Italo Calvino

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Calvino, Italo 1923–

Calvino is an Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and editor known for his imaginative blendings of reality and fantasy. His stance is humanistic and his tools are wit, elements of science fiction, and a lyrical tone. His involvement with the Italian resistance movement during World War II is reflected in many of his works. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8.)


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno … is basically a neo-realistic novel. The work deals specifically with the civil war, yet Calvino did not create it as a piece of polemic literature. He does not appear to glorify the partisan revolt, but simply to present the circumstances of a particular situation. Calvino of Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno is not a resistance writer, but rather a writer of the resistance. He is an author who chose that moment in history as the framework for his narrative. He is a sensitive observer of humanity, whose experience in the partisan movement precipitated specific observations about a period of intense social and political turmoil…. Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno reflects many aspects characteristic of the neo-realistic current, while at the same time revealing a fairytale quality peculiar to the poetics of Calvino. (p. 26)

Calvino brings expression to his material through a language and style which are notably neo-realistic in character. Even a quick reading of the novel will evidence a style characterized by a highly descriptive, colorful language, interspersed with regional expressions and songs, and controlled by the mechanics of simple sentence structure. Although stylized, descriptive passages periodically recur in the work, the narrative as a whole proceeds as a reaction against the bello scrivere. The simple style suggests that Calvino is unhampered by the thought of writing well. Greater emphasis seems to be placed on the narrative than on the style. The situations he is describing are so familiar to him that they appear to flow without the push of a conscious literary effort.

Clipped sentences and phrases tied together by punctuation dominate Calvino's style in this novel. The effect is that produced by the anonymous narrator. Calvino himself affirms in the preface to the third edition of Il Sentiero that the civil war experience had established a directness of communication among men which was extended to the realm of literature. Thus Calvino's fiction in the immediate post-war years often assumed the mood of oral narration. Such a mood finds expression in the rapid flow of sentences in which the syntax is straightforward. (pp. 27-8)

[A clipped, disjointed style such as this] is generally clumsy and anti-literary. But here, as in other instances, Calvino makes such a staccato style serve two purposes. First, the use of short phrases permits him to fuse narrative and psychological reflection in the same paragraph. [For example, the] disjointed statements seem to combine the pattern of Pin's thoughts with the narrative sequence [in the passage describing Pin's reaction to the pistol theft]. The effect is such that Calvino is able to reveal both the action and the young boy's response to the action within the same passage. The reader, finding himself drawn into the mind of the boy, derives a deeper understanding of the sequential nature of his thoughts and sensations. Second, the staccato style serves to create tension within the narrative…. Calvino, under the influence of the neo-realistic current, is apparently more concerned with depicting the reality of a situation and the atmosphere under which it develops than in producing an elegant prose style.

Calvino's language is another element which tends to render the novel a neo-realistic work. The passion...

(This entire section contains 1812 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of neo-realists to reproduce a particular situation often led to the use of dialect and crude expressions. Such anti-literary language is present in varying degrees withinIl Sentiero. (pp. 29-30)

[In] carefully reproducing the reality of a given situation, [the Italian neo-realists] described the unique characteristics of the particular region in Italy where the action was set. (p. 30)

One of the cardinal principles of neo-realistic artists was to draw material directly from life and to reproduce faithfully real situations through traditional methods. (p. 31)

Calvino renders the historical and physical setting of Il Sentiero real by casually presenting incidental data which are highly characteristic of the resistance period in Liguria…. The description of the daily activities of the partisans is … interspersed with references which pinpoint the action to Liguria…. All these references help to define the historical and physical setting of the work, while reinforcing the reality of the situation. (pp. 31-2)

Italian neo-realistic prose … was modelled on American literature. The stylistic trends, political ideas, and social morality which appear in Italian neo-realistic prose in the immediate post-war era had already found expression and were delineated in the works of Ernest Hemingway. (p. 32)

It is [Calvino's] opinion that the Italians had gone to Hemingway and other Americans with the direct intent of drawing from them that which was necessary to provide a new impulse to Italian literature…. In [Calvino's 1954 essay entitled "Hemingway e noi,"] he discusses the influence of Hemingway on his contemporaries and admits that his early work (i.e., Il Sentiero) reveals such an influence….

[Hemingway's curt, factual style and his anti-literary techniques] are deliberate and consciously directed towards the objective presentation of experience and the reproduction of real life situations. Such an effort toward authenticity has been described as one of the cardinal principles of Italian neo-realism. It is therefore not difficult to see a marked relationship between Hemingway and the Italian neo-realists. (p. 34)

It is a sense of vital hope which separates Calvino from Hemingway. Kim [in Il Sentiero] and Jordan [in For Whom the Bell Tolls] are both lonely heroes, but Hemingway has Jordan belong to a lost generation…. Hemingway denies his hero hope for the future and makes him the passive victim of a meaningless determinism. Kim, on the other hand, is free. Calvino has provided him freedom of thought and decision. More important, he has instilled in him a sense of hope which encourages the use of freedom for the possible creation of a better world.

The use of freedom and the question of self-determinism are two ideas which Calvino develops to a greater extent in his trilogy, I Nostri antenati. Under the guise of fantastic situations, he comments on problems threatening the freedom and identity of modern man. Il Visconte dimezzato, published in 1952, might be seen by some as a turning point in Calvino's early career. Rather than considering Il Visconte dimezzato a turning away from neo-realism, it appears more reasonable to view Il Sentiero as a preannouncement of Calvino's great success in the realm of fantasy. A careful study of Il Sentiero in the light of the trilogy will demonstrate that his first novel reflects many aspects of his poetics which directly contradict neo-realistic principles. (pp. 41-2)

Although [Calvino] remains faithful to the trends of neorealism by utilizing such techniques, he diverges from that popular current in many instances. An attentive reader will note that Calvino is not consistently anti-literary. Crude language and a staccato prose style are counter-balanced by passages in which descriptive imagination and a unique sense of beauty predominate…. (p. 42)

Utilizing vocabulary [in these passages] which is no longer confined by the cultural limitations of his characters, Calvino reflects … his own sophistication…. Calvino makes use of metaphor and colorful images in his descriptive passages, while he generally avoids such figures of speech in the narrative parts of the work. (p. 43)

Passages such as this hint at Calvino's intense interest in nature. In many of his later novels, such a preoccupation with nature, as well as a highly developed sense of fantasy, come to dominate his poetics. Although Il Sentiero exemplifies, for the most part, the principles of neo-realism, it also evidences these two essential characteristics of Calvino's later works. Neo-realistic prose is little concerned with either nature or fantasy, except when such elements are essential to the reproduction of a particular scene. It is significant that Calvino has been able to fuse these elements in his first novel, thereby creating a work characteristic of the immediate post-war era, and yet one which is distinctively his own.

In Il Sentiero, Calvino permits nature to assume a strange, almost exotic role. The emphasis he places on the description of plants and animals appears to go beyond that which is necessary for the creation of an authentic situation. He remains faithful to realism in selecting characters who often possess the baser qualities of humanity, yet the environment in which he places them is at times influenced by his personal conception of nature. Calvino never portrays nature as an enemy of man…. [For] Calvino nature has Rousseaunian qualities. The ills which beset man are caused by himself or his fellow man. (pp. 43-4)

The interplay of fantasy and reality is one of the most distinctive qualities of Calvino's early prose….

In Il Sentiero he manages to balance fantasy with reality and shift easily from one to another by making the boy Pin the fulcrum of his work. Calvino understands that while the child's mind has the ability to see an object in its natural form, it can also fantasize about it. In fact, for many children [including Pin] there exists no sharp distinction between the real world and an imagined one. (p. 44)

In Il Sentiero Calvino portrays an essentially realistic world, but through the use of the adolescent figure he is frequently able to inject into the work a sense of fantasy. Pin is a boy who uses profanity with the vehemence of a corrupted adult. But he is a boy who still possesses some of his childhood innocence. It is this innocence which renders him incapable of understanding the world of adults. (pp. 44-5)

The emphasis Calvino places on nature and fantasy in Il Sentiero points out that this novel should not be completely isolated from his trilogy, I Nostri antenati, even though it displays elements of realistic trends, as well as characteristics reminiscent of some works of Ernest Hemingway. The complexity of Il Sentiero prohibits its being solely classified as neo-realistic. It is in part a response to a particular historical period, but it is also the first manifestation of the great diversity of style and subject matter which have characterized Calvino's production in the past two decades. Il Sentiero is pervaded by social comment as is the trilogy, La Speculazione edilizia, and La Giornata d'uno scrutatore. In it, Calvino already displays an unusual interest in nature which he develops most thoroughly in Il Barone rampante. And finally fantasy, usually foreign to neo-realistic prose, finds expression in Il Sentiero through the imagination of the adolescent protagonist. Calvino's treatment of Pin's imagination prefigures his extensive development of fantasy in I Nostri antenati, Formica argentina, Cosmicomiche, and Ti con zero. Fantasy, nature, and social comment are three basic elements of Il Sentiero which recur throughout most of Calvino's works. His first novel contains realistic elements popular in the immediate post-war era, yet it reveals the great diversity of Calvino's genius which has made him one of the most successful contemporary Italian novelists. (pp. 46-7)

Nicholas A. DeMara, "Pathway to Calvino: Fantasy and Reality in 'Il Sentiero dei nidi di ragno'," in Italian Quarterly (copyright © 1971 by Italian Quarterly), Winter, 1971, pp. 25-49.

John Gatt-Rutter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[Calvino in Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno] creates two noncommunicating levels: the spontaneity of the politically naïve partisans; and the almost cynical calculations of Kim [Calvino's mouthpiece] and of the author himself, who, in their different roles, ordain the ordinary people's destinies for them, impersonating 'History'. The politicized intellectual remains in charge, and the novel remains a picaresque study of 'low life' and adventure seen from above….

Nevertheless, the adventure, the freedom and the comradeship of life in the Resistance stand in qualitative contrast to the constraints of 'normal' social living. This is where play becomes Calvino's most positive, even (unintentionally) revolutionary element. But play appears here as a product of his particular artistic sense, and not of his political consciousness, though Calvino discovers play through life with the Resistance.

This spontaneity in his play is both a strength and a weakness. It accounts for the freshness of Calvino's writing, but also for its failure to develop to its full depth and revolutionary potential. Not the hilarious eruptions and libertarian explosions of Aristophanes and Rabelais, but the more composed and 'hermetic' fantasies of Ariosto and R. L. Stevenson are Calvino's avowed literary nurseries. Calvino admires Lewis Carroll, but has not learnt from the Alice books. The play-element in Calvino is poor in critique, and critique is the dialectical complement to play which is indispensable in a world whose economic, social and political structures are so inimical to the unalienated activity of play. (p. 320)

Naturally, play is bound to be an element in any work of art. Without it the aesthetic sense is inexplicable. But in Calvino it appears not only in a general aesthetic sense, but in specific elements of both content and form. In Il sentiero these elements tend to remain at a more or less trivial level…. But there are hints here and there of greater wealth.

First, Pin's sense of exclusion from the mysterious adult world. This provides at least a germ of critique as a dialectical component in his character. Second, a keen sense of the curiousness of things—mountain and forest landscapes, as well as Pin's spiders and fireflies, the colourful and grotesque variety of human appearance and mannerism…. And third, Calvino's tendency (often remarked upon, not least by himself) to reveal an abstract geometry hidden in relationships of motion…. (pp. 320-21)

The first of these aspects—the mystery of adulthood—has proved an impasse for Calvino, his chief limitation as a writer. The childlike psychology is characteristic of all his narrators or protagonists, whatever their supposed age. This psychology is effective in presenting the incomprehensible world we live in as incomprehensible, and in presenting it both with the crisp and vivid objectivity of an external observer, and with the subjective bewilderment of that same innocent observer. Calvino's 'child' is not, like Alice, a 'wise child' who sees through and corrects adult folly, hypocrisy or bullying. The child's eye in Calvino's stories does not easily detect the all too comprehensible structures that underly the incomprehensible chaos of phenomenal reality, the world of appearances. The omnipotence of money, the property system, the family and female dependence, the dead weight of institutions—these are some of those structures, and Calvino is clearly aware of them not only in his theoretical essays but in his narratives themselves. Yet his stories remain strangely inconsequential, almost indifferent. (p. 321)

From such neutral lines of vision, the wealth of realistic detail which Calvino very skillfully weaves into his narratives remains merely a spectacle: at no point is the very real drama developed or internalized, despite some visually powerful scenes….

The limitations of Calvino's 'naturalism' or 'neo-realism' are therefore limitations of manner, not of matter. The drama is there, but Calvino will not enact it. A far more fruitful probe into a tense reality might have resulted had the author introduced other viewpoints…. As it is, Calvino writes sonatas for a solo instrument which is muted throughout. Each novel falls down somewhere between being a half-hearted satire of feckless and irresponsible middle-class intellectuals and a half-hearted inquiry into the apparatus of our dehumanized modern reality. The best that Calvino manages is the sense of something inexorable….

Calvino's narrative viewpoints will always be childlike: not in the manner of Voltaire's Ingénu, but in the negative sense of someone who does not understand. His narrators are Candides who have no Voltaire to make pointed remarks over their heads. This serves to heighten the sense of horror and estrangement …; but it also trivializes the picture: the incoherence of reality is misrepresented, simplified as the surface 'objectivity' of the childlike observer….

The other two elements we have noticed in Il sentiero—Calvino's visual curiosity (what critics have called his voyeurisme) and the abstract geometry he conjures out of this very same amorphous world of appearances—these two elements can be traced without difficulty throughout Calvino's work, in varying forms and combinations…. [As] statements about the world, visual curiosity and abstract geometry continually risk lapsing into the status of well-turned clichés or facile tricks—unless the visual curiosity and abstract geometry are not merely external effects, but instruments to explore an important theme in a way attempted by no other writer before Calvino. The distinction is between play and child's-play; between play as total and free involvement with experience, and play as idle toying with surface appearances. (p. 322)

[Literary] insights and political insights in Calvino are not, in origin, identical (as they are in Brecht), but forcibly juxtaposed. It is only when Calvino succeeds in deploying the deeper significance of his literary play that it reveals its political significance, not by an arbitrary application of political themes or intentions, but by capturing new aspects of reality.

Where this happens, Calvino produces some of the best short and long stories in a literature whose strongest genre is novellistica. Gli amori difficili (mostly written in the fifties and included in the Racconti of 1958, but republished as a separate volume in 1970) are stories about 'lovers' who never meet. The Euclidean possibilities of this—to Calvino—are almost inexhaustible. The descriptive possibilities offered by the love-object (which can be embodied in, or associated with, a harbourful of folk, a photographic studio, a day at the office, a snow-covered ski-run, or a motorway alive with headlights) are likewise inexhaustible. But Calvino uses these formal possibilities to explore a problem that has many dimensions—physical, psychological, literary, social, perhaps metaphysical. The problem is the taboo against reality—the human reality typified as 'eros'. (p. 323)

The taboo against Eros—like all taboos—is ultimately political: an atavistic social prohibition, internalized by each individual as unconscious repressions or conventions, but reinforced by the churches and the police. These stories of Calvino's show 13 different ways in which this repressed Eros seeks fulfilment (a meeting of human beings as persons) but never meets with more than a fraction of success…. These stories—better than perhaps anything else Calvino has written—are rich in signification at all sorts of levels which nearly always perfectly coincide, and equally rich in the corresponding skills of narrative and suspense.

Certainly, Calvino has here perfected an instrument to penetrate the false rationality of the increasingly acute form of alienation characteristic of the latter twentieth century in one of its relatively affluent sectors—the industrial triangle of northern Italy, from Genoa and its Riviera to Turin and Milan. His 'voyeuristic' description here embodies the intensely desired but never truly possessed reality of people and things. His geometry—parallel or divergent lines, circumferences held away from their centres, planes which never quite coincide, zero turning into infinity and vice versa—expresses, with as much (contained) anguish as elegance, the failure of the subject and object of Eros, of Desire, to meet. And always, what we may call Calvino's 'negative epiphany' is freshly perceived, new and unexpected. He avoids—and here we may see a limitation of the powers of his art—the most blatant instances or instants of human, social, and political breakdown…. Yet all these are implicit in Calvino's stories, captured in their germinal moments within people's experience and awareness, in the moments when our modern despair is born, rather than in the moments when that despair is ready to erupt into tragedy, death or ruthless coercion. These unpretentious stories of Calvino's are thus to my mind among the best products of political literature—or of any literature—written in Italy since the war…. They are a serious look at our historical 'human condition'.

I would suggest that the central political perception here is the non-existence of evil, or moral 'wrong-doing', the impossibility of moral judgements. 'Evil' turns out to be nothing else than our social repressions and fears, handed down through unnumbered generations, the memory of their origins lost in prehistory; repressions and fears which have been internalized in every one of us and which can only be dissolved by the world-wide application of Reason—not the abstract Reason of the philosophers, nor the false rationality of capitalist or state capitalist production—but our Reason, a Reason which is more or less suppressed by social institutions and conventions all over the world, and which is therefore bound to be revolutionary.

Calvino has therefore found a use for literature which is not merely a decorative use: a use which can ultimately be seen as a political use, and which yet does not impair literature as literature, but, on the contrary, enhances it. (pp. 323-25)

[If] stylistic and formal play is more evident at the surface level of the narration (Calvino avoids explicit moralizing), critique is the very heart of these stories. The failure to communicate, especially between the sexes, is shown in a number of highly original ways, through some entirely new perceptions. These perceptions lift incomunicabilità out of the mystery of individual psychology … and reveal its institutional nature and origins. (p. 326)

Calvino, no doubt, deliberately avoids using his pen as a magic wand to produce a fictional 'solution' or climax [in 'La nuvola di smog']: the impotence of the educated individual, and even of the organized workers, in the face of the omnipotence of capitalism, is Calvino's theme, and on an urgent social and political issue the bare documentary truth is likely to speak more eloquently than a heroic or tragic fiction. Woman appears here in a more unequivocal light than anywhere else in Calvino: reduced to her socially-prescribed role as sex-object foreign to the male world, she does not understand the serious problems which that world creates, and consequently she is not interested in them, but only in her feminine sway over men. Woman, alluring and elusive, is thus largely responsible for the lack of sustained interest on the part of Calvino's intellectual protagonists in the issues that affect society at large. Calvino shows the femme fatale as one of the most effective of the unconscious agents of the status quo.

The weakness of the story is the same as the one [evident] in Calvino's other quasi-'neo-realist' narratives—La speculazione edilizia and La giornata di uno scrutatore—namely, the restricted point of view. This tends to dissipate the effect of the author's remarkable observational and narrative skills. It is only in Il cavaliere inesistente that Calvino even partly overcomes this limitation in a more synthetic, polycentric form of narration. He seems deliberately to avoid writing a narrative work of major dimensions, preferring 'minor' perfection. Yet the imperfection of most of his minor narratives (and they are all minor) is precisely that certain dimensions are missing.

One of the most interesting features of 'La nuvola di smog' is its opening image—that of the fine black industrial dust that covers everything. This is an orthodoxly neo-realistic documentary detail, but it also takes on the symbolic quality of the Chancery fog in Dickens' Bleak House, and seems to indicate more than just the pollution of the urban environment—the very quality and condition of life under our anarchic and dehumanizing industrialism. The earlier story 'La formica argentina' lacks the documentary specificity, but has the universality (and also the vagueness, the quasi-metaphysical air) of the symbolism, in a more Kafkaesque manner…. (p. 327)

There is a common theme in nearly all the stories—the 'little man's' attempt to recover a direct contact with nature, to discover a 'reality' that belongs to him, and generally to make his life more livable amid the inhuman surroundings of the modern urban labyrinth. Some stories amount to little more than well-told barzellette, amusing anecdotes, not very different from some of those in Guareschi's Zibaldino and Il corrierino delle famiglie. Indeed, Marcovaldo looks very much like Calvino's intelligent riposte to this latter idyll-saga of urban family life, which had appeared in 1954. Some stories, however, are memorable, among Calvino's best works…. 'Social realism', in these stories, is lifted into the realms of fantasy, without any loss of authenticity (as opposed to dull verisimilitude), on the innocent shoulders of a Chaplinesque victim-hero.

As regards the development of Calvino's narrative technique, these stories clearly show a feature which is barely discernible in the Antenati trilogy, and which becomes perhaps too self-conscious in the Qfwfq stories: if the anti-hero is Chaplin, the draughtsman and designer is Disney. The technique—in line with Calvino's earliest tendencies—is that of the animated cartoon or the comic strip…. The lines are simple, the colours bright, the details clear, and all is shown in vivid motion. (p. 328)

This technique entails a political application for the 'thumb-print' of Calvino's style: the animated cartoon, with its colour and fantasy, is a popular form of art and literature. Calvino here is perfecting and transforming his native stylistic bent as a means of breaking through the barrier that separates 'literature' from the mass of ordinary people, even children, and of tempting them to open a book…. Calvino has in this achieved something far more tangible than the desperadoes of sperimentalismo and the neoavanguardia. He has, to some extent at least, become po-polo without ceasing to be Calvino. (pp. 328-29)

The trilogy, published in one volume in 1960 under the title of I nostri antenati, looks even more like play and less like critique. The component stories are colourful fantasies in a historical setting…. Perhaps its greatest importance for an overall understanding of Calvino is that here, well before his celebrated work of collecting the fairy-tales which he published in the volume Fiabe italiene (1956), Calvino's fantasy play has come fully into the open in a highly polished and very 'playful' work which seems full of promise for the future. (p. 329)

[The protagonist's] Cosimo's discovery of the identity of work and play in unalienated human activity is the main achievement—also a political achievement—of Il barone rampante [the second part of the trilogy]. Formally, the tale is rather loosely episodic, reflecting Calvino's self-conscious adaptation of Voltaire's adaptation of the picaresque novel of adventure, as in the similarly episodic Il cavaliere inesistente he adapts Ariosto's adaptation of the popular medieval adaptations of the epic Chanson de Roland. Il barone is a miscellany of eighteenth-century curiosities, perhaps pedagogical in intent. But the formal looseness in Calvino's case may also be due to his ideological looseness, his lack of any clear idea of how to proceed after his break with the Communist Party in 1957, and amid the new and unfamiliar problems of the consumer society which was then developing in northern Italy and that society's seemingly irresistible capacity to absorb dissent, rendering it impotent. (p. 330)

[Calvino] imprisons himself in an elegant, but essentially monodic, style—and what is worse, a style that is mandarin, if disarmingly informal mandarin. And he invariably adopts the closed aesthetic of a self-defining (albeit usually original) genre. He really is fascinated by a closed system of signifiers which signify nothing but their relations to one another (though he often refers resolutely outwards). Hence his method … of narration as the elaboration of an initial image or situation.

Thus, for all its simple fantasy, for all its effortless allegory, the trilogy remains an anachronism, or rather, an archaism. (pp. 331-32)

Even within his self-imposed limits, in the trilogy, Calvino has extended the range of his play and of his critique. Beyond all his particular felicities, and the almost unfailing and lively inventiveness of his writing, what the trilogy makes possible for Calvino is to break outside the familiar limits of modern narrative literature. In a world where the totality of experience is possibly richer than ever, but where the individual's social experience is atomized and restricted more than ever before, the realistic novelist is bound by his own atomized understanding. The atomized, incommunicant first person thus dominates the modern novel. (pp. 333-34)

The masterpiece of Le cosmicomiche is the last story, 'La spirale'. This points forward to the ambitious but sombre efforts of the final section of Ti con zero, but it is also an achievement in its own right. Here the grand underlying theme of Calvino's cosmic fantasies becomes explicit in its grandeur and its pathos: that is, the theme of the essential unity of all life in the universe, from the 'first' atom and the primeval shellfish….

The power of this is unmistakable. And yet there remains something rhetorical about it, something voluntaristic, an 'intentional fallacy' perhaps. Once again, Calvino manages to be affirmative only by avoiding the drama or tragedy of dialectical opposition. He 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. (p. 335)

The second section of Ti con zero, entitled 'Priscilla', is the most ambitious thing Calvino has ever written, and in some ways his most powerful. It is the epic of life itself, understood as the genetic code that has been transmitted in increasingly complex form from the original single-cell nucleus to the electronic computer programmes of the imminent future. Death is faced this time, only to be summarily dismissed…. The dialectical tension is not between life and death. It is a different one, springing from Calvino—Qfwfq's pseudo-scientific fatalism—from his conviction that I cannot choose who I am to be, and that I can never join the one I love…. (p. 336)

Has Calvino's intelligence outwitted itself? Or is he playing puzzles with the reader? Certainly, he seems to be indulging in deliberate sophistries here…. Calvino seems to be serious: the whole drift of his work has been towards fatalism and determinism, towards a radical unbelief in his own freedom. (p. 337)

In the stories of the third section of Ti con zero—the section after which the whole volume is named—Calvino dazes himself with still more elegant and complex sophistries of fatalism, and imitates the gait of Borges…. Trivial play seems to prevail here…. Calvino's latest works at least amend this glibly optimistic form of fatalism. Le città invisibili (1972) presents Marco Polo describing to Kublai Kan 55 imaginary cities with female names. Calvino thus brilliantly marries together hints and pointers he detects in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Vittorini's Città del mondo…. (pp. 337-38)

Perhaps Calvino means to imply the presence of money and power by his very choice of protagonists. If so, the implication is too evanescent, and does not save the book's artistic results. Calvino's hermetic structuralism has taken the 'stilizzazione riduttiva' almost to vanishing-point. The Cities are projected in a void, completely detached from the speakers in a dimension where drama is impossible. A stylized, Beckett-like anti-drama may be intended, but it is not quite achieved. Calvino's opium-dream orientalism is not an accidental choice. (p. 338)

Play and critique in Calvino have all but fallen apart. Calvino's intentions are still superior to his artistic achievement, and Le città invisibili, for all its stylistic brilliance, is an exquisite failure, Calvino's resistance to all that we recognise as alien is now desperate and marginal. He has opened up to literature vistas more spacious, and possibilities more numerous, and play more varied and inventive, than all but a very few writers—ranging from Dante to Cyrano de Bergérac—but has made out of them only a fraction of what he could have. Calvino has never really been aware of the power of play. His failure to draw out the political (that is, the human) possibilities of play to the full is a counterpart to his 'pessimismo dell'intelligenza', his deep-rooted fatalism and diffidence in the possibility of rational action to better our human world, to satisfy desire—and this despite all his attempts to persuade himself to hope and to strive. (p. 339)

John Gatt-Rutter, "Calvino Ludens: Literary Play and Its Political Implications," in Journal of European Studies (copyright © 1975 Seminar Press Limited), December, 1975, pp. 319-40.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Italo Calvino, long recognized in Italy as one of its most prominent contemporary writers, has been for the most part neglected in the United States by all but Italianists…. Calvino's works show a marked progression from the neorealist mode of his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, to the fantastic mode of Cosmicomics, t zero, and The Invisible Cities…. For the latecomer to Calvino's works, a reading of the realistic novels serves as a reminder that the fantastic in Calvino is not a form of escapism, but is grounded in a persistent sociopolitical concern.

In the 1950's, Calvino wrote two short novels, Marcovaldo or the Seasons in the City and Smog, which present an image of the city that is perhaps even more valid today than it was twenty years ago. The first novel, Marcovaldo, is located somewhere between the two poles of the realistic and the fantastic. It is a series of realistic fables dealing with man's struggle for survival in the modern city. (pp. 83-4)

Like all fables, Marcovaldo has no concrete historical or geographical backdrop. Although written in the 1950's, the novel might easily be set in the present day. And while Calvino, in the introduction to the novel, implies that it takes place in Turin, the descriptions of the city contain nothing which would distinguish it from any other large, industrial center. The impression of anonymity thus created has a dual function: not only does it lend universality to the fable, but it also signals the fact that all modern cities are essentially alike. (p. 84)

Calvino's fables not only explode the nineteenth-century myth of technological progress, but also the consolatory myth of the idyllic country life: man can no longer find salvation in nature. (pp. 85-6)

Each story or chapter in Marcovaldo is a kind of vignette illustrating the realities of life in our modern urban society. The novel is essentially static; there is no development of plot or character. Each vignette follows the generic pattern of the fable as outlined by Calvino in which "a virtuous man realizes himself in an unjust or pitiless society." But unlike the hero of the typical fable who overcomes the obstacles in his path Marcovaldo is doomed to failure. There is no happy ending, no escape from "the city of cement and asphalt."

Smog, a novel written shortly after Marcovaldo, is the story of a man who, like Marcovaldo's children, has lost all contact with his environment. (pp. 87-8)

Smog is the specular opposite of Marcovaldo. The novels present essentially the same image of the modern, industrial city, in which man is alienated from nature, from his fellow man, and from himself. But this image is reflected from a radically different perspective in the two novels. Whereas Marcovaldo attempts to escape from the city's grayness, its contamination, its squalor, the first person narrator of Smog accepts the city's squalor as inescapable. (p. 88)

The protagonist of Smog is the fictional projection of the intellectual and moral resignation which Calvino perceives in our society…. Caught in a trap, Calvino's hero convinces himself that he has chosen the trap. This kind of rationalization is, in fact, the final resignation. (p. 89)

JoAnn Cannon, "The Image of the City in the Novels of Italo Calvino," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1978, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Spring, 1978, pp. 83-90.


Calvino, Italo


Calvino, Italo (Vol. 22)