Italo Calvino Calvino, Italo - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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.

J. R. Woodhouse (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Sara Maria Adler (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Ursula K. LeGuin (review date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,”...

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Albert Howard Carter III (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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JoAnn Cannon (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Kathryn Hume (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Anca Vlasopolos (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Curtis White (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Franco Ricci (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Sorel Thompson Friedman (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Jack Byrne (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Marc Beckwith (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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John Gery (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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David Porush (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10397 words.)

Albert Devivo (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5353 words.)

JoAnn Cannon (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3969 words.)

Francis Cromphout (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 10360 words.)

Julie Fenwick (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3295 words.)

Franco Ricci (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6510 words.)

Kathryn Hume (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)


(The entire section is 8629 words.)

Gian-Paolo Biasin (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 15269 words.)

Beno Weiss (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Speculating Intellectual at the Crossroads: Four Novellas,” in Understanding Italo Calvino, University of South Carolina Press, 1993, pp. 68–88.

[In the following essay, Weiss investigates Calvino's treatment of the individual and society in The Argentine Ant, A Plunge into Real Estate, Smog, and The Watcher.]

One could say that in Italy being an intellectual is regarded as something damaging, as an unredeeming negative condition.1

What Calvino's long stories or novelettes—La formica argentina, 1952 (The Argentine Ant), La speculazione edilizia, 1957...

(The entire section is 9074 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 255 words.)