Calvino ranks with Flaubert on my list of all-time great writers, though they are as different as black and white. Only in their masterly control of tone do they compare, and isn’t that a trait of all great writers? Italo Calvino wields language (as far as I can tell from translations – would that I could read Italian!) like a magic wand that sparkles as he waves it, leaving trails of glittering light particles, evanescent, memorable, brilliant, subtle. His best work has a light surface, like a polished childrens’ story or a fairy tale, that encloses, without hiding, a deep and complex interior of thoughts, allusions, witticisms, and references. He is funny in a profoundly deep way, and he is humane in the best sense of the word – gentle, mocking, compassionate, insightful. Brilliant.Some of my favorites from his short stories:
The Aquatic Uncle: A recently evolved land creature is engaged to a beautiful female from a family that has lived on the land so long, they sneer at the recent arrivistes. He quakes with shame at the thought of introducing his lovely one to his great-uncle who remains, unrepentantly, a fish in the water! With horror, he sees that his fiancee is attracted to the old, aquatic vulgarian!
The Dinosaurs: The last of the great lizards comes down from the mountains to find the world overrun with New Ones, non-reptiles. To them, the dinosaurs are a distant memory, a boogey man to use to scare children. He makes his way among them, unrecognized for what he is, and tries to deal with the extinction of his kind, the new order now in place…until he fears he is found out!
Leonia: A city where everyone uses everything only once. All commodities are disposable – sheets, toothbrushes, dishes, furniture…The streets are filled with mounds of garbage and the the trash men are the heroes of the city who make the endless consumption of novelty possible. But surrounding the place are unstable moutains of refuse, piled ever higher…
How Much Shall We Bet?: Two gamesters at the beginning of the universe, before time starts, creating it all.
His work had its flops, I think, and I’d rate T-Zero as one of them. He diverted too much into semiotics and mathematical-language puzzles that are rather dry, whether you get the joke or not. But even in that collection, he had the brilliant reworking of Zeno’s paradox, in the situation of the hit-man chasing his prey in a Roman traffic jam. Should the quarry stop, get out of his car and run? Would he be caught? Should he advance two car spaces, while the assassin moves up one? Like one of those puzzles with the squares, and one empty space, that you try to move around to make a figure.
In The Baron in the Trees he creates a fairy-tale fantasy about a boy in the Enlightenment who climbs into his favorite tree after a argument with his father and never comes down. The Baron becomes an arboreal Voltaire, renowned the world over, and the story is a delicious satire and homage – typical of Calvino’s deft complexity – to that glorious cultural epoch. And it ends, of course, with the coming of Napoleon, who wants to see the great man. The Baron helps out the new leader by prompting him with his lines so that he can reenact the meeting of Alexander and Diogenes. The scene is a wonderful set-piece on cultural transmission, and a satirical deflation of the powerful.
In the end, Calvino did what he advised here:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.