The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Works of Italo Calvino
A Few Words About Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino makes deceptively easy reading. I say "deceptively" because even his simplest little tales have well-anchored meanings and things to say to us, but those meanings and things are dextrously and subtly woven into the soft fabric of the tales. One can read any Calvino short story or novel purely for the fun, the pleasure, of reading an amusing and well-crafted tale; but, if one chooses to reflect, one also extracts a lesson.
Calvino's works cover a spectrum from clearly "mainstream" (though even then fanciful in their telling) to manifestly fantasy; necessarily, several of his books lie in that curious shadowy zone in which it is hard to say if they are fantasy or not. In the larger sense, none of that matters, because all of his books are excellent and worth reading--which to include here, in these lists, is the only question that arises. I have, with Calvino, taken the broad view and included, for example, The Baron in the Trees (though doing so makes me feel guilty for having omitted G.K. Chesterton's novel The Club of Queer Trades).
Assessing Calvino presents one difficulty of consequence: his language. Calvino wrote in Italian, and all of his works that we English speakers have are translations. They are very pleasant reading, and his most frequent translator (William Weaver) won at least one prize for his translation of Calvino. I will here assume that the impressions we get from the published English-language renditions of Calvino's work are in all ways in close correspondence with the impressions we would get if we were fluent in Italian and read the originals.
Calvino's characteristic style is gentle, warm wit, occasionally with a touch--just a kiss, never a bite--of irony.
Calvino's earlier books--that passage is from The Nonexistent Knight--all have the charm of an apparent naive simplicity of language and structure, though, as I have said, that seeming is even in those early works deceptive, and larger issues are playing themselves out before us in the tales (and "playing" is an unusually apt term when we speak of Calvino's work).
As he developed his art, Calvino's tales remained playful, pleasant, and gentle, but became less simple-seeming. In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Khan his impressions of cities he has visited in his travels. Of that book, Gore Vidal wrote tellingly: "Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant." But however complex the pattern eventually woven by the unfolding tale, the telling remains placid and beautiful:
While I fear that that passage does not do justice to the complexity of the work, length forbids quoting enough to properly render such justice. But after his first relatively straightforward works Calvino's tales all had increasingly layered complexities available for the careful reader. By The Castle of Crossed Destinies, we are dealing (a subconscious pun there, as you will see) with a novel composed of tales told by mute, chance-met travelers at a forest castle by means of the laying out of a deck of Tarot cards. While the casual reader can simply read the book, and those tales, as amusements (and even just as such they make rewarding reading), the adventurous can work out the "crossed destinies" at length--not a simple task, as Calvino's postscript reveals:
And there is a great deal more. Do not, from that, conclude that Calvino is one of those writers who love to mystify or show off to their readerships: rather, he is, to beat on the drum yet again, playful. He loves tales: the hearing of them and the telling of them.
Other clear instances of his playfulness are his two Qfwfq books, Cosmicomics and t zero. Qfwfq is the narrator of the curious tales in these two books. It is hard to say simply who or what Qfwfq is; and, truth to tell, in a way it doesn't matter, for these tales are surreal, though that label too is misleading, for in content if not in form they are quite ordinary happenings, save that they happen in quite un-ordinary contexts. Qfwfq may be taken as a sort of embodiment of life spirit, a being who has existed--along with family and friends--since the dawn of time. The tales were described by one reviewer as "mak[ing] characters out of mathematical formulae and simple cellular structures." It is perhaps easier to show than to tell:
After a deal more about the technique of arranging a ladder set in a rowboat, and the art of jumping off at the top onto the moon, we get:
Well, you appreciate that sort of thing or you don't. Most of the literate western world, it seems, does; I do. I sincerely hope you do.
I have been less expansive on this page than I otherwise might
have been because there is, fortunately, a good selection of work about Calvino
on the web (because he's seen as a mainstream writer, not another of
those slobs from the SF&F ghetto): not so much material that the sheer
quantity of it is daunting to review, but not so little that one needs more.