I first encountered the novels and stories of Italo Calvino as a raw, somewhat feckless undergraduate. During my freshman year of college, I took a course in comparative literature. And while I still don’t know exactly what’s meant by comparative literature, we read a wonderful, fascinating array of books, many of which I probably would not have encountered elsewhere.
Among these was Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which a group of travelers are stricken mute as they journey through a forest and tell each other stories with the help of Tarot cards.* In the time since, I’ve read most of Calvino’s novels and stories, as well as a few of his other books. And he’s one of the three reasons — the other two being Dante and Umberto Eco — that I would consider learning to read Italian.
One of the reasons that I love Calvino is his playfulness and the joyful, smiling way that he writes and tells stories. One of the most well-known examples of Calvino’s playfulness is the opening of If on a winter’s night a traveler:
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. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
And the supremely amusing (and ineluctably true) enumeration of the sorts of books one finds in a bookshop that include, but are not limited to:
Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too.
By this point, you’re smiling and chuckling and saying “too true” to yourself, and also unable to pause any longer because you want to get to the story, and the story within the story, and the story within that story that contains yet another story.
That leads to another reason that I love Calvino: his storytelling — or what was no doubt called, in that comparative literature class those many years ago, his fabulism. Nearly all of Calvino’s fictions have the flavor and the style of fables — they being slightly (or more than just slightly) fantastic while also saying something about the world as it is and as it could be, but without preaching or moralizing. Calvino was also something of a scholar of fables and storytelling; he collected an edited a wonderful, fat volume of Italian Folktales.
And the other reason that I love Calvino is his pure inventiveness, both in character and situation. In The Cloven Viscount, the eponymous Viscount is split in two by a Turkish cannonball and consequently becomes and lives his life as two people. In The Baron in the Trees, young Cosimo climbs a tree in order to flee his abusive father (who wanted him to eat escargot) and spends the rest of his life living in and traveling through the trees. In The Nonexistent Knight, the title character is the perfect, gentle knight–except that he doesn’t exist and goes about as an empty suit of armor. Invisible Cities imagines a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan and describes the many cities of the Khan’s empire. And Mr. Palomar is a 27-chapter book arranged in a 3 x 3 pattern (Calvino was a member of Oulipo, after all). Reading one of Calvino’s novels or any one of his many short stories (collected in Marcovaldo, Cosmicomics, t zero, and other editions) is always surprising in some way, and usually in a way that makes one look at the world just a little bit differently.
Calvino also wrote two books of non-fiction, both of which you should read. The first, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, is a collection of the never-given (Calvino died shortly before he was to give them) Norton Lectures. The second is Why Read the Classics, a collection of Calvino’s essays about reading and literature. Both of these collections were published posthumously.
* I also remember when reading this book for the aforementioned comparative literature course, that it was the subject of a class project that involved taking another book from that semester’s syllabus and illustrating all or part of it (with any materials that might be to hand) in the same way that Calvino uses the Tarot. At the time, of course, I thought it rather stupid, but now I realize the genius of the project. No idea what happened to mine, or even what book I illustrated, though it may have been Grimmelshausen.