Books by Italo Calvino

WHY READ THE CLASSICS? by Italo Calvino
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 22, 1999

An irrepressibly lively collection of the late Italian novelist's literary criticism. Between the 1950s and his death in 1985, Calvino (Fantastic Tales: Visionary and Everyday, 1997, etc.) published many occasional pieces on classic works and authors. Most of these, which appeared in newspapers or as prefaces and speeches, are only a few pages long. In 1991 his wife assembled a collection of these writings that is fuller than those included in the two compilations published during his lifetime. Consequently, 11 of the 36 essays here have already been published in English. The duplication matters little: Calvino is such a congenial guide to his personal canon of great works that one is grateful to have all the essays together. The opening piece, from which the title of the book is drawn, democratically meditates on the importance of classics, which are books that "imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable." So Robert Louis Stevenson has as much claim to the category as Voltaire or Henry James. Eclectic in taste and interest, Calvino ranges widely from the ancient world (Homer, Xenophon, Ovid, Pliny) to early modern (Galileo, Cardano, Ariosto) to modern (Voltaire, Diderot, and on to Queneau and Borges). What interests him most, though, is narrative fiction from Robinson Crusoe to the present. The continental heavyweights are represented in force (Stendhal, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Balzac), but Anglo-American fiction seems to hold a special appeal for him. He offers essays on Defoe, Twain, James, Stevenson, Dickens, Conrad, and Hemingway. Of course not every important writer can be included in such a work, and certain writers are strikingly absent: Kafka, Shakespeare, Joyce, and Proust, to name just a few. Calvino never set about to write an inclusive work. Still, given his importance in contemporary letters and given the posthumous character of the book, this collection would have benefited from a good afterword on the writer as critic and his tastes. It would have been interesting to know what he didn't like and why. Brisk and unpretentiously sophisticated, Calvino's literary essays are invigorating, thought-provoking, and pleasurable reading. Read full book review >
FANTASTIC TALES by Italo Calvino
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 12, 1997

An attractive compendium of 26 American and European 19th-century tales that was originally published in Italy in 1983, shortly before Caivino's death. Altogether, it's a curious mix, prefaced by a charmingly learned Introduction that elucidates the distinction the subtitle proclaims, and enhanced by disarmingly personal headnotes to each story. English-language readers will note overfamiliar contributions from several masters, including Scott, Hawthorne, Gogol, Stevenson, and Poe, among others. But there are also several fortuitous, little-known choices, including Philacrâte Chasles's strange blend of folklore and surrealism, "The Eye with No Lid"; Henry James's underrated "The Friends of the Friends" (a partial precursor of his masterly "The Turn of the Screw"); and the pseudonymous Vernon Lee's magnificent tale ("A Lasting Love") about a dead beauty who reaches from beyond the grave to destroy men seduced by her painted image. Several flourishing literary traditions are un- or under-represented: For example, the sole Scandinavian choice is Hans Christian Andersen's wispy "The Shadow" (one wonders if Calvino knew the infinitely superior storytelling of Selma LagerlÃ"f and Jonas Lie). Other omissions are equally puzzling, making this an entertaining selection, though hardly a comprehensive or authoritative one. Read full book review >
NUMBERS IN THE DARK by Italo Calvino
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 28, 1995

A fascinating, frustrating posthumous collection of short tales (previously unavailable in English) from the great Italian writer (1923-85), assembled and introduced by his widow, Esther Calvino, and vigorously translated by English novelist and Italophile Parks. A series of "Fables and Stories," written between 1943 and 1958, includes such comic dramatizations of intellectual and metaphysical concepts as "Making Do," which ingeniously expresses the difficulties of imposing freedom on a population accustomed to tyranny, and "A General in the Library," in which a military task force investigates the allegation "that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige"—with embarrassing unforeseen results. Here and there, Calvino overexplicitly discloses his stories' morals (it should be remembered that many of this volume's inclusions were left uncompleted at his death). Still, the better pieces won't disappoint Calvino's many admirers. The marvelous title story, for example, reveals to a small boy helping his mother clean office buildings at night the hidden truth about the bogus economic stability of the entire planet. And the unfinished "The Queen's Necklace," a terrific melodrama developed from the fortunes of the story's title object, shimmers with the promise of witty anatomy of the several social levels occupied by its losers and finders. The later "Tales and Dialogues," dating from 1968 to 1984, are comparatively slow-paced and theme-ridden, including pieces written to order for IBM's computer operations department and, of all things, a Japanese distillery. It's make-work stuff, only infrequently showing Calvino in top form. The best selections are "Henry Ford," an unproduced television script in which Calvino simultaneously presents both a stalwart defense of the great industrialist's capitalistic and paternalistic principles and some sly mockery of them, and "Beheading the Heads," a fantasy about periodic executions of elected public officials that offers a classic example of Calvino's ability to transmute concept into hauntingly vivid fiction. A last hurrah from one of the modern masters. Middling Calvino but, for all that, a welcome gift we would not willingly have done without. Read full book review >
THE ROAD TO SAN GIOVANNI by Italo Calvino
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 1, 1993

Precious little unpublished Calvino (1923-85) remains, and this is some: five slender pieces. The richest is a memoir of Calvino's father's semitragic hump up and down a steep hillside to reach the family's estates each day, down from which he took the vegetables and fruits he grew there. The Calvinos were involved, as a living, with Ligurian floriculture; to harvest one's own food, on the other hand, was for Calvino's father a declaration of faith in utility vs. decoration. To make the daily climb was also a Dantesque renunciation of the lower precincts of existence. Calvino recounts his father's climb, and his own youthful impatience with it, with a perfect modulation of regret, imagery, and sense. As good, or nearly, is a brilliant appreciation of Fellini—in which Calvino talks about the necessity of distance in movies (he's no great fan therefore of Italian neo-realism) and the moral perfection of Fellini's illustrated-comic-book style, in which "he recuperates the monstrous into the human, into the indulgent complicity of the flesh." Pieces about taking out the garbage, a memory of a failed wartime Partisan engagement, and a set of variations upon metaphysical perspective are far weaker (and none of the quintet is especially well brought into English by Tim Parks; William Weaver's Calvino is missed). For the title piece and the one on Fellini, indispensable; the rest isn't memorable. Read full book review >
UNDER THE JAGUAR SUN by William Weaver
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 18, 1988

At his death, Calvino had completed three of a projected five stories concerning the senses, one to each. The three here are about taste, hearing, and smell. The title story concerns a long-married couple touring Mexico, eating wildly exciting spicy food but dead in the marriage bed, in a sexual drought. Yet as a friend begins to suggest to them that the chiles of Mexican cuisine originally might have been used by the Maya to mask the taste of human flesh, the couple's lust re-inflames. The middle story is the best—"A King Listens"—about a king trapped by his title in the palace, literally unable to leave the throne lest someone else usurp it, and the phantasmagorical aural sensitivity he experiences as he parses his very tenuous existence by means of the sounds he hears in the palace around him. Calvino was a genius of the empty—able to invest air itself with the most meaty cognitive clues—and this story is a grand example. The last deals with smell—intercutting between a Parisian rake shopping for perfumes, a prehistoric man still dependent on information by nose, and the decadence of a London rock star at a groupie-orgy. It's a schematic, overly done piece that lacks focus. Not major Calvino in any way. Read full book review >
SIX MEMOS FOR THE NEXT MILLENNIUM by Italo Calvino
NONFICTION
Released: March 1, 1988

The 1985-86 Norton Lectures were Calvino's to deliver; the day before he was to leave Italy for Cambridge, he died. But the essays (though the sixth "memo" was never written down) were substantially finished, and his widow has done the job of preparation. Calvino here deals with the exemplars of literature most clear to him—namely: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity (Consistency was to be the sixth). To illustrate each, Calvino devotes much time to long illustrations from Ovid, Gadda, Dante, Leopardi, Musil, Kafka, Borges. These analyses are surprisingly academic in tone; they lack some of the buoyancy of Calvino's essays, sometimes seeming like Jungian seminars; they do not particularly take wing. But elegant genius that he was, Calvino—if not rigorous, and certainly often contradictory—offers much here. In discussing the virtue of lightness, for example, Calvino's background in folk tales allows him to find a defined anthropological link "between the levitation desired and the privation actually suffered." He discusses his own work as a crystalline substance and acknowledges a debt to comic strips for a visual matrix that he admits begins all his works. This, of course, is what's of most interest here—not Calvino the lecturer but Calvino the author, nodding at sources. Less gorgeous than one might have expected, but uniformally thoughtful. Read full book review >
THE USES OF LITERATURE by Italo Calvino
NONFICTION
Released: Oct. 22, 1986

Apart from the oddly utilitarian-minded title, everything in this book by the Italian fantasist is lovable and worthy of attention. Calvino's affection for literature is visible on every page, and disarms the reader who might be inclined to disagree with some of his opinions. The first part contains thoughts on literary theory, criticism, and philosophy. Calvino, like Borges, cannot avoid quirky personal judgments, such as the notion that Galileo is the greatest Italian writer. In this first section, Calvino criticizes Roland Barthes for being a rather dry, overly scientific writer. This hardly prepares the reader for the second part of the book, where an adulatory essay is informed with stunned grief at Barthes' unexpected death. In this latter section, where Calvino deals with specific predilections, his warmhearted generosity is most appealing. His appreciation of Marianne Moore seems somehow just, as both writers were insatiable collectors of physical facts about the world. Calvino's thoughts on Ovid, Ariosto, and Balzac are all worthy of note here. Calvino was a litterateur without limits. From an Italian writer we might expect insights into Manzoni and Montale, yet Calvino was also a Francophile and had intriguing thoughts about Stendhal, Fourier, and Voltaire. His range even extends delightfully to an appreciation of Saul Steinberg. For a genial browse through world literature with a charming host, these essays could hardly be bettered. Read full book review >
MR. PALOMAR by William Weaver
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Sept. 27, 1985

The most philosophical of Calvino's works, a set of semi-comic meditations upon infinity undertaken by a nobody/Everyman named Mr. Palomar—who, as his name suggests, would like to be the clearest, adroitest, purest non-participatory observer. . .yet, since he's a man, not a telescope, can't quite pull it off. He's reminiscent of Jacques Tati's M. Hulot: at odds or at war or in love with the big in small, the small in big, the whole old figure/ground confusion. Some of the things he observes: how the "sword" of the sun's reflection on the ocean always stops exactly at a swimmer's eye; the possible meaning of birdcalls (humorously contrasted with Mr. and Mrs. Palomar's old-married-pair quasi-conversations); how turtles mate; the way birds must see the world below as all surface; the vagaries of the head overruling the eye (Palomar, on a topless beach, tries not to observe the naked breasts—then decides, on philosophical grounds, to observe them—to predictably outraged results). Each short non-adventure is another illustration of the beauty of the subjective, that which we nonetheless try to destroy or transcend. Calvino, maybe the subtlest of all living writers, picks up along the way various intellectual fashions (Marxism, deconstructionism) only to put them down again gently askew: a Foucault-ian visit to a butcher shop is a standout. Even if these satiric overtones aren't picked up, though, Palomar's humanity is always the chief hire—his and Calvino's splendid prose (expertly rendered by the redoubtable William Weaver). Here's the moon seen in the afternoon sky: ". . .like a transparent wafer, or a half-dissolved pastille. . .and you cannot be sure whether it is from its taut, uninterrupted surface that this round and whitish shape is being detached, its consistancy only a bit more solid than the clouds', or whether it is a corrosion of the basic tissue, a rift in the dome, a crevice that opens onto the void behind." Luminous, knowing, lovely literature. Read full book review >
DIFFICULT LOVES by Italo Calvino
Released: Oct. 5, 1984

Dazzling early Calvino, stories from the mid-Forties and the Fifties. There are four categories: "Riviera Stories," "Wartime Stories," "Postwar Stories"—and "Stories of Love and Loneliness," in which some of Calvino's later, expanded-on conceptual concerns (reading, photography, people uncomfortable within the environments they've created themselves) have begun to emerge. And the most wonderful of these, as comic as it is metaphysically profound, is "The Adventure of a Bather": a matron, swimming alone, loses the bottom of her bathing suit and cannot emerge from the sea, realizing that it is her nakedness now that has become the greater sea, overtaking and overcoming her like an error that must be paid for. Likewise, the "Riviera Stories"—sun-shot, fragile works—align with Calvino's interest in fairy tales; each is about an Eden of sorts, with illusions of happiness, farces of shame, and Oblomovian cheerfulness ("Lazy Sons") in the face of objective defect. But the surprise for English-speaking readers, most of whom know only later Calvino, will be the "Wartime" and "Postwar" stories. In the first group Calvino details the horrors of war with enormous realist dignity—focusing on Italian peasants whose cunning is the sole weapon left to defend themselves with; the terror is made strangely more terrible by the peasants' blend of naivete and keen perceptions. (How bullets, for instance, somehow make the whole world feel as if it's made mostly of air.) And, though more relaxed and humorous, the "Postwar Stories" are abrim with the same humanity: burglars in a bakery, prostitute shortages, sleeping arrangements of refugees in a train station, the accommodating schedule of a streetwalker's husband—all funny, sad, unstressed, something like little De Sica films. Calvino, unlike Dine Buzzati (above), eschews heavy and sentimental ironies; unlike Borges, his metafictional resources have no scorn to them, instead a darting kind of tact. In sum: wondrous work from the early career of one of the world's greatest living writers.? Read full book review >
MARCOVALDO by William Weaver
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 16, 1983

In their first English translation and US publication: 20 short sketches written in the early 1950s and mid-1960s, all featuring the hapless aspirations of Marcovaldo, a father, husband, and unskilled laborer in a northern Italian city. With sly wit and utter economy, Calvino satirizes the drabness of the impoverished 1950s, the hollowness of the "booming" 1960s—yet never settles for easy targets or sentimentality, much preferring the ambivalence of whimsy. Thus, Marcovaldo may be forever yearning for the simpler, pastoral pleasures—and Calvino sympathizes—but his dreamy quests almost always have an under-cutting, wry outcome. With "an eye ill-suited to city life," for instance, Marcovaldo is overjoyed to spy mushrooms sprouting on a city street ("something could still be expected of life, beyond the hourly wage. . . with inflation index"); but this bucolic miracle leads only to a stomach-pump at the local hospital. Likewise, Marcovaldo has little luck with schemes to enjoy the night air, to feast on roast woodcock, to adopt a rabbit, to get his fish direct from the river. Nor, on the other hand, do his attempts at entrepreneurship—offering wasp-sting treatments (for arthritis), collecting free detergent samples, turning ugly neighborhood billboards to economic advantage—work out much better. And sometimes the clash between the realities of Marcovaldo's life and the consumer-society around him result in surreal vignettes: a visit, with empty pockets, to a super-supermarket, filling up cart after cart with unbuyable items; a disoriented ramble through the dark city, looking for the right tram. . . but winding up on an India-bound airplane. Rich with implications about the social milieu, yet far more insistent on fable-like charm than any message: a gentle, small early-Calvino treat, shrewdly translated and agreeably packaged. Read full book review >
IF ON A WINTER'S NIGHT A TRAVELER by Italo Calvino
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 21, 1981

A romp—a grand Calvino-style romp, complete with a fun-house tilt, a high-gloss (but consistently good-humored) elegance, and a big, telescoping, central conceit. This is a book about reading books, about the shivery comedy of that act. Urged to shut off the TV, remove shoes, and lie back, the reader is then introduced to a Chirico-esque railroad-station scene in which "the lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of indicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog." In this story, a traveler is supposed to meet someone, exchange something. . . and then suddenly Calvino's beginning has been succeeded by the opening of a wholly other and different novel: Outside the town of Malbork, written by a Pole! What's going on? A mistake in binding, it turns out. And when the Reader (now enrolled as a full-fledged, understandably puzzled character) goes to his bookstore to exchange copies, he meets there a woman, Ludmilla, whose copy of the Traveler novel was similarly frustrated by faulty binding. But inside the new copies they receive is yet another novel: one in a dead language called Cimmerian and titled Leaning from the steep slope—which Ludmilla's professor at the university is an expert on. (Marxist students there dispute him, however, claiming that the book is actually one called Looks down in gathering shadow.) And so on—through the starts of ten different novels, each parodied style overruling the previous one: existential; rustic; political; murder mystery; psycho-perverse; revolutionary; German; Japanese, Russian; South American. Yes, Calvino is toying with the discontinuities of literature here—and his wildest creation is the figure of a shadowy young translator who goes around the world writing novels and substituting them for other ones in languages few know well enough to call him on: "a literature made entirely of apocrypha, of false attributions, of imitations and counterfeits and pastiches." The issues addressed are important ones: the whole sincerity/ artifice issue in modern literature, as well as the "erotics" of reading, the sham mysteries, the question of authorlessness. The satire is frequently that of an editor (Calvino's longtime occupation in Italy). And the philosophy—seriously visionary yet light as clear broth—is that of a working writer. True, about halfway through the concept knots itself up a little densely. But it pulls out straight thereafter—and in all this is a delightful, never too-coy book (yet very Italian and mischievously gestural), a dandy trick done with mirrors that are all but smudgeless. Read full book review >
ITALIAN FOLKTALES by Italo Calvino
NON-FICTION
Released: Sept. 2, 1980

Though folktales made their literary debut in Italy a century before Perrault appeared in France, the country produced no Brothers Grimm—no master-compiler of popular tales as told. And it's this lack of a "readable master collection" that Calvino set out to remedy in adapting these 200 tales from 19th-century regional compilations. The bad news is that the renderings—at least in English—are absolutely flat: without spirit, pacing, flavor, style. (One is inclined to blame the translator who commits a rhyme like "Perle Pete,/ Pass me a pear/ With your little paw!/ I mean it, don't guffaw,/ My mouth waters, I swear, I swear!" Or uses such sloppy colloquialisms as "he was dying to get married.") There is also no storytelling guile: tale after tale begins, dully, "there was once a king who had three sons"—or "three daughters"—and it's only the exception that starts, seductively, "There was once a miserly king, so miserly that he kept his only daughter in the garret for fear someone would ask for her hand in marriage and thus oblige him to provide her with a dowry." And the monotony of the telling only accentuates the repetitiveness of the situations and the motifs—which is itself accentuated by the regional grouping (a maiden not only poses as a youth twice in 25 pages, she is each time subjected to the same tests). On the other hand, it is amusing to see the regional variants of "The Untamed Wife"; or how—differently—a princess fashions her own Prince Charming in the north (out of gold and jewels) and the south (out of flour and sugar). And there are a number of selections that are both sly and special to their locales—like the story of the Florentine who traveled so that he could return to Florence with something to talk about; or the earthy tale—one of several such from Friuli—of Jesus' and St. Peter's revenge on the woman who denied them hospitality (promised that, like her generous neighbor, she would do all day "whatever you begin doing this morning," she unwittingly rushed to "relieve herself" before sitting down to spin). A comprehensive and representative assemblage, then, for those with a specialized interest, but not on a par with the old Borzoi or ongoing Pantheon national collections for out-and-out pleasure. Read full book review >
THE CASTLE OF CROSSED DESTINIES by William Weaver
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Feb. 1, 1976

Italo Calvino is always a surprise, and this slim volume of involuted stories absorbs a medieval sense of superstition and astonishment into its bones. The characters—struck dumb around the dining table of a castle they stumbled upon in the forest—have nothing with which to relate the events of their journeys but a pack of tarot cards handed them by their host. The way that they interpret the images on the cards dictates their stories. In the first section ("The Castle of Crossed Destinies"), the painted Renaissance tarots are laid out like a neat parquet of magical transformations, alchemic quests, bartered souls, and near death, with each guest finding the beginning of his own tale in some card of his companion's; in the second ("The Tavern of Crossed Destinies"), while everyone scrabbles for the cheaper, printed tarots, the fantastic stories of the characters yield, by the patterns they make, the archetypal stories of our culture: Hamlet, Oedipus, Faust. Each of the sections is fully illustrated with precise miniature engravings of the cards the characters use, and there will be eight full-color reproductions of tarots painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century. But this is by no means a pretty picture book: the narrative is lean and clear and an unusual delight. Read full book review >
INVISIBLE CITIES by William Weaver
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 1, 1974

These cities are apparitions — an architecture of pure quality — and they are a triumph of comprehension in a post-modern world. Since Cosmicomics, his rather Aquarian history of the universe, Calvino has been working diligently toward that end: to create a mode of fiction that fully incorporates structuralist and semiological ideas; that can transpose something human to the awful dimensionless spaces they imply; that could, if it had to, stand in affirmation through the climax of planetary culture. If this sounds a bit extreme, it comes in response to a conceptual revolution at least as drastic as that presented by Freud in the '30's; and backed up as it is by so many manifest signs of dissolution it may be only slightly anticipating a general state of mind. The assumption of the invisible cities is that we will, no matter what, always have recognitions to share in common and that they may be essential ones. The setting is elegaic in its unworldliness and fineness. Kublai Khan is old now and will never see all the cities compassed by his empire. It is given to Marco Polo to describe them; but because the time is short, and there are so many cities, he must distill from each one the quality that makes it itself and no other. The conversation begins at the level of poetry — with emblems, gestures and finally images — and as their understanding ripens, Marco and the Khan begin to enact the slow, equally essential phases of habituation and exhausted wonder. Their communication still represents a leap of faith equal surely to any jump God-ward; only this time it is a social faith in the continued correspondence of our private universes and the prospect of enduring community. Read full book review >
THE WATCHER AND OTHER STORIES by William Weaver
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 13, 1970

Calvino's serio-comic galactic overview (Cosmicomics — 1968) descends, in these three long stories; to an erratic exploration of human institutions and the priorities of allegiances, which, with a tilt or two, produce some unusual results. "The Watcher" is Communist party man Amerigo, a poll watcher in a highly conservative church district of hospitals, asylums, and convents where Italy's misfits and recluses have the vote thrust upon them. Would not an idiot's vote cancel his? And while Amerigo's mistress bombards him by phone throughout the day with unreasonable, disturbing irregularities, including pregnancy, Amerigo ponders the regenerative nature of order and institutions, with a gloomy dialectic amid the gossipy bustle of the election workers. In "Smog" a city dweller experiences the solid celebration of industrial power in an increasingly dangerous cloud of soot. The last story, "The Argentinian Ant," again examines a phenomenon dealing with the powers and principalities of a sacrosanct establishment — in this case a giant, destructive horde of ants, fed mindlessly by a government agent. An amusing, lightly sardonic, barbed assault on self-perpetuating, self-sustaining establistments built by men but now attaining the untouchable elevation of a divine law. Read full book review >
T ZERO by Italo Calvino
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Sept. 10, 1969

More Cosmicomics (1968) with the same concerns and conceits. Occasionally brilliant and notional, often stultifying. Cf. the title story in which our universal character takes a second...one second...to contemplate thenuances of an expanding and contracting universe and stops time ("T Zero" point) for an interminably long chapter. But there are two delightful tales—one in which "Qfwfq" and Sibyl sit on the back porch sometime in pre-history and watch the moon drip down—"The Earth is all sheathed in waterproof, crushproof, dirt proof materials; even if a bit of this Moon much drips onto us, we can clean it up in a hurry." And one in which "Qfwfq" exists as a unicellular organism about to do aDouble Helix...chains and change and mystic crystal revelations about the nature of "I." Not everyone will want to help Mr. Calvino chase points of reference across a timelessness where the only constant is flux. But in science fiction he's a sophisticated novelty. Read full book review >
COSMICOMICS by William Weaver
NON-FICTION
Released: July 1, 1968

Metaphysical conceits are a thing of the past. Now with moon shots and interstellar probes, a writer really in tune with his age has to think of scientific conceits, or better yet, treat mathematical formulate, or theories and equations from physics, as if they were "characters" gamboling about the universe, beaming and burping through the void, carrying on the most enlightened (though not necessarily enlightening) conversations:" 'Ahal' I said. 'Why don't we play at flying galaxies?' 'Galaxies?' Pfwfp suddenly brightened with pleasure. 'Suits me. But you. . . you don't have galaxy!' 'Yes, I do. . ." ' Italo Calvino offers many similar exchanges, his tales being extraordinary and brilliant (if you like them; tiresome and thin, if you don't) variations on the whole spectrum of evolutionary transformations, contractions, and expansions that have affected time and space since whatever your version of genesis happens to be. Calvino is a witty and fanciful fellow who enjoys linguistic pirouettes somewhat in the manner of Nabokov, but he lacks the latter's commanding personality, and he relies too heavily on the pathetic fallacy (the illusion that external objects have human feelings), so we find his simple cellular creatures telling us "When I was a kid, the only playthings we had in the whole universe were the hydrogen atoms. . . ." etc. etc. For science fiction devotees, in any case, clearly the most sophisticated item yet from that genre. Read full book review >
THE NON-EXISTENT KNIGHT and THE CLOVEN VISCOUNT by Italo Calvino
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: June 15, 1962

These are two new fantasies by the author of The Baron in the Trees (1959) and the first is a little too thin and airy, like its protagonist- Agilulf- a knight who is armour only. Ag is part of Charlemagne's army, a shining, titled and tiresome ideal. He has as squire and counterpart a buffoon who is and constantly becomes everything in nature; knight and squire are thus mind and body, or spirit and earth. Their adventures however emphasize this symbolism rather too sketchily and obviously. Agiluf's right to be a knight at all is finally challenged by an outsider's love, and he vanishes, leaving his armour to be filled by a real boy who finally woos and wins the Amazonian nun with whom he had fallen in love. Or- the reality of love has finally fused mind and body... The second story, The Cloven Viscount, is similar but far more ironical and successful. Here the hero has been cut in half in an accident of war. As the bad Viscount, he terrorizes his village; as the good half, he by being too confusedly good. Love again reunites him into that good bad, mind flesh, paradoxical being that is man. The visual images, the playfulness, work better and more simply in this- to make it more real. Both are interesting, but lack the basic pity and terror implicit in the most moving kinds of allegory. Read full book review >
THE BARON IN THE TREES by Italo Calvino
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: June 15, 1959

A marvelous, bizarre, witty, and free-swinging fantasy concerning Cosimo, the eldest son of a noble family, who, in a moment of rebellion, vows to live out his life up in the trees-and does so. This habitat is by no means so limiting as it might seem. Branchy freeways connect him with orchards, villa gardens, and dense forests; and if height gives him a different viewpoint it is only the better to expound it. A will freed, except for the self-imposed rule that he is never to touch the ground, his domestic arrangements rival those of the Swiss Family Robinson, Tarzan and Mowgli; but his meanings and style are closer to those of Cervantes and Voltaire. Cosimo is not concerned with making bargains with nature or intellect, but in becoming both, which he does through a series of picaresque, Dali-esque adventures, fighting wolves, seducing women into the treetops, and lecturing the villagers. Eventually he becomes a kind of antique god or hero and achieves an appropriate apotheosis- for Cosimo is life, expanded to its limits. A book for very special tastes. Read full book review >