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.
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.
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.