[I read some of Italo Calvino’s books back in the ’80s and I wrote about them for various reasons. Calvino, as you’ll discover, is a totally unique writer, so I decided it would be interesting to post those old pieces on a writer I don’t hear much about anymore, even though in his lifetime he was considered a likely Nobel Prize-winner in literature. (The Nobel rules don’t permit posthumous awards, so when Calvino died at 61, he became one of those astonishing artists who never made it to Stockholm.) Of his own work, he said: “The conflict between the world’s choices and man’s obsession with making sense of them is a recurrent pattern in what I’ve written.” I think you’ll see evidence of this in the books I discuss in this article.
[Covering some of Calvino’s background and two of his books, Cosmicomics and If on a winter’s night a traveler, turned into a rather long article, so I’m publishing it in two parts. Part 1, below, contains the writer’s bio and my remarks on Cosmicomics, a collection of astounding short tales. (I won’t say more about them now; I’ll let you discover how remarkable I think they are when you read about them in the second section of this post.) Part 2, to be published in a few days, will be devoted to my report on the novella If on a winters night a traveler, in its own way as unique as Cosmicomics. I’ll only say that the like of neither book has come to my attention in my now 69 years. Maybe you’ll agree. ~Rick]
Italian novelist, short story writer, and journalist Italo Calvino (1923-85) was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, near Havana. His parents, Mario and Eva, were essentially Italian expatriates, moving first to Mexico in 1909 and then, during the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), to Cuba in 1917. Calvino has characterized his father as an anarchist in his youth, a follower of Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist aristocrat. Mario Calvino, an agronomist and botanist, then became a socialist reformist, a movement that believed in gradual change from within (as opposed to violent revolution from without). Eva, also a botanist, was a university professor. In 1925, when Italo was not yet two, the family returned to Italy and settled on a small farm in San Remo on the Mediterranean coast. Floriano Calvino, Italo’s younger bother (who later became a distinguished geologist), was born there in 1927. Calvino’s parents maintained their political radicalism, espousing the tenets of Freemasonry, anarchism, and Marxism, becoming intense opponents of the National Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini (elected Italy’s prime minister in 1922).
Mario and Eva Calvino were also believers in science over both religion and the humanities such as literature. They inculcated in their children a life-long interest in science and nature (though, obviously, they didn’t dissuade Italo from eventually going into the humanities.) The Calvinos refused to have their sons educated in the Italian Catholic schools, sending young Italo first to an English nursery school and then to a Protestant elementary school; his secondary schooling was at a state-run lyceum where he was exempted from religious classes at his parents’ request. The family farm, however, was thickly planted with trees—Mario was a pioneer in growing fruit then considered exotic such as grapefruits and avocados—and the Calvino boys would climb up into a tree’s branches to read their favorite stories—one of Italo’s was Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. This displeased the older Calvinos no less than Italo’s fascination with American movies, humor magazines, comics, and cartoons.
He was also captivated by poetry, theater, and especially drawing; before he ever wrote anything, he was drawing caricatures of his friends and schoolmates. Calvino’s first published piece, when he was 11, was a drawing. When he started to write, he illustrated his own work—but decided that his drawing lacked style and he abandoned it completely. The nascent writer listened avidly to the radio, which he felt was one of his links to the outside world, and he heard many radio plays. Theater, he said, was his passion at that age, and when he turned to writing, at around 16, his first attempts were plays. After World War II, Calvino found that Italian theater was barren, he asserted, but fiction in Italy was booming, so he shifted his focus from plays to stories.
Calvino’s mother was able postpone Italo’s entry into the Fascist Party’s youth brigade, but he eventually had to sign up and was forced to participate in Mussolini’s invasion of the French Riviera in 1940, before the boy was even 17. The following year, Italo matriculated at the University of Turin in the agriculture department (where his father had previously taught agronomy), suppressing his literary ambitions to please his parents. In 1943, Calvino transferred to the University of Florence, but by the end of that year, the Italians having overthrown Mussolini (who was later executed), Nazi Germany had occupied his home province and Calvino, refusing to join the military, went into hiding. He continued to read extensively but, deciding that among the partisan groups the communists were the best organized, with his mother’s encouragement, he joined the Garibaldi Brigades of the Italian resistance in 1944. Because Calvino had refused to join the puppet regime’s military, his parents were held hostage by the Nazis in their home; he recorded that the SS captors had three times pretended to shoot his father while his mother was forced to watch. Calvino fought with the resistance until the Allied liberation of Italy in 1945.
After the war, Calvino settled in Turin and returned to university. He abandoned agriculture for the arts, however. In 1945, he published his first story, “Gone to Headquarters,” a tale based on his experiences in the resistance. (Though I’m using the English titles of Calvino’s works, the dates are all for the original Italian publication.) The war had also strengthened his commitment to communism and he joined the Italian Communist Party and became active in post-war Italian politics as a supporter of the workers’ movement. When he graduated with a master’s degree in 1947, he went to work in the publishing house Einaudi, which had been a center of anti-Fascism before the war. Not only did this short stint give Calvino a grounding in the world of book publishing (which we’ll see he drew upon for his novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, which I’ll discuss in the latter half of this article), including the press and advertising, but it also introduced the young writer to many leftist intellectuals, among whom he found his closest friends and mentors. When he left Einaudi, he went to work as a journalist for L’Unità, the communist daily in Italy. That same year, Calvino published his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders, the initial work in his neorealist period, which won a prestigious literary award and sold 5,000 copies, an impressive showing in post-war Italy. (Italian Neorealism was a literary movement that flourished after World War II, dealing realistically with the events leading up to the war and with the social problems that were engendered during the period and afterwards. Some critics have proposed that Calvino’s attention to detail, eye for symmetry, and scientific detachment were the consequence of his growing up in the home of two scientists.) The next year, Calvino got to interview one of his literary idols, Earnest Hemingway.
A collection of stories about the war, The Crow Comes Last, was released in 1949, after which Calvino returned to Einaudi, which had been publishing his literary work, in 1951. He became a consulting editor, which allowed him to develop his own writing and to discover new authors. He also became a “reader of texts,” another important aspect of If on a winter’s night a traveler. Also in 1951, to enhance his position in the communist party, Calvino traveled to the Soviet Union as a correspondent for L’Unità; his articles and correspondence from that stay, published in 1952, were awarded the Saint-Vincent Prize for journalism. While he was in Moscow, however, he learned of the 1951 death of his father at the age of 76.
Between 1947 and 1954, Calvino published three new novels, but none was particularly well received. They’d all been written in a realistic style, continuing his work from his first book. But Calvino had grown dissatisfied and uncomfortable with what he’d been doing and taking stock after the second of the three books (Youth in Turin, 1950–1951), he produced the novella The Cloven Viscount in 1952. He’d concluded that he should cease writing the kind of books he was expected to write and create the kind of work he liked to read. The new novel, which brought Calvino international recognition, was a combination of fable, fantasy, and allegory and the writer became recognized as a modern fabulist, the genre in which he wrote for most of the rest of his life. In 1954, the writer had been commissioned by Einaudi to compile a collection of Italian folk stories in emulation of the famous German tales compiled by the Brothers Grimm; it was published as Italian Folk Tales (1956) and in his preparation for composing the book, Calvino read such works as Morphology of the Folktale and Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales by Vladimir Propp which confirmed for Calvino his own ideas on the form.
During this period, Calvino continued his work with communist and party publications. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, he became disillusioned and resigned from the Italian Communist Party in 1957. Part of his decision was also based on the revelation of Stalin’s crimes during his tenure as Soviet communist party boss. From that point forward, Calvino ceased his active political participation and refused to become a member of any other political party. When the party and his supporters within it withdrew their support of the publication of a story that was a satirical allegory about the party’s inertia and aversion to change, Calvino found outlets for his short pieces in various other journals of literature and general interest. He became co-editor, with Elio Vittorini, who had published Calvino’s first story back in 1945, of Il Menabò, a left-leaning cultural journal. His next novel, The Baron in the Trees, was published in 1957.
For six months in 1959-1960, Calvino visted the U.S. on the invitation of the Ford Foundation. (This was somewhat unusual during the Cold War era because people holding pro-communist views were routinely denied visas. I suspect that Ford brought sufficient influence to bear to get the Italian writer an exception to the practice.) Though Calvino went to California and the South, he spent four months of his trip in New York City and found himself enamored of the city. His letters to Einaudi about his travels were published as “American Diary 1959-1960” in Hermit in Paris in 2003.
During a 1964 trip to Havana, Calvino married Argentinean translator Esther Judith Singer, whom he’d met in 1962. He’d gone to Cuba to visit his birthplace and while there, he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a hero to revolutionary communists the world over. Guevara was killed in Bolivia on 9 October 1967 and a few days later, Calvino composed a tribute to the Argentine-born revolutionary which was published in Cuba in 1968 and in Italy in 1998.
After his Cuban wedding, Calvino and his new wife settled in Rome; their daughter Giovanna was born there in 1965. He returned to work for Einaudi and began writing Cosmicomics, a collection of stories that each takes a scientific or mathematical “fact” (though some by today’s knowledge are not true) around which Calvino creates a fanciful narrative. Originally serialized in Il Caffè, a literary magazine, before being published as a collection in 1965. (I’ll be outlining this book a little further on in this article.)
After the death of his friend and mentor Vittorini in 1966, which affected Calvino a great deal, the writer and his family moved to Paris in 1967, just ahead of the cultural upheavals that included the massive student uprising of May 1968 in the City of Light. Invited to join a group of experimental writers in 1968, he met Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss who would be influential in Calvino’s future work. That same year, he rejected the Viareggio Prize for Time and the Hunter (1967) because he frowned on the institution making the award. He accepted two other awards, however, in the following years.
In the early ’70s. Calvino continued publishing short stories, including “The Burning of the Abominable House” in the Italian edition of Playboy in 1973, and contributing articles to Italian periodicals, becoming a regular contributor to Corriere della Sera, an important daily paper in Milan. (A voice of the Fascist Party during Mussolini’s regime, the paper became staunchly anti-communist and pro-NATO after the war and aimed at a readership in the upper and middle classes of post-war Italian society.) In 1975, the writer was named an honorary member of the prestigious American Academy in Rome and received the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1976. He traveled to Japan, Mexico, and the U.S., where he delivered a series of lectures in several cities. His later novels, including If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), employed innovative structures and shifting points of view to explore chance, coincidence, and change.
The writer’s mother, Eva, died in 1978 at 92 and Calvino sold the family farm in San Remo; he and his wife and children moved to Rome in 1980. In 1981, he was awarded the French Légion d’honeur and was appointed jury president for that year’s Venice Film Festival. In the summer of 1985, he was working on a series of six lectures for delivery at Harvard in the fall, but on the night of 6 September he was admitted to the hospital with a cerebral hemorrhage and died during the night of 18-19 September. The lectures were published posthumously in Italian in 1988 and then in 1993 in English under the title Six Memos for the Next Millennium. In his lifetime, Italo Calvino won many literary and writing awards and prizes; had he not died unexpectedly at the age of only 61, most scholars agree, he’d have won the Nobel Prize for Literature eventually.
Given that Italo Calvino is one of the world’s most unusual, not to say idiosyncratic, writers whose work astonished me when I first encountered it, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at two of his books. Clearly one of Italy’s most esteemed writers—in his lifetime, he was one of the most translated authors in world literature—Calvino blended fantasy, humor, and fable to illuminate 20th-century life. At the same time, he gave new dimensions to the novel and the story. Upon learning of Calvino’s death, writer John Updike commented, “He took fiction into new places where it had never been before, and back into the fabulous and ancient sources of narrative.” First I’ll look at a collection of stories, Cosmicomics (Le cosmicomiche), which I noted earlier was first published serially in an Italian magazine. I can tell you that the stories were unlike anything I’ve ever read, before or since. (I’m not even sure I can describe them succinctly or accurately. But I’ll try.)
The second book is If on a winter’s night a traveler (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore), which has its own peculiarities. I won’t précis it here, so I’ll only say it draws on the writer’s experience in the world of books, publishers, and readers.
* * * *
(4 April 1985)
Originally published as a series of stories in an Italian magazine in 1965 and then as a book in Italy the same year, Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (Harcourt Brace, 1968) was translated by William Weaver, who became Calvino’s regular English translator. After an earlier translator had disappointed the author, as Weaver tells the story, Calvino met Weaver in Rome and they struck up an acquaintance. Calvino asked Weaver bluntly if the American would like to translate his new book. Intrigued, even though he hadn’t read the book yet, Weaver agreed.
Out of curiosity, Weaver wondered why his predecessor had been fired. “One of the stories in the volume was called ‘Without Colors,’” Weaver recounted. “In an excess of misguided originality, the translator had entitled the piece ‘In Black and White.’ Calvino’s letter of dismissal pointed out that black and white are colors.” This collaboration was obviously a success as far as Calvino was concerned since Weaver went on to translate many of the Italian author’s works into English—but the translator’s intervention in the American publishing process almost scuttled the release of Cosmicomics altogether:
The American editor who commissioned it changed jobs just as I was finishing, and—on my unfortunate advice—Calvino followed him to his new firm. But then the editor committed suicide, the new house turned down Cosmicomics, the old house wouldn’t have us back, and the book was adrift. It was rejected by other publishers, until Helen Wolff at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich accepted it . . . .
The book went on to garner excellent reviews and the National Book Award for translation, and Harcourt Brace became Calvino’s long-time American publisher. (All the stories in Cosmicomics plus those in a later collection, narrated by the same ever-present character as Cosmicomics, called t zero (1967), along with some others, were republished as The Complete Cosmicomics [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014].)
Cosmicomics is a collection of 12 allegorical fantasy short stories. The author’s chosen subjects, which include evolution, the distance from the earth to the moon, life as a mollusk, the last dinosaurs, messages from space, are handled with sharp wit and imagination. No less a literary figure than Salman Rushdie, a dab hand at fantastical stories himself, deemed Cosmicomics “possibly the most enjoyable story collection ever written, a book that will frequently make you laugh out loud at its mischievous mastery, capricious ingenuity and nerve.”
The narrative, told by “old Qfwfq” about his childhood and members of his family circle in a series of anecdotal scenes, most very short, is set in an allegorical prehistoric past—primordial earth. Qfwfq, an eyewitness to the creation of the universe who takes on different forms in each story—a speck of cosmic dust, a dinosaur, a seashell, and a caveman, among others—relates a first-hand account of the birth of the cosmos. Drawing on his interest in science, Calvino has invented his own creation myth, mixing whimsical character traits with both apparently accurate scientific or mathematical facts, presented as an epigraph at the start of each tale, and complete fantasy. (One critic, Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times Book Review, quipped: “Someone teach these books in Kansas, please—Darwin’s foes would be drowned in epiphanies.) “The formation of the solar system,” observes sci-fi critic Ryan Britt on Tor.com, a science fiction blog, “is described less like a stellar event and more like a family gathering, which slowly breaks up.”
The author has turned the formulae, molecules, and cells of creation into personalities. Many of the characters, some carried over from one tale to the next, are of varying ages, types, and descriptions. All anthropomorphized non-humans, they’re allegorical and symbolic in the same sense that characters in the Bible and Greek or Norse myths are, though they have more contemporary personality traits than those ancient legends, infused, as reviewer Ted Gioia puts it on The Millions website, with “all the foibles and fancies of humans.” They represent elements in the formation of the universe, the earth, and life.
The language, even in translation, is poetic, lyrical, semi-colloquial, and some of it, particularly names, is clearly meant only to be read on a page, not spoken, since it’s written as unpronounceable chains of consonants with diacritical marks and superscripts. (How would you pronounce Qfwfq? Or Ursula H’x? How about Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0 or G’d(w)n?) “Science fiction collides with wordplay on these pages,” writes Britt, “while a madman’s wit keeps the course steady.”
It’s not really possible to synopsize Cosmicomics accurately; you have to read it yourself. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try—as long as everyone understands that these stories depend a lot in your individual take.
“The Distance of the Moon” This is probably the best-known story in the collection. Calvino takes the fact that the Moon used to be much closer to the Earth, and conjures a tale about people who used to climb up a ladder from the Earth to the Moon to collect the Moon Milk. The ending is a little sad because some lovers drift apart as the Moon recedes from the Earth.
“At Daybreak” Old Qfwfq remembers the birth of the solar system.
“A Sign in Space” Because the Sun takes a long time to go around the Galaxy, Qwfwq creates a sign so that once the sun has made its complete revolution, he can have an indication of his existence, “a point of reference.” But by the time the Sun has come around to its starting point, Qwfwq forgets what his sign looks like. In the interim, the world also evolves and life has begun so that when Qwfwq finally does find his sign, he doesn’t recognize it. He concludes that “space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.”
“All at One Point” At the beginning of the universe, all matter and creation used to exist in a single point. “Naturally, we were all there—old Qfwfq said—where else could we have been? Nobody knew then that there could be space,” Calvino starts this tale. “Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?” Qwfwq goes on to describe what it was like when everything was contained in a single point.
“Without Colors” Before there was an atmosphere, everything was “a dead, uniform gray,” like the Moon. When a meteorite passes in front of the Sun, colors appear as the atmosphere envelops the Earth. The change frightens Ayl, Qfwfq’s new love interest, and she hides from Qwfwq and this strange, new world.
“Games Without End” Qwfwq and his childhood friend Pfwfp play a cosmic game of marbles with hydrogen atoms, back when the universe was forming new hydrogen particles every 250 million years or so. But the game turns into one of chase, as Qfwfq, in his galaxy, pursues Pfwfp, who in turn in his galaxy is chasing Qfwfq in an endless circuit around curved space.
“The Aquatic Uncle” With “the water period . . . coming to an end,” creatures left the sea and went to live on land. Qwfwq’s family was living on land except for their great-uncle N’ba N’ga who still lived as a fish, refusing to come ashore like “civilized” people. There’s even a social hierarchy, between the land-dwellers and the water-dwellers, and even among the land-dwellers, with the more-evolved beings who came out of the water in the earliest period, such as Lll, Qwfwq’s fiancée, and her family, and those who came later and aren’t as advanced, like Qfwfq himself and his family. When Qfwfq introduces Lll to his uncle, he’s confused that they take to each other so strongly, and, sadly, Qfwq eventually loses his terrestrial fiancée to his aquatic uncle as Lll returns to a life under water.
“How Much Shall We Bet” One theory of galactic evolution states that “the galaxies, the solar system, the Earth, cellular life could not help but be born,” that the cosmic developments were inevitable. But Qwfwq and his fellows couldn’t have known that, so he and his friend Dean (k)yK began betting on the long-term evolution of the universe. Of course, as Qfwfq explains, they didn’t really know what was going on in the universe, or what any of it would lead to. They “also didn't know what we were staking because there was nothing that could serve as a stake, and so we gambled on our word, keeping an account of the bets each had won, to be added up later.” For Qfwfq and (k)yK, the cosmos was like an intergalactic Las Vegas: they could bet on anything. And did. As the universe evolves, and life on Earth develops, some of the bets become very specific: historical events, sports events, people’s life choices, and so on. In the end, (k)yK says to Qfwfq: “‘You know something, Qfwfq? The closing quotations on Wall Street are down 2 per cent, not 6! And that building constructed illegally on the Via Cassia is twelve stories high, not nine! Nearco IV wins at Longchamps by two lengths. What’s our score now, Qfwfq?’”
“The Dinosaurs” Qfwfq explains that some Dinosaurs lived after most of them became extinct, and the “New Ones” have become the new masters of the planet. He recounts how it felt to be the last existing Dinosaur, accepted by the proto-mammals, who have no memory of what Dinosaurs looked like, as “The Ugly One.” Erroneous myths and legends about Dinosaurs grew up among the New Ones, not knowing that the Ugly One was, in fact, a Dinosaur himself. Among the several themes Calvino treats in this story, one strikes me for its pertinence to right now: during a discussion of Dinosaurs, one of Qfwfq’s adoptive neighbors states, “I’m against anybody when we don’t know who gave him birth or where he came from, and when he wants to eat our food and court our sisters. . . .” Does that sound like anyone we all know?
“The Form of Space” As the unnamed narrator—this is one of the two tales told by someone not named as Qfwfq (though the tone is no different that those in which he figures)—falls through space, he cannot help but notice that his trajectory is parallel to that of a beautiful woman, Ursula H’x, and that of Lieutenant Fenimore, who is also in love with Ursula. The story-teller dreams of the shape of space changing, so that he may touch Ursula (or fight with Lieutenant Fenimore). The whole episode takes place inside the narrator’s mind as the three figures never actually communicate except, perhaps in the teller’s imagination.
“The Light Years” The second unnamed narrator, looking through his telescope at other galaxies, spots one with a sign pointed right at him reading “I SAW YOU.” Given that there’s a gulf of a hundred million light-years, even before he checks his diary, the narrator recalls that it was something he had always tried to hide. Then he starts to worry, particularly about what others who had seen the sign, might be thinking. Concerned for his reputation, the story-teller responds with his own sign, and soon the universe above becomes a literal multi-party conversation by signs in space. Despite the fact that each round of discourse takes two hundred million years to occur, in the narrator’s telling, it’s a feverish exchange.
“The Spiral” Returning to Qfwfq as our guide, he recounts his life as a mollusk. At first, Qwfwq is an eyeless mollusk clinging to a rock in the sea, just sucking up nourishment. Eventually, he senses the presence of female mollusks, and though he can’t see them, he falls in love with one and his new-found awareness beyond himself inspires him to create a beautiful spiral shell. Though none of his fellow mollusks can see it, his shell sends out vibrations which eventually make them develop eyes and evolve generally. Qfwfq’s creativity prompts the emergence “five hundred millions years” later of the pyramids and Egyptian airlines, Spinoza and the “Spinoza” entry in a Dutch encyclopedia, a Neolithic mattock buried into a field and the mattock of the peasant that unburies it, Herodotus and those who read him in bilingual editions, a cloud of bees, coal, horoscopes, Cleopatra, and films about Cleopatra.
The chief attraction of Cosmicomics, at least for me, is the wonderful mix of science and whimsy, the off-the-wall imagination, the very idea of it all. Critic Gioia calls it “a kind of Einsteinian magical realism.” I don’t know if there’s anything remotely like this out there, but I’ve never read any. Well, maybe one, when I was a little boy—Calvino’s tales of the formation of the universe are a little like a more sophisticated take on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories—except based on some scientific truths. This is about the freshest, most imaginative, wackiest, most engaging material I’ve ever read. For me, it’s reminiscent in appeal (though not in style or content) of Theodore White’s The Once and Future King when I was 12 and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy back in the ’70s. (J. K. Rowling’s Potter books probably come pretty close, too.)
[My initial contact with Cosmicomics and Italo Calvino happened when I was working with a woman who was starting a theater company and wanted to find new and original material that might be adaptable for performance. She assigned me to read Cosmicomics and report on its suitability for stage adaptation; that 1985 report is the basis of this section. That theater was never launched and the adaptation my boss contemplated was never written, but, despite the obvious difficulties in turning Calvino’s stories into performance texts—pronouncing the names is only the most obvious—there have been some stage presentations of this material. The most recent of them included two 2014 productions: a multimedia adaptation by Ildiko Nemeth for Dixon Place and the New Stage Theatre Company in New York City and a rendering by Sky Candy in Austin, Texas , directed by Rudy Ramirez.
[Now I invite you come back to ROT in a few days to read Part 2 of this article and see what I have to say about what some critics deem Calvino’s masterwork, If on a winters night a traveler.]