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.

Against all Imperial rules of etiquette, Charlemagne settled at table before the proper time, when no one else had reached the board. Down he sat and began to pick at bread or cheese or olives or peppers, everything on the tables in fact. Not only that, but he also used his hands. Absolute power often slackens all controls, generates arbitrary actions, even in the most temperate of sovereigns.

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:

Now I shall tell of the city of Zenobia, which is wonderful in this fashion: although set on dry terrain it stands on high pilings, and the houses are of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles, and cranes.

No one remembers what need or command or desire drove Zenobia's founders to give their city this form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied by the city as we see it today, which has perhaps grown through successive superimpositions from the first, now undecipherable plan. But what is certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

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:

In The Castle, the tarots that make up each story are arranged in a double file, horizontal or vertical, and are crossed by three further double files of tarots (horizontal or vertical) which make up other stories. The result is a general pattern in which you can "read" three stories horizontally and three stories vertically, and in addition, each of these sequences of cards can also be "read" in reverse, as another tale. Thus we have a total of twelve stories.

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:

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth's waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

How well I know!--old Qfwfq cried--the rest of you can't remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full--nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light--it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon's phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angles of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with the Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.

Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair's-breadth; well, let's say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.

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:

Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for; I'll explain it to you. We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket. Moon-milk was very thick, like a kind of cream cheese.

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.

A particularly good page for quick but meaningful information about each of Calvino's books is Italo Calvin Books, a part of Professor Frank Pajares' larger Calvino site; I do not feel that I could materially improve on the summaries and comments there, and so have not simply repeated their essence here. (I also cite and link to that page further below, where I list the books). Because that page includes images of each of the books discussed, it will likely take a while to fully load, but it's worth the wait.

(That wonderful site is now, bless us all, back on line.)

from the Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy site, copied with permission