Italo Calvino

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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

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[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...

(This entire section contains 1933 words.)

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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 admired hero. His tenacity in keeping his resolve, his lack of inhibitions, his love of nature, his help to his fellow-men (when this is necessary)—all meet with the author's approval. Most of all, he is admired for his whole-hearted way of living the life he has chosen for himself. His full and lusty life is interrupted very seldom, and then by the unavoidable. (p. 52)

It has been earlier suggested that if Calvino has a moral, it is to live life to the full. With Cosimo Piovasco, his ideal of full uninhibited existence is exemplified in a form as recognisable as his bureaucratic knights are recognisable satires on bureaucrats. (p. 53)

Certainly Calvino's concern for the full development of the individual and for the need of the individual to create his own destiny are constant, whether one considers the strange life of Cosimo Piovasco [or] the enthusiasm of Rambaldo…. In the trilogy [I nostri atenati], the development is presented in an amusingly palatable form which may, by its very frivolity, obscure its own consistency. But when, as if to tie the threads together and provide a semi-rational scheme to cover his trilogy, Calvino writes notes in his preface to I nostri antenati, the one strongly underlying theme which is revealed is the cult of the individual. One gathers that the individual can, if he is persistent, impose his own idiosyncrasies on society, as it is the function of the revolutionary, the poet, the explorer to do. Nowhere is the cult brought out more strongly than in I nostri antenati. To be an individual is almost as much of a vocation as to be a poet. (pp. 56-7)


[One] of Calvino's favourite ploys [is] the use of the naive narrator…. (p. 59)

[One can] admire the freshness and curiosity of the child's outlook when seeing through his eyes the more idyllic aspects of nature, this attitude helping to increase the lyrical effect…. On a more sophisticated level, one can identify with the young narrator, as Calvino must do on many occasions, and see in his descriptions the warmth and sun of one's own childhood, the hidden fears and adventures which smacked of danger and of the forbidden. But these interpretations are inadequate when one considers Calvino's other uses of the naive outlook. The younger personages will rouse in the reader natural feelings of sympathy and protective instincts. The suggestion of any harm or horror befalling them is heightened in us by their youth and our feeling of sympathy. On the other hand, their view of the adult world helps to underline the many imperfections and stupidities in that world, whether they question its rightness in childlike terms, or whether they admire or find interest in the more grotesque aspects of it. Their question often exposes inanity, and their admiration or interest often shows up the true horror of a situation which the adult has perhaps ignored or taken for granted. (pp. 59-60)

Calvino's description of child-like candour is often a very telling way of pointing to an anomaly, a stupidity in society, as well as providing a new and refreshing outlook on often wellworn themes…. I should also extend it to the sensitive adult and especially to Calvino, who is after all, as an adult, evoking this world of childhood. Men's capacity for learning … is in many [ways] as keen after they cease to be "youngsters" as it was before. The inhibiting effect of convention makes their curiosity less "impolite" than it was when they were children, and the conditioning effect of a society which drives the individual to specialise and ignore what seems trivial to his ambitions, limits the range of his curiosity. By this, I am not trying to suggest that Calvino is proposing as a moral for society, that adult men are potentially capable of, and should have, the same naive vision as the young boy. But what I suggest is interesting, in view of the many wholesome and uninhibited characters in Calvino's work, is that the same message of uninhibited enjoyment of life can be derived from his naive characters. If the adult is willing to ignore when necessary the more restrictive influences of convention and ambition (as children often do), then life can become more enjoyable. (pp. 60-1)

Calvino's awareness of the value of naive vision is well illustrated by the care with which he describes the … [narrator in Il visconte dimezzato. Calvino goes into great detail] to explain why the boy is as free as he is and also to explain the eccentric nature of Dr. Trelawney and the boy's peculiar relationship with him. Calvino has evidently gone to some trouble to make the youngster's visit to Pratofungo [a leper colony] as plausible as possible. Why should the young boy want to risk his life despite the traditional attitudes of the villagers to the lepers? Basically he has the child's curiosity to investigate the unknown and the forbidden. This is a characteristic underlined throughout the book, but by itself it would not be enough to drive him to Pratofungo. The exile there of the nurse Sebastiana provides him with a good motive, however, for since her departure the boy has begun to feel the complete lack of affection and emotion in his life and wants to know her fate, see her again. (p. 61)

[The] young narrator undergoes several alarming experiences, the horror of which is heightened because of his extreme youth, because of the contrast between the wholesome and friendly countryside and the horror it conceals. (p. 62)

[When] he begins his search for Sebastiana, nature surrounds him with scents and sights, varieties of scented shrubs, disarming to the reader, as to the narrator himself. But suddenly he sees a leper get up from a hiding-place in a patch of thyme, calls out to him, and finds other figures rising all around him. The country idyll had become a nightmare in a very few lines of dramatic narrative…. (pp. 62-3)

The boy's attempts to escape from the surrounding lepers almost bring him into horrifying contact, and in his anxiety to avoid them he finds himself being led slowly, but implacably, back to the lepers' huts. Here again his verisimilitude is well brought out, when he crouches to make himself small, to avoid the lepers and also what is evidently one of their sexual orgies, though to his innocent eyes it is a group of men throwing themselves on women…. The whole episode, anyway, is one of contrast between idyll and horror…. His childlike curiosity has led him into this predicament, and his joy at seeing Sebastiana again is mixed with despair at the knowledge that she has grasped him with her (apparently) infected hand, and has certainly infected him in turn. (p. 63)

Calvino's genius, it seems to me, succeeds in masking reality with fable and creating fable from reality in much the same way as centuries of tradition have done with folklore. (p. 74)

J. R. Woodhouse, in his Italo Calvino: A Reappraisal and an Appreciation of the Trilogy (© The University of Hull), University of Hull, 1968, 96 p.

John Gatt-Rutter

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[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 (in the latter) to genetics, cybernetics, mathematics and narrative composition itself as vehicles of fantasy. Le città invisibili [Invisible Cities] and Il castello are semiological fantasies elaborated through Marco Polo's portraits of fifty-five cities and the Tarot cards respectively.

All these features—laughter, bafflement, sensory curiosity, geometrical games and fantasy—add up to a kind of writing that is play in a more specific sense than that in which all art is play. Play, for Calvino, is largely the matter, as well as the manner, of his writing. In other words, not only is writing a form of play for him, but it describes play and adventure. Play is indeed the central political issue of Calvino's writing, as it is its central aesthetic issue. (p. 48)

Calvino's play is limited in its potency. In keeping with the whole tradition of Italian literature, Calvino adheres strictly to what one might call a 'closed aesthetic', as opposed to the 'open aesthetic' of an Aristophanes, a Rabelais or a Shakespeare. By this I mean that each of his narratives works within rigid co-ordinates of both form and content (the two, of course, defining one another). The author himself has often declared that his method of writing is to work out an initial idea or image in all its interesting possibilities. Thus, the danger which Calvino always courts is that of being trapped in a formal exercise. An open aesthetic, by contrast, would be one in which the formal and thematic premises are transcended. In his longer narratives, such as those of the trilogy, Calvino stays with his initial idea too long. In Il cavaliere inesistente, for example, it seems to be the armour that wins the day. True, Torrismondo hangs his up, to join the liberated Curvaldians as an equal. True also, the non-existent Agilulfo comes to an amusing end. But the typically bemused protagonist, Rambaldo, inherits Agilulfo's armour without apparently having transcended its inexorable logic. Similarly, in Il barone rampante, Cosimo remains trapped in his tree-top individualism, to die, after all, defeated—though it does not emerge very quickly that he is defeated, or why, and this inconclusiveness is the main weakness of Calvino's narrative and ideological enterprise. This is a pity in a story which begins by escaping the confines of class society and healing both the breach between work and play and that between history and nature. The most striking instance of opaqueness is Le città invisibili. The title's warning of opaqueness does not excuse it. For Calvino's choice of Marco Polo and Kublai Kan as his protagonists implies Money and Power as two ways of 'knowing' the world. Yet, in rendering the two men's sense of failure to know their invisible female cities, Calvino never looks at them 'through' Power or Money and poses the problematic abstractly, and prematurely, as one of language, and perhaps of existence itself.

Calvino's play, then, is limited in its cognitive and subversive potential, because in each narrative the writer sticks strictly to an initial set of rules. He is, as it were, programmed. He himself is the adolescent unable or unwilling to transcend the data provided by traditional or modern culture and society. Bolder play, blurring or kaleidoscopically rearranging or insolently crystallising (as does Brecht) conventional ways of seeing the world, could have opened out to Calvino the richest opportunities available to recent Italian writing. Nevertheless, his achievements are diverse and considerable, and he has given us some of the most variously delightful and compelling writing in modern Italian. (pp. 49-50)

John Gatt-Rutter, "Calvino's Macrocosm: The Politics of Play," in his Writers and Politics in Modern Italy (copyright © 1978 John Gatt-Rutter), Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1978, pp. 46-50.


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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

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[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 beings. (p. 61)

The Cloven Viscount is the first instalment of a trilogy called Our Ancestors. The second volume, The Baron in the Trees, also follows a neat division of the world. There is a society of people who live on the ground, and a society of people who live on trees, imagined by the hero, Cosimo…. Cosimo has chosen arboreal life for two reasons. He states the first one clearly when asked about his choice of such an uncomfortable abode: 'From the trees I can piss farther.' As for the second reason, it is the obvious appeal for duplication. The specular reflection of life on earth reproduced higher up, among branches and foliage, turns into reality. Cosimo, like Alice, is stepping through the mirror.

In the third novel of the trilogy, The Nonexistent Knight …, the state of permanent absence of the protagonist from the world of existence gives Calvino wide opportunity for binary combinations. Agilulfo, the vacant hero, is a knight in armour with an armour but without a knight (the reverse of Salvador Dalì's Oeufs au plat sans le plat). At an existential level, he is pure consciousness without being … and he stands in psychological and epistemological opposition to his servant, Gurdulù, who is pure being without consciousness…. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, they represent extreme cases of spirituality (thinned down to non-existence) and carnality (puffed-up to non-consciousness). (pp. 61-2)

Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore [If on a Winter's Night a Traveler], the most ambitious of Calvino's novels, describes a reader's search for a significant thread through the beginnings of ten different novels. Here again the same enquiry is pursued: is there an order in the disorder of the world? In the third Incipit (Incipit was one of the discarded titles of this novel) there is a girl who makes drawings of sea-shells because she believes in their perfection. Her young suitor refuses to be interested in the sea-shells' formal geometry and fearful symmetry because he believes that the true nature of the world can only be revealed through chaos and dissolution. Yet the young man is brought back to a pristine faith in the order of things by his experience of the primitive machinery of a small meteorological station. (pp. 62-3)

Calvinian orders [ethical, social, existential] are constantly undermined by external elements: threatening chaos, unfathomable instinct, unpredictable psychology—or even the fact that nature is not geometrical. But, above all, order is threatened by the inventiveness of language. I call this inventiveness the Gnac Factor. (p. 63)

The Gnac Factor is against order, against binary systems, against symmetry—and it saves Calvino from his own obsessions, his own myths. Ultimately, it is a means of freeing Calvino from his own rationality. Calvino is an eighteenth-century writer gone astray: this is what makes the greatness of his works. (p. 64)

Guido Almansi, "The Gnac Factor," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1980), Vol. 20, No. 7, October, 1980, pp. 61-4.

John Gardner

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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 "Italian Folktales" the superb book it is; and partly, of course, the praise must go to generations of unlettered old Italian women from every district (the origin of each tale is given), the traditional transmitters and sly revisors of the tales. (p. 1)

[While] much of Europe was turning to the folktale in search of cultural roots, both linguistic and, loosely, magical—sunny Catholic Italy treated her tales as simply tales, changing them, localizing them, combining and recombining them more freely than did cultures more soberly concerned about their heritage. One result is that many of the published tales Calvino had as sources were highly conscious, sometimes silly literary elevations of folk material, while others were authentic-sounding folktales directly traceable not to Boccaccio's folk sources but to the Decameron itself.

Calvino's job was to "feel out," through a painstaking comparison of variants and through the power of his own imagination, the scattered, broken jewels not of the supposed Old Religion but of the authentic folk voice and method. He becomes, in effect, the most recent voice in the history of each tale's transmission. This is not to say that he treats the tales cavalierly, making them simply the springboard for original works. He adds, deletes or alters with wonderful reserve, and in his notes to the tales he lets us know what he has done and what happens in the more important variants….

Though the Italian tales are all of the standard 50-some types and have the standard motifs (only one, according to the late Stith Thompson, is unique), they have a personality—or several related but distinct regional personalities—all their own. As a group they contrast most sharply, to my mind, with the German and Austrian tales, which are among the most powerful to be found in all folklore but are often marred by gratuitous cruelty. All folktale traditions contain, of course, some cruelty and even, like nature, a fair amount of casual injustice….

But there is relatively little of this in the Italian tales. They mention life's cruelty, then hurry on. There is very little here, to put it another way, of that malicious pleasure in the misfortunes of others which to Nietzsche seemed a standard component of human character. The Italian tales do not needlessly frighten children into dutiful citizenship. They mention axes but do not dwell on them; they do not gleefully slam the woodbox cover and chop off the innocent child's head.

The Italian tales differ from the German in various other ways as well—in their democratic attitudes …, in their cultural details (princesses make lasagne), but above all in their earthiness and realism or, more precisely, their delight in the interplay of the fabulous and the particularized real. Tales are often set in real towns; witches live in actual houses on actual streets….

What the Italian tales do have in common with the best of the German tales—and with the best tales from Russia, China and so forth—is superb design. Often, like the Russian tales, they are extraordinarily rich in characterization—partly an effect of the considerable length and episodic complexity of many of the tales (the structure gives character room) and partly an effect of the tellers' special interest in the way people are….

On the whole, the world of the Italian tale is gentle; its favorite theme is love (both boy-girl love and family love). (p. 40)

The Italian tale never touches—or wants—the metaphoric brilliance of the African tales … and knows nothing of African mind-breaking paradox. The Italian folktale has no trace of the other-worldly softness of British and, especially, Irish folktales—no skimmering of fairies, "lighter than noonday light."

Though girls may be transformed into apples or pears, and though a roomful of gossamer weaving may flow out of a walnut, the Italian tales are too fond of peasant wit, too fond of real-world cunning (in the Calabrian tales), too fond of the real sky, land and water of Italy to be anything but heartily realistic. When hungry people go out into a cabbage field and pull a very large cabbage whose roothole is a tunnel to Hell, the marvelous happens almost incidentally: it's the convincing hunger, the people, the field of cabbages that stand out in our minds. The Devil himself, in another tale, is as common as dirt, except that his nose is silver.

The Italian tales have none of the splendid enamelwork of the Chinese and Japanese, and also lack the standard expectation of inhuman patience found in Middle Eastern and Oriental tales. It is true that in one tale a maiden cannot win her love until she's worn out seven pairs of iron shoes, seven iron mantles and seven iron hats, but she manages it all rather quickly….

Two further features of Italian tales require comment. One is their essential democracy (especially in the Tuscan tales); the other is their high regard for clever, energetic—or occasionally clever, fat and lazy—women.

Just as the Italian storytellers are in general unclear about the fine distinctions between witches and dragons, giants and ogres—features borrowed from folktales elsewhere—the tale-tellers of Tuscany are unclear about what, exactly, kings might be. (Florence was, you will remember, the birthplace of Italian democracy and the Renaissance.) In Tuscan tales kings look out their windows into the windows of neighbor kings. In the fiabe, as in other European folktales, kings marry peasants; but only in Italy does it seem not worth remark. In most traditions the marriage makes a point: A peasant may be morally worthy of a king. In Italy, marriage itself, not the fact that the marriage is to a king, is the triumph….

I have only been able to suggest the riches in this large collection, and I've necessarily left a good deal unmentioned—the tales of saints and miracles come to mind—but I have perhaps said enough to establish my main point. Calvino's collection stands with the best folktale collections anywhere. (p. 41)

John Gardner, "For All Who Like Stories," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1980, pp. 1, 40-1.

Olga Ragusa

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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 one with missing pages that has been sold him: a pursuit which takes him to university library and publishing house and leads to his encounter with other readers, from the voracious, instinctive and uncritical Ludmila to her sister, the programmed reading machine Lotaria.

The frame story loses some of its impetus—that wonderful involvement of all readers conscious of their being readers, so similar to that of the theatre audience that sees itself reflected in the fictional audience onstage—when the writer Silas Flannery appears. He is a plagiarist or counterfeiter, suffering from writer's block and obsessed by the identity of a woman he sees stretched out on a deck chair reading miles away below his Alpine refuge. As attention is focused more and more on the writer's point of view of the writer/reader relationship, the freshness of the early pages is lost in what to me at least seem unnecessary complications. The frame story ends twice, once with a roundtable discussion between occasional companions in a library, the second with the Reader and Ludmilla married, each reading his/her book in the large double bed. The first resolution contains one kind of climax or denouement in the surprise ending which reveals the beginning of yet another novel, the eleventh, in the continuous sentence formed by the ten titles of the broken-off texts. The denouement of the second ending is the more familiar one: in its reference to the fundamental pattern of storytelling, "And they lived happily ever after," it contains the reassurance that life too will go on.

There are internal references to the Thousand and One Nights as model structure, and collections such as the Decameron or The Canterbury Tales naturally come to mind also. But these parallels are deceptive. It is never quite clear in Calvino whether the dominant role belongs to the frame or to the stories within it, while traditionally at least the stories within the frame have been favored in these other cases. Perhaps Calvino's real contribution to the genre is just this: the self-reflexive part of the novel engages author and reader to the point that the stories told are only incidental. (pp. 80-1)

Olga Ragusa, "Italian: 'Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 80-1.

Anthony Burgess

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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; they are literature in a way in which the Grimm tales are not. There is some brutality, but nothing on the scale of the German stories (remember the death of the Queen in the Snow White tale: she is made to wear red-hot shoes of iron and dance till she drops). There is an unfolksy elegance, almost a quality of the troubadours, and the medieval legends of chivalry.

We do not find much of the agricultural myth. It is as though the Greco-Roman tales of Demeter and Persephone have already been discarded as insufficiently sophisticated. There is nothing made out of the agonies of winter and the hope that spring will come. But, on the level of the adventures of youths and maidens, transmutations from human to animal and back again, the victory of the good heart over the evil one, we know ourselves to be very much in the Aryan heartland.

The kings and queens of the south lack the magical and magisterial: they are no more than magnates who have bought the big house round the corner. There are no pancakes, but pasta … is eaten. Women are fruit, and trees have souls. We are in a world we already know, one in which the unity of the animate and the inanimate, of flesh and fruit and precious metals, is assumed by the folk, as it is assumed by the child, but there is no sense, as in Grimm, of encountering the raw stuff of the fireside, retailed by an old gummy granny. The Italians have had a literature longer than the Germans and it shows.

So probably Calvino was right in wishing his collection to be read with the somewhat complicated sensibility we bring to Pinocchio (which is so good, if we forget the disneyfication, that no folktale can touch it). We know we are in the world of cities and not of primeval forests because money is countable stuff in the mercantile tradition, not vague bags of gold and silver. Sex, as opposed to romantic love, attests the sophistication….

The Christ-child gets, often with lachrymose consequences, into the Grimm collection, but there is little religion in the Italian tales….

What religion we find is often shorn of the numinous and made to serve sectarian interests…. St Anthony is transmuted into a sort of Prometheus (his tale comes from Corsica). He steals fire from Hell and warms the world. Nuns and monks are distressingly secular. Priests tend to mild lasciviousness. If these stories show nothing else, they demonstrate the innate paganism of the chief of the Christian nations. Or perhaps it had better be termed realism. Italian realism often comes out at the end of a tale in some such formula as: "Yes, they lived happy ever after, but we sit here shivering in the dark."

Calvino has performed a valuable service to his own culture and, by extension, to our own. Reading his book, we are confirmed in our belief that human aspirations are everywhere much the same…. Where the writer can still learn from the folktale is in the technique of rigid economy—an economy which, as Calvino reminds us in his notes, was often vitiated in the past by retellers of the tales who possessed literary ambitions. Our compiler has, following his own aesthetic as well as that of the folk, cut away excrescences very frequently. What we get here is less high literature than something between the bald tale and the stylish artifact.

Anthony Burgess, "Southern Sophistication," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4058, January 9, 1981, p. 29.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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[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 the Non-Reader….

[One] chapter yields to the next, as each beginning is aborted, as presentiment quarrels with evasion.

So many stories begin, and none of them ends….

Mr. Calvino, an expert on Modernism, enjoys himself in his disdain of the problematical. Each of his chapters may not advance the novel, but the titles of the "suspended" novels add up to a story as pure as a Japanese poem.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times: 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler'," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1981, p. 20.


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"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 between different levels of reality, mixing legend and anecdote, the distant past and the present. Calvino's surrealism works because he nearly always has one foot planted firmly in the world of ordinary human experience. This is the anchor that makes his imaginary flights not only tolerable but entertaining.

In If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino's anchor is the reader addressed in the first sentence. He has bought the book and settles down to read it…. He discovers that the book he is reading is a spoiled copy. The signatures of another book, a Polish novel, have been bound in together with the pages of the Calvino novel. The following day, the reader returns to the bookstore where he bought it, and there he meets a young woman who is also returning a defective copy of the book…. They agree that they rather prefer the Polish novel to Calvino's…. By bringing these two people together, the act of reading has literally affected their lives, and the rest of the novel alternates between scenes from their lives and from the fiction they are reading.

They end up reading a lot and seeing a great deal of each other, for the Polish novel which they have decided to read instead of Calvino's also turns out to be faulty…. This time they take their complaint directly to the publisher, who tells them that the novel isn't Polish at all, but Cimmerian, a language that is at once contemporary and extinct…. They learn that the book is only a fragment and soon find themselves caught up in a vicious academic brawl between the supporters of Cimmerian and those of Cimbrian, a language that is supposed to have replaced it. The reader and his friend consult the publisher once more and learn that the book is not Polish-Cimmerian at all, but a translation of a French detective story. This introduces the translator, a shadowy figure of doubtful morality, who is engaged in purveying translations of a novel supposedly written by an international best-selling author, Silas Flannery. This work, following episodes worthy of Evelyn Waugh, is in turn imitated by a Japanese author…. The constant metamorphosis of the original novel into one form after another permits Calvino to give samples, 10 in all, from the whole range of contemporary writing around the world. These passages appear between chapters that deal with the two readers' attempts to verify their texts and constitute an entertaining series of parodies of some of the principal genres of contemporary fiction, ranging from the East European political novel to the Latin American novel, which is presented as a bizarre amalgam of Borges, García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar.

These sequences are witty and amusing, but it must also be said that other parts of the book are excessive and at times ridiculous. If on a winter's night a traveler is a novel impelled more by an idea than by feeling, more by intellect than by character. Despite its cleverness, it begins to grow tedious. What might have been a successful short story or novella, a tour de force succeeding precisely because of its wit (whose soul is brevity), is here blown up beyond reason. The foot that in the opening chapters was firmly planted in the world of daily reality no longer stands firm, and fantasy begets fantasy with diminishing returns.

This fault reflects a misjudgment of the nature of successful humor. Delight in exaggeration and bizarre incident is a fundamental element in much Italian humor, as we know from the commedia dell'arte. Its success depends on a continuing enrichment and development of humor from one level to another, to unexpected heights of absurdity. Its greatest enemy is repetition, and unfortunately Calvino's new novel is guilty of this fault, not in precise incident, but in the type of incident. The book's fundamental joke is reiterated again and again. The novel also lacks fully developed characters, for, being a book inspired by an idea, it relies more on mental agility than on the human foibles that lie at the heart of the richest humor.

But the book contains much that is charming. The parodies of the world's modern literatures are delightful. The range of types Calvino has attempted and successfully rendered is prodigious…. (pp. 34-5)

Moreover, beneath the laughter and the absurdity lies a serious concept. It centers on the nature of reality and the way that reality is perceived through art. What is the use of art? How does the quest of the artist coincide with the quest of the reader? The 10 novels here represented are seen at once as a kaleidoscope of all literature and as part of a single novel—part of a universal human vision. These concepts are dealt with most fully in the latter part of the novel where we are given Silas Flannery's notebooks as well as conversations on art between the reader and a public official whose role as censor brings into question the subversive aspect of all serious literature. (p. 35)

Calvino belongs to the younger school of Italian writers who wish to go beyond the neo-realists of the 1950s. They see the world no longer as a coherent entity but as a group of fragments that seem not to be controlled by common principles of logic. In this, Calvino is similar in some ways to the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. In a world where our lives are circumscribed by governments, unions, armies, and politicians that paralyze us more than help us, Calvino relies finally on the individual voice…. For Calvino, civilization rests on the individual act. (p. 36)

Frank MacShane, "A Novel within a Novel Within …," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 19, May 9, 1981, pp. 34-6.

J. D. O'Hara

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[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 flies). He can be comic, and he is, but for the most part he is serious, positive, celebratory. The eight readers in the library at the end say fine things about reading, and the reader of these things is properly appreciative. But also a bit dazzled. So many fine things have been said already. Imagine an hour of fireworks…. (pp. 641-42)

Calvino is an untiringly intelligent writer…. If on a winter's night a traveler is written on the [principle of dehydrated ideas]. The Other Reader says many excellent things about her interest in fiction. One hopes that she will say more, every time. But no, Calvino goes on to other pleasures. He even includes a description of his novel in his novel. One notes it, with amusement. And then one comes upon another description of it, different but equally persuasive. And then another! It can never be satisfied, the mind, never. (p. 642)

J. D. O'Hara, "A Hymn of Eleven Beginnings," in The Nation (copyright 1981 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 232, No. 20, May 23, 1981, pp. 641-42.

Gilbert Sorrentino

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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 as we read, discover that "you" is not the usual foil, the time-honored figure to whom the narrator tells, in the first- or third-person, his story. "You" is the second-person protagonist of the novel, and he is, above all other things, a Reader. What he does, or wants to do, in chapters that detail his adventures, is read. The chapters dealing with "you" alternate with the chapters that he is reading, but through error, carelessness, chance, design, conspiracy, these chapters (10 of them) are not from the same book; they are the first chapters of 10 different books, and each breaks off at the point of crisis or suspense: they are cliff-hangers.

What is Calvino up to? I think that he is doing what the practitioners of the contemporary novel have been doing for at least a quarter-century, putting into practice an idea succinctly stated—in 1923!—by the Formalist critic, Victor Shklovsky: "The ideas in a literary work do not constitute its content but rather its material, and in their combinations and interrelations with other aspects of the work they create its form." The "content" of Calvino's novel is precisely the material from which he makes the form that we hold in our hands as this book. This novel's splinterings, ambiguities, contradictions, distorted mirror images, thematic variations, off-key fugues are as absolutely representative of objective reality as the linear, plotted, sequential narrative of the conventional novel, the latter as much as invention, and as totally artificial as the nouveau roman, and with the equivalent relation to objective reality: none. (p. 1)

Calvino's novel more bluntly insists that the world of the book equals the world of the book. If, as Mallarmé says, "everything in the world exists to end in a book," then "everything" must stand for material, to be used by the writer to make forms that are those of literature, not reality. (pp. 1-2)

This is a brilliant work of great imaginative power and artistic authority. With it, Calvino has, in Shklovsky's phrase, "ripped things from their ordinary sequence of associations." (p. 2)

Gilbert Sorrentino, "Reading over the Writer's Shoulder," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), June 7, 1981, pp. 1-2.

Kristen Murtaugh

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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 several nineteenth century Italian folklorists. Calvino made his way through their anthologies, looking for the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts. These texts he then edited, enriched with variants, and translated into standard Italian from the various dialects in which they had been recorded. The end result is a collection of two hundred tales arranged in a geographical sequence. (p. 381)

[Calvino] is particularly struck by the many metamorphoses of woman and fruit and woman and tree in Italian folktales, and he points to the narrative power of the metaphorical link in which the image of the fruit evokes that of the woman. Often, however, it seems that the "precise rhythm" and "joyous logic" which he discerns in such stories of transformations are really the result of Calvino's own inventiveness. One of the most striking examples of his adaptation of a story in the direction of a more pronounced metaphorical symmetry is "The Little Girl Sold with the Pears."

In the traditional tale, a little girl named Margheritina is placed in the bottom of a basket of pears to make it look full, and delivered to the king's kitchen. Raised there she draws the favor of the king's son and the jealousy of the maid servants. Banished through their trickery, she returns with a witch's treasure, protected by magical props provided by the prince, whom she marries. Where the original tale seemed to put its emphasis on the power and constancy of love, Calvino's adaptation shifts the attention to the pear motif. He changes the child's name to Perina ("Little Pear") and he invents an episode in which the young girl receives the means for obtaining the treasure from a little old woman under a pear tree. Thus, when Calvino speaks of the hybrid nature of his edition, we must remember the more literary qualities the popular tales assume as they are recast by a contemporary letterato, an accomplished and self-conscious practitioner himself of the art of the fable.

Calvino makes some very interesting and suggestive remarks in his introduction about the nature of love, the imagery of cruelty, and the relation of the world of the king to that of the peasant in the Italian folktale. He doesn't, however, discuss one of the most interesting types of folktales represented in this collection, the stories about various saints or about Christ and the Apostles…. There is something very Italian about these wonderful sketches in which Christ is shown playing tricks on his Apostles and "splitting his sides laughing" when St. Peter's attempts at miracle-making backfire. The Mediterranean world has traditionally had a more relaxed relationship not only to its rulers and its legendary heroes, but also to its saints and to God himself. (pp. 381-82)

Kristen Murtaugh, "An Inventive Link in the Chain of Tales," in Commonweal (copyright © 1981 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 12, June 19, 1981, pp. 381-82.

Michael Wood

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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 book, a sudden arrest.

Some of these books read like delicate parodies…. Others read like eerily filtered descriptions of acts of reading…. (p. 24)

[The] book is both vividly written … and thoroughly aware of "the immensity of the nonwritten," the world not on the page but beyond it, the world the page must point to if we are to care about it….

Calvino also mounts a running attack on various excesses of academic analysis, the rooting about in novels for codes and patterns and structures and problems. Reading is an endangered pleasure, and Calvino wants to give us the pleasure as well as talk about the danger. And yet two things do need to be said.

This book is a fantasy, fabricates a pair of dream-readers out of an engulfing nostalgia for the old modes of reading, for the pursuit of story and suspense, for the innocence which knows nothing of how books are made and unmade. It is charming, and funny, and very intelligent. But it is wishful….

And then the book, for all its formidable wit and skill, is a confession of failure, and I think we shall get it wrong if we insist on converting all its apparent misses into clever hits. The stalled writer, the one who is in love with beginnings, says "I would like to be able to write a book that is only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object." This is a desire, not a program. An expectation permanently unfocused is simply a disappointment. Of course, Calvino himself does focus the expectations he creates, and focuses them as few contemporary writers could. As a book about broken narrative promises this work is impeccable. But its very success in this vein leads us to the sadness of its central subject, the absence of the artist, Dickens, Tolstoy, Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, who could brilliantly keep the promises he made. (p. 25)

Michael Wood, "A Romance of the Reader," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 21, 1981, pp. 1, 24-5.


Calvino, Italo (Vol. 11)


Calvino, Italo (Vol. 5)