Italo Calvino

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Spanning some forty years, Italo Calvino’s literary production includes highly diverse novels, adaptations, translations, edited texts, critical essays, newspaper articles, and lectures. Calvino selected some of these latter essays for inclusion in Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societa (1980; The Uses of Literature, 1986). After his death, his wife collected essays that he had been preparing for the 1985-1986 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The five lectures in Sulla fiaba (1988; Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988, the sixth apparently never written) explore the distinctive values that Calvino believed literature alone imparts to humanity as it faces a dubious future. (The sixth lecture, on consistency, was apparently never written.)

Achievements

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An innovative traditionalist, Calvino imaginatively fuses the two major modes of fiction—realism and fantasy—by using both poetic association and scientific reasoning. As he observed in 1970:What is at the heart of narration for me is not the explanation of a strange fact, but the order of things this extraordinary fact or event develops in and around itself , the network of images deposited around it, as in the formation of a crystal.

While best known for this crystalline blend of mundane and magical, of logical and impossible, Calvino is also a critically acclaimed realist and master fabulist. His first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, 1957, 1965; The Path to the Nest of Spiders, 1956), a boy’s wartime experiences narrated in neorealistic manner, won the Premio Riccione, while in 1972, he received the Premio Feltrinelli per la Narrativa—Italy’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize—for the historical fantasy, Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974). I racconti (short stories) won the prestigious Bagutta Prize in 1958.

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Italo Calvino (kahl-VEE-noh) was known to the Italian reading public as a novelist, but internationally he was often associated with his tales and stories. In the comprehensive and critically acclaimed Fiabe italiane: Raccolte della tradizione popolare durante gli ultimi cento anni e transcritte in lingua dai vari dialetti (1956; partially translated as Italian Fables, 1959, and completed as Italian Folktales, 1980), he collected and transcribed tales and fables from the various Italian dialects. Influenced by the Russian Formalist Vladimir Propp’s Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales (1946) and by structuralist theory in general, Calvino made it his scholarly objective to represent every morphological type of Italian folktale as well as every region of the country. His academic study of these stories confirmed in theory what he had already discovered in practice: the power of fantasy to signify, to reflect the real world. The work also influenced his subsequent approach tonarrative through variable combinations of component forms and archetypes.

Calvino’s most widely known short-story collections are the science-fiction fantasies Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968) and Ti con zero (1967; t zero, 1969). Unlike most science fiction, which tends to be futuristic or anti-utopian, these stories envision, in intense and sharp detail, the remote past before the universe of space and time—moving to the present, in t zero—and they project an unusually open and positive view of evolution. Through the narrator, Qfwfq, a sort of protean cosmic consciousness, the prehuman past becomes sentient, familiar-seeming, and thus reassuring about the future, suggesting continuity in transformation and possibility in change.

This “fabulous” Calvino was better known to Americans than the one familiar to Italian readers, the politically and socially engaged author of satires on urban expansion and the advocate of pollution control and birth control well before those causes became popular. In I racconti (1958), La giornata d’uno scrutatore (1963; partial translation The Watcher, and Other Stories, 1971), and Marcovaldo: Ovvero, Le stagioni in...

(This entire section contains 429 words.)

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città (1963; Marcovaldo: Or, The Seasons in the City, 1983), the city, or the immediate contemporary environment, is often actually the main character. The stories in this neorealistic mode, influenced by Ernest Hemingway as well as by Italian Resistance literature, are documentary in texture but often parabolic enough to be described as Kafkaesque. They reflect the futility felt by many during the years following World War II, although that sense of futility was mitigated by a stubborn human persistence that is resistant to tyranny and despair.

In addition to his tales and stories, Calvino wrote a critical study of Elio Vittorini (1968), edited the letters of Cesare Pavese (1966), and published many essays on literary, cultural, and political topics.

Achievements

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If Italo Calvino was often treated as a storyteller or fabulator rather than as a novelist, that reputation is in most respects deserved. Whether classified as novellini (novellas) or racconti (short stories), his works are essentially stories narrated at some length and often interrelated in series: in Cosmicomics and t zero, as episodes or “strips” out of chronological sequence; in The Cloven Viscount, The Baron in the Trees, and The Non-existent Knight, as parts of the trilogy Our Ancestors; in Invisible Cities, The Castle of Crossed Destinies, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, as tales spun from a frame story, standing for the oldest of narrative impulses. Calvino’s conscious revival and complete mastery of the storyteller’s art deserves special acclaim.

Calvino himself called attention to his alternation of two characteristic modes of writing: one factual and immersed in present time and space; the other, quite “fantastic”—baroque, witty, removed from the realm of the probable. In the first mode, everyday reality is presented with striking immediacy, and the familiar is seen as if for the first time; in the second, the unbelievable is given verisimilitude, is imagined into life, and is realized in such minute detail as to be taken for granted. Critics often distinguish between the neorealistic or “engaged” Calvino and the fabulist or “escapist”; such distinctions fail to hold in the final analysis, however, considering Calvino’s development of what J. R. Woodhouse has pronounced a new genre in Italian literature, a combination of fairy tale and novel of ideas. In this genre, realism and fantasy are interdependent; both are necessary to a perspective that acknowledges the creative connections between fact and fiction. Calvino’s last development was his metafiction, which outshines that of his postmodernist peers in clarity, brilliance, and human interest. Perhaps his finest achievement lies in his ability to give the unimaginable, abstract, or complex a palpable life and, often, popular appeal.

Within this mode, Calvino covers a wide range of techniques, subjects, and themes, all of which contribute to his larger point: the inexhaustible potential of narrative and language. Confirming his success is the popular and critical acclaim accorded him after the publication of his first novel, for which he received the Riccione Prize in 1947. Subsequently he won the Viareggio Prize for The Baron in the Trees in 1957, the Bagutta Prize for I racconti in 1959, the Salento Prize in 1960 for Our Ancestors, the Veillon Prize in 1963 for The Watcher, and the Feltrinelli Prize for Invisible Cities in 1973. In 1968, he again won and then refused the Viareggio Prize, in protest against the literary prize as an outmoded institution. Such making and breaking of patterns characterizes Calvino’s stance and contributes to his appeal.

Discussion Topics

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How was Italo Calvino’s early exposure to Italian writers Elio Vittorini, Cesare Pavese, and Natalia Levi Ginzburg influential in his writing?

Calvino’s work has been compared to that of other writers like William Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Barth. Do you agree or disagree and why?

What is Oulipo? How does Calvino fit into the Oulipean movement?

How does Calvino’s work differ from other Oulipean writers, such as Georges Perec or Raymond Queneau?

Does Calvino’s influence show in any of the works of his “students,” or writers whom he has influenced, such as Mario Rigoni Stern, Gianni Celati, or Andrea de Carlo?

Bibliography

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Adler, Sara. Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker. Potomac, Md.: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1979. Provides a valuable introduction to the themes, techniques, and images of Calvino’s works. Presents the author as an explorer on fabulous, sometimes horrifying, journeys who provides rich, mythical perspectives on the world.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Italo Calvino. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Collection gathers eight previously published essays about Calvino’s work written by Gore Vidal, Seamus Heaney, and other authors and arranged in chronological sequence. Includes an introduction by Bloom.

Bolongaro, Eugenio. Italo Calvino and the Compass of Literature. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Examines five of Calvino’s early works, written between 1948 and 1963, demonstrating how they meditate on the role of the intellectual and on the ethical and political dimensions of literature.

Cannon, JoAnn. Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1981. A good introduction, with chapters on Calvino’s longer fiction and a bibliography.

Carter, Albert Howard, III. Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1987. Masterful analysis of Calvino the fantasist explores his contribution to what is possible in literature by analyzing his use of the contrafactual realms of imagination, speculation, and hypothesis. Includes an excellent bibliography.

Fenwick, Julie. “Sex, Language, and Narrative Continuity and Discontinuity in Italo Calvino’s ‘Meiosis.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Spring, 1990): 203-209. Shows how Calvino’s story is post-structuralist in that the essential self disappears before the narrator’s speculations, just as the essential text disappears under poststructuralist criticism. Asserts Calvino’s characters are caught in a paradox of discontinuity because they are incapable of real contact, and continuity, in that they are chained to the past.

Gabriele, Tommasina. Italo Calvino: Eros and Language. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. Explores Calvino’s language of love and his treatment of sex, language, and laughter. Includes notes and bibliography.

Gracia, Jorge J. E., Carolyn Korsmeyer, and Rodolphe Gasché, eds. Literary Philosophers: Borges, Calvino, Eco. New York: Routledge, 2002. An analysis of the philosophical views of writers Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Umberto Eco.

Hume, Kathryn. Calvino’s Fictions: Cogito and Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Explores Calvino’s treatment of the cosmos and of cosmogony, with separate chapters on The Path to the Nest of Spiders and Marcovaldo, The Castle of Crossed Destinies and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and Invisible Cities and Mr. Palomar. Includes notes and a bibliography.

Hume, Kathryn. “Sensuality and the Senses in Calvino’s Fiction.” Modern Language Notes 107 (January, 1992): 160-177. Argues that sensual material is largely lacking in Calvino’s work because of his lack of interest in constructing simulations of everyday reality. Discusses Calvino’s treatment of the senses and his unusual handling of sensuous experiences; categorizes treatment of senses in Calvino’s fiction.

Jeannet, Angela M. Under the Radiant Sun and the Crescent Moon: Italo Calvino’s Storytelling. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Discusses Calvino’s works that have been translated into English, examining Calvino as both a creative writer and a critical thinker. Traces events in Calvino’s life and his creative influences to understand their significance in his writing. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

McLaughlin, Martin. Italo Calvino. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. Very detailed study of Calvino’s fiction begins with his early stories and his development of a neorealistic style. Includes a chronology of Calvino’s works and a bibliography.

Markey, Constance. Italo Calvino: A Journey Toward Postmodernism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Examines postmodernist literature in Italy, tracing Calvino’s development as a postmodernist writer. Also analyzes Calvino’s ties to Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Mark Twain. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Olken, I. T. With Pleated Eye and Garnet Wing: Symmetries of Italo Calvino. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. Presents a perceptive analysis of the various “symmetries” (structural, thematic, natural, configural) in Calvino’s work as well as his balancing of diverse elements: traditional and innovative, rational and absurd, roguish and grotesque. Includes notes and index.

Re, Lucia. Calvino and the Age of Neorealism: Fables of Estrangement. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. Examines Calvino’s work from a neorealistic perspective, placing the author within the context of Italian neorealism and demonstrating the influence of this literary movement in the novel The Path to the Nest of Spiders.

Review of Contemporary Fiction 6 (Summer, 1986). Special issue on Calvino, with essays on his framed narratives, his minimalist narratives, his aesthetics, and both his long and short fictions.

Ricci, Franco. Painting with Words, Writing with Pictures: Word and Image in the Work of Italo Calvino. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Criticism and interpretation. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Wood, Michael. “Hidden in the Distance: Reading Calvino Reading.” The Kenyon Review, n.s. 20, no. 2 (Spring, 1998): 155-170. Discusses Calvino’s belief that language is more often failure than success. Argues that Calvino’s fiction is an example of one of literature’s most significant half-truths: When you write, you always write the wrong book.

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