Calvino was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, on 15 October 1923, where his parents were working as agronomists. Shortly thereafter the family returned to San Remo, Italy, a Ligurian town near France, where Calvino grew up and spent the better part of the next twenty years. He attended public schools, and because his parents were nonreligious he did not receive a religious education, nor was he subjected to the obligatory Fascist indoctrination of the time. A family tradition of devotion to science obliged him to enter the School of Agriculture at the University of Turin, where his father was a distinguished professor of tropical agriculture.
Calvino's studies were interrupted by twenty months of German occupation during World War II. When his parents were abducted by the Germans, their twenty-year-old son joined the Garibaldi Brigade, a partisan resistance group active in the Maritime Alps. His anti-Fascism, though, was due more to his tenaciously liberal upbringing than to political conviction. After the war he returned to the university and, taking advantage of special allowances made to wartime students, enrolled in the faculty of literature, graduating one year later with a thesis on Joseph Conrad.
Calvino began his writing career in the mid 1940s, at a time when Neorealism was becoming the dominant literary movement. The dilemma for the young author coming of age at this moment of cultural flux was whether to follow the accepted standard of social realism promoted by Marxist ideology or move beyond literary convention on his own. For a while Calvino was able to maintain a healthy balance and satisfy both his political commitment and evolving literary aspirations. Sharing an allegiance to socialist ideology with the writers Cesare Pavese and Elio Vittorini, he worked as a militant journalist for the communist newspaper L'Unità and also contributed to Il Politecnico. Much later, between 1959 and 1966, he served as codirector with Vittorini of the journal Il menabò.
Between the summer of 1945 and the spring of 1949 Calvino wrote many short stories. Thirty of them were eventually collected in the volume Ultimo viene il corvo (The Crow Comes Last, 1949). Twenty of these stories were translated in Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories (1957). The subject matter of the stylistically disparate tales is the war and Fascism, often seen through the eyes of unreliable narrators. Evidently having espied a disturbing undercurrent of discontent in postwar Italian society, Calvino examines the ideological fervor of his day and a growing conservative trend among the lower middle class.
A single-minded perspective emerges from these stories of strife and difficulty in postwar Italy. Through the filter of intellectual detachment he dispassionately draws fragments of reality, evoking scenes not so much to portray human passions but to depict a reconstruction of social relationships. It is an approach that privileges superficiality and denies psychological motivations. In the stories, whether one wishes to call them fantastic or realistic, Calvino seems most interested in a speculative realm beyond literature. He would soon turn to literary experiments combining folklore and fantasy with science and philosophy in his search to unveil the hidden syntax of the world and reveal the thread that binds all matter surreptitiously.
The years from 1947 to 1956 were difficult for young Calvino. While he was working as a party operative, dutifully writing a weekly feature called "Gente nel tempo" (People Today) for the communist newspaper as well as serving as editorialist, social commentator, and analyst, the fiery, intelligent writer also sought a different avenue of individual expression. He discharged his creative tension by submitting polemical articles to the cultural review Il Politecnico, in which he took his impegno (political commitment) into literary criticism.
In the preface to the 1954 edition of Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; translated as The Path to the Nest of Spiders , 1957), Calvino gives an invaluable portrait of postwar Italy. The term Neorealism first began circulating in Italy in 1945, and the movement, an intellectual response to the excesses of Fascist doctrine, fostered strong political commitment and a passionate interest in social issues. Indeed it was expected that a serious artist bear witness to history and contribute to the reconstruction of the moral fiber of the country. As Calvino notes, at the time the term characterized the collective outburst of heretofore repressed expressionism:
Il "neorealismo" non fu una scuola. . . . Fu un insieme di voci, in gran parte periferiche, una molteplice scoperta delle diverse Italie, anche--o specialmente--delle Italie fino allora più inedite per la letteratura.
("Neorealism" was not a school. . . . It was a collection of voices, largely marginal, a multiple discovery of the various Italy, even--or particularly--the Italys previously unknown to literature.)
The passion of the Resistance ignited the Left and inspired many young writers to work for the common good of society.
Although Calvino remained a member of the Italian Communist Party until 1958, the year that Russia's invasion of Hungary drove many disgruntled intellectuals from the party, he was not inclined to accept a politically motivated narrative paradigm. He was at odds with the communist officials who decried what they considered the decadent individualism of unbridled self-expression as well as all literary experimentation dealing with historical issues. Calvino's position is clear in a 1948 article titled "Saremo come Omero," in which he responded to Emilio Sereni, a party officer whose responsibility was to draw clear guidelines for acceptable literature: "Caro Sereni . . . i linguaggi letterari sono personali come fazzoletti da naso" (Dear Sereni . . . literary language is as personal as one's handkerchief). Calvino was deeply troubled by the attempt of the leftist intelligentsia to curb artistic expression in order to achieve ideological purity. In the heated debate sparked by the ideologues who desired the programmatic literature and art of socialist realism, Calvino took his stand with those who believed that any form of constraint on the artist would ultimately result in propaganda.
Calvino's main contribution to the neorealist literature of the Resistance is the novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, for which he won the Premio Riccione. The protagonist of the novel is Pin, an orphaned boy enticed by the perilous interests of war and sex. He spends most of his time in a local tavern, where he sings bawdy tavern songs and learns the lewd secrets of adulthood. One day he is taunted by the tavern crowd into stealing the pistol of one of his sister's German clients. He accepts the challenge, seeing this as an opportunity to prove his worth as a "man." At the same time, however, Pin is still a boy and is confused by the often unexplainable habits of these same men. He reacts by discovering a secret haunt where he may hide from the world and remain a child. This is the path where spiders make their nest, and here he hides the stolen gun.
Calvino's youthful political naiveté is mirrored in Pin, who is thrust into a world of incompetent partisans. Pin learns about life through mysterious, magic words (gap, sim, stem) and through the dubious behavior of so-called committed individuals. Based partly on Calvino's experiences, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno presents a firsthand account of the historical period and an ingenious analysis of an unprepared populace facing the vicissitudes of war. At the end the young protagonist, much like the rest of Italian society, embarks upon a new life though no clue is given of what the future holds. Calvino's own direction was just as uncertain. Though he shared both the optimism of his mentor Elio Vittorini and the troubled, heartfelt nostalgia of his friend Cesare Pavese, he could not identify with either. He was searching for an approach beyond the commonplace and the popularly successful.
Calvino can also be identified with Kim, the young intellectual of Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, who in the heightened moment of war
ha un desiderio enorme di logica, di sicurezza sulle cause e gli effetti, eppure la sua mente s'affolla a ogni istante d'interrogative irrisolti. C'è uhn enorme interesse per il genere umano, in lui: per questo studia medicina perchè sa che la spiegazione di tutto è in quella macina di cellule in moto, non nelle categorie della filosofia.
(has a great yearning for logic, for certainty about cause and effect, otherwise his mind is apt to crowd at every second with unanswered questions. He has an enormous interest in humanity; that is why he is a medical student, for he knows that the explanation of everything is to be found in the grinding moving cells of the human body, and not in philosophic speculation.)
It is not surprising that Calvino dedicated Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno to Kim, the inspiration for the most sensitive and rational of his early characters. Although the novel was considered a work of Neorealism, Calvino's investigation of the human condition clearly leaned toward the rational and scientific rather than the psychological and political. While Calvino would eventually substitute remote times and places for the realist settings of his early works, the fundamental positions elaborated through Kim remain constant regardless of the context. These include a concern for the destiny of the individual in society, a preoccupation with the mechanics of narrating, an acute awareness of the limits of philosophy and rationalism, and above all a steadfast belief in the cognitive necessity of fiction.
Calvino's narrative from its beginning is highly personalized, and Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno exhibits the enduring duality most critics find in his work. Calvino is both the wayward, wide-eyed daydreamer Pin and the logical, rational Kim. His later works show both extremes as Calvino rationalizes the universe into manageable schemes through the joy of fantasy. In his first book, then, Calvino set himself at the crossroads of his destiny.
After his first novel Calvino found it increasingly difficult to derive interesting stories from his personal experiences. He began a novel in a social realist vein, I giovani del Po , but became quickly dissatisfied with its wavering protagonist and left it in a drawer for years. Conceived in the late 1940s and written between January 1950 and July 1951, I giovani del Po was belatedly published in serial form in the journal Officina from January 1957 to April 1958. In this experiment with the epistolary novel, one of the earliest forms of the genre, Calvino is clearly at a loss for inspiration.
He also tried his hand at another novel, the fruits of which he eventually published as the three-story collection, L'entrata in guerra (Entering the War, 1954). The three stories--"L'entrata in guerra," "Gli avangardisti a Mentone" (The Vanguard Reached Menton), and "Le notte dell'UNPA" (The Nights of the UNPA)--were republished in I racconti (The Stories, 1958). They and several of the other stories that appeared in I racconti are considered Calvino's most autobiographical tales.
Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist critic and co-founder of the Italian Communist Party whose writings were published posthumously in book form in the 1940s, exercised a remarkable influence on Calvino. Gramsci insisted that literature must be viewed in relation to the life of the nation and called for a national popular literature that would be accessible to the people and receptive to their real concerns. It is not difficult to understand why Calvino would see Gramsci as a systematic and innovative intellectual in search of a new culture and a socially inspired conception of the artist's active role in history. If a new literature was possible, it would not concern itself solely with aesthetics but would be vibrant, alive, and rooted in real social values yet laced with a range of contemporary topics, including film, the American novel, music, and comic books.
The debate regarding the role of the intellectual in society became a general point of departure for the generation of post-World War II Italian writers. Calvino's antipathy toward social engineering and a desire to see literature born "da un terreno di non letteratura" (from nonliterary soil) is clear in three articles he published in Rinascita around the turn of 1949--"Saremo come Omero," "Ingegneri e demolitori" and "Letteratura, città aperta?" (Literature, An Open City?), all of which were collected in Saggi 1945-1985 (1995) and discussed by Gian Carlo Ferretti in his Le capre di Bikini: Calvino giornalista e saggista 1945-1985 (1989). The literary-political essay was one of Calvino's favorite and most prolific vehicles of expression throughout his career. These essentially optimistic pieces demonstrate Calvino's continuous study of fiction and its relationship to cultural, scientific, and historical trends. In "Letteratura, città aperta?," for example, he explores the possible role of cinema as a medium for the masses.
With Il visconte dimezzato (1952; translated as The Cloven Viscount , 1962) Calvino expressed both his political as well as literary differences with the often dull and tedious perspective of neorealist verisimilitude. The novel may be seen as symbolizing Calvino's difficulty in merging the public and the private spheres of his life, for in this rich fantastic allegory the author explores the idea of division through a man who is literally at war with himself. Set in the seventeenth century, Il visconte dimezzato describes an alienated and mutilated man, Viscount Medardo di Terralba, who is cut in half not only physically but also morally when he is struck in battle by a cannonball.
Medado's two halves survive, one decidedly good, the other reprehensibly evil, and everything in the story, which is told by the viscount's young nephew, is based on the scheme of opposites and contrasts. One half of Medardo is compulsive in his attempts to reorder the world in his own malevolent image; the other half is just as obsessed with extirpating evil from all living things. The good Medardo literally kills with kindness, an irony that suggests the complexity Calvino is able to weave into his tale. The schism of Medardo is also reflected in the larger world of the story, as in the contrast between the hedonistic lepers and the moralistic Huguenots or between the unfulfilled male characters, such as Dr. Trelawney and Master Pietrochiodo, and the integrated females, Sebastiana and Pamela. All function as social expressions of psychological divisions. At the end, when the two halves of Medardo are reunited in a climactic moral battle, the thematic balance of the story is restored, but none of the questions concerning the complexities of the true nature of good and evil are resolved. Only the young narrator remains, willing to tell new stories and invent new tales.
As may be surmised from its title, Il barone rampante (1957; translated as The Baron in the Trees , 1959), is another fantasy. On 15 June 1767 Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò climbs a tree on his family estate and decides never to come down. At the end of the book an old but limber Cosimo catches the rope of a passing hot air balloon and is carried off into the sky, never to be seen again. Despite the fantasy inherent in his novella Calvino takes care with the details of historical characters with whom Cosimo is involved, including Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Denis Diderot, and with the historical background. Cosimo is affected by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and ponders the conflict between the Jesuits and the Freemasons, but he largely remains aloof, uninvolved, an observer of eighteenth-century mores. He possesses an instinctual wisdom that allows him to peer obliquely, like Calvino, at the crises he sights from his perch.
This detached authorial stance is further abstracted in Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; translated as The Nonexistent Knight , 1962). The protagonist, Agilulfo Emo Bertrandino, is a model, though bodiless, paladin who animates an empty suit of gleaming white armor. Calvino, long an admirer of Ludovico Ariosto and his epic Orlando furioso (1516), takes many characters--Astolfo, Roland, Oliver, Charlemagne, and Bradamante--from the poet's tales of chivalry while inventing others--Agilulfo, Gurdulu, Torrismundo, and Sister Teodora. The story is rich in romance and adventure, with each character questing after a personal ideal, but it is much more as well. The unreliable narrator of the tale, Sister Teodora, whose real identity as the amazon Bradamante is finally revealed, creates an account of the past as well as of the present, as she sits writing her tale. She serves as a metaphor for Calvino the writer, the self-conscious extension of his desire to enter the realm of literature by creating and controlling characters.
In the midst of his own writing in the 1950s Calvino was also busy researching, rewriting, and bringing together two hundred folktales as Fiabe italiane (1956; translated as Italian Fables , 1961, and as Italian Folktales , 1980). In the introduction to the collection Calvino discusses the presence of myth in history and of history in myth. His study leads him to conclude that "fables are real" because they record the spiritual aspirations of a period. In this sense they provide a different, though no "less accurate," account of the past than more conventional forms of historiography. As a fruit of the imagination, Calvino argues, fables can reveal the hidden structures and patterns of the collective past. Such a belief doubtless explains why Calvino chose the title I nostri antenati (Our Ancestors, 1960) for the volume that includes the three novellas Il visconte dimezzato, Il barone rampante, and Il cavaliere inesistente.
Like Fiabe italiane, I nostri antenati presents a collective past through a combination of authentic history and fantastic invention. Calvino argues for the vibrancy of his approach in his introduction to Il barone rampante : "L'uomo che vive sugli alberi è un'allegoria del poeta, il suo modo di esser nel mondo. È, più in particolare, un'allegoria del 'disempegno'? Oppure, al contrario, dell'impegno?" (The man that lives in the trees is an allegory of the poet, of his way of being in the world. And, in particular, is it an allegory of 'non-engagement'? Or on the contrary, of 'engagement'?"). Maintaining distance offers security and permits calculated participation. The young Calvino finds momentary solace in the Age of Reason, for in the trees he happily explores new worlds and invents social utopias. The danger, represented by Agilulfo, is that of becoming a disembodied rationalist with no ties to reality, emotionally dissociated from everyday life.
Yet even while he was evolving his own aesthetic, Calvino also clung to the neorealist vision. Perhaps to counterbalance his fanciful propensity, he continued writing stories dealing with various social themes. The forty-nine stories and three novellas of I racconti , all written between 1946 and 1958, constitute a central text in Calvino's career because they show most clearly the two opposing sides of his soul, reality and fantasy. The eclectic collection includes ten Marcovaldo stories, neorealist treatments of a burdened laborer in an inhospitable city, and juxtaposes tales of youthful optimism with war stories. The three previously published novellas that end the volume--La formica argentina (1958; translated as "The Argentine Ant," 1971), La speculazione edilizia (1957; translated as "A Plunge into Real Estate," 1983), and La nuvola di smog (1958; translated as "The Smog," 1971)--provide a synopsis of Calvino's stylistic and thematic evolution in the 1950s.
Critics have found it difficult to categorize I racconti because these stories contain all the variations in content, form, and style that mirror Calvino's shift from a literature that describes the world to one that creates possible worlds. But from the boy Zefferino's surreal underwater antics in the first story of I racconti, "Pesci grossi, pesci piccoli" (Big Fish, Little Fish), to the cerebral and detached musings of the withered intellectual "Io" (I) of the last work, La nuvola di smog, there runs a vein of subtle irony. Though all fifty-two pieces are memorable, most critics favor those that exhibit stylistic elements that signal an emerging sophistication in the author. These include "Campo di mine" (Mine Field), "Il bosco sull'autostrada" (The Forest on the Superhighway), "Luna e Gnac" (Moon and Gnac), and the poignant social vignettes "L'avventura di un viaggiatore" (The Adventure of a Traveler), "L'avventura di un lettore" (The Adventure of a Reader), and "L'avventura di un poeta" (The Adventure of a Poet).
Some of Calvino's stories of the late 1950s were about the industrial triangle of northern Italy, from Genoa to Turin to Milan. Rather than describing the widespread neurosis, exploitation, fraud, corruption, and chicanery in society, Calvino focuses on dehumanization. His stories revolve around missed appointments, unfulfilled eros, and unrequited desire. He uses subtle humor and gentle irony to elicit the grotesque nature of social relations. In the stories that make up the section of I racconti titled "Gli amori difficili" --which in 1970 became a separate volume by the same ti tle (translated as Difficult Loves , 1984)--a soldier has a surreptitious rendezvous with a sultry widow; a housewife loses her bikini bottom while swimming on a crowded beach; and an ordinary clerk experiences a passionate night of lovemaking. In each situation the socially prescribed masks worn by the unnamed protagonists prevent true communication with others.
A similar neorealist theme runs through the Marcovaldo stories, which Calvino later revised and enlarged as Marcovaldo, ovvero le stagioni in città (1963; translated as Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City, 1983). Marcovaldo, a Charlie Chaplin-like character whose exploits often turn out to be well-told barzellette, or humorous anecdotes, represents every "little man" who attempts to recover that which is his and has been lost in the modern labyrinth. In a story such as "La cura delle vespe" (The Wasp Treatment) a bizarre turn of events can only elicit compassion for the hapless protagonist, but others of these stories are among Calvino's best. In "Il bosco sull'autostrada" the need for firewood causes Marcovaldo's city-wise children to mistake highway billboards for real trees; while chopping them down they are themselves mistaken for advertisements by a policeman. In "Luna e Gnac" a huge, partially burned-out, regularly flashing advertisement causes Marcovaldo's entire family to discover the wonder of nature in the twenty-second intervals. The aesthetic of socialist realism takes on a Chekhov-like twist here and is lifted into the realm of fantasy. The Marcovaldo stories foreshadow the Qfwfq stories in Le cosmicomiche (1965; translated as Cosmicomics, 1968), for the colors are vivid; the situations are joyfully drawn; the actions are compelling; and the conclusions are animated with hope.
The three novellas that close the collection are a mixture of piquant criticism and calm skepticism. Calvino's penchant for casting moral and social issues into fable is evident in La formica argentina , which first appeared in Botteghe oscure in 1952, the same year that the satiric Il visconte dimezzato was published. Calvino creates a surreal landscape of macabre social relationships centered around the various ways of giving meaning to life in an ant-infested neighborhood. While the agency that is supposed to rid the town of ants actually helps them proliferate by setting out sweet molasses, Captain Brauni, the inventor of false steel teeth, creates fantastic paraphernalia to kill the ants, and others, such as Signora Mauro, bear the inconvenience stoically. Just as smog affords structure to the lives of the characters of "La nuvola di smog," so too the ants give meaning to the paltry survival of their beleaguered hosts.
The horrors of urban living continue in "La speculazione edilizia," where condominiums and high-rise buildings invade the landscape in a veritable war on the countryside. In these last stories man is caught up in a corrupt web of his own making. There are moments when Calvino seems to be expressing genuine pessimism, others where the hysterical doubts of the protagonists seem only comic.
In his critical essays Calvino shows an ongoing analytical interest in cultural movements and especially the role of the author in the evolving political and social reality of an industrialized Italy. Not content to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo, he invents programs, enters debates, and adopts innovative poetics in his search for a link between literature and society. He collected forty-two of his most important essays on literature and society spanning the years 1955 to 1978 in Una pietra sopra. Discorsi di letteratura e società (1980), many of which were translated in The Uses of Literature (1986). Calvino asserted that he chose these "dichiarazioni di poetica" (declarations of poetics) in order to "capire il punto in cui mi trovo. Per metterci una pietra sopra" (understand where I'm at. To close a chapter of my life). The essays, which mark moments of personal transition and attest to Calvino's multitude of sources and vibrant range of scholarly interests, stand as revealing signposts to his fiction.
Just as his characters struggle to avoid being engulfed by the menacing realities of a society undergoing structural changes, so too Calvino outlines strategies for survival. In the essay "Il mare dell'oggettività" (The Sea of Objectivity) he attacks the dominance of technology in the modern world and sees the danger of one's human identity becoming overwhelmed:
Da una cultura basata sul rapporto e contrasto tra due termini, da una parte la coscienza la volontà il giudizio individuali e dell'altra il mondo oggettivo, stiamo passando a una cultura in cui quel primo termine è sommerso dal mare dell'oggettività.
(From a culture based on the relationship and contrast between two terms, on the one hand, conscience, will, individual judgment, and on the other, the objective world, we are moving toward a culture in which that first term is submerged by the sea of objectivity, by the uninterrupted flux of what exists.)
This essay is complemented by "La sfida al labirinto" (The Challenge to the Labyrinth), where a complete loss of the self in "the sea of things" is seen as the conditioning ethic of modern man. Calvino, though, is cautiously optimistic in seeing literature as an intellectual antidote to modern existence:
Quel che la letteratura può fare è definire l'atteggiamento migliore per trovare la via d'uscita, anche se questa via d'uscita non sarà altro che il passaggio da un labirinto all'altro. È la sfida al labirinto che vogliamo salvare, è una letteratura della sfida al labirinto che vogliamo enucleare e distinguere dalla letteratura della resa al labirinto.
(What literature can do is define the best attitude for finding an exit, even if this exit is nothing more that the passage from one labyrinth to another. It is the challenge to the labyrinth that we wish to save, it is a literature that challenges the labyrinth that we wish to explain and distinguish from the literature that succumbs to the labyrinth.)
In another essay, "Il midollo del leone" (The Lion's Marrow), Calvino postulates an important use for literature:
Le cose che la letteratura può ricercare e insegnare sono poche ma insostituibili: il modo di guardare il prossimo e se stessi, di porre in relazione fatti personali e fatti generali, di attribuire valore a piccole cose o a grandi, di considerare i propri limiti e vizi e gli altrui, di trovare le proporzioni della vita, e il posto dell'amore in essa, e la sua forza e il suo ritmo, e il posto della morte, il modo di pensarci o non pensarci; la letteratura può insegnare la durezza, la pietà, la tristezza, l'ironia, l'umorismo, e tante altre di queste cose necessarie e difficili. Il resto lo si vada a imparare altrove, dalla scienza, dalla storia, dalla vita, come noi tutti dobbiamo continuamente andare ad impararlo.
(The things that literature can seek and teach are few but irreplaceable: the manner in which one looks at one's fellow man and at oneself, the manner of relating personal and general facts, of attributing value to things small and large, of considering one's own limits and vices and those of others, of finding the proportions of life, and the role that love plays in it, and its force and its rhythm, and the role of death, the manner of thinking about it or not thinking about it; literature can teach harshness, compassion, sadness, irony, humor, and so many other necessary and difficult things. Go learn the rest somewhere else, from science, from history, from life, as we all must constantly go to learn it.)
Calvino thus sees literature as an instrument to penetrate the false rationality of an increasingly complex social order.
Calvino seems to have come to terms with his Neorealism in La giornata di uno scrutatore (1963; translated as "The Watcher," 1971), a story about a man's experience as a poll officer during the 1953 elections that critics cite as his last concerted effort to deal explicitly with politics in fiction. A member of the Communist Party, Amerigo Ormea, is assigned the unenviable polling place of Cottolengo Hospital for Incurable Patients in Turin, where he observes that the patients are fraudulently placed on election lists and encouraged by Catholic authorities to vote. The young intellectual is at first horrified by the sight of a deformed humanity; then he is disgusted by the corrupt political machinery that feeds on their helpless condition.
Calvino's subtle analysis not only reveals a personal disenchantment with the blatant manipulation of the infirm by a misguided and opportunistic political system but also signals his rejection of any human action that does not directly address human need. The approval of direct action is plain when Amerigo watches a nun with a patient:
Ecco, pensò Amerigo, quei due, cosí come sono, sono reciprocamente necessari. E penso ecco, questo modo d'essere è l'amore. E poi l'umano arriva dove arriva l'amore; non ha confini se non quelli che gli diamo.
("There," Amerigo thought, "those two, as they are, are necessary to each other." And he thought: "There, this way of being is love." And then "Humanity reaches as far as love reaches, it has no frontiers except those we give it.")
The insight is immediate and indelible. Redemption, Calvino shows, need not be achieved through election returns. Indeed, Calvino's audience in 1963 knew that the 1953 results had brought about no social revolution.
In 1964 Calvino moved to Paris, where he maintained his permanent residence until 1980. Soon after arriving he married Esther (Chichita) Singer, an Argentine translator for UNESCO, and one year later they had a daughter, Abigail, their only child. His long sojourn in Paris was motivated at least in part by the desire for apartness that characterizes many of his protagonists. While in Paris he remained in the employ of Einaudi as an editorial director, continued to write articles for the Milanese daily Il Corriere della sera, and traveled to Italy weekly though he confined his employment-related visits to Turin, the headquarters of his publisher. His circle of friends and professional acquaintances in the French capital grew steadily and included Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and A. J. Greimas. In the early 1960s he joined the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littèrature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature), an experimental workshop founded by Raymond Queneau that influenced much of his subsequent work.
The surest mark of Calvino's expanding horizons is his appropriation of new literary models. While Ariosto, Luigi Pirandello, and the Italian tradition remained at the core of his work, it also began to show the influence of writers such as Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, and Robert Musil. A reconciliation with his father, which is treated in the short story "La strada di San Giovanni" (1990; translated in The Road to San Giovanni , 1993), gave him the freedom to explore and embrace a scientific perspective more vigorously, honing it into an attitude that is a blend of humanist innocence and scientific wonder.
Moved by the impulse to reach a wider audience and to speak to larger issues, Calvino took a great leap forward into the fashionable world of scientific speculation, boldly turning the critical world on its ear with three collections of short stories: Le cosmicomiche, Ti con zero (1967; translated as t zero, 1969), and La memoria del mondo e altre storie cosmicomiche (The Memory of the World and Other Cosmicomics, 1968). This last volume contains stories from the previous two collections as well as eight additional stories. The 1984 collection Cosmicomiche vecchie e nuove (Old and New Cosmicomics) brought together all but two of the cosmic tales published in the 1960s. The subjects here are cosmogonic, and the characters remind one of the freewheeling antics of the gods of Ovid. After the semirealistic style and bittersweet taste of La giornata di uno scrutatore, Calvino catapulted his reader into an unbounded and airy science fiction of the past.
These witty tales of Le cosmicomiche are narrated for the most part by the protean, energy-like particle of matter that is both within and without time, named Qfwfq--characterized by Calvino as "a voice, a point of view, an eye." Each story begins with a scientific theory explaining the universe at the beginning of time and space. Qfwfq is an eyewitness to the cataclysmic events that forged the world. Although Qfwfq is a disembodied consciousness, "he" brings a human sensitivity to what life was like before the sun was born in "Sul far del giorno" (At Daybreak), how it felt to live as a dinosaur in "I dinosauri" (The Dinosaurs), and the subtle inconveniences and niceties of being compressed into a single dot before the universe expanded in "Tutto in un punto" (All in One Point). The poetic conception of scientific principles is augmented by imaginative invention for such matters as the creation of language in "Un segno nello spazio" (A Sign in Space), the origin of the moon in "La distanza della luna" (The Distance of the Moon), and the theory of evolution in "Lo zio aquatico" (The Aquatic Uncle). Calvino is never bogged down by the scientific implications of his stories; instead he revels in the artistic, mystic, and transcendental possibilities that science offers.
The first part of Ti con zero is a sort of sequel to the often whimsical tales of Le cosmicomiche. Many of the same themes are elaborated as Qfwfq reveals a comic-strip mythology about birds replete with Ariosto-like trips through the air in "L'origine degli uccelli" (The Origin of the Birds), speculates on how the world might have been had it evolved as a crystallized mineral in "I cristalli" (Crystals), and returns to the subject of the moon in "La molle luna" (The Soft Moon). In the second section of the collection, however, Calvino presents a more arcane and less jocular Qfwfq. It is as if having exhausted the playful connotations of science, he must then adopt scientific methodology to conduct his experiments with reality. The metaphysical stakes are much higher as the unpronounceable raconteur wades through lengthy processes of deductive reasoning.
In the Priscilla stories--"Mitosi" (Mitosis), "Meiosi" (Meiosis), and "Morte" (Death), Qfwfq explores the fundamental processes of unicellular reproduction. Inextricably connected to sex, the ingenious analysis implies that the sheer force of human will lies in the chromosomes whose biological functions determine attraction, repulsion, and death--the epic of life. In the last section of the book Qfwfq disappears. In the short story "Ti con zero" a lion hunter deduces his chances for survival against an attacking lion according to the laws of physics. In "Il guidatore notturno" (The Night Driver) the protagonist makes intricate mathematical calculations in order to discover the best possible relationship to maintain with his lover. "Il conte di Monte Cristo" (The Count of Monte Cristo) presents so complex a hypothetical intellectual topology that the reader is certain that Edmond Dantès, prisoner in the infamous Chateau d'If, will never escape. Calvino clearly elevates philosophy over physical science when the conjectured possibility of escape becomes more important than any attempt at actual escape. The second section of the collection shows that Calvino has shifted his gaze inward to the intricacies and paradoxes that characterize the human mind. The almost obsessive analysis in these stories suggests his fascination with the technique of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman (new novel).
Il castello dei destini incrociati (The Castle of Crossed Destinies), first published in Tarocchi: Il mazzo visconteo di Bergamo e di New York (1969; translated as Tarots: The Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York, 1976), is a book that Calvino worked on periodically for several years. A 1973 edition titled Il castello dei destini incrociati also includes the sequel La taverna dei destini incrociati (The Tavern of Crossed Destinies). This text and Le città invisibili (1972; translated as Invisible Cities, 1974) are probably Calvino's most difficult works. The books complement one another since both are concerned with the retelling of the stories of others and the process of storytelling. In the 1973 postscript to Il castello dei destini incrociati Calvino writes about the double origin of the work. The idea first came to him in 1968 while attending an international seminar in which one of the participants spoke of fortune-telling with cards. The die was cast when publisher Franco Maria Ricci decided to bring out an art book employing the Visconti tarot cards illustrated by Bonifazio Bembo and asked Calvino to provide the commentary.
In his essay "La sfida al labirinto" Calvino had expressed a faith in the potential of literature as a game or project. In Il castello dei destini incrociati his ploy is to enter the realm of storytelling through a cast of mysteriously mute characters. How will they tell their tales? The answer is to use the fifteenth-century Visconti tarot deck, the cards of which are printed in the margins alongside the verbal narration to provide visual stimuli to the reader and iconographical representations of the stories the characters invent. Calvino arranges the spread of cards into a puzzle of intertwined destinies so that the tales they tell can be read forward as well as backward, up and down, left to right, and right to left. The project is a metaphor for the familiar theme of the struggle between order and the unconscious, for Calvino allows the cards to tell their own story, each card acquiring a meaning according to its place in the emerging sequence. The result of formal experimentation growing out of the author's association with OuLiPo, the book shows the influence of Vladimir Propp's studies of the morphology of the folktale as well of Calvino's continuing interest in chivalric romance and readings in structuralism and semiotics. It is a work of infinite possibilities with neither a beginning nor an end.
In La taverna dei destini incrociati a similar group of weary and forlorn travelers is isolated in a tavern and must recount their tales using the so-called Marseilles deck of tarot cards. The characters seem doomed to tell their stories over and over again without respite. The mood of the text is somber, melodramatic, almost infernal. Calvino admits in the postscript to having conceived a sequel titled "Il motel dei destini incrociati" (The Motel of Crossed Destinies), in which survivors of a nuclear holocaust tell their tales using comic-strip remnants, but decided to abandon the project.
Calvino's Le città invisibili , the first book to bring him international recognition as a major writer, is a work of unquestionable merit and enduring success. Yet it can hardly be called fiction, for it neither resembles a narrative, nor does it tell a story. Calvino's aim is to create an open series of delicate mood pieces that challenge the nature of logic, meaning, and discourse. In the palace of the emperor of the Tartars, the Great Kublai Khan, though old and enfeebled, speaks with his emissary, Marco Polo. Their talk, mediated by the objects Polo exhibits from his recent journey through the empire of the Khan, is a game of signs in which the explorer attempts to describe the basic design of the kingdom by inventing elegant prose poems while the Khan attempts to divine the "invisible order" of his kingdom hidden in Polo's narrative.
The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which includes two dialogues between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo and the descriptions of a set of cities. The first and last sets contain ten cities apiece while the central sets each contain five cities, for a total of fifty-five cities, each having the name of a woman (Diomira, Zenobia, Laudomia, Tecla, Raissa). With the sets, the cities are grouped as geometrically arranged series that reflect both an internal and external mapping of mathematical correspondences. The palindromic sequencing is rigid. Each of the nine sections begins and ends with an italicized section in which Kublai Khan and the Venetian traveler converse. The catalogue of cities offers no fewer than eleven headings: the cities and memory, the cities and desire, the cities and eyes, the cities and names, the cities and the dead, the cities and the sky, continuous cities, the cities and signs, thin cities, trading cities, and hidden cities.
The key to understanding Le città invisibili is the realization that the cities are metaphors for psychological states and poetic possibilities. The themes of the chimerical cities are varied. Some reveal the ills of mankind: Raissa shows the vanity of the pursuit of happiness; Tecla reveals that life is endless toil. In others the theme of the double image takes the reader to an esoteric rhetorical plane. In "Tamara" the eye "non vede cose ma figure di cose che significano altre cose" (does not see things but images of things that mean other things). The city "dice tutto quello che devi pensare, ti fa ripetere il suo discorso, e mentre credi di visitare Tamara non fai che registrare i nomi con cui essa definisce se stessa e tutte le sue parti" (says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts). Still other cities reveal a deep concern with social issues: the population explosion, garbage, pollution, and the state of the ecology. In the end one realizes that the plot of the cities is in the mind of Kublai Khan and the mind of the reader as he reads them.
Polo has ingeniously created a treatise on the enigma of communication, of imagination, and of life. The real meaning of the book lies in the closing message of this richly powerful narrative:
L'inferno dei viventi non è qualcosa che sarà; se ce n'è uno, è quello che è già qui, l'inferno che abitiamo tutti i giorni, che formiamo stando insieme. Due modi ci sono per non soffrirne. Il primo riesce facile a molti: accettare l'inferno e diventarne parte fino al punto di non vederlo più. Il secondo è rischioso ed esige attenzione e apprendimento continui: cercare e saper riconoscere chi e cosa, in mezzo al'inferno non è inferno, e farlo durare, e dargli spazio.
(The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what in the midst of the inferno are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.)
While the imaginary journey invaginates Khan and Polo, it liberates the reader, allowing an inner mapping of the soul and a renewed faith in personal strength and courage.
Calvino's readers had to wait seven years for his next book, Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (1979; translated as If on a Winter's Night a Traveler , 1981). As if to reassure mockingly his public of the authenticity of the book, he begins the work, "Stai per cominciare a leggere il nuovo romanzo Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore di Italo Calvino" (You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler). The reader is soon pulled into this tour de force that is, in fact, ten separate novels in one, held together by a frame tale that allows "You," the reader, to enter the text: "Rilassati. Raccogliti. Allontana da te ogni altro pensiero. . . . Prendi la posizione più comoda: seduto, sdraiato, raggomitolato, coricato" (Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. . . . Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat). You will have company, for Calvino's work abounds with eager Readers, Non-Readers, and Other Readers.
The title of the book evokes a hypothetical nineteenth-century dime novel, but what the reader finds is a potpourri of literary styles and themes. One uncompleted book leads to another as You search for the first book You began to read but were interrupted by a printing error in pagination. You have fallen into an endlessly inventive piece of machinery that is a marvelous send-up of reader-response theory. The quest, however, is not without its pleasures. Along the way You encounter Ludmilla, an elusive Other Reader who entices You to continue the playful, though obviously frustrating, perusing and interruption of one novel after another. You also meet her feminist, structuralist sister Lotaria, a shady translator-thief-counterfeiter named Ermes Marana, and even an author who aspires to write just the novel that You are holding.
In Il barone rampante Calvino likens his text to a "filo d'inchiostro" (a trace of ink) that runs on for pages and pages, eventually ending in dream. In "Il conte di Monte Cristo," the story that concludes Ti con zero, Edmund Dantès's meditation on how to mentally escape the fortress transforms itself into a meditation by Aleksandr Dumas writing his novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-1845). These self-conscious books within books are taken to the extreme in Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore . It is first and foremost a detective novel in search of itself. All the variations of novels that Calvino presents--the South American, the Japanese, the Eastern European, the spy, the adventure, and the detective--and the authors he so ably parodies--Barthes, Borges, Marquez, and Nabokov--are used to construct a fantastic wall of books about books. Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore is an emblematic text of brilliant rigor in which Calvino celebrates the act of reading by providing a book of eleven (including the frame tale) exceptionally pleasurable potential novels. Although it ultimately relies on conventional literary devices, the text raises important questions about the conventional novel and its possible future permutations.
In 1980 Calvino and his family moved back to Italy, settling in Rome. The protagonist of his next work of fiction, Palomar (1983; translated as Mr. Palomar , 1985), is a visionary quester after knowledge. Named for the telescope at Mount Palomar in Southern California, he is a wise and perceptive scanner of humanity's foibles and mores. In the manner of Marcovaldo, the Baron Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò, and the Watcher, he is a loner, an onlooker who seems to experience life by thinking about it rather than living it. Much more than in earlier works, though, the reflections here are somber and uncompromisingly realistic. It is an aging Palomar who reviews his life and prepares to take that difficult step to act "come se fosse morto, per vedere come va il mondo senza di lui" (as if he were dead, to see how the world gets along without him).
The book is a series of meditations connected to one another by the temperamental logic of Palomar, who wishes to understand and classify every moment of lived or imagined experience. His aspiration is a daunting one which, as he realizes, is doomed to failure: "Solo dopo aver conosciuto la superficie delle cose ci si può spingere a cercare quel che c'è sotto. Ma la superficie delle cose è inesauribile" (It is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible). The volume has three main sections: "Le vacanze di Palomar" (Mr. Palomar's Vacation), "Palomar in città" (Mr. Palomar in the City), and "I silenzi di Palomar" (The Silences of Mr. Palomar). Each section has three titled subsections, and each subsection has three parts, numbered 1 through 3. The parts numbered 1 in each subsection correspond to a visual experience; those marked 2 contain cultural or anthropological elements; and the parts marked 3 concern speculations on time, infinity, and the relationship between the self and the world. There are twenty-seven short prose passages in all.
While the scheme of Palomar is less complex than that of Le città invisibili, Calvino again employs ideas borrowed from science, set theory, semiotics, linguistics, and structuralism. The uniqueness of Palomar's observations is apparent in his attempt to read the precise nature of just one individual wave in the first narrative, "Lettura di un'onda" (Reading a Wave):
Un'onda è sempre diversa da un'altra onda; ma è anche vero che ogni onda è uguale a un'altra onda, anche se non immediatamente contigua o successiva; insomma ci sono delle forme e delle sequenze che si ripetono sia pur distribuite irregolarmente nello spazio e nel tempo.
(Each wave is different from another wave, but it also is true that one wave is equal to another wave even if not immediately adjacent or successive: in other words, there are some forms and sequences that are repeated, though irregularly distributed in space and time.)
In "Un kilo e mezzo di grasso d'oca" (Two Pounds of Goose Fat) he muses over the white softness of the world.
Palomar's apartness is emphasized in "Il museo dei formaggi" (The Cheese Museum) when he waxes philosophically on the social context of cheeses in a cheese store:
--Monsieur! Houhou! Monsieur--Una giovane formaggiaia vestita di rosa è davanti a lui, assorto nel suo taccuino. È il suo turno, tocca a lui, nella fila dietro di lui tutti stanno osservando il suo incongruo comportamento e scuotono il capo con l'aria tra ironica e spazientita con cui gli abitanti delle grandi città considerano il numero sempre cresecente dei deboli di mente in giro per le strade.
(--Monsieur! Hoo there! Monsieur--A young clerk, dressed in pink, is standing in front of him while he is occupied with his notebook. It is his turn, he is next; in the line behind him, everyone is observing his incongruous behavior, heads are being shaken with those half-ironic, half-exasperated looks which the inhabitants of the big cities consider the ever-increasing number of the mentally retarded wandering about the streets.)
At the end Palomar discovers that there is no escape through ratiocination. He is shackled to his status as philosopher-observer much in the same way that the baron is a prisoner of his trees, Agilulfo is condemned to nonexistence; Qfwfq is saddled with constant mutation; and Edmond Dantès is an eternal prisoner of Chateau d'If.
Calvino had once commented on the impossibility of even attempting to consider a rationalization of reality through literature in the essay "Non darò più fiato alle trombe" (I will no longer blow horns), which was published in Una pritra sopra: "Ero anch'io uno che pensava di fare letteratura (romanzo o non romanzo) nell'intento di razionalizzare la realtà di fondare [o scegliere] dei valori" (I too thought I could create literature [novel and non-novel] with the intent of rationalizing reality and establishing [or choosing] ideals). In Palomar Calvino seems to return to this belief as he rejects the principles of causation and seems satisfied to merely catalogue the world. Whenever superrationalization and solipsism seem to overwhelm the hapless philosopher-observer, he finds comfort in the natural world and is reminded of his unique role in the evolving universe.
Calvino continued his own inquiry into reality in a series of ongoing newspaper articles describing personal trips and museum visits as well as providing social commentary. In the journalistic essays gathered in Collezione di sabbia (Collections of Sand, 1984) he is the restless voyager obsessed by detail, continuously speculating on the philosophical, social, historical, and cosmic implications beneath the surface of the things he describes. He is a real-life Palomar convinced that should he ever miraculously see exactly what is going on in front of his eyes--if he can discover that hidden thread that simultaneously binds and unties the disparate elements of matter--then he will be able to truly understand the universe. The year following the publication of this collection, the sixty-two-year-old Calvino suffered a stroke. He died in Siena on 19 September 1985.
Calvino's personal meditations continued to be published in the form of melancholy fictions in the experimental vignettes posthumously collected by his wife in Sotto il sole giaguaro (1986; translated as Under the Jaguar Sun , 1988). In 1972 he intended to write five tales as explorations of the five senses but never completed the project, publishing three early versions in journals in 1976, 1982, and 1984. The three revised tales--"Il nome, il naso" (The Name, the Nose), "Sotto il sole giaguaro" (Under the Jaguar Sun), and "Un re in ascolto" (A King Listens)--give vivid presentations of smell, taste, and hearing and reveal a warmer side of the author.
A human and surprisingly vulnerable Calvino is also evident in the five idiosyncratic and previously published stories collected in La strada di San Giovanni . An introductory note by Calvino's wife explains his intent to publish a collection of "memory exercises" that would have included these and other, never written, stories. These unabashedly personal evocations include a war battle in "Ricordo di una battaglia" (Memory of a Battle), the youthful thrill of movie matinees in "Autobiografia di uno spettatore" (A Moviegoer's Autobiography), and the sometimes desperate plight of a writer at his desk in "La poubelle agréée" (The Happy Wastebasket). The title story, written in 1962, recounts Calvino's reconciliation with his father and reveals how his decision to be a writer had divided father and son. At the end of the story the son is stunned when he realizes the price he has to pay for his chosen profession.
Because of the increasing recognition Calvino received toward the end of his life, he frequently visited the United States and gave seminars at both Harvard and Columbia Universities. The month he died he was struggling to complete the essays he was to deliver for the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, a forum for major statements by important living artists. The collected papers for these lectures were published posthumously by his wife. It is a serene, wise, and contemplative author that appears in the unfinished meditations of Lezioni americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio (1988; translated as Six Memos for the Next Millennium , 1988). The book serves as a legacy of the man and postscript of the author. Each essay explores a particular literary quality: lightness, the ability to maintain a constant balance despite the gravity of life; quickness, a combination of physical agility with mental acrobatics; exactitude, or preciseness of expression; visibility, the awareness that visual imagination may explain reality; and multiplicity, or the necessary disposition toward the infinite possibilities of life. The missing sixth essay was to address consistency. This defense of literature is a fitting close to a career for a writer who viewed the literary arts as a touchstone of man's existence. Calvino--the unpredictable neorealist, fabulator, essayist, semiotician, rationalist, and imagist--capped his formidable past with a strategy for future action.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) Joseph Campbell speculates that the standard quest of the traditional hero follows a triptych pattern of separation from the world, a stage of purging and initiation to a new life-giving source of energy, and finally an eventual return to enhanced social status. Such a pattern seems to fit Calvino's literary career. From initial hesitation, to persistent, youthful inquiry, to reclusive withdrawal and eventual mature meditation and projection toward the future, he remained heroically faithful to his craft and to his own poetic vision of storytelling. Indeed it is a measure of his greatness and uncommon historical awareness that from his early neorealist tales to the meta-narrative modes of his later fiction he can be said to reflect the major literary trends of the past forty years. He is and will continue to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.
Calvino's message points to the creation of a society in which the impediments of convention, taboo, inhibition, and superstition are removed so that the individual can be a contented member of a society of essentially optimistic, uninhibited individuals. He fundamentally believed in the ability of human beings to win despite obstacles. While pushing his readers toward the far reaches of the universe and into ever expanding dimensions, Calvino never lost sight of human nature and never lost the ability to express his faith in the redemptive potential of intelligence. His writings encompass his intellectual and moral ethic and are a lasting memorial to the richness of imaginative possibilities.
From: Ricci, Franco. "Italo Calvino." Italian Novelists Since World War II, 1965-1995, edited by Augustus Pallotta, Gale, 1999. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 196.