A counterfactual: The Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who died on a late September day 29 years ago, becomes a farmer instead of a writer. He produces the most beautiful almond trees ever, and he lives a long, quiet, happy life among peaches and roses.
This was not the way things worked out, but it could have been. Calvino’s father, a pioneer back-to-the-lander, raised his children among fields of flowers, avocado groves and stands of grapefruit trees. Born in 1923, Calvino came of age just as Italy was plunging into war against the Allies, and he left his studies in the agriculture department of the University of Florence to join the resistance, fighting Germans and Italian Fascists. He recounts his experiences in a slim book of stories newly translated into English, Into the War, one that opens with the flash of modernity but closes with the ancient ways of tilling the soil, the thinly disguised father of the last story making his way down a country lane, “watching slowly as the indistinct gray gave way to colors in the rows of vines and between the branches of olive trees, and recognizing the sounds of the early-morning birds one by one.”
Calvino took a different path after the war, becoming a journalist and working in book publishing. Rural life didn’t leave him entirely; his first two books had animals in their titles, with novelist Cesare Pavese praising the newcomer as some sort of wild creature of the forest who had suddenly appeared in civilization.
Calvino’s scientific training and interests never diminished. His mature period may have opened with an odd return to that forest and The Baron in the Trees, but its hallmark is the series of stories, mostly short, that makes up Cosmicomics, now published in a definitive edition as The Complete Cosmicomics.
Each story opens, as if in a lab notebook, with some sort of hypothesis—whether plausible or not is outside the question—and then veers off into a first-person tale that in some way or another addresses it. For instance, the story “A Sign in Space” is both a droll study in semiotics (“you immediately think of a sign made with some implement or with your hands, and when you take the implement or your hands away the sign remains, but in those days there were no implements or even hands”) and a rather tongue-in-cheek disquisition on the more or less random fact that it takes the sun 200 million years to make a circuit of the Milky Way.
Elsewhere, a sly restatement of Zeno’s paradox takes the form of a car chase out of a James Bond novel, while a dinosaur addresses the causes of its own extinction, putting the lie to the old saw that fish don’t know they’re wet.
And elsewhere still, Calvino, who knew a thing or two about earth, insists that we’re not really terrestrials but extraterrestrials. Think about it—and take the occasion of these new editions to revel once more in his words, witty, sometimes even goofy, but always fertile.Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.