Italo Calvino Calvino, Italo (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Italo Calvino 1923–

Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

Calvino's first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, reflects his resistance activities during World War II, but his later work increasingly blends reality and fantasy. His innovative novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, is a series of novel fragments within a frame story. This work and others such as Italian Folktales, Calvino's creative rendering of the folklore of Italy, have led to his reputation as one of Italy's most important and versatile modern authors.

(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

J. R. Woodhouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Calvino's] "message" for mankind seems to be to create a society in which the impediments of convention, taboo, inhibition are removed so that the individual can be a contented member of a society of equally contented, uninhibited individuals. Above all, Calvino seems to emphasise the merits of the wholesome, uninhibited individual. (p. 39)

The individual has to develop his own personality. He has to overcome obstacles, satisfy his curiousity about the unknown, and refuse to accept unquestioningly, either the dogma of religion or politics, or the conditioning of social convention. This is the first, the anarchist's step, in the individual's development. It is interesting to examine Il cavaliere inesistente and Il visconte dimezzato, to see how this notion, so basic to Calvino, comes across. In Il cavaliere inesistente, we have two characters, Rambaldo and Torrismondo, who respectively could well illustrate anarchy and socialism…. [They both] find salvation and happiness when they have run the gamut of experience, curiosity and disillusionment. When the conventional façade is removed, they can get down to the business of living. This is where Calvino is so essentially optimistic. Basically, he believes in the ability of man to win through, despite obstacles. He has a faith in the power of human feeling and emotion to overcome what seems to him to be the clap-trap of ideology, religion and bureaucracy. In Il visconte dimezzato, the character of the narrator is a sort of pre-adolescent Rambaldo, without his conditioning by society, but with more than an average share of curiosity, animal instinct and joie de vivre. Rambaldo at a certain point during the burial of the corpses after the battle in Il cavaliere inesistente, soliloquises, suggests that the only life man can know is this brief span of years before death, and declares that all that he wants from life is the possibility of living it to the full…. (pp. 40-1)

However, just as Rambaldo and Torrismondo are the wholesome individuals used to show the emptiness of pretentious exteriors, so the young boy in Il visconte dimezzato is used to exude the joy of life lived as it should be, without inhibition or hindrance of any kind. The young narrator is surrounded by nature in all her aspects. The atmosphere is nearly always that of the open air. Nothing impedes the boy's chances of enjoying the idyll of youth in the countryside…. [The] narrator is a completely 'natural' creature, uninhibited and unrestrained. He is also curious and only too willing to learn from his curiosity. So he finds himself in the ideal situation of having a myriad different things to be curious about…. The end of the story sees the youth aware of the responsibilities of life and of the fairly even-woven texture of good and evil in the world, but also concerned with unsophisticated pleasures and life in the wooded countryside. (p. 42)

[What impresses one about these characters] is their whole-someness. Healthy animals, full of the joys of life, they are surrounded by nature in all her lushness and excitement. They form a healthy part of that same 'natural' scenery. If Calvino disapproves, then nature herself becomes twisted and blackened, reflecting in varying gradations, indifference, sadism, pomposity, inhumanity, or whatever trait a particular character may display. (pp. 42-3)

Entirely uninhibited by the conditioning of conventional society, Cosimo Piovasco [in Il barone rampante] makes love and war, learns and corresponds with the learned, lives an entirely full life in almost every respect [in spite of making his permanent abode in the trees]. (pp. 49-50)

[Calvino] draws no one moral from the book, but as consistent as ever is his portrait of a life free from inhibitions, a life in which positive enthusiasm for living is of supreme importance. During Cosimo's first days in the trees, one of his great consolations for the initial wretchedness of such a life is the feeling of freedom which he has. He ponders at one point on the enviable life of freedom led by the urchins of Ombrosa. While he had formed part of polite society, he had been conditioned to despise and avoid them. Now, as a member of their species, so to speak, he can appreciate their freedom…. (p. 50)

Cosimo Piovasco embodies many of the virtues of which Calvino evidently approves. He is not, however, so naively represented that Calvino loses touch with reality in his assessment of his life and achievements. Occasionally Cosimo fails and has disappointments, but (like the big toes of Charlemagne's knights!) he is resolutely human. He seems to be Calvino's most...

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John Gatt-Rutter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Calvino's] literary thumbprint is clearly distinguishable right from the start in his first book, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947), and has remained essentially unchanged since then. Perhaps what strikes us first is the adolescent viewpoint of the narrative. The boy protagonist, Pin, knows everything—that men fornicate and kill—but understands nothing…. All Calvino's protagonists are mystified by the world in which they live. This incomprehension of the world appears so regularly in Calvino's narrative works that it comes over as autobiographical—a baffled rationalism which is Calvino's central limitation. He is non-plussed and therefore non-committal…. (p. 47)

The author's thumbprint in Il sentiero shows other features which will recur throughout his work. Two are complementary: a sensory curiosity and a Euclidean geometry. Calvino's curious pen pokes at the amorphous miscellany of the sensory world, natural, human and man-made, dwelling especially on the stickily tactile and visually grotesque…. In subsequent works, Calvino's descriptive curiosity frequently coagulates in his distinctive long panoramic sentences, which sometimes extend for a page or more, taking in a whole harbourful of folk, or a ski-run, a bustling landscape or the whole universe of signs, a great city full of soap-bubbles or the moon's curd-like coating—every detail noted with elegant precision.

Calvino's geometrical ingenuity often leads him to similar syntactic tours de force. Its main appearance in Il sentiero is Lupo Rosso's theorem-like account of his shooting of the traitor Pelle…. A great number of Calvino's shorter narratives hinge on symmetries or asymmetries, inversion, circularity, tangents, parallels, and so on. (pp. 47-8)

Fantasy is the component that completes and subsumes Calvino's literary personality. Il sentiero, apparently concerned with the political and historical reality of the Resistance struggle, has always been seen as a woodland fable…. [His short stories] constitute a strong argument for the claim that Calvino's essential talent lies in presenting reality as fantasy…. The short stories of Le cosmicomiche [Cosmicomics] and Ti con zero turn to cosmic fantasy and...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…. 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. (pp. 33-4)

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…. [Calvino] 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…. 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! (p. 34)

Ursula K. Le Guin, "'Italian Folktales'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 13, September 27, 1980, pp. 33-4.

Guido Almansi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[From] a very early stage in his career Calvino seeme to have been daunted by geometric compulsions…. The minute details of his plots, the main events of his stories, the structure of his novels, even the most extravagant flights of his imagination are always arranged in a binary literary order. In the first Goyesque chapter of The Cloven Viscount … the massacre is presented in geometric patterns: here the dead horses, there the dead men. The Viscount is cloven by a cannon ball into two Stevensonian halves: the bad one v the good one. The bad half, among other pleasures, delights in orgies of collective hangings, which however present geometrical patterns: ten cats hanging alternate with two human...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

John Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stylistically [in "Italian Folktales"] the English is everything we would expect in a good translation of such a master as Calvino: colloquial but never corny, plain-spoken, economical, wry and flexible, and sometimes—like the best authentic folk-speech everywhere—stunningly lyrical, capable of turning (as at the end of the first tale, "Dauntless Little John") unexpectedly somber, moving. Even if this impression of the translation's probable accuracy should prove wrong, the book is, I think, impossible to recommend too highly….

It is in part Calvino's happy combination of talents—master storyteller, experienced editor as well as scholar, critic and sometime university lecturer—that makes...

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Olga Ragusa

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like a play within a play, Calvino's [Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore] is both double and dual. Eleven chapters and ten incipits, the beginnings of as many unrelated, interrupted "novels," form one whole. The frame story is about nothing less than "ce vice impuni, la lecture," the pleasure of vicarious experience or of escape offered by the printed page and the many circumstances that contribute to it or stand in its way. In the early chapters we get an almost complete phenomenology of the book as artifact and text as we follow the Reader—the "tu" familiarly addressed by the author—in his acquisition of the book, his settling down to read it, his search for an undamaged copy to take the place of the...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I must say now that, on finishing [Italian Folktales] (a genuine labour of love, and also a pointer to Calvino's literary aims, which have more to do with the recovery of the folktale than the innovations for which his novels have been praised), I went straight back to Grimm and read it through. Being occasionally bored by the Italian stories, I wondered if the fault was in myself, but I found I was never bored by the Teutonic tales and must conclude that they are superior.

Certainly there is nothing in Calvino's volume which would inspire a new Disney to the expenditure of great ingenuity and much money. The Italian tales seem to have passed already through the alembic of sophisticated minds;...

(The entire section is 725 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Italo Calvino chooses in "If no a Winter's Night a Traveler"] to play a wonderful game. He will make fun of the novel and novelists, the critics of novels and novelists, and the teachers of novels that have been sanctified by critics. He will nod knowingly at Modernism and its preposterous explicators. He will parody bad Germans, dyspeptic Eastern Europeans, the mad librarians of Latin America and even the Japanese…. He will end up, in spite of himself, writing a love story that, in spite of itself, is as complicated as a jigsaw puzzle of the void.

Reference is made to the void, and vertigo, and nothingness, and the chasm, and the abyss. Reference is also made to the Reader, the Other Reader and...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade." With these words, which open his latest novel, Calvino confronts the relationship of the world of fiction to the world of actuality. The rest of his book shows how the fictive imagination interacts with reality and how each is dependent on the other. Calvino takes Descartes a step further: "The universe will express itself as long as somebody will be able to say, 'I read, therefore it writes.'" (p. 34)

[In] his stories and such earlier novels as Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities, he moves back and forth...

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J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Things get complicated in If on a winter's night a traveler.] Novels keep beginning; before you have finished this book and turned out the light you'll have read eleven of them. (p. 641)

[The] eleven beginnings are not equal in value, though most of them will cause any professional writer to salivate. Jorge Luis Borges plays fine tricks with logic and philosophy, and he has infected Calvino, who here tries to write about ideas instead of with them. But those sections of the story pass quickly.

Calvino's real subject is fiction. The making of it (we see several writers and we read more than a dozen styles) and the reading of it (here he spreads his wings and...

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Gilbert Sorrentino

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino's version (and anti-version) of the nouveau roman, fits the conditions for "proper art" proposed by Dedalus/Joyce: "The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing." It is a wonderful piece of work, labyrinthine and convoluted, informed by a deadpan humor and pastiches, imitations, and parodies of an entire battery of modern and postmodern literary techniques.

It begins with an almost conventional storyteller's address to the reader: "You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax…." We immediately see that "Italo Calvino" is somebody other than the author, and...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Kristen Murtaugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Does an Italian equivalent of Grimms's Fairy Tales exist? Italo Calvino began his research into Italian folktales with that question in mind. When it became clear that there was no "readable master collection of Italian folktales which would be popular in every sense of the word," Calvino himself assumed the work of assembling one. It was a Herculean undertaking. Calvino collated, categorized, and compared "mountains of narratives." His work had two objectives, he tells us, the presentation of every type of folktale documented in Italian dialects and the representation of all regions of Italy. The "scientific" work, the direct transcription of folktales "from the mouths of the people," had already been done by...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Architect of scrupulously imagined, apparently fantastic, insidiously plausible words, [Italo Calvino] occupies a literary space somewhere east of Borges and west of Nabokov. (p. 1)

In "If on a winter's night a traveler," he makes one story after another disappear….

Surprise is part of the pleasure of this book, and I won't tell the story of its several failing and successful quests. Let me just say that Ludmilla and the Reader…. [run across] novels of different origins—Japan, Latin America, Belgium, Ireland and three imaginary countries—and that all of these novels are interrupted for one reason or another: a further error of binding, suicide of the author, theft of the...

(The entire section is 464 words.)