Italo Calvino, Reconsidered

The bookstore in your neighborhood sits on a busy corner. You pass it on your walk to work in the mornings, and on your walk home in the evenings, and although you sometimes admire the clever geometries of its window display, rarely do you take a closer look. But, not long ago, the sight of a particular book made you pause. Your eye lingered on its pure-white cover and on a curious shape cut into it. Without thinking, you walked into the store. The clerk was working at her computer. The other customers were leafing through books lifted from the great pyramids of new releases on the front table. No one paid any attention to you.

You reached for the book you had spotted. The author was Italo Calvino, whose name conjured up some vague impressions—an Italian who had risen to prominence after the Second World War, a writer of stories within stories. With your thumb, you flipped through the first few pages and, with the practiced efficiency of someone who never has enough time, you determined what the book was about. It was a book called “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” about men and women who, having been mysteriously struck dumb, were using packs of tarot cards to describe the adventures that had befallen them. Or it was a book called “Invisible Cities,” in which the Venetian merchant Marco Polo described to Kublai Khan the far-away lands of his empire, and, as you turned the pages, the spires and domes of unreal cities rose and fell before your eyes. Or it was a book that opened by addressing you, the Reader, instantly transforming you into both a character and the narrator’s confidant: “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”

You relaxed. You concentrated. The voices of the other customers grew distant, and, with each sentence of whichever book you had chosen, you plunged deeper into a story of chance encounters, magic objects, lawless crusades, and reckless loves. You discovered that this was a book of rapid cuts and quick dissolves that carried you from one character and setting to the next. At first, you believed you were reading a fable, but it soon turned into a quest, then a romance, then a utopia, with each episode as dramatic as the one that came before it. You felt that you were not reading a book at all but being whirled around a great library of books: here you glimpsed the beginning of one story, there the middle of another. But the end? The end was nowhere in sight.

Despite the otherworldliness of the story, its characters lived close to you somehow. The heroes were warmhearted, a little bumbling. The maidens were neither cruel nor insipid but daring, principled, and compassionate. The villains were not evil but merely small-minded. You looked around the bookstore and you saw it through the story’s eyes. The woman with the glasses there, her hands fluttering above a table of slim translations—you could imagine the spells she might cast. And the brawny man in the camel-hair coat, weighing this season’s rival political memoirs—what crimes had he committed?

The clerk cleared her throat to indicate that the store was closing. You made your choice. You bought the book and took it home, where you consumed it ravenously, ignoring the lights and the pings from your phone. When you finished, you were surprised to find that the story, burning with passion and conquest, had left you with a sensation of grief. Why couldn’t life be like that?

Italo Calvino was, word for word, the most charming writer to put pen to paper in the twentieth century. He was born a hundred years ago in Cuba, the eldest son of a wandering Italian botanist and her agronomist husband. Shortly after his birth, the family returned to Italy, where they divided their time between his father’s floriculture station, in the seaside town of San Remo, and a country home sheltered by woods. When Calvino enrolled in the agriculture department at the University of Turin, in 1941, he seemed destined to spend his life grafting one marvellous thing onto another. But, two years later, when the Germans occupied Italy, he left school and fought for the Resistance. His first published stories, in the nineteen-forties, were about war and the horrors of the modern world; by the fifties, he was transmuting these horrors into fables, fairy tales, and historical fictions. Although he remained a dutiful member of the Communist Party for some time after the war, he broke with it after the Hungarian Revolution and, by the mid-sixties, had distanced himself from current affairs altogether. “My reservations and allergies toward the new politics are stronger than the urge to oppose the old politics,” he wrote to Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1973, defending a decision to withdraw into literature. “I spend twelve hours a day reading, on most days of the year.”

Calvino’s era and his experiments with genre make it natural for readers to think of him as a postmodernist, a master of pastiche, an ironist, and a mimic—to class him with Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, or the members of the OuLiPo, the French avant-garde literary society to which he belonged. Yet the essays newly collected in “The Written World and the Unwritten World” (Mariner), translated with no-nonsense precision by Ann Goldstein, remind us how enamored Calvino was of the craftsmanship of the pre-modern era; how he worshipped the wildly diverting, episodic approach to storytelling of Ariosto, Boccaccio, Cervantes, and Rabelais. These writers, he believed, came closest to the oral telling and retelling of tales, creating an “infinite multiplicity of stories handed down from person to person.” The serialized novels of Dickens and Balzac were inheritors of this Scheherazadean tradition; Flaubert’s “Bouvard et Pécuchet” marked its end. Calvino sought to reclaim the bond between intricate narrative forms and entertainment. In response to a 1985 survey, “Why Do You Write?,” he declared, “I consider that entertaining readers, or at least not boring them, is my first and binding social duty.”

What appeared new in Calvino’s novels was, in truth, a resurrection of something considerably older: a romantic simplicity nurtured by a devotion to the archetypes of epic and chivalric literature. In Italy, he made his name with three books now known as the “Our Ancestors” trilogy. In “The Cloven Viscount” (1952), Viscount Medardo is halved by a Turkish cannonball. His right side becomes a sadist, obsessed with systems of torture; his left is now possessed by a sickly goodness and grace; both sides are in love with the same woman, Pamela. “The Baron in the Trees” (1957) sketches episodes in the life of a bookish young aristocrat who quarrels with his family and makes his home in the canopy of branches surrounding their estate, befriending animals, peasants, and thieves. In “The Nonexistent Knight” (1959), the eponymous soldier is an empty suit of white armor animated by a spirit named Agilulf, who follows the chivalric code to the letter but has no fleshly feeling for love or war.

“Support the head!”

Cartoon by Zoe Si

Calvino’s early fictions are romances of duality, set in worlds divided by forces of ritual and anarchy. The divisions are not subtle, but they are varied and delightful. Characters appear as doubles and opposites: Agilulf is shadowed by a passionate and unruly knight named Raimbaut. The tree-dwelling Baron’s quixotic life is narrated by a younger brother who remains firmly on the ground. The bisected Viscount is his own mirror image. The brocaded feel of the medieval and early-modern settings from which Calvino drew inspiration is roughened by his voice, gently ironizing in tone, modern in dialogue, and always up for a good bodily joke. Indeed, for Calvino language, in its ability to at once divide and unite people, imposes its own kind of sundering. “We have no other language in which to express ourselves,” the bad half of the Viscount explains to Pamela. “Every meeting between two creatures in this world is a mutual rending.” His good half pathetically confirms: “One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world as its own incompleteness.”

As in all romances, what is sundered in the beginning must be joined together at the end; the world and all the people in it must be made whole. Through Pamela’s love, the cloven Viscount “became a whole man again, neither good nor bad, but a mixture of goodness and badness.” Raimbaut eventually dons Agilulf’s empty armor, uniting strong feeling and good form, and rides to the nunnery where Bradamante, the damsel-knight he pines for, has cloistered herself and is furiously writing the story we are reading. The Baron continues leaping through the trees until, one day, he grabs onto the anchor of a passing balloon and disappears into the sky. Yet the most memorable image in the novel is surely that of his mother, the Generalessa, lovingly signalling to her son with military flags. He seems to wave back. Their estrangement dissolves.

The Generalessa is a minor character, but the marriage of technique and emotion that brings her to life captures in miniature Calvino’s theory of good fiction. To court only technique was to end up with hollow imitations of great fiction, like Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” a novel told in “a language that was full of art and meaning but lies on things like a layer of paint: a language clear and sensitive like no other but paint nevertheless,” Calvino wrote. But to court only the ineffable mystery of life was to end up with “novels as dull as dishwater, with the grease of random sentiments floating on top.” The painted novel lacked a beating heart. The greasy novel lacked a solid frame. It was Calvino’s ambition, always, to merge the two in a flash of pure magic.

After “Our Ancestors,” Calvino began to move away from the tidy doublings of romance. His fiction no longer tilted at a fantasy of epic wholeness but at the broken and scattered feel of modern existence. “Literature has been fragmented (not only in Italy),” he observed in his essay “The Last Fires.” “It’s as if no one could any longer imagine an argument that would connect and contrast works, structures, tendencies, at the moment of invention, deriving a general meaning from the totality of individual creations.” His novels of the seventies and eighties staged this argument implicitly, nestling stories around elaborate formal schema—the tarot spreads in “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” medieval numerology in “Invisible Cities.” But not even these systems could restore what the modern world had lost: an organic connection between the word and the world.

The cities that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan in “Invisible Cities” have alluring women’s names: Despina, Isidora, Dorothea, Theodora. There are fifty-five cities in all, and each corresponds to one of eleven types of tale that Marco Polo narrates—cities and desire, cities and signs, thin cities, and so on—so each of the eleven types appears five times in the course of the book. The novel begins in Diomira, a city of bronze and silver, inhabited by bewitched people whose happiness the visitor mistrusts and envies. It ends in Berenice, the unjust city, an inferno of greed, intrigue, and decadence, but which hides within its walls a suffering, just city that is also called Berenice. As Marco Polo describes it to the Emperor, both versions of the city are “wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed, inextricable.”

What explains the mutability of Marco Polo’s cities? A quarter of the way through the tales we learn that Marco Polo has no knowledge of Asian languages. Our storyteller has not been speaking at all but “drawing objects from his baggage—drums, salt fish, necklaces of wart hogs’ teeth—and pointing to them with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay of the jackal, the hoot of the owl.” Relying on exotic signs, he is much like the characters in “The Castle of Crossed Destinies,” forced to communicate with tarot cards. Both novels are records of mute speech—of the gap between what one person believes himself to be conveying when he manipulates an object and how another person interprets his manipulations. One person’s city of beautiful memories may be another’s city of nightmares, reflecting the existential homelessness of a world in which no one can be certain that people say what they mean or mean what they say.

A painful fear of misunderstanding emerges from these elusive fragments of stories, these elusive characters, and the highly artificial structures Calvino contrives to hold them together. That fear is offset in “Invisible Cities” and “The Castle of Crossed Destinies” by Calvino’s utopianism—his sincere belief in a time and a place in which the novel’s dream images of love and justice can be made real and shared, despite the anomie of mankind. As Marco Polo tries to tell Kublai Khan:

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