Look around you, people of The Holborn, as you lounge in the lacquered sophistication of your study. There is the puckered luxury of your Chesterfield, mirrored in the buffed brogues that adorn your feet; the subtle complexity of the tumbler of malt Scotch, cradled between your fingers like a crystal flower. All is as it should be; all is perfect. Or is it? Your lap is empty; your imagination unfired, like damp clay. Surely you, who value quality and detail above all else should be able to find some distraction to complement and enrich your world, possibly wrapped between two shiny covers and equipped with that “new book” smell.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Italo Calvino, purveyor of quality prose, post-modern poster boy and a writer of such exquisite sublimnity that you will return to his work for as long as you continue to read, should you continue to read.
Italo Calvino was born in 1923 to a pair of Italian scientists living in Cuba. His first novel “The Path to the Spider’s Nest” (1947) is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of World War Two and features Pin, a cobbler’s apprentice, who steals a pistol from a Nazi sailor and attempts to find favour with a partisan group in the hills. This would be Calvino’s sole foray into fashionable post-bellum neo-realism and something of a false start as far as his writing is concerned. As he says of himself: “ It was only the fact that I had experienced the war and the vicissitudes of the Italy of those years that allowed me, for a while, to work fairly happily in another direction until I “went back” and found a kind of invention that belonged to me.” This “invention” was “The Cloven Viscount” (1952); an improbable tale of a crusading soldier ripped down the middle by a canon ball and who survives as two different knights: a goody (helpfully called Buono) who lives in a forest doing good deeds and unnerving people, and a baddy, Gramo, who lives in a castle, building gibbets and exercising his droit du seigneur.
His next book, “The Baron in the Trees” (1957), tells the story of the titular nobleman who elects to spend his life up a tree, having climbed it as a boy to avoid eating a plate of snails. Together with “The Nonexistent Knight” (1959), the story of Agilulf, the perfect chivalric warrior: righteous, brave and pious, and scuppered merely by the fact that he doesn’t exist, these stories are collected as a single volume named “Our Ancestors”. They are at once whimsical and deadly serious, modern fairytales with pertinent questions to ask about identity, societal mores and the sex lives of lepers.
For his “Cosmicomics” (1965) stories Calvino leaps into the realm of speculative fiction but this is not like any sci fi you have ever read. Calvino takes of a kernel of scientific fact and extrapolates from it an imaginative story, always narrated by the immortal and unpronounceable Qfwfq. The best example may be “The Distance of the Moon”, with its single, jutting fact; that the moon used to be a lot closer to the earth, giving us a world where lovers leap onto the hovering moon for kicks and are parted forever by an unexpected lunar retreat.
By the early seventies Calvino is producing extraordinarily vivid and complex work, following his association with the writers of Oulipo, the French writing group who sought to “constrain” writing as a means to trigger ideas and inspirations. Calvino’s “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” (1973), displays just such a constraint: his characters have been mysteriously robbed of the power of speech and can communicate solely by the turning of two packs of tarot cards. What follows is a clever intertwining of stories, each overlapping into the others, forming a complex pattern of signs and symbols that can be read in myriad ways.
“Invisible Cities” (1972), considered by many to be his masterpiece, is a prose poem, an approach. Constructed as a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan it contains a series of descriptions of the cities the great explorer has visited, each as different and surprising as an elephant described by blind men; their fingers finding new things to say, new things to describe.
“If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” is his 1979 meta-fictional classic featuring, like a glorious “Choose your own adventure” story, you, the reader as protagonist. The book folds out like a map of uncharted lands, the reader, you, constantly slipping into the creases, tripping over unseen folds into newer, stranger landscapes. The spine of the book is a literary detective yarn and tentative love story, pushing you on into an endless pursuit of closure. The book is a succession of false starts and clueless trails: Calvino as Scheherazade; starting stories that he can never finish. And yet he gets you safely to the end of the novel in one piece, transported and satisfied.
My favourite Calvino book is also his last: Mr. Palomar (1983). This short book of short stories features Palomar, a Calvino manqué, finding himself immersed in the details of his life, a literary Larry David, unable to disentangle himself from unasked for, embarrassing situations. Palomar’s total involvement in even the most banal activity, and his inability not to look and not to feel, betrays not only Calvino’s keen scientific eye but also his sense of wonder at an endlessly describable universe. Palomar is equidistant from macro and micro, perfectly positioned to look on in wonder and to annotate, to detail, to try to understand the incomprehensible.
This is Calvino. There are worlds in his books; universes. These are cosmic comics. He is mercurial; always human and always curious: follows his lead.