibid., pp. 155–66. “As Long as the Sun Lasts.”

  29. Le cosmicomiche, p. 13.

  30. Ibid., pp. 135–47. “The Shape of Space.”

  31. Ti con zero, pp. 47–60. “Blood, Sea.”

  32. Le cosmicomiche, pp. 85–99. “The Aquatic Uncle.”

  33. La memoria, pp. 167–81. “Solar Storm.”

  34. Ibid., pp. 81–110. “Meteorites.”

  35. Le cosmicomiche, pp. 61–74. “Without Colors.”

  36. Ti con zero, pp. 35–45. “Crystals.”

  37. Ibid., pp. 47–60. “Blood, Sea.”

  38. Le cosmicomiche, pp. 167–84. “The Spiral.”

  39. Ibid., pp. 53–60. “All in a Point.”

  40. Ti con zero, pp. 49–50.

  41. Le cosmicomiche, p. 77. “Games without End.”

  42. Ibid., pp. 135–47. “The Shape of Space.”

  43. Ti con zero, pp. 19–33. “The Origin of Birds.”

  44. La memoria, p. 8.

  45. Ibid., pp. 267–77. “Memory of the World.”

  46. Ti con zero, pp. 103–19. “t zero.”

  47. Ibid., pp. 139–48. “Night Driver.”

  48. I Tarrochi (Parma: Franco Maria Ricci, 1969). On each tarot card appears a human form which symbolizes in a general way some sort of influence on human density. While these symbols are more or less the same in all sets of tarot cards, their specific interpretation depends on the player as he tries to figure out his destiny. Thus, for example, the traditional card representing time may mean that, within the context of this destiny, the player has run out of time, that he has more time than he thought, or perhaps that the time is ripe for a particular event to take place.

  49. Sergio Samek Ludovici, “Analisi,” in I Tarocchi, pp. 156–57.

  50. La taverna dei destini incrociati, completed after Il castello, is also based on a sequence of stories inspired by a deck of tarot cards. This deck, however, is more popular and humble than the one painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Dukes of Milan. Still sold in France today, “l'Ancien Tarot de Marseille” are a reproduction of an eighteenth century deck and, unlike their more aristocratic painted counterparts, they lend themselves well to “reduced printed reproduction.” The Castle of Crossed Destinies (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976, 1977), p. 125.

  51. See Chapter VIII.

  52. Le città invisibili (Turin: Einaudi, 1972).

Principal Works

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Ultimo viene il corvo 1949

Il visconte dimezzato [The Cloven Viscount] 1952

Fiabe Italiane [Italian Folktales] 1956

Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories 1957

Il barone rampante [The Baron in the Trees] 1957

*I racconti 1958

Il cavaliere inesistente [The Non-Existent Knight] 1959

**I nostri antenati [Our Ancestors] 1960

La giornata di uno scutatore [The Watcher] 1963

Marcovaldo, ouvero le stagioni in città [Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City] 1963

Le cosmicomiche [Cosmicomics] 1965

Ti con zero [t zero] 1967

La memoria del mondo 1968

Il castello dei destini incrociati [The Castle of Crossed Destinies] 1969

Gli amore dificile [Difficult Loves] 1970

The Watcher, and Other Stories 1971

Sotto il sole giaguro [Under the Jaguar Sun] 1986

Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno [The Path to the Nest of Spiders] (novel) 1947

Le città invisibili [Invisible Cities] (novel) 1974

Se una notte d'inverno viaggiatore [If on a Winter's Night a Traveler] (novel) 1979

Pietra sopra discorsi di letteratura e societa [The Uses of Literature] (nonfiction) 1980

Six Essays for the Next Millenium (nonfiction) 1988

*I racconti contains the following novellas: La formica argentina, La speculazione edilizia, and La nuvola di smog.

**I nostri antenati contains Il cavaliere inesistente, Il visconte dimezzato, and Il barone rampante.

Gli amore dificile contains stories originally published in Ultimo viene il corvo and I racconti.

Ursula K. LeGuin (review date 1980)

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SOURCE: A review of Italian Folktales, in New Republic, Vol. 183, September 27, 1980, pp. 33–4.

[In the following favorable review, LeGuin maintains that “one of the innumerable delights of Italian Folktales is its mixture of the deeply familiar with the totally unexpected.”]

Prowling among dictionaries, I discovered that the word “fairy” is fata in Italian and that it derives, like the word “fate,” from a Latin verb fari, to speak. Fate is “that which is spoken.” The Fates which presided over human life dwindled away to fairies, fairy godmothers, inhabitants of fairy tales.

The English world “fable,” Italian fiaba or favola, a story, “a narrative or statement not founded on fact” as the Shorter Oxford puts it, descends from the Latin fabula, which derives from that same verb fari, to speak. To speak is to tell tales.

The predestined spindle has pricked her thumb; here lies the Sleeping Beauty in the silent castle. The prince arrives. He kisses her. Nothing happens.

So the prince comes back again next day, and the next day too, and his love is

so intense that the sleeping maiden gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, and you never saw two more beautiful children in your life. They came into the world hungry, but who was to nurse them if their mamma lay there like a dead woman? They cried and cried, but their mother didn't hear them. With their tiny mouths they began seeking something to suck on, and that way the boy child happened to find his mother's hand and began sucking on the thumb. With all that sucking, the spindle tip lodged under the nail came out, and the sleeper awakened. ‘Oh, me, how I've slept!’ she said, rubbing her eyes.

The two children are named Sun and Moon, and Sleeping Beauty's mother-in-law tries to have them served up stewed for the prince's supper, but he hears the silver bells sewn on his wife's seven skirts ringing, and saves everybody—except the mother-in-law—and they live happily ever after, in Calabria.

To find the moral, the message, the meaning of a folktale, to describe its “uses,” even so circuitously as Bruno Bettelheim has done, is a risky business; it is like stating the meaning of a fish, the uses of a cat. The thing you are talking about is alive. It changes and is never quite what you thought it was, or ought to be.

One of the innumerable delights of Italian Folktales is its mixture of the deeply familiar with the totally unexpected.

Most of the basic “story-types,” of which Calvino says there are about 50 represented here, are more or less familiar to members of the English folk/literary tradition. The themes that recur in all Western folktales run through these; we meet the youngest son of the king, the wicked stepmother, the stupid giant, the helpful animals, the magic boots, the house of the winds, the well that leads to another world: people and places we all recognize, archetypal forms of our perception of life, according to Jung, embodiments of ideas as basic to our subjective existence as the ideas of extension, right/left, reversal, are to our existence in space. But the recombinations of these themes mostly are not familiar. This is much more than Cinderella served up with salsa di pomodoro. The tales are endlessly surprising. And their mood is quite different from the elegance of the French contes, the iconic spendors of Russian skazki, the forest darknesses of German Märchen. Often they resemble British tales of the Joseph Jacobs collections in their dry and zany humor, but they have more sunlight in them. Some are wonderfully beautiful. “The natural cruelties of the folktale give way to the rules of harmony,” as Calvino says in his introduction:

Although the notion of cruelty persists along with an injustice bordering on inhumanity as part of the constant stuff of stories, although the woods forever echo with the weeping of maidens or of forsaken brides with severed hands, gory ferocity is never gratuitous; the narrative does not dwell on the torment of the victim, not even under pretense of pity, but moves swiftly to a healing solution.

Italo Calvino's part in this book is not that of the eminent author condescending to honor a collection of popular tales with an introduction—anything but. Essentially the book is to Italian literature what the Grimms' collection is to German literature. It is both the first and the standard. And its particular glory is that it was done not by a scholar-specialist but by a great writer of fiction. The author of The Baron in the Trees and Invisible Cities used all his skills to bring together the labors of collectors and scholars from all the regions of Italy, to translate the tales out of dialects into standard Italian, and to retell them:

I selected from mountains of narratives … the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts. … I enriched the text selected from other versions and whenever possible did so without altering its character or unity, and at the same time filled it out and made it more plastic. I touched up as delicately as possible those portions that were either missing or too sketchy. …

With absolute sureness of touch he selected, combined, rewove, reshaped, so that each tale and the entire collection would show at its best, clear and strong, without obscurity or repetition. It was, of course, both his privilege and his responsibility as a teller of tales to do so. He assumed his privilege without question, and fulfilled his responsibility magnificently. One of the best storytellers alive telling us some of the best stories in the world—what luck!

The Fiabe italiane were first published in Italy in 1956. My children grew up with an earlier, selected edition of them—Italian Fables, from Orion Press, 1959. The book was presented for children, without notes, in a fine translation by Louis Brigante, just colloquial enough to be a joy to read aloud, and with line drawings by Michael Train that reflect the wit and spirit of the stories. Perhaps a reading-aloud familiarity with the cadences of this earlier translation has prejudiced my ear; anyhow I found George Martin's version heavier, often pedestrian, sometimes downright ugly. I don't hear the speaking voice of the storyteller in it, or feel the flow and assurance of words that were listened to by the writer as he wrote them. Nor does the occasional antique woodcut in the present edition add much to the stories. But the design of the book is handsome and generous, entirely appropriate to the work. For here for the first time in English all the tales are included, as well as Calvino's complete introduction, and his notes (edited by himself for this edition) on each story. The notes illuminate his unobtrusive scholarship and explain his refashioning of the material, while the introduction contains some of the finest things said on folklore since Tolkien—such throwaway lines as: “No doubt the moral function of the tale, in the popular conception, is to be sought not in the subject matter but in the very nature of the folktale, in the mere fact of telling and listening.” Come and listen, then. Come hear how a girl named Misfortune found her Fate on the seashore of Sicily:

At the oven Misfortune found the old woman, who was so foul, blear-eyed, and smelly that the girl was almost nauseated. ‘Dear Fate of mine, will you do me the honor of accepting—’ she began, offering her the bread.

‘Away you! Begone! Who asked you for bread?’ And she turned her back on the girl.

But Misfortune persists in showing good will toward this nasty hag, and so we find how Fate may turn to Fairy by the magic of Fable.

The Fate, who was growing tamer, came forward grumbling to take the bread. Then Misfortune reached out and grabbed her and proceeded to wash her with soap and water. Next she did her hair and dressed her up from head to foot in her new finery. The Fate at first writhed like a snake, but seeing herself all spick-and-span she became a different person entirely. ‘Listen to me, Misfortune,’ she said. ‘For your kindness to me, I'm making you a present of this little box,’ and she handed her a box as tiny as those which contain wax matches.

And what do you think Misfortune found in the little box?

Further Reading

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Adler, Sara Maria. Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker. Potomac: Jose Porrúa Turanzas, 1979, 171 p.

Traces the evolution of Calvino's fiction from several different perspectives.

Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1981, 115 p.

Collects Cannon's numerous journal essays on Calvino's individual works and the various phases of his career.

Carter, Albert Howard, III. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987, 182 p.

Explores the many implications suggested in Calvino's fantasy tales, concentrating on the author's penchant for dramatizing metaphysical problems.

Hume, Kathryn. Calvino's Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, 212 p.

Traces Calvino's thematic development, particularly his use of cosmological thought.

Olken, I. T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1984, 157 p.

Extensive study of recurring patterns, or “symmetries,” that inform Calvino's narratives.

Ricci, Franco. Difficult Games: A Reading of I racconti by Italo Calvino. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990, 131 p.

Book-length analysis of Calvino's collection of short stories.

Weiss, Beno. Understanding Italo Calvino. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993, 233 p.

Critical and biographical study of Calvino.

Additional coverage of Calvino's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88, 116; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 61; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 8, 11, 22, 33, 39, 73; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 196; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; European Writers; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Reference Guide to World Literature; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 12; and St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers.

Albert Howard Carter III (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: “Calvino's ‘Ultimo Viene il Corvo’: Riflery as Realistic and Fantastic,” in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 84, Spring, 1981, pp. 61–7.

[In the following essay, Carter asserts that realistic and fantastic elements interrelate and act as reinforcing literary modes in “Ultimo Viene il Corvo.”]

Critics have often approached Italo Calvino's early writing as a mixture of fantasy and realism that would soon split apart into two distinct modes of narrative. “Ultimo viene il corvo,”1 one of his best known stories, for example, has been discussed as an historical representation of the partisan struggle, with, however, lyric and poetic overlays.2 Carlo Annoni, in his “Italo Calvino: la Resistenza tra realtà e favola,”3 suggests that the partisan stories represent two directions in Calvino's work, the neorealistic and the fabulous; “Ultimo viene il corvo” represents the latter. Teresa de Lauretis, however, has argued against a division of Calvino's corpus into neorealism and fantasy, as if there were “divided impulses or irreconcilable interests in the author.”4 Using concepts from, among others, structural linguistics, she argues that, on the contrary, realistic and fantastic elements are in “a dialectic process reflecting his awareness of the very nature of culture as the highest and unique form of human ‘doing.’”5

In this essay I would like to offer a close reading of this story, emphasizing how realistic and fantastic elements interrelate, not so much as opposites, but more as mutually reinforcing literary modes. The analytic part of my approach is new critical, showing how meanings are developed within the work itself. While I do not deny the validity of “external” approaches, I feel that explication is appropriate to Calvino's aesthetic: he has referred to his work as “bouteilles jetées à la mer.”6 The more conceptual part of my approach assumes that fantasy is a central literary quality.7 In After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, George Steiner writes that “Language is a constant creation of alternative worlds. There are no limits to the shaping powers of words, proclaims the poet … The teeming plurality of languages enacts the fundamentally creative, ‘counter-factual’ genius and psychic functions of language itself … Each different tongue offers its own denial of determinism. ‘The world,’ it says, ‘can be other.’”8 While Steiner is writing about individual languages from the world over, I take his meaning to apply to modes of discourse, such as realistic and fantastic narrative. More specifically, he remarks that “A poem concentrates, it deploys with least regard to routine or conventional transparency, those energies of covertness and of invention which are the crux of human speech. A poem is maximal speech.9 I would like to explore the artistry and craftsmanship of “Ultimo viene il corvo” as “maximal speech,” in which realism and fantasy are not separate, but interdependent.

The fantasy of “Ultimo viene il corvo” derives from a young boy's riflery, a realistic enough wartime activity; while this skill seems at first nothing unusual, Calvino extends it to superhuman proportions. The protagonist is, in E. M. Forster's term, a flat character, an apple-cheeked boy. He is differentiated no further, not by age or even name. We know him only through action. He joins a group of Italian partisans in the woods who discuss dynamiting a trout stream to catch fish. He borrows a rifle, fires it into the stream, and stuns a fish. He has improved on the crude method they were going to use, and they are impressed. He repeats the action and, like a chorus, the men praise his marksmanship. Their continued praise gives the boy further stature, while the narrator, always neutral, does nothing to diminish it.

The sixth paragraph adds a more theoretical interpretation, giving a new kind of support to the boy's actions. We read that the strange separation of the self from objects is easily overcome by “the direct and invisible line, from the mouth of the rifle to the thing.” This line is a locus of potential, an hypothesis for a direction of power. As if to make this theory more concrete, the sentence runs on into an example, a falcon, which is immediately shot down, despite “the wings which seemed steady.” The falcon falls “like a stone,” a disarmingly common simile which makes its demise seem all the more natural. Calvino continues with abstract questions, the kind the boy might ask. (The use of impersonal constructions and imperfect tenses in the Italian helps to generalize the train of thought.) The questions about whether the pine cones would make good targets help to build tension and doubt about whether he can hit them. When he does so, his inordinate skill in shooting becomes even clearer, to the point of fantasy. The marksmanship is fantastic both because of its supreme precision and because of its ability to fulfill a mental conception: the boy hypothesizes or fantasizes the hitting of an object, and then he enacts that idea with his shot. That he is so young and innocent-looking further intensifies the fantastic character of his skill: it is not the product of years of practice.

Calvino plays with the sense of emptiness of space and the direct line of fire to one, two, three, four more objects, at an accelerating rate of fire. This repetition further confirms the boy's skill, establishing it as an invariable norm. Again the men affirm the boy's skill: “This one doesn't miss a one,” with a sense of awe (“no one had the courage to laugh,” p. 61). In fact they value his skill so highly that they want him to join them, to serve their military aims; thus the attitude of awe continues to grow around the powerful, apple-cheeked boy.

By the time we reach the sentence that reflects on the joys of going away (“andare via”), the verb “to see” has been redefined. We might well expect the truism that travel is broadening because one sees new things, but we also know that for this boy seeing new things and shooting them can be equivalent. Distance between him and objects, as the sentence makes clear, is but “faked” since he can overcome it with a squeeze of the trigger. This equivalence is a fiat, what Wheelwright calls the “King's Nod,”10 only here in a destructive form: “Let there be nothing,” and there is nothing. The boy doesn't have to speak, merely think and point. Thus this super-refined, supernatural marksmanship reaches full fantastic proportions as the boy becomes a little god with an ironic, smiling face and the unerring power to “strike from afar,” as the Homeric epithet goes, with his eye and gun. Calvino has reached this level slowly and surely, building up meanings from examples, comments, hypotheses, so that the boy's power can gain fantastic dimensions without disturbing the realistic conventions of the story.

After this early climax in the development of the boy's marksmanship, the realistic demands return briefly to mediate the development of the fantasy. The men make clear that their interest in the boy's shooting is not in the aesthetics of the spatial game, but in its usefulness to their purpose: war. There is a conflict here, since the boy, following his fancy, wants merely to shoot at difficult targets, particularly birds on the wing, presumably because they are more challenging. The men take the rifle away from him when he does not adopt their norms. This paragraph, by paragraph count, is the exact middle of the story; the boy's powers and his variance with the realistic norms of the adult world are both clear.

The next half of the story finds the boy freed of the men, shooting birds, mice, rats, mushrooms. For him it is a game, a game with the boundless potential of such romances as Orlando furioso, since he wanders arbitrarily, without obstacle, from one target to another: “Era un bel gioco andare cosí da un bersaglio all'altro: forse si poteva fare il giro del mondo” (p. 62). The boy wanders into “unknown meadows,” but he does not escape the war.

The German soldiers come with rifles leveled at the boy, but, upon seeing him apple-cheeked and smiling, they seek to greet him. Instead he shoots one of them. The irony of the dangerous child here combines both the notion of the wanton, playful gods from the Iliad to Hardy with the notion of the powerful child king, as in Virgil's “Fourth Eclogue” or the New Testament. The boy's youth intensifies the fantastic character of his deadly game; he rejects both the aims of the partisans and the greetings of the Germans to follow his own whims, and such whims fully accord with the notion of the fantastic as non-utilitarian and arbitrary.

It is a different kind of irony, however, that at this point (p. 63) the boy's game and the efforts of the partisans coincide; indeed the partisans' warfare seems another sort of game by contrast: fantasy has a way of making everything else look like fantasy also, as in Grass's The Tin Drum, in which Oskar, the dwarf with fantastic powers, appears to be related casually to the historical events of World War II. The realistic intrusion of the partisans' arrival—they have heard shots—makes possible the escape of one German. The boy pursues him, playing with him, as a cat plays with its prey.

The last quarter of the story is presented from the point of view of the German soldier as he confronts death. This shift in point of view is fundamental to the effect of the story and to its fantastic elements. First we looked at the boy from the men's point of view. Then we looked down the barrel of the rifle with the boy, enjoying with him his powers. Now we must look through the German's eyes at the muzzle of the gun. The story thus leads us from the growth of a fantasy to an exaltation of it and, finally, to tragic realization of the implications of this fantasy. Once established, the fantastic force is a fixed point within the story that governs all later events.

At paragraph 18 (p. 63, “là per ora”), begins a technique Calvino is fond of, the presentation of a character faced with an extreme situation, making hypotheses about it. This technique is especially useful for the creation of fantasy, since the character apprehends and takes seriously a threat of fantastic proportions, affirming its existence and creating his own personal fantasies to deal with it. And since these two mental operations are akin to a reader's reaction (apprehension and interpretation), an author can use his endangered character to direct a reader's responses.

At first the German feels quite secure: he is well hidden behind a large impenetrable rock, and he has his own weapons, hand grenades. Unsure of what the realities are, the soldier thinks hypothetically, trying to understand his position. His first idea is that since the boy cannot approach him, therefore, he is safe. His premise is valid, but he does not know yet how well the boy shoots. His next idea is to escape, but he immediately questions it, wondering about the boy's skill and patience. The soldier makes a test only to find his helmet shot through, but, lacking the reader's knowledge, he does not lose heart. Rather he hypothesizes that a moving target would be harder to hit. When the boy shoots two birds out of the air, the soldier reacts with physical symptoms of fear, much as the partisans in the beginning had reacted with a chorus of praise. There is another acceleration of pace as more birds fall, intensifying the drama. Accordingly, the soldier forms another hypothesis, that the boy would be too busy shooting birds to bother with him. This time the reader himself may not be sure, for he knows about the boy's marvelous accuracy, but not about his speed. The soldier, a careful perceiver and thinker (and thus a better Horatio figure), makes another test. When this test not only affirms but carries further the range of the boy's fantastic skill, the soldier tastes lead in his mouth. This common image of fear has further meanings of irony and terror, because bullets are made out of lead, and because this reaction balances the earlier, reverential comment that there was “a good smell of powder.”

Having formed and rejected hypotheses of escape, the soldier returns to his earlier line of reasoning, that he is safe where he is, with his hand grenades. He follows this strategy, throwing one as best he can, and in fact succeeding in a good throw, but the boy shoots this missile down as well. When the German ducks to avoid the shrapnel from his own weapon, he is beginning to act out a concept that becomes clearer as the story ends, that he is his own enemy.

With the arrival of the crow, the point of view is doubled, as if to further separate the German from a comprehensive view of the action. The narrator says, “Quando rialzò il capo era venuto il corvo” (p. 64). Then the soldier sees it; from his point of view: “C'era nel cielo sopra di lui un uccello che volava a giri lenti, un corvo, forse” (p. 64). It is clear that the narrator, but not the soldier, knows that the bird is a crow, which appears to come as if expected (the title of the story, of course, helps to reinforce this idea). When the boy does not fire, the soldier (and the reader), who has been trained to accept as normal the boy's behavior, begins to wonder, creating a new series of hypotheses to explain why for the first time in the story the boy does not fire immediately.

Although the crow itself is not described as a particular crow, it is differentiated from the other birds as bigger, black, and ominous, a traditional sign of death, since crows are scavengers. That it flies in slow circles around the soldier is portentous, when we recall the linear flight of the other birds. The crow's motion brings a deceleration of action, a prolongation of the tense, unresolved moment. As it circles it descends, circling about the soldier, who becomes a focus for this mysterious development. These circles are not the free wanderings the boy made earlier, but a restrictive encompassing, more typical of an ironic, even gothic framework.

By this time the soldier's thoughts become more desperate, and the hypotheses become more fantastic, to match the fantastic situation he finds himself in. Increasingly frantic, he first doubts the boy: perhaps he doesn't see the crow. He quickly discards this idea and instead doubts himself: perhaps he is hallucinating. Instead, he is destroying himself through his own doubt. Indeed he next frames an hypothesis to explain his imminent (in his own mind) death, naming the crow as the last sign—such is his own fantasy of death, a last resort of his mind to make sense of data that cannot be otherwise (certainly not realistically!) interpreted. His mind controlled by this fantasy, he decides he must act consistently with it, to direct the boy's attention to his own person. Possessed by his own fantasy, the German breaks the realistic frame of his safety behind the rock, jumps up, points at the bird, and shouts. His very act of rising is an ironic aspiring upwards; his pointing at the bird with his finger is feeble compared to the way the boy points at birds.

The next-to-last sentence has several interesting elements, thanks to the values previously established in the story: “Il proiettile lo prese giusto in mezzo a un'aquila ad ali spiegate che aveva ricamata sulla giubba” (p. 64). Finally the words “il proiettile!” The specific mention of the bullet is unusual, since previously it had been the locus in space, the line of fire, not the actual bullet that was important; the game was more theoretical than fatal. Now this abstraction becomes concrete, and we follow the realistic implications of the fantasy: destruction, suffering, death. The notions of power that the reader had reveled in are now, quite literally, brought home to the German, over whose shoulders we are forced to look. Next, the adverbial components that specify the accuracy of the shot come as no surprise, since they affirm this power, but they do serve to delay the ironic climax of the sentence. Last, the embroidered eagle which the bullet strikes provides a focus for many meanings. The usual connotations of an eagle are its lordliness, its mastery of heights, its final glorious flight before its death. Here instead, the bird is fixed, sewn to the jacket with its wings outspread in an ambiguous way, that could be seen as impotent. The bird is fixed in the sense that it must cower behind the rock with the soldier. Thus if the soldier's leap up to point out the crow is at all parallel to the final flight of the eagle, it would be in the most ironic and pathetic sense. If the eagle is the Nazi Kriegsadler it is one doomed to defeat—but I don't think the story is an allegory for World War II as a whole.

That the crow, in the last sentence, continues to circle is problematic. Is it the last reflection of the soldier before he dies, or the last comment of the narrator, or both? Will the boy shoot it, or does he no longer figure in the story? If it is not shot, we can probably assume the crow will conclude its focusing movement by settling on the German's corpse. In any event, the crow completes the frame of nature the story opened with, providing a background of rather neutral value, easily taken for aloofness or detached sovereignty, depending on the reader. The fantasy begins and ends with this simple frame.

What is the fascination of such a story? Why do we keep reading? If we thought that fantasy dealt only with good fairies and helpful beasts, we are reminded that fantasy can also treat the dangerous, the threatening. Indeed the first part of the story comes closest to the innocent or friendly sort of fantasy, what I call fantasy of affirmation: the boy is friendly, helpful to the partisans, and he has vital, apple-like cheeks. We side with him, find his shooting acceptable as a game free from ordinary restrictions. It is an easy sort of wish-fulfillment to look over his shoulder, to enjoy his fantastic power as if it were our own. Moreover his shooting is free from the moral control of the adults who want him to be a soldier; he is free, and we with him as we wander from target to target, even into “unknown areas.” On the other hand, he has the praise of all the adult characters in the first part of the story; he is accepted, even sought after for his gift. That he should rebel against his admirers further increases his stature and independence. His gift is purer for not being compromised by a practical use. It is a game, a sport we affirm, assuming it free of serious consequences. As a fantastic hypothesis, the boy answers our desires for power, freedom, safety, control, innocence, and an uncanny purity of action. He also personifies our repugnance for narrow-minded, adult opportunism. He is a praise-worthy figure who is above the partisans' praise.

But when the boy begins to chase the German we find that an abstract game that seemed attractive can also be most dangerous. The fantasy of affirmation gradually shifts to what I call fantasy of denial, and we find the values that we readily assented to before becoming redefined. We may have expected this reversal, of course, since we are used to the tragic concept of Nemesis that corrects man's hubris, as in Oedipus Rex, King Lear, or Faust. But the twist in this story is that the boy is not punished. The victim is a relatively innocent man, randomly selected and unnamed, a pharmakos, or scapegoat. The reader is put in the difficult position of having to identify with the ill-fated German. In a sense the reader is punished for affirming so readily an unnatural power, more dangerous than it first appeared. As the German's thoughts work toward his own death so the reader is hypothetically killing himself as he watches the bullet come toward him, the sort of bullet he earlier took pleasure in firing. Thus the mood of the story changes from an easy, optimistic sense of affirmation to a progressively more awesome fear of a power which seems increasingly sublime, and we move from security toward terror.

When the crow continues to circle at the end, it is perhaps for the end (death?) of our act of reading. The contract of the story has been suspended and readers are left stranded in a countryside, approximately where we started, but much more alone. Why should this second, bleaker half appeal to us? Perhaps the basic appeal is the desire to confront and experience death through the safety of the literary form. The notion of our death somewhere in the future is a fascinating one which we ignore, perhaps out of fear and laziness; the literary presentation of death breaks this habit with our permission, encouragement even, since we welcome the chance to reflect on the death of this stand-in, this scapegoat, this mask. Our naive desire to stay alive is fulfilled by having someone else die while we watch, but our deeper desire to know about death is also fulfilled, if only in part, by the ritual presentation of a death. By enacting this rite through reading an account that is both realistic and fantastic, we make death more familiar to us in symbolic terms that manipulate and satisfy our emotional sense as no mortician's handbook could.

The power of this very short story lies in its efficient manipulation of our responses to both realistic and fantastic stimuli, especially the interaction of the two. As a form of “maximal speech,” “Ultimo viene il corvo” draws us into a complex dynamic of affirmation and denial and into, as Steiner has it, “those energies of covertness and of intention.”


  1. Italo Calvino, Ultimo viene il corvo (Torino: Einaudi, 1949); thirteen stories, later collected in I racconti (Torino: Einaudi, 1958) under the heading “Gli idilli difficili” (“The difficult idylls”); because this is a most readily accessible volume, my page numbers (pp. 60–64) refer to it. It is available in translation, “The Crow Comes Last,” in Adam, One Afternoon and Other Stories, trans. Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright (London: Collins, 1957), pp. 68–73, and “Last Comes the Raven,” in Ben Johnson's Stories of Modern Italy (New York: Random House, 1960).

  2. See Giovanni Grazzini, “Lettura dei ‘Racconti’ di Calvino,” La Letteratura moderna, 9 (1959), 621–37.

  3. Vita e pensiero, 51, No. 11 (novembre 1968), 968–75.

  4. “Narrative Discourse in Calvino: Praxis or Poiesis?” PMLA, 90, No. 3 (May 1975), 414–25, p. 414.

  5. Ibid., pp. 414–15.

  6. In a private interview that took place in Paris, 21 November 1969. An example of Calvino's reticence to see a closed range of meaning in his work is his withdrawal of his preface to I nostri autenati (Torino: Einaudi, 1960); the preface was, if anything, bland in its interpretation, but Calvino decided even that was too limiting.

  7. For a fuller discussion of such theorists as Northrop Frye, Mircea Eliade, Philip Wheelwright, and Morse Peckham, see my unpublished dissertation, “Fantasy in the Work of Italo Calvino,” Diss. Univ. of Iowa, 1971; this essay is revised from that study and will be part of my forthcoming book Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy, which includes discussion of his more recent Il castello dei destini incrociati, Le cita invisibili, and Se un giorno d'inverno un viaggiatore. In his Introduction à la Littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1970), for example, Tzvetan Todorov emphasizes a “hesitation” between natural and supernatural explanations, which he sees as separate realms; I am more interested in a continuity between them. Similarly Eric S. Rabkin, in his The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), describes the fantastic as “those structural properties … of the diametrical reversal of the ground rules of a narrative world and the peculiar range of emotional affects associated with such reversals” (pp. 28–29). Again I favor an approach of interaction.

  8. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 234–35.

  9. Ibid., p. 233.

  10. Philip Wheelwright, The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism, rev. ed. (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 172–73.

JoAnn Cannon (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5383

SOURCE: “Language and Literary Discourse: Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero,” in Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic, Longo Editore, 1981, pp. 49–65.

[In the following essay, Cannon scrutinizes Calvino's use of language and literary discourse in Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero.]

Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. … I seem to speak, it is not I, about me … And at the same time I am obliged to speak. I shall never be silent. Never.

Samuel Beckett

With Le cosmicomiche (1965) and Ti con zero (1967), Calvino continues the genealogy of mankind begun in I nostri antenati by returning to the origins of the universe. Both texts are narrated by one Ofwfq, a chameleonic character who alternately appears as a one-celled organism, a dinosaur, and an unspecified amphibian. Each chapter or story is an account of some crucial, transitional moment in the history of the universe: the formation of the solar system, the gradual distancing of the moon from the earth, the big bang. The narrative voice of Qfwfq is the sole organizing element in each of the texts: there is no development of plot or character and each chapter is in a sense autonomous Calvino has in fact abandoned the novelistic format of I nostri antenati and earlier works: to describe Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero, one might borrow from Borges the term “fictions.”

Calvino's fictions are composed of speculations about time and space, progress and regression, the self and the other. But perhaps most characteristic of both texts is their exploration of language and of literary discourse. As Roland Barthes has observed, increasing concern for the linguistic aspect of the aesthetic text is drawing writers and critics at times so close that their tasks are beginning to merge.1 The literary work as a verbal construct has begun to be considered in relation to the linguistic system on which it is based. Calvino's “cosmic fictions” are marked by the same awareness of the centrality of language which animates much of today's fiction as well as criticism. His critique of language does not take the form of a discursive exposition, but rather of a fictional exploration of the very nature of the literary enterprise and its dependence upon certain undeniable linguistic principles. This exploration may best be understood in light of the work of Derrida, Saussure, Benveniste, and Barthes. Informed by the recent developments in the theory of language and writing, Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero expose certain properties of language which give rise to a radical reassessment of traditional perceptions of literature. It is the purpose of this chapter to trace Calvino's critique of language and examine its implications with respect to literature.

Each chapter of Le cosmicomiche and the first section of Ti con zero begins with an epigraph which summarizes a noted scientific theory regarding the origins of the universe. The epigraph is presented in the historical mode (the presentation of “events that took place at a certain moment of time … without any intervention of the speaker in the narration”2); there are no signs of the addresser's presence. The status of the narrative text as discourse (“every utterance assuming a speaker and a hearer, and in the speaker, the intention of influencing the other in some way”3) is brought out by contrast with the historical mode of the epigraph. After the effacement of person in the epigraph, the autobiographical form virtually erupts from the text: “‘Lo so bene!’—escalmò il vecchio Qfwfq,’ voi non ve ne potete ricordare ma io sì.’”4 This sentence clearly belongs to the level of discourse: both the constitutive elements of discourse, the speaker and the hearer, are evoked herein. By his use of italics to distinguish the epigraph from the narrative proper, the author constantly reminds the reader of the narrative's discursive force. Although discourse always implies a hearer as well as a speaker, literary discourse seldom addresses the reader directly. But in Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero, the destination signs appear quite regularly. Qfwfq alternately chides the reader for his ignorance and encourages him with questions such as “capite?” or “m'intendete?” These signs attest not only to the “presence” of the addressee but also, implicitly, to the “presence” of the addresser and of his intentions.

Calvino's texts are not alone in their patent exposure of the discursivity of the fictional utterance. In “Cibernetica e fantasmi,” a 1967 essay dealing with the nature of narrative, the author singles out this quality as most characteristic of modern fiction: “… lo scrivere non consiste più nel raccontare ma nel dire che si racconta, e quello che si racconta viene a identificarsi con l'atto stesso del dire. …”5 Queneau's Exercices de Style, in which the same story is told in ninety-nine different ways, provides a clear example of the discursivity of the modern text. In the case of Beckett, the narrative voice has come to predominate over “events” to such an extent that his later novels are almost devoid of what is traditionally known as plot. Why has the story, long considered the dominant feature in narrative, given way to discourse? Perhaps because the story always refers to an imaginary exterior representation, while the discourse is self-contained. This quality of discourse, as Tzvetan Todorov has observed, is its chief advantage: “Every énoncé which belongs to discourse has a superior autonomy because its meaning is self-determined, without the intermediary of an imaginary reference.”6 As long as fiction tries to be mimetic, to represent the absent referent, it will be found wanting: on the contrary, emphasis on the discourse, so common in today's fiction, “affirms the presence of language itself.”7 By dramatizing the discursivity of its utterance, the modern text attempts to counter the representational deficiency of literary language.

The notion of discourse seems to imply an autobiographical presence in the text. What is the nature of the narrative “presence” in Calvino's fictions? Who, or what, is Qfwfq? One is at first tempted to conceive of him as a narrative persona, with all of the psychological connotations which the persona carries with it. The very colloquial and dialectal tone of Qfwfq's utterances tends to create the illusion of a psychologically coherent narrator belonging to a specific linguistic community. But the illusion is not sustained. No sooner does the reader begin to attribute “human” characteristics, like loquaciousness and egocentrism, to Qfwfq than he is jolted by Qfwfq's “inhuman” traits; at a reunion with their acquatic uncle, Qfwfq's vertebrate family (first generation immigrants to the terra firma working their way up the evolutionary ladder) exchanges news and edible insects! Qfwfq tells us that, in one of his earlier reincarnations, he was seized by fantasies of scratching his armpit, crossing his legs or growing a moustache, which all seem human enough. But then we remember that, as a mollusk, he could have had neither arms, nor legs nor head. Again and again we are reminded that we cannot measure Qfwfq in human terms, as when he situates a past event “a distanza di tante ere geologiche,” a variation and defamiliarization of the somewhat hackneyed expression “a distanza d'anni.”

Qfwfq's continuous metamorphoses exceed the limits of the traditional narrative persona. The dinosaur, the mollusk and the amphibian cannot be subsumed into a single, coherent character. The narrator's sometimes comical “inhumanity” heightens the difficulty of perceiving of him as a person. Qfwfq's ubiquity throughout time and space constantly strikes the reader: although the protagonist's pursuit of the same woman for several milennia suggests a certain coherence in the character, his changing form (from a fish in the ocean to a human making advances to Zylphia in the back seat of a Volkswagen) reminds us that the name is in fact pure convention. These thematic devices unmask the absence of a stable sign or persona in the text. This absence is not a mere stylistic quirk of Calvino's text. In “Cibernetica e fantasmi,” Calvino describes the supplanting of the psychological persona as one of the most striking aspects of modern literature: “… la persona psicologica viene sostituita da una persona linguistica o addirittura grammaticale, definita solo dal suo posto nel discorso.”8 Qfwfq is in fact the epitome of a grammatical persona; the only thing which Qfwfq's numerous reincarnations have in common is their exercise of language.

The depersonalization of the narrative voice in Calvino's fictions does not only or even primarily occur through a methodological choice of the author. The text clearly demonstrates that it is language itself which presupposes the lack of a personal referent grounding the writing. In “L'origine degli uccelli,” Qfwfq attempts to describe the first appearance of birds in the history of evolution. But the story is interrupted as he hesitates over how to define the word “I”: “dovrei ricordarmi meglio com'eran fatte tante cose che ho dimenticato da tempo: primo, quello che io adesso chiamo uccello, secondo quello che io adesso chiamo ‘io’. …”9 The key word here is “adesso.” The only thing which I can refer to is the present act of enunciation. Qfwfq's utterance confirms Benveniste's observation that I exists on the level of the parole; it has no lexical value. “I signifies ‘the person who is uttering the present instance of discourse containing I’.”10 The narrative I cannot be defined psychologically.

The question of the status of the narrative I becomes particularly problematic in Ti con zero. In the section entitled “Meiosi,” the narrator attempts to recount the story of his love for Priscilla, a multi-cellular organism. But again, as in “L'origine degli uccelli,” he is stymied by the difficulty of assigning a lexical value to the word “I:” “dobbiamo però sgombrare il campo da un argomento che si presenta spesso nella conversazione: cioè che di momento in momento io non sono più lo stesso io e Priscilla non è più la stessa Priscilla …” (p. 84). Although the narrator, in a rather cavalier fashion, rejects the possibility that the I who said “I” in the past is not the I that says “I” now, it cannot be so easily dismissed. (Of course, the entire question of the identity of the narrator and Priscilla takes on comic dimensions when, at the end of the chapter, the reader learns that the “I” and the “Priscilla” of whom the narrator has been speaking are camels!) In the title story of Ti con zero, the narrator again encounters the question of the status of the narrative I. Q0 is suspended at a point in time designated as to. Having just shot an arrow at a lion which is about to pounce upon him, Q0 pauses to contemplate the nature of time and space. He wonders whether there is any relation between t0, t1, t2, etc. and, more importantly, whether there is a corresponding relation between Q0, Q1, Q2, etc., i.e., his various selves in the succession of time. The answer to the latter question is crucial to the narrator's survival, for if the death which menaces him is really the death of another I with a different past then it matters little to him whether the arrow will strike the lion or not. Whether the speaker chooses to deny the linkage of the narrative I to the “now” of the speech act, as in “Meiosi,” or to entertain that possibility, as in “Ti con zero,” the effect is nonetheless to show that the I exists only at the level of the present moment of enunciation. I is in fact a product of the narration and not a reflection of an external personality.

The depersonalization of the narrative voice in Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero and the excessive highlighting of the discursivity of the text are paradoxically interrelated: while discursivity implies a narrative presence, that “presence” is a quality of the utterance and does not refer to an autobiographical subject external to the speech act. The autobiographical or discursive mode lays bare the essential impersonality of the literary text. The signs of the narrator are not expressions of a psychological subject. Qfwfq's many reincarnations do not mask a person (the living author, for instance); rather the proliferation of masks reveals the absence of a personal referent grounding the text.

Calvino has continued to explore the anonymity of fiction in his more recent works. In Il castello dei destini incrociati, … fiction is shown to be produced not by authorial invention, but by an underlying code or program or competence. Writing is portrayed as a combinatory process which functions independently of the author. In fact, in “Cibernetica e fantasmi,” Calvino suggests that the writer is already a writing machine.11Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore again plays with the question of authorship. The novel deals with a conspiracy to replace all original literature with anonymous or apocryphal texts. From the outset, the narrator of Se una notte d'inverno informs the reader: “io mi chiamo io e questo è l'unica cosa che tu sai di me.”12 In Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero, the supplanting of the name by a set of arbitrarily selected letters, Qfwfq, seems in fact to suggest that the I of the utterance is nothing more than the product of a writing machine.

The inherent inability of literary language to refer to an autobiographical presence is explored in depth in the third chapter of Le cosmicomiche. “Un segno nello spazio” deals with the peculiar nature of the linguistic sign, severed from its producer and his desire to communicate.13 Rotating around the galaxy along with the Solar System, Qfwfq decides to make the first sign in space, hoping to rediscover it in two hundred million years (the time it takes to complete one revolution of the galaxy). The narrator is quick to point out that his sign is unique: although we may think that a sign is something which is distinct from something else, i.e., part of a system of oppositions, Qfwfq informs us that in those times there was nothing to be distinguished from anything. Qfwfq has difficulty characterizing his sign: if it is not defined by its relation with other signs in the system, what does define it? He finally resorts to this description: “Aveva l'intenzione di fare un segno, questo sì …” (p. 42). The most salient feature of the sign for Qfwfq is its intentionality. The sign is a kind of signature: “era il mio segno, il segno di me, perché era l'unico segno …” (p. 43).

When the protagonist finally returns to his point of departure, he discovers that a certain Kgwgk from another planetary system has erased his sign. Qfwfq is inconsolable. He rejects the suggestion that the erasure itself might function as a sign. “E non mi si venga a dire che, per segnare il punto, il mio segno o la cancellatura del mio segno facevano proprio lo stesso: la cancellatura era la negazione del segno, e quindi non segnava, cioè non serviva a distinguere un punto dai punti precedenti e seguenti” (p. 46). Kgwgk's act of vandalism causes Qfwfq to fall into a state of semi-consciousness, from which he awakens to find that Kgwgk has replaced his “original” sign with a copy. Qfwfq dismisses this counterfeit sign which, unlike the original, carries with it no other intention than that of imitating Qfwfq's sign. He anxiously waits for Kgwgk's counterfeit sign to fade and for the first sign, “tanto bello e originale e adatto alla sua funzione” (p. 47), to reappear. But the proliferation of signs in the universe has reached such a degree that it is no longer possible either to distinguish one sign from the next, or to distinguish a sign from its referent. Qfwfq's desire to retrieve the original sign is permanently thwarted.

“Un segno nello spazio” is the story of the various deficiencies of language and the writer's attempt to eliminate those deficiencies. The scene is marked by a pervasive sense of nostalgia—nostalgia for a fantasied, “original” sign which would escape from the constraints which govern language. Qfwfq's fantasied sign ignores one of the first principles of linguistics: the sign is part of a system of negative oppositions. Despite Qfwfq's protestations that the erasure cannot function as a sign, the erasure in fact reflects the peculiarly negative nature of the linguistic sign as characterized by Saussure. “Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms.14 Qfwfq's wish to deny that the sign is part of a larger system of negative differences is suspect. The narrator's strategy is characteristic of literature in general, which seeks to raise signs from the relativity and arbitrariness implicit in the linguistic system. The narrator in a sense becomes a straw man, embodying what one critic has called literature's attempt “to salvage language from the unconscious constraints of (differential) structure.”15 This desire to withdraw the sign from its relational structure represents “an excessive version of the poet's desire to appropriate through poetic ‘creation’”16 But the writer's desire to appropriate language is subverted in the dynamics of the text.

The constraints which Qfwfq (and the writer) strive to overcome in fact constitute the very condition of possibility of language. “Un segno nello spazio” demonstrates that the mark becomes writing when it is cut off from its producer and his intentions and is cited by another. It is Kgwgk, not Qfwfq, who has understood the true nature of the sign. Kgwgk's expropriation of the narrator's sign only confirms Roman Jakobson's observation regarding the nature of language: “… there is no such thing as private property in language: everything is socialized.”17

The radical disjunction of the sign and its producer which Calvino's fiction so vividly traces has been analyzed by Jacques Derrida in “Signature Event Context.” As Derrida points out, writing must be able to function not only in the absence of the receiver and the speaker but also, and more importantly, in the absence of the sender's intentions, his “vouloir dire.” “This essential drift [dérive] bearing on writting as an iterative structure, cut off from all absolute responsibility, from consciousness as the ultimate authority, orphaned and separated at birth from the assistance of its father, is precisely what Plato condemns in the Phaedrus.18

In order to be readable, writing must be governed by a code; implicit in the concept of code is the possibility of repeating and thereby identifying the mark. One must be able to cite a mark outside of a unique context. “This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called ‘normal.’ What would a mark be that could not be cited? Or one whose origins would not get lost along the way?”19

The signature, inasmuch as it purports to be a link to its source, is emblematic of the desire to ground language in an autobiographical presence. Qfwfq would like his sign to be, precisely, a signature, an indicator of his “having been present in a past now.”20 For a signature to fulfill its purpose, it must retain its singularity, its status as a unique, datable event. But as “Un segno nello spazio” makes painfully evident, the singularity and intentionality of the signature is corrupted by its iterability. “In order to function, that is, to be readable, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to be detached from the present and singular intention of its production.21 The condition of possibility of the signature is also the condition of its impossibility. Rather than bridging the gap between writing and its source, the signature, like writing in general, is necessarily cut off from its source. The naive narrator's predicament is comparable to that of the author: neither can “leave his signature” on language. Qfwfq, like the writer, would like to believe that writing may bear the author's imprint; but the idea of an autobiographical presence grounding the text proves untenable.

“Un segno nello spazio” is not the only chapter which deals with man's fantasied creation of language; the question reappears in several other sections of Qfwfq's cosmogony. In “Sul far del giorno,” Qfwfq finds himself in the fluid, shapeless nebula at the moment when it begins to condense and to form the planets of the Solar System. The chapter not only relates the passage to articulation in the physical surroundings; there is a parallel passage to articulation in the linguistic material. The physical nebula reflects the formlessness of human thought before the appearance of language, as described by Saussure. “Psychologically our thought—apart from its expression in words—is only a shapeless and indistinct mass. … Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.22 As the matter of the Solar System begins to condense, Qfwfq and his family encounter novel experiences, walking, tripping, falling, which they promptly proceed to label. To describe the phenomenon of condensation, Qfwfq's father exclaims: “Qui si tocca!” The narrator hastens to explain that this was “un'espressione senza significato (dato che prima d'allora niente mai aveva toccato niente, si può esserne certi), ma che acquistò un significato nello stesso istante in cui fu detta …” (p. 30). Qfwfq's rather awkward attempt to acknowledge the arbitrary nature of the sign and the simultaneity of phonic and conceptual articulation is an obvious reference to Saussure. Although on the one hand Qfwfq would like to think that language is a nomenclature applied to independently-existing concepts, on the other hand he recognizes that articulation on the level of the signified cannot precede articulation on the level of the signifier. It is only in the union of thought and sound that articulation occurs. As Saussure has taught us, language is not fashioned by man in order to express an idea; rather it provides an indissoluble link between thought and sound, “under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units.”23

Calvino has attempted to conceive the inconceivable: the primordial scene in which man creates language. But the very nature of language precludes the possibility of returning to its origins. “Language is in the nature of man, and he did not fabricate it. We are always inclined to that naive concept of a primordial period in which a complete man discovered another one, equally complete, and between the two of them language was worked out little by little. This is pure fiction. We can never get back to man separated from language and we shall never see him inventing it.”24 Calvino's texts unmask the fictionality of this mythical scene. The impossibility of thinking the origin of language provides much of the comic element in the Qfwfq episodes.

The unthinkable scene of the creation of language is replayed in “Senza colori”; the chapter again depicts the passage from a continuous state to a discontinuous one. Qfwfq is pursuing a female named Ayl at the moment when the Earth's atmosphere is formed and colors come into existence. Qfwfq's first experience with difference is not only reflected in the physical surroundings but also in the form of the opposite sex. As he presents Ayl with a gift of variecolored rocks, he makes his first attempt at communication: “… un pensiero per cui non esistevano ancora parole cercava di prorompere dalla mia gola: ‘Questo per te! Da me questo per te ora sì sì che è bello!” (p. 68). The naive narrator would have us believe that man is the source of language, that his thought not only precedes but generates linguistic expression. The utterance itself, however, reveals a dual movement toward and away from this notion. At first there is an attempt to represent a primitive, crude language, much like the halting speech of the Indians in the typical Hollywood western. But the colloquial conclusion of the utterance, “sì sì che è bello,” displays total command of a complete linguistic system. The fiction of a “primitive” language cannot be maintained: language is always already fully articulated and complex.

In “Senza colori” Qfwfq again shows his unwillingness to acknowledge that words only function as part of a completely articulated system of oppositions. He portrays himself with “original” thoughts which spontaneously erupt into language: “io esplosi in un urlo inarticolato che di lì in poi doveva assumere un significato ben preciso:—‘Ayl! Il mare è azzurro!’” (p. 70). Gradually Qfwfq concedes, however, that language does not function in this manner. At the beginning of the chapter, the narrator implies that the concept of darkness existed in an absolute sense, before the appearance of light. Later he concedes that a word cannot be defined without reference to other words: “a un tratto tutto il buio fu buio in contrasto con qualcosaltro che non era buio, cioè la luce” (p. 35). The value of the linguistic sign is solely determined by what it can be exchanged for and what is in opposition to it.25

“Senza colori” dramatizes Saussure's observations regarding the fundamental duality of language: “The absolutely final law of language is, we dare say, that there is nothing which can ever reside in one term, as a direct consequence of the fact that linguistic symbols are unrelated to what they should designate, so that a is powerless to designate anything without the aid of b, and the same is true of b without a, or that they both have no value except through their reciprocal difference.”26 When Qfwfq's sister describes a sandcastle as “un fuori con dentro un dentro” (p. 24) or when Qfwfq ridicules those who believe that “il concetto di ‘immigrato’ poteva esser inteso allo stato puro, cioè indipendentemente dallo spazio e dal tempo” (p. 57), each is recognizing that the linguistic sign has no absolute meaning, only a relative value. By exposing the purely relational structure of linguistic value, which functions independently of the external referent, Calvino's texts expose “le labili corrispondenze tra parole e cose.”

The estrangement of words from things has become a recurrent theme in Calvino's recent works. In Le città invisibili, for instance, signs are shown to hide the reality which they aspire to denote. In the city of Tamara, one is capable of perceiving only that which can be taken as a sign of something else. “L'occhio non vede cose ma figure di cose che significano altre cose.”27 One leaves the city without ever having glimpsed through the sign to the reality it hides: “Come veramente sia la città sotto questo fitto involucro di segni, cosa contenga o nasconda, l'uomo esce da Tamara senza averlo saputo.”28 The image of proliferating signs which obliterate empirical realities reappears in the conclusion of “Un segno nello spazio”: “nello spazio s'infittivano i segni … e il nostro mondo … lo trovavo più gremito, tanto che mondo e spazio parevano uno lo specchio dell'altro, l'uno e l'altro minutamente istoriati di geroglifici e ideogrammi, ognuno dei quali poteva essere un segno e non esserlo … (pian piano il vivere tra i segni aveva portato a vedere come segni le innumerevoli cose che prima stavano lì senza segnare altro che la propria presenza) …” (p. 50). This hallucinatory vision of signs which point only to other signs in a kind of infinite regression illustrates the process of unlimited semiosis which, as Charles Sanders Peirce has demonstrated, is implicit in the notion of the sign. Instead of a closed conception of the semiotic system, in which the sign is said to point to or stand for an external reference in a binary relationship, Peirce suggests a triadic structure: “A sign stands for something to the idea which it produces, or modifies. … That for which it stands is called its object; that which it conveys, its meaning; and the idea to which it gives rise, its interpretant.29 Since the sign can only be interpreted or explained by another sign, the system is open-ended. “The meaning of a representation can be nothing but a representation. … So there is an infinite regression here. Finally, the interpretant is nothing but another representation to which the torch of truth is handed along; and as representation, it has its interpretant again.”30 In this process, the referent or object of Peirce's triad recedes into the distance. In fact, as Umberto Eco has observed, the object is not a necessary condition for the functioning of a sign system.31Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero are permeated by a kind of nostalgia for a pre-linguistic or pre-semiotic era distinguished by the presence of things rather than the absence inherent in the notion of sign.

Inasmuch as they dramatize the alienation of the sign from an external referent, Calvino's texts necessitate a qualification of the idea that the author may achieve self-expression through writing. As Roland Barthes has suggested: “… if he [the writer] wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal ‘thing’ he claims to translate is itself only a ready-made dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum.32 This circularity or self-referentiality of language, which functions perfectly without the author's intervention, is precisely what is acted out in the Qfwfq fictions and indeed in many of Calvino's texts.

Calvino's fictions trace two modes of disjunction inherent in writing: the alienation of the sign from an empirical referent and from its producer. These perceptions do not take the form of a prise de position on the author's part, however: the crisis of the self and the crisis of the representational function are formulated in Calvino's texts in terms of a conflict.33 The naive narrator, Qfwfq, is a straw man, acting out the writer's desire to escape from the constraints which prevent him from appropriating language. At the same time, however, the text exposes the futility of that desire. This conflict is again apparent in Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore, Calvino's most recent novel. On the one hand the text demystifies the notion of an authorial personality guaranteeing literature's truth. On the other hand, it reveals the writer's unwillingness to relinquish his (illusory) control of the text's meaning.


  1. Roland Barthes, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb?,” in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1970), p. 135.

  2. Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek (Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971), p. 209.

  3. Ibid., p. 206.

  4. Italo Calvino, Le cosmicomiche (Torino: Einaudi, 1965), p. 9. All parenthetical page references are to this edition.

  5. Calvino, “Cibernetica e fantasmi,” Associazione culturale italiana, Fascicle, 21 (1967–68), p. 11.

  6. Tzvetan Todorov, “Language and Literature,” in The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, p. 131.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Calvino, “Cibernetica,” p. 11.

  9. Calvino, Ti con zero (Torino: Einaudi, 1967), p. 22. All parenthetical page references are to this edition.

  10. Benveniste, p. 218.

  11. Calvino, “Cibernetica,” p. 16.

  12. Calvino, Se una notte d'inverno un (Torino: Einaudi, 1979), p. 15.

  13. See Benvenuto Terracini's review of “Un segno nello spazio” in Archivio glottologico italiano, 51 (1966), 94–97.

  14. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), p. 120.

  15. Jeffrey Mehlman, A Structural Study of Autobiography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 54.

  16. Ibid., p. 53.

  17. Roman Jakobson, “Results of a Joint Conference of Anthropologists and Linguists,” Selected Writings (Paris: Mouton, 1971), II, p. 559.

  18. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” Glyph, 1 (1977), 181.

  19. Ibid., 186.

  20. Ibid., 194.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Saussure, Course, p. 111.

  23. Ibid., p. 112.

  24. Benveniste, pp. 223.24.

  25. The fact that language functions according to a system of relative values rather than absolute meanings is again dramatized in Calvino's Il castello dei destini incrociati. In that novel, the tarot card representing the Two of Coins reminds the narrator of the linguistic sign. “Il Due di Denari anche per me è un segno di scambio, di quello scambio che è in ogni segno, dal primo ghirigoro tracciato in modo da distinguersi dagli altri ghirigori del primo scrivente … la lettera che trasvaluta i valori che senza lettera non valgono niente. …” (Torino: Einaudi, 1973), p. 100.

  26. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure as quoted in Benveniste, p. 36.

  27. Calvino, Le città invisibili (Torino: Einaudi, 1972), p. 21.

  28. Ibid., p. 22.

  29. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1931), I, p. 171, as quoted in Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 69.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, p. 58.

  32. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” pp. 10–11.

  33. I have drawn here from Paul de Man's discussion of the loss of representational reality and the loss of self in “Lyric and Modernity,” Blindness and Insight (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 166–186.

Kathryn Hume (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6199

SOURCE: “Science and Imagination in Calvino's Cosmicomics,” in Mosaic, Vol. 15, No. 4, December, 1982, pp. 47–58.

[In the following essay, Hume investigates the role of science and perception in the stories that comprise Cosmicomics and t zero.]

The stories that make up Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics and T Zero are generally regarded as dazzling and bizarre little fantasies which grow out of scientific propositions.1 Critics and reviewers have tried to relate them to science fiction, but Calvino's stories lack that form's speculative interest in how humans would respond to technologically defined situations.2 Most readers so delight in the narrator's virtuoso dance through galaxies and life forms that few have asked any questions about what—if anything—Calvino may have intended with these jeux d'esprit.

Calvino is one of the few sophisticated writers who are interested in science and its effects on our minds, rather than just its influence on our material expectations and social patterns. Among his apparent aims in these stories is the desire to challenge the adequacy of science to serve as our only interpreter of the phenomenal world.3

What makes this challenge unusual is its lack of theological impetus. The inability of science to see the evidence of God's handiwork through its microscope is not an issue. Calvino accepts the Godless universe. He delights in forcing very ordinary forms of “human” consciousness to face the full scientific complexity of this universe. He raises questions about meaning in life and death, and offers answers that owe nothing to religious doctrine. In short, Calvino starts these cosmic vignettes by accepting science, but goes on to insist that we must augment the revelations of science if our view of the universe and of ourselves is to give us a sense of meaning. We need to experience the cosmos imaginatively as well as analytically.

“The Origin of the Birds,” in T Zero, is unusually explicit in its contrast of imaginative and scientific modes of perception, though the conclusion Calvino reaches in this one story is more pessimistic than those of his other stories. As usual, he starts with a scientific fact, recorded in dry, scientific notation: “The appearance of Birds comes relatively late, in the history of evolution, following the emergence of all the other classes of the animal kingdom. … This is the only exception to the successive appearance of animal groups progressively more developed in the zoological scale” (TZ, pp. 14–15). This evolutionary anomaly prompts Calvino to imagine the emotions of the world's inhabitants when the first archeopteryx-like creature appears: “we were looking at the bird full of amazement—festive amazement, with desire on our part also to sing, to imitate that first warbling, and to jump, to see the bird rise in flight—but also full of consternation, because the existence of birds knocked our traditional way of thinking into a cocked hat” (p. 16). In this first narrative situation, Calvino spoofs scientific as well as social outlooks:4 “the ideas that governed our world had come to a crisis. What everyone had thought he understood before, the simple and regular way in which things were as they were, was no longer valid; in other words: this was nothing but one of the countless possibilities” (p. 23). Like the world of traditional mathematics at the evolution of non-Euclidean geometries, the realm of number theory at the announcement of Gödel's Theorem, the world of Newtonian physics faced with Relativity Theory, the society of the narrator, Qwfwq, finds the shattering of traditional verities an uncomfortable process for all but the rare, questing soul. Qwfwq himself is drawn toward the bird. He follows it and reaches a dizzy brink on which he stands in the old, known world and gazes toward a new world inhabited exclusively by what he once would have called monsters. The first part of the story thus reaches a vision of two worlds, an epiphany in a high place.

Qwfwq enters this world of cosmic novelty and finds beauty in the new forms, both abstractly and, more immediately, in the feminine form of Org-Onir-Ornit-Or, with whom he attempts to elope. Like characters in a fairy tale—a form Calvino has worked with a great deal5—they are pursued, she is recaptured, and he is deported to his old home, which now seems a wasteland to him, even though it has changed, for birds are now not only accepted, but all the rage. They are the new science, and old U(h), who had vehemently denounced their appearance, now believes birds to be “the only truth of the world. He had taken to interpreting the birds' flight, trying to read the future in it” (p. 24). Qwfwq seeks his lost love, makes his way to Or's land, is imprisoned, and then is offered marriage by Or, now queen of the birds. It all seems to be heading for a fairy tale ending, with no meaning beyond the story and no apparent intellectual issue.

But Calvino changes his mode again. From the world of a satirized conservative science, and from the world of fairy tale, he now moves to the world of visionary experience. Qwfwq wants to understand the ecstatic “feathery flutter of iridescent images” that threaten to overpower his rational faculty. He realizes with horror that Or intends to make him “safe” by destroying his memory of the past. He struggles against this psychological remolding, which was to have taken place as they consummated their marriage. For a moment, he achieves a synthesis, a holistic vision which includes his world and hers: “For a fraction of a second between the loss of everything I knew and the gain of everything I would know afterward, I managed to embrace in a single thought the world of things as they were and of things as they could have been, and I realized that a single system included all. The world of birds, of monsters, of Or's beauty was the same as the one where I had always lived, which none of us had understood wholly” (p. 26). But the world of Or, of the imagination, is too powerful and jealous. Qwfwq again loses Or, this time for good: “What I've told you is all I can reconstruct. … But are they real birds, these ones that have remained in our midst? The more I observe them, the less they suggest what I would like to remember. (The last strip is all photographs: a bird, the same bird in close-up, the head of the bird enlarged, a detail of the head, the eye. …)” (p. 27).

Qwfwq's experiences suggest a range of possible visions, and hint at man's troubles in grasping them. His moment of oneness gave him all that his old scientific outlook could give him, as well as all that the world of imagination could afford him, of iridescent images. But he can no more hold on to the vision than he can prolong the orgasm which raises him to this moment of synthesis. Blasted by the forces from the imaginative side of his being, Qwfwq is left playing with the broken shards of memory. From them, he creates a symbol for both science and art that evokes an unusual pathos. Working with photographs, he constructs a changing collage of details. All the vividness and life that is “bird” is reduced to what the camera can record: frozen two-dimensional fragments, with no movement, no consciousness, no unity. Not just his imaginative but his scientific experience as well proves incapable of sustaining a living picture. Only by uniting the two can one begin to understand the changing and dynamic universe.

How Calvino approaches the problem of achieving such integration will be the next concern, but we should keep in mind a key contrast suggested by this story: one can try to make love to the object of one's vision, or one can photograph it. We should further note the compromise mode for describing this experience which Qwfwq works out; he describes the episodes as frames in a comic strip, a form that allows Calvino to involve him in such reflexive, “strange loops”6 as spreading paste on one corner of a frame, having a bird fly through the frame and stick in the paste, and then having the bird fly off, dragging Qwfwq behind and thus transporting him again to the otherwise unattainable land of the birds. This verbal cartoon strip is in truth a weird and wonderful integration of photograph and iridescent image.7

In scientific endeavor, one tries to use language denotatively, to restrict words to single, unambiguous meanings. Scientists think in terms of finding how some process works: what causes the change from first phase to second, and second to third. Normal science (to use Thomas Kuhn's term) is possible for experimenters because they believe in the existence of solutions to the puzzles they study and work in circumstances that admit of as few variables as possible, confident through faith in causality that the desired end can be achieved.8 Avoidance of ambiguity and faith in cause and effect are primary characteristics of scientific thinking.

Such rigorous circumscription and deliberate limitation are necessary if scientific handbooks are to be filled with reliable tables. But causal logic is not our only, or indeed our primary, way of thinking. Association is our most encompassing mode of perception, and it supplies us with metaphor and simile. Association enriches through addition. A metaphor multiplies shades of meaning, attracts associated ideas for comparison. It may produce “over-determination” of meanings, or introduce an ambiguity whose creation of tension in the reader's mind can deepen the effectiveness of the work of art. What Calvino does is integrate the causal and associative modes of perception and celebrate the richness that comes of marrying these two forces. He insists that we go beyond normal science and argues for associative enrichment as an enlightening adjunct to science. He establishes an array of possible associations by running his scientific facts through rhetorical amplification and extension. He puts science through hoops, and demonstrates its ability to serve any number of functions.

One such function is situational metaphor. In “The Form of Space,” three parallel lines through space are traced by a human triangle: Qwfwq, Ursula H'x and Lieutenant Fenimore. Ursula shows no interest in the males. Qwfwq longs feverishly for her and sees in Fenimore a hated rival. The psychological stasis implied by their interrelations is well embodied in the parallel lines, whether those lines remain forever parallel, or whether, in a non-Euclidian world, they meet, or whether—as Qwfwq muses—the lines are really the letters of handwritten script, constituting the script of a cowboy shoot-out scenario. The scientific concept is pressed into service here as a means of interpreting some foolish patterns often seen in human behavior, but these immortal embodiments of our folly in turn remind us to visualize more clearly than we normally do the implications of parallelism. They force us to see it from our limited human perspective, and to assimilate it in new ways.

Science is a philosophical pun in “The Distance of the Moon.” The actions of the story depend on the effects of the law of gravity which are felt by Qwfwq and his friends during that strange time when earth and moon were in such close proximity that one could leap from one to the other. The pun involves an equation between physical and human forces. The forces of gravity exert their pull; so do the attractions and repulsions generated within the group by their intrigues, loves and jealousies. The moon's forces guide their outer lives; the loves and jealousies control their inner, and manage to keep the social group functioning despite the potentially devastating change of the moon's withdrawal. A variety of early philosophers, including Neoplatonists and Christians, imagined the universe to be physically held together, the elements bound in place, by “love.” Boethius talks about love as a cohesive and binding force in his Consolation of Philosophy (II, m. 8; IV, m. 6). Dante ends Paradiso with his vision of the love that moves the sun and all the stars. Such early cosmologists pictured love as a literal force, a preposterous notion to today's scientist, until one translates “love” as “attraction.” Suddenly we recognize our own universe, ruled indeed by mysterious forces of attraction and repulsion. In his play on various forces of attraction, Calvino manages to twit science about its own intellectual forerunners; he reminds us to interact with our world with levity as well as gravity; and he shows in action those forces that give our lives meaning.

Science enters human relationships as the basis for game or for more serious rivalry in several of the Cosmicomics stories. In “How Much Shall We Bet?” Qwfwq and Dean (k)yK wager on such far off events as which planet around the sun will have an atmosphere, or whether Arsenal or Real Madrid will win a soccer match. In this game-context, Calvino can push science from those events which can logically be predicted to the sorts of individualities which defy scientific logic's modelling or predicting. In “Games without End,” Qwfwq and Pfwfp discover new hydrogen atoms in accordance with the steady state hypothesis. But they go on to create new, fake atoms out of “photoelectric radiations, scrapings from magnetic fields, a few neutrons collected in the road” (CC, p. 65). The creation of such new, rather unstable elements, and the assembling of new galaxies, which Qwfwq and Pfwfp use to hotrod around the universe, represent productive and imaginative acts, yet are carried out by two young thugs as part of their efforts to outdo each other. By seeing science in such hands, which is to say by such seriously playful association, we learn something about science as a human activity.

A scientific theory or fact also fuels rivalries in “Without Colors,” “Crystals” and “The Soft Moon.” In “Crystals,” the central hypothesis is that the world might have cooled in such a fashion that each element would have separated out and become a huge, pure crystal. Qwfwq prefers his crystals as large and orderly as possible; Vug likes hers flawed and varied. Qwfwq realizes that her kind of disorder makes possible the world he takes for granted, including technology: “As I look around I see nothing but perturbations of the order of the atoms: luminescent tubes, TV, the condensing of tiny silver crystals on the photographic plates. … From the transistor comes the sound of a saxophone” (TZ, p. 38). In this story, Qwfwq plays the role more obviously associated with science and its passion for order, but he reminds us of how useful the flaws can be, even within the ordered realms of science and technology. Science strives for the elegant proof, the law that admits no exceptions. Yet the major advances in science come from work on the stubborn exceptions, the flaws in the orderly theoretical equations, the data that seem irreconcilable until we find which of our assumptions is faulty. The furthest development of Vug's world would be entropy; the result of Qwfwq's would be frozen stasis. Only in an unstable balance between these tendencies can life exist. Science in this story is a pawn in the war between the sexes, as it also is in “The Soft Moon.” But beyond the scientific and human dialectic, Calvino seems, allegorically, to be pushing for accommodation between two extreme views: balancing them, he implies, creates dynamic music, a higher harmony. He ends “Crystals” with reference to some Thelonius Monk jazz—a balance between repeated pattern and variation. Calvino does not treat science as the villain, but urges man to place it in a context that expands its possible meanings and uses.

In several stories, the scientific fact is associated with joy, wonder and love. “Mitosis” is an exquisite projection of a quasi-orgasmic love-death in which the cell experiences an instant of holistic vision encompassing a dual self before division and fragmentation of that vision ensue. “At Daybreak” invites us to respond to the awesome moment of first light. In “All at One Point,” the moment before the big bang is Calvino's scientific focus, and his enrichment of this hypothesis leads him to an ultimate love. Mrs. Ph(i)NK0 is the generous, easy-going feminine force who makes bearable the tenement-like life they lead as all are squashed together at one point.

It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough … we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat … of the space it would take for the Sun to arrive with its rays, to ripen the wheat; of the space for the Sun to condense from the clouds of stellar gases and burn; of the quantities of stars and galaxies and galactic masses in flight through space which would be needed to hold suspended every galaxy, every nebula, every sun, every planet, and at the same time we thought of it, this space was inevitably being formed.

(CC, pp. 46–47)

Her nurturing love brings into existence the universe we know—hers is truly the love that moves the sun and all the stars. She is translated into Qwfwq knows not what kind of energy-light-heat, and all her admirers mourn her loss and secretly look forward to the recontraction of the universe, hoping that it will return them to the paradise of her presence and love. With this feminized creation myth, Calvino not only makes the scientist in us wonder at the inconceivability of the big bang; he also reminds us of the wonder to be found in fields of wheat and in human love. He invites us to enjoy the scientific hypothesis, and to picture it, but he also encourages us to derive from it a kind of paradisal joy.

Officially, scientists try to avoid contaminating their knowledge with wild associations. In linking the factual to the human, the emotional, the beautiful and the trivial, Calvino is pushing the associative into partnership with the causal modes of thought. This may seem quixotic or pernicious, but we should remember that within the framework of science itself, the major discoveries and breakthroughs—as opposed to routine puzzle solving—usually come from associative thinking, and from the insights offered by metaphor or symbol, and from the subconscious linking of disparate elements. A famous example of such an associative leap is Kekulé's dream of the ouroboros, which led him to the ring structure of benzene. In 1865, he had vainly been trying to come up with a plausible structure for C6H6. Then, one day, while dozing before a fire, he pictured atoms whirling, turning into a snake with its tail in its mouth, and was inspired to hypothesize a ring structure.9 Similarly, Maxwell's ideas on thermodynamics came together as he conceived of his metaphoric demon. Sudden insight from the realm of the everyday is manifest in Archimedes' bath, Newton's apple and Einstein's clock tower and tram. Henri Poincaré describes several apparently unheralded blinding flashes of insight, and notes that only much later could he see the analogy which had provided him with the requisite paradigm. The association which made his mathematical discoveries possible was unconscious.10 Arthur Koestler quotes Poincaré, and discusses such moments of insight as they have been recorded in many scientific realms. He sees as common to most of them hidden analogies, likenesses, that emerge when the mind instantaneously superimposes two disparate fields of thought. Calvino flaunts his creation of such unheralded associations. His resulting insights may be more in the areas of human understanding, or in the sociology of science, than in science itself, but through his juggling act, we see science gaining relevance to our lives. He offers a poeticization of science, not instead of ordinary science, but in addition to it.

Calvino insists that we should augment the scientific way of thinking because that way is by definition limited. Its products are of necessity circumscribed, just as the static elegance of Euclidian geometry cannot be expected to figure the volume of irregular solids. He feels that both creativity and vision, the two aspects of imagination, are lacking within the world projected by scientific thought.

Creativity takes many forms in Calvino's stories. Qwfwq's mythologizing of the moon, and his bringing alive the world of “dead” matter are quasi-literary creative efforts. “A Sign in Space” shows creativity in Qwfwq's orgy of signmaking. For all that it grows out of his furious rivalry with Kgwgk, this discovery of signmaking will make all communication—including scientific—possible. “All at One Point” celebrates Mrs. Ph(i)NK0's creation of the universe for those she loves. “Games without End” wryly puts scientific creation—new matter, new galaxies—in the hands of adolescent hoods, to be the toys with which they express their rivalry. According to Calvino, much of creation arises from basic emotions: rivalry, jealousy, desire to distinguish oneself, desire to attract a mate, disappointed love. Any of these commonplaces can call forth a frenzy of creative actions which somehow add to the universe, change it, make more possible, bring into existence something new. Qwfwq greatly admires the new: “The Aquatic Uncle” shows his puppy love for a being who had evolved more than any of the others around; “Without Colors” dazzles him with the advent of color, while his love, Ayl, flees the novelty; he admires birds when they first appear. Qwfwq's many metamorphoses testify to Calvino's enjoyment of newness for its own sake. Calvino's fictive world shows novelty coming forth out of messy emotions, not out of the restrained and disciplined activities that relate to science. But these activities may benefit and be made creative by contact with the imaginative and wild side of the mind. Qwfwq and Pfwfp may create their new atoms out of spite, but create they do. The deaf and dumb cousin of “The Distance of the Moon” is both scientific and imaginative; he knows the moon, understands her secrets and finds her milk better than any of the others. But his virtuosity shows itself as a sportive love, not as a laboratory investigation.

Perhaps Calvino sees creation as only indirectly linked to scientific thinking because of the nature of that thinking. Science causes man to make himself into an observer, and demands objectivity, impersonality and passivity. Any personal and human reactions must be rigorously suppressed. Yet the attempt can never be fully successful. As corollary to the uncertainty principle, we know that beyond a certain point, observation and the observer may affect the natural behavior of the thing observed. Experimenters trying to determine the basic components of atoms affect the movement of those components. Anthropologists observing primitives are themselves non-normal irritants within the social body, and produce aberrant behavior. Psychologists helping patients interpret experience impose their own frame of values. Preparing samples for an electron microscope changes their nature. These and many other instances make clear that the scientist as entirely objective and non-interfering observer is a misconception, and Calvino plays with this tension between the ideal and the reality. But even though a scientist cannot achieve pure objectivity, the disciplined striving he subjects himself to does isolate him to some extent—to his detriment and sometimes to his subject's. This partial isolation can make human reactions stunted and imperfect.11

Calvino offers vision as a means of reconciling scientific and imaginative thinking. Vision is the flash of insight which enables contradictory phenomena to fall into a harmonious pattern. Vision transforms the unknown, and makes it part of a larger order. The intensity, duration and inclusiveness of Calvino's visionary insights vary, and most are undercut by some emotional ambivalence. The revelation of “A Sign in Space”—that space is a general thickness of signs and ultimately unknowable—might almost be a vision of defeat, were it not a genuine advance in Qwfwq's understanding. The vision in “Mitosis” exists for so short an instant, and is annihilated so totally by the completion of cell division, that it creates no lasting understanding. “The Origin of the Birds” moves us with the pathos of vision smashed. Along with Qwfwq however we retain our belief that the vision of wholeness and continuity did exist, did bring everything—the might-have-beens and the real—into a continuous whole. Qwfwq affirms the validity and reality of the vision, even if he cannot recapture it.

“The Spiral” creates a more lasting composite of fact and insight, and may well be one of Calvino's finest moments, for its proffered vision remains open-ended. The whole story is a philosophical pun on the meaning of vision. In this tale, Qwfwq is a mollusk: “For the majority of mollusks, the visible organic form has little importance in the life of the members of a species, since they cannot see one another and have, at most, only a vague perception of other individuals and of their surroundings. This does not prevent brightly colored stripings and forms which seem very beautiful to our eyes (as in many gastropod shells) from existing independently of any relationship to visibility” (CC, p. 141). Out of a natural mystery—color produced by the blind—Calvino weaves a variation on his usual story: Qwfwq, in love, turns creative to identify himself for his lady friend. Slashing across this expected pattern, however, is a flash forward in evolutionary time to the present, and Qwfwq presents us with a slice of life as seen from a beach. He includes the tourists, the ice-cream truck, the encyclopedia volumes being delivered, the passenger on a train, the queen bee swarming, the daughter of an observatory keeper reading a film magazine about a Cleopatra movie.

According to Qwfwq, this infinitely visible world was called into being by his primordial urge to make color with which to impress his mate. His loves have multiplied along with the colors.

I look around, and whom am I looking for? She is still the one I seek; I've been in love for five hundred million years, and if I see a Dutch girl on the sand … there she is: I recogize her from her inimitable way of raising one shoulder until it almost touches her cheek. I'm almost sure, or rather I'd say absolutely sure if it weren't for a certain resemblance that I find also in the daughter of the keeper of the observatory, and in the photograph of the actress made up as Cleopatra, or perhaps in Cleopatra as she really was in person … I am certain I recognize her in a female gull and a moment later I suspect that instead she's an anchovy, though she might just as well be any queen or slave-girl named by Herodotus … I am in love with each of those girls and at the same time I am sure of being in love always with her alone.

(pp. 148–49)

Eyesight makes this rich and complex world possible. After surveying this sensual largesse, Qwfwq returns to his original mollusk form and condition, despondent because other life forms—but not mollusks—are developing eyes:

all of a sudden, around us, eyes were opening, and corneas and irises and pupils: the swollen, colorless eye of polyps and cuttlefish, the dazed and gelatinous eyes of bream and mullet, the protruding and peduncled eyes of crayfish and lobsters, and bulging and faceted eyes of flies and ants. … The inexpressive eyes of the gull examine the surface of the water. Beyond a glass mask the frowning eyes of an underwater fisherman explore the depths. Through the lens of a spyglass a sea captain's eyes and the eyes of a woman bathing converge on my shell, then look at each other, forgetting me. Framed by far-sighted lenses I feel on me the farsighted eyes of a zoologist, trying to frame me in the eye of a Rolleiflex. At that moment a school of tiny anchovies, barely born, passes before me, so tiny that in each little white fish it seems there is room only for the eye's black dot, and it is a kind of eye-dust that crosses the sea.

(pp. 152–53)

Qwfwq can comfort himself only with the notion that he has foreseen these developments and to some extent caused them.12 He ends with a romantic image of himself and his loved one mirrored in each other's eyes, the reflections stretching out to infinity. No zoologist can catch that in his Rolleiflex.

Notice that man as observer—with binoculars, face mask, camera and naked eye—tried to stand back and watch. But mere watching, here shown to be a kind of voyeurism, can do nothing with the mystery of Qwfwq's color. Nor can the observation see the longings that brought his creative effort about. The more the watchers focus on him, the less likely they are to see or sense the creative network of relationships which link him to those elements of our modern world which he describes in his flash forward. At best, the observers may be able to catalog his physical life cycle. Scientific man tries to stand back and watch, whether the world is his oyster, or an oyster, his world. Qwfwq sees, not just in the sense of neutral perception, but in the sense of joining himself to the world. He loves those living fragments of the world which bear even the faintest traces of the eternal feminine, and he longs to give of himself to each manifestation. Thus guided by the mysteries of sexual polarity, he feels related by love or rivalry to all living creatures.13

This sexualizing of the cosmos is the basis for Calvino's ultimate alternative to mere observation. Making love to the universe is his aim, and seeking union with it leads to vision. We see such a breakthrough, literally during sexual union, in “The Origin of the Birds.” Qwfwq refers to his perception of a kind of sexuality in the glorious harmony of crystals, and in the moon in “The Distance of the Moon” and “The Soft Moon.” Making love demands mutuality, interaction, a striving for oneness and harmony. The ensuing vision does not annihilate consciousness, but extends it, as in “The Origin of the Birds” and “The Spiral,” where consciousness expands to embrace all the world. Science can create an encompassing pattern, an interpretation of the phenomenal world. But this scientific “whole” has a flaw, the separated and isolated consciousness of the observer. Calvino urges that human consciousness, through imaginative play, strive to become one with the world, to discover itself to be part of a seamless whole. His emphasis on reintegration may be meant to go beyond the common poetic desire for an “unfallen” state in which consciousness is not alienated from the rest of mind and matter.

Current attempts to test Bell's Theorem seem to confirm that the principle of local causes is false: that the universe, contrary to appearances, consists of unbroken wholeness which in some sense was synchronized by the Big Bang in such a fashion that something happening in one “part” can affect that which happens in another “part” simultaneously. Wolfgang Pauli and C. G. Jung speculated on the apparent identity of certain psychic and physical phenomena, and on the possibility that discovery of the universe, especially through mathematical formulas, is a discovery of self, a projection of the mind through numbers.14 Not only does Calvino offer us an intimation of this unity (see his version of supradeterminism in “How Much Shall We Bet?”), he also suggests how we can improve our sense of that oneness. Science made a start by turning humans outward from themselves. Imagination is what Calvino offers as our means for helping us complete the circle, for helping us integrate ourselves with what we see and for helping us learn to love as well as to observe.15


  1. Le Cosmicomiche and Ti con zero were both published by Einaudi (Turin, 1965, 1967). William Weaver's English translations first appeared in 1968 and 1969, and both were issued as Harbrace Paperbound Library editions in 1976. Quotations are from these paper editions, and are identified as coming from Cosmicomics (CC) or T Zero (TZ). Qwfwq does not narrate all of the stories in T Zero, but most of them clearly belong to Calvino's cosmicomical vein.

  2. Donald Heiney discusses Calvino's stories as science fiction (projected onto the past instead of the future) in “Calvino and Borges: Some Implications of Fantasy,” Mundus Artium, 2 (1968), 66–76, and “Calvinismo,” Iowa Review, 2 (Winter 1971), 80–87. Reviewers, though they make the connection with science fiction, tend to rush to assure the readers that Calvino is not “real” science fiction, but something much profounder. See such reviews as those in Library Journal, 15 November 1968 and 1 September 1969.

  3. This point is recognized by Antonio Illiano in “Per una definizione della vena cosmogonica di Calvino: Appunti su ‘Le Cosmicomiche’ e ‘Ti con zero’,Italica, 49 (1972), 291–301, when he remarks in passing: “A tratti la parodia raggiunge apici di ludicro divertimento barocco (come quando Qwfwq gioca con gli atomi o quando gioca a far volare le galassie), che può sottintendere una radicale sfiducia nella scienza come metodo assoluto per comprendere la realtà e il bisogno di reconoscere alla letterature e all'ingegno un maggior potere di comprensione e di conoscenza.” (p. 295). (“At times, the pardoy reaches heights of hilarious baroque entertainment (such as when Qwfwq plays with atoms, or enjoys making galaxies fly), which can imply a radical distrust of science as an absolute method of understanding reality, and can also imply the need to acknowledge in literature and imagination a greater power of comprehension and intellectual grasp.”) But Illiano concerns himself with Qwfwq as antihero, with the intrusion of the humorous into the intellectual, and with the tension between alienation and parody—literary rather than scientific concerns.

  4. Francesca Bernardini Napoletano comments on the parodies of scientific dogmatism in “The Origin of the Birds” and “The Soft Moon” in I Segni Nuovi di Italo Calvino da “Le Cosmicomiche” a “Le città invisibili” (Rome, 1977), esp. pp. 33–35.

  5. J. R. Woodhouse analyzes Calvino's revitalization of the fairy story as a literary form in “Italo Calvino and the Rediscovery of a Genre,” in Italian Quarterly, 12 (1968), 45–66. Just published in English is Calvino's Italian Folktales (Fiabe italiane (1956), a concrete expression of his attraction to the form.

  6. This is one of the terms used by Douglas R. Hofstadter to describe points at which art, music and mathematics take off into the irrational via paradox. See Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York, 1979).

  7. Teresa de Lauretis analyzes this use of comic strip as one of the many subcodes of discourse which Calvino explores, in “Narrative Discourse in Calvino: Praxis or Poiesis?” PMLA, 90 (1975), 414–25.

  8. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. 2, no. 2, 2nd edn. (Chicago, 1970).

  9. Carl Jung analyzes Kekulé's dream of the ouroboros in Man and his Symbols (New York, 1964). In a later chapter in that compilation, M.-L. von Franz lists and discusses many such non-rational moments of scientific breakthrough (see especially pp. 306–10).

  10. Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation: A Study of the Conscious and Unconscious in Science and Art (1964; New York, 1967), especially Part Two, Chapter Five, “Moments of Truth,” pp. 101–20.

  11. The isolation I am talking about here is not precisely the same as the psychological and political alienation seen (especially in Calvino's earlier stories and novels) by several critics, although the two are perhaps interrelated. See Illiano, and also Woodhouse, “Fantasy, Alienation, and the Racconti of Italo Calvino,” Forum for Modern Language Studies, 6 (1970), 399–412.

  12. Contardo Calligaris, in Italo Calvino (Milan, 1973), p. 93, sees Calvino as debunking anthropocentric prejudice in having Qwfwq display gastropodicentrism. Though this is undoubtedly part of what Calvino is doing, he is also concerned with insisting on the importance of non-causal, non-logical networks of relationships.

  13. John Gatt-Rutter, in “Calvino Ludens: Literary Play and its Political Implications,” Journal of European Studies, 5 (1975), 319–40, thinks the terms in which Calvino sexualizes the universe to be dishonest: “He [Calvino] sees the universe as love, but as a love that is sex-based, limited to desire, and therefore essentially procreative. But nature's prolific procreation implies either over-population or predation. The corollary of love is death, usually nasty. This predatory, destructive aspect of the universe (whether physical, organic or human) is something that Calvino prefers not to see in Le cosmocomiche [sic]” (p. 335). What he fails to appreciate is that Calvino's concern is not to celebrate sex, but to use it as a metaphor for an attitude toward all that makes up the non-I. One must seek union with and make love to the cosmos, not just observe it.

  14. For a discussion of the Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen thought experiment, and for its implications as implied by Bell's Theorem, see Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979; Bantam edition, 1980), pp. 281–317. Aniela Jaffé discusses the speculations of Wolfgang Pauli and C. G. Jung in Man and his Symbols (see n. 9).

  15. I owe special thanks to my colleague Thomas J. Knight, who brought both scientific and literary expertise into play as he worked to improve my arguments. I would also like to thank my colleague Alfred A. Triolo for help with Italian.

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5017

SOURCE: “Love and the Two Discourses in Le Cosmicomiche,” in Stanford Italian Review, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 123–35.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos contrasts the role of love in Le Cosmicomiche.]

In Le cosmicomiche Calvino constructs a universe overtly governed by the laws of thermodynamics, summaries of which introduce most of the stories; yet a closer look reveals that the motions of expansion and retraction, which serve as structural devices of plot, are in turn subject to one Prime Mover and First Agent, love. Love in Le cosmicomiche defines the essence of being without trapping it in a static form. The characters who love, from the dreamy lunatic of “La distanza della Luna” to the mollusk who first creates a shell in “La spirale,” experience the expansion and multiform transformation of matter of a universe full of greater possibilities. Those who refuse love, mistake it, or never encounter it, such as the heroes of “Un segno nello spazio,” “Giochi senza fine,” “Quanto scommettiamo,” live in a maddening cosmos of fixed motion and obsessive time. While the narrator's name, Qfwfq, remains the same from story to story, the discourse in the stories without love stands in marked contrast to that of the love stories in which the poignant lyricism suggests that laws governing affective existence permeate and to some extent dominate the fantasy of pure science.

Le cosmicomiche is generally regarded as lacking structural or thematic unity; even Qfwfq's presence, manifested in his responses to either the laws of physics or biology that introduce the stories or to unstated queries, is undependable; two stories begin without the implicit dialogue. Critics see Qfwfq's voice as the only possible unifying element of the collection,1 but Calvino's first-person narrator produces two distinct kinds of discourse, each dependent on his state of love. Three critics hint at the sources of unity in Le cosmicomiche. Germana Pescio Bottino compares the fusion of old-fashioned fable-making and contemporary thinking in the work to “una specie di De Rerum Natura del 2000.”2 Teresa de Laurentis writes that in Calvino's oeuvre “human activity consists in formal organization and symbolic representation,” and she notes that such activity is “moved by Desire,” by Eros.3 Advancing a similar but more developed line of argument, Marilyn Schneider notes the Lucretian connection and sees in Calvino's use of Lucretius a doomed quest for wholeness in which male and female forces are in “fundamental antagonism.”4 I would argue, rather, that, like his predecessor Lucretius, Calvino faces a universe in which the inexorable tendency of energy and matter runs toward randomness, toward chaos, and that as artist he responds by invoking not Eros, but the spirit of harmony, the informing power which defies entropy—Venus.

The absence of Venus in Le cosmicomiche trnaslates itself into an obsession with forms, formulae. The narrator reveals his anxiety about existing in his attempts to prove his identity, his very being, through forms such as a sign in space, calculations about probabilities (“Quanto scommettiamo”), trajectories (“La forma dello spazio”), orbits atomic and galactical (“Giochi senza fine”). Forms betray him, and the melancholy and obsessions of his doomed search for signification in forms recall Derrida's critique of the desire for totality sensed in the structuralist consciousness:

Like melancholy for Gide, these analyses are possible only after a certain defeat of force and within the movement of diminished ardor. Which makes the structural consciousness … a reflection of the accomplished, the constituted, the constructed. Historical, eschatological, and crepuscular by its very situation.5

“Un segno nello spazio,” the most explicitly structuralist story in the collection, begins with the grandiose, eschatological attempt to embody personal identity in and marking the universe by a sign: “Il segno serviva a segnare un punto, ma nello stesso tempo segnava che lí c'era un segno … e nello stesso tempo il segno era il mio segno, il segno di me … Era come un nome, il nome di quel punto, e anche il mio nome che io avevo segnato su quel punto, insomma era l'unico nome disponibile per tutto cio che richiedeva un nome.”6

Soon, however (the two hundred million years are alternately composed of “un centinaio di millenni” and “pochi secondi” and are traversed astride a galaxy which acts like a horse “dagli zoccoli sprizzanti scintille”), Qfwfq discovers that his sign has become a negation of signing, of signifying, or of signalizing; all that remains of the sign which has faded even from his memory is an erasure. He concludes, “Avevo perduto tutto: il segno, il punto, quello che faceva si che io—essendo quello di quel segno in quel punto—fossi io. Lo spazio, senza segno, era tornato una voragine di vuoto senza principio ne fine, nauseante, in cui tutto—me compreso—si perdeva” (pp. 45–46). Self-reflexively, Qfwfq dismisses the notion that an erasure is as much a sign as the sign itself; after all, he is a structuralist, not a semiologist.

This philosophical angst quickly reduces itself to a farcical obsession with an assumed rival, a pattern which appears in all the stories in which the narrator remains imprisoned in a loveless state. More explicitly than in the other stories, Qfwfq declares in “Un segno nello spazio,” “il segno segnava me, me lo portavo dietro, mi abitava, mi possedeva interamente, s'intrometteva tra me e ogni cosa con cui potevo tentare un rapporto” (p. 43). The deduction of a rival, itself dictated by the sign's absence, serves temporarily as a distraction from the sense of loss. Out of desire to outdo his rival, Qfwfq makes subsequent signs, only to be “tormented,” “tortured,” “afraid,” “frying” because of the anticipated, widening gap between signifier and signified. Qfwfq's “nostalgia,” which makes him think that “il primo segno … restava inattaccabile dal mutare dei tempi, come quello che era nato prima d'ogni inizio delle forme e che doveva contenere qualcosa che a tutte le forme sarebbe sopravvissuto, cioè il fatto di essere segno e basta” (p. 48), expresses the consciousness characterized by Derrida as “eschatological” and “crepuscular.” Since signs can no longer establish points of reference, the narrator dismisses the veracity of his own narration while conferring authority upon the very forms whose coincidence with meaning he refuses: “indipendentemente dai segni lo spazio non esisteva e forse non era mai esistito” (p. 51).

In the stories without love, retraction, both verbal and thermodynamic, leaves the narrator trapped in a cosmos whose laws subject him utterly to its motion and randomness. As in “Un segno nello spazio,” the narrative voice is obsessed by the uncertainty of knowledge, of meaning, of its own existence; it pits itself against a rival (Pfwfp in “Giochi senza fine,” (k)yK in “Quanto scommettiamo,” Lieutenant Fenimore in “La forma dello spazio,” the peeping-Tom galaxy in “Gli anni-luce”) in order to manufacture exasperation, seemingly the only emotional momentum in a cosmos in which one had “non … altro da fare” (pp. 83, 108). The resolution in each of these stories shows a consciousness imprisoned in unalterable circumstances. In “Giochi senza fine,” “davanti avevo il nulla e alle mie spalle avevo quella brutta faccia di Pfwfp che m'inseguiva: da entrambe le parti una vista antipatica” (p. 83); “Quanto scommettiamo” ends in a shower of events that go against mathematical probabilities, “una pasta d'avvenimenti senza forma ne direzione, che circonda sommerge schiaccia ogni ragionamento” (p. 112); in “Gli anni-luce” the galaxies which disappear from sight bear with them “un giudizio ormai irrevocabile” of the narrator's character (p. 165); and “La forma dello spazio” ends in the self-reflexive musings about writing and signification similar to those in “Un segno nello spazio”: lines of writing, “le stesse righe anzichè successioni di lettere e di parole possono benissimo essere srotolate nel loro filo nero e tese in linee rette continue parallele che non significano altro che se stesse nel loro continuo scorrere senza incontrarsi ma così come non ci incontriamo mai nella nostra continua caduta” (p. 147).

But this obsessively reductive universe, in which the motion of space and time enforces separateness and in which reasoning founders beneath the weight of entropic events, may indeed be contained in the signs and the parallel lines of writing that express the narrator's point of view. The repetitive language with staccato rhythms suggests a narrator obsessed by an idée fixe who verbalizes his acts of repetition-compulsion around the Absence in each story, an Absence for once embodied outrageously in the unseeing, unhearing, wholly self-absorbed Ursula X of “La forma dello spazio.” The narrator in each story displays an infantile aggression against another, who is a doubling of himself, even to the extent of similar lettering of names in the case of Pfwfp and Kgwgk. He is consumed by envy for his rival, by rage and bitterness at his own impotence, by jealousy toward the Absent object, emotions that seem artificially created to hide the deeper anguish of being in nothingness. In “Giochi senza fine,” Qfwfq acknowledges that “il gioco si fece più fiacco. Atomi nuovi non se ne vedevano più: gli atomi perduti non venivano più sostituiti, i nostri tiri diventavano deboli, esitanti, per paura di perdere i pochi pezzi che restavano in gara, in quello spazio liscio e brullo” (p. 78). Pfwfp's treachery and Qfwfq's discovery of treachery spark action to the point of madness. The two adversaries taunt each other with chants, victorious prancing, insults. One is “verde di rabbia,” while the other builds a galaxy which becomes “invidiata dall'intero firmamento,” and the existing galaxies are “gonfie d'invidia.” They end up in a game of chase in which both have lost control of their own motion, of time, and ultimately of their being since the initial doubling has quadrupled, and both Qfwfq and Pfwfp are dispersed through space: “E così dietro ogni Qfwfq c'era un Pfwfp e dietro ogni Pfwfp un Qfwfq e ogni Pfwfp inseguiva un Qfwfq e ne era inseguito e viceversa” (p. 83). The language exhausts its resources in the series of repetitions culminating in the circular “viceversa.” “Quanto scommettiamo” sets up the same pattern of weariness (“Dopo un po' diventava così facile che non ci provavo neppure più gusto”), of wild provocations of an adversary who is a mirror double of the self in order to confirm one's existence (“Facevamo sempre delle scommesse, io e il Decano, perchè non c'era proprio altro da fare, e anche perchè l'unica prova che io ci fossi era il fatto che scommettevo con lui, e l'unica prova che ci fossi lui era il fatto che scommetteva con me”), a nauseating sense of reduced possibilities (“avevo toccato una riserva infinita di nuove combinazioni tra i segni di cui la realtà compatta e opaca e uniforme si sarebbe servita per travestire la sua monotonia …”), and an ultimate, inescapable entrapment in another game without end whose unalterable rules are not of one's making.

“Gli anni-luce” addresses directly the problem of identity in a cosmos in which expansion, the movement of galaxies away from each other, nullifies the hope of a referent sufficiently constant to retain meaning. The obsessed narrator takes himself as sole referent for the intergalactic announcement “ti ho visto.” As new announcements sprout on ever-distant galaxies, the narrator launches into a quest for essence of self which, like the conformation of the cosmos, is ever-changing and fugitive. In his frenzy to establish once and for all the basic decency of his life, the narrator is embroiled in successive justifications that make him sound very much like a space-age Zeno:

La cattiva impressione che potevo aver lasciato durante quella momentanea sconsideratezza di due milioni di secoli fa veniva quindi ingigantita e moltiplicata rifrangendosi attraverso tutte le galassie dell'universo, ne mi era possibile smentirla senza peggiorare la situazione, dato che, non sapendo a quali estreme calunniose deduzioni potevano essere arrivati quelli che non mi avevano veduto direttamente, non avevo idea di dove cominciare e dove finire le mie smentite.

(p. 155)

After he finally devises the means by which the cosmos might seize the essence of his being, he discovers to his horror that “quella prova di chi io fossi, che … potevo considerare irripetibile, era passata così, inosservata, sprecata, definitivamente perduta per tutta una zona dell'universo” (p. 159). The dispersal of self both through the obsessed consciousness of the narrator and through the absurdity of placing himself as point of reference for the universe again shatters the hope for ultimate meaning. In the end the narrator takes some comfort from the accelerating distancing of the galaxies and his growing impotence to change the false impressions he had made on other worlds, as if the fixed notions about him would give his being a permanence, a referent, otherwise unattainable. He longs for “il momento in cui a quell'arbitraria registrazione di malintesi non ci fosse stato più nulla da aggiungere ne da togliere” (p. 165).

That the stories without love are haunted by Absence, despite the narrator's assertions of having witnessed genesis, becomes clear when one looks at a story like “Senza colori,” in which misperceived and lost love leads to an anxiety about meaning and identity whose similarity to the problems of the loveless narrator comments on his malaise. Derrida uses a simile about the structuralist attempt to conceptualize a history so that it “escapes the determined totalities of classical history,” a simile which applies admirably to “Senza colori” and to the desperate hunt for forms in the stories without love:

Somewhat like the architecture of an uninhabited or deserted city, reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or art. A city no longer inhabited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and culture.7

The simile is relevant because it recognizes the informing Absence behind the ordered forms and the consciousness burdened by what it tries resolutely but unsuccessfully to leave out. In “Senza colori” Qfwfq falls in love with Ayl, who comes to symbolize the very thing he has been looking for—essence: “mentre io smaniavo di strappare dalle cose vibrazioni sconosciute, lei voleva ridurre ogni cosa all'al di là incolore della loro ultima sostanza” (p. 67). The problem, as in “Lo zio acquatico,” arises because Qfwfq mistakes change for progress, and Ayl's world of essences is on the point of vanishing. When Qfwfq's Orpheus-like attempt to bring his beloved to light fails, the immense variety and endless possibilities of a world of colors smite him with their oppressive sprawl, just as the shower of empty signs in “Un segno nello spazio” and the crushing events contradicting rational probability in “Quanto scommettiamo” defeat the narrators of those stories. Yet, since Absence is transformed into Ayl-Eurydice, is recognized as the beloved, anxiety changes into lyricism, the traditional voice of the lovelorn being:

Tutto m'apparve così insulso, così banale, così falso, così in contrasto con la persona di Ayl, con il mondo di Ayl, con l'idea di bellezza di Ayl, che compresi come il suo posto non avrebbe mai più potuto essere di qua. E mi resi conto con dolore e spavento che io ero rimasto di qua, che non sarei mai più potuto sfuggire a quegli scintillii dorati e argentei, a quelle nuvolette che da celeste si cangiavano in rosate, a quelle verdi foglioline che ingiallivano ogni autunno, e che il mondo perfetto di Ayl era perduto per sempre, tanto che non sapevo più neppure immaginarmelo.

(pp. 73–74)

Though revolving around the anxiety of remaining trapped in a world without meaning, the lament has none of the farcical obsessiveness of repetition-compulsion present in the other stories. The glance, even as it attempts to divest the new world of significance, infuses it with beauty, a beauty so despotic that despite the narrator's desolation he can no longer imagine the preexisting order, and thus his beloved, in “nulla se non quella fredda parete di pietra grigia” (p. 74).

In the stories in which the cosmos functions under the aegis of Venus, even when the narrator loses love he is capable of discerning, however gropingly, the laws which govern both the universe and himself. The movement, galactic or planetary, molecular or affective, is one of expansion, toward a firmer sense of being rather than toward nothingness. The self recognizes the Other as the core of being and submits to that knowledge that in turn frees the self from deterministic entrapment in time and space. Language takes on lyrical qualities which make the discourse of those stories recognizably different from the reduced, at times skeletal, monologue of the others. Both the qualified love of “La distanza della Luna” and the emphatic one in “Tutto in un punto” rule spatial and temporal expansion.

Although the deaf cousin's love affair with the moon is the only case of reciprocated desire in “La distanza della Luna,” both the Captain's wife and Qfwfq become other through their unrequited passions. Calvino exploits and explodes the concept of lunar attraction, of beings literally and figuratively at sea, magnetized by the competing gravitational pull of bodies planetary and human. Impervious to Mrs. Vhd Vhd's siren harp song which forces the others “a lanciare lunghi gridi, non tanto per accompagnamento della musica quanto per proteggerne il nostro udito” (p. 14), the deaf-dumb cousin reserves all his sensual homage to the moon. His exploration of the moon is disinterested; the moon overflows with milk under his knowing touch:

Per lui era una specie di gioco: invece del cucchiaio certe volte bastava ficcasse sotto le squame la mano nuda, o solo un dito … E dove metteva la mano lui, il latte schizzava fuori come dalle mammelle d'una capra … toccava solamente per il gusto di toccarli: interstizi tra scaglia e scaglia, pieghe nude e tenere della polpa lunare … mio cugino vi premeva non le dita della mano, ma … l'alluce.

(p. 13)

Yet all that, the narrator suspects, is mere foreplay: “tutte quelle capriole e pizzicotti in cui si sbizzarriva sotto i nostri occhi non fossero che una preparazione, un preludio, a qualcosa di segreto che doveva svolgersi nelle zone nascoste” (p. 14). When the moon begins to break away to a larger orbit, the Deaf One is the only human whose skill enables him to reach the moon with an enormous bamboo pole, which he raises without any intention of saving the people who were trapped on the moon by the sudden jolt of the satellite to its new trajectory:

E ci accorgemmo che la sua bravura non mirava a nulla … anzi si sarebbe detto che la stesse spingendo via, la Luna, che ne stesse assecondando l'allontanamento, che la volesse accompagnare sulla sua orbita più distante.

(p. 23)

Absorbed entirely by his love for the moon, the Deaf One inadvertently forges un unshakable identity for himself, one which the narrator recognizes in all his actions:

Anche questo era da lui: da lui che non sapeva concepire desideri in contrasto con la natura della Luna e il suo corso e il suo destino, e se la Luna ora tendeva ad allontanarsi da lui, ebbene egli godeva di questo allontanamento come aveva fino allora goduto della sua vicinanza.

(p. 23)

Moved by such exclusive devotion as well as by hopeless love for the Deaf One, the Captain's wife submits to the Other: “tutto quel che lei voleva ormai era diventare Luna, assimilarsi all'oggetto di quell'amore extraumano” (p. 22). Unlike Qfwfq's passion, which is hardly distinguishable from lust, hers is “un voto senza ritorno” (p. 23). Yet he, too, is sensible of an enlargement of the universe under the influence of love as he perceives her, “niente'altro che lei, in cento in mille viste diverse,” and submits temporarily, during “ogni plenilunio,” to the lunatic attraction that “spinge i cani … a ululare e io con loro” (p. 24).

In “Tutto in un punto” an explicit link is created between love and cosmic expansion. The punctiform village, a brilliant comic rendition of the Renaissance concept of microcosm, suffocates in its xenophobia, class conflict, and family squabbles. Macrocosmic expansion does nothing to diminish the rancor which Qfwfq tries to explain by the sociological cliché, “colpa dell'ambiente in cui ci eravamo formati” (p. 57). The visitations of the muse, Venus in the guise of Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0, reveal the inadequacy, not to mention the farcical idiocy, of such ready-made phrases. Though scattered through the cosmos, the original inhabitants of the one point do run into each other, reviving each other's antipathy; but they inevitably turn their thoughts to Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0, whose memory unites them so that they partake of an affective communion which stands as contrast to their enforced, physical one-point occupation. She is the bountiful sign in which container and contained are inextricably and perfectly merged: “conteneva ed era contenuta con pari gioia, e ci accoglieva e amava e abitava tutti ugualmente” (p. 59). And when this embodied spirit of harmony utters the desire to show her love, her words, ordinary as they may seem, “Ragazzi, avessi un po' di spazio, come mi piacerebbe farvi le tagliatelle,” have the force of logos: they inaugurate the cosmos. Though she herself dissolves into non-matter, the “energia luce calore” of deity, leaving the others to mourn her loss, they sense through their unanimous agreement about her nature that what informs the universe begins in “un vero slancio d'amore generale,” that creation orders itself to serve that “slancio generoso” (p. 60).

Linear movement, as Qfwfq finds to his sorrow, shackles one's freedom as much as does the absolute stasis of being at one point. Love's agency permits reversals of seemingly fixed courses and spurs qualitative leaps that accelerate forward movement to such an extent that it ramifies into infinitude. Whether through evolution or revolution, love offers the multiform variety of choices. If in other stories Calvino illustrates the laws of physics in his fashion, “Lo zio acquatico” and “La spirale” are pages from the natural sciences. Hence, in these two stories characters grapple with evolutionary forces, that is, with a change of self. “Lo zio acquatico,” like “La distanza della Luna,” has a narrator who loses the object of his desires to one who understands better than he the nature of love, the sacrifice of selfhood to the Other. Great-uncle N'ba N'ga, despite his blood ties to the would-be reptilians, retains his fishness to the point where he appears to be the strangest creature in the world. When Qfwfq comes to present his higher-class, i.e., more reptilian, fiancée, to the great-uncle, the old fish surfaces as a vision of the Other: “occhi tondi e inespressivi come pietre e facendo pulsare le branchie ai lati dell'enorme gola. Mai il prozio m'era parso così diverso da noi: un vero e proprio mostro” (p. 92). For Qfwfq, who equates change with progress, Lll represents the future, and he is not so much in love with her as with the idea of conquering territory: “vedevo in lei la forma perfetta, definitiva, nata dalla conquista dei territori emersi, la somma delle nuove illimitate capacità che si aprivano” (p. 95). Moreover, since Lll and her family have a more desirable position on the developing hierarchy of the evolutionary tree, Qfwfq's love is somewhat tainted by hints of social climbing. Qfwfq's lust for new frontiers makes Lll an object usable for conquests: “Ho scoperto un passaggio nella catena dei monti: di là s'estende un'immensa pianura di pietra, abbandonata da poco dalle acque. Saremo i primi a stabilirci là, popoleremo territori sconfinati, noi e i nostri figli” (p. 98), he tells her in an attempt to lure her form her growing love for N'ba N'ga. Lll is the most reptilian, the remotest spear point in the line of evolution:

Nulla pareva lontano dalla vita acquatica quanto lei, Lll: i deserti di sabbia e pietre, le praterie, il folto delle foreste, i rilievi rocciosi, le montagne di quarzo, questo era il suo mondo: un mondo che pareva fatto apposta per essere scrutato dai suoi occhi oblunghi e percorso dal suo passo guizzante. Guardando la sua pelle ìiscia pareva che non fossero mai esistite scaglie e squame … Lll … era nata tal quale a ora, da una di quelle uova calde di sabbia e di sole, saltando a pie pari la fase natante e ciondolona del girino, ancora d'obbligo nelle nostre famiglie meno evolute.

(p. 91)

The change of each feature seems inevitable; nothing can stop the determined march of evolution. And yet to Qfwfq's shocked axiomatic utterance, “Non si puo mica tornare indietro,” Lll replies, “Io si” (p. 98). Empowered by love, Lll reverts, revolves, revolutionizes the laws of natural science. And despite his having succumbed to his great-uncle's prophecy that life on land would bring such rapid transformations as to make one forget “le ragioni per cui era bello vivere” (p. 95), Qfwfq recognizes in the types who have chosen to express their essence, who are “uno,” a something that “li rendeva in qualche modo superiori a me, sublimi, e che rendeva me, in confronto a loro, mediocre” (p. 99).

If love can overcome evolution, it can also spur it on to unsuspected logarithmic multiplications. “La spirale,” the last story of the collection, confronts as emphatically as “Tutto in un punto” the force, the vital elan of the forma informans. Whereas “Tutto in un punto” traces cosmic genesis to “amore generale,” the expansion in “La spirale” begins with a most particular, individual message to the beloved; it is a hymn of love to Love. The shell in which the mollusk expresses his passion, however different it may be from other shells in the minutiae of form, is purged of the individuality of the creator in order to become a quintessential representation of the beloved. The mollusk-creator begins “solo per esprimermi,” but since “in questo esprimermi ci mettevo tutti i pensieri che avevo per quella là,” the shell exhibits the same submission to love which in Le cosmicomiche is invariably associated with knowledge and unquestioned sense of being:

Questa conchiglia era una cosa diversa da me ma anche la parte più vera di me, la spiegazione di chi ero io, il mio ritratto tradotto in un sistema li, ma anche il vero identico ritratto di lei così com'era, perchè nello stesso tempo lei stava fabbricandosi una conchiglia identica alla mia e io senza saperlo stavo copiando quello che faceva lei e lei senza saperlo copiava quello che facevo io.

(p. 176)

The form of love explodes into endless variety: “avendo la conchiglia una forma, anche la forma del mondo era cambiata” (p. 180); but instead of an oppressive multiplication of forms, calculations, atoms, galaxies in the stories without love, the variety of signifiers harks back, always, to the signified original, the “image” whose creation entails vision, which in turn calls for appropriate organs, the eyes. Qfwfq's seemingly absurd assertion, “Tutti questi occhi erano i miei,” becomes confirmed in the conclusion of the story, which takes us back through time and space past our century, past Lucretius, back to Plato and the limitless world beyond the cave:

E in fondo a ognuno di quegli occhi abitavo io, ossia abitava un altro me, una delle immagini di me, e s'incontrava con l'immagine di lei, la più fedele immagine di lei, nell'ultramondo che s'apre attraversando la sfera semiliquida delle iridi, il buio delle pupille, il palazzo di specchi delle retine, nel vero nostro elemento che si estende senza rive ne confini.

(p. 184)

Platonic fusion in the beyond at the bottom of the eyes notwithstanding, Le cosmicomiche leaves the reader divided between two discourses, two equally unreliable, because mutually exclusive, modes of creating universes. In the James Lecture delivered in New York City on March 30, 1983, Calvino addressed the very issue of irreconcilable discourses proposed by the two “leading present philosophies,” and, with his characteristic refusal of closure, he concluded:

The urge for writing is always connected with the longing for something one would like to possess and master, something that escapes us … I have the impression that I recognize it also in the great writers whose voices seemed to reach me from the summit of an absolute experience. What they succeeded in conveying to us was an approach to experience, not an arrival; this kept intact all the seductions of desire. That may be the way great authors give us that precise feeling of knowledge that we cannot find anywhere else.8

This affirmation of knowledge that comes from the open-ended “approach” rather than the fixed “arrival” sheds light on perhaps the most complex story of the collection.

This story, which resists the either/or classification I have used in my reading, provides a clue to Le cosmicomiche and to the way in which the work situates itself within the culture. “I dinosauri” has a narrator whose identity is neither obsessively in question nor discovered utterly in the embrace of the Other; in this story identity takes its shape in and from tales told around the fire. The narrator-dinosaur's self-conscious cogitations in reaction to these tales, which purport to contain his essence but in effect encode cultural modes of perception, form a discourse carrying within it living, hence triumphant, vestiges of the extinct, together with the seeds of extinction. After having recognized his pure-dinosaur son and having heard the child negate through ignorance his origins, the narrator traverses time and space to take a train and to be lost in the crowd. Yet, unlike the uncompromised, ideal literary sign, which eschews contradictions but becomes indistinguishable amid the visual cacophony of a universe covered with the artifacts of ambitious scribblers, the dinosaur among us who, like Le cosmicomiche, plunges from contradiction of meaning to contradiction of language remains an enduring reminder of continuance and extinction.


  1. See for instance Contardo Calligaris, Italo Calvino (Milan: U. Mursia & Co., 1973), p. 91; and Sara Maria Adler, Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker (Maryland: Jose Porrua Turanzas, 1979), p. 40.

  2. Germana Pescio Bottino, Italo Calvino (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1967), p. 97.

  3. Teresa de Laurentis, “Narrative Discourse in Calvino: Praxis or Poiesis?,” PMLA, 90 (1975), 414–25.

  4. Marilyn Schneider, “Calvino's Erotic Metaphor and the Hermaphroditic Solution,” Stanford Italian Review, 2 (Spring 1981), 93–118.

  5. Jacques Derrida, “Force and Signification,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 5. This essay was first published in French in 1963 in Critique, and while I am not arguing for direct influence, I do see the climate of ideas in which Calvino wrote Le cosmicomiche as having an effect on his artistic choices.

  6. Italo Calvino, Le cosmicomiche (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1965), p. 43.

  7. Derrida, op. cit., p. 5.

  8. Italo Calvino, “The Written and the Unwritten Word,” The New York Review of Books, 30 (May 12, 1983), 38–39.

Curtis White (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4537

SOURCE: “Italo Calvino and What's Next: The Literature of Monstrous Possibility,” in Iowa Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 128–39.

[In the following essay, White places Calvino's short fiction within the context of postmodern literature.]

I'd like to talk about Italo Calvino (particularly his two science-fictive books of stories, Cosmicomics and t zero) within the context of a more general discussion of “postmodernism” and John Barth's idea of “the literature of exhaustion.” I would begin by rectifying the almost universal misunderstanding of “the literature of exhaustion” (as another sign of the death of the novel), but, fortunately, Barth's own later essay, “The Literature of Replenishment,”1 has already unambiguously set things straight. It is enough to say that Barth's first essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,”2 was not a gloomy prophesy of the end of the novel, or fiction, or print. Rather, both it and “The Literature of Replenishment” are about a single, happier question: What is “postmodernism” (the “what's next” of American fiction for the last fifteen to twenty years)?

As a contribution to Barth's discussion of “postmodernism,” I would like to develop two metaphors, one recent bit of literary theory, and one more or less rhapsodic allusion to an “eternal verity,” the human heart, love. My purpose for these fragments will not be to tell the Truth about postmodernism (no doubt an impossible, in any case an undersirable task), but, more modestly, to provide new ways of talking about and looking at it, which—when added to what has already been said about post-modernism, and what remains to be said in the next few decades—will eventually constitute postmodernism's saturation, used-upness, and exhaustion. In short, this is to be a contribution to the death of what's next.

Before setting out, I want to emphasize that I have, as Chuck Berry sang, “No particular place to go.” I have no particular understanding or definition to claim privilege for. Postmodernism is usually defined through a series of literary historical “sightings.” Barth catches a glimpse of it in Borges, Nabokov, and Beckett. Alan Wilde sees it in Robert Coover, Ronald Suckenick, and Raymond Federman. Federman, with greater depth of perception, sees it as far back as Rabelais, and then in Celine and Beckett. The perhaps myopic Jerome Klinkowitz can make it out best in the procreative vortex of 1967 in which Barthelme, Vonnegut, and Kosinski came on the scene. Or postmodernism is defined as a trans-traditional itinerary; one gets to it, through Rabelais, Sterne, Joyce, and Gilbert Sorrentino, in the same way that one gets to San Jose through San Mateo and Palo Alto. This is a way of saying what Nietzsche says in The Genealogy of Morals: “that which has a history eludes definition.” Postmodernism has no definition as such, and like all other literary classifications, it has no pure examples. Its only reality is in a system of equivalences and differences. It is like Joyce and unlike James. Like Sorrentino and unlike Saul Bellow. This ought to mean that postmodernism is nothing in itself, but only whatever we say it is. That is, in fact, what I mean. For, as the aesthetician Morris Weitz has argued, art is what we as a culture decide it is.3 And surely what goes for art in general goes for art's sub-species as well.

The most I intend to do is to hold a certain kind of mirror (that we are used to calling literary commentary) up to the texts that we are used to calling postmodern and hope that there is recognition. Although we may not be able to claim that this recognition is what we used to refer to fondly as knowledge, it is much more than nothing. It is a lively, a bracing, and—above all else—a practical tautology. As the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations would have argued here, the idea of postmodernism may not constitute a truth, but that doesn't make it any less useful. We can still use it even if we do not claim for it any truth. It can still be a tool. This is to say nothing more than what Barth says in “The Literature of Replenishment,” that “critical categories are as more or less fishy as they are less or more useful.”

As I have already suggested, the writers of the fiction of postmodernism are not so much interested in, or overwhelmed by the idea of exhaustion, as they are excited by other possibilities, by what is not yet tedious. In fact, contemporary fiction is a literature of great promise, productivity, and possibility. It is a literature of monstrous possibility. In Italo Calvino one may find an indication of as well as a metaphor for this largeness of possibility in two key related tropes: the regressus in infinitum, and the figure of the “monster.”

The wobbly history of the notion of the regressus in infinitum is a crucial and indicative one for western culture.4 We may trace it as far back as Zeno, where it is the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise in which movement is proven impossible. For the moving object (Achilles) must run half of the distance before reaching its destination, and before reaching the half, half of the half, and before half of the half, half of the half of the half, and so on. Zeno sought through his paradox to discover the contradiction which inheres in the ordinary idea of motion.

Recently, the significance of the regressus (as paradox and critique of the conventional) has again asserted itself, this time, most notably, in the thinking of Jacques Derrida. It is the regressus in infinitum, the hopelessness of arriving at an ultimate term, that Derrida applies “deconstructively” to the desire of phenomenology to determine a “transcendental subject.”5 As Husserl (whom Derrida critiques at great length in Speech and Phenomena) peels back the layers of consciousness which wrap themselves tightly about the Cartesian cogito, the causal structure of the regressus in infinitum is—at a crucial point—broken, ruptured by metaphysics, theology, and desire. Husserl was determined to find a privileged, originary break in the chain of causality which he called the “I,” the cogito, His Majesty the Sovereign Self. Derrida's modest but deconstructing reminder to all of metaphysics is that, after all, the regressus is the name of a paradox (of an “undecidability”), and not, as St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, or Husserl would have it, of a theological, metaphysical, or phenomenological proof.

Italo Calvino uses the metaphor of the regressus in infinitum in his Cosmicomic-al story, “A Sign in Space.” In it he finds the idea of the origin of language caught within the dialectical structure of the regressus. The results for his narrator, Qfwfq, and language itself are both bizarre and comic.

I conceived the idea of making a sign, that's true enough, or rather, I conceived the idea of considering a sign a something that I felt like making, so when, at that point in space and not in another, I made something, meaning to make a sign, it turned out that I really had made a sign, after all.

Here Calvino wraps himself in the contradictoriness of language trying to deliver the facts about its own origin. How conceive, how make, how feel? What something, what point, what meaning could there be before the first sign? Calvino asserts, comically, the undecidability, the utter perplexity of the question of the origin of signs. For the existence of a sign is dependent upon the assumption of the existence of other signs before it. There is always already an earlier sign.

I thought about it day and night; in fact, I couldn't think about anything else; actually, this was the first opportunity I had had to think something; or I should say: to think something had never been possible, first because there were no things to think about, and second because signs to think of them by were lacking, but from the moment there was that sign, it was possible for someone thinking to think of a sign, and therefore that one, in the sense that the sign was the thing you could think about and also the sign of the thing thought, namely, itself.

If it is true that the history of all western thought is the history of the fate of a handful of metaphors, the present stature of the regressus in infinitum, once again—as in Zeno—a deconstructing paradox, is instructive. Through the regressus, an important part of literary postmodernism (certainly Borges, Calvino, and Barth,6 all rooted in Nietzsche and Kafka) seems to be saying, in Borges' words, “We … have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.”7

If, couched in our postmodern period, we may not speak of origins, or dream the world as “ubiquitous in space and durable in time” without tainting ourselves with theology and metaphysics, how shall we explain the “presence” of things (you know: chairs, streets, people, bad manners) in our stories? What shall we say about them? The ultimate thrust of the deconstructions of Zeno, Derrida, Borges, and Calvino is to cut us off from time, space and matter, that is to say, from the mimetic impulse. But what sort of “reality” can fiction have deprived of all claim to referentiality?

One may discern in Calvino two related responses to this question. The first, arrived at, again, in the story “A Sign in Space,” is that the only reality the cosmos has is the reality of signs. The sign which Calvino's Qfwfq created, “inhabited me, possessed me entirely, came between me and everything with which I might have attempted to establish a relationship.” As the story concludes even more forcefully, “independent of signs, space didn't exist and perhaps had never existed.”

Although this is a lot, this isn't all Calvino has to say on the question of presence. What about, for example, the presence of birds? Calvino begins his short story “The Origin of the Birds” (t zero) with Qfwfq saying that in order to tell the story of the origin of birds he would have to “remember better how a number of things were made, things I've long since forgotten; first the thing I now call bird, second what I now call I, third the branch, fourth the place where I was looking out, fifth all the others.” In the place of what Qfwfq had “long since forgotten” (origins: how things were made), Calvino supplies the figure of the monster, “all those who could exist and didn't.” Qfwfq tells the story this way:

One morning I hear some singing, outside, that I have never heard before. Or rather (since we didn't yet know what singing was), I hear something making a sound that nobody has ever made before. I look out. I see an unknown animal singing on a branch. He had wings feet tail claws spurs feathers plumes fins quills beak teeth crop horns crest wattles and a star on his forehead. It was a bird; you've realized that already, but I didn't; they had never been seen before.

The appearance of the bird is profoundly unsettling for Qfwfq and his community. The wisest among them, old U(h), speaks to his neighbors in the name of tradition. “Don't look at him!” he says. “He's a mistake!” But Qfwfq takes a more difficult and risky line.

Hadn't we been told over and over that everything capable of being born from the Reptiles had been born? … For many years we had been tormented by doubts as to who was a monster and who wasn't, but that too could be considered long settled: all of us who existed were nonmonsters, while the monsters were all those who could exist and didn't. … But if we were going to begin again with strange animals, … if a creature impossible by definition such a bird was instead possible. … then the barrier between monsters and nonmonsters was exploded and everything was possible again.

What I would like to suggest is that this idea of a presence grounded not in original birdiness, but rather in a monstrous and disruptive paste-up of mutative reptile and fish is not only an important philosophical idea (because it implicitly denies a metaphysical/theological origin), but a crucial literary distinction as well. For there is a monstrous figure in the carpet here: the story is told through descriptions of comic strip frames. Calvino as author, as much as Qfwfq as character, is “the promotor of a process of refusal to see and say things the way they had been seen and said up to that very moment.”8

The literature of postmodernism generally aspires to origin as rupture, break, mutation, transformation. It prefers the discontinuous and the monstrous to the linear and archetypal. Consider, for example, that there is no possibility for the monstrous in Northrop Frye's mythopoeic literary universe. In that cosmos literature's lineage is proper—Hamlet rooted in ur-Hamlets rooted in universal myth—and its papers and credentials are in order. But from Rabelais' gargantuan, encyclopaedic farce, through Fielding's comic epic-poem in prose, Sterne's autobiography in utero, Joyce's comic catalogues, Federman's exaggerated second-hand tale to be read aloud either standing or sitting, Barth's Fiction for Print, Tape and Live Voice, and, surely the most appropriate example of all, Barth's triptych, Chimera, the inclination of the postmodern, which is to say of the anti-mimetic, has been for the hybrid, for the a-generic. Of course, these monstrous genres are meant to show that the norms defining monstrosity are themselves “originally” monstrous. This is precisely the shock of Qfwfq's insight: the line has been crossed; we are all monsters.

However, aside from the undecidable question of the original constitution of parts, Calvino's monsters (whether biological or literary) are always recognizable in their parts. It is never a question of creation from nothing, but only of newness as a recombination of previously existing parts. Calvino sees the creation of narrative as “a combinatorial game which plays on the possibilities intrinsic to its own material.”

This seems to me to be an important theoretical assertion. It is to say that the storyteller is not Shakespeare's old mimeser (with his mirror held to nature), nor even, in any simple sense, Joyce's old artificer (that high priest to the Imagination), but rather something much more like Claude Levi-Strauss' bricoleur. In the chapter “The Science of the Concrete” in The Savage Mind, Levi-Strauss defines the bricoleur as one whose “universe of instruments is closed” and who must “make do with whatever is at hand.” The bricoleur is “imprisoned in the events and experiences which [he] never tires of ordering and re-ordering in [his] search to find them a meaning.”9

So, the monstrousness of postmodernism's literary possibilities is the result, on the one hand, of the debunking or deconstructing of certain central conventions of 19th century literary realism (especially of the notions of mimesis and genre); and, on the other hand, of the willingness to allow narrative's newly released parts to float, mingle and re-cohere. The realist values the reassurance of the familiar; the excitable post-modernist—a curious bricoleur—values the beauty of the new and “monstrous.” As Qfwfq would say, “the barrier between monsters and nonmonsters [is] exploded and everything is possible again” [my italics].

As relevant as the regressus in infinitum and the figures of the monster and the bricoleur seem to what is central in Calvino's fiction and in postmodernism in general, one is forced to admit that most of Calvino's tales of Qfwfq in Cosmicomics and t zero are, from a certain perspective, pre-eminently recognizable, hardly monstrous, tales of love, loneliness and philosophical gloom and glee. Calvino is clearly one who manages, as John Barth writes, “to speak eloquently and memorably to our still-human hearts and conditions, as the great artists have always done.” But what does Barth mean by our “still-human hearts and conditions”? Is it true of Calvino? And if it is, how does it work with what we have to this point characterized as postmodern?

It seems to me that just beneath the surface of the modernist-postmodernist tradition, just under its icy theoretical and structural speculations, just beyond its often acid criticism of the bourgeois, is a stratum of a certain kind of sentimentality. Consider, briefly, Proust's Swann's Way.

Proust's official attitude towards “representation” is something like “one never gets to put down the book.” In the opening passage of Swann's Way, the narrator has been reading, has put down his book, has slept, dreamt and become the subject of his book, and then awoken to try to put down the book once more. Consciousness is textual, for Proust, and reality is the supplementary “structure of recollection.” A place is real for the narrating Marcel only if one has heard, or read about it beforehand and had time to imagine, and dream about its particular character.

In the same way, Swann's love was nothing in itself, but existed only to the extent that he could base it upon his own “sound, aesthetic foundation.” The truth of his love is, as the narrator points out repeatedly, composed not so much by a person, Swann's lover, Odette, as by “a face deserving to be found in Botticelli” and a phrase of music.

Even one's experiences and emotions (that is, one's subjectivity) are authored by outside others. For even though the narrator authors Swann's story, Swann's experiences are more importantly the author of the narrator's own experiences in love. For the narrator would never have had his feelings for Gilberte (who was also “authored” by Swann) if he hadn't known of Swann's feelings for and experiences with Odette. He is that distinguished Frenchperson, descendant of Stendahl's Julian Sorel and Flaubert's Emma Bovary, who never would have fallen in love if he hadn't read about it first.

And yet in spite of Marcel's lucid speculations on the supplemental and textual nature of all experience—especially the romantic—love and beauty, as they take their places in his life, are overwhelming. In short, the presence of romantic love in Proust's fiction is so central and powerful that theory seems ultimately inconsequent: all that we know not to be—is utterly real.

Much the same sort of contradictory impulse exists in Calvino. Alongside his rigorous passages on the nature of the cosmos as the realm of signs, there is an attitude towards love/sex as a chemical/organic foundation, as an originary disposition of living matter or cells (much like, perhaps, John Barth's sperm cells in “Night-Sea Journey” which launch themselves into the unknown with the cry of “Love! Love! Love!”). Take, for example, this passage from the story “The Distance of the Moon” in Cosmicomics. Qfwfq is trying to overcome the attraction of the moon—which, in this story, hangs at only a distance of yards from the earth.

“Hold on! Hold on to us!” they shouted at me, and in all that groping, sometimes I ended up by seizing one of Mrs. Vhd Vhd's breasts, which were round and firm, and the contact was good and secure and had an attraction as strong as the Moon's or even stronger, especially if I managed, as I plunged down, to put my other arm around her hips, and with this I passed back into our world.

Thus, Calvino's cosmic character settles on the breast of the lover, in the breast of the mother, in the breast of nature, in the breast of the cosmos.

Most of Calvino's stories are about either the change caused by biological evolution or the change caused by distancing (the gradual, or exploding expansion of the universe). Evolution from a happy original state when, as in the story “Blood, Sea” (t zero), we were present in the sea and the sea was present in us; and expansion in the cosmos to the point were the galaxies are “gradually reduced to the last tail of the last luminous ray,” become metaphors for loneliness which create, in turn, a powerful nostalgia for lost origins.

In “The Spiral,” a story about the social life of a molusc, we glimpse this radiant origin:

I knew that some of the others were female. The water transmitted a special vibration, a kind of brrrum brrrum brrrum, I remember when I became aware of it the first time, or rather, not the first, I remember when I became aware of it as a thing I had always known. At the discovery of these vibrations' existence, I was seized with a great curiosity, not so much to see them, or to be seen by them either … but a curiosity to know whether something would happen between me and them. A desperation filled me, a desire not to do anything special, which would have been out of place, knowing that there was nothing special to do, or nonspecial either, but to respond in some way to that vibration with a corresponding vibration, or rather, with a personal vibration of my own, because, sure enough, there was something there that wasn't exactly the same as the other, I mean now you might say it came from hormones, but for me it was very beautiful. … In other words, I had fallen in love.

This caring or this nostalgia, this sentiment or this generosity, this desire to spare love from what is otherwise a thorough and materialist critique of certain philosophies, myths and romances which have dominated our literature and culture since the 19th century and before, this, too, is a prominent part of both modernism and postmodernism. It can be found in Molly Bloom's universal “yes,” in the helping touch of the hands of “the ladies” in Kafka's “The Hunger Artist,” in Humbert Humbert's rhapsodic, albeit glandular, desires, negatively in any number of Donald Barthelme's “sad” stories (like “Critique de la Vie Quotidienne”), and in the tireless love of Lady Amherst and Ambrose Mensch in John Barth's Letters. “Love” is, perhaps, that baby in the bathwater of realism that much postmodernism does not for the moment care, or dare, to throw out. Without it there is, perhaps, only that terrifying loneliness which, as Wallace Stevens put it, is “nothing to have at heart.”

I would like finally to retreat a step in my argument in order to say that postmodernism, even though it values and uses the figure of the monster, is no recent disruption or monster itself (except perhaps as an eternally recurring monster). Postmodernism is the locus of a “crisis of language” (Roland Barthes) which is at least as old as Rabelais and, if we knew where to look for it, certainly older. It is, simply, a part of the Other Tradition of anti-mimesis, that much vilified and unholy mirror reflection of F. R. Leavis' Great Tradition. Now, this would be no great thing, and postmodernism could make for itself no claim for great or surprising profundity, except for the fact that the relationship between the two has been highly charged with cultural, ideological, and political values. The need to react against the orthodoxy of realism is more than what John Barth contends, that is, it is more than a simple matter of the exhaustion of 19th century and modernist modes. For the confrontation between realism and “experimentalism” is not only a narrow, provincial, literary dispute, it is also part of a broader ideological battle between not necessarily but factually combative epistemologies. Realism has become a State Fiction, a part of the machinery of the political state. It is through the conventions of Realism that the State explains to its citizens the relationship between themselves and Nature, economics, politics, and their own sexuality. This massive epistemological exercise takes place every day, right before our eyes on television, in the movies, in Time magazine, in the simple-minded, relational rhetoric of politicians, and so on. What postmodernism has done and continues to do is oppose any totalizing fiction of life, that which, in Calvino's words, seeks “to confirm and consecrate the established order of things.”

Of course, ideally, the two sides could live peacefully. The fact of the matter is that they cannot live separately (although that fact can be occluded or denied for political reasons). The mimetic needs the anti-mimetic if it is not to become redundant and authoritarian; it needs the consciousness and the good conscience of its own ultimately fictive base (which the anti-mimetic provides). Likewise, the anti-mimetic needs to be aware that it is always at some level part of what it critiques. It needs the as-if of referentiality unless it desires to break down into “writing at the zero degree,” or “white writing,” or the Writerly, or any other dream text of the avant-garde, the only knowledge of which we have is that there are no examples of it.10 This is to say that no texts are mimetic and that, nevertheless, all texts must behave, at some level, as if they were. In short, mimesis and anti-mimesis, realism and experimentalism are oppositions which exist only through an exercise of force, and which, therefore, tell us as much about the politics of our own time as they do about language or literature.

And so, finally, Calvino is an exemplary postmodernist not only because he is one of those few people “whose artistic thinking is as hip as any French novelist's, but who manages nonetheless to speak to our still-human hearts and conditions,” but also because, as Barth does not seem to consider, Calvino sees the confrontation between modernism-postmodernism and realism not as a narrowly literary dispute, but rather as an important part of a much larger cultural confrontation over the frontiers of knowledge and power. This overtly political aim is implicit in his fiction, implicit particularly in the way his play with science fact disrupts our conventional understanding of the world. But Calvino is explicit in his essay, “Myth in the Narrative”:

When written literature comes into being, it already bears the burden of the duty to confirm and consecrate the established order of things, a burden from which it slowly frees itself … [in order to] express the very oppressions [it] labors beneath, to bring them to full consciousness and to transmit this consciousness to the culture and thought of a whole society.11


  1. The Atlantic, 245 (1980), 65–71.

  2. The Atlantic, 220 (1967), 29–34.

  3. “The Role of Theory in Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, XV, No. 1, (1956).

  4. For a brief history of this eventful metaphor (through Zeno's paradoxes, Aristotle's “third man,” Aquinas' “unmoved mover,” and Kafka's “imperial messenger”), see Jorge Luis Borges' essay “Avatars of the Tortoise.”

  5. Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

  6. Note Barth's use of the regressus in Lost in the Funhouse—moebus strips, mise en abime mirror structures—and in Chimera—infinite declensions of tellers and tales.

  7. Borges, Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 208.

  8. Calvino, “Myth in the Narrative,” in Surfiction, ed. Raymond Federman (Chicago: The Swallow Press), p. 80.

  9. The Savage Mind (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), p. 22.

  10. Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. A. Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1953) and S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).

  11. Calvino, p. 80–81.

Franco Ricci (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6571

SOURCE: “Introversion and Effacement in I racconti of Italo Calvino,” in Italica, Vol. 63, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 331–45.

[In the following essay, Ricci views the stories in I racconti as Calvino's early narrative experiments.]

The Racconti of Italo Calvino—winner of the Premio Bagutta in 1959—is a collection of the author's short stories written between 1945 and 1958. The volume, 500 pages in length, is divided into four books: “Gli idilli difficili”; “Le memorie difficili”; “Gli amori difficili”; and “La vita difficile.” All contain stories previously published by the author.1 Little attention has been paid the Racconti as experience of Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno and L'entrata in guerra, obvious autobiographical chronicles of the narrator's partisan experiences, of I nostri antentati, the satirical-allegorical-illuministic fables inspired by the author's moral vocation, and the socio-political vignette, La giornata di uno scrutatore, the Racconti is a text in which the protean capacity of Calvino's imagination is contained between two covers. These tales, however, have yet to receive the scrutiny they deserve as narrative experiments of the young writer.

The Racconti are a statement on the author's conception of life and literature. The ordering of the tales in I racconti is similar to the compilation and arrangement of Calvino's Fiabe italiane. Indeed, they were composed and collected during the same years and represent the same “catalogo dei destini” which Calvino ascribes to the fairy tales. In the Introduction to Fiabe italiane, Calvino states:

Il mio lavoro è nel cercar di fare di questo materiale un libro; nel cercar di comprendere e salvare, di fiabe in fiabe, il “diverso”… e d'eliminare—cioè di ridurre ad unità—il “diverso” che proviene dal modo di raccogliere, dall'intervento intermediario del folklorista.2

The same may be said of the Racconti. In this sense, Calvino is both author and editor of his short stories, and one may divine in their ordering a definite thematic arrangement.

The Racconti is an important stage in Calvino's development as a writer. The collection is a statement on the status of contemporary man's being in the world and the subsequent mutilation of the human personality. As the reader moves through the text along with its central figures, he is stripped of his sense of joy, of wonder, of feelings and of playful vitality. Life becomes an unending array of gestures which attempt to overcome immediate obstacles, with little success. This is a carefully assembled depository of the topoi dear to the early Calvino, and, as such, an encyclopedia of his possible future themes and literary devices. All of the tales are qualified by the adjective “difficile.” This disturbing context pervades the tales and expresses the crisis of man openly and directly in an intensifying process of alienation. We are dealing, then, with a finite universe, a personal epistemology where elements coexist through inexhaustible permutations and whose primary conceptual mode is that of binary opposition. On the one hand, Calvino engenders a dynamics of contrast between characters, concepts, and social and natural situations; on the other hand, he explores the same characters' rapport with external reality. In the early tales (1945–1952), the contrasts are thematic (good/evil; fascism/communism; fantasy/reality; peasant/intellectual). In later tales (1958–1959), the element of contrast becomes a structural and metaliterary feature (text/non-text; reading/writing; author/reader). The characters, for their part, carry within themselves a sense of their own transitoriness—a latent awareness of the fact that their struggle is for naught, is but a passing game. Their gestures may appear heroic (the war tales), comic-absurd (the Marcovaldo suite), pathetically ludicrous (“Gli amori difficili”), even futile (“La vita difficile”), but their motivation is the constant will for survival in a grotesque world.

The labyrinthine journey begins with the ideologically uncertain meanderings of children in the vibrant partisan wood and continues relentlessly towards the sterile and alienating cityscape. As the Racconti unfold, a system is discerned which moves the reader from the generic world of fable to the specific reality of the '50s. It is a journey towards abnegation and introversion. The hermeticism of the later Calvino was to have its birth in the foreboding terror of the prisoner in “Uno dei tre è ancora vivo,” in the melancholic futility of Marcovaldo, in the ineffability of Usnelli, the protagonist of “L'avventura di un poeta.” These ontologically insecure and withdrawn characters are momentary stops in a continuing trajectory which will later reach into the cosmos and move towards the total dissolution of character in the ubiquitous, yet simultaneously non-existent, Qfwfq of Le cosmicomiche. The characters of I racconti face experiences which are inchoate and often incomprehensible. Their attempts to fill the void with varying behavioral attitudes portend the erection of possible, though false, literary worlds, e.g., by Ermes Marana (Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore), and augur the synthetic Calvinesque logic of Palomar, peripatetic eye on the universe. Calvino's mimesis of man's alienation is always subservient to his need to deform reality through invention. While his narrative reveals a jocular delight in design an form, his themes are ethically inspired. Though one may find humor in Chaplin-like thieves and policemen who gorge themselves on pastries (“Furto in una pasticceria”), and read with interest stories which tell of smugglers, prostitutes, American soldiers, and fugitives (“Si dorme come cani”; “Dollari e vecchie mondane” [1947]; “Un letto di passaggio” [1949]), one can scarcely ignore the cynicism and tragedy of scenes which will soon yield to the comic-melancholy of the proletarian Marcovaldo. The young Calvino's physical and ideological horizon is expanding. As he moves from forest to city, his focus shifts from a regionally restricted conception of militancy to national politics.

The underlying theme of the city tales is illegality and the instinct for survival in the blackmarket. Children dot the narrative, now deformed by a “faccetta astuta e quasi vecchia” (“Va' così che vai bene,” p. 101), running about “con salti da scimmia” (“Dollari e vecchie mondane,” p. 120). Women are commodities, “vecchie mondane,” or smugglers (“Io faccio la borsa nera,—disse Costantina” [“Va' così che vai bene,” p. 102]), while their men are monstrous facsimiles of walking death:

Nasotorto andava avanti a furia d'iniezioni endevenose e pastiglie di sulfamadici. I suoi organi, arrotolanti e penzolanti tra le ossa del suo scheletro, erano bruciati e come putrefatti; i suoi pulmoni non erano avvezzi a macinare che il fumo fitto di retrobottega dove si gioca a poker giorno e notte; i suoi bronchi erano spugne di catarro; stomaco ed intestini erano viscidi serpenti ubriachi di liquori e illanguiditi dai lunghi digiuni, e le sue ghiandole genitali avevano raccolto sterminate colonie di bacilli che le pavimentavano di muffa

(“Va' così che vai bene,” pp. 103–104).

Such grotesque descriptions are far from humorous, but serve to illustrate the decadence rooted in the new social milieu. The “nemico” is no longer to be found in the forest, but in the “costruzioni di ferro geometriche” (“Il gatto e il poliziotto” [1948], p. 132) of the rising cement jungle in which all the evil of war is buried:

… un segreto … esisteva in fondo a quella città apparentemente placida e operosa: dietro le mura di cemento che s'allineavano lungo le vie, in recinti appartati, in scantinati oscuri, una foresta d'armi lucide e minacciose giaceva guardigna come aculei d'istrice. Si parlava di giacimenti di mitragliatrici, di miniere sottoterranee, di proiettili; c'era, si diceva, chi dietro una porta murata teneva un cannone intero in una stanza

(“Il gatto e il poliziotto,” p. 128).

Action has given way to linguistic subterfuge. Already in the meticulous description of the “labirinto di logore scale … dei ballatoi di ferro rugginose e storte …” (“Il gatto e il poliziotto,” p. 129), one may espy the sensual fragmentation of Marco Polo's Venice. The common denominator of all of the tales is man's increasingly sterile posture in the face of fatal irrationalities. This is perhaps the beauty and tragedy of Calvino's characters. All have chosen to reside in private microcosms of unmediated knowledge and experience which comprise—while at the same time distance—the universe they simultaneously love and abhor. The effacement of the Other and eventually of themselves is being programmed in self-serving and myopic strategies.

The story “Uno dei tre è ancora vivo” (1947) presents the tragic cruelty of man in all his nakedness. Even in this early war tale one senses a latent despair, a sense of existential malaise in the pathetically heroic characters. Three prisoners are stripped, shot, and hurled into an underground cave. Only one survives, “il nudo,” but not before coming to terms with the nihilistic nature of man. His captors, realizing that he is alive, toss him a rope: “—Non ti facciamo niente. Giuro,—dicevano gli uomini, e cercavano di aver l'accento più sincero. Ed erano sinceri: volevano salvarlo per poterlo fucilare di nuovo …” (“Uno dei tre è ancora vivo,” p. 71). The menace of physical death is realistically described. The prisoner may no longer live among men but must confront the abyss.3 Crawling on his stomach, “come un serpente,” he emerges, through “un budello sotterraneo,” into “regioni selvagge e deserte” (pp. 72, 73). He has indeed escaped death, but his journey has divested him of his humanity and landed him in a state of chaos. Nature now encircles him with annihilation. There is no escape, only primeval terror and deception. The “bosco incantato” of Pin (Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno) returns to memory as a paradise lost whose season of hope is doomed to evanescence. This tale concludes with an observation which is a singularly effective epigram of Calvino's exodus from an all too confining reality in the '50s toward a recurrent depiction of modern man's introspective search for an avenue of escape from the prison-labyrinth in later works: “La vita, pensò il nudo, era un inferno, con rari richiami di antichi felici paradisi.”4

Calvino's mimesis of this alienation is subservient to his need to deform reality through the invention of symmetrical patterns, geometrical designs and games. The fluid, often fanciful play world of the garden (or idyllic forest) is often pitted against the limiting structures of an industrial reality, the city. The function of Marcovaldo within the thematic trajectory of I racconti is pivotal. At this point it would seem a simple matter of rapport, that is, the manner in which reality is to be approached, interpreted, and lived. Marcovaldo's exploits, however, rely on repetition and ritual and therefore become quasi-epic. He must breach the gap that capitalism has opened between society and its means of production and attempt a reintegration (if possible) of both man and nature in the new reality. This unfortunate distancing between man and his environment is commented upon by Calvino in the essay “La sfida al labirinto”:

Dalla rivoluzione industriale, filosofia, letteratura, arte hanno avuto un trauma dal quale non si sono ancora riavute. Dopo secoli passati a stabilire le relazioni dell'uomo con se stesso, le cose, i luoghi, il tempo, ecco che tutte le relazioni cambiano: non più cose ma merci, prodotti in serie, le macchine prendono posto degli animali, la città è un dormitorio annesso all'officina, il tempo è orario, l'uomo un ingranaggio … ora siamo entrati nella fase dell'industrializzazione totale … ci siamo entrati molto prima d'avere un ordinamento razionale all'altezza della situazione.5

The author's concern with a new definition of the evolving peasant-worker role in modern society is also expressed in the essay “L'antitesi operaia,” from which the following passage is taken:

In Italia oggi forse meglio che altrove certe indicazioni di tendenza generale prendono risalto, dato che parte del paese sta raggiungendo ora il livello della affluent society, mentre un'altra parte non si è ancora staccata dalle caratteristiche del mondo agricolo precapitalistico o del periodo di più acuta tensione tra industria e campagna.6

Calvino's characters may no longer nourish play (as do the children of the “Idilli” tales) as a means of conditioning their contact with the world, but they must move to invent a new game that will give life to the spent euphoria of the aging partisans and rekindle a viable rapport with reality. The world Marcovaldo reifies is not a lie, nor is it simplistic: Nature is never simply innocent, nor is industry always lethal. The deceptively simple Marcovaldo tales are an important moment in this existential polarization of semantic fields, for the fanciful play world of the garden is now pitted against the nefarious structures of industrial reality. I differ with J. R. Woodhouse's position that Marcovaldo is the literary expression of Calvino's political ideology as understood by the critic in “L'antitesi operaia.” Though an acute tension is indeed engendered as a result of the city vs. nature paradigm, Marcovaldo fails to establish any genuinely redeeming and lasting contact with either, as Woodhouse would seem to imply.7 Marcovaldo is not an antithesis to the system but indeed the introverted expression, according to Calvino's Marcusian dialectic, of the worker obliged to “stare al gioco della produzione e del consumo, cioè a ribadire le proprie catene.”8

Marcovaldo is a member of the proletariat, albeit an apolitical one. He is a functioning member of his society and accepts his role as worker. The implication of this choice conditions his lifestyle and the non-acceptance of his environment. Preemptive vision allows Marcovaldo to telescope his focus upon the unlikely apparition of mushrooms in the city (“il vento, venendo in città da lontano, le porta doni inconsueti di cui s'accorgono solo poche anime sensibili …,” “Funghi in città,” p. 134), while distorting other city phenomena to his own desires (“ascoltava il chiasso dei passeri stonati ed invisibili sui rami. A lui parevano usignoli,” “La panchina,” p. 166). It is obvious that Marcovaldo misreads reality, seeing that which others do not see while failing to see that which others note. This “logica del reale,” which Maria Corti sees as the prime motivator of Marcovaldo's world, embues the tales with an ample amount of cynicism.9 The city is indeed hostile to the benign misinterpretations of Marcovaldo. His attempts at integration into the new lifestyle remain initially ineffectual precisely because they are misrepresentations of reality, be it proletarian or otherwise. Marcovaldo's introverted existence is similar to those pitiful lives described by Calvino in “Gli amori difficili.” Though he does not experience the loss of self and disembodied otherness which define the characters of “Amori,” he is, nevertheless, out of harmony with the world around him. Isolation and detachment are the determining features of his worldly semantics.

Since Marcovaldo lives in an ontologically self-referential universe permanently out of synch with the world around him, his exploits assume the status of partial systems. His self-affirmation as an individual pivots around the validity of his immediate choices. His attempts at interaction and interpersonal reciprocity are reduced to a sad farce by a society accustomed to logical routine. He is thus doomed to pass as a buffoon, for he is unable to make sense out of the catastrophes that befall him as he rides the razor's edge of madness. We cannot yet speak of Marcovaldo as a character who posits goals or schemes in pursuit of either a plain or private truth. This would imply that his ordeal is spiritual, that he is a thinking man (like Palomar), which he obviously is not. Rather, his activity is inactivity or play which, interestingly enough, reduces him, as it does all the characters of the “Idilli,” to the status of a child and thus too fragile to penetrate order, too young to understand authority. This interpretation of Marcovaldo as a symbol of the totally alienated twentieth-century little man inexorably doomed to failure is indeed an interesting, although a limiting one. I prefer to view the Marcovaldo character as a means by which Calvino acquires a new perspective and narrative methodology. Marcovaldo is thus a central figure in the programmed nihilism of I racconti and an indispensable constituent feature of the author's narrative.

Marcovaldo survives, and he does so, to my mind, due to a deliberate regression by Calvino towards an idealized, albeit uncompromising, nature. Having allowed his character to experience the tragic consequences of transposing country-innocence to a sophisticated city, Calvino draws a definite line of demarcation between city and nature. In the central tale of this series, “L'aria buona” (1953), Marcovaldo is advised by his family doctor to take his sickly children to the country where they may “respirare un po' d'aria buona, a una certa altezza, di correre sui prati” (p. 151). The children enjoy their outing, as does their father, whose memory wanders to a time before his arrival in the city: “Marcovaldo risentì un'andata del sentimento di quand'era arrivato giovane alla città, e da quelle vie, da quelle luci era attratto come se ne aspettasse chissà cosa” (p. 152). This is a revelatory turning point for both the reader and the Marcovaldo sequence as we are informed of the existence of a pre-city Marcovaldo who, for all intents and purposes, appears in this story as a model pater familias.10 For the first time he is able to view reality as it really is, answering his children's questions (“Non è una scala di casa: è come una via. … Sono giardini … una specie di cortili … —spiegava il padre—La casa è dentro, lì dietro gli alberi,” p. 152), as well as recognizing the potential dangers of remaining in the company of sanatorium patients. Normalcy and logic envelop the heretofore disconsolate character as he reasons with himself: “S'era messo fresco: forse bisognava richiamare i bambini. Ma vedendoli dondolarsi tranquilli ai rami più bassi d'un albero, scacciò quel pensiero” (p. 152); and with the patients of the sanatorium:

—Buona sera!—disse—Allora che novità ci portate, d'in città?

—Buona sera,—disse Marcovaldo,—ma di che novità parlate?

—Niente, si dice per dire,—fece l'uomo fermandosi.

(p. 153)

We may conclude that Marcovaldo, after all, is mad and, as the tale indicates, that he is indeed speaking to madmen. Yet one cannot help but note the difference in rapport with the world and his peers that this tale projects.

Where confusion and the illogical reign in the first five tales of the series (poisonous mushrooms are mistaken for a non-poisonous variety in “Funghi in città”; city pigeons are eaten instead of wild fowl in “Il piccione comunale”; Marcovaldo is mistakenly accused of theft in “La pietanziera”; a swarm of bees overruns Marcovaldo's medical clinic causing obvious pandemonium in “La cura delle vespe”; semantic confusion makes Marcovaldo's children mistake a highway billboard for trees while Marcovaldo himself is dehumanized when he, too, is mistaken for an advertisement in “Il bosco sull'autostrada”), all of which occur within the deforming parameters of the city, in this tale, the characters appear in a space which seems to hover over that chunk of reality which so perturbs them:

Allora lo prese la tristezza di dovere tornare laggiù, e decifrò nell'aggrumato paesaggio l'ombra del suo quartiere: e gli parve una landa plumbea, stagnante, ricoperta dalle fitte scaglie dei tetti e dai brandelli di fumo sventolanti sugli stecchi dei fumaioli

(“L'aria buona,” p. 152).

Marcovaldo has, in a sense, momentarily abandoned reality and is living his fantasy—“stava proprio fantasticando di poter vivere lassù” (“L'aria buona,” p. 153)—which, because it is fantasy, i.e., a mode of experiencing the world which is not compatible with real space, may be termed madness. In this tale, the author has allowed physical detachment from the city environment and has returned to the garden, or world of the child where a naïve and direct participation with external phenomena colors man's real condition. He has once again established the tenuous relationship with nature present in the early “Idilli.” The shift, however, has been accomplished at considerable cost. Marcovaldo is no longer the cherubic street-wise child of the early “Idilli”; nor is he a passive and withdrawn intellectual. He is, rather, a modern Visconte, schizophrenically divided, as it were, between the fragmentary models of civilization, i.e., insane sanity (society) and sane insanity (the garden) which allow man to experience aspects of his world as a unity of opposites. He has also developed in character from the “fatale comico-malinconico”11 to a simple, yet resigned melancholic in the latter tales, devoid of that redeeming comic quality which attenuated the negative endings of the first five tales. The tone of the tales after “L'aria buona” changes from one of comic-tragedy to a painful realization of tragedy. We may thus speak of an ideological organization of these ten tales which reflects the development, in a larger sense, of an emerging existential thematic of I racconti in general. From this point of view, Marcovaldo is one more step towards becoming engulfed in the labyrinth that crystallizes in La nuvola di smog. He thus emerges a changed man from his experience in “L'aria buona.” Calvino's position vis-à-vis his protagonist has also changed, for he now permits his hypercritical eye to view clearly the world around him and to posit critical observations. Fantasy literature, from Kafka and the surrealists to Günter Grass, García-Márquez and Borges, is appreciated only when this anomaly is adhered to. Reality is not the world (as Calvino will suggest in Le cosmicomiche), but merely one of many modes of experiencing it.

In “Il coniglio velenoso” (1954), we note that “tutto è diverso da prima” (p. 155). Marcovaldo is about to be released from hospital, yet the reason for his entry remains a mystery. Has he, perhaps, really gone mad? The proximity of this tale to “L'aria buona,” where Marcovaldo visits a sanatorium, might suggest as much. In any case, our character, before leaving the institution, espies “un coniglio bianco,” which he regards as “una presenza amica” (“Il coniglio velenoso,” pp. 155, 156).12 Similarly, in the following tale, “Un viaggio con le mucche” (1954), Marcovaldo, unable to sleep in the sweltering heat of the night, finds refuge from the silence of the city (“quel regno disabitato,” p. 162) in the sound of “una mandria che passa per la via” (p. 163). It would seem that Marcovaldo no longer seeks or desires contact with man, responding only to nature which walks, as it were, into the city:

… le mucche si portavano dietro il loro odore di strame e di fiori di campo e latte ed il languido suono dei campi, e la città pareva non toccarle, tanto erano già dentro il loro mondo di prati umidi, nebbie montane e guadi di torrenti

(“Un viaggio con le mucche,” p. 163).

Unfortunately, the rabbit which Marcovaldo saves from the hospital laboratory (he wishes to fatten it for his Christmas dinner) is the carrier of an experimental virus, and the elegiac pastoral life of the cowherds never materializes for Marcovaldo's son Michelino who follows the herd into the mountains. It is interesting, however, that in both tales Marcovaldo disappears from the scene. Like all of Calvino's protagonists, he, too, has become a spectator, no longer actively involved in his illusion but instead a cognizant and hapless observer of man's foibles. “Il coniglio velenoso” is the story of a poisoned rabbit, while “Un viaggio con le mucche” relates Michelino's disillusionment with hard mountain labor in Arcadia. When Marcovaldo speaks in the tales, his observations are no longer erroneous. He demonstrates peasant common sense as he fantasizes over the rabbit “con l'occhio amoroso dell'allevatore che riesce a far coesistere la bontà verso l'animale e la previsione dell'arrosto nello stesso moto dell'animo” (“Il coniglio velenoso,” p. 156). In “Un viaggio con le mucche,” he is able once again to answer his children's questions:

—Papà—dissero i bambini,—le mucche sono come i tram? Fanno le fermate? Dov'è il capolinea delle mucche?

—Niente a fare coi tram,—spiegò Marcovaldo.

—Vanno in montagna.

—Si mettono gli sci?—chiese Carletto.

—Vanno al pascolo, a mangiare l'erba.

(p. 163)

It is Michelino who maintains “le sue idee sulle mucche … e badava ormai solo a verificarle … così seguiva la mandria” (p. 163). Later on, when Marcovaldo is reporting Michelino's disappearance from home to the authorities, it is the commissioner, and not Marcovaldo, who states: “—Dietro una mandria? Sarà andato in montagna, a farsi la villeggiatura, beato lui. Vedrà, tornerà grasso e abbronzato” (p. 164). Only upon hearing that his son is well and safe does he, too, begin to fantasize about the good life in the mountains, though never musing, as does his wife, on “[gli] orari dei treni e delle corriere” (p. 164). Are we witnessing then the rehabilitation of a formerly befuddled character? The ending of the two tales (the rabbit attempts suicide; Michelino debunks his escapade) sets up this purposefully ambiguous posture which is the hallmark of Calvino's narrative. It is in moments such as these that we note little humor, a quizzically raised eyebrow, a cynical frown. Perhaps Marcovaldo is not as hopelessly naïve as formerly expected; he is merely introverted.

In “La panchina” (1955) (as in the tale “L'aria buona,” 1953), Marcovaldo confronts what Calvino will call in his Introduction to Marcovaldo (Torino: Einaudi, 1966, p. 5; a republication of the tales found in I racconti with the addition of several new stories) “una natura dispettosa, contraffatta, compromessa con la vita artificiale.” In these tales Marcovaldo has come of age and though his frolics are still unconventional, he is described as one “che ha occhio” (“La panchina,” p. 171). The tale speaks of his attempts to sleep, in the open, on a park bench. It would seem that the character is unable to sleep in his own bed. This sense of separateness and estrangement is felt in all the tales, but it is at its most acute as Marcovaldo has become isolated not only from his family but from that which he has up to now held most dear: Nature. Finding the bench occupied, Marcovaldo seeks momentary solace in the world around him: “Marcovaldo tornò a guardare la luna, poi andò a guardare un semaforo che c'era un po' più in là. Il semaforo segnava giallo, giallo, giallo, continuando ad accendersi e riaccendersi” (“La panchina,” p. 167). For the first time Marcovaldo sees; the inner deceptions and extreme subjectivity which have colored his perception of the world give way to harsh reality. This is an exceptional moment rendered tragic by the solitary figure of the man. Nature is now truly desecrated by the deliberately negative juxtaposition of celestial and city codes: “quella falsa luna intermittente del semaforo che cominciava a sgranare il suo giallo, giallo, giallo” (“La panchina,” p. 168). The maladjusted Marcovaldo touches, for the first time, the transcendent question of what it is to live in an increasingly complex society and the impossibility of establishing a meaningful rapport within its circumscribed labyrinthine existence.

The remaining characters of I racconti (I am referring to the tales in “Gli amori difficili” and “La vita difficile”) all exhibit this Marcovaldian attitude of volatile anxiety. The self, now fearful of the Other and of becoming engulfed in any relationship, creates a false self to deal with an insidiously dreadful world. They thus remain virtually undefined as characters, uncommitted and detached from any redeeming values, their absurdist stance and petty foibles allowing neither transcendence nor dramatic presence within the realms they inhabit. These characters are thus quickly forgotten, victims not only of their own myopically self-delineated world-view, but of a malign society which they are unable to defy. Whereas Marcovaldo does achieve validity as a comically grotesque character, the protagonists of “Amori” lack any self-validating certainties and suffer from the complete absence of the assurances derived from an existentially viable position, what R. D. Laing calls “primary ontological insecurity.”13 Their “avventure” are well along the parabola of annihilation.14

The three stories in “La vita difficile” (La formica argentina, La speculazione edilizia, and La nuvola di smog) are a somber commentary on man's sense of desperate isolation—a summary on the state of an existential condition in a time of chaos and apocalypse. Society repels the protagonists of “Vita”; they are, however, equally repulsed by their own sense of lethargy and purposelessness. They exist on the fringe of being, plagued by neurotic paralyses and are emotionally handicapped, unable to affirm themselves as individuals. They are entrapped in subtle, though explicit bonds which prohibit them from participating fully in the world. This gives rise to the sentiment that nothing is happening in the tales. The inaction and limited perspective of the protagonist-narrators also befuddle the reader who endeavors to make sense of the alienating process but who also succumbs to its casual indifference. Actions are void of meaning; they merely reveal futility. Where man sought survival through the erection of possible worlds and identification with fantasy and Nature in “Idilli,” with memory in “Memorie,” and with cose in “Amori,” in “Vita,” man has himself become “cosa,” a thing manipulated and consumed within the inescapable recesses and empty spaces of silence. That these protagonists possess definite nihilistic tendencies should be evident from the asymptotic trajectory we have drawn from the early “Idilli.” The “acuta intelligenza del negativo” of which Calvino speaks in “Il midollo del leone”15 is to be the meaning-giving synthesis of this poetic. Yet the inadequacy of the protagonists of “Vita” and their acceptance of everything as inevitable can only maintain the essentially tragic disjunction that this formal choice portends. The stories in “Vita” do not, as Calvino intends, express “nella acuta intelligenza del negativo che ci circonda la volontà limpida e attiva che muove i cavalieri negli antichi cantari.”16 And though he speaks against the image of the “uomo ermetico … protetto da uno scabro guscio siliceo … che sembrava costruito apposta per passare attraverso tempi infausti,” he is not able to overcome that “letteratura del negativo che ci sovrasta” and create, as he would like, characters who, though shackled within the labyrinth, provide “una lezione di forza.”17 The stories thus leave the reader with a double impression: the feeling, on the one hand, that an oppressive and malevolent reality will not allow the alleviation of ennui, and, on the other hand, that the protagonists themselves are fundamentally inadequate and flawed. The self, in other words, finds difficulty in overcoming the antithesis it itself (as society) produces. This absurd posture is now particularly evident. Marcovaldo has come full circle. These characters are incapable of heroism or dignity even in defeat. Though the reader may search for “una lezione di forza, non di rassegnazione alla condanna,”18 Calvino—and this is a point most critics have overlooked when speaking about the defiant stance of absurdist characters such as Cosimo in Il barone rampante or “Io” of Smog—is not positing an ideology but an existential query. Thus, the Racconti in general are not lessons in non-conformity but instead are tragic examples of tenaciously alienated individuals.

In relation to the reality depicted, man is an impotent enigma revelling in self-recrimination, yet irredeemably disposed to transcend the inescapable matrix within which he is embroiled. The labyrinth has become an archetype, its parameters limiting the space of Calvino's literary universe and tempering that tension which inspires a projection towards freedom. Escape, however, is impossible. For the author:

Oggi in un labirinto non sappiamo se la via d'uscita esiste. Nei confronti dei labirinti offertici dalla vita politica, economica, sociologica il vecchio labirinto ci appare come un modello di una razionalità oggi perduta.19

The controlling image of the labyrinth may only provide experience for those who reach the exit, but Calvino's characters have seemingly succumbed to the forces which bind them. Much like Agilulfo, Edmond Dantès, and Palomar, the characters of I racconti rest immobile, conjecturing viable alternatives for the spirit, searching in vain for any error in the system in a game of theoretical itineraries which lead them to face ultimate oblivion.

In the final pages of La nuvola di smog, the final story of I racconti, Calvino's unquiet spirit leads his character into the countryside. As the city, the smog, and the polvere are abandoned, the world once again assumes idyllic properties. Yet the response of “Io” is not liberating. No longer bound by certainties, the redemptive values the idyll may have once held are forever dissipated. As this introverted self confronts the bucolic world a spate of images rushes before his eyes which, according to the protagonist, “improvvisamente … acquista significato” (p. 493). The sequence of images, however, does not achieve a new semiotization of the world. His eyes merely record these sights. He is a passive spectator. He clings to the colors of the landscape (“sacchi a righe bianche e gialle”; “le vesti di tutti i colori”; “le facce rosse”; “la campagna … verde”; “l'acqua … gonfia di bolle azzurrine,” pp. 493–495), but focuses upon the dominant shade of white (“al mucchio di sacchi bianchi”; “alla montagna bianca dei sacchi”; “fagotti di biancheria”; “un prato veleggiante di bianco”; “questo biancheggiare delle file lunghissime di panni”; “i campi biancheggianti di roba stesa”; “la biancheria asciutta”; “e la campagna nel sole dava fuori il suo verde tra quel bianco,” pp. 493–495). He remains hapless: “Segni di cosa? Segni che si rimandavano l'un l'altro all'infinito” (p. 492), unable, at this moment of heightened awareness, to interpret the world before him. An uncanny inarticulateness permeates the page as the protagonist, overcome by incoherence, draws no meaning from the now totally white and obsessive landscape. The frightening introspection is a foreboding commentary on the emasculation of writer/reader/protagonist in the silent labyrinth. Resignation is bitter; it cuts to the quick. The subject is not defeated, though, by his inability to comprehend the external world. His defeat, instead, is the symptom of an intrinsic sense of his own inherent and indissolubly circumscribed limitations: “Non era molto, ma a me che non cercavo altro che immagini da tenere negli occhi, forse bastava” (p. 495). We are at the very center of Calvino's textual universe and may apprehend the revealing self-intuition of the author beyond whose blank page exists the void. As the protagonist contemplates the white non-reflecting objects before him, their very concreteness paradoxically extinguishes vital associations, remaining indelible kaleidoscopic images which recall an enduring and irretrievable choice but do nothing to alter the rules of the game or to alleviate the incurable malaise of alienation.

The reader now fully intuits the ennui which permeates I racconti and which will eventually envelop the space of Calvino's writings. It is a dimension which is often forgotten, hidden behind the sardonic smile of Qfwfq, the wryly sophisticated fabulations of Marco Polo, the peripatetic peregrinations of the philosophic Palomar. The world presents a continual affront to man, and any attempt towards establishing a consistently viable rapport which is out of the ordinary within the “inferno dei viventi” is futile. In order to maintain a presence, man, in I racconti, has been reduced to the status of a spectator, no more than a presence based on self-imposed absence. Even the eventual quest by Palomar for cognizance and presence through observation and meditation leads to predetermined extinction within the text. All of Calvino's narrators engender similar axiological paradigms indissolubly linked to this existential search for self that revolves around nihilistic self-effacement.

In a lecture entitled “The Written and Unwritten Word,” the author confessed to a vision of life and literature which reflects the alienating nature of contemporary reality.20 In order to shield himself from the ever-encroaching disorder of the outside world, the author chose to withdraw into literature, where, he states, “I feel myself protected behind the solid object which is the written text” (p. 38). The statement is indicative of a longstanding prise de position which uses the text as a transcendent mediating object whose parameters provide a buffer against external chaos. This statement is also a portrait of a contemporary man wrought with estrangement and the debilitating knowledge of an isolated existence. Though Calvino's narrative changed stylistic register through the years, the focus of his writing did not shift thematically. Nor did it become less virulent. Striving to reach the very heart of things by shaping an intelligible reality through literature (“a world built by horizontal lines”), he invented strategies “for facing the unexpected without being destroyed by it” (p. 38).

The moment of choice is aporetical. The forking path which moves away from life and into literature transcends but does not alleviate responsibility. Intellectual strategies may indeed mollify but cannot liberate the author from co-textual isolation. Man is doomed by Calvino to live his fate. It is one he heroically accepts but may never logically defy.


  1. I racconti (Torino: Einaudi, 1958). “Gli idilli difficili” includes many short stories already published in the collection Ultimo viene il corvo (Torino: Einaudi, 1949). The three long autobiographical tales of “Le memorie difficili” are reprinted from L'entrata in guerra. Gli amori difficili (Torino: Einaudi, 1970), and Marcovaldo (Torino: Einaudi, 1963), are composed of short stories originally published in Racconti. The final section of the volume, “La vita difficile,” is composed of three lengthy short stories (or short novels, or novellas), each of which has also been published individually: La formica argentina (Torino: Einaudi, 1952); La speculazione edilizia (Torino: Einaudi, 1957); La nuvola di smog is reprinted with La formica argentina (Torino: Einaudi, 1958).

  2. Fiabe italiane (Torino: Einaudi, 1958) 23.

  3. Christian and Dantesque images abound in this tale. There are three prisoners, one of whom is silent, meek, perhaps innocent. He is naïvely pure, even credulous of his captors. His trial is the painful loss of faith. He is thus an inversion of the Christ figure. The “serpente,” “budello sottoterranneo,” the “pipistrelli,” are familiar infernal icons from the Commedia. The prisoner, in a modern contrapasso, suffers the punishment of his own perversion. Since he laid the earth to waste, he must live in its devastated landscape. This labyrinth, however, is not the “locus religiosus” of ancient tradition but instead a modern symbol of passage. The soul remains in an eternal sense of loss and isolation, no longer in the company of the living.

  4. In the last paragraph of Le città invisibili (Torino: Einaudi, 1972), a somber Calvino repeats his own rules of the game for survival in the wasteland: “L'inferno dei viventi non è qualcosa che sarà; se ce n'è uno, è quello che è già qui, l'inferno che abitiamo tutti i giorni, che formiamo stando insieme. Due modi ci sono per non soffrirne. Il primo riesce facile a molti: Accettare l'inferno e diventare parte fino al punto di non vederlo più. Il secondo è rischioso ed esige attenzione e apprendimento continui: cercare e saper riconoscere chi e cosa, in mezzo all'inferno, non è inferno, e farlo durare, e dargli spazio” (170).

  5. Calvino, Una pietra sopra (Torino: Einaudi, 1980) 82.

  6. Calvino, “L'antitesi operaira,” Menabo 7 (1964) 136.

  7. J. R. Woodhouse, “Italo Calvino and the Rediscovery of a Genre,” Italian Quarterly 12 (1968) 48.

  8. Calvino, “L'antitesi operaira” 143.

  9. Maria Corti, “Testi o macrotesto? I racconti di Marcovaldo,” Il viaggio testuale (Torino: Einaudi, 1978) 185–200.

  10. I do not agree with Maria Corti's statement that “Il bosco sull'autostrada” is the turning point in Marcovaldo, providing, as she says, “una sapiente pausa nel ritmo iterativo dei racconti” (“Testi o macrotesto?” 192).

  11. Corti, “Testi o macrotesto?” 184.

  12. The color white is a recurring motif in Calvino. In the “Amori,” white represents, I feel, the blank page, the possibility of beginning anew, the agony of absence. It is interesting that the final image of the book Marcovaldo is that of a white rabbit that disappears on a white page: “Il leprotto era poco più in là, invisibile; si strofinò un orecchio con una zampa, e scappò saltando. È qua? no, è un po' più in là? Si vedeva solo la distesa di neve bianca come questa pagina.” See “I figli di Babbo Natale,” p. 124.

  13. R. D. Laing. The Divided Self (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971) 39.

  14. For further discussion of the introversion and silence which pervades the “Amori,” see my article, “Silence and Loss of Self in Italo Calvino's Gli amori difficili,The Italianist 4 (1984) 54–72.

  15. Calvino, Una pietra sopra 3–18.

  16. Calvino, Una pietra sopra 15.

  17. Calvino, Una pietra sopra 4 and 17.

  18. Calvino, Una pietra sopra 17.

  19. Calvino, “Come Snoopy anch'io mi sono perso,” Tuttolibri 13 June 1981) 1.

  20. Calvino, in The New York Review of Books, 12 May 1983, 38–39.

Sorel Thompson Friedman (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2265

SOURCE: “t zero: Italo Calvino's Minimalist Narratives,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 19–23.

[In the following essay, Friedman examines Calvino's absurdist concept of time in the short stories “t zero,” “The Chase,” and “The Night Driver.”]

Several of Italo Calvino's short stories of the 1960s pose interesting questions concerning the nature of the storytelling process. Three of these, “t zero,” “The Chase,” and “The Night Driver,” can be described as “minimalist” in that familiar components of stories seem to have been reduced almost to zero.1 Generically speaking, it may be unjust to designate these texts as “short stories.” They have a plot, but it is reduced to its minimum requirements of beginning, middle and, not always, ending. Their characters are not developed as the reader has come to expect in traditional realist stories. Any theme in these texts is not illustrated by a moral suggested by events in the story but rather through the composition of the text itself.

The structuralist concept of plot is based on a theory that a story, like a sentence, follows a set of syntactic rules by which events are combined. These rules govern the movement of the narrative from an initial problem, through a transformational state, to a resolution of the conflict. As readers of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler have already learned, Calvino makes use of an idiosyncratic set of rules to move his narratives forward. Many of these rules can be illustrated by looking closely at the three stories mentioned above.

We will briefly and inadequately define plot as “what happens”: the series of events and the way in which they are combined. The resolution of an initial conflict is a major component of the plot, but, as we shall see in Calvino's stories, a situation is created in which the initial problem is never satisfactorily resolved. Events that move the narrative from initial to final state are lacking; the resulting space is filled by the narrator's ratiocination. In other words, the narrative mode of these stories, as the space in which events are described, shrinks to its minimum; the discursive mode, as the space of the narrator, swells to fill the resulting vacuum.

The relationship between these two modes is analogous to the frame and tableau in a painting. In traditional narratives, it is the narrative mode (the story) which is the most interesting. It is the tableau or the canvas on which the representative figures or scenes are painted. The frame, which delineates the fabricated object from the real world, is largely ignored by the viewer. In Calvino's stories, the situation is reversed. The tableau is almost blank, or has a few tentative sketches on its surface. It is the frame, or the discursive mode, as the method which produces the telling, which occupies the center of attention.

In these stories it is not the events that are the most important elements in the text but the way in which the narrator makes us know them. In Opera Aperta, Umberto Eco describes the theory of information transmission. These theoretical formulations can explain the manner in which Calvino's narrators transmit information to the reader. Basic terms in information theory deal with organization and its opposite, entropy. The higher the amount of organization in a message, the easier it is to understand and vice versa:

The quantity of information which a message contains is determined by its degree of organization: information is the measure of an order; the measure of disorder, or entropy, is the opposite of information.2

When we read the opening passages of Calvino's stories, we perceive the degree of organization of the information. Here, for instance, is the opening of “t zero”:

I have the impression this isn't the first time I've found myself in this situation: with my bow just slackened in my outstretched left hand, my right hand drawn back, the arrow A suspended in midair at about a third of its trajectory, and, a bit farther on, also suspended in midair, and also at about a third of his trajectory, the lion L in the act of leaping upon me, jaws agape and claws extended.

The “event” anticipated by the reader is governed by the axiom in information theory which states that the maximum probability of an event to take place is equal to 1 and the minimum probability is equal to zero. The mathematical probability of an event, therefore, oscillates between 1 and zero. The intrigue in “t zero” is based on the above premise: the lion either will or will not be killed by the hunter's arrow, thus causing the hunter to be or not to be dismembered by the lion:

In a second I'll know if the arrow's trajectory and the lion's will or will not coincide at point X crossed by both L and A at the same second tx, that is, if the lion will slump in the air with a roar stifled by the spurt of blood that will flood his dark throat pierced by the arrow, or whether he will fall unhurt upon me knocking me to the ground with both forepaws which will lacerate the muscular tissue of my shoulders and chest, while his mouth, closing with a simple snap of the jaws, will rip my head from my neck at the level of the first vertebra.

The probability that the lion will be killed is either 1 or it is zero. As a consequence, the hunter's fate also vacillates between these two poles.

This story also illustrates in its discursive mode another of Eco's principles of information: the greater the complexity of the information, the more difficult it is to communicate it. The more a message is communicated clearly, the less it informs. Calvino's narrator, the hunter in “t zero,” attempts to describe his situation in terms of all the variables of that situation; however, the resulting message is absurd and does not constitute an “event” that moves the narrative toward a satisfactory conclusion:

In short, the second t0 in which we have the arrow A0 and a bit further on the lion L0 and here the me Q0 is a space-time layer that remains motionless and identical forever, and next to it there is placed t1 with the arrow A1 and the lion L1 who have slightly changed their positions.

These calculations are always followed by the unexpected statement that jerks the reader out of the intellectual sphere and into the visceral:

In one of these seconds placed in line it is clear who lives and who dies between the lion LN and the me QN and in the following seconds there are surely taking place either the tribe's festivities for the hunter who returns with the lion's remains or the funeral of the hunter as through the savannah spreads the terror of the prowling murderous lion.

The second story, “The Night Driver,” functions in a similar way. Most of the text is taken up with the discursive mode as the voice of the narrator discusses with himself the theoretical possibilities open to him. Its plot is minimal and even the characters are designated X, Y, and Z. X and Z live in A and are rivals for Y's love. Y lives in B. X and Y have an argument over the telephone. X then gets into his car to drive to B to apologize to Y, but suspects that she has either already called Z to come over or gotten into her car to drive to A to see X.

The resulting situation for X, the narrator, is this: every car that passes him on the superhighway is potentially Z's, his rival's; every car coming toward him may be Y's, his lover's. X describes the unresolvable situation:

I realize that in rushing toward Y what I desire most is not to find Y at the end of my race: I want Y to be racing toward me, this is the answer I need; what I mean is, I want her to know I'm racing toward her but at the same time I want to know she's racing toward me.

In this story, the narrative mode is reduced to this single event: one, two, or three cars are racing along a superhighway. To complicate matters, X stops at the halfway point to call Y but finds no answer. He interprets this to mean that she is on her way to his place, and so he turns around and races home again. But he also assumes that she stops halfway and calls him, finds no answer, and so rushes back to her home in B. The situation remains unresolvable as the cars pass each other back and forth along the superhighway. This is perfectly acceptable to X. In this way, he and Y have turned themselves into messages:

Speeding along the superhighway is the only method we have left, she and I, to express what we have to say to each other, but we cannot communicate it or receive the communication as long as we are speeding.

The third story, “The Chase,” resembles a James Bond thriller. This story, unlike the first two, finally does resolve itself, but only through a series of complicated and absurd steps in a reasoning process undertaken by the narrator, who manages to theorize himself out of danger. The plot, like that of the other two stories, is minimal: The narrator is being pursued by a killer. The potential victim outwits his pursuer by getting caught in a traffic jam. The opening of this story suggests elements from a spy thriller:

The car that is chasing me is faster than mine; inside there is one man, alone, armed with a pistol, a good shot, as I have seen from the bullets which missed me by fractions of an inch. In my escape I have headed for the center of the city; it was a healthy decision; the pursuer is constantly behind me but we are separated by several other cars; we have stopped at a traffic signal, in a long column.

In “t zero,” time is the constraining factor. In “The Chase,” the narrator must come to understand the nature of two-dimensional space before his killer blows his brains out. If the narrator succeeds in falling behind his pursuer in the long line of cars, he would no longer be pursued, but would then be the pursuer of his pursuer! Theoretical gymnastics, however, are the only ones open to him:

I must discover a solution in a hurry, and since the only field open to me is the field of theory, I can only go on extending my theoretical knowledge of the situation.

Through an ingenious set of theoretical steps, the narrator finally does find a solution to his dilemma. He decides that nothing rules out the possibility that “these lines of cars are all formed of cars being pursued, that each of these cars is fleeing as I am fleeing the threat of an armed pistol in any one of the cars that follow.” The narrator makes an absurd deduction which comes as a consequence of such a presence:

On thinking it over, I deduce that if all the cars are involved in pursuits, the pursuing property would have to be commutative, and anyone who pursues would have to be in his turn pursued and anyone who is pursued would also be pursuing.

As incredible as it may seem, the deduction proves correct. The narrator finds a gun in his glove compartment. He is indeed pursuing the man in front of him! The job of the man pursuing the narrator is to prevent him from accomplishing his task, that is, he must kill the narrator before the narrator kills someone else. The ending of the tale recalls its beginning with its James Bond irony and humor:

The green comes on, I put the car into gear, racing the engine, I pull down hard with my left hand and at the same time I raise my right to the window and I shoot. The man I was pursuing slumps over the wheel. The man who was pursuing me lowers his pistol, now useless.

These three stories share a common characteristic in their absurd and humorous nature: time and space are stretched to their maximum limits or reduced to their minimum requirements. In “t zero” one instant is frozen and analyzed by the narrator in the space of almost sixteen pages of text. In “The Night Driver” distance and motion are used to communicate messages which can never be received. In “The Chase” an event which usually takes place at breakneck speed through fields, over roads, and past buildings is slowed down to an almost imperceptible pace as the chase itself takes place in a traffic jam. It is through the almost total elimination of “events” in the narrative mode that the discursive mode is allowed to swell up to fill the space of the text. The resulting discursive mode is expansive and convoluted. But through the examination of such a textual space in Calvino's stories the reader understands that a story is nothing but a “chase” which moves at an imperceptible and fictionalized pace, beginning at an abstract and imperceptible t0 and traveling back and forth along an imaginary road in order to transmit a fabricated message to an unseen receiver.


  1. These three stories form the last section of t zero, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest, 1969). All quotations are from this edition.

  2. Umberto Eco, Opera Aperta (Milano: Bompani, 1962), 95. My translation.

Jack Byrne (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5756

SOURCE: “Calvino's Fantastic ‘Ancestors’: the Viscount, the Baron and the Knight,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 45–9.

[In the following essay, Byrne contends that “controversial though the tales may be, Our Ancestorsmakes an important contribution to modern literature.”]

“I believe that fables are true.”

Italo Calvino

Calvino is dead and that's also true, but his “ancestors” live on and we are their heirs. The no-longer cloven viscount, Medardo of Terralba, lives with his Pamela and her goat and duck; Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, like Icarus before him, lies in the vasty deep (“Those are pearls that were his eyes”); and Agilulf, the nonexistent knight, no longer encumbered by his weighty armor, wanders the earth as pure spirit motivated only by the power of his will. Excellent company for the little boy who, like Matthew Arnold's Sophocles, “saw life steadily and saw it whole” (even though it was only the Emperor in the altogether!), or the ugly duckling, or Kay and the Snow Queen, or any of the hundreds of characters found in Grimm or in Calvino's Italian Fables and Italian Folktales. Even Joyce's Ondt and Gracehoper and Mookse and Gripes can be included in any discussion of stories or fairy tales or fables or folktales or myths or dreams or even fantasies or nightmares for that matter. They are all cut from the same cloth, the mind of man, his imagination: “My father!—methinks I see my father.” / “Where, my lord?” / “In my mind's eye, Horatio.” Didn't Scheherazade, that feisty lady storyteller par excellence, save her head by using it? (1001 times by exact count.) “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” we are told ad infinitum, usually at 2 a.m. (Where would we be / Without TV?)

Calvino's three ironic, cautionary tales about war and chivalry and the problems of modern existence do not prevent him, according to Gore Vidal, from being “a true realist, who believed ‘that only a prosaic solidity can give birth to creativity: fantasy is like jam; you have to spread it on a solid slice of bread. If not, it remains a shapeless thing, like jam, out of which you can't make anything.’” This concern for realism, even in fables, can be seen in Calvino's attention to detail in the three novellas that make up Our Ancestors. Salman Rushdie believes that they “possess a clarity, a simplicity which I'm going to have to compare with One Hundred Years of Solitude, because Calvino shares with Márquez the effortless ability of seeing the miraculous in the quotidian.”

Little wonder that each of the tales is a tour de force, what many critics consider the necessary basis for all memorable fairy tales that, unlike Harlequin Romances, depend on originality for their success:

The three stories which make up I nostri antenati … were published over a period of seven years and provoked the most varied reactions from critics during that period. Nor was the bizarre variety of the reactions entirely surprising, in view of the content of the three stories: a viscount is split in two, by a Turkish cannon, and survives as two distinct halves a baron vows never to set foot on the ground again and lives the rest of his life in the tree-tops an unoccupied suit of armour seems to have all the properties and attributes of a human being.

(J. R. Woodhouse, Italo Calvino, Hull Univ. Press, 1968)

In spite of the obvious originality of the tales, critics continue to give us laundry lists of influences on Calvino's art, including Tasso, Boccaccio, Dante, Ariosto, Voltaire, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Kafka, Borges, Beckett, Márquez, Pirandello, de Chirico, Fellini, De Sica, Rossellini and others. But then critics and erstwhile scholars have always played that game. The more well-read an original genius is, the more documented he becomes. Look what they did to Shakespeare and Joyce! Homer (whose Odyssey may have been written by a woman, according to Samuel Butler) is the exception. Called, among other things, escapist, neorealist, surrealist, anarchist, and socialist, Calvino is the supreme storyteller who eschews obfuscation, weaving with confident clarity and simplicity, irony and satire, fables that, like colorful medieval tapestries, can be recalled to mind as completed pictures. Controversial though the tales may be, Our Ancestors makes an important contribution to modern literature and deserves to be studied for the originality and humor of its three members of the lesser nobility, vivid characters who transcend their stories and, like Sir John Falstaff or Don Quixote, walk literature's landscape, larger than life.

A reading of the three tales turns up some interesting features regarding each of these titled characters.1


Earliest of the fantastic trio, the Viscount Medardo of Terralba, in addition to experiencing totally what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde only suggest symptomatically (distortion of physical features), acts out the fabulous sojourn of a fairy-tale protagonist, moving from innocence to division into good and bad to the happily-ever-after stasis or state of mind sought after in and out of the nursery. Arriving in Bohemia to join in the war against the Turks, Medardo rushes to battle, like Crane's Henry Fleming, green as grass. His nephew, the young narrator, tells us that “my uncle was then in his first youth, the age in which confused feelings, not yet sifted, all rush into good and bad, the age in which every new experience, even macabre and inhuman, is palpitating and warm with love of life.”2

He is in Browning country, and, like Childe Roland who came to the dark tower with his illusions about chivalry, what he sees is not what he expects. Storks, supposedly omens of good fortune, eat the dead “nowadays. … Vultures and crows have now given way to storks and flamingos and cranes.” He learns that the living chop off the fingers of the dead “to get at their rings.” He sees the “pavilions of the courtesans. … No other army has such fine women.” But one must be careful for “they're so foul and pox-ridden even the Turks wouldn't want them as booty. They're not only covered with lice, bugs and ticks, but even scorpions and lizards make their nests on them.” And he learns much more about chivalry and camp life just before he is rent so equally asunder. For example, “Battle began punctually at ten in the morning.” Gunpowder is scarce, and artillerymen “cooked their rations of turnips on the bronze parts of swivel guns and cannons burning hot from the day's firing.” But he who had “felt no nostalgia or doubt, or apprehension” the night before now saw “them, saw the Turks.” He realizes that “to see two Turks was to see the lot. They were soldiers, too, all in their own army equipment. Their faces were tanned and tough, like peasants'. Medardo had seen as much as he wanted to of them. He felt he might as well get back to Terralba in time for the quail season. But he had signed on for the whole war.” After killing his first Turk, who was on foot, he faces a cannon: “In his enthusiasm and inexperience he did not know that cannons are to be approached only by the side or the breech. He leapt in front of the muzzle, with sword bared, thinking he would frighten the two [artillerymen]. Instead of which they fired a cannonade right in his chest. Medardo of Terralba jumped into the air.”

Thus we have our cloven viscount, the right half of whom we see returned to his estate to do mischief to the surrounding human, animal and vegetable life, but always with a certain flair: He halves his animal and vegetable victims—bats, birds, squirrels, pears, frogs, mushrooms, jellyfish, octopuses, flowers, tree trunks. He even halves Tasso's Jerusalem Liberated being read by his left half after he had returned from Bohemia somewhat tardily. And he makes his argument, speaking to his nephew:

If only I could halve every whole thing like this … so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind. If you ever become a half yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you'll understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole.

It is different with his human victims. Them he hangs—poachers, brigands, constables, peasants, and Tuscan knights, along with cats. He dabbles in pyromania, setting fire to houses, haystacks, firewood, woods, even the castle itself. He sends the old family nurse, Sebastiana, who “had given milk to all the males of the Terralba family, gone to bed with all the older ones, and closed the eyes of all the dead ones,” to the Leper colony at Protofungo, though he knows she does not have the disease. He threatens to report the Huguenots to the Inquisition as heretics. And he is given names by them in retaliation—the Bereft One, the Miamed One, the Lame One, the Sideless One, the Half-Dead One, the Buttockless One.

Just before the left half of the Viscount returns, Medardo decides to fall in love with Pamela, a kind of goose girl (“Dear, oh dearie dear! … He wants me, he really does. How will it all end?”). He woos her in his own half-hearted way: “If an emotion so silly is yet so important to them, then whatsoever may correspond in me will surely be very grand and awesome.” The left half of Medardo returns and the double nature of the Good 'Un and the Bad 'Un is revealed. Widows, animals and others are helped, nature is restored even as the Bad 'Un continues his attacks. The left half presents his argument just as the right half had done earlier: “Oh, Pamela, that's the good thing about being halved. One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness. I was whole and did not understand.” And his argument goes on. But neither half of the Viscount can exist entirely by itself, and as in all fables there must come a solution and “So Medardo's two halves wandered, tormented by opposing furies, amid the crags of Terralba.”

Pamela arranges to marry both Medardos, speaking to each one separately, and so as she and the Good 'Un are being married, the Bad 'Un shows up and challenges his rival to a duel, “fixed for dawn next day in the Nun's Field. Master Pietrochiodo invented a kind of leg in the shape of a compass which, fixed to the halved men's belts, would allow them to stand upright and move and even bend their bodies backwards and forwards, while the point kept firmly in the ground.” As miraculously as they had survived after being split apart in Bohemia, they come together on the ground and are joined into one body, later wrapped tightly by the good doctor Trelawney. Pamela, ecstatic, says, “At last I'll have a husband with everything complete.” Certainly a tale for adults. And the lesson is also for adults:

So my uncle Medardo became a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness, that is, apparently not dissimilar to what he had been before the halving. But having had the experience of both halves each on its own, he was bound to be wise. He had a happy life, many children and a just rule.


Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, on the other hand, is a very different character, for he is, physically, all there, a mere boy of twelve when he goes into the trees. Woodhouse tells us that “Calvino suggests in fact that this novel should be classed with Alice in Wonderland, and, indeed, it is difficult to see in Il barone rampante the often overt criticism of Il cavaliere insistente or of Il visconte dimezzato.” But that is understandable when the Baron is visualized with two halves of a viscount on one side of him and an empty suit of armor on the other side. It is not the Baron's body (he ages quite naturally from twelve to over sixty-five) that is the fantastic element of The Baron in the Trees. It is the Baron's arboreal world that is fantastic, like the upper world of the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Cosimo the boy enters the world of trees, thinking he will stay for an hour or so, but a spell falls on him and there is no release until he plummets into the sea. And though his rush to climb into the holm oak is on the spur of the moment (dressed in formal clothes with a tricorn and rapier, “powdered hair with a ribbon around the queue, three-cornered hat, lace stock and ruffles, green tunic with painted tails, purple breeches, rapier, and long white leather gaiters halfway up his legs”), what impels him to leave his father's table shouting “I know where I'm going!” is made very clear by the narrator in the previous nine pages. If any two boys had reasons for wanting to escape their family, it was Cosimo and Biagio, though for Cosimo his “stubbornness hid something much deeper.”

His father the Baron Arminio is a bore, his mother the Baroness is “nicknamed the Generalessa,” and his sister is the “odious” Battista, “a kind of stay-at-home-nun.” It is Battista, whose “evil schemes found expression in cooking,” who causes Cosimo to shout “‘I told you I don't want any, and I don't!’ and pushed away his plateful of snails. Never had we seen such disobedience.”

Once she made some paté toast, really exquisite, of rats' livers; this she never told us until we had eaten them and pronounced them good; and some grasshoppers' claws, crisp and sectioned, laid on an open tart in a mosaic; and pigs' tails baked as if they were little cakes; and once she cooked a complete porcupine with all its quills …

For as Biagio tells us, “It was as a protest against this macabre fantasy of our sister's that my brother and I were incited to show our sympathy with the poor tortured creatures, and our disgust, too, for the flavor of cooked snails—a revolt really against everything and everybody; and from this, not surprisingly, stemmed Cosimo's gesture and all that followed after.” The brothers devise a plan to let the snails in the cellar escape from a barrel—“Quick, snaily-wailies! Hurry up, out!”—but Battista, “wandering around the house in search of mice, holding a candelabra, with a musket under her arm,” discovers the trail and the boys are whipped for their trouble. And this brings us to the opening of the book: “It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, my brother, sat among us for the last time.” Battista, the “kitchen superintendent,” had prepared as a kind of punishment for the boys, “snail soup and snails as a main course!” Biagio yields and eats them, but Cosimo refuses, and is told to leave the table. He climbs into the holm oak and his father tells him, “When you are tired of being up there, you'll change your mind.” He responds, “I'll never change my mind … I'll never come down again!” And he keeps his word.

It is important to remember that what hold this tale together are Cosimo's rationale for staying in the trees, the arboreal setting which allows his free movement over half a century, the characters he meets and corresponds with, and the realistic details surrounding the events of his life. For example, once up the tree, Cosimo has a different perspective, for “everything seen from up there was different, which was fun in itself.” After he meets Viola, the young girl in the next estate, he tells her, “No, I'm not coming down into your garden or into mine either ever again. It's all enemy territory to me.” Much later, in Olivabassa, he responds to His Highness Federico Alonso Sánchez y Tobasco by saying that “I don't because I think it suits me, not because I'm forced to.” And when the Spaniards at Olivabassa, who are forced up into the trees temporarily, are free to return to the ground, Cosimo tells them, “I came up here before you, my lords, and here I will stay afterwards too!” Finally, near the end of his life, he tells a Russian officer, “I too … have lived many years for ideals which I would never be able to explain to myself; but I do something entirely good. I live on trees.”

Perhaps it is possible to see Cosimo as enchanted, a kind of Rima in Green Mansions. Certainly Viola, when she first meets Cosimo, gives us her interpretation of what has happened to him: “Just let me explain how things are. You have the lordship of the trees, all right? But if you touch the earth just once with your foot, you lose your whole kingdom and become the humblest slave. D'you understand? Even if a branch breaks under you and you fall, it's the end of you!” He tells her, “I've never fallen from a tree in my life!” and she replies, “No, of course not, but if you do fall, if you do, you change into ashes and the wind'll carry you away.” And Cosimo says, “Fairy tales. I'm not coming down to the ground because I don't want to.” Viola's response is, “Oh, what a bore you are!” And when her aunt asks her, “Who are you talking to?” she answers, “With a young man … who was born on the top of a tree and is under a spell so he can't set foot on the ground.”

The fairy tale that follows cannot hold up unless Calvino creates a world that is plausible, that is circumscribed, that is true to the fairy element. Biagio tells us what we must know in order to accept Cosimo's world:

I don't know if it's true, the story they tell in books, that in ancient days a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree till it reached Spain, without ever touching earth. The only place so thick with trees in my day was the whole length, from end to end, of the gulf of Ombrosa and its valley right up to the mountain crests; the area was famous everywhere for this.

But the trees are still there for Cosimo who “realized that as the trees were so thick he could move for several miles by passing from one branch to another, without ever needing to descend to earth. Sometimes a patch of bare ground forced him to make long detours, but he soon got to know all the necessary routes and came to measure distances by quite different estimates than ours, bearing always in mind the twisted trail he had to take over the branches.” And he learned the art of pruning trees.

In fact, his love for this arboreal element made him, as all real loves do, become merciless even to the point of hurting, wounding and amputating so as to help growth and give shape. Certainly he was always careful when pruning and lopping to serve not only the interests of the owner but also his own, as a traveler with a need to make his own routes more practicable; thus he would see that the branches which he used as a bridge between one tree and another were always saved, and reinforced by the suppression of others.

Having accepted Cosimo's world, the reader can more readily accept his activities covering a lifetime. There are the objects and conveniences he manages to create or haul into the trees—water tanks, ovens, game, guns, fur jackets, sleeping bags, books, bookcases, a printing press, women (including Viola), even a confessional for a priest to use! We accept all this because we understand the process of his education based on a respect for books. After he meets a brigand, Gian dei Brughi, he develops “a passion for reading and study which remained with him for the rest of his life.” He corresponds with the major philosophers and scientists of Europe—Voltaire, Diderot, D'Alembert, among others—and meets Napoleon on his return from Milan. He fights pirates and wolves, encourages the Freemasons against the Jesuits when they are under suppression, and promotes socialism in Ombrosa, writing a Project for the Constitution of an Ideal State in the Trees and a Constitutional Project for a Republican City with a Declaration of the Rights of Men, Women, Children, Domestic and Wild Animals, Including Birds, Fishes and Insects, and All Vegetation, Whether Trees, Vegetables, or Grass. Like Sweeney among the trees, he goes mad and in his madness writes such works as The Song of the Blackbird, The Knock of the Woodpecker, and The Dialogue of the Owls, but he recovers his wits and publishes a weekly, The Reasonable Vertebrate. But like a Crusoe among the trees, whom he resembles with his hat made from a wild cat he had fought, killed and skinned, he lacks a “Friday.” In Cosimo's case, his companion appears in the body of a dog, a dachshund, whom he names Ottimo Massimo. Later he discovers that Ottimo is Viola's dog, left behind when she went away to school. From the time that he meets her until she tells him, “I leave tonight. You won't see me again,” the Sinforosa Viola Violante of Ondariva, Duchess of Tolemaico, holds him in thrall. “Their world was a world of trees—intricate, gnarled and impervious. ‘There!’ she would exclaim, pointing to a fork high in the branches, and they would launch out together to reach it and start between them a competition in acrobatics, culminating in new embraces. They made love suspended in the void, propping themselves or holding onto branches, she throwing herself upon him, almost flying.” And though she apparently is unfaithful to him (“Gossip has it that in Paris she passes from one lover to another, in such rapid succession that no one can call her his own and consider himself privileged. But every now and again she vanishes for months at a time and they say she retires to a convent, to wallow in penance”), he comes to believe after she has left him forever that she is faithful to him in her own peculiar way, like Nana or Lady Brett Ashley.

His brother tells us that this gentle, though rebellious, young baron was described in an almanac as “ ‘L'homme sauvage d'Ombreuse (Rep. Génoise). Vit seulement sur les arbres.’ They had represented him all covered in leaves, with a long beard and a long tail, eating a locust. This figure was in the Chapter of Monsters, between the Hermaphrodite and the Siren.” Even Caliban would have wept at it! Later Biagio meets Voltaire who questions him about his brother: “But is it to be nearer the sky that your brother stays up there?” Biagio tells the sage that “my brother considers … that anyone who wants to see the earth properly must keep himself at a necessary distance from it.”

Perhaps enchantment requires distancing in one way or another. At any rate, it wouldn't do to bury the old Baron in the earth, and so after a priest goes up to hear his last words, a balloon appears in the sky (like Flaubert's parrot?):

The dying Cosimo, at the second when the anchor rope passed near him, gave one of those leaps he so often used to do in his youth, gripped the rope, with his feet on the anchor and his body in a hunch, and so we saw him fly away, taken by the wind, scarce braking the course of the balloon, and vanish out to sea. …

With that the brother-narrator, Biagio, tells us, “So vanished Cosimo, without giving us even the satisfaction of seeing him return to earth a corpse. On the family tomb there is a plaque in commemoration of him, with the inscription: ‘Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò—Lived in trees—Always loved earth—Went into sky.’”:

Ombrosa no longer exists. Looking at the empty sky, I ask myself if it ever did really exist.

Never fear! It exists for dead Calvino's appreciative readers, if only “in the mind's eye.”


The Nonexistent Knight, the third and last of Calvino's “ancestors,” begs to be compared to Andersen's naked emperor, Wells's invisible man and Hollywood's invisible woman. (Would that those two had married! Only Will Hays could have objected to their nuptials, sans facial bandages, gloves and trousseaux.) But they exist. Agilulf, the knight in shining armor, does not. He is emphatic about this matter in his reply to Charlemagne, who challenges him:

“I'm talking to you, paladin!” insisted Charlemagne. “Why don't you show your face to your king?”

A voice came clearly through the gorge piece. “Sire, because I do not exist!” “This is too much!” exclaimed the emperor. “We've even got a knight who doesn't exist! Let's just have a look now.”

Agilulf seemed to hesitate a moment, then raised his visor with a slow but firm hand. The helmet was empty. No one was inside the white armor with its iridescent crest.

“Well, well! Who'd have thought it!” exclaimed Charlemagne. “And how do you do your job, then, if you don't exist?”

“By will power,” said Agilulf, “and faith in our holy cause!”

“Oh, yes, yes, well said, that is how one does one's duty. Well, for someone who doesn't exist, you seem in fine form!”

This is the purest kind of fairy-tale atmosphere, even to the emperor's casual response, “Oh, yes, yes, well said,” as if Charlemagne were being played by Edward Everett Horton or Frank Morgan. Unlike the viscount, whose appearance suggests the handiwork of a Dr. Frankenstein, or the baron, whose physique is much like Robinson Crusoe's, the knight challenges our ideas about existence itself. Is flesh all that necessary? Who is more palpable, King Arthur, the man who never was, or King Alfred, who is buried at Winchester? Nor is Agilulf a ghost—neither the ghost of a real person (Anne Boleyn—“And every night she walks the bloody tower with 'er 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm!”) nor the ghost of Hamlet's father, “doom'd for a time to walk the earth.” Agilulf Emo Bertrandin of the Guildivern and of the Others of Corbentraz and Sura, Knight of Selimpia Citeriore and Fez, is dimensionless (in spite of the titles), bounded for the time being by his white armor, “light and gleaming,” whose shield suggests his source without revealing it: “On the shield a coat of arms was painted between two draped sides of a wide cloak, within which opened another cloak on a smaller shield, containing yet another even smaller coat of arms. In faint but clear outline were drawn a series of cloaks opening inside each other, with something in the center that could not be made out, so minutely was it drawn.”

Like wheels within wheels, or like Chinese boxes, or like Russian babushka dolls, or even like Churchill's definition of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” Agilulf is what he wears, not what he eats:

But he who ate nothing needed more attendance by servers than the whole of the rest of the table. … He used a great deal of bread, constantly crushing it into tiny round pellets, all of the same size, which he arranged on the table in neat rows. The crust he pared down into crumbs, and with them made little pyramids. Eventually he would get tired of them and order the lackeys to brush down the table. Then he started all over again.

We know that Big Brother exists only as “a face on the hoardings, a voice on the telescreen,” but when Raimbaut of Roussillon (who eventually inherits the knight's armor), “squire, son of the late Marquis Gerard!” comes to the camp to enlist “so as to avenge my father who died a heroic death beneath the ramparts of Seville!” and is told by two “scribbling bureaucrats” that the knight who has directed him to them is nonexistent, he replies, “What do you mean, nonexistent? I saw him myself! There he was!” “What did you see? Mere ironwork. … He exists without existing, understand, recruit?” As simple as that? Not quite. But like bureaucrats everywhere, whether in Kafka, Dickens, Parliament or Congress, like the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” they see, whenever it is convenient, “sermons in stones, and good in everything.” They believe that “two and two make five,” whenever it comes down in the orders of the day. It's a matter of existence/nonexistence/whatever, in the jargon of today. Calvino, on the other hand, dramatizes the problem of existence/non-existence in the details surrounding his paladin's fairy-tale “existence.” He is a model soldier who remembers everything but who is disliked by the other paladins because he is always right. Perhaps he is “the very model of a modern Major-General,” as Gilbert and Sullivan put it. (“He was impatient. He alone among them all had clearly in mind the order of march, halting places, and the staging post to be reached before nightfall.”) He can't sleep:

What it was like to shut one's eyes, lose consciousness, plunge into emptiness for a few hours and then wake up and find oneself the same as before, linked with the threads of one's life again, Agilulf could not know, and his envy for the faculty of sleep possessed by people who existed, was vague, like something he could not conceive of.

He explains this phenomenon to Raimbaut: “I would feel bewildered if I dozed off for even a second … in fact I'd never come round at all but would be lost forever. So I keep wide awake every second of the day and night.” “It must be awful” says Raimbaut. “No!” “And don't you ever take off your armor?” Agilulf presents his argument: “For me there's no problem. Take off or put on has no meaning for me.” He resents bodies, for they “give him a disagreeable feeling resembling envy, but also a stab of pride, of contemptuous superiority.” He is proud of his differences, for “he could not be taken into pieces or dismembered.” He counts “objects, arranging them in geometric patterns, resolving problems of arithmetic.” Earlier Raimbaut “found him under a pine tree, sitting on the ground, arranging fallen pine cones in a regular design: an isosceles triangle.” He thinks about his condition as he helps to bury the dead:

As Agilulf dragged a corpse along he thought, “Oh corpse, you have what I never had or will have: a carcass. Or rather you have, you are this carcass, that which at times, in moments of despondency, I find myself envying in men who exist.”

Challenged to an archery competition by Bradamante, the alter ego of the narrator, Sister Theodora, and lady warrior of Charlemagne's army (she of the “smooth gold-flecked belly, round rosy hips, long straight girl's legs”), “Slowly Agilulf came closer, took the bow, drew back his cloak, put one foot behind the other and moved arms and bow forward. His movements were not those of muscles and nerves concentrating on a good aim. He was ordering his forces by will power, setting the tip of the arrow at the invisible line of the target; he moved the bow very slightly and no more, and let fly. The arrow was bound to hit the target. Bradamante cried, ‘A fine shot!’ Agilulf did not care.” To Raimbaut, he is “a knight who doesn't exist, that does rather frighten me, I must confess. … Yet I admire him, he's so perfect in all he does, he makes one more confident than if he did exist.”

For Sister Theodora, the narrator, who writes of war in most un-Virgilian fashion (“Of battles as I say, I know nothing”), “The only person who can be said definitely to be on the move is Agilulf, by which I do not mean his horse or armor, but that lonely self-preoccupied, impatient something jogging along on horseback inside the armor.” And when he finally discards his armor, to go to some “far, far better place,” or wherever nonexistent beings finally retire to, some pieces are “disposed as if in an attempt at an ordered pyramid, others rolled haphazardly on the ground.” He has a need for order, like the little man who has never walked on a crack in the sidewalk for forty-three years! But in a note left on the hilt of his sword, Agilulf leaves his immaculate white armor, like Cyrano's “white plume,” to Sir Raimbaut of Roussillon. “Beneath was a half squiggle, as of a signature begun and interrupted.”

His epitaph, if it is possible to write an epitaph for someone who never existed, might be what Charlemagne spoke at the hour of battle: “Although Agilulf had a difficult character, he was a fine soldier.” Or as his squire, Gurduloo, who did exist (but who doesn't always know who he is), says when he is looking for him, “My master is a person who doesn't exist, so he can not exist as much in a flask as in a suit of armor.”

What is one to make of all this? The viscount—Jekyll and Hyde—is divided and made whole; the baron elects to live most of his biblical allotment of years between earth and heaven; the knight makes metaphysicians of us all by asking, once more, Thoreau's great question about life, “whether it is of the devil or of God.” Calvino the fabulist uses the fairy tale to teach us about good and evil, about rebellion and freedom, about existence, in and out of season.


  1. It is in the nature of fairy tales and fables that they are entire, like short poems or short short stories, and therefore should be read entirely. I have stressed the characters of the three “ancestors” to the necessary exclusion of other characters, scenes and the overall fairy-tale humor so evident in the master fabulist, Calvino.

  2. All references to The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount are from The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Harvest, 1977). All references to The Baron in the Trees are from The Baron in the Trees, trans. Archibald Colquhoun (New York: Random House, 1959).

Marc Beckwith (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8438

SOURCE: “Italo Calvino and the Nature of Italian Folktales,” in Italica, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 244–62.

[In the following essay, Beckwith examines the sources of Calvino's Italian folklore.]

A little over thirty years ago Italo Calvino set out to provide for Italy what the Grimms had given Germany, a national collection of folktales. After two years of research he published Fiabe italiane (1956), 200 tales gleaned from nineteenth-century collections in the various dialects of Italy and translated into Italian. Louis Brigante translated 50 of these into English as Italian Fables (1959) and Sylvia Mulcahy translated 24 of them as Italian Folk Tales (1975), but it was not till George Martin's translation of the complete work as Italian Folktales (1980) in the Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library that it became the standard collection in English of Italian tales. Calvino and his reviewers generalize about the Volksgeist of Italy and how it differs from that of Northern Europe, especially Germany. Teachers and students of folklore will naturally do the same. However, Calvino alters his material, and his notes do not always tell us what he has changed. Since those changes radically affect the generalizations he and others have made about Italian folklore, Calvino's use of sources needs to be examined.

The present analysis was completed before I read John Ellis' study of the Grimms, and I was surprised to find that Calvino made many of the same kinds of changes as did the Grimms with their material. These similarities, and important differences, will be mentioned when summarizing Calvino's changes. An important difference, however, between this study and Ellis' is that Ellis stresses the Grimms' deception of the reading public. I see no such intention on Calvino's part. The point to be demonstrated here is that Calvino's versions of the tales are significantly and consistently different from the sources, and while Calvino's renderings may support his generalizations about Italian folktales, the originals do not.

All quotations, unless noted otherwise, are from the Pantheon edition, as Martin's translation is a faithful one; however, the introduction, translated by Catherine Hill, and the notes were condensed, chiefly at the expense of bibliographical references.

In the introduction, under “Criteria for My Work,” Calvino explains his method of selecting and retelling the stories:

my work … is only halfway “scientific,” or three-quarters so. … I selected from mountains of narratives … the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts. … I enriched the text selected from other versions and whenever possible did so without altering its character or unity, and at the same time filled it out and made it more plastic. I touched up as delicately as possible those portions that were either missing or too sketchy.

My work had two objectives: the presentation of every type of folktale, the existence of which is documented in Italian dialects; and the representation of all regions of Italy. …

Since the folktale, regardless of its origin, tends to absorb something of the place where it is narrated—a landscape, a custom, a moral outlook, or else merely a very faint accent or flavor of that locality—the degree to which a tale is imbued with that Venetian, Tuscan, or Sicilian something is what led me to choose it. …

In all this I was guided by the Tuscan proverb dear to Nerucci: “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.”


In short, we are told that the tales have been changed; we are not apprised of any biases. In order to determine what those biases may be, it will be useful to examine in detail several tales to see just how Calvino “enriched the text” and “filled it out.” The following analysis covers the seven tales Calvino drew from Giuseppe Pitrè's collection of Tuscan tales.

Giuseppe Pitrè (1841–1916) was one of the fathers of Italian folklore studies. A Sicilian doctor, he is best known for his many volumes of Sicilian tales, songs, poetry, folk medicine, etc. (Calvino takes 40 tales, nos. 148–84 and 188–90, from Pitrè's collection of Sicilian tales, Fiabe, novelle e racconti popolari siciliani [Palermo 1875].) He also published a number of Tuscan tales. In 1876 his friend, the lawyer Giovanni Siciliano, collected 101 tales while in Tuscany. Pitrè published some of these in periodicals and pamphlets and the majority of them (76) in 1885 as Novelle popolari toscane (Pitrè xxxviii; Cerrito xiii-xv). These 101 tales were reprinted as Novelle popolari toscane, volume 30, in two parts, of the edizione nazionale of Pitrè's works (1941; hereafter NPT). Part 1 is a reprint of the 1885 edition; part 2 collects the 25 tales which Pitrè had published individually. Both parts 1 and 2 were reprinted in 1981 with an introduction by Gino Cerrito. The work has not been translated into English.

Pitrè divided the Novelle of 1885 into three series: 1) fairy tales (nos. 1–44); 2) animal fables (nos. 45–55); and 3) tales of tricksters (56–76). (All of the seven Tuscan tales Calvino draws from Pitrè are fairy tales.) In the introduction Pitrè tells us that Siciliano recorded the tales very faithfully: “he added nothing of his own and subtracted nothing, and only once in a while, when he could not follow the account, shortened it with the very words of the narrators” (xxxviii; all quotations from Pitrè are my translations). Cerrito denies this, saying that Siciliano must have intimidated the working class women who told the stories because he was an outsider and a bourgeois, and he criticizes Pitrè generally for being too interested in comparing tale types while ignoring evidence of class struggle (xv-xxi). Speculation about the changes Siciliano or Pitrè may have made in the tales can be only that and is beyond the scope of this essay. In Calvino's case, however, we can determine exactly what he added to or deleted from the tales.


In the following discussion Calvino's number and title of the tale are followed in parentheses by the title in Martin's translation, the corresponding number and title in NPT, my translation of the title in parentheses, the tale type if there is one (Aarne-Thompson), and the motifs (Thompson). I then summarize the tale as found in Pitrè and note the changes Calvino has made.

C57 “L'orco con le penne” (“The Feathered Orge”), P1:24 “Il diavolo fra i frati” (“The Devil among the Friars”). Type 461, Three Hairs from the Devil's Beard (sections I and VI do not apply). Motifs: D1021 Magic feather, D1500.1.33 Parts or products of animal cure disease, G84 Fee-fi-fo-fum, G530.1 Help from ogre's wife (mistress), G532 Hero hidden and ogre deceived by his wife (daughter) when he says that he smells human blood, G610.3 Stealing from ogre as task, H1210.2 Quest assigned by king, H1243 Riches the reward of questions solved on quests, H1292.1 Question (propounded on quest): Why has spring gone dry?, H1292.8 Question (on quest): When will a ferryman be released from his duty?, Q521.5 Penance: ferryman setting people over a stream until relieved by another.

The king, who has fallen ill, sends a servant to get a feather from a beast who lives in a mountain cave. The servant meets people on his journey who have questions for the beast, who is a sorcerer: an innkeeper wants to know how he can find his lost daughter, a ferryman wants to know how he can leave his ferry, two gentlemen want to make their fountain spout gold and silver again, and friars in a convent want to know why they are so quarrelsome. The servant promises to ask about all these matters and to bring back feathers from the beast, for they have magical properties. The friars tell him how to proceed when he reaches the cave, and their advice prevents his being eaten. He finds the cave, is aided by the beast's wife, and returns with messages and feathers for the people he met on the way up: the devil is in the convent disguised as a friar. The friars are to put up crucifixes and statues of the Madonna, pray the rosary and do good works. The devil will be so uncomfortable he'll leave. The gentlemen are to dig down to the source of the fountain. There they will find the devil in the form of a snake wrapped around a ball which is blocking the fountain. They are to crush his head with the balls and gold and silver will once again pour forth. The ferryman must leap off the ferry before one of his passengers can get off, and the passenger will be stuck on it. The innkeeper's daughter is the beast's wife. In order to see his daughter again the innkeeper must dig under a certain flagstone, where he will find a large ball. This he must take to the top of the stairs, knock three times on the top step, and his daughter will appear.

The servant returns the way he came and gives the feathers and messages to those he had met on the way up. All have their wishes granted. The innkeeper is so overjoyed to have his daughter back he gives her to the servant, and the tale ends with the wedding. The narrator intrudes at the end, as she does in almost all of Pitrè's tales: “they had a wonderful wedding feast with a roast mouse, and they gave me a finger to lick.”

In his note Calvino tells us of two of his changes:

The title “Feathered Ogre” is my own invention; the original speaks of a vague “beast” (whose traits are nonetheless the ogre's). Also the ending with the retention of the ogre on the ferry is mine, but it does not strike me as arbitrary, since the same thing happens in the Grimms' tale no. 29.

Calvino has made other changes as well. It may be insignificant, but in Pitrè's tale the beast is in the first of seven caves, in Calvino's he is in the seventh. In Pitrè's version the religious observances the friars are to begin are specified and repeated, once by the beast and once by the servant, whereas Calvino's ogre is more general: “The real friars would have to start doing good deeds.” Calvino deletes entirely the magical rite which the innkeeper performs, substituting the naturalistic expedient of having the ogre's wife flee with the servant, and he omits the narrator's intrusion at the end, concluding instead with the ogre trapped on the ferry. Pitrè tells us the ferryman is freed but does not say who took his place.

C80 “Lo sciocco senza paura” (“Fearless Simpleton”), P1:39 “Giovannino senza paura” (“Fearless Johnny”). Type 326 The Youth Who Wanted to Learn What Fear Is (C omits section III, Learning Fear). Motifs (P and C): H1400 Fear test, H1461 Test: Sitting up with corpse. (P only): D1244 Magic salve (ointment), E783.1 Head cut off and successfully replaced.

Johnny lives with his uncle, who goes away one day, charging Johnny not to let thieves into the house. Thieves come and Johnny lets them steal everything. When his uncle returns he is so exasperated he sends Johnny to another uncle, a priest, for an education. The priest sends Johnny to extinguish the lights in the church one night and has some men lower a basket of burning candles and say, “Whoever wants to see the kingdom of heaven come in here.” Johnny cuts the rope and lets the men draw it up without the basket. He goes back and tells his uncle what he did, and his uncle reproves him, telling him the voices were angels' and that he would have seen the kingdom of heaven.

Another night the priest has a man lie on a bier and sends Johnny to wake the corpse. The man, as the priest had instructed him, sits up and says, “I am still alive.” Johnny responds, “If you are alive now, you will die!” and dashes his brains out with a candle snuffer. He returns to his uncle and tells him what he did. The priest is frightened and sends him home. On the way Johnny meets two robbers, who sell him some ointment with which he can reattach his head after cutting it off. He feels the need to defecate and wonders if he can cut off and reattach his head in as little time as it takes to relieve himself. He performs the operation but gets his head on backward, and he sees his feces coming out. The sight so terrifies him he thinks he is dead, and he runs home screaming. His uncle cuts Johnny's head off and puts it on right. The tale ends with a sly jab at the Church and the narrator's intrusion with a set rhyme:

And from that fright came a virtuous boy. And since he was no longer so stupid, his uncle always said, “The frights which his uncle the priest gave him weren't sufficient, but what he saw was enough.”

They sat there and they had a good time

But they gave me nothing;

They gave me a basket of wine,

A flask of bread,

A pair of little red shoes:

I went home and they were completely worn out.

Calvino closes with a punch line (“That dead man hadn't finished dying, so I finished him off myself”), omitting the priest's horrified reaction as well as the magic. In the note he says “since that [episode] brings an element of fantasy into an otherwise realistic narrative, I thought it best to exclude it.” Since the third section of the tale type is eliminated, Calvino's simpleton does not learn fear at all. Calvino condenses the tale slightly in other places. For instance, after the robbers plunder the house, Johnny's uncle calls him an idiot, writes a letter to his brother, and the priest writes back, saying Johnny can come. The boy sets out and walks and walks until he arrives at the priest's house. Calvino leaves all this out, and his version consequently moves more rapidly.

C81 “La lattaia regina” (“The Milkmaid Queen”), P2:25 “La lattaiola” (“The Milkmaid”). Motifs: B450 Helpful birds, B512 Medicine shown by animal, B515 Resuscitation by animals, B552 Man carried by bird, E105 Resuscitation by herbs (leaves), Q433 Punishment: imprisonment, R13.3 Person carried off by bird, R41.2 Captivity in tower, R41.1.1 Captivity in subterranean palace.

An old woman gives a childless king and queen the choice between a son who will leave home and whom they'll never see again and a daughter who will stay if they can prevent her from knowing anything of the world until she is eighteen. They choose the daughter, who is born in due time, and put her in an underground palace. Before her eighteenth birthday, however, she goes into the garden, and a great bird carries her off, leaving her on the roof of a house. A peasant brings her down and takes her home, where she becomes a milkmaid along with his five daughters. In order to help support the family the girl embroiders for the queen, who is so impressed by her fine work that she sends her all the prince's wedding clothes to embroider. The prince goes to see the girl who does such marvelous work, venturing one day to kiss her. The indignant princess stabs him with her needle, killing him. The king has his four daughters judge their brother's murderess. The youngest suggests the least severe punishment and the king accepts it: the girl is to be confined with the corpse in a tower for eight years.

After three years, the bird which had carried the girl off returns, drops ten dead baby birds at her feet, and flies away. The next day the bird comes back, rubs the dead babies with an herb, and they revive and fly off. The following day it drops a bunch of the herb to the princess, who revives the prince with it. The princess and prince, now lovers, live happily in the tower with the assistance of the prince's youngest sister, who smuggles them a guitar, and they sing in the evenings.

The viceroy, hearing the music from his nearby palace, is scandalized that a prisoner should be singing, and he orders that she be moved. But when the guards come to get her, she emerges with the prince at her side, and they are soon married. The three older sisters, however, are envious of their milkmaid sister-in-law and torment her. Finally she tells them she is going home for a visit and asks what she can bring them. One asks contemptuously for a flask of milk, another for a ricotta, the third for a clove of garlic. The milkmaid returns to her true home and comes back in a handsome carriage with costly jewelry in the shapes her envious sisters-in-law had requested. For the youngest, who had befriended her, she brings back a husband, a little brother who had been born in her absence. The tale ends with the narrator's rhyme:

And there they lived,
And this they enjoyed,
But they gave me nothing.

Calvino mentions no changes in his note, but he has made several. He follows Pitrè closely until the return of the bird, which he has build a nest on the tower, lay ten eggs, and hatch them. Every day the princess begs the bird to take her away. Calvino eliminates the viceroy completely; it is the three older sisters who live in the nearby palace, overhear the girl entreating the bird and report to the king, who has the nest pushed down, killing the babies in it. The mother bird returns that night with the magic herb and revives them. The princess begs for the herb and the bird dutifully brings her some. The princess returns home before her wedding and returns one week later. Calvino ends the tale with the youngest sister's peevishness and the milkmaid's retort, whereas the youngest in Pitrè is never impolite:

“And you brought nothing to me who've [sic] always loved you dearly?” asked the youngest daughter.

The milkmaid opened the carriage door, and out stepped a handsome youth. “This is my little brother who was born while I was away from the court. He will be your husband.”

C84 “La testa della maga” (“The Sorceress's Head”), P1:1, “La maga” (“The Sorceress”). Type 300, The Dragon-slayer (both P and C omit section I, The Hero and His Dogs; C omits sections VI, Imposter, and VII, Recognition). Motifs (P and C): B11.10 Sacrifice of human being to dragon, D581 Petrification by glance, D2061.2.1 Death-giving glance, H1332.3 Quest for Gorgon's head, R111.1.3 Rescue of princess (maiden) from dragon, S262 Periodic sacrifices to a monster. (P only): B11.2.3.1 Seven-headed dragon, H80 Identification by tokens, H83 Rescue tokens, H105.1 Dragon-tongue proof, K1932 Imposters claim reward (prize) earned by hero, K1933 Imposter forces oath of secrecy, N681 Husband (lover) arrives home just as wife (mistress) is to marry another, R111.6 Girl rescued and then abandoned, T151.1 Six months' respite from unwelcome marriage.

As both Pitrè and Calvino point out, this is a version of the myth of Perseus and Medusa, so the whole tale need not be summarized here. Calvino says Pitrè's is the only folk version of the Perseus myth he found, and he follows Pitrè closely until near the end. In Pitrè, after the hero turns the dragon into stone by showing it Medusa's head, he cuts out the dragon's seven tongues and leaves to see the world. The princess wants to go with him, but he tells her to wait six months for him, and if he does not return in that time she can marry another. They part, the princess setting out for her father's palace. On the way she meets a cobbler, who threatens to kill her unless she tells her father that he killed the dragon. She does so but refuses to marry him until six months are up. When the time is up and the king announces that his daughter will wed the cobbler, the hero returns and produces the seven tongues, proving that he killed the dragon. The cobbler is burnt in the plaza and the youth and princess are married. Calvino deletes this whole episode, marrying them immediately after the youth kills the dragon. Calvino does end this tale with the narrator's rhyme: “And there they lived a life happy and long,/But nothing did they ever give me for my song.”

C85, “La ragazza mela” (“Apple Girl”), P1:6 “La mela” (“The Apple”). Type 652A, The Myrtle. Motifs: D431.4 Transformation: fruit to person, D621 Daily transformation, P282.3 Stepmother in love with stepson, P361 Faithful servant, T52.1 Prince buys twig (flower) (enchanted girl) from her mother, T555.1 Woman gives birth to a fruit.

A childless king and queen want desperately to have a child. One day an old woman tells the queen she will give birth to an apple. In nine months she bears an apple, which the king puts in a vase on the balcony. Another king lives nearby, and one morning his servant, while going to water the horses, sees a beautiful maiden come out of the apple, wash herself and comb her hair, and go back in. He tells his master, who is incredulous, but the next morning the king sees the maiden for himself. He falls in love with her instantly and goes and begs the queen to give him the apple, which she finally does. He takes it home and spends most of his time in his room tending the apple and watching the maiden, but she never speaks to him. When he must go off to war he gives his servant strict orders to take care of the apple and let no one into the room.

The king's stepmother has been very curious to know how her son is spending his time, and when he leaves she determines to get into his room. She asks the servant to dine with her, drugs his wine, takes the key from him and enters the room. After finding nothing extraordinary but the apple she decides it must be the object of her son's desire, and she cuts it open with her stiletto. Blood fills the room and she leaves, returning the key to the servant's pocket. When the servant awakens and discovers what has happened he flees. On the road he meets an old woman who gives him a powder to sprinkle in the room. He returns, sprinkles the powder, and the apple is made whole. The king returns that night and the maiden tells him all that had happened. She also tells him that she is now eighteen years old and can marry him if he wants. They are wed, and he has his stepmother burnt during the wedding banquet. The narrator concludes:

They sat there and enjoyed this
And gave nothing to me.
No, they gave me a penney
And I saved it in a little hole.

In the introduction Calvino says this is one of his favorite tales (xxix). His note mentions none of the following changes: He eliminates the old woman from the beginning of the tale and makes the queen give birth to an apple because she repeatedly asks, “Why can't I bear children the same as the apple tree bears apples?” This detail harmonizes the tale with C161, “Rosemary,” taken from Pitrè's collection of Sicilian tales, in which the queen says “Just look at that! A mere rosemary bush has all those children, while I am a queen and childless!” Calvino has the neighboring king discover the maiden himself, eliminating entirely the servant and his dialogue with the king at this point. Calvino's queen says bluntly “I'm that apple's mother,” whereas Pitrè's queen is subtler: “How much I suffered, how much I sighed for that apple!” In this detail Calvino again makes the tale closer to C161. Calvino's stepmother drugs the servant without asking him to dinner, eliminating entirely the dialogue, which is very instructive of class differences. Pitrè's servant flees without a thought for his destination: the providence of the tale leads him to the old woman just as it brought her to the queen at the beginning of the tale. Calvino's servant knows exactly where he is going:

He went to an aunt of his who was a fairy and possessed all the magic powders. The aunt took a powder suitable for apples under spells and another for bewitched maidens, and blended them.

The servant returned to the apple and sprinkled all the wounds with the mixture. The apple burst open, and out stepped the maiden in bandages and plaster casts.

Unlike the little old woman who appears at the crises in the original, this aunt, though called a fairy, reminds one of a pharmacist, mixing and dispensing drugs on demand. Calvino invents the bandages and plaster casts, and he disposes of the stepmother very gently: “The only person missing [from the wedding] was the stepmother, who fled and was never heard of again.” Calvino ends this tale with the narrator's rhyme.

C90 “I due gobbi” (“The Two Hunchbacks”), P1:22 “I du' gobbi” (“The Two Hunchbacks”). Type 503, The Gifts of the Little People. Motifs: F331.3 Mortal wins fairies' gratitude by joining in their song and completing it by adding the names of the days of the week, F344.1 Fairies remove hunchback's hump (or replace it), J2415 Foolish imitation of lucky man, Q161 Healing as reward.

Two hunchbacks, brothers, live together. The younger sets out to seek his fortune. After entering a wood he grows afraid of murderers and climbs a tree. Little old women come out of a cave and march around, singing “Saturday and Sunday.” He adds “and Monday.” They are so pleased with the addition they tell him to come down and ask for a boon. He says he would like to get rid of his hump, and they take it off and hang it on the tree. When he returns home his brother is wonderstruck at seeing him cured and decides to try his luck. The first hunchback warns him the old women may not remove his hump, but he leaves anyway. He climbs the tree, and when the women sing their song he adds “and Tuesday.” The addition spoils the meter, and the women are so enraged they take his brother's hump from the tree and stick it on the man, who returns home worse off than before. The tale ends with a rhyme: “Narrow is the leaf and broad the road:/Tell yours, I've told mine.”

Calvino has the old women saw off the hump with a butter saw and rub salve on the wound, whereas Pitrè leaves the means of removal to our imagination. Calvino's note in the English translation mentions no changes, but the Italian note explains that this detail comes from Temistocle Gradi, Saggio di letture varie. Two other small changes not mentioned in either the Italian or English note are these: Calvino's first hunchback does not warn his brother as does Pitrè's, and Calvino specifies that the second hump is put on the hunchback's chest. Calvino may have taken the latter detail from Vittorio Imbriani, La novellaja fiorentina, no. 43.

C91 “Cecino e il bue” (“Pete and the Ox”), P1:42 “Cecino” (“Little Chickpea”). Type 700, Tom Thumb. Motifs (P and C): F535.1.1.7 Thumbling swallowed by animals, F535.1.1.10 Thumbling hides in small place, F535.1.1.13 Thumbling carried in pocket, F911.3.1 Thumbling swallowed by animals, F915 Victim speaks from swallower's body, K335.1.6.2 Robbers frightened from goods by Thumbling. (C only): F535.1.1.11 Thumbling as accomplice to robbers, F535. Thumbling steals by entering keyhole. (P only): T548.4 Charity rewarded by birth of child.

A carpenter and his wife are childless, and the man berates his wife every night for having no children. The woman gives alms and pays for feasts at church to no avail. One day a beggar woman asks for something to eat and in exchange for two little loaves of bread gives the carpenter's wife a bag of 100 chickpeas, saying they will be so many boys in the morning. When the man and his wife awaken, the chickpeas are indeed little boys, yelling and screaming for food and drink. The carpenter is so exasperated by the din he takes a stick and kills them all, he thinks. One escapes, however, coming out of hiding only after his father leaves. At noon the wife sends this Little Chickpea to take lunch to his father. The carpenter is overjoyed to see his son and takes him on his rounds to repair farm implements, placing him on an ox's horn while he works. Two thieves come by and try to steal the ox, but Little Chickpea yells till his father comes. The thieves are so intrigued with him that they persuade the carpenter to sell his son.

They leave with him and steal three horses from the king's stable. When they reach home they tell Little Chickpea to feed the horses, but he falls in a feedbag and is eaten. When the thieves call out for him, Little Chickpea replies that he is inside one of the horses. They cut it open but cannot find him. They call again and Little Chickpea says he is in another horse. They cut the second horse open but still cannot find him. Giving up, they fling the carcasses into a meadow.

A wolf passes by and eats some of the horseflesh, swallowing Little Chickpea. When the wolf gets hungry again he attacks a goat, but Little Chickpea yells and summons the owner. The wolf thinks he has gas and breaks wind to get rid of it. He then attacks a mare, but again Little Chickpea summons the owner and again the wolf breaks wind to stop his stomach from rumbling. This time he expels Little Chickpea, who hides behind a rock.

Three thieves come by and stop by the rock to count their money. Little Chickpea mimics the counting thief, who thinks his partners are mocking him and kills them. When the echo continues he grows afraid and flees, leaving the sack of gold behind. Little Chickpea takes it home, and when he approaches the house he calls to his mother, who comes out to meet him. She tells him to be careful of the rain puddles, takes the money sack, and precedes him to the house. Little Chickpea falls in a puddle of dog urine and drowns. His mother and father come back to look for him and find him dead. The tale ends with a rhyme:

They sat there and they had a good time,
But they gave me nothing.
Narrow is the leaf and broad the road:
Tell yours, I've told mine.

In the note Calvino tells us:

Common to all the versions is extreme coarseness, which I endeavored to preserve in my draft. I deviated from the Florentine version only in the beginning, preferring the versions which present the transformation of peas into children as a curse rather than a blessing. I left out Pete's drowning in a pond at the end, to close in a better way. And I retained the slightly scatological overtone characteristic of children's stories.

Martin's translation of “pond” for “pozzanghera” (“filthy pool”) is slightly misleading, but even the Italian word hides the true nature of the puddle Little Chickpea drowns in. The Italian note is again fuller: in it Calvino says he chose the version of the tale in which the children are born due to a curse rather than a blessing because “mi sembra più ‘verosimile’” (“it seems to me more truthful”). Calvino reverses the characters of the two women and man in this tale. In P1:42 the wife is affectionate and religious; the carpenter (Calvino makes him a locksmith) is vicious. But the wife in C91 refuses a beggar woman's request for a bowl of the peas she is cooking and the beggar curses her: “May all the peas in the pot become so many children for you!” The boys are born immediately and the woman, not her husband, kills them, “crush[ing] them with the pestle as though she were making mashed peas.” The father plays a larger role in P1:42 than he does in C91. In the former he berates his wife for her barrenness, kills his sons, and sells Little Chickpea to the thieves. In C91, on the other hand, the father does not appear until Pete brings him his dinner, and it is the farmer who lets the thieves have Pete. Of course, Little Chickpea's mother has weak judgment, for she sends him to his murderous father and does not help Little Chickpea through the puddles.

Calvino also makes Pete's character inconsistent, for he has him help the thieves by crawling through the keyhole of the king's stable door and letting them in, whereas in Pitrè's version he maintains silence after they threaten him. This is significant, for Pitrè says in his note that it is just this point, the fact that Little Chickpea is not a thief, which distinguishes him from his French counterpart, Petit-Poucet. (Thumbling is an accomplice to the robbers in the Grimms' tale also, Motif F535.1.1.11.) By omitting Little Chickpea's anticlimatic death, Calvino again finishes with a strong ending: “Carrying the bag of money on his head, Pete went home and knocked on the door. His mother opened up and saw nothing but the bag of money. ‘Pete!’ she exclaimed. She lifted the bag, and there stood her son, whom she embraced.”


What is the effect of these changes? They can be grouped under several categories. First, Calvino usually deletes the narrator's intrusion at the end (in all tales but P1:24 a rhyme), retaining it only in two (C84 and C85). All these endings contrast the world of the fairy tale, its wonders and, usually, the prosperity of the hero or heroine, with that of the narrator. (Anthony Burgess, who notices this contrast in his review, would have been much more struck by it in Pitrè.) By leaving off these endings and closing on a strong note or with a punch line (e.g. C80 and C91), Calvino moves the tales in the direction of the literary short story (one thinks of Maupassant or O. Henry).

Second, he decreases the retributive justice: the cobbler does not appear in C84 and so is not burnt; in C85 the stepmother is not burnt during the wedding banquet. Of course, plenty of violence remains in the tales, but we have not seen Calvino adding more. By contrast, the Grimms treat the innocent more gently but the guilty more harshly than in their sources (Ellis 79).

Third, short as these tales are, Calvino shortens them further. This is especially evident in C80, C84, and C85. In the note to C80 Calvino says, “the notable feature of this version is the protagonist's speech, which makes him a full character—and that is rare in oral narrative,” yet he cuts characterizing details in this tale, and the dialogue he leaves out of C85, between the servant and the king and the servant and the stepmother, is very revealing of the servant's character and of social customs. The Grimms, on the other hand, usually lengthen their tales, often doubling them (Ellis 51–53).

Fourth, as he says in the introduction, he takes details from other versions in retelling the stories. We have seen in C85, C90, and C91 elements from other Italian versions and even, in C57, from the Grimms. This practice undermines his claim to represent the different regions of Italy, for with important changes in so many of the tales (the ogre left on the ferry à la Grimm, little Pete who helps steal, old women who saw off humps with butter saws, etc.) much of the local flavor disappears, and we are left with simply Italian or even European folktales.

Fifth, Calvino has a tendency to rationalize the tales and to fill gaps in the narrative. As noted in C57, the innkeeper does not perform the magic ritual to retrieve his daughter; she simply flees from the cave with the servant. This makes more sense: Why not just have her run away with her future husband? Why introduce magic here at all? But that is exactly what the original does. Again, Calvino's elimination of the last third of C80, the head episode, also makes rationalistic sense (“but since that brings an element of fantasy into an otherwise realistic narrative, I thought it best to exclude it”), but not fairytale sense, for this kind of distinction between “reality” and “fantasy” the folktale simply does not make. This cut alters the tale considerably, for the original conforms to the widespread Type 326, while Calvino's version does not. Calvino's expansion of the bird episode in C81 emphasizes the milkmaid's will and makes the bird into a suffering being like her: only after the bird's babies are killed does it yield to her prayer for help and bring the magic herb. Pitrè's bird, by contrast, is an agent of a providence which is watching over the princess and knows her need, strange though its ways may be. In C85 the apple is born through the agency of the queen's will, not from the old woman's blessing, and when the servant gets in trouble he knows exactly where to go, for his aunt just happens to be a fairy. For C90 Calvino chooses the version of the tale which makes the old women rustic surgeons, whereas in Pitrè they simply remove the hump, whether by magic or surgery the reader is free to guess. In these four tales it is especially easy to see Calvino changing the fabric of the tales, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, but in each increasing the human motivation and control. Ellis finds the Grimms consistently rationalizing the world of their tales, eliminating multiple possibilities and taming the supernatural (59, 63–64, 70, 92–93).

Sixth, Calvino bowdlerizes slightly. Although in the note to C91 he says he was careful to retain the coarseness of the original, his endings of this tale (not letting Pete drown in dog urine) and of C80, suppressing the episode of the simpleton watching himself defecate, sanitize them. Calvino may have been constrained by his publisher to eliminate such things.

Seventh, he reduces the religious references in the tales, omitting the specific practices the friars must do in C57 and the wife's gifts to charity and the church in C91 in order to have a child. And the original ending of C80 slyly criticizes the Church, for the priest cannot teach Johnny fear, but magic, which allows him to observe himself defecating, does.

Eighth, Calvino tightens most of these tales. For instance, he leaves the ogre on the ferry in C57, and he strengthens the theme of the envious stepsisters in C81 by eliminating the viceroy.

Misogyny may be a ninth category, but it is evident in only one tale (C91). Calvino's changes in the characters of Pete's mother and father (improving that of the father and worsening that of the mother) are very similar to what the Grimms did with the parents of Hansel and Gretel (Ellis 64–66, 72–74).


Decreasing the narrators' visibility, reducing retributive justice, condensing, conflating variants, rationalizing, bowdlerizing, reducing religion, and increasing the unity of the tales: all these things radically affect the impression of Italian folktales the reader receives from this collection. I would now like to examine the conclusions critics have in fact drawn from the book, but first I should discuss what seem to me the three most important generalizations about Italian folktales in Calvino's introduction:

  • 1) The natural cruelties of the folktale give way to the rules of harmony. The continuous flow of blood that characterizes the Grimms' brutal tales is absent. … Although the notion of cruelty persists … the narrative does not dwell on the torment of the victim … but moves swiftly to a healing solution. (xxix)
  • Calvino's condescension toward the Germans here is ironic in view of his borrowing from the Grimms in C57. Apparently he did not mind appropriating Germanic motifs if doing so improved the harmony in an Italian tale.

  • 2) “A continuous quiver of love runs through Italian folklore” (xxix). While three of the tales examined here (C80, C90, C91) have no romantic love in them, Calvino's tales often do deal with love. Moreover, he has taken no tales from Pietrè's Series 2, animal fables, nor Series 3, tales of tricksters, and these generally are not romantic. If the “continuous quiver of love” predominates in this collection it may reflect not so much Italian folklore as a whole as Calvino's desire to select “the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts”. (xix)
  • 3) The “realistic” foundation of many folktales, the point of departure spurred by dire need, hunger, or unemployment is typical of a large number of Italian popular narratives. … But the “realistic” state of destitution is not merely a starting point for the folktale, a sort of springboard into wonderland, a foil for the regal and the supernatural. There are folktales that deal with peasants from start to finish, with an agricultural laborer as hero, whose magic powers are merely complements to natural human strength and persistence. These folktales appear like fragments of an epic of laborers that never took shape. (xxxii)

As we have seen, it is Calvino who heightens this “realism,” who subordinates magic to the human will.


What, then, did reviewers of Calvino's book conclude about Italian folktales? They generally found what Calvino found. Brigante's translation received four reviews. Cantarella's generalization about Italian folktales foreshadows nearly all of the later reviews:

Their [the characters of the tales] refreshingly novel adventures, under the smiling skies of Italy, rarely include the blood-curdling elements of physical violence and truculence so often present in northern tales. Theirs is a gentler, warmer, more compassionate world in which magical powers are used merrily to happy ends.

Mulcahy's translation received five reviews. Theroux's comparative estimate of Italian folktales (“stories of monsters, princes, misfortunes and fantastic animals show the Italians no different from other nationalities in their folklore”) is significant because we will not see it again.

Martin's translation received over two dozen reviews. Nearly all of them praise the collection effusively. John Gardner considers the innocence of nineteenth-century Italians:

For sundry reasons, Italy never went through the kind of Romantic folk revival most of Europe went through in the 19th century—Germany at the time of the Grimm brothers, for instance. While the Germans and after them the French, Swedes and British were diligently hunting down tales and variants … while much of Europe was turning to the folktale in search of cultural roots, both linguistic and, loosely, magical—sunny Catholic Italy treated her tales as simply tales, changing them, localizing them, combining and recombining them more freely than did cultures more soberly concerned about their heritage.

(1, 40)

There is enough here to make Pitrè, Imbriani, Comparetti and the host of other Italian folklorists of the last century turn over in their graves. Gardner continues:

He [Calvino] adds, deletes or alters with wonderful reserve. … As a group they [Italian tales] contrast most sharply, to my mind, with the German and Austrian tales, which are among the most powerful to be found in all folklore but are often marred by gratuitous cruelty. … But there is relatively little of this in the Italian tales. … Tales are often set in real towns; witches live in actual houses on actual streets. … On the whole, the world of the Italian tale is gentle; its favorite theme is love. … Though girls may be transformed into apples or pears … the Italian tales are too fond of peasant wit, too fond of real-world cunning … too fond of the real sky, land and water of Italy to be anything but heartily realistic. … [T]he marvelous happens almost incidentally.


The title of Anthony Burgess' review (“Southern Sophistication”), though it may have been the creation of an editor, accurately reflects Burgess' attitude. He finds Italian folktales more literary than the German:

The Italian tales seem to have passed already through the alembic of sophisticated minds; they are literature in a way in which the Grimm tales are not. There is some brutality, but nothing on the scale of the German stories. … There is an unfolksy elegance … there is no sense, as in Grimm, of encountering the raw stuff of the fireside, retailed by an old gummy granny. The Italians have had a literature longer than the Germans and it shows. … [T]here is little religion in the Italian tales. … If these stories show nothing else, they demonstrate the innate paganism of the chief of the Christian nations. Or perhaps it had better be termed realism. Italian realism often comes out at the end of a tale in some such formula as: “Yes, they lived happy ever after, but we sit here shivering in the dark.”

John Updike notes some of the effects of Calvino's changes pointed out in the above analysis: “Not all [the changes] are inarguably happy. … Nor has he abstained from … softening the endings” (123). Updike, too, notices the absence of religion:

In the northern, Protestant half of Europe, a certain pietism in the atmosphere effortlessly deepens and chastens the fairy-tale texture. … In the Italian tales generally, trickery and blind chance have the world pretty much to themselves; piety is confined to a jocular cycle about Peter and Jesus, and what affection exists is magical and absolute, a kind of curse.


Updike has a fairly low opinion of folktales in general: “Folktales … their inner glint, their old life, is escapism. They were the television and pornography of their day, the life-lightening trash of pre-literate peoples” (126).

Neil Philip finds the collection fills a need for scholars on three counts: it fills a gap, Calvino alters the tales judiciously, and it allows one to identify “individual as well as local characteristics” (253). He finds humor the distinguishing feature of Italian folklore, and he notes a large number of tales with religious themes and with change of sex roles (women dressed as men).

Ursula Le Guin finds humor in the tales, “more sunlight” (34) than in British tales, and quotes from Calvino's introduction to show that Italian folktales are less cruel than the German. She considers this collection the Italian Grimms.

Jim Miller and Elaine Sciolino interviewed Calvino for their review, and what he told them echoes his views in the introduction, written some 25 years earlier: “Ours are less cruel than the Grimm tales. There are also a lot of realistic details. … Many of them are democratic” (103). The reviewers feel that Calvino is the Grimms of Italy and that he has surpassed his model: “Where Grimm plods, Calvino sings. In his tales, the supernatural seems positively sunny, as if a traveling fair had invaded the Black Forest” (103). Paul Gray also contrasts Calvino with the Grimms:

Calvino's collection throws open a sunny window to the south. … Italian bards [!] had little interest in the violence and gore that sometimes make for such Grimm [sic] reading … Instead of highlighting revenge, these stories radiate an innocent acceptance of the beauty and strangeness of life.

And Edmund Fuller accepts with some reservation Calvino's claim that Italian folktales are less cruel than the German.

The reviewer in the Scientific American speaks of the “more sophisticated, less isolated southern lands,” than what is not specified, and says:

“The Love of the Three Pomegranates”… may stand for the especially Italianate qualities in this cargo of wonders. The climate of sun and civility somehow brightens even the terrible punishment of the ugly Saracen, who condemned herself.

Perhaps the most careful review is that by Kristen Murtaugh, who actually took the trouble to look up some of Calvino's sources. She notes that Calvino is well known for his “spirit of geometry” or love of symmetry (381). She finds him changing names, adding or subtracting narrative details, drawing out latent thematic correspondences, creating new patterns of imagery, and particularly drawn to tales of women transformed into fruit or trees:

Often, however, it seems that the “precise rhythm” and “joyous logic” which he discerns … are really the result of Calvino's own inventiveness. … [W]hen Calvino speaks of the hybrid nature of his edition, we must remember the more literary qualities the popular tales assume as they are recast by a contemporary letterato, an accomplished and self-conscious practitioner himself of the art of the fable.



Although the present analysis is based on only one of Calvino's sources, it seems unlikely that extending the study to all of them would uncover a different pattern from that revealed here. Calvino's collection should not be dismissed, but it must be used with caution. It occupies middle ground between the purely popular and the scholarly collection: the bibliography in the introduction and notes (especially in the Italian version) is very useful, though it may be that the scholarly trappings themselves seduce critics into making generalizations about the Italian Volksgeist, nearly all of them using well-worn notions of sunny Latins versus stern Teutons.

Perhaps the following incident is more revealing of Calvino's attitude toward the tales than his introduction or the interview in Newsweek. In May 1980 a group had gathered at his home in Paris, and the conversation turned to the publication of Italian Folktales. One of the party insisted that Calvino had done either not enough or too much—the book was unsatisfactory for folklorists and students of literature. Calvino replied, “Anch'io ho diritto di produrre delle varianti”—“I too have the right to create variants” (Falassi).

Works Cited

Aarne, Antti. The Types of the Folk-Tale. Trans. and enl. by Stith Thompson. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1928.

Burgess, Anthony. “Southern Sophistication.” Times Literary Supplement 9 Jan. 1981: 29.

Calvino, Italo. Fiabe italiane. Torino: Einaudi, 1956.

———. Italian Fables. Trans. Louis Brigante. New York: Orion, 1959.

———. Italian Folk Tales. Trans. Sylvia Mulcahy. London: Dent, 1975.

———. Italian Folktales. Trans. George Martin, introduction trans. Catherine Hill. New York: Pantheon-Harcourt, 1980.

Cantarella, Helene. “Out of the Mouths of Peasants.” The New York Times Book Review 8 Nov. 1959: 64.

Cerrito, Gino. Preface. Novelle popolari toscane. By Giuseppe Pitrè. Palermo: Edikronos, 1981.

Ellis, John. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales. Chicago: U of Chicago, P, 1983.

Falassi, Alessandro. Letters to the author. 17 March and 6 August 1986.

Fuller, Edmund. “Masterful Stories from the Italian Tradition.” The Wall Street Journal 29 Dec. 1980: 8.

Gardner, John. “For All Who Like Stories.” The New York Times Book Review 12 Oct. 1980: 1, 40–41.

Gray, Paul. “Magic from Long-Forgotten Tales.” Time 6 Oct. 1980: 101.

Imbriani, Vittorio. La novellaja fiorentina. Livorno: Vigo, 1877.

Le Guin, Ursula. The New Republic 27 Sept. 1980: 33–34.

Miller, Jim and Elaine Sciolino. “A Master of Enchantment.” Newsweek 17 Nov. 1980: 103, 105.

Murtaugh, Kristen. Commonweal 19 June 1981: 381–82.

Philip, Neil. Folklore 2 (1981): 253–54.

Pitrè, Giuseppe. Novelle popolari toscane. Vol. 30, 2 pts., in Edizione nazionale delle opere complete. Roma: Società editrice del libro italiano, 1941.

Scientific American Dec. 1980: 56.

Theroux, Paul. “Hey, Juve.” New Statesman 7 Nov. 1975: 586.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. Rev. and enl. ed. 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.

Updike, John. New Yorker 23 Feb. 1981: 120–26.

John Gery (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4788

SOURCE: “Love and Annihilation in Calvino's Qfwfq Tales,” in Critique, Vol. 30, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 59–68.

[In the following essay, Gery surveys the major themes of Calvino's Qfwfq tales in Cosmicomics and t zero.]

In “Without Colors,” one of the twelve stories in Italo's Calvino's Cosmicomics, Qfwfq, the narrator of the stories (as well as of the first seven stories in their companion volume t-zero), describes in great detail the transformation of the earth's surface from what was once a colorless, silent, dull, and rocky planet without air or water to its more recent form with its “pea-green lawns where the first scarlet poppies were flowering” and with “those canary-yellow fields which striped the tawny hills sloping down to the sea full of azure glints” (Cosmicomics 59–60). As is the case with all the Qfwfq tales, though, what is remarkable about “Without Colors” is that Qfwfq recounts this massive and slow change in the context of his own individual past, and it serves as the backdrop for his love affair with Ayl, a woman who, like Qfwfq, is adapted to this primordial landscape. Early in the story, as Qfwfq runs along the “very uneven terrain” of his world “in the absence of color,” he first distinguishes Ayl, whom he can barely see, only as “a kind of colorless flash running swiftly,” and all he can make out of her appearance are “two flattened glows” serving as eyes (52). Yet he immediately falls in love with her, because to Qfwfq, the colorless Ayl is beautiful.

At first Qfwfq tries to appeal to Ayl by demonstrating their similarities in substance, as opposed to the rocks, and by pointing out the beauty of the faint glimmers around them. But light, color, and sound all threaten Ayl's very existence. Only colorlessness and darkness can preserve her for Qfwfq: “Night fell,” he says, “the first I had spent not embracing a rock,” yet even the light of the stars tends “at every moment to erase Ayl, to cast doubt on her presence” (54).

The critical difference between Qfwfq and Ayl is each's ability to survive change. Always changing, Qfwfq is forever “seeking a new world beyond the pallid patina that imprisoned everything,” whereas Ayl is the “happy inhabitant” of silence and “visual neutrality” (54). She cannot and will not adapt to the inevitable transformation of the earth into a place of color, because for her a world with color means the loss of her colorless self. Despite Qfwfq's relentless searching for her after she disappears into “the bowels of the earth” to escape the birth of color and sound above, despite Qfwfq's own fascination with this new world of color, a world he deems “finally worthy of Ayl's beauty” (57), Ayl herself resists change and ultimately Qfwfq loses her to it. Only afterwards does he recognize her intractable identification with the world without color, but when he does, suddenly the new world with color seems

so trivial to me, so banal, so false, so much in contrast with Ayl's person, with Ayl's world, with Ayl's idea of beauty, that I realized her place could never have been out here. And I realized, with grief and fear, that I had remained out here … and that Ayl's perfect world was lost forever, so lost I couldn't even imagine it anymore.


“Without Colors” embodies three ironic perceptions characteristic of Calvino's Qfwfq tales: (1) our present world, one that at first may appear more appealing than its predecessors, is rendered as an unimaginable and terrifying future to those who live in what may strike us as a desolate past; (2) Qfwfq, the Protean survivor of the distant past into the present, has only survived by adapting to change, an ability which requires of him the desire always to become what he is not, rather than to protect or preserve what he is (Fontana 147);1 and (3), the very nature of love, in this case Qfwfq's love for Ayl, can only be understood through the annihilation of what each character is: Qfwfq thinks that only the world of color is “worthy of Ayl's beauty,” but to show that world to her he must, in fact, lie to her in order to lure her to the earth's surface; she, in turn, refuses to give herself up to that world; yet whether she does or she doesn't, the inevitability of the earth's changing to a world of color renders her “lost forever,” even beyond Qfwfq's imagination. (A further irony here, of course, is that Qfwfq's telling of this tale actually disproves that Ayl is lost beyond imagination. Indeed, what distinguishes Qfwfq as a fictional consciousness is precisely his ability to survive annihilation by imagining the meaningful existence of that which he is not.)

Stories of a loss in the past, creating the possibility for the present's coming into being, appear throughout Cosmicomics. For instance, in the book's opening story, “The Distance of the Moon,” Qfwfq is found in pursuit of the elusive Mrs. Vhd Vhd all the way to the moon, yet despite that once he gets there with her “everything exceeded my most luminous hopes” (14), for Qfwfq to remain on the moon indefinitely becomes a form of “exile”: “The fulfillment of my dream of love had lasted only that instant when we had been united,” he tells us, but “torn from its earthly soil, my love now knew only the heartrending nostalgia for what it lacked: a where, a surrounding, a before, an after” (14). Not so for Mrs. Vhd Vhd, though. Her only desire is “to become the Moon, to be assimilated into the object of that extrahuman love” (14). Unable to give himself up to his love, Qfwfq instead is “driven by a natural power that ordered me to return to the Earth” (16), so he goes home. Yet upon his return, whenever the moon is full, like the dogs around him, he finds himself howling for Mrs. Vhd Vhd, the one who “makes the Moon the Moon” but who will forever be apart from him.

Similarly, in “All at One Point,” in which all matter and life are concentrated into a single point in space, it is the desirable Mrs. Ph(i)Nko (portrayed by Calvino as something like an Italian mama) who through her “generous desire to make her companions spaghetti unleashes the forces of the universe” (Adler 42), thus “initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, … making possible billions and billions of suns” (Cosmicomics 47). But the moment Mrs. Ph(i)Nko lovingly makes such a universe possible, she herself is “lost” to its very multiplicity, while the ever adaptable Qfwfq survives the universe's expansion, only to mourn the loss of the one everyone loved.

Later stories, such as “My Aquatic Uncle” and “The Dinosaurs,” further elaborate on these two kinds of personal annihilation. In the former tale, in which Qfwfq loses the beautiful Lll to his fish uncle, he concludes with a statement of admiration for those creatures in the evolutionary process who resist transformation or even evolution itself, those who like the duck-billed platypus or the dinosaur belong exclusively to some distinct past or future epoch and whose conviction to their own way of being is such that they have “discovered a way to remain immobile through the centuries” (82). Creatures such as Lll, with such deep commitments to who they are, “all had something that made them superior to me, sublime, something that made me, compared to them, mediocre,” confesses Qfwfq. “And yet,” he adds, “I wouldn't have traded places with any of them” (82). Why not? Because for Qfwfq the commitment to wholeness guarantees a being's eventual extinction, and he wants to survive. On the other hand, for Qfwfq to survive evolutionary change involves a different, yet equally devastating self-annihilation, the loss of the self as it is absorbed into the process of change.2

Such a dichotomous view of personal annihilation—whether through a refusal to adapt to change or through change itself—seems a Romantic paradigm, at least in part. As Ernest Fontana writes, “For Calvino, the universe is characterized by change and transformation, new beginnings, but none of these is final or fixed” (148). Nevertheless, he adds,

transformation also brings loss, separation, and, consequently, desire. … Although the superceded configurations of matter are absent, they survive as memories, as nexuses of desire, love, and myth. That which becomes absent is as wonderful as that which becomes present.


With his evolutionary drive, the Protean Qfwfq desires that which is absent, whether it is that which is lost or that which has yet to become. His is a “(doomed) desire for wholeness,” which, as Marilyn Schneider has noted, “has preoccupied Calvino since his early writing” (94). In Schneider's view, though, this desire for wholeness has les to do with romantic love than with a more generalized “quest for wholeness”:

The erotic relationships illustrate the tentions of desire as an internal psychic force and as a way of perceiving reality. They also allegorize the writer's relationship to his writing. In short, the sexual factor is broadly metaphoric and mythic.


Another Calvino critic, Jo Ann Cannon, takes a somewhat different, though equally meta-narrative approach to the significance of Qfwfq's sexual desire, when she writes,

although the protagonist's pursuit of the same woman for several millenia suggests a certain coherence in the character, his changing form … reminds us that the name is in fact pure convention. The thematic devices unmask the absence of a stable sign or persona in the text. … Qfwfq is in fact the epitome of a grammatical persona; the only thing which Qfwfq's numerous reincarnations have in common is their exercise of language.


Though both these critics are right to delve into the structuralist and semiotic nature of the Qfwfq tales, both the technique of the stories and their preoccupation with human-like relationships strongly suggest they have a basis in something more than their own allegorical or metaphysical language. In discussing Calvino's method of composition, Sara Maria Adler describes how he lets his ideas evolve freely in the course of writing simply for “the pleasure of starting out with an idea and letting it evolve according to the logic of his imagination” (15). And although such a technique may result in a “tendency toward repetitiveness” (18) in both Cosmicomics and the later book t-zero, through the course of the tales Calvino's ideas about love and annihilation gradually evolve away from a strict concern with personal annihilation through self-transformation toward a concern with self-annihilation through evolution, a concern more deeply rooted in biological than in ontological thinking. After all, a primary intent of these twenty-one tales seems to be a “humanizing of biological and physical theory” (Fontana 153), particularly attested to by Calvino's overt use of epigraphs for each story taken from his eclectic readings in physics, astronomy, and genetics.

That is not to suggest that the Qfwfq tales do not lend themselves to semiotic analyses. But underneath such analyses, what is so appealing about these tales, I think, especially to readers living in an age of potential nuclear annihilation, is their unique combination of the imagined annihilation of species and the imagined extension of some aspect of the self beyond such annihilation. As it develops through Cosmicomics and t-zero, Qfwfq's conception of love slowly evolves from love expressed as simple self-annihilation of the other to love expressed as the urge to evolve, the urge to produce (whether literally or figuratively) a new being which, in its coming into being, supercedes its own progenitor—thus rendering its own progenitor without meaning while it carries within itself the history and will of that parent.

Three examples from t-zero best substantiate this shift from love as a romantic urge to love as a biological one. In “Crystals,” the third tale in the book, Qfwfq at first professes to a love of order, not as is commonly held as a “repression of the instincts,” but as the opposite. “In me,” he says, “the idea of an absolutely regular world, symmetrical and methodical, is associated with that first impulse and burgeoning of nature, that amorous tension—what you call eros—while all the rest of your images, those that according to you associate passion with disorder, love with intemperate overflow—river fire whirlpool volcano—for me are memories of nothingness and listlessness and boredom” (t-zero 31). yet as with most of the female characters in Cosmicomics, what attracts Qfwfq to Vug in “Crystals” is her very opposition to his ideas about order and time: Whereas Qfwfq can imagine a future world of “slow uniformed expansion” by the crystalline logic that appeals to his sensibility, Vug “already seemed to know that the law of living matter would be infinite separating and rejoining” (36). As Vug persistently tries to get Qfwfq to admit that “real order carries impurity within itself, destruction” (37), he stubbornly resists her. But this story ends not with the personal annihilation of one character or the other; instead, by their merging in the end, though both characters succomb, neither is lost. Everything surrounding Qfwfq at the story's close is crystalline yet imperfectly so: “The victory of the crystals (and of Vug),” he concludes, “has been the same thing as their defeat (and mine)” (38). The crystals neither exist any longer nor disappear altogether; they simply evolve into something else.

In similar fashion, both the penultimate tale “Blood, Sea” and the final tripartite tale “Priscilla” build toward “a finale that doesn't conclude” (92). In “Blood, Sea,” the primordial background is the time before life had evolved into its present stage of individuated bodies, the time when all living cells mingled freely with each other. The story opens in the present with its four characters—Signor Cécere, Jenny Fumagalli, Zylphia, and Qfwfq—going for a weekend joyride in a Volkswagen that is headed for disaster. En route, however, sitting in the back seat with the alluring Zylphia, the ever adaptable Qfwfq starts thinking back on their ancient past, when he and Zylphia as cells swam happily in that “sea where living creatures were at one time immersed,” but which “is now enclosed within their bodies,” as the tale's epigraph says (40). For Qfwfq, during that glorious evolutionary stage, “this business of having the vital element in common was a beautiful thing inasmuch as the separation between me and Zylphia was so to speak overcome and we could feel ourselves at the same time two distinct individuals and a single whole” (46). Because of his current love for Zylphia and his strong distaste for Signor Cécere and Jenny Fumagalli, Qfwfq wistfully recalls his once powerful desire in that premorphic state to reproduce with Zylphia, in order “to multiply our presence in the sea-blood” (47) and to oppress the undesirable presence of the others. Yet in thinking through the logic of this desire to reproduce, Qfwfq comes upon a paradox:

… from the moment when blood becomes “our blood,” the relationship between us and blood changes, that is, what counts is the blood insofar as it is “ours,” and all the rest, us included, counts less. So there was in my impulse toward Zylphia, not only the drive to have all the ocean for us, but also the drive to lose it, the ocean, to annihilate ourselves in the ocean, to destroy ourselves, to torment ourselves. …


In their present, embodied state, Signor Cécere's risky maneuvers with the Volkswagon constitute for Qfwfq (and for Calvino) a false risk, because the only potential outcome is a violent crash, a crash which indeed occurs but which can only result in “a false return to a sea of blood which [can] no longer be blood or sea” (46) but merely “a number in the statistics of accidents over the weekend” (51). Real annihilation of the self occurs only through the perpetuation of some other coming out of the self—just as the evolutionary perpetuation of bodies has separated one individual's sea-blood from another's and has rendered forever obsolete the chance of returning to that earlier phase, “because our present inside once it is poured out becomes our present outside and it can no longer return to being the outside of the old days” (50). The auto crash kills only the four joyriders, not their entire species, whereas Qfwfq's amorous pursuit of Zylphia (and hers of him) will ultimately lead to the annihilation of who they are and the generation of a new state of being.

The most detailed and thorough explanation of Calvino's intricate paradox of love and annihilation, however, appears in “Priscilla,” Qfwfq's account of evolving from a single-celled organism to a cell which reproduces sexually.4 This story, which is more of an exposition than a narration, divides into three parts—“Mitosis” (single-cell reproduction), “Meiosis” (the self-diminishing through its awareness of the other), and “Death” (the loss of the self); however, it is significant that the longest section is Part I, “Mitosis,” before the character of Priscilla appears, because it is in that section where Qfwfq concerns himself with love and desire exclusive of any particular object. Part I begins:

… And when I say “dying of love,”—Qfwfq went on,—I mean something you have no idea of, because you think falling in love has to signify falling in love with another person, or thing, or what have you, in other words I'm here and what I'm in love with is there …, whereas I'm talking about the times before I had established any relationships between myself and anything else, there was a cell and the cell was me, and that was that.

(t-zero 59)

From this point forth, Qfwfq describes his own feelings as he systematically develops from simply being a cell, to being aware of being a cell, to becoming aware of time and space around him (or it, since at this point he has no sexual identity), to feeling simultaneously “satisfaction and the burning desire to do something with space” (63), to developing a “love for this elsewhere, this other time, this otherwise, silent and void” (64), to entering a state of desire that he assiduously explains is not the result of a state of lack but a growth from a state of satisfaction (66), to feeling a desire for movement, and finally, to needing “to stretch to my full width” (69), in order to fill the void around him (or it). Yet at that climactic moment in which Qfwfq finally reproduces himself into two cells, according to his own genetic code, he discovers he is both fully himself and not himself at all (69).5

Genetically speaking, in single-cell reproduction, even though a cell reproduces an exact likeness of itself, it does so by splitting into two so that the original cell itself is no longer there. Consequently, neither of the two cells produced is “parent” to the other. During this process of splitting, Qfwfq can only survive, as he says, through a “sense of plurality” (72), because although his genetic stamp is carried on, his awareness of himself as a nucleus has disappeared, and

at the same moment I realized that my moving out of myself was an exit of no return, without possible restitution of the me that now I realize I'm throwing away without its possible restitution to me ever, and then comes the death agony that precipitates triumphantly because life is already elsewhere. …


Despite this certainty of self-annihilation coming from substantial change, however, for Qfwfq “what matters is the moment when wrenching yourself from yourself you feel in a flash the union of past and future” (74). As a being capable of complete transformation, unlike the rest of us, Qfwfq can experience humanly both the prehistoric past and the apocalyptic future, but what he most celebrates is the moment of their union: that essence of life that survives individual death, self-annihilation, even the annihilation of species or genera in the evolutionary process from single-celled existence toward sexual reproduction and, ultimately, human life. (At the close of “Mitosis,” he abruptly reminds us of this connection when he refers, in a seemingly off-hand manner, to his chance encounter with Priscilla Langwood “coming toward me from the void of the elsewhere” in her “red coat little black boots bangs freckles” [74].)

In “Meiosis,” as he reflects on his desire for Priscilla, whether as a “maternal cell,” a woman, or even a female camel, Qfwfq acknowledges that for each sexual being, life is created by the tension between “a general past to which all individual pasts refer but which no matter how far you go back doesn't exist except in the form of individual cases” (80), on the one hand, and each individual encounter in the present, on the other—an encounter which Qfwfq may have a sense of as “an impulse toward the afterward” but which, more precisely stated, is “the final action of the past that is fulfilled through us” (81) and that inevitably becomes the unknowable past of those who are born after us. In other words, Qfwfq concludes that his desire for Priscilla is in itself meaningless, since it is not a fusion of two independent beings but merely “a juxtaposition of two distinct bodies”: “Nobody was lost in the other,” he complains, “nobody has given in or has given himself; the two cells now one are packaged together but just as they were before: the first they feel is a slight disappointment” (81). “Void, separation and waiting, that's what we are,” he adds later (82), and still later,

it's pointless for us to run, Priscilla, to meet each other and follow each other: the past disposes of us with blind indifference. … We were only the preparation, the envelope, for the encounter of pasts which happens through us but which is already a part of another story, the story of the afterward: the encounters always take place before and after us, and in them the elements of the new, forbidden to us, are active: chance, risk, improbability.


There is anything but a romantic or inflated sense of self-importance in this passage. What Qfwfq (and Calvino, I suspect) have stumbled upon, in an attempt to tell a love story about two cells, is the necessity of telling that story within its larger genetic context, even beyond individual consciousness, in order to provide meaning to the individual life. Even if we cannot be certain whether we are the consequence of “the sum of dominant characteristics of the past,” or we are “what descends from the succession of defeated characteristics” (82), even if our lives themselves are “not free” though “surrounded by freedom” (84), and even if our individual existences “are only meeting places for messages from the past” (85) so that love is nothing but “the encounter of two individuals who don't exist” (85)—what Qfwfq finally deduces is that the reason for our own absence (or uncertainty of our presence) is our integration, our utter entanglement, with a past we cannot know, as well as with a future we can only imagine but for which we will only serve as an unknowable past.

Not only despite that, but because our existence is, at best, “an interval of void” at moments “grazed by the wave which continues to renew combinations of molecules and to complicate them or erase them,” each individual love story “cannot be separated from the story of all the rest of what exists, and therefore from the story of what doesn't exist and, not existing, causes what does exist to exist” (85). As we discover with Ayl, Mrs. Vhd Vhd, Lll, Vug, Zylphia, and others in the Qfwfq tales, individual self-annihilation in the past has created the condition making possible some new combination “in the temporal and spatial distribution of living cells,” and in the present, our own certainty of dying, of not remaining unchanged (as uncertain or unknowable as the nature of that change may be) assures us “that something happens or has happened or will happen which involves us directly and—I would dare say—happily and totally” (86). We may not know what role we play in living, nor whether we have already played it, nor what unimaginable consequences our role may effect, but the fact of the uncertainty of our very existence proves for Calvino its function: We engage in love not to gain our own immortality (since we cannot even be assured of our own independent existence, let alone its continuity beyond our lives), but to create the possibility for that which is not us but which depends on us for its potential to survive us.6

As paradoxical as it seems, our own annihilation is the best course to follow to guarantee the existence of something afterward, to the extent that “what doesn't exist … causes what does exist to exist.” Such annihilation, though, is not a self-aggrandized urge to transcend this existence toward some other, but a more modest endeavor. For Qfwfq, “dying of love” is finally a biological and metaphysical necessity for the continuity of life and the survival of consciousness, human or otherwise. And for me, in reading Calvino, the significant irony is that real self-annihilation in love is neither selfless nor self-destructive so much as it is acting in concert with what, in any other context, would be recognizable as the instinctive nature of all life to abide, to preserve that part of itself which is both itself and not itself, to carry on.


  1. Ernest L. Fontana does a good job of analyzing the Protean nature of the Qfwfq of Cosmicomics in his piece “Metamorphoses of Proteus: Calvino's Cosmicomics.” He defines Qfwfq as “the continuity, the undifferentiated Protean urge that endures so long as matter endures. Like Proteus, none of his transformations is final, none of them exhaustible of his creative plentitude” (147).

  2. The end of the story “The Dinosaurs,” where Qfwfq comes upon his own son by the “Half-Breed,” best demonstrates this total loss of self. As the last dinosaur, Qfwfq is not even recognized for what he is by the villagers or “New Ones,” who call him “The Ugly One” yet continue to spin all sorts of horrific legends about the supposedly “extinct” dinosaurs. “Our extinction had been a grandiose epilogue, worthy of our past” (109), Qfwfq says, and “I knew that the more Dinosaurs disappear, the more they extend their dominion … in the labyrinth of the survivors' thoughts” (111). But when he questions his own son, whom he secretly considers “so perfect, so full of his own Dinosaur essence” (112), about his identity, the innocent son unknowingly responds, “What a question! Everybody knows that: I'm a New One!” Having thus been entirely annihilated as a dinosaur, through biological as well as psychic erasure, Qfwfq sees he has no choice but to go to the nearest train station and to go to another evolutionary state.

  3. Ten pages later, Cannon adds, “Le cosmicomiche and Ti con zero are permeated by a kind of nostalgia for a prelinguistic or pre-semiotic era distinguished by the presence of things rather than the absence inherent in the notion of sign” (63). I would argue, however, that it is less “a kind of nostalgia” than a logically yet imaginatively developed mental exercise in the creation of such a prehistoric era through a narrator who operates on the assumptions of a linguistic era.

  4. Marilyn Schneider provides an etymological interpretation of the name of “Priscilla” for the other, or feminine, force in this story: “As a diminutive of Prisco, the name carries its Latin sense of anteriority; more specifically, anteriority to the turbulent Scylla of classical myth,” the beautiful sea nymph loved by Glaucus who was transformed by the jealous Circe into a sea monster—thus combining “sirenic attraction and violent destructiveness” (94). Nonetheless, even with this explanation, Part I of the story remains “pre-Priscilla,” as it were.

  5. Evidently, this section of “Priscilla” embodies exactly Georges Bataille's description of single-cell reproduction, as quoted by Calvino as the first of a series of epigraphs preceding the story (t-zero 55–56).

  6. This dependence is most clearly demonstrated in Part III of “Priscilla” (“Death”), where Qfwfq points out the evolutionary paradox in which single-celled organisms—which are able to produce exact likenesses of themselves—have strangely come to be dependent for their environment on organisms that reproduce sexually and are, therefore, slated for annihilation: “So the world of the eternals,” he says, “has been incorporated into the world of the perishable, and their immunity to death serves to guarantee us our mortal condition” (t-zero 91).

Works Cited

Adler, Sara Maria. Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker. Potomac, Maryland: José Porrua Turanzas, S. A. Studia Humanitatis Series, 1979.

Calvino, Italo. Cosmicomics. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1968.

———. t-zero. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1969.

Cannon, Jo Ann. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1981.

Fontana, Ernest L. “Metamorphoses of Proteus: Calvino's Cosmicomics.Perspectives on Contemporary Literature 5 (1979): 147–54.

Schneider, Marilyn. “Calvino's Erotic Metaphor and the Hermaphroditic Solution.” Stanford Italian Review 2:1 (Spring 1981): 93–118.

David Porush (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10397

SOURCE: “Cybernetic Fiction and Postmodern Science,” in New Literary History, Vol. 20, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 373–96.

[In the following essay, Porush evaluates the impact of recent scientific developments—particularly the growth of cybernetics and postmodern scientific thought—on Calvino's work.]

The poem is a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.

Paul Valéry, Literature

And so the author vanishes—that spoiled child of ignorance—to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works.

Italo Calvino, “Cybernetics and Ghosts”

I can no longer accept any situation other than this transformation of ourselves into the messages of ourselves.

Italo Calvino, T-Zero

For the first time in the long and fruitful relationship between literature and science, literature actually has the means to meet science on its own territory in a contest concerning which epistemological activity does a better job of telling the truth. Until quite recently, literature and science have been limited to an occasional polite exchange of metaphors, with the largest debt undoubtedly on literature's side. At the very least, literature was immersed in the same world view as science, and gave more poetic expression to verities found in mathematics. At the very best, literature could no more than act as an accomplice to the nature portrayed by science, or demonstrate nature at play in her own fields. But two related scientific developments have conspired to give literature the power to contest science's supremacy as an epistemological force, and on science's own terms.

The first of these intertwined developments is the rise of cybernetics, which quite simply has mathematized and scientized the very stuff of literature: that is, communication and information. The second development is the current emergence of a postmodern paradigm in science paralleling the well-documented literary one.


Cybernetics offers one of the most broadly influential paradigms of our era. Consequently, cybernetic fiction (along with certain kinds of modern, hypertechnologized music such as punk rock), by effectively resisting the cybernetic paradigm from within qualifies as one of the more robust and relevant genres of contemporary literature.1 The cybernetic view of the cosmos and everything in it as elaborate information machinery is a seductive one. Cybernetic fiction offers an equally tantalizing counternarrative.

If we must characterize our era with slogans, I suggest we ought to call it “The Cybernetic Age” rather than “The Information Age.” Focusing on the whole cybernetic movement in science, rather than the phenomenon of information it embraces, adds a much needed cultural context to the discussion.2 Where information is a neutral and abstract term, like energy or matter or space or time, the word cybernetics has more troubling implications. Since it treats both humans and machines as systems of control and communication, it explicitly suggests a collapse of distinctions between them. Since it assumes that the metaphor “The Brain is a Machine” is literally accurate, it has promoted this as a powerful model for research in cognition, artificial intelligence, and behavioral science. Indeed, cybernetics is, by Norbert Wiener's definition, the science that seeks those laws of communication that apply equally to living beings and machines.3 Furthermore, this collapse of distinctions has successfully colored the way we work, speak, think, plan, and play in the culture at large. Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, the broader term cybernetics more accurately reflects the larger concerns of literary texts and theory, not by using the abstractions of science for their own sake, but by working with the assumptions about human knowing and telling tacit in those abstractions.

Cybernetics entails a powerful metaphysics. By suggesting that everything in the knowable universe can be modeled in a system of information, from the phase shifts of subatomic particles to the poet's selection of a word in a poem, to the rent in the fabric of spacetime created by a black hole, it returns science to a neoclassical position of certainty and mechanism.

The birth of cybernetics in the 1940s was fueled by certain advances in communications technology. But the primary impetus to the cybernetic view came from scientists who felt that troubling new discoveries in quantum physics, which originated twenty years earlier, called for a refutation. Specifically, quantum physics shoved the human observer's uncertainty into the center of the scientific stage, interposing human indeterminacy between the scientist's theory and reality. Cybernetics was framed as a response to what for many, including Einstein and Wiener, was an intolerable situation. It sprang from a neoclassical urge to banish probabilism or uncertainty from science, to co-opt the human role in favor of logic. Wiener reveals the depth to which a Manicheistic metaphysics motivated his theory (and also his leaden prose) when he writes about this struggle in The Human Use of Human Beings: “This random element, this organic incompleteness [proposed by Heisenbergian physics], is one which without too violent a figure of speech we may consider evil; the negative evil which St. Augustine characterizes as incompleteness.”4

Cybernetics' tactic here ranks as one of the great philosophical tricks of the century. Acting on a suggestion made by Leo Szilard as early as 1922, Wiener and Claude Shannon in the 1940s took the formula for thermodynamic randomness (entropy) and used it to define the randomness which provides the necessary precursor for information, and then also called it entropy. From there, it was one small step to define information as negentropy. This little trick had powerful consequences. It appropriated the idea that the human introduced uncertainty into the system—which many phenomenologists, but especially Heidegger and Poincaré, have subsequently viewed as a refutation of determinism from within science's own method—and defined it as nothing more or less than a precondition for having a quantifiable amount of information. Cybernetics thereby managed to subsume the messiness of the human observer's role into a system of positive math.

Wiener aptly named the science after the Greek word for “governor” (or “pilot” or “steersman”), kybernos. A governor is a servo-mechanism, a controlling device that mediates the feedback loop of information between sender and receiver; a servo-mechanism could be a thermostat (mediating between room temperature and oil burner), or a cruise control on your auto (mediating between accelerator and engine speed), or a literary text (mediating between a reader and her own knowledge), or an observer of an electron (mediating between the electron's position and momentum and his knowledge about that electron). From the point of view of cybernetics, all of the above obey the same laws and therefore are metaphysically indistinguishable.5

However abstruse this struggle between cybernetics and quantum physics may be, however, its consequences have trickled down to us in powerful material forms. The success of the cybernetic metaphor has virtually altered the way we view the world and has created one of the most pervasive contemporary myths we have, one so powerful that we have taken it for granted, even as we inhabit it. The surface signs of the total operation of this myth are everywhere in the pop culture, however; for example, Max Headroom, a computer-generated character plagued by electrical tics, has become a cultural hero in Europe and on television commercials here. MTV's hypertechnologized music/dance videos blur the line, thematically, between humans and robots and, visually, between free-hand animation, computer-generated graphics, and simple videotape or mimetic film. The most common advertisements glorify and perfect the human body by mechanizing it. Our past decade's obsession with the computer is quickly evolving into the next decade's obsession with artificial intelligence devices and robots.

At the same time, cybernetics has spawned and aided a number of subdisciplines, including cryptography, behaviorism, robotics, prosthetic engineering, computational linguistics, neurochemistry, information science, brain science, general systems dynamics, game theory, computer modeling, and so on. We see its influence in the prevalence of “expert systems,” software packages that supposedly are able to climb various professional decision trees (from medical diagnosis to legal brief writing to tax preparation, even to instruction in composition). It is apparent in the erosion of privacy as a result of the massive uploading and correlation of trivial information about us and our transactions, but it is equally apparent in a new kind of freedom of expression enabled by personal computers that give us desktop publishing and private access to huge libraries of information. Perhaps the surest sign of the radical energy of this myth is that it has displaced traditional children's imaginings, expressed in their toys and cartoons. To know an American seven-year-old today is to know Gobots and Transformers.6


As is true whenever a new paradigm is about to emerge, critics, historians, sociologists and other culture watchers struggle to give it a name and then, in a more protracted and bloody battle, to define it. In part this struggle reflects the predictable confusion over what to call whatever it is we're in at any given moment, but part of it stems from a desire to own the bragging rights to a new territory. No term has suffered from such a struggle more than postmodernism.

Even so, there are constants to most discussions of postmodernism, and these constants emerge in most of postmodernism's manifestations, whether literary or artistic or scientific. In fact, the unities of postmodern expression are so great, it is probably more accurate to talk of literary postmodernism and scientific postmodernism as two aspects of a single enterprise.

Postmodernism has two interconnected points of departure, both of which privilege literature. First, postmodernism places the self-conscious activities of the human observer/scientist/teller—and consequently the making of narratives—in the center of things.7 Second, postmodernism stresses the paradoxical power of structures of information and codes. That is, while the postmodern position states that codes create reality, postmodernism does not trust codes to tell the whole truth. Indeed, from the postmodern perspective codes are cultural artifacts, cannot be both complete and consistent (as Goedel's Theorem suggests), and, in philosophical terms, are “glosses on silence”; they do a good job of delivering information, but they are less successful at capturing an underlying inexpressible, inchoate, silent realm where meaning resides. Consequently, from a postmodern view, all narratives, including scientific ones, contain their own deconstruction. If one looks hard enough, scientific discourse, like other postmodern narratives, plays on the tension between order and chaos, sense and nonsense, information and silence. And by postmodern standards, the most potent narratives are those that include the self-consciousness of the author, a calculation for the position of the observer, and an expression for the paradoxes and failures of the narrative code.

As a consequence of the popularity of postmodern deconstructions, the generic divisions of the sciences, the cultural neutrality of science, the nomenclatures and taxonomies of science, and even the very logic of the sciences have all been called into question. Unfortunately, these attacks have for the most part come from without the fortress of science, while scientists have largely ignored the claims laid upon their objectivity by humanists eager to diminish science's authority. However, there is another set of arguments—by far the most convincing—for the emergence of a postmodern paradigm, a set which has come from science itself. These pieces of evidence no longer rely solely on the shopworn clichés of Heisenbergianism. Though it is true that uncertainty over the position of the electron leads to an ineluctable connection between the observer and the observed,8 Heisenberg's Theorem has been much abused by literary scholars and critics of science, many of whom have seized upon it as definitive proof of the collapse of scientific objectivity and certainty in general.9

But other developments in the sciences are even more convincingly postmodern. For instance, a number of works such as Quantum Reality by Nick Herbert and Other Worlds by Paul Davies portray an underlying fabric of forces and particles, revealed by physical experimentation, that undermines the fundamental structure of reality on which the rest of the sciences rely.10 One of the most powerful of these deconstructions rests on Bell's Interconnectedness Theorem. Bell's Proof11 has led physicists to conclude that local operations (such as measuring light quanta) have nonlocal effects (such as simultaneously altering the structure of “reality” elsewhere in the universe). In literal terms this implies that the stories we tell have reality-altering consequences, however minute, and that at some fundamental level, consciousness itself is “a nonlocal operator.” In another view, words like and, or, if, then, and nor have different meanings on the quantum level.

Physics is not alone in its postmodernism. Because of the rise of genetic engineering, biology has shown an increasing concern with the structure of codes. Jeremy Campbell compares DNA explicitly to a “generative grammar,” a view which not only reinforces our version of “nature as an information process,” but collapses even further our sense of the unity between the language of humans and the code of the cosmos.12 Genetic engineering will soon enable us to alter the code of life at will, and this in turn has placed emphasis both on the role of information and on narrativity. Now more than ever the sorts of stories we tell can be translated from human codes into genetic code (by computers programmed in machine language).

Contemporary mathematics is strikingly postmodern because of its persistent abstractness. While applied mathematics remains intensively practical, mathematical theory, in one mathematician's terms, is “unreasonably esoteric.”13 Some even suggest that mathematics is no more or no less than the study of the mind's power to abstract in and of itself. In this view, the mathematician is really studying the minute electrical tick-tocking of the brain, carried along on an electrochemical current of logic alone. Such mathematical mysteries as the n-dimensional kissing problem sometimes seem like apotheoses of thumb twiddling.

In physical chemistry, new versions of how order arises spontaneously in nature have influenced other disciplines to abandon the bleak portrait, offered by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, of a mechanical universe inexorably winding down. In its place, Ilya Prigogine's view of dissipative structures shows a universe of constant flux in which open systems of order emerge spontaneously out of chaos, feed from the universal entropic stream, and grow more orderly according to specific laws. This model has been applied with equal force to biology, traffic jams, social systems, economic models, and atmospheric disturbances. As is typical for postmodern narratives in science, rather than stressing objects, positions, order, and stability, it stresses processes, relations, chaos, and instability as the foundations of reality.

In sum, then, certain aspects of contemporary science seem more involved with their own codes, processes, and formalisms than with the stuff that this machinery has been assembled to describe. What is most striking about all these postmodern sciences is that they share an underlying concern with information. For Heisenberg, the problem was the relationship between what information we ought to be able to specify about an electron's position versus what we are indeed able to say. Bell's proof of the nonlocal nature of reality relies upon the instantaneous communication of information between two otherwise discrete phenomena. In biology, as Jeremy Rifkin has noted, the coming revolution in bioengineering would be absolutely impossible without the framing tools for manipulating information that cybernetics provides, and without the manipulating tool of the computer itself, which cybernetics also has provided.14 And Ilya Prigogine's work is essentially a mathematical proof of how the cybernetic principles of positive feedback and organization work together in highly destabilized systems (systems far from equilibrium that vibrate in nonlinear fluctuations) to precipitate growing crystals of order.

Therefore, without exaggeration we can say that cybernetics is the paradigmatic postmodern science. It views the universe as a set of interconnected systems of energy, matter, space, and time all of which can be described in terms of (or reduced to) how much information those systems transmit or contain. To put it another way, cybernetics is the quintessential science of narrativity, if you accept that any exchange of information creates a narrative. Cyberneticists claim that mathematical algorithms describe the amount of information transferred in any system, including those that involve humans. It is no wonder, then, that certain postmodern novelists are engaged in a struggle with cybernetics over who or what will control the way we view human communication. Certain postmodern writers, in direct response to the cybernetic proposition, portray humans trapped in, metamorphosed into, or controlled by cybernetic systems and machines. In typical postmodern fashion, these fictions themselves pose as such cybernetic devices in their form and language, as “self-aware” mechanical communications links apparently operating according to algorithms for the organization of information. But far from celebrating mechanical descriptions of human communication—including their own hyperevolved formalisms—these fictions insist that authors, readers, and characters alike somehow elude cybernetic reduction.15 This breed of postmodern fiction accomplishes a sort of literary sleight of hand. It defeats the powerful implications of the cybernetic paradigm by making readers feel that there is something left over—some irreducible, inexpressible, and unquantifiable substratum of meaningful silence beyond or beneath cybernetic analysis—in human communication, even when it occurs through so complex and controlled a “servo-mechanical system” as the literary text. Elsewhere, I have called this complex subgenre of postmodernism “cybernetic fiction.”16 The single most important point about cybernetic fiction is that it actually employs cybernetic principles to demonstrate its superiority over scientific narratives as an epistemological force.


Like many myths that are this deeply rooted, the cybernetic myth—that human communication is no more than the cybernetic machinery of consciousness and can be described in mechanical terms—arises from an unnamed collision of images, a monstrous oxymoron that lacks a name. I call it The Myth of The Soft Machine, stealing William Burroughs's term. In Burroughs's wild mythography, humans are simply messages typed onto the jelly of flesh by a biological typewriter he calls the “soft machine,” referring not only to that most cybernetic of biological concepts, the genetic code, but also to media and even language itself. He tells us to send the machine a self-dismantling feedback message in order to free ourselves from the dominion of The Word (communication) over our imaginations.17 This complex image embodies the essentially postmodern version of human vulnerability, freedom, and uncertainty wedded to mechanical hardness, determinism, and order: we find its reflection not only in cybernetic fiction but at large in our culture.

Furthermore, this image signifies an inner condition common to many of us who feel that we are species of soft machines who embody two contrary instincts for freedom and determinism, for the inexpressible and the totally inscribable, for spontaneity confined by a grammar of motives. Texts—like the ones Burroughs has assembled—which embody this felt paradox about mechanisms and systems or order, control and language, are also soft machines and form the emergent subgenre of cybernetic fiction.

As a result of the metaphysical reconception of the human role in meaning making initiated in the 1940s by cybernetics, literature that concerned itself with philosophical questions could no longer comfortably embrace the machine metaphor.18 Where modernism seemed to engage in a romance with machines and mechanisms, especially mechanisms of form and language,19 by the early 1950s the emergent postmodern movement shows a definite hostility toward technology, perhaps as much in response to the cybernetic proposition as because (as is commonly assumed) of the unleashing of atomic weaponry. Ultimately, the former is more threatening than the latter: radioactivity may demolish your body, destroy whole cities, and threaten to make the human race extinct. But cybernetics challenges us where we live—in our heads. It threatens to deprive all humans of our authority as authors by replacing the mind with a brain, meaning with information, reading with information processing, the text with technique, uncertainty with closure, and love with feedback loops.20

Thus, the cybernetic position directly threatens literature, and it is not surprising that in the ensuing decades we suddenly see the emergence of a new countergenre, mixing apocalyptic imaginings with anti-mechanistic themes, deliberate use of cybernetic principles, and anti-formalistic experiments.21 In addition to the works of William Burroughs (Nova Express [1964], The Ticket That Exploded [1967] and The Soft Machine [1966]), which prescribe a cure for our imminent cyberneticization in “demolishing the Word,” we find a cooler but no less adamant demolition of the machinery of logic and language in Samuel Beckett's Comment C'est (How It Is [1958]) and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s early satirical thrust against cybernetics in Player Piano (1952), which responded directly to Wiener's landmark popularization of cybernetics, a book with the chilling title The Human Use of Human Beings (1948).

The single unifying feature of cybernetic fictions is that they pose as cybernetic devices which ultimately—and this is the source of their power and postmodernism—do not work. In other words, they are soft (vulnerable and uncertain) machines (systems which strive for invulnerability and completeness). Their tacit twofold message is clear: the text-as-machine is both more and less than what it appears, it's an oxymoron. Furthermore, humans are not merely mechanisms, either, so that the communication between soft-machine human reader and soft-machine text cannot be reduced to cybernetic calculations, for in cybernetic terms, both continually add noise to the channel of transmission.

Yet, for all the threatening aspects of the cybernetic narrative, there is no denying its attractiveness to clever authors who seek some apt metaphor for the play between structure and silence that lies at the root of the postmodern imagination, and the play between mechanism and inspiration, order and chaos, “plot” and “rot,” that lies at the heart of all literary method. For example, John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966) tells us that it is written by a fabulous computer, WESCAC, and that JB is only an editor. Samuel Beckett's The Lost Ones (1973) is a text which asks the reader to participate in a gedanken, a thought experiment designed to “maintain the notion” of an enormous cylinder machine where two hundred humanlike beings are trapped. And of course it receives full-blown treatment in the novels of Thomas Pynchon (V. [1963], The Crying of Lot 49 [1967], and Gravity's Rainbow [1973]). Pynchon explicitly traces the important theoretical development of cybernetics to World War II, and illustrates its connections to Pavlovian behaviorism, theories of communication, development of automata, and the new physics, all the while reflexively illustrating these themes in his narrative forms. Joseph McElroy's entire œuvre shows a growing concern for systems of communication and information (especially in Hind's Kidnap [1969] and Lookout Cartridge [1974]), but the theme achieves its full-blown expression in PLUS (1977). This text is narrated—in a strange automatized voice that grows its own de-automatized language as it proceeds—from inside a brain which has been cut out of its human body, linked to a weather-monitoring computer, inserted into a communications satellite, and launched into orbit around the earth. Similarly, William Gibson's Neuromancer (1983) places us inside the soaring, impressionistic space (“cyberspace”) of a worldwide computer network which can link directly with an individual's nerve net, a not-too-far-flung fantasy that fulfills Marshall McLuhan's definition of technology as an extension of the human nerve net. Barthelme places us inside uncertainty itself—a communications black box—in his short story “The Explanation” from City Life (1973). We also find it in the postmodern, self-conscious science fiction of Philip K. Dick (for example, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), and Stanislaw Lem (especially The Cyberiad: Fables for a Cybernetic Age [1976]). Recent fiction by Don Delillo touches on the theme (White Noise [1986] and Ratner's Star [1978]). However, these texts adopt this cybernetic pose with at least some irony. Their purpose is not merely to further complicate the ancient metaphor “This text is a machine,” but their texts explore, and even create or replicate in the reader, that gap where mechanism and human being differ, where cybernetics fails to account for human activity, or where mathematical principles strike at but do not reach the elements of the incalculable. In short, cybernetic fiction employs a hyperevolved technique of self-reflexiveness that makes the reader intensely aware of his or her own status as an information processing machine, too. This is a sort of inoculation: the text injects the patient with a dose of cybernetic techniques to get the host to resist future deployments.

That is, these text-machines play upon those talents in the reader that are precisely most mechanical, most compulsive, if you will, most cybernetic. But the virtue in this tactic is that somehow, by forcing the reader into a cybernetic fix, these texts succeed in pushing the reader out and beyond the point of his or her own “automatization.” Even before cybernetics, theorists recognized this unique capability of natural languages (as opposed to strict codes) to alienate the reader. Viktor Shklovsky identified instances in which authors purposely decontextualized the familiar meanings of words expressly to communicate a sense of alienation. His word for it was ostranenie, commonly translated as “defamiliarization.”22 However, William Hendricks, interestingly, translates it as “deautomatization.”23 In fact, these fictions accomplish not merely a deautomatization of our sense of language but a formal deconstruction of the text's authority, in the sense Derrida intended. They exaggerate the “illusion of logocentrism”—building the illusion of complete, self-contained systematic mechanisms of information—in order to demolish it. They privilege the cybernetic version of human communication in order to de-privilege it, by exposing its insufficiency as a means of exchanging any essential meaning. They use, in Derrida's terms, a “positive science of writing” which exposes its own fallacy. Derrida calls this failure “incompetence—the closure of the epistémè.24 In order to support my claim that these works accomplish such feats of deconstruction, in what follows I examine an exemplary cybernetic fiction rather closely—Calvino's “Night Driver.”

Of the many authors of cybernetic fiction, none has more explicitly addressed the attractions and power of cybernetics than Italo Calvino. All of Calvino's later works show both furtive and explicit uses of cybernetic themes and principles in their composition. The Castle of Crossed Destinies involves a series of narratives generated from the recombinations and permutations of a finite assortment of tarot cards, thereby illustrating the essential cybernetic principle of negentropy. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is thoroughly concerned with the feedback process between signal and noise out of which an author's inspiration may arise, and there are innumerable references to cybernetic ideas, tropes, themes, and principles. (For instance, the heroine visits “a representative of the OEPHLW of New York [Organization for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works].”) Among his Invisible Cities, Calvino erects several on cybernetic principles of assorted signs, redundancy, memory, and so on. And much of this concern can be traced back to Calvino's earliest explorations in T-Zero.

Calvino himself has left the best record of his purpose in dedicating most of his work to cybernetic fiction. His essay “Cybernetics and Ghosts” convincingly describes the seductions of cybernetics.25 For Calvino, cybernetics offers the best possible explanation of what an author does. Rather than being a conduit for genius or insight, the author is merely a hyperevolved device for sorting through the language and seeking the combinations that strike to some deeper, unreachable realm. Stripped of his delusions of romantic “inspiration” and other obsolete and grandiose explanations of creativity, the author is now revealed as a cybernetic device, a machine. Does this mean for Calvino that the mystery of literature is somehow erased? That the mechanical process therefore implies some deterministic reduction of the “privileged place of literature”? No, Calvino says. “[T]hough entrusted to machines, literature will continue to be a ‘place’ of privilege within the human consciousness, a way of exercising the potentialities contained in the system of signs”(16).

Though later in the essay Calvino denies it, it is hard to believe that he isn't being slightly whimsical. Yet, even if we take him at face value as he asks us to, it is clear that Calvino's version of the author-machine is a very special sort of cybernetic device, one which at least has access to the unconscious and the mysterious. For in Calvino's terms, this new cybernetically generated literature will continue to “struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary”(18).


With this echo of the “call and attraction” of literature, we can begin to understand the quintessential aspects of cybernetic fiction. Certain moments in postmodern texts seize readers with an interpretive compulsion, sending them into ever-widening orbits of apparent organization and decipherment while leading only to irresolution. In certain especially well-wrought texts, this spiral absorbs, like a black hole, every other aspect of the text until readers are captivated by and left to confront their compulsion to interpret. Beckett, Pynchon, and McElroy are masters of this technique.26

In cybernetic fiction this textual event or verbal mechanism leading to “seizure” is invariably created by the author's deliberate use of cybernetic principles. Kathleen Woodward was one of the first to point to the cybernetic quality of these interpretive seizures in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Following Pynchon's own direct references to cybernetic principles and theory in his fiction, she describes this characteristic postmodern moment as “information processing out of control” and “positive feedback at its crazy work.”27 She explores how Oedipa Maas, the heroine, uncovers a system of exfoliating clues in the will of Pierce Inverarity that sends her into circuits of wilder and more destabilizing oscillations. The more information Oedipa receives, the more helplessly puzzled she becomes. Far from helping her to achieve resolution, her interpretive acts only serve to expose the futility of her techniques of interpretation. Of course, as many critics have noted, Oedipa becomes an avatar of the reader. In the typical cybernetic fiction, the narrator becomes an avatar of the reader at the very moment that his or her situation is most indeterminate and yet most definitely aware of itself as an act of meaning making straining against the ineluctability of cybernetic laws.28

Such a moment occurs in T-Zero, Calvino's remarkable book which contains the short cybernetic fiction “Night Driver.” But in order to understand that small moment, which occurs at the very end of the story, we first must take a brief look at the larger text of which it is a part.

T-Zero initially presents itself to the reader as a collection of short stories, linked thematically by a concern for scientific images and theories, and comic anthropomorphizations of different phenomena as scientists have described them. However, if we read these stories more closely, a novelistic coherence emerges. In short, an underlying unity grows and climaxes as surely as any novelistic plot, qualifying the text entire to be viewed as a larger, more coherent narrative. This narrative traces the evolution of epistemological (and consequently fictive) power of science itself. It follows a genealogical logic, exploring earlier modern sciences in Part I—taxonomies like astronomy, zoology, crystallography, and evolution; more sophisticated modern sciences in Part II—genetics and cell biology; and the most contemporary and embracing of sciences, general systems theory and cybernetics, in Part III. Furthermore, in each story there is a unique dichotomy playing back and forth across the desires of the characters.

In “Crystals,” for instance, the male Qfwfq (a primordial disembodied intelligence who is incarnated in various ur-original situations throughout Calvino's earlier collection Cosmicomics and in the first part of T-Zero) represents a desire for order; he's an instinctive positivist: “A total crystal I dreamed, a topaz world that would leave out nothing.” But his partner Vug, a female, is Qfwfq's foil. “What she liked—I quickly realized—was to discover in crystals some differences, even minimal ones, irregularities, flaws.”29

In “Blood, Sea” the premise is that creatures evolved out of the sea by infolding exterior surfaces to create a ramification of cavities—the circulatory system and intestines—which enfolded the primordial sea (warm, saline, soupy) within, thus sustaining life even on land. In Calvino's hands, this elaborates into a dichotomy between inside (moist, warm, fecund, rich) and outside (arid, impoverished, sterile), which in turn becomes a play on narrative stances (first and third person point of view) and desire (as figure and ground of all human motivation). Qfwfq projects all this while alongside his lover in the back seat of a car (which stops and goes, ebbs and flows) driven by his rival. At the end, the three players hurtle over the side of a cliff, spilling their blood back into the sea.

In “Mitosis,” perhaps the most provocative story in T-Zero from an information perspective besides “Night Driver,” Calvino's narrator is a cell on the verge of reproducing itself.30 The narrative capitalizes on the tension between remembering—which corresponds to the recapitulation of the DNA code of the parent in the children—and forgetting, the paradoxical “discontinuity” of the parent cell in splitting into two offspring. Of course, the text also capitalizes completely upon the metaphorical-literal aspect of the genetic code as a generative grammar. In this scheme, the nucleus becomes “consciousness” and chromosomes “lines of expression.” Jeremy Campbell, as I mentioned above, explores this literal metaphor characteristic of the post-modern mode: “There are certain basic resemblances between genes and language that are beyond dispute … As it happens, this system is closer to Shannon's binary code, which consists of just the two digits 0 and 1, than to the alphabet of any human language, making it easier to apply the principles of information theory and to establish how much information is contained in a DNA molecule. … The message of DNA is intrinsic. If we speak in metaphor about the ‘ideas’ contained in it, then those ideas are innate.”31 Thinking along parallel lines, the narrator of “Mitosis” notes that “each line [of DNA] had a function, each being—to return to the language metaphor—a word, the fact that one word was to be found twice didn't change what I was, since I consisted of the assortment or the vocabulary of the different words or functions at my disposal” (68).

Best of all, Calvino accomplishes these syntheses of scientific and literary discourse with wit and humor, often at the expense of hapless heroes pursuing inaccessible mates, overly rational narrators pursuing order and logic in indeterminate situations, and contemporary men and women who seem to spend most of their time enacting crimes of passion in their automobiles. All this hints at a satirical disposition which his work shares with that of Pynchon, Vonnegut, Barth, Barthelme, Coover, and other postmodernists. Perhaps they take their cue from Henri Bergson's definition of humor as arising when people act like machines.

But the last story of the volume, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” is a red herring. Unlike all the others, it doesn't use a scientific premise for its ruminations, but rather a literary one. This Borgesian story is narrated by Alexandre Dumas's character Edmond Dantés, prisoner of the Château D'If. Dantés relates his fruitless efforts to escape—or his even more futile and endlessly elaborating “hypotheses of escape.” In its last section, this story trails off into circumlocutions about theories of narrative, and a labyrinthine series of self-reflections about authorial point of view.

However, as in much postmodern fiction, red herrings are also salmon we can follow upstream to a spawning ground. “The Count of Monte Cristo” signals to the reader (at first subtly and then more explicitly) that the Château D'If is the entire, massive, labyrinthine project of knowledge itself.32 The walls of the fortress separate the prisoner from the sea, which in turn represents essential, primordial Truth, the goal of science. In short, the text is a little allegory about how Science not only fails to lead us to Nature, but becomes an obstacle to our embracing the truth. Edmond Dantés tells us

I too have thought and still think about a method of escape; in fact, I have made so many surmises about the topography of the fortress, about the shortest and surest way to reach the outer bastion and dive into the sea, that I can no longer distinguish between my conjectures and the data based on experience. Working with hypotheses, I can at times construct for myself such a minute and convincing picture of the fortress that in my mind I can move through it completely at my ease; whereas the elements I derive from what I see and what I hear are confused, full of gaps, more and more contradictory.


Edmund Dantés is the exemplary postmodern observer. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the dichotomy here is between Dantés, the pure theoretician whose theories and models become (or construct) the very castle from which he is trying to escape, and the Abbé Faria, Dantés's other self, who is an empiricist, a pure experimentalist. Faria's “fortress-as-theory-of-fortress” comprises all the tunnels he's actually dug while trying to escape.

The images of the fortress that Faria and I create are becoming more and more different: Faria, beginning with a simple figure, is complicating it extremely to include in it each of the single unforeseen elements he encounters in his path; I, setting out from the jumble of these data, see in each isolated obstacle the clue to a system of obstacles, I develop each segment into a regular figure, I fit these figures together as the sides of a solid, polyhedron or hyperpolyhedron, I inscribe these polyhedrons in spheres or hyperspheres, and so the more I enclose the form of the fortress the more I simplify it, defining it in a numerical relation or in an algebraic formula.


“The Count of Monte Cristo” ends in a discussion of the relative positions of the narrator-authors Dantés/Faria/Dumas. Dantés imagines superimposing the theoretical (imaginary) map of the Château D'If onto the map that Dumas has had to construct of the different pieces and fragments of his narrative, The Count of Monte Cristo. Dantés concludes, “To plan a book—or an escape—the first thing to know is what to exclude … and this, then, is a sign that here an opportunity of escape exists: we have only to identify the point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then find it” (151–52).

This short capstone text is a retroactive tutorial: it teaches us how to read all that has come before it in T-Zero. It hints strongly that Calvino's purpose is not so much to express an interest in the sciences for their own sake, as to compare the relative potency of science and literature—their metaphors, their methods, their visions of order, their controlling paradigms, their manners of experimentation—as narratives of the world. “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in this light, is about postmodern epistemology. And Calvino concludes, as inevitably he must, that postmodern fictive narratives are epistemologically more potent than postmodern scientific ones. Or rather, that the distinction between the two is erased by the postmodern mode: science and fiction are two aspects of the same project—mapping the fortress.

Given this collapse of distinctions, fiction has an advantage, as narrative, over the sciences. It makes room for the observer in its calculus, and includes a vision of the beauty not only of order but of disorder.

Armed with this understanding of the novelistic coherence of T-Zero, we can begin to read the short story (or chapter) about cybernetics, “Night Driver.”


X, a resident of City A, has just hung up the phone on his lover Y, of City B. They had an argument and decided to break up. But Y got in the last word by threatening X that she would now take up with X's rival, Z. Z also lives in X's city, A. So now X, frenzied with jealousy and regret, is furiously driving to B where he hopes to reconcile with Y, or at least forestall a tryst between Y and Z (whom he imagines also driving furiously along the same road between A and B to meet Y). It is nighttime. So the driving is at once more dangerous, but also simplified, because as X the narrator tells us, “[O]ur eyes … have to check a kind of black slate which requires a different method of reading, more precise but also simplified, since the darkness erases all the picture's details which might be distracting and underlines only the indispensable elements, the white stripes on the asphalt, the headlights' yellow glow, and the little red dots” (128–29). We've been forewarned: we're solidly inside a postmodern fiction, where the narrator's and characters' observations are tropes for our acts of reading, a situation we also find in Beckett, Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and others. As the story proceeds, the abstraction and simplification of X's position increases. It starts to rain, which further reduces the “visibility.” Then, nearing the end, X (looking forward to Edmund Dantés) imagines what it would be like if the situation were reduced to its barest minimum, which is also its most abstract:

Naturally, if I were absolutely alone on this superhighway, if I saw no other cars speeding in either direction, then everything would be much clearer, I would be certain that Z hasn't moved to supplant me, nor has Y moved to make peace with me, facts I might register as positive or negative in my accounting, but which would in any case leave no room for doubt. And yet if I had the power of exchanging my present state of uncertainty for such a negative certainty, I would refuse the bargain without hesitation. The ideal condition for excluding every doubt would prevail if in this part of the world there existed only three automobiles: mine, Y's, and Z's; then no other car could proceed in my direction except Z's, and the only car heading in the opposite direction would surely be Y's.


This direct appeal to the jargon of cybernetics sends us searching for other pieces of the Calvino puzzle: In which science's narrative has he trapped us this time? We retrace our steps along the path of the text. X has told us that he has “lost all sense of space and time.” In cybernetic parlance, that leaves him operating only with matter and information: his car, the road, and the message he carries (or the message he is!). X sorts among those signs he receives from the road and his context, heeding the important and filtering out the noise (“the numbers of the miles on the signs and the numbers that click over on the dashboard are data that mean nothing to me”; “the information I receive from outside consists only of yellow and red flashes distorted by a tumult of drops” [130]). X tries to refine even further the message he wants to deliver to Y and the message he most wants to receive from her: “what I desire most is not to find Y at the end of my race: I want [rather] Y to be racing toward me, this is the answer I need” (131–32).

But in wishing this reciprocity (a normal enough desire for anyone in a relationship), X has wished himself into a paradox, one that leads us to the heart of cybernetics' fallibility as a narrative of human communication. Because it is dark and raining, if Y drives towards X as X drives towards Y, in the night and rain, they will be unrecognizable to each other! “Speeding along the superhighway is the only method we have left, she and I, to express what we have to say to each other, but we cannot communicate it or receive the communication as long as we are speeding” (132).

In part, Calvino has merely exaggerated the reduction that we all have felt when we have been forced to conduct our intimate relationships over the telephone. XYZ driving along channel of transmission AB is an oversimplification of (and satire on) experiences we've all encountered (and undoubtedly resisted): trying to resolve personal conflicts over the telephone. But on the other hand, the telephone is also a cybernetic medium: one of the direct motives for Shannon's work at Bell Labs was to refine the signal-to-noise ratio in telecommunications. Consequently, this reduction is also Calvino's ploy to expose the fallibility of viewing human relations as a cybernetic activity. In the next paragraph, then, Calvino cribs from Swift, who employed Gulliver to indict the literal-mindedness and over-technicalism of the natural philosophers of his age; Calvino launches an indictment of the cybernetic reduction of our age by having X, an overly technical or repressed character, express it in its pure form with utter conviction:

Of course I took my place behind the wheel in order to reach her as fast as possible; but the more I go forward the more I realize that the moment of arrival is not the real end of my race. Our meeting, with all the inessential details a meeting involves, the minute network of sensations and meanings and memories that would spread out before me—the room with the philodendron, the opaline lamp, the earrings—and the things I would say to her, some of which would surely be mistaken or mistakable, and the things she would say, to some extent surely jarring or in any case not what I expect, and all the succession of unpredictable consequences that each gesture and each word involved would raise around the things that we have to say to each other, or rather that we want to hear each other say, a storm of such noise that our communication already difficult over the telephone would become even more hazardous, stifled, buried as if under an avalanche of sand. This is why, rather than go on talking, I felt the need to transform the things to be said into a cone of light hurled at a hundred miles an hour, to transform myself into this cone of light moving over the superhighway, because it is certain that such a signal can be received and understood by her without being lost in the ambiguous disorder of secondary vibrations. … What counts is communicating the indispensable … reducing ourselves to essential communication, to a luminous signal that moves in a given direction, abolishing the complexity of our personalities and situations and facial expressions.


The indictment comes ironically, of course. X, as is typical of males in Calvino's fictions, urges an overly scientized, rationalized version of things. He wants love reduced to algebra. But it is exactly what he discounts, “the ambiguous disorder of secondary vibrations,” that most of his readers would seek to preserve as giving value and meaning to human communication over and above its information content. In short, as X himself realizes in one final futile clinging to his humanity, he finds himself in an unbearable paradox: “[I]f I want to receive a message I must give up being [only] a message myself, but the message I want to receive from Y—namely, that Y has made herself into a message—has value only if I in turn am a message [and vice versa]” (134–35).

Finally, though, X embraces his cybernetic conversion or translation in a seizure of what we can only call madness, a kind of flip-flop characteristic of our postmodern cybernetic age.

I can no longer accept any situation other than this transformation of ourselves into the messages of ourselves. … Everything is more uncertain than ever but I feel I've now reached a state of inner serenity: … we will continue, all three of us, speeding back and forth along these white lines, with no points of departure or of arrival to threaten with their sensations and meanings the single-mindedness of our race, freed finally from the awkward thickness of our persons and voices and moods, reduced to luminous signals, the only appropriate way of being for those who wish to be identified with what they say, without the distorting buzz our presence or the presence of others transmits to our messages.


Here we are building to that postmodern moment: that point when the text sends us into a spiraling seizure of interpretations that fling us out and beyond our own acts of interpretation. In the passage above, three phrases hint at cybernetic self-reflection. The first, of course, is the expression by the narrator as he feels himself metamorphosing into the message of himself. The second is more elusive: when I read “speeding back and forth along these white lines,” I construe it as a direct reference to the actual letters I see before me on the page, the voice of X-the-message embodied in yet another form of “cybernetic” communication—black marks on a white page. This phrase forces us into a kind of double vision, in which we conceive of X both as a luminous signal traveling down an abstract highway and at the same time as trapped in the letters we are reading in the printed text.

The second phrase erases any doubt we may have had about the overnicety of such self-reflexive interpretations: “the only appropriate way of being for those who wish to be identified with what they say.” The avatar of those who “wish to be identified with what they say” is the author, who here is signaling to us that he has transformed himself into a pure signal, an act of communication.

However, this leaves two important turns of the text in order for it to qualify as a cybernetic fiction: first, it must demolish such a proposition—even as it posits it—through irony. At the same time, the text must gesture at (or better yet, convince us of) the existence of some alternative narrative of communication, a realm beyond the cybernetics of reading and deciphering. It ought to deliver us back into the embrace of our humanness and engender within us an awareness of those aspects which lie outside the mechanisms of communication. Otherwise, the text, for all its clever manipulation and allegorizing and satirizing of the cybernetic point-of-view, will have failed to offer a counterstatement that rises above mere philosophy into artistic demonstration.

Calvino accomplishes all this in the final paragraph of “Night Driver”: X still ruminates about his conversion into a pure signal, unencumbered by the noisiness of “sensations and meanings”: “To be sure, the price paid is high but we must accept it: to be indistinguishable from all the other signals that pass along this road, each with his meaning that remains hidden and undecipherable because outside of here there is no one capable of receiving us now and understanding us” (136). To be sure, X has it all wrong; the reader quickly realizes that X is still a Gulliver, a pawn of the author's irony. Calvino is signaling to us through X that he is engaged in an altogether different communications act than X's night drive. There is, Calvino insists, an “outside of here” (a world outside the text); there are those “capable of receiving us now and understanding us” (we readers); and fortunately, there are means of deciphering hidden meanings that lie outside the mechanisms of language and signals, that rely on the “distorting buzz” of presence which X has disavowed.

In this postmodern moment, Calvino has wrested the “bragging rights”—epistemological control—over human communication away from cybernetics and placed it back in the hands of the reader and writer, for whom the text acts only as a channel of transmission, and who reside in a territory dominated by “the awkward thickness of bodies, voices and moods.” Calvino has demonstrated the incompetence of the text when it operates solely according to cybernetic algorithms—as a luminous signal—and he has done so by using the very illusion of logocentrism (“outside of here there is no one”) to demolish itself.

This feat and feats like it accomplished in other cybernetic fictions are especially important in an era when cybernetic methods, theories, metaphors, and models have come to exert influence over many of our important disciplines, and have conjured an image, which our culture seems to have already embraced, of humans subsumed in cybernetic mechanisms. We need a counternarrative, one forged from postmodern principles equally strong, to show that even as the cybernetic age progresses ineluctably, humans will manage to preserve their humanness, however metamorphosed, however wedded to cybernetic machinery, and however disguised, in the postmodern fashion—through irony, paradox, rich metaphor, and self-effacement.


  1. Cybernetic fiction shares its explicit resistance to cybernetics with phenomenological philosophy. Heidegger, Polanyi, Merleau-Ponty, and others (see n. 12) all provide an alternative view of human communication as richer and involving more indeterminate mechanisms than cybernetics can account for. However, I would argue that cybernetic fiction shares with punk music an advantage over philosophy: the former can express the distinctions while the latter can only posit that those distinctions exist.

  2. Daniel Bell, among others, has called our era “The Information Age.” See The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society (New York, 1973). But I suggest it is too abstruse to call our era an Information Age and leave it at that. But at the same time—perhaps paradoxically—I think of cybernetics as postmodern, following Stephen Toulmin's lead, because it also is forced to confront, self-consciously, the human role in information-gathering and communication.

  3. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: Control and Communication in the Animal and in the Machine (Cambridge, Mass., 1948).

  4. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (New York, 1954), p. 11.

  5. In fairness to cybernetics, however, we must acknowledge that as a science, it has not been historically immune to questions regarding humanity's new epistemological status under its definitions. Norbert Wiener, in The Human Use of Human Beings, represents the hard-line when he boldly states (somewhat oxymoronically) that the “mechanism-vitalism duality can be banished to the limbo of badly posed questions.” Warren Weaver and Claude Shannon, in popularizing Shannon's ideas about information theory, ask the question but slyly avoid answering it in their collection of essays and commentary, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, Ill., 1949). Abraham Moles attempts to reconcile the humanistic position with the scientific one by proposing a cybernetic model for aesthetic activity in his work Information Theory and Esthetic Perception (1958; rpt. Urbana, 1966). More recently, however, cyberneticists have noted that the problem of self-consciousness becomes shorthand for the entire question about the distinction between how machines use information and how humans make meaning. Gordon Pask, for instance, notes that each cybernetic model contains two levels of analysis: one in which the observer attempts “to stipulate the system's purpose” and one in which the observer attempts “to stipulate his own purpose” (“The Meaning of Cybernetics in the Behavioral Sciences,” in Progress in Cybernetics, ed. J. Rose, vol. 14 [New York, 1969], 15–44). Humberto Maturana, a Chilean neurophysicist, calls this second level of cybernetic modeling by a curiously literary name, “autopoiesis” (Autopoiesis and Cognition [Boston, 1980]). In turn, this leads Heinz von Foerster to call for a “cybernetics of cybernetics” (“Cybernetics of Cybernetics,” in Communication and Control in Society, ed. Klaus Krippendorff [New York, 1979], p. 5). In this fashion, cybernetics finds itself to be in the same fix that the postmodern novel is in; at very least, it is grappling with the same questions.

    A more phenomenological counterstatement is adopted in two volumes of essays edited by Frederick Crosson and K. Sayre, The Modeling of Mind and The Philosophy of Cybernetics (Notre Dame, 1963 and 1967 respectively). Similarly, Hubert Dreyfuss uses Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work as a philosophical point of departure to form a refutation of cybernetics and artificial intelligence in his work What Computers Can't Do (New York, 1972). All these discussions tend to focus on language as the battleground, as they have ever since Descartes. When asked by a student how he would know if an automaton were human or not, Descartes replied, “I will believe he is a man when he tells me so himself.” I.e., the philosophical proof lies in the technological pudding: If computers can learn to speak with the spontaneity and inventiveness and richness of humans, then the cyberneticists have proved their point.

  6. We can gauge the myth's invisibleness by the extent to which its metaphors have become literal: data, bytes, feedback, noise, sender, receiver, open and closed systems, organization, redundancy, and entropy—all the mumbo jumbo of cybernetic mythology.

  7. Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature (Berkeley, 1982), p. 210. Toulmin suggests that contemporary science in general is growing more and more postmodern because it calls for a new epistemology that reinserts the human perspective into the model of nature.

  8. Another way to view this shift is in terms of the experiment itself. In the classical model, the experimental apparatus is a neutral tool for measuring nature at work. Voyeuristic in the best Victorian tradition, it peers in on Mother Nature disrobing unselfconsciously for the (exclusively male) scientist's delectation. Or in even more concrete terms, the experiment is a weighing scale that doesn't weigh itself. Postmodernism has shucked the notion of any such weightless delivery of data. In its place it has erected a model in which the scale and weight alter each other in a mutual embrace of fields and forces—in this case, gravitation and information. However, Heisenberg's own philosophical claims for the implications of his Uncertainty principle were probably inflated, partly as the result of his association with Heidegger.

  9. As Nick Herbert has noted, in his Quantum Reality: Beyond the New Physics (New York, 1985), these discoveries do “not mean that the quantum world is subjective. … The quantum world is objective but objectless” (p. 162).

  10. Paul Davies, Other Worlds (London, 1980). This is conducted in much more authoritative ways and in much less hyperbolic and metaphorical terms than similar claims made by Gary Zukav in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (New York, 1979) and Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Toronto, 1977).

  11. Bell's Theorem has been proven by the Aspect experiments, conducted at the Institute of Theoretical and Applied Optics in Paris in 1982 by Alain Aspect, Jean Dalibard, and Gérard Roger.

  12. Jeremy Campbell, Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language and Life (New York, 1982).

  13. Joe P. Buhler, “Of Primes and Pennies,” Science 85, Nov. 1985, p. 86.

  14. Jeremy Rifkin, Algeny (New York, 1983), pp. 180–215.

  15. I use “cybernetic” and “mechanical” as equivalents, following William Barrett's suggestion that we think of machines not only as those gleaming instruments designed to accomplish work in the material world, but as incarnations of logic or algorithms. In his words, “A machine is an embodied decision procedure”; The Illusion of Technique (New York, 1979), p. 23.

  16. David Porush, The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (London, 1985).

  17. Tony Tanner's account of Burroughs's fiction elucidates his antimechanism rather thoroughly in City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (New York, 1971).

  18. As late as 1933, Raymond Roussel in his collection Comment J'ai écrit certaine de mes livres [How I Wrote Some of My Books] (Paris, 1963), constructed verbal mechanisms that aspired to a pure and total congruence between the machinery of language and the machinery described by that language.

  19. See Cecilia Tichi's recent Shifting Gears (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1987), which portrays the relations between American technology and literary modernism; Hugh Kenner's The Counterfeiters (New York, 1972), which meditates on a similar relation between European modernism and the machine; and The Soft Machine, ch. 2, in which I show the contrasting use of the machine as a model in the French modernist Raymond Roussel's work, and by extension, in Kafka and Joyce.

  20. Interestingly enough, the bomb and cybernetics are intimately linked. As Norbert Wiener documents in his work on cybernetics (see nn. 3, 4), one of his original motives for developing a mathematics of control and communication was to further refine the guidance systems and trajectory calculations for mortar and rocket technology during World War II. Thomas Pynchon makes literary hay out of this connection in Gravity's Rainbow (New York, 1973), in which the hero (Tyrone Slothrop) slowly discovers that there is a cybernetic-behaviorist-mystical connection between his sexual conquests in London and the schwarzgerat—the “dark” or “mysterious thing”—the black-box guidance governor in the nosecone of V-rockets falling on London.

  21. I would argue that even the highly formalistic experiments of Barth and Pynchon are “anti-formalistic” since they are designed expressly to defeat the purpose of formalism, which is to achieve a totalizing system. I further argue (below) that this is the distinguishing feature between modernism, which pretends that its system is effectively totalizing, and postmodernism, which drives at some phenomenological sense of the insufficiency of system.

  22. Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. and tr. Lee T. Lemon (Lincoln, Nebr., 1965), pp. 11–12.

  23. William Hendricks, “Style and the Structure of Literary Discourse,” in Style and Text, ed. Hakan Ringbom (Stockholm, 1975), p. 72. Lemon uses the term “defamiliarization.”

  24. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1976), p. 93.

  25. Italo Calvino, “Cybernetics and Ghosts,” in The Use of Literature: Essays, tr. Patrick Creagh (New York, 1986), pp. 3–27; hereafter cited in text.

  26. I would contrast this with modernist technique, where the text leaves a trail of clues—as in Nabokov's Lolita and Joyce's Ulysses—that leads to the uncovering of a map of reading, so that a correlation of clues ends with a completion of the puzzle that closes the door to further interpretation. Though this is not necessarily sterile (for the vision is delivered whole), it is “positivistic” in the sense that it strives for a complete and consistent system. I would argue that this is the distinguishing feature between the two modes of discourse, modernist and postmodernist.

  27. Kathleen Woodward, “Cybernetic Modelling in Recent American Fiction,” North Dakota Quarterly, 51 (Winter 1983), 57–73.

  28. I characterize these laws as follows:

    • (1) Uncertainty creates a gap where fools and angels alike rush in. Humans find it compulsory to interpret (disambiguate) uncertainty. If nothing else, homo sapiens is a superb disambiguating machine.
    • (2) One man's noise is another man's signal. Changing contexts or points of view, particularly those provided by variants in the human situation, can potentially make a code of static and nonsense of the message, since noise and signal exist in a figure/ground relationship to each other. The conflict caused by shifting frames of reference creates more ambiguity.
    • (3) See (1).
  29. Italo Calvino, T-Zero, tr. William Weaver (1967; rpt. New York, 1969), p. 33; hereafter cited in text.

  30. Reminiscent of Barth's story narrated by a spermatozoan on its way to consummation with an ovum, “Night-Sea Journey,” in Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (New York, 1968).

  31. Campbell, Grammatical Man, pp. 92–93.

  32. I can't help but wonder if Calvino is employing a bilingual pun here: Science is the Castle of Ifs.

Albert Devivo (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5353

SOURCE: “Calvino's Palomar and Deconstruction: Similarities and Differences,” in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 115, Winter-Spring, 1989, pp. 81–91.

[In the following essay, Devivo utilizes Calvino's “Lettura di un'onda” in order to explore the various perspectives of deconstructed reality in the novel Palomar.]

Deconstruction attempts to resist the totalizing and totalitarian tendencies of criticism. It attempts to resist its own tendencies to come to rest in some sense of mastery over the work.

J. H. Miller, “The Critic as Host,” in De-construction and Criticism, (New York: Continuum, 1979), p. 252.

Ogni progetto storico “forte,” che oppone al modello esistente un modello altrettanto determinato, va incontro al rischio di fondare a propria volta un ordine cogente, autoritario come è autoritaria ogni presenza.

Gianni Vattimo, in Che cosa fanno oggi i filosofi? (Milano: Bompiani, 1982), p. 196.

From the ancient view that literary fictions illustrate general truth, we moved to the view that literary fictions illustrate fictions. But having in the meantime discovered that reality itself is fiction, we reassert that, in illustrating fictions, literary fictions reveal truth.

G. Graff, Literature against Itself (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 180.

Both similarities and differences exist between Calvino's Palomar and Deconstruction, since Calvino, in my opinion, uses a deconstructionist method to refute the epistemological premises of deconstruction theory.

“Lettura di un'onda”—a story paradigmatic of the protagonist's reaction to the discovery of the deconstructed nature of the real throughout Palomar—illustrates this point. We shall first, examine its narrative time, describing the main stages of the plot and outlining the narrative strategy used by the author, then observe the similarities between the narrative genesis and deconstruction methodology focusing on the notions of “undecidability” and “difference,” and the differences in the attitudes of Palomar and deconstructionists toward the deconstructive nature of reality, and finally, address the ideo-logical consequences of their respective attitudes on such a deconstructed reality.

Palomar is a character who wants to “avoid vague sensations, [and for this reason] has pre-established for each of his actions a limited precise object.”1 In “Lettura di un'onda,” this intention corresponds to Palomar's desire to see “only a single wave,” and not “the waves” (p. 5). He therefore looks at the movements of a wave until it vanishes, at which point he “could,” writes the author, “convince himself that he has fulfilled his intention and go away” (p. 5).

However, upon reflection, he realizes that he has not seen a wave because it is “very difficult” (p. 5) to distinguish one wave from the others. He understands that “one cannot observe a wave without considering the complex aspects that contribute to its formation and the ones, equally complex, which it creates” (p. 6). From this process of observation and reflection, Palomar learns that a wave is a complex entity composed of different and changeable aspects which make it simultaneously “always different from [and] equal” (p. 6) to the other waves. Thus, Palomar, having started with the idea of a wave as an autonomous, different, and unique entity, now conceives it as a relational entity within a complex system characterized by contrasting aspects: difference and similarity.

With this new idea of a wave, Palomar begins the second process of observation, believing that, now, he will be able to “see a wave” by catching “all of its simultaneous components without neglecting any of them”: registering the “aspects that he did not catch before” (p. 6), which will allow him to distinguish a wave from another. When “he realizes that the images repeat themselves, he will know that he has seen all that he wanted to see and will be able to stop” (p. 6).

Palomar believes that a wave is identifiable by observing the process of differentiation since the return of the same “forms” or “sequences” indicates the return of images already seen, and signals the end of the process of differentiation and identification of the wave. Thus, he believes that the process of differentiation is the key to the identification of a wave.

The first aspect that Palomar looks at is the “foam.” Palomar follows its movements and notes that at a certain moment it becomes something else, “a carpet of water” (p. 7). He then sees that the carpet of water also becomes something else, “a glittering of wet sand that quickly recedes” (p. 7) and finally disappears.

Having started the second process of observation, directing his attention to a different aspect, the foam—which should make it possible to identify a wave and then distinguish it from the others—Palomar notices that this aspect is itself metamorphical since it becomes something else, and this becomes something else still. He understands that this aspect leads only to inversions and substitutions. Consequently, he is left without a paradigm which could help him to see and identify a wave.

In deconstructionist terminology, Palomar sees that the differential element, the foam, becomes un-done, deconstructs itself, becomes different from itself and so inoperative for the identification/differentiation process of a wave with/from another.

Difference … is not what distinguishes one identity from another. It is not a difference ‘between’… it is a difference ‘within.’ Far from constituting the text's unique identity is that which subverts the very idea of identity.2

What will Palomar do now that he has understood that difference does not allow him to fulfill his intention since it is only possible to observe manifestations of difference within: foam-carpet of water-glittering of wet sand? What will he do now that he has understood that difference is in fact “differance,”3 which means that the object is always different from itself and therefore its identity is forever deferred?

Palomar does not give up; he simply changes perspective, selecting another aspect of the wave—the movement—in order to “understand how it is formed” (p. 7). However, this paradigm, no matter which stratagem Palomar uses in his attempt to “complete an inventory of all the wave's movements” (p. 8), also reveals itself to be unreliable for such a positive gnoseological end because of its metamorphical nature.

The repetition of the observation process, whatever the perspective, does not provide Palomar with a code with which to decipher the structure and meaning of a wave because either “something has been left out” (p. 8) which must be considered, or “the perspective changes constantly” (p. 9) so that what is observed does not allow one to answer the question: What is it?

The movement of the wave is never equal to itself so what Palomar sees is only the difference of the movement from itself. In other words, repetition does not bring the return of the same—which is essential to distinguish one thing from another—but, the return of the same as other, different from itself because “repetition leads to a simulacrum, not to the same.”4

At the end, Palomar can only understand that a wave is undecipherable because every aspect observed reveals itself to be undefinable, or definable only through the concept of “undecidability.” This concept indicates “the inability to know where presence leaves off and absence begins,”5 and, thus, renders positive understanding impossible.

The strategy based on the understanding of the part—foam, movement—in order to understand the whole—a wave—based therefore on a metonymic relationship, is not valid since the part is itself undecipherable, being unstable, metamorphic. The metonymic strategy cannot work because the part is a metaphor of a metaphor of a metaphor. …

It follows that Palomar's latest understanding, that “the total design results in fragmented squares that now surface and then vanish” (p. 9), cannot be definitive, otherwise he could, as he would like, use his understanding of a wave as “fragmented squares” as a “key to master the complexity of the world” (p. 8). Palomar could extend “such knowledge to the entire universe” (p. 10), and believe that he understands what it is. In fact this image of a wave becomes “fragmented and dispersed” (p. 10) by a shift in the wind's direction, so that at the end of the story, Palomar, already a nervous character, leaves the beach “much more nervous than when he arrived” (p. 10).

In retrospect, the following are the main events of the plot. Palomar begins with the intention to see one wave, to understand how it is formed, what it is. Such is clearly a scientific, positivistic intent which conceives the relationship between the signifier and the signified as symbolic6 or grammatical,7 as one of identification and therefore based on the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction according to which “‘A is A’: A cannot be at the same time A and not-A.”8 Palomar's intention is then rooted in a law which is considered by deconstructors as the matrix of the Western logocentric, metaphysical and idealist9 tradition because it assumes that a subject is able to identify the sense of a thing. Now, it is exactly this type of project that deconstructionist criticism wants to demystify, to deconstruct. Derrida writes:

Must I recall that, from my first published text, I have attempted to systematize deconstructive criticism precisely in opposition to the authority of meaning (sens) as a transcendental signified. … Against history ultimately understood to be the history of meaning (sens), history in its logocentric, metaphysical, idealist representation?10

The next narrative event reflects exactly such an antilogocentric position since Palomar becomes aware, first, that one wave is not distinguishable from another, and second, that every wave is equal to and different from every other. These considerations put into play the key concepts of difference and repetition within deconstructive discourse and generate the process of inversions and substitutions which lead to their own dismantling and to the revelation of their inadequacy for generating positive knowledge.

In the narrative context, this corresponds to Palomar's discovery that the concept of difference does not help him to understand what a wave is but only to apprehend the differential process. The foam reveals itself to be inconsistent and transforms itself into a carpet of water, which in turn, transforms itself into a glittering wet sand. This process of inversions and substitutions is necessary because, exactly as prescribed by deconstruction's strategy, nothing can remain equal to itself or else, if one believes that it does, he will make the same metaphysical mistake that he is attempting to deconstruct.

At this point begins that narrative phase which repeats the general schema of deconstruction from different perspectives and leads to the discovery that there is no positive knowledge, no comprehension of a wave as something tangible, visible and identifiable. The recurrence of the deconstructive process will only lead to more deconstruction in an abyss without end, in a “labyrinth of ‘endless’ wanderings.”11

Given these symmetries, one could deduce that the purpose of deconstruction critique and of this narration is to “denaturalize … the process of signification.”12 Such a conclusion is not wrong if one considers (a) the way in which deconstructionists define the following basic principles: language, sign, text, subject, history and knowledge; and (b) some of the statements about mimesis, realism or referentiality.

As Miller tells us, deconstructionists conceive

language as basically metaphorical, metaphorical in its origin. … All language is figurative at the beginning. The notion of a literal or referential use of language is only an illusion born of the forgetting of the metaphorical “roots” of a language. Language is from the start fictive, illusory, displaced from any direct reference to things as they are. Truths are illusions whose illusory nature we have forgotten.13

For these critics the sign, the wave for Palomar,

[does not] bring forth the presence of the signified [because it is] the place where ‘the completely other is announced as such—without any simplicity, any identity, any resemblance or continuity—in that which is not,’ word and thing or thought never in fact become one. … The sign marks a place of difference.14

With these concepts—sign and language—one can no longer produce a work, that is, a work with a clear beginning, middle and end, with a clearly developed plot that one can make sense of. Rather, he can only create a “text” which has been described as a “sustained fragment,”15 “a sequence of differences, oppositions.”16 Such a definition, like the two preceding ones, illuminates and is illuminated by the narrative time of the story.

Given these notions of sign, language and text, it becomes impossible to conceive of a subject as a center, authority, presence, master of himself and of the world, able to assign a sense to his existence, to the universe, to a text or a wave. It becomes impossible to describe man as that logocentric, metaphysical being seen as the ground of Western epistemology. In fact, this subject has been dismantled, deconstructed by deconstructors and replaced by another described as “decentered subjectivity … decentered and decentralized.”17

Such a subject will never believe himself capable of distinguishing the flux of time in clearly marked periods—modernism, postmodernism—characterized by this or that aspect because for him, as for deconstructors and Palomar, history is a “history without history.”18 This history will not allow him knowledge of the truth. In fact, for such a decentered being without history

knowledge is not a systematic tracking down of a truth that is hidden but may be found. It is rather the field of free play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions in the closure of a finite ensemble.19

Already from these notions one can deduce the aversion of deconstructionists to referentiality. As a matter of fact, such dislike is so profound that they speak about the “tyranny of the fiction of direct reference,” which Derrida sees as the ground for the desire of “presence” or the “transcendental signified” and attributes to the “positivist ethos.”20

It is clear that these philosophers are against all those methods that aspire to a scientific condition. Consequently, they criticize structuralism, since it attempts “to provide objective descriptions.”21 Likewise, they are against realism because, as they say, it “conceives of names as the ‘copy’ of ideas.”22 They also criticize rational philosophy—empiricism or pragmatism—since it considers itself “a discourse of ultimate truth-telling power whose function it is to rise above mere contingencies of time and place.”23

For deconstructionists, as Palomar learns through his experiences, it is

foolish and gratuitous for us to suppose that our human cognitive faculties of sense and intellect are capable of disclosing to us—of mirroring for us, if you will—the nature of things as they really are in themselves … [it is] wrong-headed for philosophy [and/or criticism] to try to be … anything like a mirror of nature.24

For philosophies that foolishly try to “mirror” nature they mean “traditional Aristotelian realism and empiricism.”25

The reason why it is wrong to think that it is possible to decipher the nature of the real is that perception is a metaphor of the perceived object and the linguistic sign itself a metaphor of perception. Since “language … is twice-removed from the thing-in-itself,”26 “sign and meaning can never coincide. … Far from referring to an object that would be its cause, the (poetic) sign sets in motion an imaging activity that does not refer to any particular object.”27

This being said, it would nevertheless be reductive to consider deconstructors simply antimimetic since they also criticize the other side of the Western binary structure: idealism, subjectivism or Platonism. For instance, as Gasché says,

far from continuing the metaphysics of transcendental subjectivity … de Man's critique of Speech Act Theory reaches toward an interrogation of the fundamental assumption of idealist philosophy.28

Deconstructors' critique of Platonism is not any less sweeping since

Platonism is nihilism, for in substituting the fixed unity of internal form for the pulsating multiplicity of the here and now, it reduces, negates the wealth of this given world. Once again the form must be dismantled, deformed, deconstructed.29

Deconstructors criticize realism and idealism because they are against the entire Western tradition which is rooted in the hegemony of the binary opposition which does not exist in reality. In fact, for these critics, the binary opposition is the result of logical operations since “only from … logic do we derive the concept of opposites—and falsely transfer it to things.”30 For example, the opposition subject/object is false because

both [are] a matter of interpretation. No, (objective) facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact “in itself”. …“ Everything is subjective,” you say; but even this is interpretation. The subject is not something given, it is a superadded invention.31

Within this logic, every interpretation is actually a misinterpretation because each is a superapposition, superimposition. Neither subjectivism nor objectivism can describe the real nature of things. Both are logocentric; signs of

human desire to posit a “central” presence at beginning [subject, author, self] and end [object, meaning, sense]. It is this longing for a center, an authorizing pressure, that spawns hierarchized oppositions. The superior term belongs to presence and the logos; the inferior serves to define its status.32

For this reason, these philosophers-critics deconstruct oppositions which are never innocent since one of the two terms always dominates the other. However, a simple inversion of the two terms will not subvert the logocentric metaphysical tradition. It will only invert the position of the terms in the binary structure itself. Once the inversion has been accomplished, it is necessary to undo, subvert the term that now occupies the dominant, privileged position, demonstrating that it is in itself an undecidable and thus, will not/cannot permit a process of differentiation-identification or a “solution.”33

This deconstruction, as in “Lettura di un'onda,” leads the observer to a process of increasingly microscopic atomization which never allows him to find the building blocks of things but gives value only to the infinite regressivity of the process itself.

At the beginning, for these critics, as Palomar learns, there is neither God nor Big Bang; the origin, Miller says, “was diacritical … a primal difference or differentiation.”34

As we have seen, this short story reflects the stages of deconstruction strategy. Therefore, we could say that Calvino corroborates the meaning of this literary theory. However, this conclusion would be substantially wrong.

The preceding analysis has dealt only with the similarities between deconstruction and the narrative time of the story, neglecting the differential relationship between them which needs to be addressed in order to understand the real meaning of the story vis-a-vis deconstruction.

The difference between Palomar and deconstructors is mirrored by their emotional-psychological reaction to the deconstructed nature of things.35 If it is true that the various attempts to understand what a wave is do not succeed, just as deconstructors maintain, this outcome is not at all cause for joy for Palomar as it is for these critics. Derrida and American deconstructors, unlike Palomar, do not have any desire for understanding, meaning, presence, or center. In fact, Derrida “protectively asserts what others have lamented: that ‘the center cannot hold’.”36

Since a decentered subject cannot decipher the meaning of objects, his discourse will be inevitably partial, marginal, indeterminate. This outcome, however, is not cause for gloom for these philosophers. It is, rather, cause for relief and joy. For them, since it is vain to attempt to decipher a deconstructed reality, the decentered subject should approach his task—creative and/or critical—as a game, as free play, and at least amuse himself. No wonder then that Derrida positively emphasizes

Nietzshe's affirmative joy … of play … the joyous affirmation of the play of the world and the innocence of becoming, the affirmation of a world without fault, without truth, without origin, offered to an active interpretation.37

No wonder that Derrida's attitude, which is emblematic of all other deconstructors, toward his own negative philosophy, toward deconstruction, is “without pathos.”38

Palomar's pathos, instead, increases as the deconstructed nature of the wave reaffirms itself with each attempt to decipher it. In fact, Palomar, already nervous at the beginning, eventually leaves the beach much more nervous than before. Unlike deconstructors, Palomar does not feel the loss of the possibility to know as a cause for joy, but rather as a cause for unhappiness, despair and, at the end of the novel, his own death.

A character like Palomar, “impatient to reach a complete and definitive result” (p. 8), cannot accept indifferently, still less with relief and pleasure, a reality which continuously prevents him from doing so.

Within deconstruction's context, Palomar's negative reaction has the function of focusing our attention on the limits of this philosophy for describing the emotional-psychological needs of human beings in an already neurotic time. That is, Calvino has put into play deconstruction's strategy only to express his dissatisfaction with its indifferent attitude toward man's incapacity to make sense of things. From this perspective, Palomar's greater neurosis at the end of the story amounts to a refusal of deconstruction because this philosophy, negating the possibility of a positive knowledge, negates our hopes, our illusions, and, eventually, the necessity to act; because, in effect, it gives value to stasis which is or leads to death.

What are the philosophical, historical, ideological consequences of these two opposed attitudes toward the always already deconstructed nature of text, psyche, nature, etc. towards the absence of sense or presence? From their point of view, deconstructors would consider Palomar “a metaphysician replete with logocentrism and teleology of being as pure presence.”39 However, this accusation of logocentrism can be turned against deconstructors themselves. First, they are logocentric because they use language, described by them as “allegorical,” in a “symbolic” or referential way since they assume that in their discourse, for the readers, “words express what they intend to say.”40 Without this referential or logocentric premise, the deconstructionist discourse would not have any meaning, or would not be possible at all. In fact, Miller himself tells us that “deconstruction … is necessarily formulated in such a way that it can be taken as referential in its turn, or else it would not be able to perform its act of deconstruction.”41 These critics attribute a referential function to their words for the readers while denying it for the words of the text they analyze. This means not only that they are paradoxical but, more importantly, that they are metaphysical, logocentric in their antilogocentrism, that they are themselves subject-centers while they try to deconstruct the subject as center.42 For this reason we can say with Lewis that “it is … to forms of idealist recuperation—reinvestment in the subject, (self)consciousness, reflexivity … —that deconstruction calls attention.”43

Being metaphysical in spite of themselves is not the most important fault that can be attributed to deconstructionist thinkers. Much more significant is their position in relation to the possibility of historical praxis. From this perspective, the logic of difference renders their opposition to political or historical change quite clear because difference, always already meaning both difference and postponement, takes away from the subject the possibility of changing it. It therefore follows that deconstruction is “revolutionary and radical”44 only in a formal sense; such radicalism, while linguistic, is not, cannot be historical, given deconstruction's strategy of delay. This implies that deconstruction uses a praxis of “non-interference,” of “political neutrality”45 which makes it, as Foley says, “anti-historical.”46 On the other hand, Palomar's desire to understand, which is essential for any praxis, makes him (and Calvino) pro-history.

Even if one were to agree with Hartman that Palomar's intention reflects a desire for “mastery [that] seeks to keep an unruly, changeable language within the bound of intelligibility,”47 he will still first need to question the meaning that deconstructors attribute to this objective desire. Is it really only “a kind of literary counterpart to imperialism”?48 Could it not also be the first step to the subversion of imperialism? Understanding can be and is sought for many and conflicting reasons. Second, and more important, one would still need to ask: is it not this persistent desire to understand what has led us from the stone age to the atomic age? Certainly our era is not perfect, however, it is surely different, and if we continue to want to know, we may even be able to change, if not to improve, it. Without such a possibility, which is that of history itself, it would be impossible to believe that something like the menace of nuclear destruction, discrimination, or illiteracy could be changed.

It is this possibility for change that deconstructionists negate, since in their view, every attempt at positive knowledge and historical change is a myth; man should renounce every illusion, ideal, or hope. Their premise, if accepted, leads to stasis or infinite regression.

According to deconstructors, a subject longing for understanding uses “a covert ideology—that of transcendental aesthetics—which wills its own blindness to the rhetoric of temporality”49 and therefore spacializes time. However, such criticism is ascribable especially to them because the impossibility to know and then to change the deconstructed nature of the real renders the future similar to the present; it transforms the unstable flux of time in a dimension always equal to itself, omnitemporal and absolute.

In deconstructionist terminology, the impossibility to know transforms time as difference in time as identity, as sameness: transforms time into space. It makes no difference if the (a)historical subject of this spacialized time is undecidability instead of decidability because, having the former substitute for the latter, it is not itself replaceable since undecidability only leads to more undecidability, deconstruction to more deconstruction, and differance to differance. Consequently this strategy renders deconstruction theory and method invincible and thus creates a new theology which, although negative, presumes to reveal the true essence of reality: time is conceived as forever a predicament, forever deconstructed and as such as the true ground of the nature of being. As such, deconstruction, undecidability, differance is the new secular deity, and like any deity, is itself always already metaphysical.


  1. Italo Calvino, “Lettura di un'onda,” Palomar (Turin: Einaudi, 1983), p. 5. Hereafter, the page numbers will refer to this edition. All translations are mine.

  2. Barbara Johnson, “The Critical Difference,” Diacritics, 8, 2 (Summer 1978), 3.

  3. Alan Bass, “Translator's Introduction,” in Writing and Difference, A. Bass trans. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. xvi, describes “differance” as a word which “combines the coincidence of meanings in the verb ‘differer’: to differ (in space) and to defer (to put off in time, to postpone) presence.”

  4. Gayatri Ch. Spivak, “Translator's Note,” Of Grammatology (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. lxv.

  5. Thomas Sheehan, “Derrida and Heidegger,” Hermeneutics & Deconstruction, Hugh J. Silverman and Don Ihde eds. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1985), p. 205.

  6. For the difference between these two principles, see: Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Interpretation: Theory and Practice, Charles S. Singleton ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), pp. 190–191. Suffice here to say that for de Man, “whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its own origin” (Ibid.).

  7. For example, according to Paul de Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” in Textual Strategies, Josué V. Harari ed. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), p. 127, the grammatical structure implies a relation of identification or equivalency between signifier and signified, while the rhetorical form un-does it. He writes: “Kenneth Burk mentions ‘deflection’ (which he compares structurally to Freudian displacement), defined as ‘any slight bias or even unintended error,’ as the rhetorical basis for language, and deflection is then conceived as a dialectical subversion of the consistent link between sign and meaning that operates within grammatical patterns; hence Burk's well-known insistence on the distinction between grammar and rhetoric.”

  8. Quoted by J. Hillis Miller, “Deconstructing Deconstructors,” Diacritics, (Summer 1975), 26.

  9. According to Jacques Derrida, “Positions” [Interview to J. Derrida by J. H. Howdebine and G. Scarpetta], Diacritics (Winter 1972), 39, “Logocentrism is also, fundamentally an idealism. It is the matrix of idealism … And the bismantling of logocentrism is simultaneously … a deconstruction of idealism.”

  10. Ibid.

  11. J. H. Miller, “Deconstructing Deconstructors,” cit., p. 26.

  12. Eugenio Donato, “Here, Now” / “Always Already,” Diacritics, 6, 3 (Fall 1976), 28.

  13. J. H. Miller, “Tradition and Difference,” Diacritics, 2, 4 (Winter 1972), 11.

  14. G.Ch. Spivak, “Translator's Preface,” cit., p. xvi.

  15. Geoffrey H. Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 212.

  16. Rodolphe Gasché, “‘Setzung and Ubersetzung,’: Note on Paul de Man,” Diacritics, 2 (Winter 1981), 51.

  17. Calvin O. Schrag, “Subjectivity and Praxis at the End of Philosophy,” in Philosophy and Deconstruction, cit., pp. 25, 31.

  18. Andrew Parker, “‘Taking Sides’ (On History): Derrida Re-Marx,” Diacritics (Fall 1981), 66.

  19. G.Ch. Spivak, op. cit., p. xix.

  20. Edward W. Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 185.

  21. G.Ch. Spivak, op cit., p. lvii.

  22. P. de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” Yale French Studies, 63 (1982), 9.

  23. Christopher Norris, “Home Thoughts from Abroad: Derrida, Austin, and the Oxford Connection,” Philosophy and Literature, 10, 1 (April 1986), 14.

  24. Henry Veatch, “Deconstruction in Philosophy,” The Review of Metaphysics, XXXIX, 2 (December 1985), 308.

  25. Ibid., p. 307.

  26. E. Donato, op cit., p. 27.

  27. Suzanne Gearhart, “Philosophy before Literature: Deconstruction, Historicity, and the Work of Paul de Man,” Diacritics (Winter 1983), 70.

  28. R. Gasché, op cit., p. 54.

  29. William Desmond, “Hegel, Dialectic, and Deconstruction,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, 18, 4 (1985), 247.

  30. G.Ch. Spivak, op cit., p. xxviii.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid., p. lxix.

  33. Richard Klein, “Prolegomenon to Derrida,” Diacritics, 2, 4 (Winter 1972), 33, describes Derrida's method of dismantling the metaphysical polarity—idealism/materialism—in the following way: Derrida, he says, uses “materialism as a lever … for reversing the hierarchy and displacing idealism from its accustomed position of superiority.” But Derrida's usage of “materialism,” even if it “constitutes a new ‘concept’… is never allowed to become a new foundation, a new principle commending the text from some exterior, eminent position. The name remains in place … but it is transformed … it becomes one of those ‘undecidable’ terms, a simulacrum … which no longer allows itself to be comprehended within the (binary) philosophical opposition and which, however, inhabits it, resists it, disorganizes it but without constituting a third term, without ever giving way to a solution in the form of a speculative dialectic.”

  34. J. H. Miller, “Tradition and Difference,” cit., p. 12.

  35. That things are in-themselves deconstructed is a logical consequence of what deconstructionists say about the nature of a text. For Paul de Man, for example, “An Interview with Paul de Man,” by Stephan Rosso, Critical Inquiry, 12, 4 (Summer 1986), 791, “‘The text deconstructs itself, is self-deconstructive’ rather than being deconstructed by a philosophical intervention from the outside of the text.” If at this point we were to ask what is the function of the critic, deconstructors would say, as Miller did, “Deconstructing Deconstructors,” cit., p. 31, that “the critic still has his uses … though this use may be no more than to identify an act of deconstruction which has always already … been performed by the text on itself.” Clearly then, the critic mimics the text: deconstruction is a representational form of criticism since it uses the Aristotelian law of non-contradiction.

  36. Murray Krieger, Theory of Criticism (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 226.

  37. G.Ch. Spivak, op cit., p. xiii.

  38. M. Krieger, op cit., p. 226.

  39. Thomas Sheehan, “Derrida and Heidegger,” Hermeneutics and Deconstruction, cit., p. 204. Derrida also considers Heidegger logocentric; however, there is a profound difference between Calvino's Palomar and Heidegger: Palomar would like to be logocentric, while Heidegger has dedicated most of his work to the destruction of this metaphysical Being.

  40. G.Ch. Spivak, op cit., p. lxxxvii.

  41. J. H. Miller, “Deconstructing Deconstructors,” cit., p. 30.

  42. Wayne C. Booth, Critical Understanding (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 170. Here Booth correctly says: “As deconstructors have understood, we cannot attack substantive centers—whether the self or God or Being or the correct reading—without ourselves relying on substantive centers.”

  43. Philip Lewis, “The Post-structuralist Condition,” Diacritics, 12 (Spring 1982), 13.

  44. Edward Said, The World, the Text, the Critic, cit., p. 184.

  45. G.Ch. Spivak and Michael Ryan, “Anarchism Revisited: A New Philosophy,” Diacritics, 8, 2 (Summer 1978), 76.

  46. Barbara Foley, “The Politics of Deconstruction,” Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale, Robert Con Davies and Ronald Schleifer eds. (Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), p. 129.

  47. G. Hartman, “Literary Criticism and Its Discontents,” Critical Inquiry, 3, 2 (Winter 1976), 218.

  48. Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 88, showing that deconstruction is itself mimetic turns the accusation of the deconstructors against realists against the deconstructors themselves and thus, suggests that their own criticism is “a kind of literary counterpart to imperialism.” The reader can find Graff's kind of deconstruction of deconstructors at pp. 179–180 where he describes deconstruction as a “mimetic theory.”

  49. Christopher Norris, “Some Versions of Rhetoric: Empson and de Man,” Rhetoric and Form, cit., p. 201.

JoAnn Cannon (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3969

SOURCE: “Writing and the Unwritten World in Sotto il Sole Giaguaro,” in Italian Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 115, Winter-Spring, 1989, pp. 93–9.

[In the essay below, Cannon uses the stories in Calvino's posthumous collection to support her ideas concerning his approach to, and aspirations for, writing and literature in general.]

In a lecture delivered at the New York Institute for the Humanities in 1983 and published in the New York Review of Books, Calvino describes the effort he must make to tear himself away from the “written world” of books: “When I move from the written world to the other, the one we currently call the world, based on three dimensions, five senses … this means, for me, repeating every time the event of my birth, passing again through its trauma, to shape an intelligible reality from a lot of confused sensations, to choose again a strategy for facing the unexpected without being destroyed by it.”1 When the unwritten world becomes too puzzling the author confesses that he quickly buries his nose in a book—“there, at least, even if what I understand is only a small part of the whole I can cherish the illusion that I am keeping everything under control.” This confession serves to underscore the ambiguity which characterizes much of the author's later work. The written world is perceived as both that which makes reality comprehensible and that which creates, by sleight of hand, an illusory and consolatory order unreflected in the unwritten world.

Writing for Calvino would ideally fulfill the need to shape an intelligible reality. In “Due interviste su scienza e letteratura (1968),” the author maintains that Italian literature, from Dante to Galileo to Leopardi, has always had a vocation as “una mappa del mondo e dello scibile.” It is clear that Calvino too aspires to create a fiction which would serve as a map of the world. Le cosmicomiche, Ti con zero, Le città invisibili, Il castello dei destini incrociati, Palomar, and Calvino's posthumous Sotto il sole giaguaro are all driven by this same “spinta conoscitiva.” Yet Calvino's aspirations for literature as a cognitive modelling activity coexist with a sense of intellectual perplexity and doubt. In Le città invisibili the protagonists, Kublai Khan and Macro Polo, adopt a variety of methods in an attempt to resurrect order out of the chaos of an apparently amorphous empire. As Marco Polo suggests, however, it may be that the true map of the universe is like the city of Eudossia, “una macchia che dilaga senza forma, con vie tutte a zigzag, case che franano una sull'altra nel polverone, incendi, urla nel buio.”2 The essence of Kublai Khan's realm may lie only in its lack of design. In Le cosmicomiche Calvino ponders a variety of cosmogonic theories through the exploits of the inhumanly human protagonist, Qfwfq. Despite his almost irrepressible enthusiasm, the protagonist's gaze is projected on a reality which the narrator describes as “sempre piú refrattario alla parola e all'immagine.” As Qfwfq tries to “read” the history of mankind, he is virtually blinded by an avalanche of events without form or direction, which submerges and crushes all reasoning. The author's desire to systematize, to categorize, to construct abstract explanatory systems is always in contrast to an underlying sense of the precariousness of man's heuristic models. When Calvino's protagonists encounter images of order in the world, they begin to fear that it is “troppo bella per essere vera, troppo accetta al mio universo immaginiario per appartenere al mondo reale.”3

Calvino's posthumous collection of racconti, Sotto il sole giaguaro was undoubtedly born out of the same cognitive impulse which animates many of his works. At the same time the novel reveals a certain bemused perplexity toward the project of “mapping” the world and in particular an ambivalence toward that which should shape an intelligible reality—writing. The author's misgivings about writing as a cognitive tool, misgivings which in some sense give rise to Sotto il sole giaguaro are apparent in Calvino's previous works. Writing is alternately portrayed as that which organizes the unwritten world and that which blocks our view of it. The passage in Le città invisibili describing the unknowable city of Tamara is typical of the author's diffidence regarding language: “Come veramente sia la città sotto questo fitto involucro di segni, cosa contenga o nasconda, l'uomo esce da Tamara senza averlo saputo.”4 This hallucinatory image of signs which proliferate to the point of obliterating empirical reality also appears in the conclusion to “Un segno nello spazio.” In his 1983 New York lecture Calvino suggests that, rather than providing access to the world, writing seems to have formed a written shell over the “unwritten world,” a shell which the author would like to break through. “It is a world already colonized by words, a world that bears a heavy crust of speech. We live in a world where everything is already read even before it starts to exist.”5 Calvino regretfully acknowledges the transformation of homo sapiens into homo legens and looks back longingly at the lost knowledge of paleolithic tribes. He mentions two works then in progress. In the first text Calvino claims to have applied a “phenomenological” approach: “the phenomenological approach in philosophy, the estrangement effect in literature, urges us to break through the screen of words and concepts and see the world as it appeared for the first time to our sight.”6 The novel, in which perception would be the only trusted means of access to the world, is of course Palomar. The other work in progress, in many ways a companion piece to Palomar, would bring into play all the senses, the lost “knowledge” of primitive man. “Another book I'm writing is about the five senses, in order to demonstrate that contemporary man has lost the use of them.” Upon his death in 1985 Calvino had completed three of the projected racconti on the five senses. Published under the title Sotto il sole giaguaro in 1986, these racconti deal with the senses of hearing, smell and taste. The author presents these senses not so much as an alternative means of perception of the world but rather as the means of access to a new world. Can contemporary man regain the use of these lost senses?

The first of the three racconti of Sotto il sole giaguaro, “Il nome il naso,” begins with a poignant sense of loss. “Come epigrafi in un alfabeto indecifrabile, di cui metà delle lettere siano state cancellate dallo smeriglio del vento carico di sabbia, cosí voi resterete, profumerie, per l'uomo futuro senza naso.”7 At the same time that perfumes would seem to constitute a valuable semiotic system which might order reality, we learn that the precious lexicon formed by the olfactory alphabet will be unreadable to the man of the future. The first narrator of “Il nome il naso,” a certain Monsieur de Saint-Caliste, is in search of the scent which will identify his mysterious dancing partner at a masked ball. At a fashionable perfumery on the Champs Elysée, Saint-Caliste tries desperately to identify the precise scent. As he loses himself in the labyrinth of odors, he realizes that what he needs is a name which will fix the scent in his mind: “Era appunto questo che io chiedevo alla precisa esperienza di Madame Odile: di dare un nome a una commozione dell'olfatto che non riuscivo né a dimenticare né a trattenere nella memoria senza che sbiadisse lentamente” (p. 11). The protagonist must needs translate the olfactory signs into linguistic signs. In this sense the narrator's dilemma is like that of the author who can only hint at the unwritten knowledge of the senses through writing. In the process, however, the written sign comes to replace, rather than evoke, the sensory perception. The second narrator of “Il nome il naso” is a rock musician at an orgy. He is attracted to the scent of a girl who seems to beckon him but whom he can never reach: “sono qui che giro come uno scemo e non la ritrovo … quella pelle perduta che non somiglia a nessun altra pelle” (p. 17). Like Saint-Caliste the second narrator is in search of an inimitable scent, a sign which will differ from the linguistic sign by being unrepeatable, unique. In each of the two parallel subplots of this racconto, the object of the narrator's desire is unattainable. When Saint-Caliste finally reaches the address provided at the perfumery, he learns that his beloved had died at midnight after the fateful dance. In the conclusion to the second story the narrator follows the young woman's scent until it is overpowered by the stronger smell of gas—the girl has been asphyxiated (or has committed suicide).

“Il nome il naso” presents the sense of smell as a privileged semiotic system. When Saint-Caliste imagines his primitive ancestors he recognizes their superiority to reading man: “tutto quello che dovevamo capire lo capivamo col naso prima che con gli occhi” (p. 12). It is the sense of smell which unfailingly leads the cave man to his mate: “Ogni femmina ha un odore che la distingue dalle altre femmine … l'odore sí quello uno ce l'ha differente dall'altro, l'odore subito ti dice senza sbagli quel che ti serve di sapere, non ci sono parole né notizie piú precise di quelle che riceve il naso” (p. 12). In what way is the sense of smell superior to mere “parole?” In the case of the linguistic sign, the relationship between the signifier and signified is an arbitrary one. The semiotic system of smells, on the other hand, overcomes what De Saussure called “l'arbitraire du signe.” The odors which allowed non-reading man to track the beasts he was hunting or the woman he was “courting” bear a natural relationship with that which they represent. They are perhaps closer to what De Saussure calls a symbol: “the symbol … is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified.”8 At the same time that the sense of smell is portrayed as a superior semiotic system, it is one whose signs can no longer be deciphered by reading man. Each of the stories of “Il nome il naso” ends with the defeat of the protagonist, as if to suggest that the knowledge man once acquired through the sense of smell is indeed lost, that the transformation of homo legens into homo sentiens is no longer possible.

In the chapter on taste, entitled “Sotto il sole giaguaro,” eating is portrayed as another potentially cognitive activity. The narrator and his girlfriend experience Mexico not so much through their visits to the ruins of the Aztecs and Zapotecs but through their taste buds. Just as in Palomar the wealth of cheeses in a Parisian shop seems to represent the accumulated knowledge of an entire civilization, a language whose morphology Palomar would like to understand, so the food which the narrator and Olivia sample in Mexico comes to constitute a language. Yet the narrator has lost the ability to comprehend that language. He envies Olivia, “piú sensibile alle sfumature percettive e dotata d'una memoria piú analitica dove ogni ricordo restava distinto e inconfondibile; io piú portato a definire verbalmente e concettualmente le esperienze” (p. 38). The narrator of “Sotto il sole giaguaro” is handicapped from the outset; in this sense he is much like Palomar of the homonymous novel. Convinced that the key to unlock the mystery of the world is direct observation, Palomar is unfortunately nearsighted. Unlike the powerful telescope which the character's name calls to mind, Palomar is inept, unequipped, the typical Calvinian “disadattato patetico” who appears as early as the Marcovaldo stories.9 It was in the mask of this persona that Calvino spoke of the difficulties he had in writing Sotto il sole giaguaro: “Writing it, I have the problem that my sense of smell is not very sharp. I lack really keen hearing, I am not a gourmet, my sense of touch is unrefined and I am nearsighted. For each of the five senses, I have to make an effort in order to master a range of sensations and nuances.” In Sotto il sole giaguaro the narrator's atrophied sense of taste forces him to fall back on words. “Era il nome ‘gorditas pellizcadas con manteca’ che io gustavo soprattutto e assimilavo e possedevo. Tanto che la magia del nome continuò ad agire su di me anche dopo il pasto” (pp. 54–55). The narrator's inability to partake directly of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, his inescapable reliance on language, is both comical and pathetic.

The narrator's inescapable reliance on the word mirrors that of the author. The recourse to new semiotic systems, to the alphabets of smell and taste, would seem to be an attempt on Calvino's part to overcome the constitutive deficiency of the written and spoken word. Yet Calvino of course has no choice but to rely upon words to convey the unwritten world, the world as perceived through the five senses. He can only create the illusion of a perception which escapes from the prison-house of language. Thus Calvino's enterprise would seem to be doomed from the start. The only way he can evoke the lost knowledge of the senses is by translating sensual perceptions into written signs. While the first two stories of Sotto il sole giaguaro seem to present the image of a superior, though unrecoverable sign system, the last story shows that the new semiotic system may partake of many of the same deficiencies as language.

“Un re in ascolto” is the story of a solitary king whose only access to his kingdom is through his sense of hearing. Like Kublai Khan in Calvino's Le città invisibili the king has lost all contact with his realm. Isolated in his throne room he loses the richness, the variety of his empire. “Sei diventato re non per possedere questo palazzo triste e buio, ma la città varia e screziata, strepitante, dalle mille voci” (p. 78). Even the palace in which he is enthroned is unknown to him. The only way to reconstruct it in his mind is to piece together the various echoes he hears into a kind of sonogram. “Puoi percorrerlo guidato dagli echi, localizzando scricchiolii, stridori, imprecazioni, … borbottii, gorgogli …” (p. 71). Hearing becomes the key which should permit him to form conjectures on the form of the space in which he finds himself. But the king's realm, and the palace itself, speak to him in enigmas. He must find the thread connecting one sound to another. If he relaxes his attention for a moment, his mastery of the kingdom may be at an end. The sonogram is never clear, the conjectures never-ending. Should he read the sounds which break the expected pattern as danger signals? Or should he welcome them for breaking up the suffocatingly cyclical repetition of notes? The king hears sounds emerging from underground: are they signals? On what code are they based? The king tries to send a response, after a long silence he hears what he hopes to be a return signal from his unseen interlocutor. Has he established a dialogue? Are the signals translatable? If so, by what code? The king is interested not only in the content of the message but also in the intention to communicate: “l'intenzione d'attrarre la tua attenzione, di comunicare, di parlarti …” (p. 75). Is there communication or just noise, static?

The protagonist of “Un re in ascolto” is paradigmatic of the Calvinian protagonist from Kublai Khan to the Count of Monte Cristo to Palomar. Disoriented, imprisoned, lost in a palace-prison-labyrinth, Calvino's hero is close to defeat in his challenge to the labyrinth. The protagonist must discover a heuristic key to the labyrinth, an interpretive model which will reveal a way of escape. He recognizes that his “semiotic neurosis” leaves him no choice but to search for a pattern in the maze. “Non puoi fare a meno di cercare un senso” (p. 71), but he is not at all convinced that such a pattern indeed exists. The king of “Un re in ascolto” must simply continue to assume that the sounds which reach him convey some meaning, that they are indeed signs, or better symbols, and not mere cacophony.

Towards the end of the racconto the king hears the voice of a woman. He is attracted not to the lyrics but to the voice itself: “una voce significa questo—c'è una persona viva … che spinge nell'aria questa voce diversa da tutte le altre voci” (p. 82). The voice is emitted by a sender who is unique, unrepeatable. Like Qfwfq in “Un segno nello spazio,” the king is in search of a sign which would be unique, the sign of an unrepeatable presence. “Quella invece era una voce che veniva dall'ombra, contenta di manifestarsi senza uscire dal buio che la nascondeva e di gettare un ponte verso ogni presenza avvolta dallo stesso buio” (p. 86). Suddenly the king finds himself moved to song. He begins to sing in a warm baritone voice. The king marvels to himself over the uniqueness of this hidden talent: “una voce inconfondibile, la voce che sola è tua”. But as he tries to communicate with the woman's voice, his song is drowned out by noise.

In the conclusion of the story the city and the palace explode in flames. The king flees from the palace conspiracy into the dark. As in the palace he is “smarrito,” disoriented, lost. “Da tanto tempo stai camminando nel buio fitto, hai perso ogni idea di dove puoi trovarti” (p. 89). Perhaps he has gotten lost in a cave, an underground passage without end. Indeed he had constructed a network of underground passages as a way of escape in the event of a disaster. Now he himself is a prisoner. He hears a signal which may be sent by the political prisoner who once sat on the throne. Now they are both imprisoned. It is no longer clear who is the usurper and who the usurped. He begins to think that “in questo sotteraneo ti sembra d'esserci stato chiuso sempre, mandando messaggi, segnali” (p. 91). He again hears the woman's voice, he tries to respond so she can find her way to him in the dark. Although he hears a voice which seems to be his newly discovered baritone, the song which he had sung for a moment in the throne room, he quickly realizes that it is the voice of the prisoner who is imitating, counterfeiting his voice.

In some ways the chapter calls to mind “Un segno nello spazio,” Calvino's story of the “original” sign. As Qfwfq rotates aimlessly around the galaxy with the Solar System, he decides to make the first sign in space. Qfwfq insists that the defining characteristic of the sign is its intentionality. “Aveva l'intenzione di fare un segno, questo si …”10 Alas, when Qfwfq finds that his original sign has been erased and replaced by an imitation, a copy, he is inconsolable. He cannot accept the fact that the very condition of possibility of language is that signs can be imitated, counterfeited. As Derrida points out, writing must be able to function not only in the absence of the receiver and the speaker, but also in the absence of the sender's intentions, his “vouloir dire.”11 In “Un re in ascolto” the possibility of counterfeiting is shown to be a characteristic of any sign system. If the recourse to a new semiotic system, in this case hearing, began as an attempt to overcome the deficiency of the linguistic sign, it quickly becomes apparent that this particular semiotic system partakes of many of the same deficiencies as language. Indeed, even if the king were successful in “communicating” with the voice of the woman and in making himself heard, his song would have been “read” in advance—“nel modo in cui un re va sentito.” We cannot escape from the cultural connections inscribed in our language, whether that language be written or oral.

One can only speculate about the form which the two remaining racconti of Sotto il sole giaguaro would have taken. It seems unlikely that Calvino's protagonists would have had any more success at breaking through to the unwritten world via the sense of touch and sight than via the other senses. Yet what is certain is that the attempt would have been mae. The various protagonists of Sotto il sole giaguaro, in particular the king of “Un re in ascolto,” are much like Palomar as he contemplates the ruins of the Toltec Indians in Mexico. Unlike the Indian guide, who freely admits “No se sabe lo que quiere decir,” Palomar cannot forego the need to “make sense”: “Non interpretare è impossibile.” The king of “Un re in ascolto” shares Palomar's “semiotic neurosis.” Although he may fear that his enterprise is futile, he also recognizes his inescapable compulsion: “Non puoi fare a meno di cercare un senso” (p. 71). In each case the protagonist's need to interpret is almost an admission of weakness inasmuch as it is a need which can perhaps never be satisfied. Just as Palomar cannot adopt the cavalier attitude of the Indian guide, so the king must continue to assume that the sounds which reach him are indeed significant.

Elsewhere I have suggested that we read much of Calvino's later work by the same key which he would apply to what he has called “the literature of the labyrinth” of such writers as Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Butor and Gadda.12 In “La sfida al labirinto” Calvino argues that there is a dual possibility inherent in those works which project a labyrinthine vision of the world.13 Either the writer is fascinated with the image of the labyrinth for its own sake, and thus his work might be considered a surrender to the labyrinth. Or the author feels compelled to create the most elaborate possible labyrinths in order to hint at a possible way of escape. Calvino advocates a literature of the labyrinth which would serve not as a sign of surrender but as a challenge to sound out the mysteries of the world. Sotto il sole giaguaro should, I think, be read in this context. Although the protagonists of these racconti never seem to grasp the knowledge they are seeking, they are not necessarily defeated. Calvino's concluding words in his 1983 lecture are revealing in this regard: “the urge for writing is always connected with the longing for something one would like to possess and master, something that escapes us.”14 This characterization of writing sets the tone for Sotto il sole giaguaro and Palomar as well. Man will go on looking for systems by which to make his world intelligible until some Deus ex machina, which in Calvino's last two texts takes the form of the Big Bang, brings an end to the human drama.


  1. Italo Calvino, “The Written and the Unwritten World,” The New York Review of Books, 12 May 1983, p. 38.

  2. Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili (Torino: Einaudi, 1972), p. 104.

  3. Italo Calvino, Palomar (Torino: Einaudi, 1983), p. 40.

  4. Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili, p. 22.

  5. Italo Calvino, “The Written and the Unwritten World,” p. 38.

  6. Ibid., p. 38–39.

  7. Italo Calvino, Sotto il sole giaguaro (Milano: Garzanti, 1986), p. 7. Subsequent references to this volume will be indicated in parentheses in the text.

  8. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), p. 68.

  9. I have developed this idea of Palomar as “disadattato patetico” in “Calvino's Latest Challenge to the Labyrinth: A Reading of Palomar,Italica, Fall 1985.

  10. Italo Calvino, Le cosmicomiche (Torino: Einaudi, 1965), p. 42.

  11. See Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Contest,” Glyph. 1 (1977), p. 181. See also JoAnn Cannon, Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic (Ravenna: Longo Editore, 1981), pp. 55–60, for a discussion of the Deriddean implications of Calvino's racconto.

  12. See JoAnn Cannon, “Calvino: The Last Twenty Years,” in Calvino Revisited, ed. Franco Ricci. (Dovehouse Press, 1989).

  13. Italo Calvino, “La sfida al labirinto” in Una pietra sopra (Torino: Einaudi, 1980), pp. 82–97.

  14. Italo Calvino, “The Written and the Unwritten World,” p. 39.

Francis Cromphout (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10360

SOURCE: “From Estrangement to Commitment: Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics and T Zero,” in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, July, 1989, pp. 161–83.

[In the following essay, Cromphout discusses Calvino's work as science fiction and views the stories of Cosmicomics and t zero as part of a single literary project.]

Some of the most remarkable works of Italian SF stand on the margins of the genre—certain of Dino Buzzati's stories, for example, or Primo Levi's Storie Naturali. This generalization applies as well to Cosmicomics (Le Cosmicomiche, 1965) and T Zero (Ti con zero, 1967) by Italo Calvino. Yet Calvino seems to have thought it necessary to discourage labelling him a writer of SF.1 “The prime difference …,” he writes in the Preface to La Memoria del Mondo (The Memory of the World, 1968), “is that SF deals with the future, whereas each of my narratives refers to a remote past” (“La prima differenza … è che ‘science-fiction’ tratta del futuro, mentre ognuno dei miei racconti si rifà a un passato remoto”: p. 5)2—even, we may add, to a “prehistoric” past. Still, the views of certain other eminent critics of SF moderate these reservations of Calvino's. Brian Aldiss tells us, for instance, that “[i]n reality there is no future” because we can only imagine a future by drawing upon elements of the past and/or present (p. 11); and complementarily, Darko Suvin speaks of SF's use of the present and the past “as special cases of a possible, historical sequence seen from an estranged point of view” (p. 21). Moreover, the estranged or distantiated perspective that for Suvin typifies SF, while it requires “an alternative historical hypothesis” (p. 49), does not necessarily dictate that the fiction be set in the future. The cognitive enterprise which—again, according to Suvin—SF is engaged in can just as well be conducted in terms of the past. This, at any rate, is Calvino's usual mode of proceeding; and it is one that qualifies as S-F for another reason as well.

That other reason has to do with the connection Calvino makes between his imaginary worlds and science. “I would have scientific data serve for propelling me out of the [fixed] habits of the imagination, and also for living the quotidian at the farthest limits of our experience,” he says in his Preface to Memoria (“Io vorrei servirmi del dato scientifico come d'una carica propulsiva per uscire dalle abitudini dell'immaginazione, e vivere anche il quotidiano nei termini piú lontani dalla nostra esperienza”: p. 6). He thus in effect differentiates his own work from a sort of SF which we might call reactionary on the grounds that it employs scientific argument to make an imaginary situation suit the standards and expectations of the status quo. In contrast to such, Calvino seems to be suggesting (in his own terms) that he is writing fiction which relativizes existing norms—that he is engaged in the same kind of “cognitive estrangement” which characterizes the best SF.3

In exploring that point and matters relating to it, I will be treating Cosmicomics and T Zero as constituting a single literary project.4 My immediate justification for doing so is that the stories in the earlier of the two volumes and those in Part One, at least, of T Zero have in common four significant elements: (1) they feature Qfwfq, also as narrator; (2) they employ SF models; (3) they recurrently display a similar structural pattern; and (4) they are informed by a binary code, with the characters fulfilling a symbolic function. At the same time, they also satisfy Suvin's definition of SF as a genre which is: (a) cognitive, (b) pluridimensional with respect to (historical) time, and (c) estranged, or unconstrained by any reality principle (thought to be) operating in the actual world of the author and her or his addressees.

An estranged perspective is so crucial to Calvino that one critic, naming it a “pathos of distance,” has observed that it totally determines Calvino's poetic mode of expression.5 Furthermore, it governs not only the cosmic aspects which Cosmicomics and T Zero share with certain other works of SF but also the comic aspects deriving from them. In fact, irony and humor are Calvino's usual means for critically distancing what we take to be reality, for escaping from the narrowness of vision by which we reductively manage the world's complexities. “What I am looking for in humorous or ironical or grotesque or comic-strip-like transfigurations,” he declares, “is a way out of the limitation and univocality of any representation or judgment … [is] a type of distancing from the particular, a sense of the vastness of everything” (“Quel che cerco nella transfigurazione comica o ironica o grottesca o fumistica è la via d'uscire dalla limitatezza e univocità d'ogni rappresentazione e ogni giudizio … questa specie di distacco dal particolare, di senso della vastità del tutto”: Una pietra, p. 157).

Calvino's originality in the realm of SF perhaps lies with this combination of imaginary and comic estrangement. Let me begin, then, with some remarks on the most evident ways by which he achieves that estrangement, and take up afterwards—and in reverse order—the remaining two criteria of Suvin's outlined above.

The first feature that we encounter in these “cosmicomical” tales is the scientific text which usually appears as their headnote or epigraph and advances a hypothesis or theory concerning the origin of the universe (or some part thereof). The scientific idea thus focussed on is one that Qfwfq seemingly confirms in his ensuing narrative as he bears witness to a course of events predicated upon and dramatizing the preliminary hypothesis. This proof, however, redounds parodically against the scientific notion that Calvino highlights; for at every turn, the reader confronts the non-sense of an absurd situation that Qfwfq through his narrative renders credible (more or less).6 In “The Distance of the Moon,” for example, the hypothesis in question is G. H. Darwin's, according to which the Moon used to be very close to the Earth before tidal forces pushed it away. This notion is applied logically to the “prehistoric” reality Calvino portrays, and in a manner that gives a kind of plausibility to the fictive goings-on. But those goings-on are in themselves fabulous, consisting as they do of excursions to the Moon, primarily for the collecting of moon-milk.

We find the same kind of incongruity exploited for comic effect on a stylistic level. Repeatedly Calvino uses mundane or banal expressions from everyday experience in connection with grandiose facts about the formation of galaxies, the evolution of species, and so forth. Amidst occurrences of such cataclysmic proportions, we have Qfwfq exclaiming “no use shouting” (C51; “avevi un bel gridare”: p.64) or “[Attaboy idiot]” (C87; “Bravo furbo”: p. 106)—verbal responses incommensurately incommensurate with what is happening. This incongruity also operates at the level of incident, and with the same risible consequences—as when, for example, Qfwfq and Pfwfp play a game of marbles with the hydrogen atoms that steady-state physics posits (in “Games without End”).

The foregrounding of attitudes deriving from our daily experience but malapropos and/or inadequate in their cosmi-fictional context works toward a similar purpose. Thus, in “At Daybreak,” for instance, the sojourn among the whirl of particles constituting a nebula prompts a foolish desire to scratch oneself “because—they can say what they like—all those [little] particles spinning around had [no other] effect than a troublesome itching” (C19; “perché, si ha un bel dire, ma tutto questo vorticare di particelle non aveva altro effetto che un prurito fastidioso”: p. 28).

This last sentiment bespeaks an anthropocentrism that Calvino exploits in his cosmicomic tales as a kind of literary topos. All of them abound in specifically human actions and concepts, thus expressing an attitude which fits in with the author's critical and cognitive objectives. “This anthropomorphism,” he writes, “I have accepted and fully vindicated as fundamental literary procedure. … This is also a way to put to the test the most obvious, lazy, and vainglorious image of man: to multiply his eyes and nose all round him so that he no longer knows where to recognize himself” (“questo antropomorfismo l'ho accettato e rivendicato in pieno come procedimento letterario fondamentale. … [Q]uesto è un modo di mettere alla prova l'immagine piú ovvia e pigra e vanagloriosa dell'uomo: moltiplicare i suoi occhi e il suo naso tutt'intorno in modo che non sappia piú dove riconoscersi”: p. 188; emphasis in original).

Another means for estrangement that Calvino sometimes resorts to involves techniques drawn from comic strips. These generally appear in fictive situations described in schematic fashion with the help of literary collage and featuring a rapid succession of incidents. This comic-strip procedure, operating at a primary level ostensibly to assist the reader in following the thread of the story, is something that Calvino explicitly calls attention to and comments on in “The Origin of the Birds”:

There's no use my telling you in detail the cunning I used to succeed in returning to the Continent of the Birds. In the [comic] strips it would be told with one of those tricks that work well only in drawings. (The frame is empty. I arrive. I spread [glue] on the upper right-hand corner. I sit down in the lower left-hand corner. [Enter] a bird, flying, from the [top] left. As [it] leaves the frame, [it remains glued by the tail. It continues] flying and pulls after [it] the whole frame [adhering] to his tail, with me [seated] at the bottom, allowing myself to be carried along. Thus I arrive at the Land of the Birds. If you don't like this story, you can think up another one: the important thing is to have me arrive there.) (T24)

[È inutile che racconti dettagliatamente l'astuzia con cui riuscii a tornare nel Continente degli Uccelli. Nei fumetti andrebbe raccontato con uno di quei trucchi che vengono bene soltanto a disegnarli. (Il quadretto è vuoto. Arrivo io. Spalmo di colla l'angolo in alto a destra. Mi siedo sull'angolo in basso a sinistra. Entra un uccello, volando, da sinistra in alto. All'uscire dal quadretto resta incollato per la coda. Continua a volare e si tira dietro tutto il quadretto appiccicato alla coda, con me seduto in fondo che mi lascio transportare. Cosí arrivo al Paese degli Uccelli. Se questa non vi piace potete immaginarvi un'altra storia: l'importante è farmi arrivare là.)

(Ti con zero, p. 30)]

This facetious account, whatever else may be said about it, exhibits a literary self-consciousness which, once again, serves for the estranging of cognition.

Our next set of considerations applies to SF's pluridimensionality. Here we can look upon the retrospective emphasis in Calvino as a response to the impasse confronting us in our efforts to imagine the future. Not only are those efforts questionable by reason of what Aldiss observes about them (as we have already noted); they have also become highly problematic insofar as the very basis for such projections from the past (and present) can no longer be taken for granted. Jean Baudrillard contends as much in his Les stratégies fatales. That philosopher, starting from Elias Canetti's view that our culture has lost the linear thread of its history, argues that along with this loss of historical perspective goes a loss of reality. In consequence, he contends, we are witnessing “the end of linear time” (Baudrillard: 20). But if that be true, how can SF accomplish its prodigious mission of projecting this irrecoverable past into an imaginary future?

While refusing to deal in (mirage-like) futures altogether, Calvino delineates the utopian longing which SF often attaches to them in another way: he imports a utopian dimension by his manner of evoking the particulars of a “prehistoric” past. Insofar as that past is (self-consciously) hypothetical (in significant part, by reason of its foundation, as it were, in the “scientific” headnote introducing each fictive vision of it), it in effect addresses the problem which Baudrillard poses (and does so with a vengeance). But at the same time, it represents a world expressly different from, and contradictory to, the present, largely for being open to Possibility.7 Nor is that the only sense in which this past counts as Utopian. In every version of it (and each of the cosmicomical tales has its own), it is always the place where harmony, unity, and happiness are—or were. Accordingly, the movement from past to present always entails the passage from order to chaos, from unity to division, from happiness to misery—a passage whose emotional impact Qfwfq testifies to in his own “person” and one which often brings with it his realization that he has been (self-)deceived, the victim of an impersonal con game, as it were.

This is the case with Qfwfq in “The Distance of the Moon” well before the process of the Moon's distancing itself from Earth concludes with his separation from Mrs Vhd Vhd. At the very moment when his romantic dream of being alone with her seems about to be fulfilled, even then he realizes that “I should have been happy” (C13; “Avrei dovuto essere felice”: p. 21) but is not—i.e., that such happiness lies in his past imagining of what this togetherness would (have) be(en) like.

“Without Colors” follows a similar pattern of disillusionment. There Qfwfq's attempt to initiate the object of his romantic desire—here named Ayl—to the new world of colors (which Earth's acquisition of an atmosphere is rapidly bringing into being) results only in his disappointment and solitude. As the totally grey world she is enamoured of disappears, Ayl disappears with it, “inside” it; so that the newly-“chromatized” world serves merely to impress on Qfwfq his sense of loss. Though splendidly colorful vistas are before his eyes, they can only make him sad:

all seemed so trivial to me, so banal, so false, so much in contrast with Ayl's person, with Ayl's world, with Ayl's idea of beauty, that I [understood] that her place could never have been out here. And I realized with grief and fear that I had remained out here … and Ayl's perfect world was lost forever, so lost I couldn't even imagine it any more.”

(C60; italics added)

[tutto m'apparve cosí insulso, cosí banale, cosí falso, cosí in contrasto con la persona di Ayl, con il mondo di Ayl, con l'idea di Ayl, che compresi come il suo posto non avrebbe mai piú potuto essere di qua. E mi resi conto con dolore e spavento che io ero rimasto di qua … e che il mondo pperfetto di Ayl era perduto per sempre, tanto che non sapevo piú neppure immaginarmelo. …

(pp. 73–74; italics in original)]

The disenchantment that Qfwfq experiences thus comes from his consciousness both of Ayl's lost happiness and of the loss of his own happiness that accompanies it.

The mastery of a new stage of evolution always end thus: in the awareness, after the fact, that the perfect world Qfwfq dreamed of was an anterior world. This subjective insight has its objective correlative, as “How Much Shall We Bet” demonstrates. There the two protagonists are wagering on predictions of coming events in a universe whose future holds increasing disorder (in this case, thanks to quantum leaps in particularity and the information overload that these cause).

The race toward the future, [that] race I had been the first to foresee and [prognosticate], tended only—through time and space—toward a crumbling into alternatives like [these], until it would dissolve in a geometry of invisible triangles and ricochets like the course of a [soccer] ball among the white lines of a field [which] I tried to imagine [as being traced] at the bottom of the luminous vortex of the planetary system.


[(L)a corsa verso il futuro, quella corsa che io per primo avevo previsto e auspicato, non tendeva ad altro attraverso il tempo e lo spazio che a uno sbriciolarsi in alternative come queste, fino a dissolversi in una geometria d'invisibili triangoli e rimbalzi come il percorso del pallone tra le linee bianche del campo quali io cercavo d'immaginarmi tracciate in fondo al vortice luminoso del sistema planetario.

(pp. 109–10)]

This, like all the other cosmicomical tales, represents the passage from the past to the present world, figured (typically) in “How Much …” both as an awakening of consciousness to historical transitoriness and (correlatively) as the fracturing of primordial harmony, out of which division and alienation emerge. Qfwfq is very much a part of this process, a prisoner—as in the above quotation—of a temporal maze or (as elsewhere) of the biological evolution compelling him from one stage to another. “After all,” he says in a moment of disillusionment in “The Aquatic Uncle,” “what could I do about it? I went on my way, in the midst of the world's transformations, transformed myself” (C81; “Ma poi, che farci? Continuai la mia strada, in mezzo alle transformazioni del mondo, anch'io transformandomi”: p. 98).

One of the chief images symbolizing this situation of imprisonment comes from genetics. Throughout “Priscilla,” especially, each “living” creature (and particularly Qfwfq, of course) appears as a “past” product, as it were, of a conglomeration of possibilities which have not been ruled out and which tend to repeat themselves ad infinitum. These (non-)beings have no future, imprisoned as they are in the mechanisms of a memory that can only remember itself. Consequently, if Qfwfq and Priscilla were ever to find each other in a love encounter, it would merely be to duplicate the marriage of their ancestors.

As if this genetic enchainment were not enough, there are also sociocultural forces acting to the same effect. These are what pressure Qfwfq to adopt and adapt to the outlook of just-evolved amphibians (as against that represented by his Aquatic [i.e., piscine] Uncle) or the values of the New Ones as opposed to the Dinosaurs' (the species to which Qfwfq ostensibly belongs in the fiction so called).

If nature and culture have a tendency to repeat themselves in unalterable series, is there a way out for the individual? The narrator of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” speaking of himself at this point in the third person, observes that the fortress from which he desires to escape “repeats in space and time always the same combination of figures” over and over again (T142; “ripete nello spazio e nel tempo sempre la stessa combinazione di figure”: p. 159). All of a sudden he becomes conscious of this possibility: that maybe the fortress extends progressively with the Abbé Faria's (his fellow-prisoner and alter ego's) exploratory excavations. And if the fortress is expanding (spatio-)temporally, perhaps the way out lies with retraversing time at a velocity superior to its extension. To free oneself, to find oneself outside, would then mean to find oneself in the past—in this case, precisely at the moment when the prisoner has not yet entered the fortress. The solution is therefore not to be found in the future: to escape from the prison, one has to move backwards in time—which involves getting rid of the consequences of the past, including—or perhaps, especially—those of one's own past.

In Calvino, then, we have a kind of meta-Proustian “recherche du temps perdu,” which operates—at least in principle—as a liberating enterprise vis-à-vis the deterministic factors which would deprive us of our reality, our particular destiny. Such an enterprise, as it entails a reconquering of time and history, requires a standpoint outside time.

This parameter is what Calvino means by “t[ime] zero,” or t0. In the narrative explicitly devoted to that concept (as its title indicates), t0 represents a moment definable only in relation to the moments following it. Neither it nor its “contents” yet “exist.” But by the same token, this timeless parameter is Calvino's utopic laboratory as well as the observation point from which his imagery takes form. In “T Zero” it is the instant when the outcome of a hunter's having shot his arrow at a lion already springing at him remains radically uncertain.

This split second designated t0 is a universe unto itself. It is the stop-frame moment (to use a filmic metaphor whose inadequacy Calvino expressly examines in “T Zero”) which would permit us to contemplate the sum of all the discrete points of time contained in this universe-second and thereby attain objective knowledge of t0 in all its spatial extensiveness. This implies that every spatio-temporal point—not just t0, but t1, t2, t3, etc.—coincides with, or contains, all others. In which case there would be no difference between time and eternity (understood as an atemporal condition), so that the writer would be cut off from (historical) reality.

To obviate that problem, and also to observe t0 objectively, it is necessary to adopt a (temporal) point of view. And such a point of view—i.e., any, properly speaking—requires a subject looking at t0 from the outside (at least as it were). In that sense, we have not only to proceed to t1, to move in time, in order to get a fix on t0, to stop time; we must also take a subjective position in order to be objective.

This is where Qfwfq comes in: as a second parameter—a “prehistoric” one, we may call it, characterized by subjectivity and “pluritemporality,” or a certain temporal omniscience. From the various stories in which Qfwfq figures, we know: that he “exists” in relation to a very distant past, that he is the witness to and an actor in different stages of the/his universe's evolution, and that he develops in/over the course of time, undergoing multiple metamorphoses as the universe (by his account of it) evolves. He is the one who “remembers”: “How well I know!—old Qfwfq cried—the rest of you can't remember but I can” (C3; “Lo so bene!—exclamò il vecchio Qfwfq—voi non ve ne potete ricordare ma io sí”: “La distanza della luna,” p. 9). Being the protagonist of a quest in (temporal) reverse—of a process of consciousness which imaginatively recovers the past that (would) imprison(s) us—Qfwfq is the cognitive instrument par excellence of Calvino's demystifying S-F enterprise.

At any given (narrative) moment, we find Qfwfq heading towards, or already situated in, time-zero, the instant of suspension between one stage and another, the limbo between the no-longer and the not-yet. That is the case (described above) with Qfwfq the lion-hunter in “T Zero” and also (to take another simple example) in “The Aquatic Uncle,” where he appears, suggestively enough, as an amphibian—i.e., as neither wholly a land creature nor a fish.

He finally loses out, in that last-mentioned tale, to his fish-uncle in their rivalry over the beautiful Lll. She chooses in the end to return to the sea and live with the uncle because, unlike Qfwfq, “he's somebody who is somebody” (C81; “lui è uno che è uno”: “Lo zio acquatico,” p. 98). Still, Qfwfq prefers to maintain his half-way station: “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” (C82; “Tutti costoro avevano qualcosa, lo so, che li rendeva in qualche modo superiori a me, sublimi, e che rendeva me, in confronto a loro, mediocre. Eppure non mi sarei cambiato con nessuno di loro”: “Lo zio acquatico,” p. 99). Why? Because (as “The Dinosaurs” makes clear) his “place” affords him a standpoint which is (relatively) comprehensive, and is also one from which to judge the limitations of competing world-views.

That standpoint—the moment t0—figures in “The Origin of the Birds” as the moment when Qfwfq must forget all he has so far understood in order to enter the birds' new world and marry Or, their queen. This is a moment of transition from one kind of knowledge to another; and as such, it links the two kinds:

For a fraction of a second between the loss of [all that] I knew before and the [acquisition] of [all] I would know afterward, I managed to embrace in a single thought the world of things as they were and [that] of things as they could have been, and [it came to me] that a single system [comprehended] all. The world of birds, of monsters, of Or's beauty was the same as the one [in which] I had always lived [and] which none of us had understood [to the bottom].


[Per una frazione di secondo tra la perdita di tutto quel che sapevo prima e l'acquisto di tutto quel che avrei saputo dopo, riuscii ad abbracciare in un solo pensiero il mondo delle cose com'erano e quello delle cose come avrebbero potuto essere, e m'accorsi che un solo sistema comprendeva tutto. Il mondo degli uccelli, dei mostri, della bellezza d'Or era lo stesso di quello in cui ero sempre vissuto e che nessuno aveva capito fino in fondo.

(pp. 31–32)]

This t0, then, is (to borrow another of Calvino's cosmicomical metaphors) the moment at which the world's ideological crust breaks apart and becomes mobile, the moment for contemplating the plurality of equivalent worlds.

That brings us to the cognitive dimension of Calvino's fictional project. Here a problem poses itself for any writer whose work aims at some “truth” as the object of knowledge. The problem, in brief and from a critical standpoint, concerns the extent to which a literary text can be subjected to cognitive criteria of truth and falsity. I would argue (and elsewhere have) that the truth implicated in such a text is at once relative and dynamic.8 This can perhaps best be explained vis-à-vis a theory of correspondence symbolically enunciated as V (‘p’)=(p), where “V” stands for veridicality, “(‘p’)” for some fictive content expressed in propositional form, and “(p)” for some proposition about extra-fictional reality. On that basis, we can observe that propositions of the latter sort (and hence, too, their fictive equivalents) are relative—i.e., they hold (or fail to hold) true in relation to the writer, the reader, and their respective socio-empirical environments. To say that such propositions are also dynamic means—what may apply to their fictive counterparts as well (as in Calvino's case)—that neither the persons nor the events to which they pertain admit of an essentialist (and therefore static) analysis.

Calvino's cognitive undertaking is responsive to these two demands, of relativity and dynamism. Indeed, his œuvre virtually amounts to a declaration of war against any (notion of) absolute or essentialist truth. This is unmistakable—to take one of a multitude of illustrative instances—in the satire of U(h)'s attitude toward the birds. To preserve his world from the crisis which the advent of the birds precipitates, the dogmatic U(h) first pronounces that novum “a mistake” and then tries to erase it (T16–17).

Calvino formulates some of the basics of his critical vision quite straightforwardly in his essay “The Sea of Objectivity.” There he describes an “I” imprisoned by the reality principle—immersed in object-ivity, “in the uninterrupted flux of what exists” (“… flusso ininterrotto di ciò che esiste”: Una pietra, p. 39). Consequently (and as he points out) the more one is part of that reality, the less one understands. That is why he argues for a literature of consciousness as opposed to an object-ive literature: “The moment that we would want to see arise from one as from another mode of understanding reality is always that of non-acceptance of the given situation, of an active and conscious jump, of the desire for contrast, of perseverance without illusions”9 (“il momento che vorremmo scaturisse dall'uno come dall'altro modo di intendere la realtà, è pur sempre quello della non accettazione della situazione data, dello scatto attivo e cosciente, della volontà di contrasto, della ostinazione senza illusioni”: Una pietra, p. 45). By the same token, literature has to relieve itself of the weight of the established order, thereby “becoming a private fact which allows poets and prosewriters to express what oppresses them” (“diventando un fatto privato che permetta ai poeti e agli scrittori d'esprimere le loro stesse oppressioni”: “Cibernetica e fantasmi,” in Una pietra, p. 179; emphasis in original).

The danger, of course, is that the literary “reality” which the author means to set against objective oppression may in its turn introduce its own dogmatic order, one as absolute and essentialist as that which it proposes to overthrow. For this reason, Calvino speaks of levels of reality rather than of reality (as if it were) plain and simple. As he writes in an essay called “Levels of Reality,” “literature knows the reality of levels and perhaps offers a better understanding of that reality than does any other cognitive approach” (“la letteratura conosce la realtà dei livelli e questa è una realtà che conosce forse meglio di quanto non s'arrivi a conoscerla attraverso altri procedimenti conoscitivi”: “I livelli della realtà,” in Una pietra, p. 323; emphasis in original).

Conscious of the proper value of literary language, Calvino is equally aware of its relativity. Here he points to the mutual challenge that literary and scientific discourse-systems present: as they at once call into question and stimulate one another, their mutual relations serve to warn the writer against believing that she or he has discovered an absolute truth. Moreover, the example of science may instruct an author in “the patient modesty of looking upon each achievement as making part of a perhaps infinite series of approximations” (“nella paziente modestia di considerare ogni risultato come facente parte di una serie forse infinita d'approssimazioni”: “Cibernetica …,” in Una pietra, p. 191). This same prudence, which takes account of the difficulty of knowing anything in view of the complexity of the realit(y)/(ies) being investigated, has its stylistic correlative: in the successive attempts to convey some point, in the alternative ways of explaining that these offer, and in the frequency with which Calvino introduces propositions with a “like,” an “as if,” an “almost” or an “a kind of” (“come,” “come se,” “quasi,” and “una specie di”). These in fact are the linguistic markers of what Michel Tournier has wittily termed the principle of “Italo-Calvinism,” which is characterized by “the concern to proceed in the investigation of things only while adhering tenaciously to the rational method, striving for exhaustive surveys and fearful of losing oneself in the infinite” (“le souci de n'avancer dans le découverte des choses qu'en tenant fortement la rampe de la méthode rationelle, le goût des dénombrements complets, la peur de se perdre dans l'infini”: p. 353).

The principle of Italo-Calvinism becomes increasingly evident as we move from Cosmicomics to T Zero. It is barely visible in the former volume, where sight of it is lost in the narratives as such; but in T Zero's, it is regularly—indeed, systematically—put into focus as a central subject of the fictional discourse. Time and again Calvino there calls attention to the how of what is being said—to the problematical how—as in this passage from “Priscilla”:

Narrating things as they are means narrating them from the beginning, and even if I [attack] the story at a point where the characters are multicellular organisms—for example the story of my [relations] with Priscilla—I [must] begin [by] defin[ing] clearly what I mean when I say ‘I’ and what I mean when I say ‘Priscilla’ [in order to] go on to establish what [these relations were].


[Raccontare le cose come stanno vuol dire raccontarle da principio, e anche se si attacca la storia in un punto in cui i personaggi sono organismi pluricellulari, per esempio la storia dei miei rapporti con Priscilla, bisogna cominciare definendo bene cosa intendo quando dico: io, e cosa intendo quando dico: Priscilla, per poi passare a stabilire quali sono stati questi rapporti.

(p. 83)]

To get out of what would otherwise be a cognitively self-defeating situation, Calvino poses this primordial requirement of reasoning thought in the metaphorical terms of an Archimedean mechanism (so to speak) for levering the entire world: “I must understand the mechanism, find the [point] where we can [take in hand] and stop this uncontrolled process [viz., ‘perpetual self-repetition’]” (T92; “devo capire il meccanismo, trovare il punto dove possiamo mettere le mani per fermare questo processo incontrollato”: p. 99).

This kind of rationalistic undertaking could eventuate in a fixity of thinking. To avoid any such dogmatism, Calvino appeals to the mathematical principles of combination.10 These constitute a symbolic language, working with analogies and allowing for the elaboration of infinite possibilities from a finite number of givens. Transposed to the literary realm, the strategy of permuting “data” ad infinitum safeguards the critical spirit: “Literature arrives at this … through combinatory games which at a certain point become charged with preconscious content and give it voice; and it is by this liberatory way, opened by literature, that humans acquire the critical spirit and pass it on to culture and collective thought” (“A questo la letteratura arriva … attraverso giochi combinatori che a un certo punto si caricano di contenati preconsci e dànno loro finalmente voce; ed è per questa via di libertà aperta dalla letteratura che gli uomini acquistano lo spirito critico e lo trasmettono alla cultura e al pensiero collettivo”: “Cibernetica …,” in Una pietra, p. 179).

What Calvino has to say about “the critical spirit” of inquiry bears on a crucial difference between SF and myth: that “myth is oriented towards constants and SF toward variables” (Suvin: 27). Myth in that sense—i.e., as embodying the tendency to establish immutable concepts and relationships—is precisely what Calvino means to avoid by his critical method of endlessly permuting the fictive data. Put positively, he demonstrates for his readers that the state of affairs obtaining at any given point is only one variant among infinite possibilities. So, too, it is by means of the perpetual—and open-ended—mathematico-literary game which he plays that he imports a utopian parameter, enabling cognitive perception of the object-world in which the individual is immersed.

Imagining for the sake of knowing—no more and no less than that is the task which Calvino reserves for the literary act. So long as writers remain immured in the world which they are endeavoring to describe, so long as they do not resort to imagination to depart from that reality, they must resemble Dantès in the Château d'If, incapable of comprehending how such a world is constituted and hence prisoners of it. “From my cell”—Dantès begins by telling us—“I can say little about [how] this Château d'If, where I have been imprisoned for so many years, [is made]” (T137; “Dalla mia cella, poco posso dire di com'è fatto questo castello d'If in cui mi trovo de tanti anni imprigionato”: p. 151). His—and our—power to escape such imprisonment is proportional to the ability to imagine things otherwise, and in that sense (and also by reason of its liberatory function) to construct a cognitive utopia. Or, as Calvino himself puts the matter in his essay “For Fourier”: “Utopia as a city … cannot be founded by us, but [must] found itself within us, [must] construct itself piece by piece through our capacity to imagine it, to think it to the last detail” (“l'utopia come città … non potrà essere fondata da noi ma fondare se stessa dentro di noi, costruirsi pezzo per pezzo nella nostra capacità d'immaginarla, di pensarla fino in fondo”: Una pietra, p. 252).

Calvino's works reveal not only the nature of his cognitive project but the motives behind it.11 Chief among these is his impulse, or desire, to know; but this conceals other requirements, the first of which is the writer's need to establish an identity. That identity comes about through an act which is fundamentally semiotic. “A Sign in Space” represents that process of (self-)identification in somewhat parabolic form. There Qfwfq makes a sign in space, originally for the purpose of finding it again 200,000,000 years later—i.e., after a complete revolution of the galaxy he inhabits. That is, he wants to establish a point of orientation in the primal obscurity of space. Yet this same mark which would enable him to determine his spatio-temporal location is also the first mark of his own identity: “the sign served to mark a [point] … and at the same time [the] sign was [my sign], the sign of me” (C32–33; “il segno serviva a segnare un punto … e nello stesso tempo il segno era il mio segno, il segno di me”: p. 43). Conversely, the loss of the sign means the loss of identity: “I had lost everything: the sign, the point, the thing that caused me—being the one [of that sign] at that point—to be me” (C35; “Avevo perduto tutto: il segno, il punto, quello che faceva sí che io—essendo quello di quel segno in quel punto—fossi io”: p. 45).

The semiotic aspect of this search for identity is equally explicit in “The Spiral.” There the secretion of a shell by Qfwfq-cum-mollusc stands in as a metaphor for the creation of a self-expressive linguistic artifact: “I wanted to make something [that would] mark my presence in an [unequivocal] fashion, something that would defend [it,] this individual presence of mine[,] from the [undifferentiated] instability of all the rest. … [Thus] I made the shell: [just] to express myself” (C145–46; “Volevo fare qualcosa che marcasse la mia presenza in modo inequivocabile, che la difendesse, questa mia presenza individuale, dalla labilità indifferenziata di tutto il resto. … [C]osí io facevo la conchiglia, cioè solo per esprimermi”: p. 75).

The quest for identity also involves the mastering of destiny. That is because the “I” which semiotically constitutes itself is neither an accident nor the consequence of any kind of predestination, but instead appears as the result of a reversible act wherein the sign, by the repetition of it, becomes charged with signification for its author and thus establishes the author's destiny/destination.

The concept of destiny operative here resembles that which Baudrillard defines as “the precession of effect over cause” (p. 231). Indeed, “A Sign in Space” can be read as a gloss on that paradox. The sign in question is one which Qfwfq has made—i.e., caused—as the means for measurement by which he can orient himself in space-time. But for that very reason, the sign-as-effect requires that he rediscover it after 200,000,000 years. The sign, then, is an “effect” which in its recovery proves to be not only its own cause but also his cause and his destiny—i.e., it dictates that he return to it to know where he is and in that sense take on an identity, or become himself.

This sense in which the sign that he has made makes him also has its cosmic correlative. That is, the case with his individual destiny applies to the universe as well. It, too, takes on a purpose thanks to the “effect” of the sign—or rather, of the multiplicity of signs engendered by the very first of them: “Now things were different … because the world … was beginning to produce an image of itself, and in everything a form was beginning to correspond [to function]” (C35–36; “adesso le cose erano diverse, perché il mondo … stava cominciando a dare un'immagine di sé e in ogni cosa alla funzione cominciava a corrispondere una forma”: p. 47). The formation of the shell in “The Spiral” has a similar impact on the world's “formal” destiny—an impact not unlike that of the placing of a jar on a Tennessee hill in Wallace Stevens's “Anecdote of the Jar”: “[As] the shell had a form, the form of the world was also changed, in the sense that it now [comprehended] the form of the world as it had been without the shell plus the form of the shell” (C149–50; “Avendo la conchiglia una forma, anche la forma del mondo era cambiata, nel senso che adesso comprendeva la forma del mondo com'era senza la conchiglia piú la forma della conchiglia”: p. 180).

The proliferation of signs (on the part of Qfwfq's imitators, who want in their turn to mark their own position) makes for a problem, however. Ending in chaos, it sends the author back into the original state of undifferentiation which he had sought to escape through the invention of the sign in the first place.

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a … contained, but only a general thickness of signs superimposed and [agglutinated], occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, [very] minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to [fix] a point of reference: the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions[—]any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine. …


[Nell' universo ormai non c'erano piú un contenente e un contenuto, ma solo uno spessore generale di segni sovrapposti e agglutinati che occupava tutto il volume dello spazio, era una picchiettatura continua, minutissima, un reticolo di linee e graffi e rilievi e incisioni, l'universo era scarabocchiato da tutte le parti, lungo tutte le dimensioni. Non c'era piú modo di fissare un punto di riferimento: la Galassia continuava a dar volta ma io non riuscivo piú a contare i giri, qualsiasi punto poteva essere quello di partenza, qualsiasi segno accavallato agli altri poteva essere il mio. …

(p. 51)]

Semiotics thus turns out to be a double-edged sword: an instrument of self-identification—and conquest—but also of the loss of identity. Indeed, semiotics-identification can become a semantic prison: once established, the (sign-)system which Qfwfq inaugurates does, after all, turn into an obstruction to individuality and communication.

This brings us to the second cognitive requirement in Calvino—for order in relation to the surrounding reality. Here we should first consider the perils of a certain kind of order. These we have already confronted in “Priscilla.” There, as we noted, the “language” of chromosomes leads to an enshacklement in the repetitive—the self-reproducing—chains of nucleic acids. In the section of “Priscilla” called “Death,” Calvino applies this point to all individualities—i.e., to discrete, or discontinuous, organisms, and chiefly, of course, to humans—as they enter into social units; and he does so in terms that take him from the biological realm to that of language proper (for which genetics has hitherto been the surrogate):

[No sooner are we] out of the [continuity of] primordial matter [than] we are bound in a connective tissue that fills the hiatus between our discontinuities[—] … a collection of signs, articulated sounds, ideograms, morphemes, numbers, punched cards, magnetic tapes, tattoos, a system of communication that includes social relations, kinship, institutions … namely everything that is language in the broad sense.


[Appena fuori dalla continuità della materia primordiale, siamo saldati in un tessuto connettivo che riempie l'iato tra le nostre discontinuità … un insieme di segni, suoni articolati, ideogrammi, morfemi, numeri, perforature di schede, magnetizzazioni di nastri, tatuaggi, un sistema di communicazioni sociali, parenteli, istituzioni … cioè tutto quel che è linguaggio in senso lato.

(pp. 98–99)]

Language as liberator from the indistinct may thus also perpetuate slavery, a bondage to itself which is all the more difficult to escape from because we are as much creatures of the language-system as it is of us.

This makes for the situation which Dantès and the Abbé Faria must try to deal with in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Calvino's Dantès puts his faith in reasoning thought: “the only way to escape the [condition of prisoner],” he says, “is to understand how the prison is built” (T140; “l'unico modo di sfuggire dalla condizione di prigioniero è capire come è fatta la prigione”: p. 154). There are, however, two time-proven methods for such rational thinking. One of these, the inductive approach, Dantès leaves to the Abbé Faria. The Abbé attacks the difficulties he encounters haphazardly: he ceaselessly excavates every which way in order to eliminate, by a trial-and-error process, “all possible errors and unforeseen elements” (T143; “tutti i possibili errori e imprevidenze”: p. 157). Once he has done that, he figures, “[the] escape can [not not succeed]” (T143–44; “l'evasione non può non riuscire”: p. 157). But this method of blind experiment leads to a growing complexity: “The Abbé digs, digs, but the walls increase in thickness, the battlements and the buttresses multipl[y]” (T145; “L'Abate scava, scava, ma i muri aumentano di spessore, si moltiplicano le bertesche e i barbacani”: p. 158).

Dantès meanwhile takes the deductive route. He starts with the premise of a fortress from which it is impossible to escape—a perfect prison, a “utopia of a prison,” so to speak. This allows him to contemplate the problem from outside the “reality” which (otherwise) contains him. He can therefore determine that “escape is possible only if in the planning or the building of the fortress some error or oversight was made” (T144; “solo se nella progettazione o costruzione della fortezza è stato commesso un errore o una dimenticanza l'evasione è possibile”: p. 157). In that case, he can identify the way out by projecting his construct of the prison onto the real prison as ascertained by the Abbé's experiments so as to discover the point where the two fail to coincide. In that sense, but also for the sake of correcting any theoretical misconception, Dantès' deductive method requires the kind of experimental confirmation that the Abbé in effect offers: “the only way to reinforce the [conceived of] fortress is to put the real one continuously to the test” (T144; “l'unico modo di rinforzare la fortezza pensata è mettere continuamente alla prova quella vera”: p. 157).

In this combination, whereby the inductive-particular approach is made subordinate to the theoretical-generalizing, the important thing is not so much to indicate the way out of the fortress prison—which is, after all, fictional (not to say meta-fictional)—as to guarantee an alternative world in which escape is possible. More precisely, and in Calvino's own words, what is wanted is “the place of the multiplicity of possible things” (T147; “il luogo della molteplicità delle cose possibili”: p. 159).

This search of Calvino's for another world, another order, gets its liberating effects from his representation—on both the verbal and a symbolic plane—of that place of multiplicity. He confronts his readers with a universe logically thought out, but informed by values and relations different from the ones initially supposed (which does not simply mean alien to our usual way of thinking). “The autonomous, logico-fantastical machine is dear to me inasmuch as it serves to enlarge the sphere of what we can represent to ourselves and to introduce into the limitations of our choices the ‘absolute distancing’ of a world thought out in all its details according to other values and other relationships” (“La macchina logico-fantastica autonoma mi sta a cuore in quanto [e se] serve … ad allargare la sfera di ciò che possiamo rappresentarci, a introdurre nella limitatezza delle nostre scelte lo ‘scarto assoluto’ d'un mondo pensato in tutti i suoi dettagli secondo altri valori e altri rapporti” (“Per Fourier,” in Una pietra, p. 252).

Still, the mere construction of a conceptual utopia according to a logically deductive principle does not necessarily produce liberation, properly speaking. Indeed “The Count of Monte Cristo” makes this precisely the point of issue concerning the hypothetical lines along which the manuscript-story—i.e., Alexandre Dumas'—might proceed. Facing all possible variants, as proposed to him by his lackeys, Calvino's Dumas makes his choice (in a manner cognate to Faria's) by deciding which to reject: “To plan a book—or an escape—the first thing [is] to know … what to exclude” (T151; “Per progettare un libro—o un'evasione—la prima cosa è sapere cosa escludere”: p. 164). This eliminatory method, then, closes off possibilities. Yet it figures in a retelling of Dantès' story, which as it potentially reverses Dumas' ending, completely reopens those possibilities. Calvino's “Count of Monte Cristo” thus illustrates his intimate conviction that there is no such thing as reality established once and for all; or, in any case, he bets against the existence of any such fixed world. And if he be wrong, then there is truly no way out of (its) prison—something which his “Monte Cristo” also takes account of: in which regard, like Calvino's other alternative fictive worlds, it exhibits extreme transformability.

Next to the preoccupations with order and identity, we find in Calvino's cognitive undertaking a concern with the motive for the act of writing. Indeed the impulse behind his literary practice is a matter expressly dealt with, even thematized, in his cosmicomical (and other) narratives. What he says on the subject comes down to this: that writing is for him a form of action; to write, to express onself, is a way of “making.” This is quite clear from “The Spiral,” which represents the mollusc's making of its shell as an act of self-expression: “Now it's no use my piling up words, trying to explain the novelty of this intention I had; the first word I['ve] said is more than enough: make, I wanted to make. … So I began to make the first thing that occurred to me and it was a shell” (C146; “Ora è inutile che cerchi di spiegare accumulando parole la novità di questa mia intenzione, già la prima parola che ho detto basta e avanza; fare, volevo fare. … Cosí incominciai a fare la prima cosa che mi venne, ed era una conchiglia”: p. 175).

In Calvino, even the simplest organism can be conscious of an objectless desire to express itself through this kind of (self-)making. Thus the unicellular Qfwfq says: “desire moves you … to do. … But … the only doing you can allow yourself … is that special kind of doing which is [telling]” (T67–68; “il desiderio muove a fare. … Ma … l'unico fare che ci si può permettere … è quello speciale tipo di fare che è il dire”: pp. 74–75). This desire “to make”—or “to tell”—focusses on the other and the elsewhere, even if its object is not clearly fixed in the mind of the “I” that is the desiring subject. The Qfwfq of “Priscilla,” for example, declares at the outset that he is in love without a referent, and soon makes it plain that he is looking for the Other—indeed, for Otherness: “my state of desire tended simply toward an elsewhere [elsewhen] otherwise” (T67; “Il mio stato di desiderio tendeva semplicemente a un altrove altravolta altrimenti”: p. 74). This total otherness he will encounter only through his own death as a unique and discrete being—in the continuity he generates in giving rise to two new unicellular organisms. The desire for the Other whose benefits he will not enjoy likewise propels Qfwfq-as-mollusc towards “making.” Not possessing the eyes to see it, he can never appreciate the beauty of the shell he creates around himself—“So sight, our sight, which we were obscurely waiting for, was the sight that others had of us” (C152; “Cosí la vista, la nostra vista, che noi oscuramente aspettavamo, fu la vista che gli altri ebbero di noi”: pp. 182–83). Furthermore, the image which he gives of himself is (logically) productive of eyesight: “An image … presupposes a retina, which in turn presupposes a complex system stemming from an encephalon” (C150; “Un'immagine presupponeva … una rètina, la quale a sua volta presuppone un sistema complicato che fa capo a un encefalo”: p. 180). In sum, by producing his own image he makes the specular world possible:

All these eyes were mine. I had made them possible. … With eyes had come all the rest, so everything that the others, having eyes, had become, [in] their every form and function, and the quantity of things that, [having] eyes, they [i.e., ‘the others’] had managed to do, in their every form and function, came [out of] what I had done.


[Tutti questi occhi erano i miei. Li avevo resi possibili io. … Con gli occhi era venuto tutto il resto, quindi tutto ciò che gli altri, avendo gli occhi, erano diventati, in ogni loro forma e funzione, e la quantità di cose che avendo gli occhi erano riusciti a fare, in ogni loro forma e funzione, veniva fuori da quel che avevo fatto io.]

(p. 183)

This world resulting from the act of identifying oneself and of linguistic ordering is also the readers' world in the sense that its author always presupposes readers and continually addresses them (as an express or implicit “you”). In fact, it is a crucial part of his narrative project that Calvino is conscious of engendering an audience: “the successful project of a writer who matters entails the enucleating of a society of readers which distinguishes itself in some way from society as it is” (“il progetto di successo dello scrittore che conta implica l'enucleazione di una società di lettori che si distingue in qualche modo dalla società quale essa è”: “Un progetto di pubblico,” in Una pietra, p. 279).

This awareness both of the writer's active part in generating a readership and—what is equally constitutive of the literary act—of the reader's active role is, I think, the clearest way of envisioning literary commitment. It links up with the pragmatic view of literature, which locates the relationship of author and reader in their mutual meeting via the act of reading, or exactly where a literary work takes on a social character. We find this same revalorizing of the reader's part in the Roland Barthes who says: “Reading is not a parasitic gesture, the reactive complement of writing which we endow with all the prestige of creation and anteriority; it [i.e., reading] is a labor” (“Lire n'est pas une geste parasite, le complément réactif d'une écriture que nous parons de tous les prestiges de la création et de l'antériorité, c'est un travail”: p. 17).

It is this demand of praxis turned towards the reader—this commitment of the writer—that Calvino situates not on the “realist” level of mimetic content agreeable to the socio-linguistic norms which happen to be in force, but on the level of style, which in his case involves a distancing relation to those norms. As for literary commitment of a “realist” type—that, for Calvino, can only perpetuate the language reflecting the established standards which he is seeking to overthrow.

It is precisely by stylistic means that Calvino evokes a multiplicity of cognitive possibilities in defiance of the world that holds us prisoner. “For me,” he writes in “La sfida al labirinto” (“The Challenge to the Labyrinth”):

there is only one expressive and critical problem: my first ethico-formal choice was in favor of solutions of reductive stylization; and although my more recent experience leads me to orient myself instead to the necessity of a discourse as englobing and articulate as possible which conveys the cognitive multiplicity of the world we live in, I keep believing that no valid solutions exist aesthetically, morally, or historically if they are not realized on a stylistic foundation.

[Il problema espressivo e critico per me resta uno: la mia prima scelta formal-morale è stata per la soluzione di stilizzazione riduttiva, e per quanto tutta la mia esperienza piú recente mi porti a orientarmi invece sulla necessità di un discorso il piú possible inglobante e articolato che incarri la molteplicità conosciutiva del mondo in cui viviamo, continuo a credere che non ci siano soluzioni valide esteticamente e moralmente e storicamente se non si attuano nella fondazione di uno stile.]

(Una pietra, p. 89)

Style, for Calvino, is commitment, then. And its result is an œuvre which, though it affords the reader no definitive escape, does carry the hope that change is possible, that the incarcerating world of fixed concepts may yet be transformed in reality as it is in Calvino's cosmicomical fictions.


  1. The fact that Calvino distances himself from what he considers to be SF is probably connected with the quality of Italian SF in the 1950s. Though that SF achieved a publishing breakthrough after the Second World War, both the literary value and the quality of the books themselves could properly be judged poor. The magazine Urania, for example, and the series “I romanzi di Urania” (published by Mondadori since 1952) mainly brought out incomplete translations of popular subliterary Anglo-American SF. This is also true for the series “Mondi astrali” (see Curtoni and also Stragliati on this subject). At the same time, Italian SF writers published under English-sounding pseudonyms—e.g., Lino Aldani became “N. L. Janda” and Ugo Malaguti “Hugh Maylan.”

    When Cosmicomics first appeared, most critics seemed to share Calvino's negative view of what was then considered to be SF. Thus the poet Eugenio Montale, writing in the newspaper Il Corriere della sera spoke of Calvino's book as “SF inside out.” Nor did Calvino himself discourage this negative attitude toward SF on the part of his critics. When Anne Marie Ortese, in her “Direct Line: Ortese-Calvino—Eyes to the Sky,” declared it a pity that the image of the Moon was disfigured by recent conquests in space, Calvino answered that he was not seeking an escape from reality, but a conscious way to rethink the Moon and space, especially in giving them a new place in the world of language and imagination. To be sure, he did not add explicitly that traditional SF would not do this, but his lack of concrete references to illustrious predecessors seems to suggest as much.

  2. It is worth noting at this point that the title La Memoria del Mondo is as ambiguous as its English equivalent—i.e., “the world” can be either (or both) the subject or object of the remembering process.—RMP

  3. Calvino deserves the credit for having freed SF, previously considered to be subliterature, of its myths and of its predictive baggage. This is one of the things that gives his books critical value, at least in the view of Enzo Gallino: “Calvino knocks over all anticipatory myths common to science-fiction.” Gallino seems to forget, however, that H. G. Wells, too, was a myth destroyer.

    According to Francesca Bernardini (p. 71), Calvino reacted especially against the kind of SF originating after World War II in Europe—SF proclaiming in its futuristic myths the naïve belief in the unrestricted possibilities of human beings to conquer all natural limitations thanks to science and technology, and thus (as Bernardini remarks) introducing in the present a future already conquered.

  4. La Memoria del Mondo, though usually associated with Cosmicomics and T Zero, seems to me very different from them. Furthermore, Calvino himself makes the same separation: “The experience of Cosmicomics is completed; what begins now is of another” (“L'esperienza delle ‘Cosmicomiche’ è esaurita: ne comincia un'altra”: Memoria, p. 8).

    Cosmicomics and T Zero, on the other hand, form a macrostructure on the basis of the common elements listed in the body of this essay of mine. To be sure, there are notable differences between the two volumes. But just as their style evolves over the course of the stories they comprise, so the narrative character of Cosmicomics leads into the essayistic one of T Zero. On these matters, compare Bernardini, pp. 66ff.

  5. According to Cesare Cases, the pathological aspect of Calvino's work lies in his finding it impossible to identify with the characters and situations he creates. On the other hand, Cases also stresses the cognitive superiority of this attitude of distantiation.

  6. Contardo Calligaris argues (pp. 91–92) that the cosmic and estranged character of Qfwfq lies in the abstractness of his being (he is a kind of eternal monad) conjoined with the fact that he lives in the human world and uses images typical for our way of speaking. To this observation we might add that Qfwfq is an extremely apposite incarnation of Calvino's cognitive estrangement in the sense that he is the kind of vehicle for subjective anthropomorphic projection onto extra-human reality as well as history who can maintain the uninvolved stance, the distance, requisite for cognition (at least of the Calvinoesque sort).

  7. Here I would endorse Karl Mannheim's dictum: “A state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs” (p. 192). That was also one of the conclusions of my 1975 study (pp. 136, 141; see also Suvin's definition of utopia, p. 49).

    All this is to say not that Calvino writes in the utopian genre, but that he builds a utopic dimension into his works as a verbal construction and an epistemological system.

  8. For more on “truth” in relation to “fiction,” see my 1977 essay.

  9. Here Calvino makes a stand against the nouveau roman as then conceived by Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom Calvino appreciates, but wants to keep his distance from, especially as far as his analytic method is concerned.

  10. Calvino systematizes this permutational method in certain of his later works—e.g., Il castello dei destini incrociati (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1973), in which the Tarot provides him with a combinatory principle. On this matter see my 1983 study, pp. 446–47.

  11. In the discussion of Calvino's literary motives, I have profited from Bernardini's monograph, which is arguably the first thorough critical synthesis of Calvino.

Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian. Introducing SF: A Science Fiction Anthology. London, 1964.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Paris, 1970.

Baudrillard, Jean. Les Stratégies fatales. Paris, 1983.

Bernardini, Francesca. I segni nuovi di Italo Calvino. Rome, 1977.

Calligaris, Contardo. Italo Calvino. Milan, 1985.

Calvino, Italo. Cosmicomiche. Turin: Einaudi, 1965.

———. Cosmicomics, trans. William Weaver. London: Jonathan Cape, 1968.

———. La memoria del mondo e altri racconti cosmicomichi. Milan: Club degli Editori, 1968.

Calvino, Italo. Ti con zero. Turin: Einaudi, 1967.

———. T Zero, trans. William Weaver. NY & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.

———. Una pietra sopra. Turin: Einaudi, 1980.

Cases, Cesare. “Calvino e il ‘pathos della distanza,’” Città aperta, nos. 7–8 (1958), pp. 33–35.

Cromphout, Francis. “Het literaire schaakspel van Italo Calvino,” Nieuw Vlaams Tijdschrift, 36:3 (1983):446–50.

———. “Literatuurwetenschap en literaire praxis,” Communication and Cognition, 10:1 (1977):39–49.

———. “Van Plato tot Marcuse: begin en einde van de Utopie?” Restant, no. 4 (1975), pp. 134–42.

Curtoni, Vittorio. “Le frontiere dell'ignoto. Vent'anni di fantascienza italiana,” Saggi-Nord, no. 2 (1977).

Gallino, Enzo. “Le Cosmicomiche,” Tempo Presente, nos. 3–4 (1966).

Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia, trans. Louis Wirth & Edward Shils. NY, 1936.

Montale, Eugenio. “È fantascienza ma alla rovescia,” Il Corriere della sera, Nov. 30, 1965, p. 24.

Ortese, Anne Marie. “Filo diretto Calvino-Ortese: occhi al cielo,” Il Corriere della sera, Dec. 24, 1967, p. 15.

Stragliati, Roland. “Science-fiction italienne,” Fiction, no. 6 (1964), p. 132 bis.

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven, CT & London, 1979.

Tournier, Michel. Le vol du vampire. Paris, 1981.

Julie Fenwick (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3295

SOURCE: “Sex, Language, and Narrative: Continuity and Discontinuity in Italo Calvino's ‘Meiosis,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 203–09.

[In the following essay, Fenwick explores issues of personal identity, sexual reproduction, and genetic continuity in “Meiosis.”]

“Meiosis” is the centrepiece of a trilogy of short stories, also including “Mitosis” and “Death,” in which Italo Calvino speculates about the similarity between texts and biological organisms with respect to notions of continuity and discontinuity. In these stories, Calvino exploits the fact that he can construct analogies between language and texts on the one hand and DNA and biological organisms on the other, based on their similarities as systems. As Calvino's story demonstrates, both linguistic and organic systems are complex, flexible within limits (by virtue of the ability to rear-range components), polysemic, potentially self-referential, and theoretically inexhaustible: our species will probably be extinct before all possible English narratives and all possible human DNA combinations have been actualised.

Calvino's story “Mitosis” takes its name from the process of cell division that occurs in asexually reproducing organisms and in all the cells, except those that produce the egg and sperm, of sexually reproducing species. In mitosis a cell divides to produce two daughter cells, which are genetically identical to the original. This represents the ultimate in genetic continuity. It is true that there is some discontinuity, in that the original cell no longer exists as an undivided entity. But, in a very real sense, it is its two daughter cells. One of the quotations with which Calvino prefaces his trilogy is taken from Georges Bataille's L'Erotisme. This quotation points out that, in mitotic division,

from a single entity, two result. … The first has disappeared. Essentially, it is dead, since only the two entities it has produced survive. … it ceases to be. … in the sense that it is discontinuous. But … there was continuity. … The first dies, but in its death appears a fundamental instant of continuity.

(t zero 55–56)

The conservation of DNA in mitotic division, the fact that the offspring are genetically identical to the maternal cell, constitutes genetic immortality. This leads Calvino to refer to asexually reproducing species as “a discontinuous and perpetual life, always identical to itself” (“Death,” t zero 88).

In “Death,” Calvino meditates on one of the most significant evolutionary events in the history of our planet—the appearance of sexual reproduction. Sex is a wildly successful adaptation, as evidenced by its popularity. It is believed that sexual reproduction was adopted by so many species because it greatly increases the genetic diversity of a species and speeds up the rate of evolution. Calvino sees another advantage: that sex, and its inevitable corollary, death, make possible the existence of the unique individual. Calvino suggests that sex and death entered the world at the same moment because the offspring of sexually reproducing species are not genetically identical to either parent. Therefore, when the parents are destroyed, their particular combinations of genes cease to exist. This, says Calvino, is death. That is, sex introduces a radical discontinuity that makes genetic immortality impossible. Calvino has thus inverted the normal view of sexual reproduction as the individual's chance for a kind of immortality.

Sexual reproduction involves continuity of a sort, in that the DNA of both parents is partially conserved in their offspring, but only half of the full DNA complement of each parent is given to the child, and, as we shall see, the parental genes are “shuffled” and recombined before fertilisation. Since there are thousands of human genes, the possible number of permutations resulting from this recombination greatly exceeds the total number of people who have ever existed. And it is the specific combination of genes which gives each person his or her identity, which makes every individual unique. So, in sexual reproduction, although the parental DNA is (partially) conserved in the offspring, the unique identity of the parent is lost when he or she dies. For this reason, Calvino calls all exually reproducing species “the discontinuous” (“Death,” t zero 91).

The notion that identity resides in the particular combination of genes one possesses is a very important one. Since the average gene changes by mutation only once in every 200,000 years, it is the recombination of genes in every generation of a sexually reproducing species that is principally responsible for human individuality. This is obviously analogous to language, which does not create new narratives primarily by generating new words, but by rearranging existing words. Calvino defines language as “signs, articulated sounds, ideograms, morphemes, numbers, punched cards, magnetic tapes, tattoos … social relations, kinship institutions, merchandise, advertising posters,” all of which serve as “connective tissue” to bridge the discontinuities between individuals. “The circuit of vital information that runs from nucleic acid to writing” is, therefore, a continuity which threatens the discontinuity which is the basis of individual identity (“Death,” t zero 91–92). That is, language revives the dangerous possibility of immortality, “the risk … [of] living forever,” of unchanging continuity which makes all members of a species identical. Therefore, says Calvino, we must find ways to break language's “perpetual self-repetition” (87, 92). Language must be constantly ruptured, just as sex, and its corollary death, must rupture the continuity of a single self-perpetuating combination of genes. Death and discontinuity are liberating because they permit change, the generation of new identities and new narratives.

One can extend Calvino's analogy to include not only individuals but whole species. The process of evolution comes about by the breaking up of a species' old DNA language and its reorganisation into new combinations. Similarly, one can depict the evolution of a literary genre as an irruption of the new which introduces a tension of continuity and discontinuity, resembling that seen in the evolution of a species. Advocates of discontinuous models of species and genre formation would argue that a single individual, simply by existing, can alter the characteristics of a species, or that the appearance of an innovative new text can change the parameters of an existing genre. That is, it is possible to draw analogies between biological species and literary genres, and between personal identity and texts. In “Meiosis,” Calvino plays with the notion of the textuality of personal identity.

Calvino's depiction, in “Meiosis,” of the individual is post-structuralist, in that the definitive, essential self disappears before his narrator's speculations as utterly as the definitive, essential text evaporates under post-structuralist criticism. The self simply becomes a space within which events interact. Calvino's narrator, a meditative camel, begins by discussing the problems of origin:

Narrating things as they are means narrating them from the beginning, and even if I start the story at a point where the characters are multicellular organisms, for example the story of my relationship with Priscilla, I have first to define clearly what I mean when I say me and what I mean when I say Priscilla.


This is always a problem with biography, for one must decide when personal identity begins. David Copperfield begins on the night of the protagonist's birth. Tristam Shandy tries to begin at the moment of conception. Calvino's narrator tries to begin with the meiotic events that led to the formation of the sperm and egg by which he was conceived. He is defeated by the elusiveness of both definitive self-hood and definitive texts.

In “Meiosis,” Calvino exploits the fact that the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology is based on the concept of DNA as a language and that standard textbooks of biology use linguistic models to explain DNA function to students. The DNA “alphabet” consists of only four “letters”: the bases guanine, cytosine, adenine, and thymine, which are always abbreviated as G, C, A, and T. All “words” in DNA language are three letters long, but each gene or “sentence” contains hundreds of these “words.” A punctuation of sorts exists, in that there are sequences of bases that sign for the beginnings and ends of gene “sentences.” The gene “sentences” are packaged together on chromosome “chapters” and the entire gene complement of a cell can be thought of as a text.1

However, rather as one might expect in a Calvino story, each of these “chapters” or chromosomes exists in two slightly different versions. Calvino's narrator inherits twenty-three chromosome “chapters” from his father, representing slightly different versions of the same twenty-three chromosomes inherited from his mother. Therefore, his total genetic complement, or genotype, can be thought of as a text comprised of twenty-three pairs of closely matched but non-identical chapters. Calvino makes great use of the fact that not all the genes one possesses are manifested or expressed. Therefore, the narrator's total genetic makeup (genotype) has a high degree of latent polysemeity: there are elements in any genotype which are not allowed to emerge. The genes which are expressed constitute his phenotype.

For example, suppose the narrator inherited one chromosome from his father which carries genes for brown hair and blue eyes, and a matching chromosome from his mother with genes for blonde hair and brown eyes. The father's brown hair and the mother's brown eye genes will be expressed, while the blonde hair and blue eye genes will not. That is, a phenotype represents a “definitive” reading of the genetic text, in which polysemeity is suppressed. But what looks like a blending of the parents' qualities—“He has his father's hair and his mother's eyes”—is in reality nothing of the kind. As Calvino points out, this apparent harmony masks hidden disagreement: “we know what we claim to be in our exterior form counts for little compared to the secret program we carry printed in each cell, where the contradictory orders of father and mother continue arguing” (“Meiosis,” t zero 82).

The problem which perturbs Calvino's narrator is the question of whether his “real” personal identity resides in the genes which are expressed or in the ones condemned to silence:

So at times I'm seized with uncertainty as to whether I am really the dominant characteristics of the past … or whether instead my true essence isn't rather what descends from the succession of defeated characteristics, the total … of everything that … has remained excluded, stifled, interrupted.


This, of course, is an echo of the post-structuralist depiction of the struggle for dominance, the aim of which is to render the opposition silent. Calvino takes advantage of the fact that the biological term for the situation in which one gene is expressed and its partner is silenced is dominance.

Therefore, says Calvino, what appears to be genetic unity is in reality struggle and rupture, and an individual is not a unified text, but rather the arena for a constant struggle of two narratives. Ironically, although the narrator appears to be the union of his parents' qualities, he is really the battleground within which their competing narratives struggle for expression and dominance. Each chapter remains forever divided into two competing versions, and every cell of his body bears witness to his parents' separation: “the offspring cells [perpetuate] not so much the union as the unbridgeable distance that separates in each couple the two companions, the failure, the void that remains in the midst of even the most successful couple” (81). But there is one moment, during meiosis, at which separation is transcended.

During meiosis, the special type of cell division which occurs only during sexual reproduction, the maternal and paternal chromosomes seek each other out for a moment of meeting known as conjugation, which one translator of “Meiosis” has rendered as “copulation” (83). This is the time at which “crossing over” occurs, when maternal and paternal chromosomes exchange DNA. It is therefore possible for the narrator's cell, which contained the paternal brown hair and blue eye chromosome and the maternal blonde hair and brown eye chromosome, to produce sperm in which these characters have been recombined so that blue eyes and blonde hair appear on the same chromosome. At this point there has been genuine union, and the competing narratives have been conflated.

Calvino's narrator realises that, at this point, for the first time since the moment of his own conception, the chromosomes of his body do not represent two conflicting inherited narratives, but a new and unique story made by rupturing and recombining the original narratives. However, this true union of the parents does not take place in the cells of the narrator's own body, but only in the cells which give rise to his sperm:

So finally the encounter of the pasts which can never take place in the present of those who believe they are meeting does take place in the form of the past of him who comes afterward and who cannot live that encounter in his own present. We believe we're going toward our marriage, but it is still the marriage of the fathers and the mothers which is celebrated through our expectation and our desire. What seems to us our happiness is perhaps only the happiness of the others' story which ends just where we thought ours began.


… finally the words written in the nuclei are no longer the same as before but are no longer parts of us either, they're a message beyond us, which already belongs to us no more.


Furthermore, this moment of reconciliation and synthesis is immediately disrupted because the chromosome which represents a genuine conflation of his parents' narratives is in the narrator's sperm. At fertilisation it becomes one term in the dialectic of the narrator's child.

Therefore, Calvino depicts personal genetic identity as a story which demonstrates an extreme resistance to closure: it involves a dialectic in which the moment of reconciliation and synthesis is ephemeral and illusory. Calvino's narrator realises that, at the moment at which his DNA text no longer consists of two inherited conflicting narratives, but becomes, by a breaking down and reorganisation of components, a unified and unique story, it is no longer his. The love story of his parents achieves full closure only for a moment and then becomes part of a new battle for dominance within his child.

According to Calvino, “Void, separation and waiting, that's what we are” (82). We are void because we are the empty space within which our parents' genes conflict. Our separation is the unbridgeable gulf between our parents' genes within our cells, and between our own and our lover's genes within our child. Only our phenotypes interact: our genotypes meet those of our lovers for a brief moment of chromosomal conjugation, in the cells by means of which our children beget our grandchildren. And we are forever waiting for our unique identity, which never occurs in our present but only in our future. Our identity never belongs to us.

Even worse, Calvino's narrator in “Meiosis” points out, one could say that he is merely a device for the perpetuation of a DNA text whose contents do not prescribe his own identity, or that of his parents, or even that of the human species, but simply that of DNA itself. The DNA “super-text” is totally self-referential, in that DNA “signs” for a vehicle (the individual) by which DNA can make more recombinations of DNA: “we proceed blindly … carrying out an established program … always the same. We don't tend toward any future, there's nothing awaiting us, we're shut up within the system of a memory which foresees no task but remembering itself” (80–81). To this way of thinking, human freedom is an illusion.

Calvino's narrator notes that there is one moment at which chance, in the form of random gene recombination during meiosis, appears to offer him an escape from the determinism of his genetic heritage. However, this moment occurs, not in his own body, but in the sperm he gives to his child. He and Priscilla

were only the preparation, the envelope, for the encounter of pasts which happens through us but which is already part of another story, the story of the afterward: the encounters always take place before and after us, and in them the elements of the new, forbidden to us, are active: chance, risk, improbability. … This is how we live, not free, surrounded by freedom.


This moment of freedom, like the moment of meeting during chromosomal conjugation, is ephemeral and illusory. The randomness of gene recombination does not offer an escape from determinism, since the “narrative” arising by chance is a genetic command inherited by the next generation. The dangerous continuity of DNA language binds each generation to the past: the narrator's child is the inevitable result of chance events that preceded its conception.

Despite its determinism, the DNA super-text constantly frustrates the promise of closure. There are endings, in that individuals die and species become extinct, but there is no closure because DNA goes on forever, its story blindly unfolding toward no telos: “nothing is made on purpose … nobody has invented anything … the way I am and Priscilla is really doesn't matter. … all a genetic heritage has to do is to transmit what is transmitted to it for transmitting” (77). This, as Calvino is quick to point out, has a bearing on evolution, which many people attempt to render as a narrative whose point of closure is the emergence of the human species. Those who impose a teleology on evolution see it as some kind of obstacle race with a big brain, culture, and above all, language, as a prize for being the most successful. But the pattern of evolution is generated by random mutation and by the chance recombination of genes during meiotic cell division. Natural selection is an unconscious editor, retaining within the DNA super-text those narratives which have survived the contingent vicissitudes of their environment: “What each of us really is and has is the past; all we are and have is a catalogue of the possibilities that didn't fail, of the experiences that are ready to be repeated” (80). Therefore the pattern one sees in evolution exists, not as a latent meaning unfolding itself in time, but simply as a result of chance and non-purposive determinism.

Thus, Calvino's characters live in a paradox of continuity and discontinuity. Priscilla and her lover exist in lonely discontinuity because they are incapable of real contact. Yet, they are enslaved to continuity in that they are chained to the past except for a brief moment of freedom which “belongs” to nobody. Human language and the language of DNA alike burden them with the past, tie them to continuity, and threaten their individuality, without which there can be no separation and, therefore, no possibility of meeting. Calvino's narrator concludes that his love story is not only “impossible to narrate but first of all impossible to live” (80). How can he construct a narrative about two individuals, when he cannot focus on a moment at which anyone possesses his or her own identity? How can he describe these people's relationship, when genuine union is so fleeting? How can he construct a narrative in which his characters make a meaningful choice to love one another, when their freedom is always in a future which never arrives?

I am left with a question. Calvino argues that we must disrupt language because freedom and personal identity, however limited our experience of these might be, are worth the price of separation. If sex is what ruptures DNA language and brings in freedom (however ephemeral and illusory), gives us unique identities (however ungraspable), and permits real meeting (however fleeting), what does this for human language? Does Calvino imply that the creation of new stories is the saving disrupter? Is that why his narrator continues, although he knows it is “impossible,” to tell stories?


  1. The process by which the DNA “sentence” is passed on to another kind of nucleic acid (RNA) with a slightly different alphabet (all T's are replaced by U's, the base uracil) is called transcription. The process by which this RNA “sentence” is converted into protein “language” is called translation.

Franco Ricci (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6510

SOURCE: “I racconti,” in Difficult Games: A Reading of I racconti by Italo Calvino, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990, pp. 5–17.

[In the following essay, Ricci discusses the defining characteristics of the stories comprising I racconti,asserting that the unifying theme of the collection is “the journey of man from a position of communion with the world, in the early tales, towards an existential and hermetic solitude in the final novellas.”]

In viewing Racconti as a text, one must come to terms with its component parts. There are 52 stories or tales, one for each week of the year, or for the number of cards in a modern deck (this not only presages The Castle of Crossed Destinies but underscores the combinatorial nature of the collection). The tales are divided into four books, one for each season of the year or, continuing our analogy, for each suit of cards. The tales vary in length from the anecdote, reminiscent of Chekhov and de Maupassant, to the novella, whose introspective nature reminds this reader of Conrad and Kafka. The differences between the tales are conceptual. Some have static plots in which the character is revealed only insofar as is necessary for the culmination of an event. Others are dynamic and lead the protagonist through a crescendo of states that reveal a character's personality. At times, especially in the early tales, the author is curt, images are rapid and precise: a cloud, a fence, a mine field. This is a world of things that only occasionally offers a generic notation about a character's state of being. The scheme is simple: on the one hand there is the immediate task, whatever it may be (playing, traveling on a train, reading, thinking), on the other is the unknown, the unconscious, the ominous void.

All of the tales are qualified by the adjective difficile and indeed a disturbing aura pervades the work, coloring the actions of the characters with tones of despair. The unifying theme in Racconti is the journey of man from a position of communion with the world, in the early tales, towards an existential and hermetic solitude in the final novellas. The overall structure of the work moves the theme along a precise trajectory, and any interpretation must take into account not only the individual tales but their arrangement. Each tale's meaning is determined by both itself and a normative syntax governing the entire collection. For thematic impact, unpublished tales are placed alongside published ones.

The plot of Racconti is therefore comprised of the many subplots of the short stories. It is part of the puzzle that Calvino has assembled, and gives the collection its internal coherence. By spelling out a plot the reader may understand a developing story. The ordering of Racconti into a syntactic system allows the reader to abstract an existential theme and plot by implying a corollary not otherwise expressed in any one tale. Without this movement and cohesion Racconti is merely a collection if disparate works. Yet the author foregrounds certain events and temporal displacements in order to project a definite strategy and theme. The seemingly random threads and the accounts of unrelated characters and incidents (“Adam, One Afternoon,” “Lazy Sons,” or “The Adventure of a Poet,” for example) form an overarching thematic sequence that moves from the fantasy world of the child in the early tales to the silent world of maladjusted adults in the final novellas. It is an itinerary towards crisis and towards the tormenting knowledge of a partial, mutilated existence. The episodes of the text are thus metaphoric steps along a trajectory which leads to self-abnegation. The reader moves from the rational to the irrational, from forest to city, from naïve idyll to the painful realization of lost ideals. Interestingly enough the surface order of the collection belies the structural incoherence of the world it presents. The stories are arranged spatially, not temporally, reflecting the inchoate nature of the 1950s. Dates of composition are irrelevant. Stories from 1949 (“The Adventure of a Soldier,” for example) appear after stories written in 1958 (“The Night of the Numbers”). Time is a malleable commodity. The memory of both past and future meld to create the impression of a present experience.

Not much real or actual time passes within the individual frames of the stories, yet when taken together they span thirteen years of written and lived experience. Though we move forward in time (from 1946 to 1958) with his characters, Calvino subverts chronological order and substitutes an order determined by the unfolding of a metaphorical voyage of personal discovery. Thus the hopes, aspiration, dreams and ultimate frustrations of the immediate postwar period (Book I) are necessarily followed by difficult memories and the search into the past for the origins of present delusions (Book II). Once this personal dilemma is broached, the characters may attempt to live their adventures (Books III and IV) with varying degrees of success or failure. Inherent in the text, then, are single moments, or epiphanies of experience, that sustain the work's overall structural principle. The reader proceeds from epiphany to epiphany, moving towards the self-deprecating climax of the collection expressed in the final words of I in Smog: “It wasn't much but for me, who was seeking only images to retain in my eyes, perhaps it was enough” (160).

Towards this end Book I is entitled “Difficult Idylls.” It is organized into five sections each containing three (last section) to ten (fourth section) tales. Each section develops a theme or introduces characters which are recurrent in Racconti. The first section of Book I presents a landscape in which personal redemption is still possible. Zefferino, the first character we meet, is a mischievous though courteous adventurer. Like all of Calvino's children, he is prone to playful cruelty and a type of natural, almost primordial, violence that binds him to the natural environment. Fatalism animates both Zefferino and the grotesque figure of De Magistris, the lady he meets while fishing. She laments a lost love, yet is ironically surrounded by fish, symbols of fecundity. Zefferino views her adult world with childish wonder. He remains outside its grasp, preferring his fanciful marine Arcadia. And so the two controlling themes of Racconti—(a) a man's tragic subjugation to blind fate and (b) his search for momentary havens of respite amid the lonely solitude of existence—are delicately balanced and contrasted. In the early tales the idyll flourishes joyously, only occasionally suffering the encroachment of a malign humanity. We enjoy our romp with Giovannino and Serenella until the games they play abruptly end (“A Good Game Is Over Quickly”). Suddenly the scenario changes. In the second section of “Difficult Idylls” the author reintroduces the events and images of war presented in the first section as if to balance the childish folly of the first tales with wry and tragic observations on human nature. The latent tension engendered by the facile categorization of good versus evil has become insufficient as a means of interpreting the new social context. Having lost the enchanted forest of youth, the author creates an ambience reminiscent of a paradise doomed to evanescence. The tales in this second section are lessons in terror and the interjection of comic relief (“Animal Woods”) does little to alleviate the pungent wounds of war. This jocular though disturbing vein continues in the third section of “Difficult Idylls,” as well as in the Marcovaldo tales of section four. In these tales Calvino turns his gaze upon the city, where the trees of his forest become the painted billboards of Marcovaldo, and where the partisan struggle for liberation becomes the struggle for survival in the cement jungle. The first tale of section three, “Theft in a Pastry Shop,” for example, seems like an out-of-place fable imbued, as it is, with the childlike wonder, adventure, and amazement of all fairy-tales. Yet these characters are not children. They are now adults and are responsible for their actions. It is impossible to turn time back to the youthful idylls of innocence. The remaining tales (“Sleeping like Dogs,” “Dollars and the Demimondaine,” “Transit Bed”) are neorealist anecdotes of postwar squalor very reminiscent of Curzio Malaparte's The Skin (1949) and Kaputt (1945), and postwar cinema which depicted the 1950s in both affectionate and critical ways. These are swift, sequential caricatures of crude beings living “on the lam.” Out of this gallery of rogues steps the gentle Marcovaldo. He too is an anti-figure, unable to adapt himself to city life yet unwillingly steeped in its daily monotony. Though the premise of this section is similar to that of section three, Marcovaldo's escapades are anything but picaresque; they are instead decidedly middle-class. The characters of these two sections must not only contend with the postwar return to normal law and order but also with an industrial society that imposes new social models of success. They subsequently learn to exploit or circumvent the system through the black market or, as is the case with Marcovaldo, through personal fantasy. Finally, in the last section of “Difficult Idylls” man is essentially reduced to a robot, a cog in the well-oiled machinery of industrialized Italy. The cybernetic surrealism the reader experiences in the three stories of this section (“The Factory Chicken,” “The Night of Numbers,” “Mrs. Paulatim”) is reminiscent of the oneiric landscapes of Buzzati's short stories and of several tales from Calvino's later The Memory of the World. The actors in these stories are suspiciously silent. So is the narrator who does not inform the reader of their motivations or fears. They thus resemble automatons grotesquely condemned to a routine existence marked by ambivalence. Life itself is a prison term. Their only way out (as in the final story of this section, “Mrs. Paulatim”) is suicide.

The hero who emerges from “Difficult Idylls” thus appears victimized, purposeless and subjugated to unforeseen calamities. A neorealist dream has been shattered. The viability of sociopolitical equanimity in some distant future is questioned. Book II (“Difficult Memories”) represents an attempt to come to grips with this now unmanageable reality by withdrawing into memory. The sequence of these stories moves the author back into the recesses of personal experience. In effect he is reassembling the recollections of his past in order to achieve a personal unity, or memory of self, which can only result from reflective awareness. By explaining the reasons for war and consequently re-examining the events that motivated his own political choices, Calvino helps the reader decipher the existential repercussions he will display in the tales which follow. The purpose of “Difficult Memories,” then, is to render the overall trajectory of the Racconti comprehensible to the reader. By placing personal experiences within this new context of memory, Calvino devalues their impact and universalizes their content. These tales reflect a reality that has been fixed and settled on the written page; it is no longer real but fictitious, no longer chaotic but manageable. The author is walking a tightrope in time, one which imbues his own partisan experience with despair; he is searching, post factum, for a redemptive promise that unfortunately no longer exists.

Once Calvino has come to terms with his past, he attempts to reestablish a rapport with the new industrial reality of the 1950s. This new human condition is explored in “Difficult Loves,” the third book of Racconti. A sense of urgency pervades these pages as they describe the adventures of tragically alienated individuals lacking a salutory sense of self. Deprived of both idyllic illusions (“Difficult Idylls”) and of their own private memories (“Difficult Memories”), they succumb to “a difficult and expected sense of reality.”1 Maladjusted characters caught up in taxing situations, they attempt to achieve authenticity through total identification with their surroundings. Their isolation from others becomes acute. Calvino's undramatic narrative levels emotion. His deeper themes, solitude and intellectual angst, will be broached in the long stories “Building Speculation” and Smog. In these tales, Calvino is honing his craft to the lean and articulate prose he will become known for in the 1960s and 1970s. Whereas the characters of “Difficult Idylls” attempt to reshape the contours of their world to their own image or ideology through an albeit futile play strategy, the characters of “Difficult Loves” lack both a sense of past and a sense of self, and are overwhelmed by the objects which surround them. Instead of alleviating their anxiety, modern society merely accentuates their ineptitude. Suffering a gradual loss of self (“The Adventure of a Soldier,” “The Adventure of a Traveler”), of autonomy (“The Adventure of a Bather,” “The Adventure of a Near-sighted Man”), and of corporality (“The Adventure of a Night Driver”), these characters are mirrors of the world around them and maintain no convictions, no sense of solidarity with their peers. Lacking the vital energy which would allow them to overcome an individual crisis and establish human contact, they move from physical abnegation (“The Adventure of a Soldier”) to verbal ineptitude (“The Adventures of a Poet”). Though the consuming desire of these individuals is the sharing of companionship and love, their conventional and petty desires leave them immersed in embarrassing solitude. The objective truths of Neorealism, the moral and political pretences of an entire generation, have been conveniently disavowed. Dogmatic interpretations of reality no longer pierce the social or psychic order. These tales present enigmas rather than explanations. Love indeed is difficult; it is synonymous with ennui and loss.

This existential dilemma is heightened in Book IV (“A Difficult Life”), where the textual landscape is inhabited by useless hollow men. These stories are Calvino's attempts to go beyond the literature of negativity while sustaining its premises. This is a world of increasing bondage, of dependence and incongruity. In the face of the new social context the problems of nature, city, memory and love loom ever larger, are more frustrating, and portend increasingly uncertain conclusions. Now it is la vita which has become difficile. These tales are indicative of a period of personal, political and cultural transition. The author steeps himself in the uncertain reality of the times while maintaining a tenacious faith in the revolutionary impetus of literature. Calvino's essays from this period—“Il midollo del leone” (1955), “La sifda al labirinto” (1962), “Natura e storia nel romanzo” (1958), “Pavese: Essere e fare” (1960), “Il mare dell'oggettività” (1959)—attest to his steadfast didactic program. Yet the characters of these stories belie the author's delusions. The idyll has been supplanted by a morose society hell-bent on self-destruction. Green spaces and azure waters are transient reminders of a dream long forgotten. In “A Difficult Life,” ideological ardor has become complacency (The Argentine Ant), political action has been transformed into lethargy (A Plunge into Real Estate), and the super-subjective stance of the protagonists provokes a loss of autonomy (Smog). Their compliance with a self-induced contemplative exile also precipitates a love for the prison in which the characters reside (a coming to life of Agilulfo's armor, a presaging of Monte Cristo's prison cell). Distancing themselves physically (The Argentine Ant) and intellectually (A Plunge into Real Estate) from their former activist selves in order to legitimize their lethargic state, they dwell in silent self-recrimination (Smog). Their hyperconsciousness is the tragic story of everyman. The resolution of this nihilist drama is never postulated; the labyrinthine journey continues. Life has no purpose and therein lies the tragedy. Racconti, in this sense, not only represents a thematic movement from the general to the specific, it is also a text steeped in unresolved crisis and deleterious ennui. And so Calvino's main concern in these tales is the elaboration of a 1950s sociological mythos. When Racconti is considered alongside the fanciful Our Ancestors or the anthropological Italian Folktales, one better understands the humanitarian nature of Calvino's narrative and his preoccupation with the debilitating effects of alienation. The drive to retell stories was compelling for the young author (“I was slowly possessed by a mania, a hunger, an insatiability for versions and variants, a fever for comparisons and classifications,” Italian Folktales, 13). Just as the fables “are true,” so too Racconti displays a national truth which Calvino deftly describes. The epoch of adventure has come to a dismal end and Calvino wishes to testify to its loss.

For this reason, Calvino's narrative perspective in Racconti is distant and purposefully indifferent to the plight of his characters. Like an ancient storyteller he allows the individual dramas to unfold without judgement. The reader enters these circumscribed worlds through the thoughts of the characters, yet is never invited to judge the acts of the characters' innermost selves. All seems natural, as it should be, as it can only be. Once this voyeuristic perspective is accepted we can begin to realize the despair inherent to the entire collection and the rapidly moving chain of events that seem to move beyond the reach of its characters. As the reader moves through the text he too, along with its central figures, is stripped of his sense of joy, of wonder, of feelings and of playful vitality. Life becomes an unending array of gestures which attempt to overcome immediate obstacles with little success. This is a finite universe sustained by a self-referential strategy whose elements co-exist through inexhaustible permutations. On the one hand, Calvino engenders a dynamics of contrast between characters, concepts, social and natural situations; on the other, he explores these characters' rapport with external reality. In the early tales (1945–54) the contrasts are thematic: good vs evil, fascism vs communism, fantasy vs reality, peasant vs intellectual. In later tales (1955–59) the element of contrast becomes a structural and often metaliterary feature: text vs non-text, reading vs writing, author vs reader. The characters, for their part, carry within themselves a sense of their own transience and a latent awareness of the fact that their struggle is for naught and is but a passing game. Their gestures may appear heroic (the war tales), comic-absurd (the Marcovaldo suite), pathetically ludicrous (the love tales), even futile (the life trilogy), but their sole motivation is the constant will for survival in an increasingly grotesque world.

I racconti reveals to the reader Calvino's burgeoning talent. There is an elegant transposition of style that evolves from simple, almost cardboard figures tacked onto a neorealist scenario to characters not easily distinguishable from their fragmented surroundings. Calvino moves swiftly from affected simplicity to a deeply committed discourse of intellectual responsibility. That which really matters, the reader comes to learn along with Calvino, cannot be communicated through language. And herein lies the reason for the mounting silence in Racconti. As the characters withdraw into themselves, any event (visiting a grotto, reading at the seaside, a walk in the country) blooms into a cautious exegesis. Little room is left for action. The protagonist of Smog is just as weary as Palomar. Both realize that meaning is elusive, if not illusory.

Seen in this context, the thematically orchestrated Racconti represent chapters of a developing poetics. These short stories are the vehicle of the author's evolving relationship with reality, with writing, with his text and with his reader. It is indicative that Racconti is primarily comprised of short stories. Unlike those writers who divide their talents between the conventional novel and short narrative, Calvino's proclivity for the more intense properties of the short story saw him abandon the novella and choose it as his art form. The short-story format seemed particularly adapted to the reality it described, and its adoption by Calvino reflected the postwar search for alternative artistic forms. The old literary and social traditions had proven ineffective. Man was now face to face with a new social fabric and literature was to reflect this relationship in a new personal manner. The short story appeared sleek, intimate, and intense, and seemed to provide the perfect length for a time-conscious consumer society. It offered Calvino a more flexible format for the free play of his imagination than did the novel. It could deal with history or fantasy, with reverent ideology or irreverent controversy. It could provide immediate social criticism, especially when published in newspapers, and its form readily lent itself to anecdote.

These stories are a stylistic rite of passage for the author and allow him to reach out and explore his own creative capacity in as free a manner as his own rigorous method will permit. For all the odd, eccentric characters, marvelously inspired images and often ambivalent plots, the collection is a work judiciously ordered on an ontological framework of solitude and spiritual unease. Indeed, loneliness and uncertainty are the main tenets in these tales of increasing existential despair. The fanciful perspective of Our Ancestors is not present in Racconti. The cold tenacity, calculating irony and mathematical precision of the Parisian author is still far off in the distance. Glimpses of his future rationality may be had in such tales as “Mine Field,” “One of the Three Is Still Alive,” “Mrs. Paulatim,” and the “Difficult Loves.” We have, however, not yet reached the metaphysical. Instead, in Racconti Calvino probes the psyche of man, and though he never approaches the depths of the psychological novel, he records the experiences of his Kafkaesque characters with a keen eye. The world is changing; Calvino wishes to be a witness to that change.

This perspective forms the basis for our discussion, which will examine both technique and meaning in an effort to define the tapestry of Calvino's evolving narrative self-consciousness. Despite the wide-ranging importance and popularity of Calvino studies, very few critics have focused attention on the Racconti. Indeed, almost no critical discussion of these early works moves beyond the occasional mention of a young, aspiring author with neorealist tendencies.2 The blame for this neglect can be attributed, in part, to chance. Calvino's emergence as a writer of international importance came in the late 1960s. The author was living in Paris, literally shunning his Italian heritage, physically and spiritually freeing his writing from what he considered parochial influences. To be sure, Calvino's admiration of and indebtedness to Italian letters was a constant leitmotif in his essays. His filial loyalty to Ariosto, Galileo, Leopardi, Petrarch, Pirandello, Machiavelli, and his love for his Ligurian landscape, shine through his accurate descriptions of nature, his ironic reworking of Boccaccian stories, and the adaptation of Ariostesque and Pirandellian plots. Yet Calvino's literary landscape also included Paris, Turin, Rome, Mexico, Tokyo and New York. His favorite authors included Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, Lawrence Sterne. A maturing Calvino was aware that the more he strayed from the representational style of Moravia and Pasolini popular in postwar Italy, the more attention he received in those critical circles he most admired.3 Indeed, in his later years Calvino achieved international fame and was among the handful of novelists who could boast of a world audience.

His reputation as a fantasist, however, came at the expense of his early social allegories. This is why critics ignored Racconti and why it never made the more demanding list of works usually cited when speaking of Calvino. Besides, most of the stories it contained have never been translated. Even Italian journals show a dearth of studies on these almost forgotten tales. Calvino himself may be partially blamed for this. He confessed to being unsatisfied with these early attempts to write stories in the Italian Neorealist mode of the 1940s and 1950s (“They never turned out right, so I left them in my drawer,” Our Ancestors, 353–54).4 His dissatisfaction with them caused him to question his abilities as a writer (“Maybe I wasn't a real writer, I was one of those who had written, like so many, during a period of transition, carried by that wave of change; then my inspiration dried up,” Our Ancestors, 354). When critics happened upon the early Calvino, their attention was most naturally drawn to the Our Ancestors trilogy whose parodic play and fabulist style fitted the author's cosmopolitan image. The trilogy was a certain sign of Calvino's innate compulsion towards new written forms, the taxonomic, the metanarrative; in short, any and all of the fashionable epithets used to characterize Postmodern literature could be applied. One could make of Calvino an early Italian pioneer of the 1970s literary vogue of the metaphysical novel and place him on a par with Borges, Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Barth, indeed almost anyone who was interested in formal experimentation of some sort. Racconti thus fell further into the shadows.

It was Calvino himself who resuscitated many of these early stories. For example, the “difficult love” tales which were originally published in Racconti were re-released as a collection of short stories in a newly arranged and amplified version in 1970. The “war tales,” which were originally published in the collection My Entry into the War in 1954, were included in Racconti under the rubric “Difficult Memories,” then were republished with the original title (and added stories) in 1974. The Marcovaldo tales, which also first appeared in Racconti, were republished with newly written Marcovaldo tales in 1963 in the collection Marcovaldo, or the Seasons in the City. The same is true of the collections The Memory of the World and Cosmicomics Old and New. In this way, Calvino placed his early work referentially alongside his later writing. Was he trying to tell us something? Was it, as he states, simply:

A good occasion to reread and attempt to respond to questions that I had avoided each time they presented themselves: Why had I written these stories? What had I, in effect, said? What sense can this type of literature has with respect to today's literature?

(Our Ancestors, 353).

Or was Calvino attempting to cure what he considered to be an oversight on the part of critics by enticing them to reconsider the underlying consistency and intertextuality of his own work?

The tapping of his own literary reservoir implies a concern for the referential frames surrounding his texts. The author constantly measured himself against his own past (and possible futures) by compulsively opening and closing periods of his literary career through re-editions and new assemblies of his work. It did not surprise me that when I asked permission to publish an anthology of his early essays he responded:

The writings that have appeared in newspapers and journals (including those from the years 1946–55) will be published in a volume edited by myself, when I deem appropriate. The ordering of this volume is something I am carrying out in due course, precisely to avoid the publication of collections of my writings after my death.

(Personal correspondence with the author dated 21 November 1984. My translation.)

If things were to be set straight for the record, he would have been the one to do it.5 The same care and deliberate planning is evident in the orchestration of his entire literary career. For example, The Path to the Nest of Spiders was published in 1947. A new edition with minor changes and an explanatory Preface by the author was published in 1964. In 1949 he issued his early short stories in the volume The Crow Comes Last which contains 18 stories subsequently republished in I racconti. In 1954 he collected two previously published stories, “The Vanguard Reaches Menton” (Nuovi argomenti, 1953), and “Entering the War” (Il Ponte, 1953), added “The Nights of the UNPA” and published them in the slender volume Entering the War. They are Calvino's three most autobiographical stories, steeped in his memories of the summer of 1940. After two years of intense philological and anthropological work he published Italian Folktales (1956), an endeavor that spurred him to reorder many of his own published and unpublished works into I racconti (1958). 1960 saw the publication of the volume Our Ancestors. It contains the three formerly published novellas: The Cloven Viscount (1952), The Baron in the Trees (1957), and The Nonexistent Knight (1959).

When Calvino felt he had not exhausted the possibilities of an idea, he continued writing stories on the same subject. This is the case with a suite of tales that exposes the inadequacies of man's adaptation to city life. Many of these tales had originally appeared in Book I of Racconti, but were republished with new tales in the collection Marcovaldo, or the Seasons in the City in 1963. In the same year he published The Watcher. Its pithily delineated urban protagonist served as a counterbalance to the intellectually effete Marcovaldo. In the 1960s Calvino collected and published a trilogy of cosmic tales: The Memory of the World (1965), Cosmicomics (1965), and t zero (1967), as well as two completed parts of the tarot trilogy: The Castle of Crossed Destinies and The Tavern of Crossed Destinies (1969). In 1972 Calvino mapped imaginary cities in the meticulously mathematical work Invisible Cities. Some years later, Calvino wove adventure tales in the collection of stories entitled If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979), and a year later he gathered already published essays on society and literature in the anthology Una pietra sopra. In 1985 the author oversaw the editing and new collation of his cosmic tales and published them with the new title Cosmicomics Old and New. He also collected a series of anthropological essays he had published over the years in the anthology Collections of Sand.

This brief synopsis reveals a sense of order, zealous precision, and Calvino's almost programmed predilection for the triptych structure and for short story collections. Calvino tended to hold on to an idea for years. After writing a story he would publish it in a newspaper or journal; more often than not he would then leave it in a drawer for future consideration. As stories around an evolving theme coalesced to form an ideally organic text he would collect them from his drawer, arrange them in a thematic design and republish them in anthologies. This is especially true of Racconti and other works such as Mr. Palomar, Cosmicomics Old and New and Collections of Sand, if not all of his works. By doing this he maintained complete control over composition, form and presentation but, most importantly, he controlled his image. Like Nabokov, Calvino jealously protected the area around himself and his texts with masterful acumen and timing. In short, he knew what to publish and when to publish it. Critics have commented on this merchandising strategy.6 Calvino's interests, however, go beyond the simple sale of books. He was primarily interested in the self-referential nature of the writing experience. He believed that an author had the option to retell (or indeed rewrite) a work (even someone else's) at will. Whether or not this promoted one interpretation over another was beyond his control but the mere performance would stimulate new readings. The only work Calvino actually rewrote was Building Speculation (more on this point later). More often Calvino was content to republish his stories in new dress, usually conflating several books of stories into one volume. These new volumes may be considered Calvino's “critical editions.”

In one such critical edition (Difficult Loves, 1970) the author (the note is unsigned) “introduces” himself and his work and offers critical judgement (both pro and con) to his readers. In the Introduction to Una pietra sopra Calvino revealed the personality of a man given not only to introspection and self-scrutiny but also to practical, if not historical, considerations. Calvino considered himself a “litmus paper” of his generation and measured himself and his work against the times and the possible future reception of his work. A controlled eclecticism and critical judgement, inspired by his work as editor of other writers, would insure that errors of transmission, and perhaps interpretation, would be avoided. The only way to avoid such errors was to carefully control and prevent inconsistency (stylistic, thematic, ideological), through careful orchestration.

Calvino also enjoyed playing games with numbers (Invisible Cities), with pictures (The Castle of Crossed Destinies), and anagrammatic games with his name (he once wrote an introduction to a scholastic edition of The Baron in the Trees and signed it Tonio Cavilla). Qfwfq, protagonist of the cosmicomic tales, is a palindrome or mirror image of himself (Qfv-vfq). As such he is the perfect archetype for Calvino's own reflective identification (ICv-vCI) with his most enigmatic creations: Italo Calvino: Cavaliere Inesistente; Città Invisibili; Castello dei destini Incrociati. In short, the author is ultimately a model for his own narrative code and mise-en-abyme editor of his own editorial skills. Ultimately, then, the author is a tautology, a hand forever writing itself. Like Qfwfq he is full of promise and possibility; like Pin (the child protagonist of his first novel The Path to the Nest of Spiders) he is forever childlike; like Palomar (the protagonist of his last novel) he is curmudgeonly and tenacious. In typically Postmodern fashion Calvino reassembled and recombined already existing themes, characters and plots from his own personal library, in a process of both replenishment and exhaustion. Like the primitive “bricoleur” Calvino seemed content with the material of his closed, yet ever expanding, universe and often achieved brilliant, unforeseen results. The narrative voyage of I. C. in Racconti is a prototypical return to readings, memories of readings, possible future readings (“Books You Haven't Read … Books You Needn't Read … Books You've Been Planning to Read for Ages …,” If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, 5), which define his closed world and give it life. The short stories of Racconti are both within and without history and present a true compendium of an Italy embroiled in ideological crisis. We are presented classic Calvinian contrasts between political commitment and alienation, being and nothingness, memory and fiction, reality and fantasy. These tales inform the reality of human experience in all its multifarious possibilities. They are stories that beget stories, structures which permit combinations, Fabulae de Fabula. It is the writer writing, yet, as with Italian Folktales, it is the author realizing himself in a continuous process of editorial rebirth.

Finally we should recall that Racconti is the direct result of the author's work as compiler and editor of Italian Folktales, published only two years earlier. These tales were collected and arranged during the same years he was collecting and arranging the fables, and they represent the same “catalogue of destinies” which Calvino ascribes to the fairy tales. In the Introduction to Italian Folktales Calvino states:

My work consisted in trying to make a book from this material; in trying to understand and save, from fable to fable, the “diverse”… and to eliminate—that is, reduce to an absolute unit—the “diverse” which comes from the method of recovery, from the intermediary intervention of the folklorist.


If fable is indeed the crucible of human experience, the first natural act of one who is conscious of the self, of one who looks about with the wonder of being in the world, then literature too may occupy the central space in humanity's rapport with reality, for it may engender the self-awareness which does not refuse the invention of possible destinies and the acquisition of experience. The Racconti, like the Italian Folktales, are a catalogue of these destinies. They are also the product of a maturing search for absolute truths and a salutary rapport with life. Calvino's chosen condition of solitude and withdrawal (“At times one must learn to be alone; it is the only way to show others what is really important”7) pulled the author, like his characters, towards entropy. The closing lines of If on a winter's night a traveler portray a solitary traveler gazing down upon his grave, waiting for death while desiring new tales to weave in order to prolong life. But beginnings, Calvino observed (in the Preface to the 1964 edition of The Path to the Nest of Spiders), only portend death. One should never write the first novel: “It would always be better never to have written one's first book” (xxii). Literature can only place temporary bridges over the void. Calvino never falls from the precipice but soars towards the literary empyrean with Cosimo, disappears into the protective carapace of Agilulfo, returns as ubiquitous omniscient essence in Qfwfq, perseveres in Palomar. Yet the precipice looms eternal and Calvino remains gazing into the gaping hole of annihilation, cherishing the illusion that, through literature, everything is under control:

If on a winter's night a traveler, outside the town of Malbork, leaning from the steep slope without fear of wind or vertigo, looks down in the gathering shadow in a network of lines that enlace, in a network of lines that intersect, on the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon around an empty grave—what story down there awaits its end?—he asks, anxious to hear the story.


In the story “Implosion” an aged, Shakespearean Qfwfq makes a moving testimony to consummate maturity and silence outside of time:

To explode or to implode—said Qfwfq—that is the question. Whether it is nobler to endlessly expand one's energy in space, or crush it in a dense interior concentration and by swallowing it conserve it. To escape, to disappear; nothing more; to hold within oneself each ray of light, each eruption and by smothering in the depths of one's soul those conflicts which agitate it, give them rest; to conceal oneself, to cancel oneself; perhaps to reawaken elsewhere changed.

(Cosmicomics Old and New, 217, my translation)

These two passages aptly summarize the logical outcome of a vocation to Vittorinian fervor and Pavesian solitude which Calvino balanced so well. Racconti serve as a fitting prologue for mankind's predefined and ultimately unavoidable dissolution within the social and literary labyrinth. Calvino found in literature the primitive purity of vision which allowed him to discuss the problems of his generation. To read his work, especially Racconti, is to follow his own process of development and difficult discovery.


  1. “Il midollo del leone,” Una pietra sopra (Turin: Einaudi, 1980), 3–18, 17.

  2. Some early criticism on Racconti includes: Elemire Zolla, “I racconti di Calvino,” Tempe presente 3.12 (1958): 995–96; Renato Barilli, “I racconti di Calvino,” Il mulino 2 (1959): 160–66, republished in La barriera del naturalismo (Milan: Mursia, 1964) 212–22; Pietro Citati, “I racconti di Calvino,” L'illustrazione italiana 86.1 (1959): 80–81, also in Il punto (February 1959): 13; Giorgio Pullini, “I racconti di Calvino,” Communità 8.68 (1959): 100–102; Vlaidimir Horky, “I racconti di Calvino,” Acta Universitatis Carolinae, Philologica 2 (1961): 69–74; Giovanni Grazzini, “Lettura dei Racconti di Calvino,” Letteratura Moderna 9.5 (1959): 621–37. They range in scope from the descriptive (Grazzini) to the political (Horky), from benign (Pullini) to biased negativity (Barilli). All other studies treat Racconti as underdeveloped meditations on generic fiction.

  3. According to Renato Barilli: “As the rate of abnormality in his narrative rose, so did the bewilderment of Italian critics. It could well be said that Calvino had set out on a solitary walk in the desert. Consequently, the literary establishment of our country imposed a black out, or zone of silence, on his work.” See “My Long Infidelity towards Calvino,” in Franco Ricci, ed., Calvino Revisited (Ottawa: Dovehouse Press, 1989), 9–15. See 12. All the while, however, Calvino's fame was increasing abroad.

  4. One of the stories Calvino left in his drawer was the novella “I giovani del Po.” It was published in Officina, Bologna, 1957–58 (No. 8, 1957; No. 9–10, 1957; No. 11, 1957; No. 12, 1958), but he was so dissatisfied with it that he never published it as a book.

  5. A collection of Calvino's essays on art and politics (1945–85) has recently been published by Gian Carlo Ferretti, Le capre di Bikini (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1989).

  6. See Gian Carlo Ferretti, Il bestseller all'italiana: fortune e formule del romanzo “di qualità” (Rome: Laterza, 1983).

  7. From an interview granted to Raffaele Crovi, “Calvino scrittore appartato ha fiducia nella letteratura L'Avvenire (20 July 1969): 5.

Kathryn Hume (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8629

SOURCE: “Cosmogony, Cosmography, and the Cosmicomical Stories,” in Calvino's Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos, Clarendon Press, 1992, pp. 57–75.

[In the following essay, Hume considers Cosmicomics a turning point in Calvino's fiction, maintaining that the author finds his narrative voice and cosmic vision with the stories in this volume.]

According to the calculations of the physicist Alan Guth of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, the universe originated literally from nothing in an extremely brief fraction of time: a second divided by a billion billion billions. (From the Washington Post, 3 June 1984)

Secondo i calcoli del fisico Alan Guth, dello Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, l'Universo ha avuto origine letteralmente dal nulla in una frazione di tempo estremamente breve: un secondo diviso per un miliardo di miliardi di miliardi. (Dal Washington Post, 3 giugno 1984)

(“Il niente e il poco”, 209)

With this paraphrase of the Washington Post, Calvino commences one of his latest cosmicomical stories, “Il niente e il poco,” found only in Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove. Most of the cosmicomical tales open with a scientific incipit, just as most feature Qfwfq as narrator. Like the majority, this one uses a very limited cast of characters—here, Qfwfq and a non-speaking female named Nugkta. Their differences of opinion disturb Qfwfq. He rhapsodizes over the new ‘something’ burgeoning up out of nothing, while she prefers the austere ‘nothing’ that preceded it. Qfwfq hastily alters his views to those he attributes to his innamorata, but he turns coat in vain. She too reverses her values. In the final paragraph, he refers to ‘today’ as an era of frozen peas, nylon curtains, and computers, and remarks:

There is a secret that only Nugkta and I know: that however much is contained in space and time, it is only the little generated from nothing, the little that is and yet might not have been, or might be yet thinner, more meagre and perishable. If we prefer to say nothing about it, either good or ill, it is because we could only say this: poor, frail universe, offspring of nothing, all that we are and do resembles you.

c'è un segreto che solo Nugkta e io conosciamo: che quanto è contenuto nello spazio e nel tempo non è altro che il poco, generato dal niente, il poco che c'è e potrebbe anche non esserci, o essere ancora più esiguo, più sparuto e deperibile. Se preferiamo non parlame, né in male né in bene, è perché potremmo dire solo questo: povero gracile universo figlio del nulla, tutto ciò che siamo e facciamo t'assomiglia.

(p. 215)

A typical cosmicomical story, it grows out of the unimaginable: consciousness prior to and during the Big Bang. Other narratives take wing from the first light, the first bird's song, the first sign. Mythological fables that these are, they spin tales of origins, and uncover the hidden traces of those origins in our tangled present. They also lay the foundations for Calvino's ‘cosmic vision’ or metaphysic, a combination of elements that sets his fictions apart from those of other writers, and separates the pre-cosmicomical works from the rest of his creations. Earlier fiction—Smog, A Plunge into Real Estate, The Argentine Ant, and The Baron in the Trees—deal with pollution and politics, real-estate speculation, pest control, and history. With Cosmicomics, he throws those subjects out as if they were junk in an attic. In this [essay], I shall argue that he had finally found a means to articulate problems that seemed to him more basic, and had conceived of an effective mise-en-scène for exploring them. In these stories we witness the birth of a new fictive universe and the forces being harnessed by writing it into existence.

His discovery consists of a metaphysic that fits his private apprehensions. The eye and I confront particle and paste, and attempt to maintain the separation of the minimal units while arranging them in some regular pattern. The physical properties of particle or minimal unit and flux constitute one component of this cosmic vision. In the earlier fictions, Calvino had explored different, more personal versions of this clash between forces: his protagonists struggled not to be swallowed up by ruinous building costs, by hordes of ants, by constricting social rules, by threatening female powers. By transferring such tensions from the realm of individual action within society to the realm of cosmology and science, Calvino manages to externalize this anxiety. His sidereal language (as Grisi calls it) lets him borrow scientific objectivity and abstraction for scrutinizing human problems. By thus formalizing anxiety, he can explore it.

Particulate reality is one component of cosmic vision; the other is Calvino's new protagonist-narrator. The earlier works try various combinations of observer and agent, none of them able to release much narrative dynamism. We get nameless narrators, immature narrators, or characters marginal to the action such as Cosimo's brother or Medardo's nephew. With Qfwfq, Calvino achieves a first-person presence, with all the passion and engagement that that can give. At the same time he makes the noisy young Qfwfq remote by placing him in the dim past, by filtering him through an older Qfwfq, and by filtering that persona through a phantasmal scribe or creator who refers to Qfwfq in the third person: ‘Qfwfq recalled’, ‘Qfwfq explained’, ‘Qfwfq narrated’, ‘old Qfwfq confirmed’. The third person is confined to these italicized expressions—one per story—the merest fingerprint of authorial artifice. These two removes permit Calvino the distance between consciousness and actions that evidently appealed to him for its impersonality, but the first remove, youth to age, lets him combine the vivid experiences of the one with the reserve of the other. The younger Qfwfq effervesces ardently at the slightest excuse, while his older self subtly withholds full support from those excesses. Meanwhile, the faint authorial presence reminds us that both old and young Qfwfq are constructs.

An abstract setting filled with wonder and strange beauties

a narrator who plunges into life, but is so non-human that we do not import novelistic assumptions about psychology to our responses

a narrator twice distanced, so we do not lapse into simple-minded identification

relative freedom from the baggage of history and society and psychology

freedom from the values and myths imposed by others

The cosmic vision achieves all of these and electrifies Calvino's writing. Compared to earlier work, these stories glisten with excitement. They project uncluttered confrontations between consciousness and cosmos.1 True, Calvino never entirely answers the questions raised by this confrontation, but he permanently eschews the conventional material of fiction from this time forth—history, politics, society, personal relationships, and the like. Therefore something about this configuration continued to satisfy him, and set its stamp on later work. Symbolic landscapes shorn of society and history constitute much of his trademark. The later works freely admit his dissatisfactions and frustrations, but Calvino no longer seems puzzled. He knows what questions he wants answered, and knows what obstacles impede his quest.

How do we find or create meaning in a material universe? Since we rely on no single fashion, he must go further: what various systems does humanity use? how effective are they? and how defensible are they, intellectually speaking? Naturally the cosmic setting imposes limits on the investigation; so does Calvino's own set of values. Neither one nor the other predisposes him to explore long-standing love relationships or religion or passionate devotion to any cause. None the less, his newly found combination of setting and point of view satisfied his demands for a way of investigating this relationship between the I and the not-I.

What his investigation turns up is several public and private means of creating or finding meaning, means such as rivalry and creation. The various means add up to no tidy sequence, no spectrum of more and less effective mental constructions, for they all work for some people under some circumstances. Hence, whether he likes them or not, he scrutinizes and memorializes them, and these will be discussed in the first part of the chapter.

Calvino tried to get beyond these superficial social answers by pursuing two other lines of thought. Following one, he acknowledges the centrality of desire to all that we strive for (including meaning), and looks at the nature of that force. Following the second, he asks why we cannot be satisfied with the myths of meaning provided by science, our prime structure for linking consciousness with matter. These will occupy parts two and three of the chapter. Finally, I shall delineate the effects that finding cosmic vision had on Calvino's fiction. The symbolic dimensions enlarge dramatically. He learned much about the openness of fiction, its ‘potential’ quality, its multiplicity, from his cosmicomical experiments.

In short, I am arguing that these fictions triggered in Calvino a major crystallization of values, a new vision, and a set of metaphysical assumptions. Without understanding these changes, we will fail to see the developments in later fictions that stem from them. Furthermore, once we understand what happened here, we will be able to make a more satisfying intellectual bridge between the early stories and the later metafictional masterpieces.


Given Calvino's enchantment with patterns, meaning for him often manifests itself as a formal design that enables him to make inferences and find applications. A successful meaning-structure would encompass the individual and make the individual feel at one with the universe. Alienation, loneness, separateness: these are the hostile conditions the pattern must overcome. They undermine an individual's sense of friendship, the ability to communicate, the feeling of welcome; they destroy any sense of esteem in one's own eyes and the eyes of others. Most of Calvino's narrators exhibit some form of separation from society. Some, like Cosimo, struggle to maintain their distance, while others, like the narrator of Smog, are unhappy in their alienation. Their achieving a sense of meaning would reduce or eliminate the gap between self and society; or between their ideal picture of self and the actuality; or between self and the universe. For most of his protagonists, Calvino assumes that integration would bring happiness, or at least sober contentment, a sense that one's actions were worth their pains, a sense of satisfaction—literally satis, enough, the impossible goal of Goethe's Faust. For others, Cosimo in particular, integration would mean subjugation, so meaning has to be sought outside the normal pattern of society.

As suits Calvino's admiration for the patterns of science, he appears to agree with Boethius that one's emotional life ought to have the same regularity and orderliness and beauty as the cosmos.2 Life has not obliged him with such Boethian harmony, however, so Calvino contents himself in the cosmicomical stories with studying human struggles to align the self in meaningful ways with the orderly cosmos. Some of his characters derive their sense of meaning from four elements of everyday life: interaction with the community, sexual longing, male rivalry, and physical labour pitting self against matter. Other characters bridge the gap between self and cosmos with three less commonplace activities: creation, geometrization, and vision. At no point does Calvino reject any of the possibilities; he writes to explore, to find options, not to prescribe a single solution. The richness of these stories lies partly in the wide array of possibilities that he offers us—at least the seven I shall discuss, and possibly others as well. In this tactic of considering multiple partial solutions rather than one global answer, we find him using a pulviscular or particulate approach—lots of little solutions to match bits of the problem.

Calvino's picture of community interaction is repellent and reflects dissatisfaction with that solution, but he endows it with undeniable power to create a sense of meaning. In “The Distance of the Moon,” the characters shield themselves from the cataclysmic physical events by submerging themselves in intrigue, argument, lust, and the communal activity of gathering moon milk. In “At Daybreak,” Calvino stresses the habitual nature of such familial responses. When something goes wrong, as Qfwfq notes, one automatically assumes that Granny Bb'b is somehow responsible, and reproaches her. The neurasthenic mother cries that she had known all along that something was wrong; huffy father is caught in his usual bind between bossing his wife and children and being bossed by his mother. These jostling personalities might have disported themselves against a background of war or poverty or election-day politics. Calvino chooses, however, to match them against the coalescence of matter and the first light. The family strategies are thus defined by the story as strategies to protect its members against the universe, and to make sense of their experiences with the matter in agitation around them. We find similar ongoing bickering in “Fino a che dura il Sole,” “The Aquatic Uncle,” “The Light-Years,” and “The Dinosaurs.”

Unpleasant though such jostling and quarrelling may be to contemplate, we note that Qfwfq's families are never cowed, despairing, or psychically enervated. The tensions generate energy that keeps family members going and also limit their awareness and fear of the universe. Calvino grants the effectiveness of this strategy, but shows how the negative emotions prevent the characters from noticing the bizarre loveliness of physical events. Such folk buy their freedom from fear and from the problems of meaning by denying themselves wonder, amazement, and awe. Ignoring matter is the normal response in Western literature; by visualizing the material world so spectacularly, Calvino insists that we acknowledge what we filter out by such a tactic.

Sexual longing, as part of the reproductive cycle, provides one of our most reliable sources for meaning. When Qfwfq is ensorcelled by Ayl or Lll or Ursula H'x or Nugkta, he is thoroughly engaged with the universe. He tries to show its beauties to his love. He gloats over new developments. His innamorate never see eye to eye with him in these enthusiasms, but Qfwfq seems happiest when trying to share his bedazzled enchantment at what matter is doing: “Without Colors,” “Il niente e il poco,” “Crystals,” “Il cielo di pietra,” “The Aquatic Uncle,” and “The Form of Space” all permit him this intense commitment. Because such engagement would not last much beyond physical consummation, we rarely see Qfwfq succeed in his courtships.

Rivalry offers another simple way of making sense of the universe. Qfwfq and Pfwfp start by trying to best each other in collecting new hydrogen atoms, then create and race galaxies in a frenzy of one-upmanship. When Kgwgk vandalizes Qfwfq's first sign, Qfwfq floods space with false signs, that he may gloat over Kgwgk's boorish inability to distinguish true from false. Qfwfq also daydreams a cowboy shoot-out with Lieutenant Fenimore. Unattractive though the rivalries are, they undoubtedly engage Qfwfq strongly with life, and under their spell, he creates signs, atoms, galaxies, shells, and causes eyes to come into being.

Physical struggle with matter itself is another traditional solution Calvino explores. Trying to build something from matter, or sort it, or clean it away, can all give a sense of meaning if such work has clearly defined goals. In “I meteoriti,” Qfwfq tests the housewife's source of meaning by tidying away detritus fallen from the sky. In “The Soft Moon,” Qfwfq helps in the herculean effort that demanded millennia to clean away the lunar glop attracted by Earth's mass, and seems more self-confident as a result.

Calvino stresses novelty so much in these stories that creation is a major avenue to a sense of meaning. When Qfwfq brings something new into the world—eyes, signs, time—or even when he witnesses something new like the first light, his enthusiasm endows such moments with a thrilling aura, even when the results are quite different from his expectations. Qfwfq's extruding a shell produces eyes in one story (“The Spiral”), time and history in another (“Le conchiglie e il tempo”). Courtship of Mrs Ph(i)Nko produces the universe, but no consummation.

Closely related to the intellectual kinds of creation is the impulse to geometrify, to make abstract patterns and enjoy their symmetries as a kind of meaning. Qfwfq as mollusc is involved in some such creation in “Le conchiglie e il tempo,” and he grasps desperately for pattern in “Crystals,” “Il cielo di pietra,” and “Tempesta solare.” In the last, Qfwfq is a steamship captain, following shipping routes with magnetic compass and radio signals. He cleaves to the patterns much as one sticks to regulation dance steps, enjoying the conventions and feeling satisfied at having negotiated the steps without making a mistake. Calvino's most extensive experiment with geometrification as a means of controlling experience, however, comes in an earlier work, The Nonexistent Knight. In the cosmicomical stories, pattern-making is freely undertaken, limited only by one's own vision, and usually harmless. The patterns may become dangerous if imposed on other beings, but in these tales, the designs are elegant and usually satisfy aesthetic rather than practical demands, except in so far as relating oneself to the universe is deeply practical.

Mystic vision, or at any rate Vision-with-a-capital-V, is yet another mode of making the universe meaningful. Calvino describes two kinds. One, triggered by love, is holistic and embracing. Mrs Ph(i)Nko in “All at One Point” launches such a vision of the universe in the minds of her admirers: from her nurturing impulse to make tagliatelle comes the world of wheat, veal, rain, the sun and stars, and gravitation—in short, the universe. The second sort radiates less happiness, for it stems from rivalry. Qfwfq and Pfwfp see their enmity multiply out along the curves of space. Similarly in “The Chase,” hunters and prey proliferate.

These are the answers Calvino tries when looking at the individual and the cosmos. He shows that these answers can work, indicates how they achieve their effect and exposes their weaknesses and boundaries. None, however, seems to satisfy Calvino himself.


These gaps between self and society, self and one's own ideal, self and the universe all engender enormous currents of desire. Superficially, such flows take sexual form; Qfwfq chases one female elemental after another, and his urgent sensuality flavours many of the stories. At a deeper level, however, such female objects seem secondary to more revenous cravings for meaning.3 As one goal in these stories, Calvino seems to have sought to determine how such desire functions within the economy of human endeavours.

René Girard offers a useful paradigm for the workings of desire in his Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Broken promises (of happiness, success) proffered by parents, society, or God lead to a sense of self-hatred, alienation, emptiness. One fails to live up to the ideal and assumes oneself to be at fault. The emptiness causes one to imitate some person or ideal, often someone who seems exempt from the sense of loneness. When copying the model, one longs for those objects desired by that model, and often enters into direct rivalry for them. Such yearning for the object is triangular, involving as it does the mediator as necessary stimulus. Hatred, jealousy, and envy may ensue, and one envisions the rival as a villain, bereft of normal human feelings or insecurities. Girard points out that the desire to make oneself over into somebody else is tantamount to death, so such triangular desire rests on a strong undercurrent of death-wish. In Girard's key texts—the Quixote, The Red and the Black, and several novels by Dostoevsky—renunciation of such triangular desire is possible. True unmediated desire is also possible, and one may achieve profound peace by recognizing the inauthenticity of a triangular desire. Girard distinguishes between the ways that authors handle this subject. ‘Novelesque’ authors recognize the inauthenticity and expose it; romantic authors are unable to see that the passions they admire are second-hand and unoriginal.

Several cosmicomical stories vibrate with Girardian triangular desire, “The Form of Space” and “The Night Driver” for instance. Lieutenant Fenimore is self-confident, vulgarly bold (at least in Qfwfq's superheated imagination), and set apart by military uniform as somebody with a sense of purpose. Their rivalry for Ursula H'x evokes from Qfwfq all the symptoms specified by Girard: the extremes of jealousy and envy, the sense of helplessness, and the projection of the rival as an inhuman monster. “The Night Driver” shows a more urbane form of triangular relationship, with less evidence that the narrator envies and imitates Z. However, he admits that he would find reunion with Y meaningless were Z comfortably at home and uninvolved. The female, Y, is thus not an authentic object of desire if her presence can be so easily rendered meaningless. As Girard points out (1976: 21), inauthentic objects of desire are often forgotten in one's engagement with the mediator and the peripherality of such objects declares itself in such moments of forgetfulness.

In “The Aquatic Uncle” and “The Distance of the Moon” Calvino dissects the mediated nature of such desires in true novelesque fashion. Qfwfq loses his proto-reptilian girlfriend, Lll, to his reactionary, fishy uncle, N'ba N'ga. We realize that Lll is more status symbol than true love. Qfwfq admires her for her terrestriality, for the degree to which she and her family seem to have distanced themselves from aquatic life. In his snobbish urge to be what he is not, he exhibits all the marks of triangular desire. When we ask why terrestriality attracts him, we find it tied to prestige, territory, and the chance to become someone important. Regrettably for Qfwfq's self-confidence, his uncle is just such a personality with presence. Given Qfwfq's many chronicled attempts to stand out from others, we deduce that such self-definition is one of his most durable longings. Qfwfq denies that he would trade positions with the various impressive presences he has met through the eons: the duck-billed platypus, a dinosaur who survived into the Cenozoic age, a crocodile. His very denial, though, signals that he has thought of such exchanges. He projects onto these powerful entities a fullness and self-assurance which he, in his emptiness, envies.

His longing to be someone who stands out shows up in “The Spiral” and “A Sign in Space.” The inauthenticity of his crush on Mrs Vhd Vhd is revealed during their sojourn on the moon: stranded with his idolized, sexually experienced older woman in what ought to have been a rutty adolescent's daydream, Qfwfq finds that he can think of nothing but Earth.

It was the Earth that caused each of us to be that someone he was rather than someone else; up there, wrested from the Earth, it was as if I were no longer that I, nor she that She, for me.

(“The Distance of the Moon,” 14)

Era la Terra a far sì che ciascuno fosse proprio quel qualcuno e non altri; quassù, strappati alla Terra, era come se io non fossi più quell'io, né lei per me quella lei.

(“La distanza della Luna,” 113)

His threatened identity and sense of self, in the crunch, outweigh his amorous desires. The young Qfwfq, who howls with the dogs (thus imitating yet something else in his longing for the lady-as-moon), is rarely authentic in his loves; Old Qfwfq, however, who turns the experiences into mythological fables, is a powerful poet aware of the callowness of his young self.

Calvino's insights parallel those of Girard on the subject of male rivals and Qfwfq's repeated longings for inappropriate females. Qfwfq's lovers almost always disagree with him, and as they rarely exhibit the least doubt, their confidence undermines Qfwfq's own search for certitude. According to Girard, the masochism growing from self-hatred is responsible for such misplaced affections (1976: 282–4).

In all these stories, Qfwfq clearly feels that he would find meaning if his wants were met, but Calvino undercuts this assurance with contrary evidence. Qfwfq may desire crystalline order in “Crystals,” but would lose Vug and her spontaneity. In “La memoria del mondo,” the unnamed narrator wishes his love recorded as a perfect relationship, and sets about murdering anyone whom he thinks to have been his wife's lover, and then deletes them from the ultimate record of reality. Qfwfq as plutonic ruler at Earth's core loses Rdix (Eurydice) because he will not accept her ideals of surface and noise. By maintaining his orderly or colourful or disorderly ideal, he loses its binary opposite upheld by his innamorata, and loses her as well.

Qfwfq's moments of peace or visionary joy often accompany the renunciation of a desire. He gives up passing judgement on the universe in “Il niente e il poco,” and expresses wonder and pity at its frail contingency. The ecstasy in “The Origin of the Birds” shows Qfwfq forgetting his lady while consummating their marriage because he suddenly gains a more authentic desire; his shift of attention is temporary, but in that moment of authentic quest, he momentarily finds a vision of meaning. He reaches serenity in “The Light-Years” when he gives up hope of winning the admiration of onlookers. There are other moments of ecstasy stemming from different sources; Calvino does not expressly link all such moments to the ceding of inauthentic desire. None the less, the Girardian relationship seems to lurk under the surface of many such moments.

Calvino's analysis of desire differs forcefully from Girard's in two respects. One is the matter of wishing to become like another. For Girard, transformation of self is just a disguised death-wish; for Calvino, such metamorphoses offer genuine alternative existences. Gery calls such imagined survival beyond annihilation of self an escapist fantasy of the nuclear age. Catalano, however, identifies one transformation that is emphatically not a displaced death: writing permits Calvino to transform himself to books and thereby survive death—a process detailed in “Death.”

Another, more profound difference between the two: Calvino does not accept Girard's solution to these endless desires. Girard authenticates the desire to transcend if one attaches oneself to God. Cervantes, Stendhal, and Dostoevsky all accept this ultimate solution. Calvino does not even consider it, a notable omission considering the widespread success of the religious solution to the problem of meaning. Throughout his career, however, Calvino only fleetingly refers to religion and never explores it seriously. He seeks meanings that derive from the exercise of reason, not faith, and obviously hopes that satisfying some forms of desire would create a sense of meaning. He succeeds in showing the ubiquity of desire, and its compelling power as a source of our longing for meaning, but finds only individual and temporary answers to the problem of meaning that such desire poses.


As a story, science gives us a past: the Big Bang, life emerging in the sea, the dinosaurs. Through its powers of prediction, it gives us a future: control. We adhere to the codes of scientific method and go through the rituals of duplicating results that will permit us to advance understanding. We smother personal impulses in order to develop our objectivity. In the end, what we understand can be technologically exploited. As Jürgen Habermas has argued, if control were not the aim, scientific knowledge as we think of it would have taken quite a different form.4 Consider the effects on a culture's science were that society's goal defined as personal happiness or stoic tranquillity. Science is not a universal, but something heavily contingent upon the rest of the culture.

Enthusiastic though he is about science, Calvino is not uncritical. Olga Ragusa (1983: 198) praises his cosmicomical tales as marking ‘a kind of final acceptance—in all its consequences—of the Copernican revolution, an inversion in values that Mattia Pascal (and with him Pirandello) had still considered a disaster for mankind but that Calvino is able to dominate with a buoyancy reminiscent of the apparent ease with which space exploration succeeded in finally putting man on the moon’. The buoyancy and acceptance are there, but so too is awareness of ‘all its consequences’. Calvino deconstructs some of science's most cherished myths even while revelling in the wondrous images begotten by its theories.5

His enjoyment of the images comes across most vividly in the stories of origins. His Big Bang in “All at One Point” unforgettably humanizes the inconceivable, and lets Qfwfq make sense of the material world. Once Mrs Ph(i)Nko becomes the heat-energy-light of the universe, Qfwfq is residually in love with everything that she has become. First light, first unicellular organism, first sign: these are wonders Qfwfq invites us to appreciate.

Control in science, as elsewhere, has unavoidable political overtones. Calvino seems to have preferred science as an art for its elegant equations and vivid pictures capable of arousing wonder. When science impinges on the political sphere, he clearly found it threatening to the extent that we put it to dangerous uses.

We are shown the political and social drawbacks of scientific prediction in “La Luna come un fungo” and “The Soft Moon.” In both, a scientist gleefully predicts a major change, and proves right—up to a point. However, neither Sibyl nor Inspector Oo of the Observatory extrapolate quite correctly; Sibyl does not foresee the millennia of toil and the destruction of her culture that will result from the lunar glop. The inspector mistakes the emerging moon for the first continent, and strands himself on the barren satellite. The validity of science as prime narrative for explaining reality suffers from such miscalculation. In the case of “La Luna come un fungo,” the rest of the prediction causes science to lose further face.6 Cities, commerce, skyscrapers, glittering marquees, and bejewelled celebrities come to pass as forecast, but are they any improvement on the aquatic pastoral world? Qfwfq grumbles at their tinsel insubstantiality, their inability to give any authenticity to life. Admittedly, his discontent is presented as an idiosyncratic dissatisfaction; the simpleminded Flw is extremely happy with the glitz and glitter of the technologized future.

In “Le figlie della Luna,” Calvino exposes the hidden costs of science and technology. The high-tech society of an ur-New York discards everything upon first evidence of wear or damage. Everything is spanking new except for the crumbly, maculate moon, a bit of undesirable flotsam overhead. Unable to endure this visible monument to decay, the inhabitants pull the moon down on to an automobile graveyard. Calvino criticizes technology for allying itself to sterility and mindless perfection, because this alliance deprives us of untameable luxuriance, of sexuality as a sultry mystery, and of beauty as something other than cosmetic artifice. The consumer society also discards and marginalizes humans, who are forced to live amidst the refuse in the junk-yard. When the lost Dianas reappear on the renewed moon, the sterile society disintegrates. In what might be a joking allusion to Shklovsky's definition of art as the means of making us see the stoniness of the stone, Calvino shows that stony moon in detail, and then demonstrates that the raddled ruin has more to offer than we had first surmised.

The connections between science and power or control come out most clearly in “How Much Shall We Bet?” and “Tempesta solare.” In the former, control is etherealized as money won through the wagers, though we never learn whether the money actually changes hands or is simply a means of keeping score. The reality of power is partly, but only partly, denied: Qfwfq grumbles that (k)yK won the title of Dean through intrigue, and that if it had anything to do with seniority, he, Qfwfq, would be just as entitled, ‘though of course it doesn't mean anything to me’ (‘solo che io non ci tengo’). This asseveration of Qfwfq's, like so many, fails to convince. His huffiness and defensiveness suggest some longing for the power of the title, if only for his ego's sake. The power is there, even if the two gamblers make little evident use of it.

Actual tyranny emerges in “Tempesta solare” when Qfwfq takes the vicar to meet Rah, an aurora borealis. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice squeezed into a room after drinking from the magic bottle, Rah must curl up in a barn because she is too large to fit elsewhere. When they enter, she is stroking a Rutherford coil as if it were a cat. Qfwfq congratulates himself on this domestic scene. She is bored at the confinement, but ‘Look how she has changed: when she arrived, she was a fury; who would have guessed that I could live with a tempest, restrain her, tame her?’ (‘Guardate com'è cambiata: quand'è arrivata era una furia, chi l'avrebbe detto che sarei riuscito a convivere con una tempesta, a contenerla, a domarla?’ (p. 152). Rah at large is one of Calvino's most magnificent female creations, yet Qfwfq somewhat uncharacteristically can think only in terms of taming and controlling and reducing her. When she departs, he laments her loss principally because he had planned to make from the instrument fragments and ‘pulviscolo di vibrazioni’ other instruments that would permit him to control and understand solar flares. He wants control and power, and science and technology are his means to that end. We rarely think of power over a natural force as a tyranny, but by humanizing the aurora borealis, Calvino insinuates awareness of the tyrannous in the scientific goal of control.

Calvino also suggests that science as structure for experience provides us with the somewhat contradictory code: we must strive for objectivity but may feel a passionate love for science that excludes other concerns. Such narrow vision and lack of human commitment can make science dangerous. In “The Distance of the Moon,” the deaf one is a highly idealized and stylized scientist who adores the object of his research, and no ill effects result. Inspector Oo, however, hands the fruits of his labours over to the Pirate Bm Bn with the archetypal denial of social responsibility, ‘sono un tecnico’. He does not care how his predictions are used so long as he can make extrapolations and be recognized as an official scientist of the regime.

By putting the four lunar stories together, as Calvino does in La memoria del mondo and Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove, he exposes another weakness in the scientific narrative. The four versions of the moon's development are mutually exclusive, but elements in each have been taken seriously by respected scientists at one time or another as hypotheses of lunar genesis. Qfwfq participates in all of them, so by thus grouping the stories as fragments of Qfwfq's biography, Calvino slyly implies that all are true. He impossibly legitimizes them all as our geological prehistory. Calvino thus teases us with the tenuous relationship between scientific hypothesis and reality, and with the unstable and erratic development of scientific theory. How happy can we feel about meaning derived from matter in the form of science if the next generation will invalidate our scientific narrative? Moreover, even while he deftly undoes scientific histories, Calvino seems, here and elsewhere, to uphold science as the best story about matter which we have found so far, best in terms of its power to explain, but best too for its daring and vivid scenarios. By creating these bizarre tales, he shows us the virtually untapped power of science to generate story through such extraordinary images as the moon being torn from the Pacific basin.

To round out Calvino's views on science, we might note that he explores science as a narrative in the incipits to the cosmicomical stories, and each of those fictions is, in a sense, a reproof to the scientific narrative style. Something is lacking in the dryly ‘objective’ pictures, something that makes us sensitive to the wonder.

Most writers considering an extant system of meaning either accept it or attack it; Calvino prefers to look at both its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths here seem to be wonder and elegance, the myths of origin, the power of the protocols, when followed, to produce desired results. The weaknesses are a specious coherence, wavering correlation between theory and material reality, and potential for political misuse. When coupled to a deft, vivid imagination, science liberates us; when meshed with tyrannous impulses, it implicates us in illegitimate control of others. Calvino usually shows his science-literate characters like Sibyl and Inspector Oo as narrow and obsessed creatures, not beings with a full range of human concerns, but he also shows very few such specialists. Possibly this reflects his awareness of the small percentage of people who derive their sense of meaning from science, and warns us that the failure of human imagination shown by a few such scientists may have disastrous implications for all.

When we view the cosmicomical stories as enquiries into the nature of meaning and the modes of finding meaning open to us, they prove rich and complex. However, they proffer no easy answers, and indeed no single answer. Even as Calvino believes only in a ‘pulviscular’ utopia, so too he seems to prefer a ‘pulviscular’ answer, something broken into particles, each one matched to a minor situation or to an individual at a particular time. We find here clouds of possibilities, and our problem is to find some that work for each one of us some of the time.

All told, Calvino explores many modes of engaging oneself with life. Desire is most central because it creates the longing for meaning as well as offering some ways of satisfying that longing. When Qfwfq is in hot pursuit of some goal, be it a female or an ideal, he feels engaged and suffers little from alienation or lack of purpose. Finding a means of keeping desire alive seems central to Calvino's outlook when he thinks in cosmicomical terms. He seems very aware that short-term desires, once satisfied, refuse to function in a meaning-giving fashion, and long-term desires either die of inanition or, once satisfied, leave a formidable emotional gap. Science—in its limited but mostly admirable way—avoids these pitfalls because the desire to know everything can never be met, but there are countless short-term goals, units of knowledge to be acquired. In his later works, particularly Mr. Palomar, he will explore the observative habit of mind necessary to make such a scientific sense of meaning operate.


In addition to describing various kinds of search for meaning, Calvino learned to write what might be called literature of multiple meanings—one result of his myth-like settings. William Righter makes a relevant point when discussing the function of myth in literature: ‘the importance of myth in a “demythologized” age is not simply to provide us with the now missing sense of an ultimate frame of reference, but to provide an area of almost deliberate uncertainty as to what such frames might possibly imply.’ (1975: 96–7) ‘Deliberate uncertainty’ and ‘imprecise intelligibility’ (as Righter later calls it) invite multiple readings. Calvino's early works had relatively close horizons and local scenes and hence little imprecision or uncertainty; from Cosmicomics on, that changes. This expansion of the fictional meaning structures is my next concern.

Certain legends with mythic content have had astonishingly long lives. Each successive generation can reread the story to suit its own needs because of this openness of form and imprecise intelligibility. Orphic writers may stress their bard's power over beasts, trees, and stones; his trip to the underworld (land of the dead, dark night of the soul, insanity, dystopia); his dismemberment at the hands of intoxicated maenads (including his mother); or the prophetic powers of his severed head. Generations of Western writers have brought into the foreground different elements in the story to serve diverse ends: Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasizes the first; Nerval, Rilke, and Mallarmé the second; Thomas Pynchon and Ihab Hassan the third; Russell Hoban and Jerzy Kosinski the fourth—to name only a handful. This openness of form leads to contrasting poetic creations and to very different readings of any single work. I mention Orpheus because Calvino himself has written in an Orphic vein in the cosmicomical stories and elsewhere; one finds much the same spread of emphases in Oedipus fictions too. What I wish to delineate here, though, is the way in which Calvino's stories open themselves to many kinds of reading. Their structures invite us to attach meanings significant to us. Their ‘deliberate uncertainties’ invite at least two kinds of mythological approaches, and also metafictional readings, political and historical understandings, and ‘American’ as well as ‘European’ allegorizations. To my way of thinking, this expansion of horizons and expansion of symbolic richness was what transformed Calvino from being not just an Italian or European man of letters, but a figure on the international literary stage.

A few of the fables are mythological in a classical sense. Heiney (1971) notes that Orpheus, Pygmalion, and Endymion are being rewritten, with all the enrichments that such recycling implies.7 Milanini (1990: 108) sees traces of Demeter and Diana as entering via well-known surrealist images.

Less commonplace, however, is a second kind of mythological identity. One is reminded of myth in the first place because so many of the stories describe origins: the first light, the first sign, the Big Bang. One can read many of the cosmicomical tales as mythological fables. How did fish move up on land? How did dinosaurs die out? How did colours enter the world? These in turn can be enjoyed as sophisticated modern recasting of a primitive form. Or, if one ignores the differences between a primitive oral mythology and an authored artifact, one can apply structuralist techniques derived from Lévi-Strauss's Amerindian studies. The binary oppositions found in most of the stories consist of the I versus the not-I, or self versus cosmos as the primary dichotomy, but secondarily male versus female, for the Other is significantly feminine for Qfwfq. The repetitions consist of Qfwfq's launching himself against the universe time and time again, seeking to satisfy desire and achieve satisfaction. The mediation—that which represents the sacred in this cosmos—is metamorphosis or change. Metamorphosis largely replaces death in this mythology, and offers us one way of transcending it.8

The cosmic setting, because free of specific connections to our world, is open to allegorical readings. Numerous critics, responding to this openness, have obliged us with metafictional readings. “A Sign in Space” speaks of Calvino's need for ‘new signs’ when he looked at his previous work, particularly the neo-realist fictions (Terracini). “The Dinosaurs” represents a rejection of the nouveau roman (the new ones) but also admits to having outlived neo-realism, and to wanting something fresh (Pedullà, 1968). Qfwfq's extruding his shell to attract a female mollusc in “The Spiral” allegorizes the relationships among writer, text, and audience, and Qfwfq of “Il cielo di pietra” is defending a writer's interior values against those of action in the exterior world (Bernardini Napoletano, 1977: 96–108). Mapping the labyrinth in “The Count of Monte Cristo” corresponds to writing fiction (Boselli, 1969), and Calvino's own “Sfida al labirinto” supports the reading of Dantès as modern writer, producing literature that maps that labyrinth with an eye to possible escape. Such metafictional readings are most elaborately developed by Rocco Capozzi, who sees all the cosmicomical stories as concerned with such self-referential matter, especially those tales that reflect Calvino's preoccupation with old and new, tradition and novelty. “The Origin of the Birds” satirizes the Italian critics, and “L'implosione” celebrates two modes of being: implosion and explosion—terms derived from Barilli and others, who used them to describe ‘two opposing forms of expression of writers and artists’ (Capozzi, 1989: 79).

Nor is the cosmic setting the only stimulus for multiple readings. So is the suggestive strangeness of Qfwfq himself. Despite Cannon's assertion (1981: 53) that the only unity to these stories is the strictly grammatical persona of Qfwfq, others have seen Qfwfq as an entity capable of development. Di Felice traces a Piaget-like evolution of mental powers for coping with experience, and her observations were triggered by Bouissy's likening Qfwfq to the hero of a Bildungsroman, with all that that implies about growing up and becoming adult. In contrast, Ernest L. Fontana (1979) argues against such a developmental vision and insists that the fables are arranged randomly because Calvino's universe is ever-changing and never fixed; there is no teleology, no real beginning and no end. Since these arguments are not based on the final life-time arrangement, they are at best limited to the original collections, but the accumulating diversity testifies to the openness of the abstract symbolism of these little mythological fables.

Yet another kind of reading to emerge from these suggestive structures is based on traditional literary topoi. Stories pitting old against new reflect the ongoing struggles of those forces whose avatars include ancients vs. moderns and classicism vs. romanticism. Play with the literariness and even the letters of a text are analysed by Biasin (1985) for “The Form of Space.” We find the hoary assurance that literature can grant immortality being delivered with a new twist in “Death.” “La memoria del mondo” pits the ‘happy ever after’ topos against computer data-gathering in order to make us see the damage done to some minds by trite fictional formulas.

We have already seen how these stories can be read as a complex comment on science as the meaning-structure and myth of our era, and I have argued elsewhere that the stories also comment on the interplay of science and imagination (Hume, 1982). In addition to science, however, we find readers invoking politics and history as grids for explaining these stories. This is especially true when old ways are contrasted to new.

Qfwfq as dinosaur remembers his folk as lords of the earth: ‘if you were a Dinosaur in those days, you were sure you were in the right, and you made everyone look up to you’ (“The Dinosaurs,” 97) (allora essere dinosauro si aveva la coscienza d'essere nel giusto, e ci si faceva rispettare (“I dinosauri,” 21)). The saurian's stance is that of an aristocrat bemoaning the old days; or that of someone in the power structure of an empire fallen on hard times. When teaching the story to American students, I find they identify the dinosaur-narrator with the expansive American of the 1960s, given to conspicuous consumption and spend-thrift, ‘gas-guzzling dinosaurs’. Any of these work reasonably well within context. The Old One and New One dichotomy, to American students, also makes sense in terms of those from the Old Country and their Americanized offspring who speak only English. I doubt very much that Calvino had these American identifications in mind, but this proves my point, namely that the stories have an open enough structure and landscape that readers can relate to them on the basis of all kinds of backgrounds.

The same kinds of referents apply to “At Daybreak” and “The Aquatic Uncle,” where we find tension between an older generation whose values are rural while their grandchildren are city folk concerned with the newest fashions rather than the old ways. “Il niente e il poco,” with its pity for the fragile contingency of the ‘something’ can be read as the narrator looking at the fragile, contingent political order to come out of the chaos of World War II; after berating that order for its flaws and weaknesses, he feels compelled to forgive the faults when he looks at the ‘nothing’ and the forces of chaos that are its antecedents and possible alternatives.

I have explored these multiple readings at such length to make a point. The cosmicomical stories differ in a fundamental fashion from earlier Calvino fictions, and that difference stems from the abstract, symbolic setting so open to possible meanings.

Calvino accomplishes a great deal with these little stories. He found a narrative stance that satisfied his desire for something more centrally active than mere bystander, but not just first-person protagonist, with the demands that would have made for more psychological depth. He reaffirmed the experience of his earlier fiction that conventional social and political answers to the question of meaning would not satisfy him. Sex, social interaction, rivalry, and physical labour do help establish links to the cosmos, but not links he could trust. Desire loses its tension too easily; social interactions work by narrowing one's horizons; rivalry leads to ugly behaviour; and the physical labour with matter becomes less interesting than the matter itself. Vision is delectable, but comes in unheralded flashes and cannot be tamed and expanded. Geometrization is shown to rely on dangerous rigidities, but Calvino will continue to explore this option in later fiction. He also continues, by the nature of his enterprise as writer, to explore creativity as a method of achieving a sense of meaning.

By ingeniously stripping his material to the barest essentials—a self and a universe—he was able to see why conventional answers seemed inauthentic to him. Given our craving for meaning and the sense of dissatisfaction which is its symptom, he probed desire in some depth, and came to realize through these stories that he was unlikely to find a truly fulfilling answer. Indeed, he found that desire unfulfilled may be as close as one can get to the feeling of engagement that reduces the need for abstract meaning. The only way he found for perpetuating that sort of commitment was pursuing a superficial series of goals—Qfwfq's innamorate—or the more cerebral set of infinitely unfolding goals set by science. In his later fictions, he will explore other large systems like science—literature, empire—other networks that break down into innumerable particles or lesser goals that point toward a larger order.

He also learned how to write with sufficient symbolic resonance that his stories rose above whatever specific issues were engaging him, and became open to multiple readings. Hence, the title for this chapter: Cosmogony, Cosmography, and the Cosmicomical Stories. These little short stories—thirty-four in all (if you count the “Priscilla” stories as three)—represent a cosmogony in the sense that a new fictive realm is born, a fictional landscape new to everyone and a new configuration of values specifically within Calvino's canon. In that they document the coming into being of both the physical cosmos and of this literary cosmos, they are cosmographies. An act of the gods and the act of a chronicler: Calvino has achieved both.


  1. Lack of clutter is relative. Gatt-Rutter rightly points out that Calvino carries unconscious baggage. ‘Too many of the stories in Le cosmicomiche give the stamp of agelessness and a presumed universal value to what are merely the typical behaviour patterns, the trivial mores, of Italian domesticity and courtship at the decline of the second Christian millennium’ (1975: 334). Similarly Lucente notes that ‘Despite the illusion of timelessness that Calvino's science fiction occasionally fosters, these objects [of satiric treatment] turn out to exist not in an atemporal void but in the discourse of society itself, and more specifically, in the social and intellectual debates of the Italian 1960's’ (1983: 30).

  2. See the Consolations of Philosophy I.5 prosa and II.8 metrum for Lady Philosophy's statements that Boethius longed for some such consonance between mind and cosmos. Boethius is arguably present elsewhere in these stories. His theories of ‘love’ or ‘attraction’ being the forces of the cosmos seem to be being played out in the gravitational and sexual attractions of “The Distance of the Moon.” Anca Vlasopolos indeed argues for a very Boethian Calvino when she identifies Love as the prime mover and first agent in these stories.

  3. Briosi sees this desire as an abstract Sartrean state of longing for the Other.

  4. Discussed by Richard E. Palmer (1977: 368).

  5. For a more gloomy rendition of Calvino's doubts about science, see Illiano; for an analysis that links the scepticism about science and scientific determinism to all of Calvino's other scepticisms, see Lucente (1983).

  6. Critics who comment on the ways that Calvino undercuts science are Bernardini Napoletano, Carter, and Lucente (1983).

  7. Calvino produced a version of “Il cielo di pietra” that is even closer to the classical myth; its narrator is Pluto instead of Qfwfq. I have not found an Italian version; the English is “The Other Eurydice.”

  8. See Hume (1984) for such a structuralist analysis. For the particular structuralist approach used, see Edmund Leach (1973: 317–30).

Gian-Paolo Biasin (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Under Olivia's Teeth: Italo Calvino, Sotto il sole giaguaro,” in The Flavors of Modernity: Food and Novel, Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 97–127.

[In the following essay, Biasin focuses on the function of food in Calvino's work, particularly his story “Sotto il sole giaguaro.”]

Italo Calvino published “Sapore sapere” in the elegant, luxurious review FMR in 1982, where his text accompanies the stupendous, disquieting images reproduced from the Florentine codex, in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, of the Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España, a sixteenth-century treatise on the life and customs of the Aztecs written by Fra Bernardino da Sahagún in the Nahuatl language.1

Retitled “Sotto il sole giaguaro” (under the jaguar sun),2 the story now appears in the book that bears its name. While the new title has lost the trajectory, in fact the cognitive short circuit of the two words sapore, flavor, and sapere, knowledge (as well as the related linguistic plays of the change of vowel and assonance), it has acquired an iconic figurality, which is also entirely literary: it is connected with the climax of the narrated story-inquiry, in which the sense of taste is transcended, becoming encompassed within a truly cosmic vision. According to a project interrupted by the author's death, this book should have been called I cinque sensi (the five senses), and a French work of the same period, Michel Serres's Les cinq sens: Philosophie des corps melés, may further indicate the effort made by contemporary culture to enlist the senses in the cognitive inquiry of reason.3

The protagonists of Calvino's story are an Italian couple touring in Mexico. This fact is interesting in itself: that they are a couple points to the core of Calvino's oeuvre, from the “difficult” idylls and loves of the earliest short stories on; it is a question of tourists, not explorers or travelers “abroad” (according to the typology Paul Fussell proposes for English literature, the tourist figures modern human experience4); as Italians, they reflect the recent economic growth of the country, which has led to cosmopolitanism more than to nationalism; and finally, the locale, Mexico, is the land that, maybe more than any other, unites anthropology and art and that, perhaps for the same reason, appears singularly privileged in the imaginary of Calvino's late works. In fact, Calvino wrote both the introduction to the Italian edition of C. A. Burland's Montezuma: Lord of the Aztecs, and the preface to the new edition of Emilio Cecchi's classic travelogue Messico of 1932.5

Calvino's story, then, prolongs and updates the ancient topos of the journey, which had a constitutive function from the very origins of Italian literature, with Dante's “prophetic,” Petrarch's “inner,” and Boccacio's “evasive” journeys, according to Roberto Antonelli.6 But what is most unusual and original in “Sotto il sole giaguaro” is that the male narrator and his female companion are intent upon a “gustatory exploration” based on a novel conviction they share:

The true journey, as the introjection of an “outside” different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country—its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot)—making it pass between the lips and down the esophagus.


Furthermore, the couple are united by an even more intimate and personal “complicity,” the desire to communicate “through flavors, or … with flavors through a double set of taste buds” (9), a desire made more intense and urgent because “the physical bond” between the two companions “was going through a phase of rarefaction, if not eclipse,” and hence, as the narrator specifies, its stage “was no longer the bed of our embraces but a dinner table” (10). The couple have all the complementary qualities to carry out the double cognitive exploration: “Olivia more sensitive to perceptive nuances and endowed with a more analytical memory, where every recollection remained distinct and unmistakable, I tending more to define experiences verbally and conceptually, to mark the ideal line of journey within ourselves contemporaneously with our geographical journey” (11).

Clearly, food is such a central and capillary subject in “Sotto il sole giaguaro” that the narrative cannot be separated from it. I shall focus on all the primary functions of food that the story analyzes, from the satisfaction of desire to the possibility of transgression, from the narrative sign to the cognitive tool used to outline the problematic relations among self, others, and the world (or among subject, nature, and history). Using Louis Marin's terms in a broad sense, I can state that “Sotto il sole giaguaro” deals with the dialectics between logos, sitos, and eros in an extremely original manner: gastronomy fuses anthropology and eroticism within itself, while the underlying discourse probes the nature of literature. But though Calvino's interest in food culminates in “Sotto il sole giaguaro,” gustatory images and topoi are significantly present throughout his oeuvre, even in the early texts, some of which I will now examine.

At the beginning food is a narrative sign connoting the “difficult idylls” in various ways. For instance, in “Pesci grossi, pesci piccoli” the octopus that is cut up in order to “fry it” is not so much a realistic referent as the indicator of the perplexity Zeffirino feels in front of Signorina De Magistris, who has just stopped crying.8 In “Un pomeriggio, Adamo” Libereso is juxtaposed with Maria-nunziata also because he eats only “artichokes, lettuces, tomatoes,” since his father, who is an anarchist and vegetarian, “doesn't like us to eat the flesh of dead animals,” while “the sugar ration” is sold “on the black market” (10): here food is a precise social and historical referent, as well as the narrative indicator of the interest aroused in the little girl by Libereso's diversity of eating habits.

The most significant short story of Calvino's early period is, without any doubt, “Furto in una pasticceria.” Recounting a triumph (albeit a temporary one) of abundance over the scarcity of World War Two, it is rich with succulent descriptions like the following one, which is based entirely on soldierly metaphors: “[Gesubambino's torch] lit up rows of shelves, and on the shelves rows of trays, and on the trays rows of lined up cakes of every conceivable shape and colour, tarts filled with cream glittering like candle wax, and deployed batteries of panettoni and fortified castles of almond cakes” (134). Abundance, that is, excess after scarcity, results not in the satisfaction of desire but in dissatisfaction, duly underscored by an exaggerated and grotesque language, not at all realistic:

He flung himself at the shelves, choking himself with cakes, cramming two or three inside his mouth at a time, without even tasting them; he seemed to be battling with the cakes, as if they were threatening enemies, strange monsters besieging him, a crisp and sticky siege which he must break through by the force of his jaw. The slit halves of the big sugared buns seemed to be opening yellow throats and eyes at him.


The sudden possibility of satisfying a long-unfulfilled craving for food causes first “a frenzy” (Gesubambino “was biting into apple strudels, picking at raisins, licking syrups”) and then “nausea,” when “the doughnuts began to turn into soggy pieces of sponge, the tarts to flypaper and the cakes to asphalt” (136–37). The story includes many felicitous incidents, such as the birthday cake the tall Sicilian, Uora-Uora, receives squarely and beatifically on his face (138); the police who, “distractedly, they, too, began to nibble little cakes that were lying about, taking care, though, to leave the traces of the thieves,” but they end up “all eating away heartily” (139); and especially the conclusion centered on Gesubambino (called simply “Baby” in the translation). Having stuffed his shirt with every sort of pastry he could grab, he succeeds in eluding the incoming police and flees safely to his lover: “When Baby got to Tuscan Mary's and opened his shirt, he found his whole chest covered with a strange sticky paste. And they stayed till morning, he and she, lying on the bed licking and picking at each other till they had finished the last crumb of cake and blob of cream” (139–40). Here alimentary enjoyment and erotic pleasure are indeed the same thing, in an explicit scene that had been carefully prepared at the center of the story: “He could not discover any way of enjoying everything completely. Now he was crouching on all fours over a table laden with tarts; he would have liked to undress and lie down naked in those tarts, cover himself with them, and never have to leave them” (136). Every single verb refers equally to both erotic and alimentary activity: it is the first example in Calvino of a complete identity between two different but complementary lexical areas, which will culminate in “Sotto il sole giaguaro” with a greater complexity and depth of meanings and implications.

For the moment, anyway, the author's interest in food is centered on realistic referents that may also become fantastic, and may also be tied to erotic elements or suggestions. Among the realistic referents that acquire fabulous aspects, there are many from Marcovaldo ovvero Le stagioni in città:9 the poisonous mushrooms in the city, the city pigeon, the contaminated rabbit, the lunch box with “salami and lentils, or hardboiled eggs and beets, or else polenta and codfish” (31), or again “sausage and turnips”: this lunch box is willingly bartered for the plate of the rich boy who has been grounded because he does not want to eat “fried brains, soft and curly as a pile of clouds” (34).

Written between 1952 and 1963, the stories of Marcovaldo also trace a parallel history of Italian society from the postwar poverty to the economic boom, and of Calvino's writing from neorealism to the critical fable. Some of the later stories are particularly endowed with inventive and polemical force; for example, there are the vicissitudes of Marcovaldo, who is deceived by the illusory promise of finding fresh and unpolluted fish “where the river is more blue” (67), and who is overwhelmed by a spending frenzy amidst the consumeristic overabundance of the supermarket (84–89). He accompanies his entire family just “to watch others go shopping,” since he has no money, but he is “overwhelmed by envy, heartbreak,” in front of the others' carts overflowing with merchandise, he is allured by the example of “all these good housewives who, having come in to buy only a few carrots and a bunch of celery” (85–86), cannot resist the various temptations and grasp can after can and box after box, and little by little he, too, fills his cart to the brim: “Products with more and more undecipherable names were sealed in boxes with pictures from which it was not clear whether these were fertilizers for lettuces or lettuce seeds or actual lettuce or poison for lettuce-caterpillars or else seasoning for lettuce or for the roasted birds. In any case, Marcovaldo took two or three boxes” (86). By the end of the shopping spree, in a comic but tremendously serious crescendo, “the wandering of Marcovaldo and family resembled more that of caged animals or of prisoners in a luminous prison with walls of colored panels” (88). It is useless, I believe, to underscore the abyss separating this supermarket from the market of Piazza Vittoria in Gadda's Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana: the texts deal with two different ways of shopping, and even more, with two opposite ways of organizing society—Camporesi has written important pages on this;10 and the two authors deal with opposite and complementary ways of viewing the world and writing.

Alimentary referents also fulfill numerous functions in Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno.11 Realistic function: Pin eats cherries and bread (51), “bread and a piece of German ersatz chocolate made with groundnuts” (139), a bowl of boiled chestnuts first with the partisans and then with some peasants (115 and 137); he peels potatoes (60) and looks for “water-cress for the cook's salad from the stream” (84); the partisans also eat boiled chestnuts (109), or a generic rice (84).12 Fabulous function: having eaten the realistic cherries, Pin spits the cores in order to mark the way for Lupo Rosso (47), thus repeating the gesture of Tom Thumb in the children's tale; or, when Mancino announces the menu made up of “goat's meat and potatoes,” he tells Pin about his job as a cook, and their dialogue appears as an intertextual mixture of Vittorini (with the insistent repetitions) and Salgari (with the exotic and the adventurous):

“Twenty years, I've spent, cooking on ships; ships of every kind and every nationality.”

“Pirate ships too?” asks Pin.

“Yes, pirate ships too.”

“Chinese ships too?”

“Chinese ships too.”

“Can you speak Chinese?”

“I can speak every language under the sun. And I know how they cook in every country under the sun; Chinese cooking, Mexican cooking, Turkish cooking …”

“How are you cooking the goat's meat and potatoes today?”

“As the Eskimos do. D'you like the way the Eskimos do?”

“Hell, Mancino, as the Eskimos do it!”


Food also has a political function. I am thinking of the soup Lupo Rosso offers Pin when they are in prison (29), or of the talks of the partisans in which communism is explained as “going into a house and being given soup even if one is a tinker; and if they are eating panettone at Christmas then they'll give one panettone” (92). Then there is a symbolic function: the cousin's hand “seems made of bread” (51), is “soft and warm as bread” (142), and in the final page becomes “that huge hand of bread” (145)—friendship, protection, almost a vicarious but reassuring paternity.

Finally, there is the erotic function: in the rustic kitchen of the partisan camp the dominant character is Giglia, the young and sensual wife of the cook, Mancino, and Dritto loses his head over her. Instead of peeling potatoes, Giglia combs her hair (60), offers Dritto some chestnuts (114), even pretends to be peeling potatoes with him in order not to be disturbed by others (117), and plays and runs with her lover, revealing “that warm breast of hers in a man's unbuttoned shirt” (118). When she drinks water from a flask Dritto “looks at her lips” (118)—his gaze expressing desire and, laconic as it is, presaging a whole series of similar postures and gestures throughout Calvino's oeuvre and culminating, with much greater complexity, in the narrator's glance at Olivia's lips in “Sotto il sole giaguaro.” Also the statement at the beginning of chapter 7 should be kept in mind: “The dreams of the partisans are short and rare, dreams born of nights of hunger, linked to food which is always scarce and to be divided among so many; dreams about chewing bits of bread and putting them away in drawers. … Only when the men's stomachs are full … can they dream of naked women” (74). The relationship between food and eros could not be stated more effectively than it is here.

It is not by chance, then, that in a later story, La nuvola di smog,13 the narrator's beautiful and refined girlfriend, Claudia, passes without being touched or affected, almost a dream materialized, amid the greyness and the dust of the city. The descriptions of a cafeteria with an ironic Risorgimento name and of a squalid bourgeois kitchen are eloquent:

And I, torn between suffering and love, joy and cruelty, saw her mingling with this scene of ugliness and desolation, with the loud-speaker of the “Urbano Rattazzi”, which blurted out: “One cappelletti in broth!”, with the dirty bowls in Signorina Margariti's sink, and I felt that by now even Claudia's image must be stained by it all. But no, it ran off, along the wire, intact, aware of nothing, and each time I was left alone with the void of her absence.


This story also includes remarkable descriptions of the small restaurants featuring fixed-price menus where the narrator often eats (132–35), and these descriptions should be ideally related, as a melancholic counterpoint or an elegy of alienation, to the ferocious satire of the bourgeois at the restaurant in Gadda's La cognizione del dolore, examined in the previous chapter.

But in the meanwhile, with the three novels making up the trilogy that is significantly titled I nostri antenati (our ancestors), let me jump from industrial and urban greyness to the vivacious and colorful world of fantastic invention.14 The weight and the role of food are different in the three novels. In Il visconte dimezzato the very short references are used only to confirm the connotations of the characters: thus, for example, the halves of the poisonous mushrooms and of the octopuses (165 and 191) announce the bad half of the protagonist, while a beautiful apple pie (217) is what the unbearable “Good 'Un” (his good half) can offer Pamela; in the woods she eats moderately pastoral foods the young narrator brings her, “fruit, cheese and fried fish,” and in return she gives him “cups of goat's milk and duck's eggs” (201). It goes without saying that the aesthetic lepers indulge in licentious carousals, while the austere Huguenots live on turnip soup and speculate in a miserly way on the price of rye in times of scarcity (225)—a narrative description that ironically echoes Max Weber's and R. H. Tawney's theses on protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism.

On the contrary, in Il barone rampante food is the narrative spring on which the whole novelistic action is built: “It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò” rebelled against his father's authority, “pushed away his plateful of snails,” (3) and decided to live in the trees and never come down. In addition to its indispensable narrative function, here food is presented as the focus of power and of a possible rebellion. More precisely, the dinner table is the place where the power conflict is played, starting with good manners:

Our meals in the Abbé's company used to begin, after many a prayer, with ordered ritual, silent movements of spoons, and woe to anyone who raised his eyes from his plate or made the slightest sucking noise with the soup; but by the end of the first dish the Abbé was already tired, … by the main dish we were using our hands, and by the end of the meal were throwing pear cores at each other.


But the place where the conflict between opposing wills and personalities may be subtlest and most devastating is the family table; the fact that it is an eighteenth-century aristocratic family is purely accidental, as the insertions of contemporary bourgeois speech clearly indicate or suggest:

Now, at table with the family, up surged the intimate grudges that are such a burden of childhood. Having our father and mother always there in front of us, using knives and forks for the chicken, keeping our backs straight and our elbows down—what a strain it all was! …

The only person really at ease was Battista, the nun of the house, who would sit shredding her chicken with precise deliberation, fiber by fiber, using some sharp little knives, rather like surgeon's scalpels, which she alone had. … So it can be seen why our family board brought out all the antagonisms, the incompatibilities, between us, … and why it was there that Cosimo's rebellion came to a head.


Battista's strange and evil cuisine finds its appropriate place in such a family setting: pâté toast of rats' livers, grasshoppers' claws “laid on an open tart in a mosaic,” a porcupine with all its quills, in sum, “works of the most delicate animal or vegetable jewelry,” such as, for example, “a pig's head from whose mouth stuck a scarlet lobster as if putting out its tongue, and the lobster was holding the pig's tongue in its pincers as if they had torn it out,” or some beheaded snails, whose heads she had “inserted, I think with a toothpick, each in a wire-mesh; they looked, as they came on the table, like a flight of tiny swans” (9–10). No wonder indeed that Cosimo should rebel against such a cuisine, and the cruelty that it implies against “the poor tortured creatures” and that is implicit in every power.

Perhaps precisely the theme of power (which will fascinate Calvino so much when he writes an essay on Manzoni's I promessi sposi, defined as “the novel of ratios of power” in 1973, now in Una pietra sopra) can serve as the appropriate link with the third novel of the trilogy, Il cavaliere inesistente. The behavior of the emperor, who sits at table before everybody else and helps himself with his hands, “against all Imperial rules of etiquette,” prompts a general remark, such as could be found in a treatise on the nature of political power: “Absolute power often slackens all controls and generates arbitrary actions, even in the most temperate of sovereigns” (72). However, in this novel the discourse on food is connected above all with that on eros in the two juxtaposed figures of Agilulf and Gurduloo. Food and eros are equally ideal and abstract for the knight, material and concrete for the squire, with their respective intertextual precursors Ariosto and Folengo, in addition, of course, to Cervantes.

It is no wonder then that the ancient and chivalric topos of the banquet is taken up and ironized by Calvino in order to prepare his literary bet of how to make a nonexistent knight “eat”: “What had he come to do at table, he who had not and never would have any appetite, nor stomach to fill, nor mouth to bring his fork to, nor palate to sprinkle with Bordeaux wine?” (73). Agilulf “never failed to appear at these banquets” because “he had the right like all the others to a place at the Imperial table,” and he “carried out the banquet ceremonial with the same meticulous care that he put into every other ceremonial act of the day” (73), in clear and total juxtaposition with the disorderly conduct of the other knights:

The courses were the usual ones in a military mess: stuffed turkey roasted on the spit, braised oxen, suckling pig, eels, gold fish. Scarcely had the lackeys offered the platters than the paladins flung themselves on them, rummaged about with their hands and tore the food apart, smearing their cuirasses and squirting sauce everywhere. The confusion was worse than battle—soup tureens overturning, roast chickens flying, and lackeys yanking away platters before a greedy paladin emptied them into his porringer.


Against such a noisy and chaotic backdrop, here is what the nonexistent knight does, how he behaves with a punctiliousness that in part justifies the length of the quotation:

At the corner of the table where Agilulf sat, on the other hand, all proceeded cleanly, calmly and orderly. BUt he who ate nothing needed more attendance than the whole of the rest of the table. First of all … Agilulf went on asking to have put in front of him fresh crockery and cutlery, plates big and small, porringers, glasses of every size and shape, innumerable forks and spoons and knives that had to be well sharpened. So exigent was he about cleanliness that a shadow on a glass or plate was enough for him to send it back. He served himself a little of everything. Not a single dish did he let pass. For example, he peeled off a slice of roast boar, put meat on one plate, sauce on another, smaller, plate, then with a very sharp knife chopped the meat into tiny cubes, which one by one he passed on to yet another plate, where he flavored them with sauce, until they were soaked in it. Those with sauce he then put in a new dish and every now and again called a lackey to take away the last plate and bring him a new one. Thus he busied himself for half hours at a time. Not to mention chickens, pheasants, thrushes—at these he worked for whole hours.


I shall not follow Agilulf as he deals with the rest of the dishes and the variety of wines. Clearly, it is a very fine page, a delightful divertissement lively with its invention, which defines the character and at the same time provides an ironic commentary on good manners at table. And I shall not even follow Agilulf at the table and in the bedroom of the widow Priscilla (98–103): the behavior of the character and the narrative technique are exactly the same just seen in the long quotation about the banquet.

And Gurduloo? Not having awareness of being, he con-fuses himself with all the things of the world, also and above all the soup, which was simmering in the pots of the imperial army: “He had cabbage soup spattered, smeared, all over him from head to toe, and was stained with blacking. With liquid sticking up his eyes he felt blind and came on screeching, ‘All is soup!’ with his hands forward as if swimming” (54). And of course, when he is surrounded by the damsels of the court of the widow Priscilla, “Gurduloo was quite beside himself now. What with the warm bath they had given him, the scents and all that pink and white flesh, his only desire now was to merge into the general fragrance” (96).

Such light and entertaining passages are part of an extremely serious discourse Calvino is pursuing on the nature of desire. Excess always leads to a lack of satisfaction: Agilulf's formalism is empty, literally, while Gurduloo's corporality is unconscious; and on the other hand, the lack of satisfaction is the spring that renews desire, as the couple Bradamante-Raimbaut demonstrate in narrative terms.

But it is important to underscore another function of food in Il cavaliere inesistente: it is an occasion and an example of metanarrative discourse, of an unveiling of narrative codes and mechanisms that will become predominant—indeed, primary—in Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore:

Beneath my cell is the convent kitchen. As I write I can hear the clatter of copper and earthenware as the sisters wash platters from our meager refectory. To me the abbess has assigned a different task, the writing of this tale. …

Today perhaps the air is hotter, the smell of cabbage stronger, my mind lazier, and the hubbub of nuns washing up can transport me no further than the field kitchens of the Frankish army. I see warriors in rows before steaming vats. …

All I have to do next is imagine the heroes of my tale at the kitchens. I see Agilulf appear amid the smoke and bend over a pot, insensible to the smell of cabbage.


Let us leave Agilulf amid the pots of the imperial army and proceed along the galactic and biological itineraries of Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove,15 where food, although it expresses already-known problems, acquires partly different connotations. First of all, alimentary referents from the spoken language, once inserted into the cosmic context, affect a “comic” result, of a double or squared defamiliarization, I should say. How else could I define a full moon “with a butter-colored light” (3), or the smell of the moon, which was “like smoked salmon” (4), or being “packed like sardines” there where space did not exist (43), or the galaxy that “turned like an omelet in its heated pan” (38)? After such comparisons, neither the galaxy nor the omelet will ever be the same.

But even in interstellar spaces and in the depths of time, food is above all a fantastic and literary invention, often connected with eros, as for example in the description of the “lunar milk”: “It was composed chiefly of vegetal juices, tadpoles, bitumen, lentils, honey, starch crystals, sturgeon eggs, molds, pollens, gelatinous matter, worms, resins, pepper, mineral salts, combustion residue. You had only to dip the spoon under the scales that covered the Moon's scabby terrain, and you brought it out filled with that precious milk” (6). This description is quite successful in itself as a beautiful example of chaotic enumeration; however it receives full meaning only if it is referred to Signora Vhd Vhd, whose breast “had an attraction as strong as the Moon's or even stronger” (9) on Qfwfq; once she is on the moon she remains there forever, an unreachable object of desire, become herself “the color of the Moon,” she who “makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them” (16).

The same procedure governs the narrative development of “Tutti in un punto,” beginning with the invention of noodles, a passage John Barth must have had in mind when he wrote that in Cosmicomiche, “along with the nebulae and the black holes and the lyricism, there is a nourishing supply of pasta, bambini, and good-looking women sharply glimpsed and gone forever” (and Barth emphasizes the alimentary metaphor by concluding that Calvino's fiction is “delicious and high in protein”):16

We got along so well all together, so well that something extraordinary was bound to happen. It was enough for her to say, at a certain moment: “Oh, if I only had some room, how I'd like to make some noodles for you boys!” And in that moment we all thought of the space that her round arms would occupy, moving backward and forward with the rolling pin over the dough, her bosom leaning over the great mound of flour and eggs which cluttered the wide board while her arms kneaded and kneaded, white and shiny with oil up to the elbows; we thought of the space that the flour would occupy, and the wheat for the flour, and the fields to raise the wheat, and the mountains from which the water would flow to irrigate the fields.


And so on and so forth, until the whole universe and the whole of time are thought of, in a retrospective-prospective movement that will be remembered by Marco Polo in front of the Great Khan's chessboard, and by Palomar faced by French cheeses. But the making of noodles separates all the “boys” from Signora Ph(i)Nk0—creating space between them, so that they are no longer “all in one point”—and inexorably leads to a desire that will be impossible to satisfy and will never be reciprocated: “she [was] lost at that very moment, and we [were left] mourning her loss” (47).

These are only two instances of that difference on which desire is founded and which in Cosmicomiche ties Qfwfq to, and divides him from, numerous female figures: Ayl, Lll, Vud, and (particularly remarkable) the smiling Flw, who bites “the juicy pulp” of a pineapple (It. 124). Because this difference is at the very origin of desire, of life, it is pursued into the meanders of cells and of genetic evolution in the “Biocomics,” that is, in most of the stories making up Ti con zero.

While in the stories on the universe and the millennia in Cosmicomiche galaxies, nebulae and dinosaurs are interiorized by human conscience, in the “Biocomics” it is the human individual who is projected and exteriorized into the minimal but broad structures of matter. In other words, the boundaries between subject and object are blurred, perhaps because, as Michel Serres says, “each term of the traditional subject-object dichotomy is itself split by something like a geographical divide (in the same way as I am, who speak and write today): noise, disorder, and chaos on one side; complexity, arrangement, and distribution on the other. Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world,” since each one has its own “diverse systemic complexion”: “but this is complexity itself, which was once called being.”17

Calvino explores just this systemic complexity, more as a narrator than as a philosopher; and through the ubiquitous, nonchalant and perplexed Qfwfq he posits problems and values about the individual and the world at a new, suggestive or dizzying level of understanding.

Particularly successful in this context is “Priscilla,” a touching love story involving the development and diversification of pluricellular organisms. Living “in a greedy expectation of what might come to [him] from the void” (T 77), the protagonist is constantly aware of proteins and nucleic acids inside himself and inside Priscilla, and of the changes he and his beloved undergo at every passing instant “because of the continuous renewal of the protein molecules in our cells through, for example, digestion or also respiration” (T 83). Priscilla is a lovely feminine creature who is very difficult to define because her identity is a totality, a systemic complexity, an entire “way of being” that is completely hers. For example, “the scent emanating from her skin” is due not only to her given “glandular constitution,” but also to “everything she has eaten in her life” and “the brands of soap she has used”—in other words to “what is called, in quotes, culture.” And she is she because of the things she has stored in her memory and of the things she has forgotten, which, however, “still remain recorded somewhere in the back of the neurons like all the psychic trauma a person has to swallow from infancy on” (T 84–85). This “way of being” cannot but differ from one individual to another because “we were born not from a fusion but from a juxtaposition of distinct bodies” (T 88), all the way down into the core of the nuclei, which, in duplicating themselves, actually perpetuate “the unbridgeable distance that separates in each couple the two companions” (T 88). Thus the narrator can, at most, remember the sweetness of “sunsets in the oasis” and a gesture by now well known to the reader, “a little nip” he gave Priscilla's curved neck when they were camels together, before she became an elegant Parisian girl (T 93).

The same yearning is expressed in even stronger and more extreme terms in “Il sangue, il mare,” where the memory of “the primordial wave which continues to flow in the arteries” (T45) explains the aggressive impulses of Qfwfq toward his rival, Signor Cècere, as well as his “sanguinary” instinct to reproduce himself by coupling with Zylphia in order to multiply their “blood circulation”:

So there was in my impulse toward Zylphia, not only the drive to have all the ocean for us, but also the drive to lose it, the ocean, to annihilate ourselves in the ocean, to destroy ourselves, to torment ourselves, or rather—as a beginning—to torment her, Zylphia my beloved, to tear her to piec