The Road to San Giovanni
In an ironically poignant passage from “La Poubelle Agréée” (the pleasing dustbin), an essay on the unlikely subject of garbage disposal which appears in this collection, the brilliant and sadly missed storyteller Italo Calvino asserts that placing household refuse in an approved container represents an assertion that one’s own life will continue, at least for another day. This modern mythographer states his thesis obliquely; Calvino borrows (without attribution) the phrase coined by Romanian-born religionist Mircea Eliade to describe the process as an “eternal return.” Seen this way, the personal detritus of countless individuals becomes an assurance that the cosmos itself continues to function, even as the persons who produce the offscourings change minute by minute.
For a writer there are two forms of castoffs: what is published and what finds its way to an approved receptacle, never to be read. Were it not for Calvino’s widow, Esther, the five sketches of this small book probably would have fallen into the second category. For the thousands who have read and admired the simultaneously witty and sad mythoi Calvino created through his career, it would have been a shame never to have seen the collection ultimately published under the title that is also that of its first essay, The Road to San Giovanni. Inveterate readers of Calvino will gain few insights from the work, but reading it will resemble an all-too-brief final meeting with an old and charming friend.
Readers less well acquainted with Calvino’s rich literary legacy will have more substantial treats in store if they first peruse his masterpieces: Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees, 1959), Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics, 1968), II castello dei destini incrociati (1969, rev. 1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1977), Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974), and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981). Reading these, perhaps with Calvino’s own Una pietra sopra (1980; The Uses of Literature, 1986) or Albert Howard Carter’s Italo Calvino: Metamorphoses of Fantasy (1987), places the essays of The Road to San Giovanni in their creative context and allows a deeper under-standing of Calvino’s distinctive technique. As late as the year of his death, Calvino had planned a more comprehensive format for his “memory exercises” and had planned to call them Passagi obbligati, “necessary passages” which explored his own “rites of passage.” As it happened, some of the projected essays existed as mere titles at the time of his death (“Instructions for the Other Self,” “Cuba,” “The Objects”). Those that do appear in The Road to San Giovanni were written between 1962 and 1977, and they therefore parallel Calvino ’5 most productive period. It is possible for readers who know the masterworks Calvino published at these times to observe affinities between the author’s fictive and memoirist techniques. The question of what constitutes the definitive narrative is as much a preoccupation of the memory exercises as it is in Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s Night a Traveler.
Most lyrically beautiful of the five exercises is the poet’s evocation of his youth in the essay “The Road to San Giovanni.” Though born in Cuba, Calvino spent his youth in San Remo, Italy, on the estates of his prosperous parents. In one sense it was a way of life as privileged as that of Calvino’s boy-hero in The Baron in the Trees, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo’, heir to the vast but fictive estate of Ombrosa. Even so, Calvino in the 1930’s, like Cosimo in the 1790’s, recognized that external forces will change his circumstances.
Perhaps to steel himself for the new urbanism then making itself felt in Fascist Italy, young Calvino rejected his father’s interest in agriculture and estate management as firmly as his protagonist Cosimo had rejected the comfortable standards of the Piovascos. Cosimo became a visionary and lived in the trees, indeed died there, never again touching the earth once he made his ascent. Calvino followed the road beyond his family’s private drive and front gate which led to the pavements, shop windows, and cinemas of town. His father did not, however, allow young Calvino to avoid the path that led from the back gate, an uphill trek along the road to the family’s San Giovanni estate. These half-hour peregrinations were to have taught Calvino the principles of agronomy even as they were intended to provide...
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